Full Reviews · Historical

Full Review: All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner

When I took a pre-reading peek at other reviews of All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner, I saw a repetitive comment– “It’s so unique to read historical fiction set during the Vietnam War years!” I won’t talk at length about this aspect of the book, then, since it’s been said before. However, having read a decent helping of historical fiction lately, it is refreshing to see a change from the very common settings of WWII or the American Civil War. The 1960s weren’t all that long ago, so I felt a closeness to the story– after all, it’s the world my mom and dad were born into, with my older aunts and uncles already slipping into bell bottoms and pedal pushers.

All Manner of Things is a coming of age story. Annie Jacobson is on the cusp of full-fledged womanhood, and the novel follows her as she navigates small town life on the edge of Chippewa Lake, Michigan. Already a mature and responsible young lady, she watches her brother enlist as an army medic; works a job as a waitress; and struggles to handle gracefully the return of her father, who abandoned her family twelve years prior. The characters in this book are so alive I still miss them, still see them, as if they were real– and I rarely give out that type of compliment because it can so easily become cliche and hollow.

If you love stories in the vein of Little Women or the Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall (not to be confused with the Penderwick Chronicles), you’ll love this book. Hardly fast-paced, it takes its time, but every moment washes over you like a gold-tinged happy memory or a softly faded polaroid photo. It’s warm and genuine, but not saccharine, infused with everyday happenings and nods to 1960’s pop culture.

I listened to this in audiobook format (downloading it through the library app Hoopla) and I highly recommend you do the same if at all possible! The narration by Tavia Gilbert was among the best I’ve ever listened to. I finished the entire 10+ hours of narration in under a week, which is a record for me.

Perhaps the most important point I can make about Susie Finkbeiner’s work here is that I feel it rides a fine line between “Christian Fiction” and what I would classify as “wholesome reading.” Remember when you were a little kid doing English assignments in school? One of the principal parts of story-telling you learn is that every story has some sort of conflict, be it external (e.g. I need to defeat the ogre to save the beautiful princess) or internal (e.g. I must put aside my cowardly nature for the first time in my life to face the ogre) or both. This is just my opinion, but if a book’s conflict isn’t driven or influenced or affected in some way by the character’s faith, relationship with God, or the Bible– then the religious elements are more a part of the setting than the story. To some degree I think that’s the case with All Manner of Things; Christianity is a part of the characters’ lives in the sense that you see them talking to someone at church or praying at dinner (and that’s certainly a good thing, don’t misunderstand me.) I just wish God had been portrayed as a little more personal, more influential, instead of feeling like an afterthought. I wish more questions had found their answers in God’s Word.

Did I still enjoy the book? Absolutely! Wrapping up this post with a 4/5 star rating.

I would mention to fellow readers that may be concerned about euphemisms that there are many uses of them in this novel (for example, golly or gosh.)

EDIT:

Oops! …this post was accidentally published a week early in addition to the planned post. I am going to leave it up, but will make a few changes and edits as I had not finished “cleaning up” the post and fixing grammar errors, etc. Also, there will be no new post for next week. Thanks!

Contemporary · Full Reviews · Historical

Full Review, Hidden Among the Stars

If absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, than you must be dearly fond of me by now, friends. How sweet, then, to be able to return to you inspired with new ideas for the blog–armed with possibilities and a number of summertime reads to share!

I’m all for a dessert-first attitude, so I wanted to come back with my absolute favorite book of this year. Hidden Among the Stars is the kind of book I started this blog to find; the kind of book I thought about during the day, and looked forward to enjoying when I got home in the same way I look forward to savoring my favorite comfort foods or lighting my favorite candle. I felt as if I could nestle into this book and its characters.

Written by Melanie Dobson, the book is a time-slip novel alternating between Nazi Austria (late 1930s) and a modern day America. Unlike many dual-plotline stories, I found myself equally invested in and enjoying both, at least until the very end… when I absolutely HAD to know how the past would unfold and finally have all my questions answered. The modern day protagonist owns a children’s bookstore with her sister (cue a surplus of snippets from classic children’s literature),and is trying to uncover the links between a family member’s puzzling origins and two mysterious vintage books. The past holds a musician, a wealthy young man, and a girl in love… plus a large dose of fascination. As if that wasn’t enough allure for one novel, Dobson skillfully set the stages in and around a lakeside castle.

How do you feel about unrequited love stories, readers? It isn’t usually to my taste; perhaps I just think there’s enough loneliness in the real world to invalidate ever wanting to put it into a work of fiction where a happily ever after would be as easy as writing in another “I love you.” There was a case of it in Hidden Among the Stars, but it was so perfectly juxtaposed against a few other romances in the novel that it seemed fitting. Younger readers should be cautioned that this book does deal with some heavy topics. As well as, or perhaps as a result of, the expected anti-semitism and cruelty of the period, a young woman is raped. 

While I generally try not to rely on other reviewers to put my feelings about a book into words, I think author Sandra Byrd put it perfectly when she said of Dobson’s work:

“A silver thread of the love-of-others entwines with a golden thread of the love-of-God, tying past and present storylines.”

These threads of Christian truth are woven in delicately and don’t begin to really sparkle until about half-way through. Patiently enjoy the beauty of this novel as you wait for them to emerge and add rich depth to an already lovely book. 5/5 Stars.

Full Reviews · Historical

Saving Amelie, Full Review

I’ve been busy, book friends—I’ve been on a trip to Germany! More than two weeks spent mostly in the little Bavarian village of Oberammergau. It’s a place where fragrant breakfast rolls and strudels warm your mouth and your heart… and the Alps reach up with snowy hands as if ready to catch the sky if it falls. This is the home of the Passion Play, which has been performed by the locals once a decade for over 350 years.

Of course, I haven’t been there literally; who has money to travel? I’ve been immersed in a WWII novel by Cathy Gohlke—Saving Amelie. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember it as one of the books in my bargain haul from Tyndale. $5 for a ticket back in time is certainly a fare I can afford!

Based on the back-cover summary, I initially thought that the story would be at least partly from the point of view of Kristine Schlick, a young mother unsure how to protect her deaf daughter. Married to an SS officer who views the little girl as a blight on his Aryan bloodline, Kristine is forced to turn to an old friend for help. Rachel Cramer, the true protagonist, steps in as a hesitant hero and escapes with Kristine’s child to the little village of Oberammergau. There, she deals with some shocking discoveries about her own past.

Rachel isn’t a gallant hero, despite the whirlwind of danger and deception she finds herself entrenched in. She’s somewhat selfish, a consequence of being raised in the affluent and prejudiced home of a eugenics scientist. Unable to stomach the depravity she comes face to face with among her father’s circle in Germany, Rachel takes a stand for morality… but remains reluctant to help others with their more mundane and down-to-earth needs.

There’s a romantic interest—Jason Young, an American journalist with resistance connections—as well as a whole host of other lovable characters. As both Rachel and Jason begin to understand Christ’s sacrifice for mankind, they also become more selfless… and this is where the core of the story lies, in what Gohlke emphasizes as “costly grace”—grace that requires a servant’s heart and a surrendering of your own desires.

Despite the hard realities of WWII, Gohlke manages to keep the book from becoming too gritty. She deftly paints the heartaches and struggles of her characters but manages quite a bit of good luck (or perhaps she would call it providence!) for them as well. One or two key plot lines seemed utterly far-fetched and unconvincing to me—ultimately hurting my rating of the book, which otherwise could have been a 5/5. That said, if you relish stories that feature undercover subterfuge or a mysterious underground resistance, you’ll probably still find yourself thoroughly enjoying Saving Amelie.

4/5

Full Reviews · Historical · Uncategorized

Full Review, While We’re Far Apart

While We're Far Apart

“Don’t do it Eddie. Please,” Grandma begged. “Think of your children. Go down there tomorrow and tell the army you changed your mind.”

“I can’t. It’s too late.” He spoke so softly that Esther thought she might have imagined it. For sure Grandma hadn’t heard him. But then he cleared his throat and said in a louder voice, “I already resigned from my job. I leave for basic training in two weeks.”

His words gave Esther the same empty, floating feeling she’d had after Mama died, as if she were a fluff of dandelion, no longer tethered to the earth. What was going to happen to her?

While We’re Far Apart
By Lynn Austin
Bethany House Publishers, ©2010 Continue reading “Full Review, While We’re Far Apart”

Full Reviews · Historical

First Review!

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Cousin Albert held out his hand for the photograph. I swallowed and gave it to him. There were two letters in the envelope; one I knew to be Emily’s writing. I looked away. If the other was from Ma I couldn’t bear it. I’d prayed for a letter from her for nearly a year. That Cousin Albert should have both a letter and a photograph, when I had neither, made me hate him. And then I hated myself. What was I thinking, grudging a dying man the only air he wanted?

 I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires
By Cathy Gohlke
Moody Publishers, 2008

Continue reading “First Review!”