Let’s hope that I don’t end up with a bill for damages to this library book… I may have realized too late that snow was melting through the scarf I had used as a safe spot to nestle my stack. Oops! Of course, if I absolutely must pay a damages bill now and again, I’d be pleased to be paying for a book like Stories That Bind Us. If the library decides to replace the copy, I can keep the one I paid for (and I would love to add another Susie Finkbeiner book to my collection).
Susie Finkbeiner may sound familiar if you remember my review of her other title, All Manner of Things, one of my favorite Christian fiction reads ever. Stories That Bind Us is the meandering tale of Betty Sweet, a middle aged woman who finds herself suddenly widowed. Living in the 1960s, Betty is barely past the early stages of grief when she finds herself unexpectedly the caretaker of her kindergarten-age nephew. I could use flowery phrases to describe this book, such as “a contemplation on loss” or “a compassionate look at mental health” and insert some words like reflective and poignant. All of those would be apt, but I think it would be simpler to say that Stories That Bind Us is not action-oriented or tightly paced. It is a thoughtful, warm, and absorbing book chronicling Betty’s healing process, day to day life in the ’60s, and the growing love between a caring aunt and a hurting little boy.
Betty has a wonderful imagination, and concocts many fanciful tales to comfort and entertain her young charge, Hugo. Many of them are told in full within the pages of the novel, so if you like children’s stories, this may be the book for you. That said, little here is cloying– Betty deals with loss as well as the responsibility of seeking help for her mentally ill sister (Hugo’s mother). As I read, I found myself wishing our protagonist was more involved in her sister’s care and the doctors’ treatment choices, but I do think the way it is written is probably realistic for the time. I don’t think mental illness was understood or approached then in the same way it might be today. Like All Manner of Things, I wished that Scripture was a bigger anchor to the story and its message, but the tone was hopeful. The ending was happy, in many ways, but somehow felt… unfinished, or unsatisfying. I really can’t say more without giving away too much.
Overall my rating is a solid 3/5 stars. While acknowledging a few flaws, there is something so utterly… delightful about Susie’s style and characterization I could easily be convinced to sneak out an extra star if pressed! This book makes me feel like snuggling up with a blankie and double chocolate chip cookies to ease me through the sad parts. Not that I’d turn down double chocolate chip cookies with any book! But somehow I think they’d taste better… with the Stories That Bind Us.
Inevitably, when I’m reading a descriptive piece of Christian fiction, I wonder what it would be like translated into film. Especially if the book has a cinematic “flavor” to it, just aching for an adaption on the big screen! Once before I had a great deal of fun putting together a dream cast for an imaginary movie based on the book Hidden Among the Stars. (Click here to read that post.) I thought I’d do that again, this time for a Lori Benton book I read recently called Burning Sky. As I go along, I’ll share my cast picks, musings about the novel, and maybe mention a few Christian films I’ve enjoyed.
Burning Sky is set just after the Revolutionary War in the American frontier. Willa Obenchain (the protagonist of the story) has just returned to her childhood homestead to find it abandoned–parents vanished, without any trace of what might have happened to them. Willa was abducted by Mohawk Indians as a little girl, and has lived most of her life with them. Tragedy pushes her to find her origins and build a new future on her parents’ land. The heartbeat of Willa’s story, to me, revolves around a recurring Bible verse–Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed shall He not break”… a promise Willa grasps tightly.
I had difficulty choosing an actress to play Willa’s part, and to be honest, I’m still not completely satisfied. Whoever plays Willa needs to look as if she could not only survive, but thrive living among the Mohawk. Not to mention endure the strain of rigorous farm life. I still haven’t found someone who embodies the physical and emotional strength I envisioned in my mind, but I settled on Blake Lively in the end. Blake is beautiful, no doubt, but something about her features seems slightly– worn, as if she could portray a character who carries so much grief. At the same time, even the set of her chin suggests tenacity.
Next up would be Willa’s two romantic interests. Willa saves the life of Neil MacGregor, who finds himself obliged to her after he is injured traveling through the vicinity of her farm land. He stays on for some time to heal, falls for Willa, and sticks around to help in any way he can. Neil isn’t exactly cut from frontier cloth, but he works hard, loves to read his old family Bible, and of course has a Scottish accent going for him. I don’t watch the show Outlander, but I imagined Neil as something like that show’s Sam Heughan. That said, I chose the Scottish lead of All Creatures Great and Small, Nicholas Ralph, for this part. I think his role as a country vet on All Creatures… translates well to “I paint pictures of plants but I’m also totally comfortable getting muddy or patching up your gunshot wound” Neil.
Guy number two is Willa’s Mohawk guardian angel, “Joseph” Tames-His-Horse. Technically her brother (as part of the same Wolf Clan) back among the Indians, Joseph watches out for Willa, occasionally bringing her fresh meat and protecting her land. Joseph converted to following Christ as a boy after being taught by missionary Samuel Kirkland. (Interesting note, Samuel Kirkland was a real Presbyterian minister who lived for many years with the Iroquois tribes. He founded a seminary that admitted Indian boys, and was instrumental in convincing two of the Mohawk tribes to fight with the American revolutionaries.) Joseph longs for Willa to follow him to Niagara, where an Indian settlement is being formed and the Canadians promise land, ministers, and teachers.
I wish I could have more actors on this list that are currently working in Christian film projects, but the unique roles for this book made that challenging. How many actors can you name that look American Indian and were in a recent God-honoring movie? I thought of one young fellow from a movie called Hope Bridge, as well as the lead from Pureflix’s Samson, but neither their age or features seem to fit.
Willa has plenty of challenges ahead for her if she decides to stay on her parents’ land. Childhood friend Richard Waring, warped by the horrors of war, wants to lay claim to her property and is bent on proving her (mysteriously absent) parents were Tories. His aging father, Colonel Elias Waring, is also an imposing–but more sympathetic–figure.
I gave Maddie McCormick a slot as warm, protective Anni Waring for the sole purpose of mentioning another movie she had a bit part in– Unbroken: Path to Redemption. That film was excellent and emotionally moving– it tells the true story of survivor (and all-around amazing) Louis Zamperini, and his incredible road to Christ and healing.
I think I’ll close here, since this post is already so long! There are certainly other roles I could fill from Benton’s novel. Memorable characters, like Francis– a young man with disabilities who is critical to the plot– or orphan siblings Maggie and Matthew. Read the book and let me know what you think of my choices! If you’ve read it already, do you think Kevin Sorbo could play any role that you remember? (Is it really a Christian movie if it doesn’t have either Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron in it??!) Lastly, if you were making this book into a movie, would you change the ending (I didn’t really like it)?
When you were a kid, did your mom ever make you watch history documentaries? You know the ones; maybe they were about the Civil War, or the Aztecs, or uncovering the secrets of Ancient Egyptians (seems as if new mummies are discovered every day). There was a deep voiced narrator who had perfected the art of sounding ominous, and interviews with at least one old guy who appeared to spend too much time locked away in a dusty museum basement. But the best parts of the film were when they would use actors to reenact historical moments in the background. You could watch Pharaoh so-and-so yell at underlings, lounge by the Nile, order a pizza, and ultimately die at the hands of some angry conspiring family member (okay, I made up the pizza part). If you’re like me, you ultimately found yourself surprisingly entertained. Fifteen years later, it’s not what you’d pick for movie night, but you still remember enjoying the learning process.
I finished a book a while ago that reminded me of one of those films– King’s Shadow by Angela Hunt. Based on the events just before Christ, the story revolves around King Herod’s sister Salome and her fictionalized handmaid Zara. Since much of the unfolding drama in the book is drawn from true history of the time, the plot meanders around like ordinary life does. Real people rarely have stories that fit perfectly into the plot-writing standards you learned in high school English, with orderly climaxes and obvious overarching themes. For those reasons, I think Angela’s hands were tied, (pen and all) and the story tends to lack direction.
That said, King’s Shadow still did an amazing job breathing life into the years just before and up to Messiah’s birth. Christian fiction centered on the years of Jesus’ life are commonplace, but the time period for this book was unique–and set the stage in a way that helped me to better understand the cultural and political backdrop that followed. It documents Herod’s life through the eyes of a sister who is fiercely loyal, even as he slowly degenerates into the baby-killing monster we read about every Christmas. If you enjoy political intrigue, there is plenty of it here, even (or especially) within the royal family. Handmaid Zara is a quiet presence throughout, lending the viewpoint of a God-fearing and humble Jew.
Of course, I made the mistake of reading what turned out to be the fourth book in a series (!)– oops. Do I regret it? No. This book solidified my opinion that Angela Hunt’s best work is her historical fiction. Her research and rich writing style shine here, while the constraints of the timeline help her keep her characterizations and stories more believable (something I think she struggles with in some of her contemporary fiction, such as an earlier work, The Canopy). Not unlike those documentaries, I walked away feeling as if I knew the time period and the motivations of its main players better, but lacking deep emotional attachment to the story or practical application to my own life. For those pros and cons, I gave the book 3/5 stars.
Do you like documentaries? Who are your historical inspirations? As always, I love hearing from you.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
“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?
From what I’ve seen as I’ve explored the internet, you’re not a true book blog till you host a giveaway! You’ve probably figured out by now that I really like Christian fiction—what you don’t know is that I also love snail mail and packages. I’m hoping you’re following along because you’re a tiny bit like me, and will enjoy the chance to get a little bundle of reading bliss in your mailbox. For legal reasons and also due to shipping costs, I’m not opening this to followers with mailing addresses outside the United States—and if that eliminates you, I’m truly sorry. 😦 That said, on to the rules:
*First off, no purchase necessary to enter.
*Must be 18 years old and a resident of the U.S. to enter. Void where prohibited.
*Giveaway will be open from now until closing on Sunday night, July 29th 2018
*Prize is a copy of the book Counted with the Stars by Connilyn Cossette as well as a red velvet bookmark hand-made by me! I purchased the book online as a new copy, although I do want to note it came with a small defect (ink mark on bottom edge).
*The number of eligible entries determines the odds of winning.
*Entry is free; all you need to do is leave a comment on this post. Please tell me what you would like to see more of on the blog in the future! Only one entry/comment per eligible entrant, please.
*Within a day of closing (by Monday night) I will use random.org, a random number generator, to select the winning comment (for example, if the number generated is “2” the second eligible comment will be the winner.)
I will then email the winner notifying them of their win. They will have one week to email me back with the U.S. address they would like their prize to be shipped to. I will mail it to them free of charge! However, if they do not respond within a week, they forfeit their prize. In that case, I will choose another winner using the same method.
* By entering you agree to the rules and release apageoutofherbook.com and myself personally from any liability.
There, now all the fancy-schmancy lingo and laws are out of the way. I’m going to be checking in often to see who’s entered and what suggestions you have. Thank you so much to those of you who’ve stuck with me as I’ve gotten this site going, and welcome to anyone who’s just discovering me through the giveaway!