Books read in 2022

12. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. This book came out when I was in high school (1967). I know I was aware of it; one of my teachers had mentioned it. She might even have mentioned it was written by a teenager, which would have made it all the more interesting to me. I don’t know why I never read it until now.

The Outsiders has the reputation of being the first book for young adults that addressed issues. Hinton said she wrote it because she “desperately wanted to read something that dealt realistically with teen-age life.”

I read some reviews of The Outsiders written by modern teenagers who thought this book was hokey. As someone who is Hinton’s contemporary, someone who was in the book’s target audience, I did not find it hokey at all. I was dating a “greaser” at the time it was written, but he was a greaser in style of dress only. He was not a hood, not in a gang that participated in rumbles. He came from a working-class family, as did I. I had been groomed for college all my life; he had not. He experienced discrimination at my school. A teacher had told me he was beneath me. I didn’t care; he paid attention to me.

The main character in the story, Ponyboy, is the youngest of three brothers whose parents have died. The oldest, Darry, is 20, and he works instead of going to college so he can take care of all of them. They are greasers by default; if you’re affluent, you’re a “soc.” It’s important that none of them get into trouble, because if they do, they will likely be sent to foster homes. They belong to a gang, because all the kids do, either a greaser gang or a soc gang.

The gangs fight. It’s often the soc gangs who start it. They come across a greaser on his own and beat him up. This has happened to all of them over time. Once, when Ponyboy and his friend Johnny are hanging out together, they get targeted by a soc gang with disastrous results.

I think The Outsiders still has relevance today. My sons recently told me about all their friends and acquaintances from high school who have died violent deaths, several of whom were killed by police while high or drunk or running away from the scene of a crime. It broke my heart.

11. When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry edited by Joy Harjo. Review here.

10. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. This novel follows what happens to the members of a high school jazz quartet after graduation. Their lives are entwined around the sister of one of the members, and the reverberations of her bad choices cause danger and heartbreaks for them for more than a decade.

Gavin never knew what happened to his girlfriend, Anna, who disappeared just after the last time the quartet performed. The people who knew purposely kept her circumstances and whereabouts from him at Anna’s request. But Anna betrayed more than one of them, and drew them and others into her web of destruction.

Mandel deftly weaves the story skipping back and forth in time. The reader knows more about Anna’s story than Gavin does, but the full truth doesn’t unfold until the end.

I’ve read two other books by Mandel, and I’m going to have to read them all. They are not happy-ending books, but they are compelling.

9. After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements by Erin Verncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig. This is a book that makes me question everything I thought I knew. I read this with my Bible study group, and I opened it with assumptions about how the Christian church began.

After Jesus Before Christianity explores what happened after the death of Christ by studying not only the Bible but also other writings and archeological evidence from that time. What the authors found was not the beginnings of a church but a defeated people trying to survive amid the violence of the Roman empire.

For example, in his history The Jewish War about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Josephus noted that the Romans executed by crucifixion 500 Judeans a day, so many that there was a shortage of wood in the area. You see, the bodies were left on the crosses at the roadside to rot as a warning to the populace of what happens when you defy Rome. (When Joseph of Arimathea asked Pontius Pilate for permission to take Jesus’ body for burial [John 19:38], that was a very unique request, and it’s surprising that it was granted.)

In the two centuries following Jesus’ death, there were no churches. There was no New Testament. There were no Sunday services.

Instead, the “members of the party of the Annointed” (although the word “Christian” appears in the Bible three times, followers of Jesus in the first two centuries did not call themselves that) met for shared meals, during which they socialized, talked about the issues of the day, remembered Jesus, and sang together. Few people were literate; the gospels as we know them were not written down until decades (or even more than a century) after Jesus’ death. There was no systematic theology or doctrine. The authors say, “Salvation in the second century did not deal with God’s judgment but was more readily conceived as an escape from fear, disease, chaos, emotional torment, physical danger, and death.” The Savior had given them strategies for dealing with the Roman occupation by teaching His followers to care for one another.

I am challenged by these interpretations. Our gospels don’t portray Jesus as being overtly opposed to Rome. Jesus said, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). The Roman soldiers had the right to command any conquered person to carry their gear for one mile. Jesus said, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41). Yet, these are also ways to survive under oppression.

There is much food for thought here, and I will be rereading the Bible with fresh eyes.

8. Faking Reality by Sara Fujimura. I loved this YA romance! I’m an HGTV addict, and the concept of a girl who grew up in her family’s home improvement show resonated with me.

Dakota McDonald, aka America’s DIY Princess, is protective of her privacy, especially after the fiasco that happened at last year’s Homecoming Dance. Her safe haven is her best friend Leo’s family’s Japanese restaurant. Leo, who she wishes was more than her BFF, but she won’t pursue a romance with him until after her family show’s final episode of this, their final season.

When the network proposes that Dakota have a sixteenth birthday extravaganza (dressed in formal wear from a sponsor’s prom wear catalog), they also expect her to have a date—preferably an actor who will be comfortable in front of the camera. (Of course, Dakota would prefer to have Leo be her date, but that’s not going to happen, especially when Leo finds out Dakota has a crush on him, and he tells her he loves her only as a friend.) The first actor Dakota auditions turns out to be an impossible jerk, but then her producer suggests a friend’s son, Alex, and he and Dakota hit it off. Magic happens as they practice a dance routine for the party. However, when the date of the party has to be changed, plans go out the window. . .

One thread that runs through the book is Japanese culture. Both Dakota and Leo have a parent who is Japanese American, and their school has a Japanese Culture Club that plays a big part in their social lives. Fujimura weaves Japanese food, culture, and language throughout the story like a supporting character.

7. Eat Your Heart Out by Kelly deVos. When I bought this Young Adult novel, I was expecting it to be just for fun. And it is. But it’s so much more.

The occupants of the van headed to Camp Featherlite for winter break are not happy about going there. The driver, Steve, needs this gig, but feels unprepared to be a camp counselor. Vee, athletic and healthy, resents that her new stepfather encouraged her mother to send her there. Allie, who used to be Vee’s best friend, is hiding the reason why she’s there, as is Paul, who isn’t even being honest about his name. Plus, they’re driving in a blizzard, and as they approach the camp, see something frightening that causes them to crash the van.

Something very sinister is happening at Camp Featherlite.

Does it have anything to do with the patented secret weight loss bars that cause campers to drop pounds overnight?

Spoiler alert: this is a zombie story. But it’s so much more.

The characters are multi-dimensional. They all have different problems, but they try to rise up to the challenges that face them, and to make up for the bad choices they’ve made. DeVos has a gift for writing authentic teen dialogue.

This is a smart book. Each character is unique, and although they try to “type” each other, they defy labels. Each one comes up with surprising solutions to the situations they find themselves in. And there are many twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. I bought the book because I’d heard it was funny, and there are a few moments I laughed out loud, but there is also horror and suspense—and science.

Spoiler alert: There is a lot of violence, blood, and gore in the book. A lot of zombies get killed; a lot of people get hurt by zombies. I was horrified that all these campers who were sent off with hopes of better lives instead became monsters and then lost their lives. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading fiction, and these characters had never really existed, except in deVos’ mind.

Is Eat Your Heart Out worth reading? Oh, yes. I’ve read and loved three of deVos’ other books, and they were very different from this one. It’s clear she is an imaginative, versatile, and skillful author.

6. The Recovery Agent by Janet Evanovich.

This book is the first of a new action adventure series about Gabriela Rose, a recovery agent who is paid to locate things for her clients. Followers of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series first met the exotic Rose in Fortune and Glory, in which Gabriela competes with Stephanie to find a missing treasure (while also attracting the attention of Stephanie’s boyfriend, Joe Morelli).

In The Recovery Agent Gabriela is tasked by her grandmother to find a treasure hidden by the Spanish conquistador Pizarro. The centerpiece of the treasure was the Seal of Solomon, a ring supposedly engraved by God and given to the Old Testament King Solomon. The ring allegedly gave Solomon the power to command demons and to speak with animals. It was priceless, and grandmother Fanny wanted the treasure to finance the rebuilding of her town, which was destroyed by a recent hurricane.

Gabriela is forced to accept her ex-husband Rafer’s assistance in searching for the treasure, hidden somewhere deep in the Peruvian jungle. And, of course, she is not the only one seeking it.

The Recovery Agent is action adventure “lite.” Evanovich has an absurd sense of humor, and of course things go wrong for Gabriela and Rafer. A lot of people die, mostly tattooed devil-worshiping drug dealers. I’m a little concerned that they are dispatched without a second thought, as if it’s okay to kill them because they are only less-than-human tattooed devil-worshiping drug dealers. Hey, tattooed devil-worshiping drug dealers are people too.

I am addicted to Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, even though I admit it’s not great literature. The Recovery Agent is also not great literature. But it is a hoot. If your standards are high, read Tom Clancy; if you want a diversion, then this book may be for you. I’m not sure if I will follow this series or not. Maybe I’ll just borrow the books from the library.

5. A Map to the New World: Poems and Tales by Joy Harjo. Review coming soon.

4. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is a Jewish professor at (Christian) Vanderbilt Divinity School. She sheds new old light on the parables of Jesus by explaining how his audience (first-century Jews) would have experienced His words.

Most of us who grew up Christian have heard the parables interpreted as allegories to prove some Christian doctrinal point, but that’s not how the original hearers heard them. The parables were designed to provoke, to make one think, to challenge assumptions. They were never meant to be summed up in a neat sentence, as the gospel-writer Luke (not a Jew) did. The characters were never to be seen as symbols of God. And they certainly were not designed to indict the Jews. Levine says, “If the interpretation of a story told by a Jew to other Jews is based on or yields a negative stereotype of Judaism, then the interpretation has gotten more lost than the sheep, coin, or sons, and it cannot and should not be recovered.” Levine paints Jesus as an exceptional teacher who captivated his students by sculpting stories which surprised listeners rather than providing them with a platitude.

Levine gives her own translation of each parable (which a member of my Bible study group described as sounding like Yoda) before shooting down the common interpretations. An academic text, this is no light read. I’m grateful to have read it, but it is not for everyone. Many of the parables begin “The kingdom of heaven is like. . .” and I will be mulling over Short Stories by Jesus for years.

3. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. This story is told out of chronological order, so important details are fed to the reader little by little, but it all comes together by the end.

Vincent, female, grew up on an isolated Canadian island, raised by her single mother until she was thirteen, when her mother died. Her father had another family on the mainland; Vincent went to live with her aunt.

Years later, Vincent’s life intersects with her older half-brother Paul’s. He’s been in and out of rehab. They both end up working at a luxury hotel on the same island where Vincent grew up. They both leave employment around the same time under vastly different circumstances, Paul in disgrace, Vincent as the new (fake) wife of Jonathan, the hotel’s owner, a successful financial advisor.

The next few years of Vincent’s life are lived in fairy tale luxury in the company of society’s upper echelon. Even though there are signs that all is not as it seems, she thrives. She discovers that Paul has achieved some measure of success as a performance artist, in part due to film she shot as a teenager, which Paul stole and worked into his act.

But even as she fumes about confronting Paul, her perfect little world is shattered. Somehow she escapes unscathed; it is possible to know and not know.

Based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, The Glass Hotel is a novel of betrayal and ruin. It is complex and compelling. Emily St. John Mandel is one hell of a storyteller. She is also the author of Station Eleven, which I read two years ago. (See my review, #21 under 2020 here.)

2. The Power of a Praying Parent by Stormie Omarian. I bought this book about 25 years ago, after loving The Power of a Praying Wife, also by Stormie Omartian (see my review below, #22 under 2021). At that time, my oldest daughter was in high school; she’s now almost 43 years old. I recently reread it to see if it still belongs on my bookshelf.

I loved The Power of a Praying Parent when my children were younger. Like the Wife book, it has 30 chapters, each discussing a particular aspect of concern to a parent, and containing a prayer and a collection of applicable scripture verses. I prayed through that book on a regular basis during my five kids’ childhoods.

On rereading it now that my youngest is nearly 33, the focus is not what I would choose for my needs today. But I’m happy I had it when they were young.

The writing is full of Christian jargon (and I realize that the Wife book is too). Readers might consider rewriting the prayers in their own words if Omartian’s feel unnatural to them. With that caveat, I am comfortable recommending this book to parents of children and teens. Available through the ARHtistic License Bookshop.

I am currently taking a few months to pray through all the prayers for each of my children one more time; then I will pass this book on to someone else.

1. See No Stranger by Valarie Kaur. On September 15, 2001, in Mesa, Arizona, not far from where I live, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down in front of his gas station. His assailant, a self-proclaimed patriot, wanted to kill “towel-heads” in retribution for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ironically, the victim had no connection whatsoever with the terrorists. Though he wore a turban, he was not a Muslim but a member of the Sikh faith; not a Middle Easterner, but an immigrant from India. He was a gentle, peaceful man. He was the first of nineteen people killed in hate crimes in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Valarie Kaur was a student at Stanford University at the time, studying philosophy, religion, and international relations. She pitched a project to her advisor: she wanted to travel around the country and document the stories of the survivors of post-9/11 violence; she would bring her cousin along as cameraman. This began her work of activism against xenophobia and injustice. She calls her approach revolutionary love.

The title of her book comes from one of the guiding tenets of her Sikh faith, that all human beings are interconnected, part of one another; and so we must learn to love ourselves and one another, even our opponents. Kaur has devised a compass-shaped visual aid to illustrate the pathways to revolutionary love.

The chapters of her book are titled with the steps outlined on her compass: wonder, grieve, fight, rage, listen, reimagine, breathe, push, transition. She explains what she means by each of these words and how they contribute to greater understanding, empathy, and justice. Interspersed in the chapters are her own stories and others’. Included are appendices that contain the compass, Sikh shabads (hymns or Sikh scriptures), a reading list, and detailed notes.

I read this book with my Bible study group, the same people with whom I read ­­How to Be an Antiracist, reviewed below (scroll down to #15). As much as I liked Kendi’s book, I liked See No Stranger even better, because Kaur gives lots of concrete examples that anyone can use to promote understanding and justice. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to work toward those goals.

Books read in 2021

23. Autopsy by Patricia Cornwell. Review coming soon.

22. The Power of a Praying Wife by Stormie Omartian. I have the 1997 edition of this book. I used to pray through it on a regular basis for my husband, then fell out of the habit. I recently reread it to see if I should keep it or give it away.

In The Power of a Praying Wife, Omartian makes the case for interceding for one’s husband in prayer. She identifies 30 areas of a man’s life that a wife can pray about, such as his health, his work, his protection, and his fatherhood. The thirty prayers she includes make it a great devotional book.

What I especially like about this book is how comprehensive it is. Without a guide like this, I might pray about the same few things over and over again, which is fine—but praying about a different aspect every day makes me feel like I am covering all the bases. After rereading the book, I decided it still deserves a place on my bookshelf, and I will be using it daily. In fact, I bought a copy for my daughter so she can pray through it for her husband, too.

21. I Will Pass Even to Acheron by Amanda Newell. Review coming soon.

20. The Death of a Migrant Worker by Gil Arzola. Review coming soon.

19. Game On by Janet Evanovich. Review coming soon.

18. The Judge’s List by John Grisham. Review coming soon.

17. Hearing God through Biblical Meditation by Mark Virkler. Review coming soon.

16. The Beach Story by Mary Lou Cheatham. Review coming soon.

15. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. This book was hard for me to read. It was also important for me to read. Lots of white people my age have no clue what it’s like to be a Black person in the United States. How to Be an Antiracist opened my eyes. I never thought I was racist, but it turns out that a lot of my assumptions were wrong and actually hurtful. I am so sorry; I want to do better.

Kendi lays out for white people what it is to wear darker skin in this country. He starts out by defining terms. I’m sorry, but his definitions aren’t helpful. For example, take his definition of racist: “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” Gobbledegook. That’s like saying blue is “a color that’s blue.” It really doesn’t define the term in question. I would define racism as characterizing a group of people with negative stereotypes and assuming they apply to every individual within the group.  

But Kendi isn’t as concerned about what members of one group think about members of another group as he is about policies that benefit one group to the detriment of other groups. These can be government policies, company policies, or organizational policies. Policies are what cause the most profound damage, by limiting opportunities.

I’ve only recently understood that just by the virtue of being white, I’ve sustained privilege. I thought you had to be rich to have privilege. But privilege is not merely money; it’s also access. Kendi explains how racist policies infiltrate every aspect of life; getting rid of racist policies would grant equal access for all groups, leveling the playing field as it were. Through discussions of power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, behavior, color, class, space, gender, sexuality, failure, success, and survival, Kendi delineates how racist policies prevent all but the most extraordinary individuals of certain groups from rising to the level most average whites enjoy.

For a book that purports to be a manual for antiracism, How to Be an Antiracist doesn’t really get around to that topic until the end of the 17th of its 18 chapters. I suppose I really needed all the background that Kendi supplies; but I was hoping for more material about how to do the work of antiracism.

Would it be possible for minorities to make these changes all by themselves? Yes, but it would be much easier if we all, whites included, worked together. We really haven’t so far.

14. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Nouwen (1932-1996), a Dutch priest and a renowned spiritual writer, once saw a poster of a detail of Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, depicting a robed old man embracing a younger man on his knees before him. The picture moved him deeply; he could not look away from it. For years, the image remained seared into his brain. When he had an opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union, his first thought was to go to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg to see the original painting in person. A friend’s mother had a contact with an official at the museum, who made it possible for Nouwen to spend several hours over a two-day period sitting, observing, and meditating in front of the painting.

In my lifetime I have heard many sermons about the Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and I thought I had heard every possible tidbit that could be learned from that story. However, in The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, Nouwen describes the painting and the lessons of the parable in infinite detail, with insights I’ve never heard before.

As a child, I identified with the elder son in the story. I saw myself as a little goodie two-shoes who never did anything wrong. I resented the younger son who screwed up and received his father’s attentive forgiveness. (It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I was not nearly as good as I credited myself.)

When I was thirteen, I turned away from God until I was thirty. When I returned to God as a prodigal, I thought I truly understood the point of the story—God loves us so much that when we return to Him, he forgives and celebrates.

Nouwen himself first identified with the younger son, until a friend said, “I wonder if you are not more like the elder son,” which made him examine the relationship between the father and his resentful offspring more closely. He gives us a new perception into the father’s answer to the older son’s complaint. To me, it had always sounded defensive, kind of, “yeah, but we have to rejoice, because your brother was lost, and now he’s found.” But Nouwen says,

The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself of even comment on the elder son’s behavior. . . The father’s declaration of unqualified love eliminates any possibility that the younger son is more loved than the elder. The elder son has never left the house. The father has shared everything with him. He has made him part of his daily life, keeping nothing from him. “All I have is yours,” he says. There could be no clearer statement of the father’s unlimited love for his elder son.

Nouwen’s conclusion totally surprised me. He says we all are probably like the younger son at times, and like the older son at other times, but that’s not the point. We should accept the forgiveness and the healing and the love that the father offers, but it doesn’t end there. Jesus challenges us to grow—to become the Father, to be the Father for others, loving, forgiving, healing. This idea resonates with me; I believe Nouwen is correct.

I am delighted when someone takes a Bible story that I’m very familiar with and teaches me something new.

13. The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt. Review here.

12. The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom by Henri J.M. Nouwen. This is a reread for me. I read it last year, a gift from my daughter along with the author’s The Prodigal Son, both of which she found deeply profound.

I have to confess that this book does not have the same impact on me. Nouwen went into therapy during an emotional breakdown, and after each session with his counselors, he wrote an “imperative” to remind himself what he wanted to work on in order to heal. The first time I read the book, I read it straight through, something he warns readers not to do. This second time, I read one small section a day, like a devotional. It still did not touch me as it did my daughter.

The message of the book is that God loves each one of us deeply. We can rely on His love alone; we do not need to crave the love of any other. When we understand that we are loved completely by God, we can have healthy relationships with others, giving without expectation of reciprocation.

I guess I’ve never been hurt as deeply as Nouwen, or I already am confident of God’s love for me. The Inner Voice of Love has helped a lot of people, but it doesn’t do anything for me.

11. From The Moment by Robert Denis Holewinski. The pretty girl on the cover of this book is a high school classmate of mine. I wasn’t close friends with Debbie; but I knew her well enough to return a friendly nod as we passed each other in the hallway.

I reconnected with Deb at our 40th high school reunion eleven years ago, thoroughly charmed while chatting with her and her husband as our class gathered in front of our alma mater. Deb and I became friends on Facebook.

A few years ago she mentioned that her husband is an artist. I took a look at his paintings online and was so impressed that I wrote a blog post about him on ARHtistic License.

Later, she mentioned that her husband had written a book in verse about his experiences as a U.S. soldier in Korea during the Vietnam era. Since my husband was also stationed in Korea around that time, I was very interested to read and review One Year There.

Bob was kind enough to send me three books he’d written, all in verse. Two of them are still in my TBR pile.

Recently he reached out again and offered to send me his books. I told him I had three, but didn’t have his latest one, published in 2017, From The Moment, his and Debbie’s love story told in a collection of poems that he describes as “photos we once gathered.”  He kindly sent it to me.

I feel like the Huelsenbecks’ lives have run parallel to the Holewinskis’. We married in 1974; the husbands both enlisted in the army, assuming they’d be sent to Vietnam but ending up in Korea instead; we also lived in New Jersey for much of our lives, near some of the places mentioned in the book. Because of all these connections, the book was a pleasure for me to read. And, frankly, I was curious about Deb and Bob’s love life.

Deb and Bob met for the first time in a church on the eve of Bob’s brother’s wedding. Bob was best man, Deb was maid of honor. Even though Bob was considering entering a Franciscan monastery, from the moment he first laid eyes on Deb, he knew he wanted to live his life with her. The entire book is a celebration of their enduring love and marriage, illustrated with vintage photographs and images of some of Bob’s paintings.

Long marriages are not common in my generation; we’ve done a poor job of modeling life-long marital fidelity to our offspring. The younger generations seem to put off marriage or eshew it altogether.

When people ask me how we’ve managed to stay married all this time (47 years and counting), I say, “we learned how to forgive each other.”

Surprisingly, there is no mention of discord in Holewinski’s book. Either Deb and Bob are the rare couple who have never ever hurt each other, or they have forgiven each other so completely that they’ve moved on together harboring no unpleasant memories.  

I enjoyed From The Moment because of my connections to it; but I think it will resonate with anyone whose marriage has stood the test of time. People who are contemplating marriage would do well to read it. I think sometimes people get married for the benefits and perks they expect, rather than for what they are willing to build with their spouse. What should they be willing to give? Everything: their hearts, bodies, dreams. Willing to put the other’s needs before their own. Love keeps on giving. Take a page from Bob’s book.

10. God’s Promises for your Every Need by Word Publishing. When my friend died a few years ago, her husband invited me to come look through her books and take whatever I wanted. This is one of the books I selected.

I started reading it the beginning of this year, one section a day, as a devotional. It’s a collection of excerpts from scripture, the King James Version. King James is not my favorite translation, although I prefer it for certain passages that I memorized that way, such as Psalm 23 and John 3:16.

This is a nice book to have if you don’t mind the King James Version. I was stumped, however, by some of the selections, which did not seem to fit in the category they were filed under. I will be donating this book to my neighborhood Little Free Library.

9. St. Teresa of Avila: A Life Inspired by Wyatt North. I bought this biography of Teresa of Ávila because my daughter thought I’d be interested in Teresa, the Christian mystic. I bought the Kindle version. It’s very brief; the print version is 131 pages. I want more. Next, I’m reading Teresa’s complete works.

8. Day One by Kelly DeVos. This young adult thriller is the sequel to Day Zero, reivewed below. The cast of characters is pretty much the same group as in the first book. The action is told from the viewpoints of two teenaged stepsisters, computer whiz Susan (Jinx) Marshall and the budding journalist MacKenna Novak. Jinx’s dad, Maxwell, was a computer science professor who taught her well. He had a pessimistic view of society, wrote a survivalist handbook, and conducted drills with his family and with students to prepare them for an inevitable doomsday. The political climate in the US grew intense, with a severe economic depression and division between the adherents of the two competing parties, The Spark and The Opposition. Maxwell supported The Opposition, until he suddenly didn’t anymore. Jinx’s mom, Stephanie, a high school history teacher, was ostensibly for The Spark, and eventually divorced Maxwell and married MacKenna’s father, widower and bank security officer Jay Novak. MacKenna’s college student brother, Toby, and Jinx’s younger brother, Charles, complete the blended family. Other characters introduced in the first book come back in the second book as well, and there are a few newbies.

Day One begins about a month after Day Zero ends. DeVos does a good job of setting up the background for the reader, but I don’t want to go into it here, because Day Zero is so good, you should read it first, rather than me spoiling it for you by giving you a quick summary. Let’s just say that a crisis occurred in Day Zero that paralyzed the country, and it became very dangerous for everyone connected with either Maxwell Marshall or Jay Novak (so, basically, the entire family is in mortal danger). A major plot twist at the end of Day Zero shattered the family. Oh, and in Day One civil war breaks out.

Every character has a different goal. Finding Charles, who’s been kidnapped. Proving Jay is innocent of espionage. And preventing a cold fusion bomb from being launched. Sometimes Jinx and MacKenna work together, and sometimes they separate and work at cross purposes, but they and the others all believe they are following their best (and only) possible courses of action. Nothing is as it seems, and nothing goes according to plan.

Day One had me in anxiety all the way through. I identified strongly with Jinx and MacKenna, who, although they don’t always agree, are very idealistic and passionate about doing the right thing. As in the first book, there are multiple plot twists. Every chapter ends on a reversal or a surprise. The pace is rapid, requiring split second decisions of the characters, often without knowing all the facts. The book ends with the three goals being accomplished, but the country is still at war, and a sizable percentage of the characters are dead. I feel that the ending is realistic and satisfying, though not rosy. Day Zero and Day One are both excellent books, well worth reading. Just try not to see all the similarities to our present political situation; it could freak you out. Available through the ARHtistic License Bookshop.

7. Day Zero by Kelly deVos. This book, published in 2019, gave me chills, because it could have been written about the US in January 2021.

Susan (Jinx) Marshall’s been thrust into a blended family. Her parents’ marriage broke up, mainly due to her father’s survivalist craziness. Her mother, Stephanie, quickly married Jay Novak, a widower with two teenaged children, MacKenna and Toby. Jinx’s little brother Charles, a diabetic, completes the family.

The story begins on Inauguration Day. Ammon Carver, the Opposition candidate, has won in an election some say was stolen. (See what I mean?) Jinx and MacKenna are in history class and Stephanie is their teacher—yes, awkward. After class, Stephanie tells them to go straight home because people are “on edge.” They drive over to the elementary school to pick up Charles, but instead of going straight home, Jinx begs MacKenna to stop at the grocery store for snacks. While they’re there, an explosion demolishes the bank next door and chaos spreads across the country.

What happens next is complicated. Let’s just say conditions in the nation were not good before, but now they’re intense, and both Jinx’s dad and her stepdad are being implicated in the events that unfold. Jinx and MacKenna try to keep their family safe, but soon they’re running for their lives.

This YA thriller is well-written, smart, and fast-paced. The characters are compelling and relatable. Every chapter ends on a twist. It will keep you guessing all the way through. And I was shocked at the end.

Although Day Zero works as a standalone (most of the threads being somewhat resolved at the end), it is the first of a duology. I am reading Day One now, and it is shaping up to be just as good as the first book.

6. Esther’s Gift by Jan Karon. I borrowed this little Christmas book, part of the Mitford series that so captivated me in the 1990s, from the Little Free Library in my neighborhood. Esther Bolick prepares to make a bunch of her legendary orange marmalade cakes to give as Christmas presents. She asks her husband to figure out how much they cost her to make. Gene insists on including a dollar amount for her time, and comes up with a whooping price tag. Esther almost cuts her gift list, since she has a hard time justifying such an extravagant gift for people who have slighted her this year.

For me, reading this book (which came out in 2002 and I’ve never seen or even known about) was like coming home to Mitford. All the familiar characters in the other novels are mentioned, and the down-home dialogue made me nostalgic. However, I can’t see this little book appealing to anyone who doesn’t have a history with the series; the plot is just too lightweight.

5. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Review here.

4. The Purpose-Driven Life Journal by Rick Warren. I read the original The Purpose-Driven Life many years ago, and when a friend offered me my pick of his wife’s books after she died, this journal was one I selected. Based on The Purpose-Driven Life, the journal has 40 days of readings to meditate on and record your insights. She had never written in it.

I didn’t know if I wanted to, either. In fact, the prompts didn’t generate any words for me, until Day 22 of 40. I’d been using the book as a daily devotional, and I’d already decided to give the book away after I finished it, so at that point, I didn’t write in it either.

I can see how this journal would be valuable to someone who was committed to living according to the precepts in Warren’s book. I copied some excerpts in a notebook I’m keeping about my own journey. I’d recommend reading The Purpose-Driven Life before buying the journal, because it’s condensed from that book, and you’d benefit from the full context; or you might decide the journal is not for you at all.

3. An Artful Life: Inspirational Stories and Essays for the Artist in Everyone by John P. Weiss. For the past few weeks I’ve been reading a chapter or two of this book while I’ve eaten my lunch. The tone of these stories and essays are consistently positive. They provided a great transition to my afternoon writing time.

Weiss is a cartoonist, painter, writer, and retired police chief. I’ve enjoyed his blog for many years, and many of the pieces appeared there first. I wonder if they are all true, or if some are fiction. It doesn’t matter; they are encouraging, thought provoking, and worth reading.

2. Everything Is Spiritual by Rob Bell. For the past year or so, I’ve been studying the Bible with a group who call themselves the Old Heretics. They’ve pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to reevaluate my beliefs. When the pandemic started, our church closed, and Bible study ended for a while. Then we started meeting on Zoom. The group has been a lifeline for me.

Rob Bell is a popular spiritual teacher and the author of eleven books. In 1999, he started Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids in Michigan, which blossomed into a megachurch, and he left it in 2011 to literally take his show on the road. He’s been denounced by conservative Christians as a heretic, but his ideas resonate with truth seekers and with Christians who have become disenchanted with church. When Everything is Spiritual was released this past September, my Bible study group decided to read it together.

Bell studies quantum physics for fun, and has gathered insight about how things in the universe work. To oversimplify it (and probably not do it the justice it deserves—read the book for the real deal), he believes everything in the universe—particles, atoms, ecosystems, people—are made to exist in relationship to every other thing. Everything is interconnected; everything is spiritual.

The book has an unusual structure. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that there isn’t one. It’s not divided into chapters. It’s not even divided into paragraphs, exactly. Often it’s formatted more like poetry. That actually makes sense, doesn’t it? Poetry gives words added dimension, additional layers of meaning. It’s like the whole book is rendered in stream of consciousness, and we are witnessing the insights Bell is discovering in real time. There’s some repetition of ideas, and some doubling back and reexamining.

Here’s a tiny excerpt about the role of a pastor:

I came from a world where the job of the spiritual leader was to have the last word on things. To explain it. To tell people what it means. To teach people how to do it.

I was coming to see that my job was to have the first word. To start the discussion. To set the words in motion, so that they could do that mysterious thing they do in all of us.

For me, the first half of the book was exciting as I was bombarded with many of these ideas for the first time. I can’t say I share Bell’s fondness for quantum physics though, and I eventually got bored. The book is 307 pages long, but I really think he could have tightened it down to 200 or 250 coherent pages.

That said, he gave me a lot to mull over and process. I’m not sure I believe everything in this book, but I look forward to reading some of his other titles as well.

1. The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. I love books with a music or art tie-in. This Young Adult fantasy novel is the story of Nannerl, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s older sister. Their father, Leopold, a composer, recognized their talents and took them to perform at all the royal courts of Europe. That much is true.

But only one of the Mozart children could become a legendary composer. And Nannerl was a girl. How she wished she could leave a legacy, be remembered. But her brother was always the one who was noticed. So precocious. So gifted. So engaging.

One night, Nannerl has a dream, a dream in which she hears a perfect, beautiful melody, one which she tries to recapture after she wakes, but she can’t quite remember it exactly. She also sees a boy at a distance, with a flashing white smile and glowing blue eyes.

For weeks, she catches snatches of sounds that remind her of the melody. She tries to play it at the clavier, but it eludes her.

Woferl (her brother’s nickname) asks her to tell him a story, and so she makes one up from her dream, which takes place in a faraway kingdom where two moons shine in the night sky. The story grows, and she adds more and more details to it.

Little by little, magic enters their lives—edelweiss blooms grow from a page in Nannerl’s notebook; they meet the boy from her dream, a faery princeling named Hyacinth.

Hyacinth promises Nannerl that he can make her wish come true. But she must be willing to help him reclaim the kingdom that has been stolen from him.

If I tell you any more I’ll give the story away. But I will tell you that there is jealousy, and betrayal, and evil, and suspense, and heartache.

This is the first book by Lu that I’ve read; she’s written ten others before this. The Kingdom of Back is good: imaginative and satisfying. I have one problem with it though. Nannerl insists her father would be mad at her if he knew she was composing. However, we never see any evidence of his position; there is never a conversation between the two of them about music composition not being a suitable occupation for women. Woferl several times suggests she show their father her work, but she refuses. Instead, she hides it where she assumes he’ll never find it. That leads to a betrayal, but it’s not clear exactly what happened or who did the betraying; Nannerl jumps to a conclusion. I know I’m being obtuse, but I’m trying not to give away a major plot point.