Apr 4, 2017

What We're Reading

A lovely reader (thanks, Katy Hopkins!) suggested that we should run occasional posts about what the SDMW authors have been reading lately. I thought it was a fabulous idea. So, in case you need something to add to your to-be-read list, here you go!

Cheryl Magness

I recently finished reading A Life for a Life by Victorian writer Dinah Maria Mulock Craik. I first became aware of Craik's writings last year. At the time, I was grieving the death of my mother, and a friend shared this quote from Craik's novel Olive:  "[Fo]r all I lose on earth, heaven—the place of souls, which we call heaven, whatever or wherever that may be—grows nearer to me. It will seem the more my home, now I have a mother there."

Olive is, as the title suggests, about a woman named Olive. The book follows Olive's life from infancy through adulthood, similar to other Victorian novels such as Jane Eyre. I found Olive to be a multi-faceted character, beautifully and lovingly written by Craik. Born with a minor physical deformity to less-than-attentive parents, she overcomes her childhood circumstances to discover a latent talent in painting which eventually leads her to artistic acclaim and financial independence. Her success allows her to provide for both her own and her mother's material needs, something she does willingly and sacrificially for many years, anticipating that she will never marry. To see if her expectation of celibacy comes to pass, you will have to read for yourself!

Although Craik reportedly thought A Life for a Life was her best work, I did not personally enjoy it as much as Olive. Olive is written with traditional third-person omniscient narration, whereas A Life for a Life is presented as a series first of journal entries and then letters between the two main characters. I preferred the more uniform narrative approach of Olive and also personally found the story and characters in Olive to be more engaging, but I deeply appreciated the themes of forgiveness and redemption manifested in multiple storylines and characters in A Life for a Life. In both books I also appreciated the thread of Christianity that is gently woven throughout. It is not a forced or didactic Christianity but a natural manifestation of the faith that is central to the lives of the characters portrayed. Reading both books I felt as I often feel among my fellow Christians--that Christ is always in our conversation because we don't know how to talk in a way that He's not.

I hope in the not too distant future to read a third book by Craik, a nonfiction work entitled A Woman's Thoughts About Women. I think if Craik were still alive she would feel right at home here at Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife!

Dana Palmer

Reading a good fiction book has become part of my bedtime routine.  I settled upon this practice a number of years ago when I realized that I had not read some of the classic books that my oldest daughter was reading.  I aim to stretch myself a bit with my reading selections; however, I have also gotten to the point where I don't push myself to read something I find little enjoyment in.  I recently completed for the second time one of my favorites, Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.  I have always liked the 1939 movie version, but the book is even better.   At over 1000 pages, it has in-depth character development, yet is written in a manner that is easy to grasp.  In addition, there are a number of important characters that were not included in the movie.

The book tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a southern belle living on a plantation in Georgia at the start of the Civil War.  Despite the strong societal expectations of how a gracious southern lady should behave, Scarlett is used to getting her own way, which often includes getting the attention of whatever beau she desires.  As the war progresses and ultimately destroys the lifestyle she had been accustomed to, she undergoes a transformation as she adapts to new ways of living.  However, she experiences pains of conscience as she makes choices to survive that are in conflict to the religious and moral teachings of her Catholic mother; at the same time, many of those around her look to her for strength and wisdom as they struggle to survive war and Reconstruction.  One person who does not look to her for strength, but is fascinated by her nonetheless, is Rhett Butler.  Rhett also undergoes a transformation, as he changes from a dapper playboy to a loving, although still shrewd, husband and father.   He also becomes an attentive, considerate stepfather to Scarlett's children from her first two marriages.  Always faithful to Rhett, Scarlett, and their family is Melanie Wilkes, who is a moral compass of the book. Gentle, upright Melanie, who is married to Scarlett's lifelong love interest, Ashley Wilkes, serves as a foil to Scarlett's brashness and willingness to believe that the end justifies the means.  Ultimately, the book raises many questions about defining morally acceptable behavior in crisis situations.

I have sometimes pondered why I like this story so much.  Scarlett is not a good role model; although she does do brave things that help others, her most prevalent motive is self-interest.   However, I am drawn to ponder the complicated choices that she and others faced during the time when our country was at war against itself. Another point of discomfort I have about the book is in its depiction of black slaves as inferior, and occasionally as less than human. The master-slave relationship is also presented in a positive light. However, these elements are part of what causes me to be interested.  Margaret Mitchell was from Georgia, and her southern perspective is at odds with my own Midwestern heritage. However, I enjoy learning what a southerner thought of her society as well as how she viewed northerners (or Yankees, as she refers to them in the book).  War is an ugly thing, and as Lutherans, we know that no side is without sin.  Gone With The Wind reminds me that on both sides of a war there are human beings--human beings who wake up every day to the same rising sun, and who all need food, shelter, loved ones, hope, and forgiveness.  This story depicts a way of life so different from what I would have experienced, had I been born during that time period. For all of these reasons, it is one of my favorite books. I expect that this won't be the last time I read it!

Rachel Kovaciny

The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Murder by Rachel McMillan is a cute book.  It's not a deep book, or a daring book, or an intense book, but it is fun and sweet, with bits of excitement and romance woven in.  It's got a lot of things I love:  mystery, historical setting, brave female characters, clean romance.  I like that it's set in Toronto instead of the usual cities of London, New York, or Chicago.  

Above all, I like that the two female detectives are consciously trying to be like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  I was afraid that it was going to be one of those books where an author tries to cleverly write their own versions of famous characters and instead I just spend a lot of time being annoyed by how much the new people fail to match up to the originals.  That was my biggest qualm about reading this series, which people have been recommending to me for a while now.  People kept saying, "They're a female Holmes and Watson!" and I was like, "We don't need female versions of Holmes and Watson.  Go write original characters, people."  But that's just what McMillan did -- she created two very original characters who happen to be female and happen to wish they were like Holmes and Watson.  I dug it.

I didn't love everything about this book. (SPOILERS) The romance between Jem and Ray wrapped up too abruptly and neatly for my taste (END SPOILERS), and some of the dialog didn't always make total sense to me, like chunks of conversations had been removed for some reason.  But overall, it was a fun book, and I'm definitely going to read more in the series.

(PG for characters being in peril and discussion of dead bodies.  Also, some smooching.)

In Song of the Ëan by Emily Nordberg, a bored, spoiled young prince goes on what should be a routine trip to collect tribute from an island province, only to become embroiled in its people's fight against an oppressive governor.  Over the course of the story, we see him change from a shallow, self-centered youth to a mature, brave, and generous man.  It's a remarkably believable character arc, and by the end of the book, I had grown very fond of him, even though at the beginning, I didn't like him much at all.

The ëan are the rebel forces, named for the eagles that assist them occasionally.  Their leader is a fierce young woman with a keen understanding of strategy, a compassionate heart, and a peerless mastery of hand-to-hand combat.  She gets her own beautiful character arc, and of the two main characters, she was by far my favorite.

This is technically fantasy, in that many characters can communicate with animals, but there is no magic involved.  The people worship Aiael, also called El, the One True God, who is clearly meant to be the God of the Old Testament called by another name.  Their faith infuses all they do with love and courage, and this is definitely one of the best intertwinings of Christianity and fantasy writing I have read in a long while.

This is Emily Nordberg's debut novel, and while her pacing is not always strong, her world-building and character development richly rewarded me.  I'm going to let my 9-year-old son read this now that I've finished it -- it's absolutely clean, aside from one mention of a minor character's mother having had a "reputation," which is exactly how it is phrased.  As my son loves fantasy and anything with a strong female character, I think he's going to enjoy this -- possibly even more than I did!

(G.  Good, wholesome fun.)

Ruth Meyer

I’m hopeless when it comes to books. Once I start reading, I can’t stop. Lately I’ve been reading a number of young adult novels that my children check out of the library. My eldest reads a book, passes it along to his brother, who then passes it along to me. It’s a wonderful perk! Recently, I read Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which I found to be a very thought-provoking presentation of 9/11 for kids who weren’t even alive during that horrific event. It presents the facts in a considerate manner while allowing the reader to follow along as the main character (who lives in Brooklyn) unravels what really happened on that day and how it relates to her own family.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve also read my own book recently! Grace Alone was just published in February, and even though I practically know the entire thing by heart after the editing process, I had to read it again once it was finally in print. It’s a story about a single mom who has made some mistakes in her past and sees no need for church. But when a handsome and single man shows up on her doorstep, Grace isn’t prepared for the changes her life is about to undergo. I may be biased, but it’s definitely worth a read!

Anna Mussmann

Recently I finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The book is composed of the reminiscences of a fictional, elderly minister who wishes to leave a record for the very young son whom he will never see grow up. It is a remarkable piece of work. Every word seems to be exactly the right one.

I also read Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge. It is a romance and a very loose retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Girl with No Hands,” set in a fantasy world inspired by the royal court of France’s Louis XIV. I was fascinated by the way the author uses the tropes of YA romance to tell a story with a quite uncommon message. Her (Roman Catholic) Christian beliefs shine through in several rather moving scenes. I also appreciated the role given to the characters' non-romantic friendships, a theme that often gets short-shrift in modern fiction. I’d recommend this novel to readers interested in fairy tales, fantasy, and YA lit. It is fairly dark and better-suited for adults or the older segment of the YA range.

Currently I'm re-reading Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Let’s just say that those poor people out there in the world who haven’t read Miss Sayers’ mystery novels are making foolish choices about how they spend their time.

What about you? Anything to recommend?


  1. I need to read more Dorothy Sayers! She is delightful :-)

    Thanks for asking me to participate in this. It's a fun way to share book ideas and lengthen our TBR lists. Cuz we all need longer TBR lists, right? :-)

    1. Oh, of course! What else will we do in retirement if we don't have a massive TBR list to work our way through?


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