Book Review Catch Up

January 15, 2017

This is a quick and dirty catch up of some books I've gotten through in recent months. These were all audiobooks.

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley
The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
These are the first books I've read from this author and I liked them very much. Romances, but through the lens of both history and magic. Both involved some sort of time travel and all the wonderful atmosphere and history of Europe. They occupy a welcome space somewhere between beachy romance simplicity and Jane Austen.

The Firebird was a delicious story within a story of a modern day art collector who becomes aware of the human history of objects just by touching them. She needs to determine provenance of an artifact and becomes entwined in the story of Anna, an 18th century orphan from Ireland who ends up in St. Petersburg.

The Rose Garden is set in Cornwall and weaves together the past, present and future of a single house in a very clever way, all while examining how to put life together in the aftermath of a loved one dying. Eva learns she can "slip between centuries" and finds romance in an era before she was even born. As a bonus, I loved learning more about Cornish history, since I just visited there in May.
This is Cornwall, and it was lovely to be picturing this as I read the book. 
I'll definitely keep an eye out for others of Susanna's books.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is a memoir of the death of the author, a neurosurgeon. He worked on writing it himself almost up to the moment when he actually passed away. There is a lot of tenderness, self-awareness, grace, forgiveness, science and faith in this book, and it all coexists beautifully. The language and thinking are sublime. The tears I shed weren't at the moments of ostensible sadness, but during paragraphs of almost-poetry about life, or family, or his return to faith. One memorable passage:
I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes. I spent a good chunk of my twenties trying to build a frame for such an endeavor. The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning - to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in. That's not to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn't have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge.                                 
Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” 
I listened to this book, and rather quickly, so I could get it read for book group. I would love to read it in a book-book or kindle, slowly, underlining, so I can savor all the words.

Here he is in person.

Letters from Father Christmas by JRR Tolkien
This was very sweet. Each year, JRR Tolkien facilitated communication between his children and Father Christmas. The letters he wrote, in answer to his children's letters to the Jolly Old Elf, are filled with humor, cleverness, intelligence, and lots of love. I appreciate that he nurtured his children's imaginations, encouraging them to believe in something greater than what they could see with mere eyes.

This will be a regular addition to my traditional holiday reads.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I really feel cheated. For some reason, I had it in my mind that Neil Gaiman was too...something for me. Weird? Macabre? Scary? I have no idea where I got those notions, I really don't, because I have never, up till now, even researched the man or his writing. I think we chose one of his other books for book group years ago, I put off reading it because of my strange notions, then the book itself got a lukewarm reception from the group, so I never got back around to it.

Now I can't get enough of him. The Graveyard book was a revelation. Just gorgeous. And listening to the author himself read it? Perfect. (It's a long a, by the way. His name. Rhymes with Cayman. Not Guy-man, which is how I usually hear it pronounced. I have that from the mouth of the man himself) I'm gushing. But I can't help it. My favorite reads will always be beautiful writing combined with the right story, and this gave me the same kind of shivery delight as the first time I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  The words go together ever so nicely, and the story is ever so interesting and satisfying. As you may have heard it's a retelling of The Jungle Book, and is told in vignettes. The characters serve to let Bod gently learn who he is and what he can do, and their love for him is so sweet. The fact that they are corpses in a graveyard just completely works, and I can't explain why, but it's because of his WORDS!

I could go on and on,  and I'm pretty sure this isn't even making sense, but what I'd rather do is read something else by Neil Gaiman. I have a lot of catching up to do.

The Orphan Keeper by Cameron Wright

This is the story of a young boy torn from his home in India under dubious circumstance. He ends up in an orphanage there, then is basically sold to a family in Utah, USA. The story is concerned with how he copes with his memories (or lack thereof), the series of sudden and horrific changes he has to go through, and how they hang over every moment of his life.

It is a really interesting read, and completely wrenching for this mama. Issues of family are so very close to my heart, and this boy and his families go through some serious trials. The writing itself was just this side of banal for me; it was a little bit too aloof and journalistic, but maybe that was the reader I listened to. He was fine, but not fabulous. The story was good enough to keep me moving along though, and I never lost the thread.

Learn more about the true story that inspired the book. 


  1. The Susanna Kearney books remind me a little of the Outlander series. Have you read those Diana Gabaldon books?

    1. I have heard of them, and read the first 2 or 3. Very fun!


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