Book Reviews for July 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

July 31, 2023

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We’re coming to the end of the summer reading season, friends.

It’s flown by!

My book reviews for July 2023 include

  • One of the oldest stories known to man
  • A middle-grade novel by one of the best in the biz right now
  • A true crime account with no dead bodies (phew)
  • A Christian devotional for the chronic overachiever
  • The kids’ books my boys loved

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads. Connect with me so that I can see what you’re reading, too!

The Odyssey

By Homer

The age-old “journey home” tale, filled with monsters, magic, and madness

You’ll love it if you want to start recognizing classical allusions, archetypes, and plotlines in your modern stories (they’re all over the place!)

I listened to the audio version narrated by Dan Stevens. It was a great way to consume this dense epic. I haven’t read it since high school (in college, my professor chose The Illiad instead).

What struck me this time around is how IMPORTANT hospitality is to the Greeks. You must welcome, feed, and house a stranger YOU MUST DO IT. Since Odysseus is wandering for the entire book, we see him received in many different ways by many different hosts. Some hosts do the exact right things. Others (like the Cyclops) try to eat him. Others try to trick, tempt, or enchant him.

Then, there’s the other side of the hospitality coin. If you’re a guest, there’s certain etiquette that you need to abide by. Don’t mooch or show ingratitude or outstay your welcome. Penelope’s suitors are the ultimate examples of horrid houseguests, literally eating up her resources, corrupting the servants, and disrespecting Odysseus at every turn.

So, I’m asking myself, WHY is this so important? Why does it show up in every episode and play such a huge role? Finally, when I was listening to the last few chapters, it hit me. Because the way we treat a guest—especially one who has nothing to offer us in return—reveals our true character. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat a beggar. Or a shipwrecked dude. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat a host (are they grateful or entitled?).

When Athena wanted to ensure that Odysseus was accepted by a host, she made him bigger, stronger, and better looking, and it worked like a charm (pardon the pun). When she (or Odysseus himself) wanted to test his hosts, he’d disguise himself to look weak and poor. We gravitate toward the powerful and beautiful people, and we don’t want to associate with the lesser set. It’s the way we are. But, the Greeks had an expectation that we’re capable of rising above that and behaving in a more noble manner. (I believe that’s something God has given us, when His Spirit draws us toward a higher call.)

That’s just one thing that stood out to me. I must say that there were some dull parts, but it was a great Greek myth refresher, and the poetic style and epic epithets and twists and turns were pure joy.

I read this alongside Chapter 1 of Realms of Gold by Leland Ryken, which defends the value of myth. He has a lot of great insight to offer on why myths aren’t necessarily antiChrist, even though they are thoroughly pagan. He quotes G.K. Chesterton, who said that mythology is an attempt to arrive at religious truth through the imagination alone. The pagan ‘feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents’…’mythology is a search.’ It expresses a need but does not satisfy it.” He also mentions that when we compare the God of scripture to the gods of myth, any reader can see that God is superior, and there’s value in that dichotomy.

Content warnings: Your general PG-13 rating for violence, thrills, and sex.

The Feather Thief

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

Why would anyone steal dead birds? (Hint: 💰)

You’ll love it if true crime sounds cool, but you don’t want to read anything gristly

It’s been a Very Long Time since I’ve consumed some narrative nonfiction, and since I’m too sweet and tender for gristly murders, I thought, “Why not read about a nonviolent, gore-free crime?” This book is just THAT.

Edwin Rist is probably a sociopath, but thankfully he decided to steal feathers and bird skins instead of setting his sights on more heinous crimes. Why steal musty ol’ carcasses from the bowels of a British museum? For money (always the money) and for the love, nay, the obsession, of fly tying. (Fly tying is the art of tying flies for fishing. But you’d never dare fish with a fancy tie. You post a picture of it to the internet so other fly tiers can ooh and ahh over your work. I mean, duh.)

The most interesting part of this book for me was the inside peek at the fly tying community. What a tight-knit group! Talk about niche hobbies. Johnson explores the obsessive nature of this hobby, and maybe it speaks to the obsessive nature of many artistic outlets. The only problem with fly tying is that many of the most historic recipes call for endangered bird parts. And maybe this speaks to the nature of being human—we intensely desire the very thing that’s forbidden.

He describes how Edwin Rist managed to steal a vast quantity of bird feathers—and nearly get away with it scott-free! He delves into notions of justice and punishment. (I don’t want to give too much away.)

Overall, this was a very interesting and light read. It wasn’t too heavy handed, and (even though it was about a crime) it felt almost “fun” due to the white-collar nature of the theft. I will say that I was hoping there’d be more “there” there, ya know? It wasn’t a roller-coaster ride of thrills—it was much quieter. But definitely an interesting and diverting listen.

Content warnings: Just in case you’re concerned, stealing is not condoned in this book. You just never know these days, right?

When Strivings Cease

By Ruth Chou Simons

Let’s stop working so hard to gain what we already have in Christ

You’ll love it if you naturally gravitate toward the legalistic, performative side of Christianity (or you just need help understanding grace)

I was drawn to this book because of the title. Who doesn’t want to stop striving?! Ruth Chou Simons does a great job of explaining why self-help doesn’t actually help and why the gospel of grace is the only place we can find welcome, favor, rest, and true transformation.

Simons is very relatable! She tells stories from her upbringing, explaining how Chinese culture puts a huge emphasis on performance and achievement. This was a stumbling block for her in her early walk with the Lord, and she confesses that she still struggles with it. Don’t we all?

The book is divided into two parts. The first part explains why we can’t strive for attention, approval, enoughness, or belonging. The second part explains how embracing grace makes all the difference. It makes us new, not better. It fuels good works. It cancels our debt (no need to pay Jesus back). It’s solid.

For me, the book felt quite repetitive. I found myself engaged in her stories and nodding in agreement with a lot of her conclusions…but it’s impossible to discuss this topic without circling back around to the same phrases. But I think that I, personally, do (kinda) need this knocked into my head over and over again.

Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly striving to do my best each day in all of my roles, but I don’t know if it’s coming from the wellspring of God living inside me or if it’s coming from my inner perfectionist and people-pleaser. Both, alternatively, I suppose.

Content warnings: None

The Labors of Hercules Beal

By Gary D. Schmidt

A grieving young man must live up to his mythological namesake in order to pass seventh-grade English class

You’ll love it if you have a soft spot for snarky middle-school protagonists who push you away when you try to hug them

This book is BEAUTIFUL. Gary D. Schmidt is a master at creating snotty middle-school kids and then making us fall head over heels for them. What a STELLAR story!

(Even though this book will appeal to a middle-grade audience, I think it’s adults like me who will get teary-eyed and full-hearted over it.)

If Wednesday Wars made you want to read Shakespeare, and if Okay for Now made you want to pour over Audubon illustrations, then The Labors of Hercules Beal will make you want to revisit Greek myth. (But young readers don’t HAVE to know mythology in order to enjoy this story.)

Hercules (7th grade) and his brother Achilles (20-something) are recovering from the worst kind of heartache—their parents were killed in a car crash, and now they are left alone to run the family business (a plant/tree nursery) and to, ya know, grow up parentless.

They live in a tight-knit beach community on Cape Cod, and a colorful cast of neighbors and teachers step up to the plate to help the two brothers survive. Time period is present day (not historical, like Schmidt’s other books).

At the start of the book, Hercules starts a new middle-school, and his teacher, a retired lieutenant colonel who reminds me of the Rock, assigns a yearlong literature project on classical mythology. He tells Hercules that, for this project, he must “do” all the labors that the mythical Hercules did. Hercules the seventh-grader is like “HOW?” But that’s the premise of the book, and each of the chapters center on each of the 12 labors and how our plucky protagonist manages to be an average, ordinary, everyday superhero.

This story DOES show how we can all be heroic in some way, how we can be heroic even when we are hurting, and how we rarely perform heroic acts without the help of others. It’s also about recovering from a traumatic event and the blame we often put upon ourselves (needlessly).

Content warnings: Hercules and his brother are dealing with deep-rooted grief. This could help young people process and understand grief, or it could trigger some anxiety. But the book ends on a hopeful note versus a bleak one.

Wise Words: Family Stories that Bring Proverbs to Life

By Peter J. Leithart

A collection of short stories that illustrate the proverbs

You’ll love it if you’re looking for straight-up biblical allegories for kids

This is a small book of Christian short stories for kids. Each one connects to a specific verse from the book of Proverbs. The stories are designed to bring those proverbs to life. All the stories have a fairy tale setting and atmosphere—castles, kings, peasants, magic, etc.

My boys and I worked our way through this book over the summer. It was good, but it wasn’t amazing. Some of the stories were sad and show the terrible end of pursuing sin. Others had a classic happy ending. Not only did the stories attempt to illustrate a proverb, but they also pulled in imagery, stories, and words from other parts of scripture. It could be fun for kids to see how many references/allusions they can spot in each story.

The reason this didn’t get 4 stars is because the stories were a little too didactic for my taste, and the writing was a little flat.

Content warnings: Some of the stories are a tad depressing because they’re illustrating the results of bad choices and a lack of wisdom. A few lascivious women show up here and there, but nothing crazy.

Peter Pan

By James M. Barrie

Gay, innocent, heartless kids fly off to Neverland and return home unchanged

You’ll love it if you want to reawaken your inner child (and sorta appreciate your inner grownup)

There is something so wistful about the way growing up is presented in this book. There is so much to lose and so much to gain by growing up, and the book does a great job of portraying this, but…it’s mostly me, Mom, who feels the knife-twist in my gut. Just like the Darling children, my own are still gay, and innocent, and heartless. They did not feel anything but a grand sense of adventure and magic.

I’m discovering that, as an adult reading children’s classics to my little boys, I’m identifying more with the grown-ups in these stories and seeing them in an entirely new light. I was astonished by how Barrie portrays Mrs. Darling. She’s fresh and sweet and utterly motherly. But she’s got her faults. Her soft life is too wrapped up in her children, and they break her heart too easily.

And Peter. I asked my boys, “Is Peter Pan the hero or the villain of this book?” One boy said, “The hero,” as if it were obvious. Then, we pointed out Peter’s many faults (extreme selfishness being No. 1, but also forgetfulness, foolishness, hubris). Then we talked about his strengths (fun, brave, fearless, loveable, and leadership). We did this at the kitchen table while eating hamburgers.

I understand why people have issues with this book. I see them, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I also think that this book is the product of its time, and I’m willing to take it in my hands and turn it around and inside out and look at it for what it is. Not objectively, because I can’t. But LOOK at it.

I will say that the book’s language is forever etched into me. There are scenes and phrases that give me the shivers just because I know them so well and they feel so close.

Overall, this was a fun summer read-aloud with my 6- and 7-year-old. Did anyone else grow up watching the TV version of the Mary Martin stage play, or was it just me?

Content warnings: There’s a lot of killing, and because it’s Neverland, the deaths are treated like “play” deaths that occur when kids are acting out battles and such. The redskins are treated like stereotypes, and so are the pirates, lost boys, and females in general. This doesn’t take away from the book’s nuance, but it can leave a bad taste in our oh-so modern mouths.

Adding to your TBR?

Check out this handy digital TBR spreadsheet that you can pull up on your phone whenever you’re at the bookstore or library.

Want to see ALL my book reviews?

Here’s the master list of every book I’ve reviewed since starting The Book Devotions.

More along these lines…

3 Comments

  1. Michele Morin

    My youngest son and I listened to every Gary Schmidt audiobook our library carried, so I’ve got a wave of nostalgia washing over me at the moment. I may just read the book even though everyone’s all grown up now!

    Reply
    • Michelle Watson

      Oh, what wonderful memories those must’ve been! I think that his books have a lot of appeal for their target audience, but they ***might*** have more appeal for parents. Haha! I want to adopt all of his protagonists and smother them in love.

      Reply
  2. Linda Stoll

    I continue to enjoy your newletters, Michelle. Creative, inspiring, fun, and informative. Thanks for keeping us all in the reading loop!

    Reply

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