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Here are my book reviews for May 2022. A couple of superb nonfiction picks on the list this month, as well as a slow-burn romance.
How about you? What have you been reading lately? Leave a comment with your most recent reads, or share a link to your review post.
Now, without further ado…
Dopamine Nation book review
By Anna Lembke
Topic: Psychology of addiction
Format: Library ebook
Mood: Informative, accessible, fast-paced, story-filled
You’ll love it if you’re curious about addiction and how to overcome it in our pleasure-saturated society
I discovered this tiny little book when I heard the author, Anna Lembke, on a podcast talking about the role of dopamine in addiction, and she mentioned that she herself had been addicted to (((dramatic pause))) romance novels. Of all things!!! Being an avid reader myself, I wanted to know everything about her experience…how had it happened? Where did it lead? How did she unhook herself?
Not only does Lembke humbly share her own story, but this book is packed with stories (sometimes emotional, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes crazy) of people who have been addicted to various things, including the usual suspects (drugs, alcohol, and sex) but also more “socially acceptable” addictions (social media, shopping, food, thrills, etc.)
We are all at risk of getting addicted to something. Never has the world been more dopamine saturated, says Lembke. She explains how dopamine works. We experience a pleasureful thing. Our body releases dopamine. We repeat the experience. But, pretty soon, we need to push the pleasure button harder to get the same level of dopamine rush. This leads to overconsumption, followed by addiction, followed by chronic pain. Pushing the “pleasure button” too often and too hard just results in pain down the line. (We all know what it’s like to eat chips and salsa like a wolverine and then suffer a tummyache after…we ALL know what that’s like, right?)
She suggests a 30-day dopamine fast as one step in an eight-step recovery plan. But, by far, the most fascinating section was the final one called “Pushing into Pain” (or something like that). She suggests that pressing our “pain” button (not too much, not too little) can actually result in pleasure. (We all know what it’s like to exercise and then feel great after.) But her examples go way deeper. My favorite chapter was the one on radical honesty—how the “painful” act of being perfectly honest in the moment can lead to longterm rewards (pleasures) over time.
Of course, I didn’t agree with every last statement in this book, but overall it was eye-opening.
Content warnings: It speaks frankly about many different addictions, so if you’re struggling to overcome an addiction, it’s very possible that this book touches on your trigger.
Mama Bear Apologetics book review
By Hillary Morgan Ferrer, general editor
Topic: Christian apologetics for moms
Mood: Mama-friendly language wrapped around some very weighty topics
You’ll love it if you need help explaining stuff about Christianity to your kids
Every Christian mom should at least TRY to read this book. It’s apologetics-made-easier for moms who need help putting into words what they know to be true about the gospel and how our culture is tearing it down.
We can see what’s going on around us, but we can’t quite put verbiage to it. Our kids ask us questions, and words bubble out of us, but it’s not what we meant to say at all. Did we do more harm than good? Why don’t we have ready answers?! If you feel this way, this book will help you!
Now, this is apologetics made “easier.” Not “made easy.” This book does assume solid grounding in scripture and knowledge of what’s going on in culture. You don’t finish a chapter and say, “Now I understand!” Instead, you say, “Now I’m starting to understand.”
Each chapter follows a specific structure, and there are discussion questions at the end if you’re reading with a group of moms. There’s also a guided prayer to close out each chapter. So, this book is designed to be read in community with other moms, and I like that.
Part 1 of the book provides an overview of the problem (moral/spiritual confusion and kids leaving the faith). And it paints the solution in broad strokes (teaching our kids how to practice discernment—and, um, how to practice it ourselves).
Part 2 tackles 11 popular beliefs, such as skepticism, postmodernism, moral relativism, Marxism, feminism, and progressive Christianity. It points out what’s good about these beliefs/worldviews, and then it points out what does not align with scripture.
The back matter includes tons of notes and titles for further reading.
Honestly, what a gift these women have given to us. And the primary author, Hillary Morgan Ferrer, hasn’t ever given birth or raised a child, yet she’s done the great work of a spiritual mother in offering us this resource.
Content warnings: None, except a hearty dose of straight-talk
Morning Glory book review
By LaVyrle Spencer
Genre: Historical romance
Thematic elements: Unlikely romance, late-bloomers come of age, overcoming wrongs done to you in the past
Tropes: Fake relationship turns real, outcast to hero
You’ll love it if you want a solid, slow-burn romance that isn’t horribly immoral (see content warnings though!)
My husband saw me reading this book, and he jokingly asked, “Did you get that at an old lady’s yard sale?” (No offense intended to old ladies or yard sales, both of which are dear to my heart.) My copy’s cover just looks very old-fashioned, and the title is hilarious because, well, ya know. 😆
I’m on a quest to find a solid, clean romance novel written after 1950, haha. It needs to deliver the goods as a romance novel (good characters, good relationship) while also preserving good morality. But here’s the catch: it can’t be cheesy.
I tried this book in hopes that it might fit the bill. How did it measure up?
Solid romance: YES. Super romantic. Good characters, good relationship. It delivered.
Cheesy? Not really. It was a 2 out of 10 on the Cheese-o-Meter.
Preserving good morality: For the most part, yeah! Goodness and virtue were praised, and immorality was smacked down. Overall, it was a sweet, wholesome love story.
The main drawback: It was an open-door romance—yowza. That means the act of sex is described from beginning to end. Granted, it’s within marriage, but still. Too much for me!
So, if you like your romances on the hot side, but you dislike romances that are basically meaningless cupcakes, AND you’re capable of self-censoring the bedroom scenes, then this might be a great book for you.
It’s about a 1940s widow who advertises in the local paper for a husband, and an ex-con applies for the job. The setting is a podunk Georgia town where nothing much is happening. WW2 has started, but the U.S. hadn’t joined yet. The story zooms in on the two main characters, Will and Elly, but by the end of the book, you meet a ton of hilarious (and sometimes icky) oddballs who are downright memorable.
This book is highly readable. It’s effortless to read, and it’s actually very well written and grounded in its historical soil. You can tell the author knows the time period. The dialogue is great, with lots of Georgian slang and funny period lingo. There are beautiful descriptions of nature, so you can tell Spencer has a hearty appreciation for the natural world.
I will not lie. This book is longer than it needs to be. It’s SO long. I thought it would never end. The romance is a super-slow burn and takes up the first half of the novel, and that’s always fun, as you’re waiting to see how the characters come together. After that, there’s a slight sag in the middle, but THEN the last, oh, quarter of the book is extremely fast-paced and interesting! (I wish the entire novel had the swift pacing of the last 1/4.) I don’t want to give away what happens, but there may or may not be a small-town scandal involved.
The big downside, honestly, is (((and this may be a slight spoiler))) that romance is quasi-worshipped here. The love story is SWEET and PURE. It’s not skanky or worldly at all. But the love between a man and a woman isn’t the love that SAVES us. It’s not the love that changes us into what we once were into who we are now. It’s just not. That’s God’s love. We often experience that love through our spouse, and the marriage relationship IS supposed to be a type and shadow of the Christ’s relationship with the Church, but still. This one went a little overboard.
Content warnings: Open-door sex scenes that depict the entire act, beginning to end, between man and wife. There are some PG-13+ rated seduction scenes between unmarried people that are meant to be skanky so that we say “ick!”
A River Enchanted book review
By Rebecca Ross
Genre: Adult fantasy
Thematic elements: Power, nations at war, the individual’s responsibility to the clan
Mood: Introspective, mystical, emotional
You’ll love it if you’re craving a clean, small-world fantasy with Scottish charm
I’m always interested when a YA author makes her adult debut. YA novels are so effortless to read, so bringing the same writing style to adult themes always sounds appealing to me (for when I want something quick and fun but not too teenaged).
This book was not quick, but it was fun. (I listened to the 16-hour audio version in all its Scotch-Irish glory.)
The story: We’re in a fictional Scotland/U.K. where magic is a thing and people wear enchanted plaids and carry charmed daggers and worry about the “folk” (isle spirits) meddling in their affairs. There, in the ocean, sits the Isle of Cadence, which is populated by two clans that have been historically at odds. Jack was born on Cadence but sent away to the Mainland for school, where he learned to be a bard (storytelling musician). But the king of the Tamerlaine clan has summoned Jack back for reasons unknown.
That’s the setup, so I thought this story would be focused on Jack, but he’s one of two protagonists. The other is Adaira (Ah-deer-ah, and roll the R a bit), the heiress to the Tamerlaine throne. Dual protagonists are a little tough for me as a reader, but Ross does a good job giving them equal share on the stage. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this construction.
This is a very clean, straightforward fantasy that appealed to me (but didn’t completely capture me). I like that it follows good, honest people who are trying to do their best as they navigate the power they wield over others, and as they try to protect those they love. This is wholesome to me (versus stories that depict very dysfunctional people screwing things up for everyone around them). This book is about strong people being tested to their limits. Having said that, the characters were almost a little TOO good, ya know? They are more aspirational versus relatable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t lovable or memorable.
The storyline felt intimate, as we’re following just a few very tightly woven plotlines, and there aren’t a thousand characters to keep track of, which is usually the case in fantasy novels. In fact, there are really only four characters who we get super close to.
The worldbuilding was intriguing, but it felt a little distant. I think Ross wanted to keep the characters front and center and didn’t go into a ton of backstory about the Isle and magic and the clans, although it’s most definitely there and provides a beautiful backdrop.
This is very much the first book in a series and ends with an open loop. Will I read No. 2? Maybe! I’m actually considering it, and I’m a notorious series-abandoner, haha. So, that’s saying something.
Content warnings: Children are kidnapped but not harmed. Some gentle suspense and nongory violence. One fade-to-black bedroom scene that is not explicit.
Mansfield Park book review
by Jane Austen
Genre: Classic family drama
Format: Audible audiobook narrated by Frances Barber
Thematic elements: Social pressure, social status, discernment
Mood: Sardonic, weightier than typical Austen, but with a happy ending
You’ll love it if you’re due for an Austen fix
It’s been so long since I’ve read Mansfield Park that it might as well be the first time. Even though this is NOT my favorite Austen novel, I DID really appreciate it this time around. One of the big reasons why is because I listened to Angelina Stanford’s deep dive of Mansfield Park on the Literary Life podcast, and it set a great tone for my reread.
Fanny Price is NOT Austen’s most beloved herione. She reminds me of how Dickens wrote Esther Summerson in Bleak House—as a purehearted, good-as-gold girl who has zero (and I mean ZERO) self-esteem. But far from being downtrodden or resentful, she’s all gratitude and deference. She cheerfully goes about her day, getting bossed around, overlooked, and mildly ridiculed. Yet, she holds her head up and finds joy where she can. Because she’s such a moral paragon, she’s been called prim and judgmental. Honestly, I can see why, but I don’t agree.
It’s easy for us to relate to Fanny in that she’s ill used and unappreciated—we’ve all felt that before. Add to that her unrequited love for Edmund, and you’d think we’d LOVE her. (Angelina asserts that Fanny Price is Cinderella, and I definitely see it. The book is loaded with echoes of Cinderella, complete with a ball and evil step-sisters.)
But, even though we can relate to Fanny in how she’s mistreated by others, it’s hard for us to relate to how lamblike she accepts it. We want her to show a little of Lizzie Bennet’s spirit—fly off the handle at Mrs. Norris, slap Henry Crawford, and give Mary a verbal dressing down. The ’90s movie paints her as very spirited, but that’s not really Austen’s Fanny. She’s the model of self-restraint and…
…discernment. Angelina pointed out that in every scene, Fanny sits still while the rest of the characters move around. Fanny’s morality and judgment are fixed, and everyone else is swayed by doubt, bad logic, self-promotion, and unchecked feelings. Fanny knows her mind, and she’s always right. This might be where most of us throw up our hands and say, “Ugh, she’s too good!”
Fanny is also a frail, tender thing, almost pathetic at times. This is where she differs the most from her closest cousin in the Austen canon, Anne Eliot in Persuasion, who is mistreated and undervalued but never pathetic. Fanny is shy and reserved where Anne is open and sociable, so maybe that’s why we tend to dislike Fanny, she’s too reserved and restrained, similar to Jane Fairfax in Emma.
I do like how Henry Crawford throws wrench after wrench into the book. Is he truly reformed? For a man who is constantly trying to “make improvements” on everything from Rushworth’s garden to William Price’s career, he never manages to improve his moral character. Ah, Henry.
Content warnings: Flirting, adultery, and manipulation all deftly handled.
A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys book review
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Children’s myth and fantasy
Format: Library hardback
Thematic elements: Storytelling, reimagining ancient tales, heroism and courage
Mood: High-falutin’ writing, adventurous, tongue-in-cheek
You’ll love it if you want the sheer pleasure of reading aloud gorgeous prose
This was our last read-aloud of the homeschool year, and perhaps the best?! First off, this is by the same Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote The Scarlett Letter, one of my LEAST favorite classics of all time. But THIS book was delightful!
It’s a collection of six Greek myths retold within a frame. The frame takes the form of a wealthy, established American family, full of children who are lucky enough to possess an educated cousin named Eustace Bright, who always tells the best stories. Eustace is away at college, but every season (fall, winter, spring, and summer) he returns home, where he rambles over hill and dale with the children and tells them Greek myths, reclothed in his own Gothic literary style.
Since the myths are supposed to be coming out of Eustace’s mouth, they are pitch-perfect read-alouds. The language is elevated, lush, and complex—definitely a little much for my 5-year-old, and I did have to stop and explain a lot. But he and his brother were perfectly able to follow the thread of the storyline, and they really liked each one, especially those with monsters like the chimera.
When I read aloud to my boys, I omitted the frame sections, where the cousins beg Eustace to tell them a story and he agrees. I thought these would be tedious for them, but I read them to myself, and they were actually the most interesting bits for me.
In one of the frames, Eustace is summoned to tell one of his stories in the presence of his classically educated uncle, who basically says, “I liked your story well enough, but it’s an abomination. You took too many liberties with the canon.” Eustace defends himself by saying something like, “These stories belong to humanity, not to Homer or Ovid. I’ve just as much right to reimagine them as anyone.” Well played, Eustace.
Hawthorne even writes himself into the very last few paragraphs, which brought a smile to my face.
Our library copy contains full-color illustrations by the incomparable Arthur Rackham. I only wish they were larger so I could see the details better.
Content warnings: None.
Heartwood Hotel: Home Again (#4) book review
By Kallie George
Genre: Children’s fiction
Thematic elements: Friendship, family, and loyalty
Mood: Cute, heartwarming
You’ll love it if you want a clean, easy read-aloud for the under-8 crowd
Oh, the Heartwood Hotel…this has been a great series for my 5- and 6-year-olds. It’s very innocent and pure. It has a cute cast of animal characters. It’s well-paced and fun to read. Light, heartwarming, adventurous.
It lacks many of the things that parents find objectionable, such as an over-emphasis on romance. It’s not angsty or filled with crass humor. I’d recommend this to any parent any day of the week.
But, it’s a little vanilla for me, personally. (I’m that cynical parent who wants to whisper to the kids…oh, that fox would’ve gobbled up that mouse in a split-second…animals don’t deny their basic instincts just because another animal is “nice” to them and mends their paw…)
But I think the sweetness and goodness is what appeals to my boys the most. And there’s something to be said for that. My boys don’t demand that animals act like animals. They want to see themselves in the story, and that’s really the intention here. (So, I will hold my tongue when I feel a realist rant coming on.)
Content warnings: None
One Hundred Dresses book review
By Eleanor Estes
Genre: Children’s historical fiction
Thematic elements: Kindness, empathy, bullying, regret
Mood: Simple and straightforward but with emotional depth
You’ll love it if you want to help your kids understand kindness and empathy
This is a great book to help kids understand what it means to have compassion for someone who is socially on the fringes. We can’t just stand there when someone needs our help. And we can’t procrastinate giving that help because one day, it may be too late.
Day after day, Maddie stands by and watches as her best friend, Peggy, makes fun of their classmate, Wanda, a Polish immigrant girl with a “funny” last name, a shady address, no mother, and shabby clothes.
Peggy is a gentle sort of bully. She doesn’t hit Wanda or spit on her or rip her school books. But, every day, Wanda is the butt of Peggy’s same joke. Day after day. Wanda gets made fun of. She’s reminded of her place as a friendless outsider. It’s sad.
Maddie knows it’s not right to just stand there and let Peggy make fun of Wanda. But she’s too scared to say anything to Peggy because she doesn’t want to become a target herself.
I can imagine having some really juicy discussions with kids about this book. For example:
Why doesn’t Wanda defend herself from Peggy?
Who is worse, the bully or the sidekick who watches the bully and does nothing?
Why did Wanda mention the hundred dresses in the first place?
I love that the book doesn’t give ready answers to any of these questions. The kids have to figure it out on their own.
Content warnings: Gentle bullying (the kind that we think “isn’t so bad”)
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