Monday, January 31, 2011

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett
GP Putnam & Sons, 2009

The Help tells the story of Jacksonville, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Three white women - Hilly, Elizabeth, and Skeeter, friends since elementary school - brought up by their mothers to treat colored maids as inferior, though "the help" do everything to simplify their lives, including raising their children. Hilly is the trend-setter, the rule-follower, the enforcer. Elizabeth is the oppressed, in many ways an unwilling wife and mother, who nonetheless toes the line. Skeeter is the nontraditional one who puts education and career first, although she longs to be loved by a man just for who she is. It is Skeeter who rebels against "the way things are."

Aibelene is Elizabeth's maid. Minny initially works for Hilly's mother, Miss Walker, until Hilly puts her mother in a nursing home, and makes it impossible for Minny to be hired by another white family in town. Skeeter, a budding journalist who answers the Dear Myrna housekeeping letters for the local paper, starts meeting with Aibelene so she can keep her job, but longs to write something more meaningful. One day she hits upon a theme - why not interview the help to get their perspective on what it's like working for white families?

At first her request falls on deaf ears - why would a white woman be interested in their stories? and anyway, it's too dangerous. Blacks are being beaten without provocation, and whites who support integration suffer their own consequences. Eventually, though, a couple of the maids agree, and Skeeter starts penning their tales.

This is an incredible read. The characters are fully drawn, complex individuals. The plot is thick with tension, peppered with comic relief at the appropriate intervals. I could not put the book down. I went to bed and woke up thinking about the characters and what was to become of them, hoping that their secretive meetings would not be found out. The book would translate well on the big screen, and I fully expect it will be made into a movie before too long.

Read this - it's the book that has everyone talking.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Imam's Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom

by Hannah Shah,
Zondervan, 2010

This book tells the fascinating true story of Hannan (now anglicized to Hannah), the daughter of a Pakistani Muslim Imam. Growing up in northern England and attending a public school, Hannah learned early on how very different her family was from that of English families. Watching the abuse of her mother by her father, and then experiencing his abusive hand herself, made her long for another kind of life.

At the age of sixteen, Hannah discovered that her parents were about to send her back to Pakistan for an arranged marriage to a man she had never met. Determined to resist this fate, Hannah ran away and took refuge in the home of a kind Christian teacher. As she got to know her teacher's family and attended their church, Hannah found something she'd never known before: a God who loved her just as she was. One Christmas Eve, she made the decision to leave her Muslim faith and become a Christian.

While not all Muslim families are like Hannah's, the book does have value for the window it opens into the world of some. Hannah's aim is not to bash Islam or people who practice its faith, but to share her own story and how she survived so that anyone in similar circumstances may know that there is hope and a way out. Hannah is a highly sought after speaker and her website offers resources for those who want to help women in distress, or those who are themselves such women. The Imam's Daughter is a book I couldn't put down, though it might be difficult for some, particularly if that reader has lived a parallel story.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Woman I Was Born to Be: My Story

by Susan Boyle,
Atria Books, 2010

I remember seeing Susan Boyle's first audition on Britain's Got Talent, then showing it to my son when he got home from school. When she opened her mouth, he said, "That's not her singing, is it?" He thought it was a trick. No one expected that voice to come from that visual. But God truly uses the humble things of this world to shame the proud, and He gave Susan a beautiful talent.

Susan tells her own story in The Woman I Was Born to Be. After a brief prologue, she begins with the story of her birth in Bangour Hospital, Scotland. It's ironic that she was born on April 1st, considering how everyone was fooled by first appearances. God's sense of humour, perhaps, knowing what was to come? Doctors told Susan's parents from the start that since she'd been deprived of oxygen, they wouldn't be able to expect much of her, and this early determination coloured much of her life afterwards. School was a struggle, though Susan persisted; relationships were challenging. She was somewhat spoiled by her mother and one sister, but the love of her family was a blessing, and Susan enjoyed a very special connection with both of them.

Raised in the Catholic faith, Susan draws much strength and comfort from her religion, and gives thanks to God and "Our Lady" for all good things that have come her way. She is down-to-earth despite her new-found fame, and seems like she would be great fun to have as a dinner guest (you might just want to save the beans for another meal).

This is a non-traditional celebrity bio - you won't find any drinking, drugs, or wild sex here. Susan has lived a life of few regrets, but her story is fascinating nonetheless.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mistletoe Murder: a Lucy Stone Mystery

by Leslie Meier
Kensington, 1991

The first of the Lucy Stone mysteries, set in the fictional seaside town of Tinker's Cove, Maine, takes place at Christmas. Lucy is mom to three, wife to Bill, and telephone operator for the community's biggest employer, Country Cousins.

When Lucy finds her employer, Sam Miller, dead in his car, what looks like suicide is murder.  But who would want to kill the company's likable boss? Though Lucy is busy enough with Christmas preparations, she can't resist doing a little investigating of her own. When friendly local policeman, Barney, loses control of his vehicle and ends up in a coma, the stakes rise. What did Barney know that made him a threat to the killer?

Lucy is an amiable intelligent amateur sleuth. Readers will relate to her conundrums as she tries to find the work-life balance and they'll enjoy nosing around with her to determine whodunit. Twenty years after the beginning of the series, Meier is at book 18 and still going strong. Perfect for the person looking for a new series.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Q&A with Missy Buchanan

Even when age creeps up on the body and mind, and life changes from what it once was, is it still possible to have a purpose in life? When it is no longer possible to venture out and do the things you once loved, can you still find a reason to look forward to each day? Missy Buchanan, a leading expert and advocate for senior adults, believes that you can. Buchanan wants to encourage older adults to find their purpose, share their stories, and make an impact on those around them.

Q: What made you decide to start ministering to and writing books for older adults?

Well, as a middle-aged adult, I never had any intention of becoming an author of books for older adults. But because of the journey that my own aging parents were on, I realized how they had become disconnected from their church as their lives changed. They started off as active older adults and then that circle got smaller as they had more needs and physical limitations. As I would visit them at their retirement community, I would also see so many others that were just like them. They needed spiritual encouragement. And so that’s why I got started. The first book began as a project just for my own parents. I wrote devotions and kept them in a loose-leaf notebook. But others started asking for them and things just spiraled from there.

Q: What do you think children need to know about their aging parents?

What I realized personally was that I had been so caught up in my parents’ physical needs that I had neglected their spiritual needs. They were no longer connected to their church, at least in regular worship attendance, and that had been such a huge part of their lives. I almost made that mistake of just totally missing that, and that was the point where I began to write. I looked and there were other books written about older adults but not very many that were written to them and for them. So the first thing I would tell their children is to pay attention not only to their physical needs but also to their spiritual needs.

Q: What is your opinion about role reversal with children and their aging parents?

I hear the whole idea of role reversal where the older parent becomes a child and the grown children become the parent, and I understand what they are talking about because my own parents became more dependent on me. But I think that when we refer to it as a role reversal, and we begin to think of our aging parents as children, we strip away their dignity. We rob them of respect and we overlook the fact that they are not children. They have had a lifetime of experiences that a child has not had. And I think that is an important difference that grown children need to think about and pay attention to. It’s more of a role shift in responsibilities and not a role reversal. I know how much it hurts an aging parent to feel like they are being treated like a baby or like a child.

Q: Other than aging adults, who else has benefited from your writing?

A friend of mine in an assisted living facility asked me to bring some books for one of her tablemates. Her tablemate explained that these books were for her adult children. “They don’t understand what it feels like to grow old, and I can’t seem to make them understand, but your books say it better than I ever could.” My books are all written in the first person as if an older adult is speaking directly to God. There are a lot of adult children that are buying them for themselves and older adults buying them for their grown children.

And I’ve heard of different youth groups that have been reading my books in order to better understand what it’s like to grow old. Instead of just mocking their older peers, they are learning that they share a lot of the same feelings—feelings of insecurity, feelings of fear. As a result of reading the books, one youth group in Tennessee has even adopted the residents of the senior living center across from their church.

Q: How can faith change our idea of growing older?

So many see aging as a punishment, and they dread it so much. But even though it is difficult to be limited by an aging body, they need to look at it as a gift that God has given them. They still have so much to give. They have great wisdom to share and stories to share. I always tell my older friends that their story is not yet over.

Missy Buchanan is the author of Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms and
Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books).

Visit Missy Buchanan’s website,, and blog,

Become a friend on Facebook (Aging and Faith) and follow on Twitter (MissyBuchanan).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Smooth Stone

by Marcia Lee Laycock
Castle Quay Books, 2007

Winner of the 2006 Best New Canadian Christian Author Award (the Word Guild), One Smooth Stone tells the story of Alex Donnelly, a man on the run from his past, a man who believes he can trust no one.

Orphaned by his parents and then by his adoptive parents, Alex grows up in the foster care system, moving from one family to another until he is taken in by an abusive couple where he suffers neglect and torment for several years. Faced with the accusation of raping a 13-year-old girl in Vancouver, he runs away at the age of 16, and hides in the Yukon.

But God has a plan for Alex, and one day a man named George shows up on Alex's property. The lawyer says Alex is the heir to one million dollars - he just needs to go to Seattle to be positively identified and to sign the paperwork. Alex is skeptical. Is this for real? Do they have the right Alex Donnelly? Isn't the past safest left in the past?

In Seattle, Alex meets Kenni, the researcher who traced his whereabouts. After spending a few days with her and her family at their secluded cottage, Alex's semi-healed-over emotional wounds begin to reopen. The tension is too great for him to bear. Then, given a package from his mother, Alex discovers something he didn't want to know and takes off for the wilderness without his inheritance.

Will he survive the dangers that face him in his isolated winter job? Will Kenni be able to find him to share the missing letter from his mother? Can God find a way to reach him even in the place of desolation? Can Alex share the truth and find it sets him free?

A powerful first novel from prolific freelance writer, Marcia Laycock. Endorsed by Mark Buchanan: "tells a crackling good tale of crime and punishment, damnation and redemption that is at once grimly real and deeply hopeful" and by Phil Callaway: "makes me smile, nod my head, and furrow my brow. She makes me question, and long, and wonder. Plus she makes me glad I spent fifteen bucks!"

Friday, January 7, 2011

This Pen For Hire: a Jaine Austen Mystery

by Laura Levine,
Kensington, 2003

Jaine Austen, writer-for-hire, finds herself in a pickle when a client is charged with murder after Jaine's personal letter wins him a date with the object of his affection. Jaine doesn't believe the crime possible of the meek-mannered geek she's met and sets out to prove the authorities wrong.

Turns out there's no shortage of people who might want Stacy Lawrence dead - men she's used and jealous female rivals among them. Jaine has to narrow down the suspects before she winds up the killer's next victim. He or she is on to her plan to find the truth and will do anything to stop her from succeeding.

Jaine is likable and self-deprecating, with a weak spot for her cat, Prozac. Female readers will be able to identify with her insecurities, but her desperation for a sexual connection gets to be a bit much. Though she never does "get lucky," that whole theme wears as the plot moves along.

An entertaining read, but the avid mystery buff will figure out whodunit long before the book comes to a close.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

No New Reading List

After discovering that I really do not read the books I intend to over the course of the year, I decided to dispense with an annual (published) reading list and go with the flow. I do think I'll read a little less mystery this year, though I still enjoy them, and read more books that are edifying and support my personal growth goals.

Here's to a year of great reading for all!