Lifetime Reading List: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

As I stated on my personal blog, Don’t Ask Liv, reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has been quite the experience for me—and not for reasons that are altogether associated with the book.

Last week, I posted “Dear Brutus,”, which explains why The Fault in Our Stars is difficult for me. I’m a cancer survivor, so reading books about cancer is a hurdle; I always worry if the author has done their research about the experience of treatment itself as opposed to merely the types of treatment available. When I first read The Fault in Our Stars in high school, I thought Green was fair about it, saving the most gruesome aspect for the end. Then, I discovered This Star Won’t Go Out by Esther Earl, Lori Earl, and Wayne Earl, which is the story of Esther Grace Earl, who somewhat inspired Green to write Hazel Grace Lancaster in The Fault in Our Stars.

So, for reason of life experience only, I knew analyzing and reviewing The Fault in Our Stars for this Lifetime Reading List project would be difficult for me. I vehemently did not want to read the book, but I’d committed to the project. I’ve only abandoned a few books so far, like The Princess Bride by William Goldman and 1984 by George Orwell. I knew The Fault in Our Stars was something of a sensation for my generation; I knew it was well-written; so why did I hate it so much?

As I explained in “Dear Brutus,”, I despised The Fault in Our Stars not because of the story, but because of event in my life surrounding when I read the book and at who’s recommendation. After writing that post, though, I felt emotionally purged. The next day, I published the post on Don’t Ask Liv then I finished The Fault in Our Stars, reading almost the entire book in one afternoon (I was on page sixty-something). And with my ambivalence toward the book dealt with (for the most part), I now feel like I can evaluate this book more fairly.

Does The Fault in Our Stars by John Green belong on this must-read list? My answer is yes.

Although I’ve historically had mixed opinions about the way Green addressed the cancer portion of the plot, I have to say, there was one passage in particular that captivated me:

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, p. 106

As someone with a variety of incurable, chronic illnesses, I relate to Hazel’s words here. There are times that the pain is so much that it’s impossible to think about anything, let alone about tomorrow. There have been nights I couldn’t sleep and paced my bedroom, desperate for anything to do but sit and think about the pain—all the while remaining completely unable to form a sentence to explain to my husband what was wrong. This passage is one of several that—I believe—give The Fault in Our Stars a most deserving place on this must-read list because it captures a phenomenon so well that I know I (as well as others) wish our loved ones understood.

Pain is core theme of The Fault in Our Stars—physical pain, of course, as a result of illness; grieving pain, the sorrow of loss; and emotional turmoil, the result of imagining the pain Hazel’s loved ones will experience when she dies. And in each case, John Green beautifully and bittersweetly explores the various avenues of these different types of pain and how individuals may choose to cope or avoid it. As John Green writes via the fictional Peter van Houten, “Pain demands to be felt.”

Universally, I think we all understand that truth, and the ways in which The Fault in Our Stars addresses pain—whether we can relate to the specifics or not—is worthy of much consideration and discussion.

Lifetime Reading List Review, Part 1 – 2020

When I started the Amazon/Goodreads 100 Must-Read Books in a Lifetime list in January of this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Skimming the titles, I recognized several, either because I’d already read them or they were the commonly-used books in films about high school or college—you know, the “coincidental” book the protagonist is reading in their literature class that just so happens to teach them something about the primary conflict in their story?

Originally, I set out to read 25 titles this year—I wanted the whole 100 books to be read within four years, finishing in December of 2024. But this is 2020, and in addition to the global exhaustion we all experienced this year as a result of COVID-19 and, in the U.S., the nightmare of our current politics, the justified protests begging The Man to understand that Black lives do, in fact, matter, and many ups and downs in my personal life, I made my last post here regarding the list on The Pensive Bookworm in September. Partially, I stepped away for the last quarter of the year due to the presidential election (by the way, Biden won), but also because I was just plain exhausted. Even reading for pleasure wasn’t giving me a reprieve—how could I write and analyze what I was reading, too? Nonetheless, I’ll be back to my trek through the list come January.

For now, though, I’ve compiled a quick summary of the 16 books I did manage to read from that list this year. (In the header of each section, I’ve hyperlinked my analysis of the book, whereas the review for each is linked on the “Quick Review” portion.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes

Favorite line: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Reason it belongs: Reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a reminder that magic does exist—that’s the power of love and friendship.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban J.K. Rowling

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Of course—it’s Harry Potter!

Favorite line: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?”

Reason it belongs: This is a book about survival by perhaps unconventional methods, and it’s a story that shows readers of all ages that, regardless of your story, you can survive what you may have once considered insurmountable.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes

Favorite line: It’s a close tie between two lines.

  1. “I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”
  2. “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

Reason it belongs: The Great Gatsby is a beautiful, bittersweet reminder for us to pursue the things in life we truly want, rather than the things we’ve been taught by society that we first “need” to acquire before we concern ourselves with happiness or love.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes.

Favorite line: “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

Reason it belongs: It’s a cautionary tale, exploring the dangers of ignorance—especially when ignorance is the result of determined effort in denial, rather than exploration.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes! I can’t wait to read this with my kids when they’re a little older.

Favorite line: “‘You have been my friend,’” replied Charlotte. “‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’”

Reason it belongs: The friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur is innocent, pure, and sacrificial; this book contains a tale of unconditional love.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Quick Review: 3/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes! As I was compiling this list, I actually wondered when I’d find the time to read it again soon!

Favorite line: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

Reason it belongs: Atticus Finch is like a literary fortune cookie—full of wisdom, but contained in something trifling that is fleetingly enjoyable. (I might have a different opinion of this book if I’d had a more innocent and carefree childhood; alas, this is who I am.)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 3/5 stars

Would I read it again? Maybe in several years, when my kids are old enough to read it.

Favorite line: “You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

Reason it belongs: The Hunger Games reminds us how easily a society may be desensitized to violence if allowing it to occur ensures their survival.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Definitely. This is my favorite installment of the Hunger Games trilogy.

Favorite line: “At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.”

Reason it belongs: This book is an incredible “f— you” to President Snow and the Capitol, and because of that, it’s an inspirational tale and a reminder that if one person has the courage to say “I’ve had enough,” many others may follow—sometimes we just need that first voice to give us “permission” to speak.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yes, but only because if I read Catching Fire again, I’d feel weird if I didn’t read the whole trilogy.

Favorite line: “They’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you.”

Reason it belongs: Mockingjay explores the different ways people respond to war and tragedy, pain and suffering, loss and love—the characters are vivid and realistic and encourage the reader to identify with one or another, giving the reader insight into how they might respond if the world as they know it implodes.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Quick Review: 4/5 stars

Would I read it again? Yeah, I feel like I missed some of the story because I was so shocked by the concepts and the world in which I read it (hey there, 2020!). I think I need to read it again, especially if I ever watch the series (which, from what I understand, is quite different from the book).

Favorite line: “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”

Reason it belongs: In the United States, I whole-heartedly believe The Handmaid’s Tale is a must read to remind us all exactly why a separate of church and state is essential, that even if you believe your religion is the “correct” religion, you shouldn’t force it on people who aren’t ready to accept it or in the same spiritual place you are.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Absolutely. The characters were so bold!

Favorite line: “I’d cry, if only I had the time to do it.”

Reason it belongs: Through the stories of the maids and the ways in which their struggles open Skeeter’s eyes, this book shows that suffering and ignorance both come in many forms.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 2/5 stars

Would I read it again? No, but I would like to see it performed.

Favorite line: “…Who could refrain/That had a heart to love, and in that heart/Courage to make love known?”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 5/5 stars

Would I read it again? Probably not. I’d rather see it performed.

Favorite line: “Don’t waste your love on somebody/who doesn’t value it.”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Quick Review: 3/5

Would I read it again? Probably not. I might see it live…maybe.

Favorite line: “Listen to many, speak to a few.”

Reason it doesn’t belong: It’s a play. Plays are meant to be performed.

1984 by George Orwell

Quick Review: I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

Would I read it again? Nope. (And I’m already dreading Animal Farm, which is also on this 100 Books in a Lifetime list.)

Favorite line: None. I couldn’t stand this book and kept wondering what nonsense I was reading. I think Orwell had an excellent point, but he failed to make it well.

Reason it doesn’t belong: The writing is difficult to follow. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a better cautionary tale about a state having excessive power. Having survived Donald Trump’s time in the White House, I think that’s an experience that teaches us more about misinformation and state-controlled media in the twenty-first century.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Quick Review: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this one.

Would I read it again? Oh no. Nope. Zero chance.

Favorite line: None. Nothing about this book amused me.

Reason it doesn’t belong: This book is terrible.

Of the 16 books I read this year, at least 5 don’t belong (in my opinion). Three of those (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth) are simply because they’re plays, not books, and the same way most people wouldn’t read a film script and expect equal entertainment value, these works should be enjoyed by performance, rather than in print. The other two—1984 and The Princess Bride—were books that I absolutely could not bring myself to finish. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it’s exceptionally rare for me to not finish a book, but in the case of 1984 and The Princess Bride, I just couldn’t, and you can see my reasons for that in my analyses and reviews of each.

Looking ahead, whenever I do manage to finish all 100 books, I’ll make some suggestions of titles that could replace the books I don’t believe belong on a “must-read” list. As always, I welcome discussion about these books and civil debate in the comments below. 😊

In the meantime, here’s to a happy, healthier, healing new year.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner

TW: mention of sexual assault/rape

Earlier this year, I read Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, who is a friend and client. I had the privilege of working on Finding Annie in 2019, and reading it again for pleasure was a much different experience than reading it for work.

I wrote the review below at the end of the summer, shortly after I finished reading the book. However, I held off on posting it—I wasn’t sure why. I’ve learned, though, that when I hesitate to do something, there’s a reason, and today, that reason is clear.

It’s Christmas Day, and it’s also the anniversary of when I was violently sexually assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted—that occurred when I was 15 and I went to hug a male friend and he instead grabbed my crotch. The assault on Christmas Day, though, was different.

I won’t go into details here; that isn’t what this blog is intended to do. (That’s why I have Don’t Ask Liv, a blog for the tougher topics.) What I want to say here is I realized I was holding on to my review of Finding Annie because it was incomplete.

Here’s my original review:

I’ve been blogging here on The Pensive Bookworm for nearly a year, and to date, there remain only two books which I’ve struggled to review—Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Finding Annie by Katherine Turner. Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite book.

Finding Annie by Katherine Turner, however, vies for that place in my heart. And in many ways, Finding Annie rivals the mastery of Gone with the Wind, and I love it for many similar reasons. The same way that Scarlett O’Hara has gumption, a determination to survive and overcome, Annie Turner of Finding Annie possesses these same qualities, and that’s what draws me to this book over and over again.

Last autumn, I was honored with the opportunity to assist the author by proofreading Finding Annie. As I started reading Turner’s debut novel, I kept thinking, “This book is special.” I recently re-read my beautiful, autographed hardback copy, and I can’t stop singing its praises.

The story of navigating romance after sexual trauma, Finding Annie follows estranged high school sweethearts, Annie and Rob. Annie has returned to her hometown to house-sit for her foster mother for a year; Rob has never left. Although the two haven’t spoken since graduation, their compatibility is palpable from the start. Of course, as is often the case with all fantastic love stories, Annie and Rob’s story is speckled with evidence that they have been crossed by the stars, and it’s only when the truth of Annie’s unexpected departure years ago is revealed that they can begin to navigate their romantic potential together once more.

The truth behind Annie’s departure brings much pain to Rob, knowing that someone he loved cost him a decade with the love of his life. And as Annie grapples with the pain of her past paired with watching the ways in which it impacts Rob (the exact thing she’d tried to prevent and avoid for so long) she begins a journey to find herself. This journey is something that will be incredibly familiar to survivors of trauma—sexual or otherwise—because it’s the journey of Annie discovering who she is now that she’s accepted what happened to her.

It’s that journey that keeps me coming back to Finding Annie every few months, either to read it again or share a passage with a friend. Like Annie, I’m a survivor of a sexual assault, and Katherine Turner flawlessly captured what it’s like to wrestle with the reality of what happened and the reality of where a person would like to be, despite the past.

There is one passage in Finding Annie that I find to be the most profound, and in this passage, the author reveals (through Rob’s thoughts) the exact thing I’ve been trying to explain to my loved ones for years.

A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I carried the board game over and started setting it up on the coffee table. The Annie I knew was still inside; she just needed a little coaxing. The road ahead would be far from smooth, but that didn’t make any difference to me.

That’s the thing normal people didn’t seem to understand about people who’d been through the fucked-up kinds of things we had—we were never really over it. We would always have setbacks. They seemed to think we could just flip a switch and be good from then on, but it didn’t work that way.

Finding Annie, page 197

As a survivor of trauma, I can say truthfully that sometimes, we might be broken, but never beyond repair. We’ll never be as “whole” as we would’ve if The Thing hadn’t happened, but when someone loves us anyway—when someone loves us, stands beside us, through the pain we still carry, even though The Thing is long past—we can begin to heal.

Rob’s thoughts continue, and there’s something else he says in this passage I want to bring to attention:

The journey with Annie had always reminded me more of one of the steep mountain roads that surrounded our secluded valley. You moved slowly back and forth along the switchbacks that might seem to be taking you back the way you came, and might seem to be endless, making no real progress toward the top of the mountain. But really, if you just back up far enough to see the whole road, you’d realize you were always advancing incrementally with each pass. And the winding road itself, if you just took a moment to notice, was at least as beautiful as the view from the top.

Finding Annie, page 197

We survivors…we’re like kintsugi—the Japanese art of using a precious powered metal to repair a broken piece of pottery.

If you look up kintsugi examples, it’s easy to see how they were broken, but it’s also stunning to see how they’ve been repaired. And that’s the treatment I beseech of the loved one of survivors. We may never be whole in the same way, but we can be whole again. If you’d just look past the pain—the brokenness—to see all of us, you’d see we can be beautiful this way, too.

That’s the gorgeous message of Finding Annie, too. As Annie finds herself again—practicing emotional kintsugi, so to speak—and as she and Rob begin to find themselves again, Katherine Turner remains flawless on each page. This book is to survivors what The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama was to the American people in 2006—a voice, rising above the din, to give us hope.

To give us strength.

To give us community in our needs, knowing that others on the same path need the same things, and that some of our fellow travelers have had those needs met, so we can, too.

Finding Annie is a five-star-and-then-some book. Finding Annie is the book I ask my friends to read to understand me better because Katherine Turner is so insightful and transparent with the shared plight of survivors, both recovering from trauma and finding a way to love and be loved again.

I strongly recommend Finding Annie to all survivors and loved ones of survivors. Katherine Turner doesn’t shy away from the realities of recovery, and these blunt truths are essential for the sake of community for survivors; for loved ones, they’re vital to begin some comprehension of what it’s like to be a survivor…and what we often need but don’t always know how to vocalize.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many more times: Katherine Turner is the author our society, our culture, our world desperately needs. Finding Annie is the first book in Turner’s Life Imperfect series, and I cannot wait to read the next installment of Annie’s story. Everything Turner writes is noteworthy, whether it’s about recovery or striving to make the world a better place. You can follow her blog at kturnerwrites.com.

What was missing is something I only realized today:

Finding Annie is the book that broke open the years of repressed pain and gave me permission to call what happened to me what it was—sexual assault. It wasn’t “a guy getting carried away”—it was a crime. And crimes have victims, someone who was wronged, and we can use all the “survivor” terminology in the world, but first, I needed permission to say, “Dammit, I have been wronged!” Katherine Turner’s book gave me that permission.

Reading Finding Annie a little over a year ago set me on a journey that has changed my life in more ways than I can count. When I think back on last Christmas, I hardly recognize my life. The permission Finding Annie gave me to look back on the Christmas Day nearly a decade ago and say, “Hey, I didn’t want that to happen, I asked for it not to happen, then it did happen, and that was wrong” is freeing. As I read it again this summer, Finding Annie gave me the grace to ask tough questions and renew old connections so that I can begin to piece together my life after that assault… I’m grateful beyond words for that.

After I was assaulted, I didn’t recognize myself. I lived in a very numb state for almost two years. How I healed wasn’t what I expected to do—actually, I didn’t even realize what I did as healing at the time—and yet, looking back now, knowing what those experiences were, I see how I was putting myself back together. I was finding Olivia, to borrow Katherine’s terminology. What that person did broke something in me, and I had to piece it back together; I made myself into a kintsugi piece. I just didn’t recognize it for being that until I read Finding Annie and felt Annie’s heartache like it was my own. Then, I read it again, and I realized the heartache was my own.

It’s about four hours now before the exact “time anniversary” of what happened to me almost a decade ago. Back then, I had no idea what would happen to me Christmas Night, and that night, I had no idea where I’d be in a few years. All these versions of me seem so different, and yet, as I write this, I see how each version—the un-penetratively-assaulted, the un-broken, the un-healed—was a step to this version, the Olivia I am now. And, somehow, all those versions led me to connect with Katherine Turner and read her book, a book about a young woman finding herself as she deals with a long-hidden trauma…a book which lovingly forced me to do the same.

Finding Annie is the book we need because of the way Katherine describes and details the healing process, and Finding Annie is the book I needed to find myself.

Is Lucy Gray the Grandmother of Katniss Everdeen?

Before you read any further, please be aware that this post contains many spoilers of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.

As soon as I finished The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I texted my best friend who’d loaned me the book.

“Lucy Gray is Katniss’s grandmother!!!!!!”

Quickly, Hannah responded with a series of texts:

“Holy shit is that a theory or is that real? How did I not know this??? Why don’t I analyze what I read anymore!! See, I didn’t think she was alive anymore. I think he got her in the woods in the last chapter.”

I cracked my knuckles and began explaining precisely why I believe Lucy Gray is Katniss’s paternal grandmother.

The first major clue in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes appears when Lucy Gray sings before District 12, quickly captivating the entire audience and the viewers of the Reaping in the Capitol. Throughout the original trilogy, Peeta states that Katniss’s father had the same ability, that even the birds would stop to listen to Mr. Everdeen sing. Additionally, in Mockingjay, we learned that Katniss’s father taught her the folk song “The Hanging Tree,” which we learn in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was written as a response to an event in Lucy Gray’s life.

Furthermore, Lucy Gray lived in the Seam, the same place as the Everdeen family. My uncle has often spoken of “The Homing Instinct,” which essentially states that the majority of humans live within a few miles of their childhood home or hometown. Furthermore, many studies like this one(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5760188/) indicate that those who grow up in poverty not only remain in poverty, but perhaps close to home, if not remaining in their parents’ household until it becomes their own.

While the fact that Lucy Gray lived in the same neighborhood as Katniss later did may not be evidence enough that they’re related, it’s noteworthy that Lucy Gray went beyond the fence of District 12 to explore many of the same areas Katniss later did, such as the small house by the pond (where Katniss and Gale later met up to run away). Lucy Gray went swimming in the pond where Katniss shares her father taught her to swim and gather katniss roots, which Lucy Gray also gathers from the pond. Lucy Gray even states that katniss roots technically have another name, but she prefers to call them “katniss” because it sounds prettier.

It’s also worth noting that Lucy Gray and her fellow Covey had an affinity for goats, like Primrose Everdeen.

Simply put, there are many details of Lucy Gray’s life and habits that sound like family traditions or customs far more than a mere coincidence—and in literature, I don’t believe in coincidences.

After reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I can’t be 100% certain that Lucy Gray is Katniss’s grandmother. However, given these examples (as well as others), I wonder if Lucy Gray is the mother of Katniss’s father. Given the striking similarities between the two women—not to mention President Snow’s on-sight hatred for Katniss—I choose to believe they are related.

There are several other notions in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that make me wonder if there are additional connections between young Snow’s life and the action of the original trilogy. For example, I think the building that lodged the Snow family became the tower that housed the tributes, given the opulent descriptions and the penthouse on the twelfth floor. As we see in The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss are lodged in the penthouse of a building…which is on the twelfth floor. At one point, Effie states that their building was once occupied by Capitol citizens, too. Additionally, Peeta and Katniss have a picnic in the rooftop gardens before the Games, and Snow’s grandmother had a plethora of gardens on the roof of their building.

I enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes far more than any of the original three books by Suzanne Collins. (You can see my reviews here: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay, and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.) One of those reasons is because of the amount of foreshadowing and/or allusion to future details, like those I’ve listed here.

What do you think?

Book Review: So Much Better Your Way: Signed Jack by Theresa A. Laws

For years, I have believed that the right book will find you exactly when you need it. When it comes to Theresa A. Laws, this always holds true for me.

In November of last year, I read Diary of a Divine Relationship and was instantly curious about the life of protagonist Jack Riley and his beloved Kelly. Kelly’s faith was unshakable, even as the world’s cruelty tried to destroy her. In my opinion, Kelly is the ideal version of a Wife of Noble Character—flawed, yet faithful always.

Following Kelly’s death, So Much Better Your Way: Signed Jack begins with Jack working to carry on with his grief and young son. When Jack is involved in a violent accident in which others died, he finds himself admitted to the hospital for several weeks in the care of Cynthia, a spunky-yet-shy nurse.

As nurse and patient get to know one another, it’s evident that God is using all things—even a car crash—for His good.

Throughout the entire book, Laws included wondrous nuggets of faith and wisdom. Some of my favorites include:

All decisions are a choice, and sometimes our minds are not in the position to make the best ones due to many factors.

So Much Better Your Way: Signed Jack by Theresa A. Laws

This quote stood out to me because, recently, I’ve been working on my C-PTSD recovery, and that has had my head in a not-so-great place. As a result, I’ve been leaning on friends and friends-that-are-like-family for support to help keep my mind accountable to what is right, even when my trauma draws me in the wrong direction.

life can be like burnt toast, but you scrape it off and keep going.

So Much Better Your Way: Signed Jack by Theresa A. Laws

I liked this comedic line because I am a big believer in the phrase “improvise, adapt, overcome.” Sometimes, plans fail, and it can be hard to see the God Angle at all times. As I tell my husband, “You can either sink or swim, but sometimes treading water is all you can do, and that’s enough.” What’s happening may not be what you want to happen, but it doesn’t have to ruin your day. Make the best of it, then carry on.

The lessons within So Much Better Your Way: Signed Jack make this book a must-read for women of faith as well as those struggling because Laws does not shy away from the messy side of life. For that matter, the way the characters are quick to forgive and find a way to work together to further the Kingdom is inspirational, and I find myself resolved to be a better friend after finishing this book.

For the story, I’m awarding So Much Better Your Way: Signed Jack four well-deserved stars. I cannot wait to see what Theresa A. Laws does next!

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Many of you know that I am a work-from-home, stay-at-home mother of toddlers. As such, it isn’t often that I’m able to read a book quickly, but rather in short twenty-minutes-here, an-hour-there bursts. However, for The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the Fates aligned perfectly. My kids were happy to play with Legos, and I devoured every page of it in just over twenty-four hours.

From the first chapter (told from Aibileen’s point of view), I was hooked. As the story progressed to Minny and Skeeter’s points of view, I was amazed at the fine lines Stockett drew between characters, making each one memorable in her own way.

When Skeeter Phelan returns to Jackson, Mississippi after college graduation, she is determined to be a serious writer. Following a publisher’s advice to write about what bothers her, Skeeter decides to write an anonymous tell-all of what its like for the African-American maids to work for white families in Jackson. Enlisting the help of kindhearted Aibileen and spirited Minny, among others, Skeeter begins to tell a tale that will change the course of several lives in Jackson.

The Help candidly provides the reader with insight into the things maids wish they could say to their sometimes cruel, sometimes clueless “white lady” bosses. Furthermore, the risk these women take by telling their stories is inspirational. I’d bet many of us haven’t risked our homes, livelihoods, families, and lives to tell the truth of what we’ve faced, the true horror of a way of life society has deemed “normal.” The Help reminded me that there are much bigger, pressing issues that many of my fellow humans face every day that I will never know – that, in comparison, many of my problems pale.

The characters are bold in unique ways, and the challenges they face are tremendous. Even if I couldn’t relate to their situations, I could relate to their emotions, which is just one of many factors that drew me so wholly into this book.

I wish I could give The Help more than five stars. I haven’t loved a book this much in a very long time.

Lifetime Reading List: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

With the consideration of the current state of affairs in the United States of America as it pertains to the Black Lives Matter Movement as well as the tensions as we approach the November election, I bumped The Help by Kathryn Stockett higher on my Lifetime Reading List. Originally, I put these books in an order based on my interest in each, but after seeing an article titled Don’t Watch The Help…Or These Other White-Savior Movies , my interest piqued. I’d only seen snippets of the film, and I started to wonder what my own conclusions would be. Furthermore, I wondered if the current climate in my country would influence my opinion regarding the placement of The Help on this Lifetime Reading List.

I was certainly charmed by the characters from the very first page, especially Aibileen. Her affection for the children she raised mirrored my affection for my son and daughter, and I found myself relating to her the most throughout the book. Additionally, a few stories I know about certain members of my husband’s family of origin reminded me a great deal of Miss Hilly, which gave me a sort of foundation of understanding for the unjustified hatred that feeds the tension of this novel. However, if I didn’t know certain ones of my in-laws, I would be amazed that women—such as the realistically-fictional Miss Hilly—are capable of such outright evil, simply because another woman looks different than she does.

Contrary to the Miss Hilly-types, though, I found myself relating to Aibileen’s heart. What could a person want more when seeking connection with others?

I can boldly state, though, that I didn’t view Skeeter, the author of the fictional book Help, which includes stories from black maids who’ve worked in white households in Jackson during the 1960s, as a savior at all. In fact, I thought Skeeter learned so much more from Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids than the maids learned from her. Actually, after following Skeeter’s familial, social, and romantic issues within the subplot of The Help, I would say that Aibileen and Minny saved Skeeter. By the time Skeeter’s book has been published and her work in Jackson is complete, it is a result of Aibileen and Minny’s urging that she leaves her hometown to pursue a career in New York City. While Skeeter’s book may have opened the eyes of various readers, it’s the bravery of Aibileen and her fellow maids that holds my attention. After all, Skeeter’s book never would’ve existed without their willingness to risk their lives for the sake of sharing their stories.

Frankly and unashamedly, I think that putting Skeeter’s character on a pedestal and claiming she is a savior in any way is what’s toxic to our culture. Skeeter doesn’t save anybody. She endangers black maids in an inferno of racial tension in order to write a book that will grab the attention of a woman who she hopes will offer her a job or contract. In simple terms, Skeeter uses these women to her own advantage; it’s the strength of Aibileen and her friends that creates the story! Yes, the maids are willing to share their stories…but if they hadn’t, where would Skeeter be? Still a member of Miss Hilly’s little club, making obtuse policies and belittling “the help” for their alleged ignorance and poor hygiene, based on no “proof” other than the color of their skin.

It’s Aibileen’s bravery that saves Skeeter, both professionally and interpersonally.

With that in mind, I believe The Help by Kathryn Stockett absolutely belongs on the Lifetime Reading List. And for that matter, if you read this book and think anyone but the maids to be the hero, I beseech you to check your privilege.

“Would You Marry a Non-Reader?”

One of the recurrent discussions I’ve seen in the Writing Community on Twitter poses a simple question: Would you (a reader) marry a non-reader?

I want to take some time today to explore my thoughts and answer.

I met Nick just after my nineteenth birthday. At that point in my life, I didn’t have the time to read much – I was in college full-time and working two jobs. Three months after we met, I escaped an abusive home situation, and it’s fair to say chaos ensued. Less than a year later, Nick and I were engaged. We got married a few months shy of my twenty-first birthday.

When I was pregnant with our son, Nick got me a subscription to Kindle Unlimited. This was my first chance to really start reading voraciously again. As college students then newlyweds, the problem shifted from “I don’t have time to read” to “I can’t afford to read.” Thirty dollars for a book that would last me only a few days at most just wasn’t in the budget. In a way, Kindle Unlimited gave me a chance to read again that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

In the years we’d been together, Nick and I had talked about a lot of stories, but not necessarily books. In truth, Nick and I have very little in common in regard to our interests. We have many of the same dreams and views for our life together, but while I’d like to spend a Sunday afternoon reading in a hammock, he’d like to spend that same time wrenching on an engine. (Actually, we’d both like to spend the afternoon at the zoo with our kids, but I’m talking about personal time here, ha.) It was only after I started reading with Kindle Unlimited that I realized how much of a bookworm I really am compared to Nick.

Truthfully, it’s been a bit of a sore spot for us lately. In the four-ish years since I became a Kindle user, my book collection has increased from the few dozen I kept during my homeless escapade to over 200 again. I want to talk about books a lot, and he doesn’t always have the knowledge to have that conversation. It isn’t that he’s apathetic. It isn’t that he ignores what I have to say. It’s simply that he hasn’t had the experience of falling in love with a book (like our son recently has, see this post) the way I have. In regard to academic reading, he was told “Read this. It’s a classic,” and not much else (which introduces a big issue I have with modern literary education, but that’s for another day). He didn’t have opportunities to explore genres of fantasy or science fiction the same way I did, and now, he’s almost thirty, just now reading a book series he really enjoys.

I married Nick before I knew that “Would you marry a non-reader?” was even a question to consider asking, and I married him without hesitation. I married Nick because of his heart, his life outlook, and our shared passions for living a simple life. I didn’t marry him for his interests.

So, I guess the next question someone might ask is what it’s like to be married to someone who has such different interests.

I see a lot of tweets in these Twitter threads of spouses saying their partner doesn’t understand their passion, and thus doesn’t respect it. Nick and I were talking about this very thing a week or two ago, and these are his words from the email he sent me:

I am not a naturally inclined book worm. Fact. However, and that’s a big “however”, I like reading. I like stories. I like tales of adventures, friendship, heartache, up, downs, victories, losses, good VS evil, romance (like PG stuff), and the lessons that stories can teach us.

He went on to explain his history with books and the opportunities he missed that may have hindered him on the path to becoming more of a bookworm by this point in his life. Then, he said this:

I love you with reckless, pit-bull, savage intensity. I love how your face lights up when you get a new book in the mail. I love how your hair falls around your face when you’re “joy reading” and your glasses poke out from your hair like they are holding back a curtain. I love the passion you have for books and I am envious of that passion because I wanna know what’s so awesome about them.

See why I married Nick for his heart?

As a culture, I believe that when we focus on interests for compatibility before the heart of our partner, we run the risk of missing out. When he first bought my Kindle Unlimited subscription, there were many nights we curled up on the couch and he watched Mighty Car Mods or a documentary about Ancient Egypt while I read, and it was wonderful. And now, after several years of living with me and seeing me get actual papercuts from reading so much, he wants to know more and try to experience such a thing with me.

You can’t force someone to be the way you want, and that’s something I think our culture needs to learn, now. You must remember you’re marrying a “who,” a person, not a “what,” a set of interests. Sure, interests and hobbies play into who we all are, but these things shouldn’t define a relationship. I hope that’s something a lot of people are learning during this Coronavirus Lockdown – strip away all the “stuff,” the things to do, and what are you left with?

Each other.

So, to me, the answer is simple.

Would I marry a non-reader?

Dear reader, I married him.

Book Review: Annie, Between the States by L.M. Elliot

When I was an elementary school student, oh how I adored the book fair! It usually came a few weeks after my birthday, and I always saved all my birthday money to spend on books, typically one hundred dollars’ worth of books. I think it was in fourth grade that I bought Annie, Between the States by L.M. Elliot, and to say that I read it a lot is an understatement.

I recently found this book while minimalizing some keepsakes from my childhood. I don’t have a lot, but I do have almost all of my childhood books, many of which now belong to my kids. When I found Annie, Between the States, I basically dropped what I was doing and immediately crawled into bed and started reading it. And just like when I was ten-years-old, I was immediately drawn into the war-torn countryside of the Confederate States of America.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that draws me so wholly to this book, what has always drawn me to it. I think, more than anything, its that the common themes of conflict – both political and personal in nature – evoke a sense of relatability for any reader that picks up the book.

Annie Sinclair is a young lady of fifteen when the War Between the States comes to her ill aunt’s front lawn and she finds herself thrown into nursing the wounded – blue and gray coats alike. But the war isn’t the only battle Annie finds herself facing as two suitors – one a Yankee, one a Rebel General – write of their ardor for her. Then, the conflict comes to her family as her elder brother, Laurence, and younger brother, Jamie, each employ strikingly different approaches to defending their homeland. Annie is surrounded by wars of country and home at an age where her only worries should be matters of the heart and youthful bliss.

The back cover quotes __, comparing Annie, Between the States to Gone with the Wind. I can’t say I disagree with that, either. Annie’s passion for her home and family, as well as the undue burdens the war places on her young shoulders, are strikingly similar. For Middle Grade and Young Adult readers who aren’t quite ready for Margaret Mitchell’s novel, L.M. Elliot has written a wonderful alternative.

Furthermore, although I’m not an American History buff by any means, what I do know tells me that Annie, Between the States is well-researched and provides an accurate, but mild depiction of the horrors of nineteenth-century war. American politics of the time are also touched upon, but not the driving plot whatsoever. I was never a huge American History fan, and yet I felt like I learned enough from the book to understand the gravity of the challenges the protagonist and her friends and family faced throughout the story.

I highly-recommend this book for all Middle Grade and Young Adult readers, and even adults who enjoy this genre and are fans of books such as Gone with the Wind.

Novella Review: Q.W.E.R.T.Y. by Barbara Avon

What if you could go back?

What if you could revisit happier times?

What if you could rewrite your story?

These are all questions that Q.W.E.R.T.Y. by Barbara Avon asks the reader. As Luke is thrown into heart-wrenching grief after the loss of the love of his life, he receives a gift, a typewriter, from his deceased, mysterious, spinster aunt.

What he doesn’t know, though, is his inheritance is a gift that will keep on giving.

Luke begins hammering out his grief on the old typewriter’s keys, bringing happier times to life again. He’s able to see his beloved once more, and his spiraling-out-of-control grieving transforms into a new opportunity to give the one he loved most everything she lost – but only at the cost of losing everything himself.

Q.W.E.R.T.Y. profoundly demonstrates the woes and messy lifestyle of a person in unimaginable pain. As I read it (twice!), I felt like I was floating through the pages – disconnected from the book’s reality yet completely immersed in the protagonist’s experience. Ms. Avon completely captured the dreamlike state of grief and skillfully created a tale that brings the reader’s state of mind wholly into that of the protagonist.

It’s haunting, yes, but it’s also a book worthy of much conversation. How many times in popular culture are we shown a glamorized and tidy version of heartache? Q.W.E.R.T.Y. does no such thing, and for that alone, this book is worthy of each its five stars. This is the sort of story that does so much more than tell a tale – it starts a conversation.

I strongly recommend this novella for book clubs especially, as well as students studying mental health in any capacity. While the story includes paranormal elements, the experience of Luke is one worthy of much discussion.

Q.W.E.R.T.Y.  can be found on Amazon.