Surprised by Motherhood – Lisa-Jo Baker


This review originally appeared on my personal blog, Christie Thinks

Although I have always believed (at least to some degree) that someday I will be a mother, I am in the camp of married adults who is not currently defined as ‘parent’. And I do a lot of work to use “if” rather than “when” to describe any hypothetical offspring, largely because I want to model that behaviour for other people so they can perhaps put the same into practice. Because sometimes the lack of children is a really painful thing for people, and I don’t want to go around (unintentionally) wielding my words like a sword.

All of that said, perhaps it then strikes you as strange that I would read a book about motherhood, especially because, for the time being, ‘mother’ is one of the last facets I want to add to my identity. I, however, am someone who does a lot (aka: most) of my learning and understanding by reading books. Thus, if I am to even consider mothering at some point in my life, reading about it (far) in advance is a natural Christie practice.

A book like Lisa-Jo’s is exactly the kind of ‘parenting’ book that I was looking for: it is in no way a manual of ‘to do’s to be The Best Parent, but rather speaks honestly and with love about what it is like to become a parent… even if you weren’t sure that you wanted to. And I’m pretty sure this is the sort of parenting book I’d want to read upon finding out I was going to have a child, or even once I had children of my own. Surprised By Motherhood is gentle but also raw–it doesn’t shy away from the hard truth of real life. (Which is, not surprisingly, one of my favourite qualities of a book.)

I’m certain this is a book that I will come back to if my husband and I choose to be parents. Lisa-Jo speaks frankly about her challenges as a mother, reminding us that parents are human beings too; they get angry and tired and they don’t know what they’re doing just like the rest of us. Surprised by Motherhood would also be a great resource for any mothers (or fathers) who have a less straightforward understanding of ‘home’, or for anyone with anxiety about parenting in light of their own relationship with their parent(s).

In short, this is a great motherhood-in-progress memoir that I highly recommend. Moms everywhere (and Moms of young children especially) would do well to pick up a copy of this book ASAP!

* Full disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Surprised by Motherhood, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

* Image source

Innocence – Dean Koontz


This review originally appeared on my personal blog, Christie Thinks

I am a book lover, and thus I spend a lot of time in bookstores. Considering Dean Koontz has published over 100 novels, it is not surprising that–even though I hadn’t read one of his books–I was quite familiar with his name.

I admit that I am generally not particularly keen on Koontz’ genre (suspense thriller-ish), but I was certainly willing to give Innocence a try. Much to my delight, this book was an interesting combination of fantasy and thriller; what I understand to be somewhat of a departure from Koontz typical works.

At first (as I’ve mentioned before), all I could think about when reading this book was The Hunchback of Notre Dame: there’s some horribly disfigured guy, moping about through the universe, and suddenly! Lo and behold! A lady. And although Innocence does have a tiny similarity to the Hunchback, it is a very tiny similarity at that.

I loved the omnipresence of snow throughout the novel; it serves as an excellent tool for illuminating the broader theme of the story. And, although I’m a particularly patient reader, I loved how long Koontz took to reveal the true ‘disfigurement’ of the protagonist. It drove me bananas, but in the way that a good and interesting book should.

My only major critique was that I didn’t feel particularly connected to or invested in any of the characters. Telford is quite certainly repugnant, and Addison is utterly innocent in all ways, but neither of those two characters (nor any of the others) really felt worth investing in. So, overall, this book didn’t blow my mind, but it was definitely enough to make me investigate Dean Koontz writing a lot more thoughtfully.

* Full disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Innocence, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Tables in the Wilderness – Preston Yancey


This review originally appeared on my personal blog, Christie Thinks

There is a moment when, upon reading particular lines in particular books, that I realize ‘this book is going to change me’. And I, a lover of books and literacy and words put onto paper in all forms, I know that all books change us at least a little; that I can’t read the real or not real (or a combination thereof) story of someone’s life without being impacted. That said, I made it only a few pages intoPreston Yancey’s Tables in the Wilderness before I realized it was a life changer. And perhaps that’s drama queen of me to say, and perhaps I say that of a lot of books lately, but I nonetheless believe it to be wholly true.

As a bit of an aside, it’s funny that some of the reviews I mean the most are the reviews that end up being less about the book I read, and more about the life that I’m living. (I suppose this is why I felt so comfortable in my English department, whose motto was that the world is made up of stories, rather than atoms.)

There are some things that other people can’t understand unless they have been there–really been there. And, despite reading his blog for quite some time, I was startled to realize how many of Preston’s words were my words too. Many of the things that brought him in (and out) of silence with God are also my things. Preston’s deep love for his alma mater is akin to how I feel about my own.

And sometimes I feel like a phony, leading churchy things when I distinctly don’t have my churchy stuff together. But I’ve correctly guessed, many thanks to Preston’s writing, that this is God, as all things are God, and God is building and setting and preparing a table for me in the utmost of my wilderness. That God comes to us even when we aren’t sure that we believe it.

I will say that, at times, I thought “Preston, you are too young for this.” But of course I did. This is a thought I have about many people all the time; that we are too young for our hardships, too hard for our existential crises; too young to be so wildly enraptured by love.  But the living of life doesn’t wait until we’re ready, and the writing of books sometimes takes us by surprise.

And so I’m grateful that Preston Yancey wrote this book. I’m grateful that he’s adding to the canon of spiritual memoirs that I (and I’m sure other readers) find so encouraging. Because, as I know I’m writing all the time, it is good to know that we are not alone. So go pick up a copy of this book, will you? It is definitely worth the read.

* Full disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Tables in the Wilderness, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own.

* Image source.

Found – Micha Boyett


This review originally appeared on my personal blog, Christie Thinks

My first encounter with anything remotely monastic or contemplative was a spring break trip during my second year of university, during which a random assortment of students and I road-tripped from lower mainland BC to southern California to spend the week at a former monastery. I really didn’t know what it was going to be like, other than knowing it wasn’t going to be a missions trip (which I was already feeling skeptical about).

Despite my very Mennonite church upbringing, I discovered that I not only loved the Mater Dolorosa retreat centre (because it was quiet and beautiful), but that I also really loved contemplative practice. Later, I took a course on the writing of Thomas Merton, which affirmed my love for the contemplative, even though I really didn’t have much desire to be a part of the Catholic church (or any other liturgical church, for that matter).

For the past two years, I have been a bit obsessed with spiritual memoirs, and basically anything that deals with faith in the real lives of women (Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals started this for me). So, although my reading Micha Boyett‘s book wasn’t a surprise, the degree to which I enjoyed the book was.

Found very much reminds me of The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris: both books that delves into issues of faith, but also is grounded firmly in the stuff of real life. In both cases, I was an absolutely delighted reader. Found is so well encapsulated by its subhead: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. This is because Boyett doesn’t spend her time spouting theological treatise; rather, she writes about being overwhelmed by moving across the country and beginning a new season as a mother. And that is the kind of spiritual writing I can get behind.

I really identified with Boyett’s childhood experience of God and Christianity: that, despite the sermons about a loving God, and about being saved once and for all, that there she still felt the strong desire to make sure. Because how can eight-year-old children be certain of their faith, beyond a shadow of a doubt (214)? Both Boyett and I did a lot of re-committing hearts to Jesus, and a lot of re-confessing of sins. Especially in issues of faith development, t is good to know that you are not alone.

I think a lot of why this book appealed to me was influenced by Boyett’s background in creative writing. The words of her book were easily painted onto my heart, and certainly penned into pages of my journal. And, as many of the Benedictine prayers that she reflects on throughout the book, Boyett’s prayers are simple, honest and even accessible. Found is subtly instructive without being instructional.

In this particular season of my life, I find myself a bit religiously bamboozled: my late 20s are bringing forth more questions and confusion than I ever anticipated. That said, reading Found gave me a lot of hope: hope that my doubt is not inappropriate, and that even this season of doubt is just that; a season.

The words of Found are gentle in their presentation, a clasping of hands across the table in a coffee shop. This is an excellent debut on Boyett’s part, and I highly recommend getting a copy of this book when it releases on April 1st, especially if you are interested in faith but don’t possess much background in anything religious.

* Full disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Found, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Image source.

Otherhood – Melanie Notkin


This review originally appeared on my personal blog, Christie Thinks

The basic premise of this book was entirely fascinating to me: an examination of the identity of adult women who do not have children. In fact, I wrote my research paper for an online lifespan development class on the adult female identity, which certainly involves being or not being a mother. Unfortunately, my understanding of Melanie Notkin’s Otherhood was all too broad. As it turns out, Notkin wrote her second book for an extremely narrow group of people: single or married women who live in New York City and who are at least in their late 30s (but likely early 40s) and want to have children but are unable to do so.

I find the discussion around women and motherhood fascinating: I am a 28-year-old married woman amongst many married female friends. The vast majority of those friends already have at least one child, if not two. Although my husband and I will probably be parents at some point, we have never discussed parenting as though it were a for sure thing; rather, it was an “if” instead of a “when”. I was hoping, therefore, that Notkin’s book would be an invitation to discuss the issue of motherhood in a broad sense , even if it didn’t address my very specific experience.

My first critique is mostly due to my expectations for this book. I anticipated that it would be full of statistics and research about motherhood and the identity of women. Unfortunately, that was not the case in this book. I think that Otherhood would greatly benefit from a lot more psychological content in place of the innumerable girls’ night out rants with Notkin’s glamorous, successful friends. I appreciate the candid-ness with which Notkin discusses her (and her friends) issues with fertility; however, I never felt like I was reading a book written by someone with anything beyond personal experience. I do think that personal experience is totally valuable (and I do not wish to de-value Notkin’s life experiences), but I would have been more comfortable with the amount of personal anecdotes if this book had come across as  a more autobiographical work.

A fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to a discussion of IVF (in vitro fertilization) as an option for women who are struggling to get pregnant. Although this is a valid means by which to become pregnant if facing fertility challenges, a) IVF is extremely costly–around $10,000, and b) adoption was almost never mentioned as a means by which to become a mother. These things, combined with the constant girls’ nights out in NYC resulted in Notkin’s book coming off as very exclusive. To clarify: even if I were a woman in my early 40s attempting to get pregnant, I imagine I would feel a member of the out crowd, unable to discuss my fertility woes at a fancy NYC restaurant over glasses of expensive wine.

Moreover, there are a number of instances in the book in which Notkin and her friends fall prey to outdated and what I believe to be unhelpful gender stereotypes. Namely, that men are supposed to behave in a certain way when dating because they are men, and they need to be more manly men. For example, one of Notkin’s girlfriends reports that she is

“[V]ery grateful for all the things feminism enabled for our generation. But as women began to act more like men and men began to act more like women, we began to meet in the middle and now have no desire for each other anymore.” (33)

Assuming that there should be clear roles in a relationship that are defined by one’s gender is something I thought we had left behind in the 1960s. Knowing Notkin’s publisher (Seal Press), I had hoped that this book would be a lot more feminist in nature.

I did appreciate Notkin’s affirming the value of women, regardless of whether or not they have children. I also really appreciate Notkin’s Savvy Auntie movement (which she discusses throughout the book), as I believe that family and friends play a huge and important role in loving and raising their nieces, nephews, and friend’s children.

My feelings towards this book may be largely influenced by my not being an unmarried, early 40s women in NYC who wants to have children, but I still find this book to be lacking something. Maybe it is lacking research and seriousness, maybe it is lacking breadth of audience, or maybe it just has too much Melanie Notkin horn-tooting for my liking. Unfortunately, the only situation in which I would  recommend this book is if I happened to have a good friend in her early 40s struggling with her fertility or singleness in respect to having children. Even then, I might just take her out for a long conversation over coffee instead.

* Full disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Otherhood, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

* Image source.

Sea of Shadows – Kelley Armstrong


This review originally appeared on my personal blog, Christie Thinks

Perhaps it was a case of reading the right book at the right time, but I thoroughly enjoyed Kelley Armstrong’s most recent foray into young adult literature. Sea of Shadows was fascinating and frightening, and was nearly impossible to put down. Although I admit I eventually tired of the back-and-forth of Ashyn and Moira trying to locate each other, I was captivated by their roles as Keeper and Seeker, and desperately wanted a Daigo or Tova of my own (because who doesn’t want an oversized animal companion?).

Considering this was my first time reading any of Kelley Armstrong’s writing, I can’t comment on whether or not it is a departure from her typical works. Moreover, I’m not sure if the writing of Sea of Shadows is on par with the writing in the rest of Armstrong’s novels. What I can say, however, is that I really enjoyed this book.

The first third of Sea of Shadows reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, which utterly terrified me. The notion of an isolated community, steeped in tradition and bound by myth and rumor, nestled near a foreboding forest? Perhaps not the traditional recipe for invoking fear, but it certainly worked for me.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t fully on board for the latter half of the book—I was so delighted (and frightened) by the introductory chapters that the rest of the storyline seemed to pale in comparison. I am, however, very interested to see where the next book in the series continues.

The romance was reasonable to the genre, although I couldn’t be bothered with Ronan. Were I a 16-year-old girl once more, however, Gavril would have been crush-worthy in my books.

I should hope that the next installment of Armstrong’s series focuses more on the initial horror from the community of Edgewood, and I’d love to find out more about the history of Seekers and Keepers. Overall, if you like young adult fantasy, this book is definitely worth the read.

* Full disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Sea of Shadows, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

The Sweet Girl – Annabel Lyon


This review originally appeared on the Ottawa International Writers Festival blog.

Aside from a near-forgotten experience involving twenty misplaced books at my bookstore employment, all of my feelings towards Annabel Lyon’s work are positive. I wanted to read The Golden Mean since its release in 2009, and was delighted to hear that Lyon wrote a second novel—The Sweet Girl—as well.

Not surprisingly, Lyon’s first novel was nominated for all three of the major Canadian fiction prizes: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s award for English language fiction, and theRogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the latter of which she won. The Golden Mean was the only Canadian novel published in 2009 to be nominated for all three of these prizes – which says much- considering it was Lyon’s first work of that form.

Upon finishing The Sweet Girl, I found myself feeling somewhat unsatisfied. There did not seem to be any clear moments of sadness or happiness within the novel, any moments wherein I felt justifiably angry or exuberant. Feeling this way—however negative such feelings may seem—served as an excellent tool for Lyon’s depiction of both Aristotle and his precocious young daughter Pythias. Both characters evaluated the world in a highly-calculated and logical manner, and this is entirely how Annabel Lyon coaxed the reader to travel through her book. All feelings are, or at least should be, supported by fact and science and decision.

As someone who loves history—especially the ancient sort—I was expecting sweeping landscapes and Shakespearean drama and complicated relationships. This, of course, would be the way I would know Aristotle and his daughter. As it turned out, however, Annabel Lyon provided a richer and more accurate understanding of the historical-fictional scholar, and his progeny than I imagined was possible.

The Sweet Girl picks up relatively close to where The Golden Mean leaves off, despite skipping a number of years of little Pythias’ childhood. Aristotle has taken a former slave, Herpyllis, to be his concubine after his first wife—also called Pythias—has died. We catch up with the younger Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter to whom the novel’s title refers, in her early years as a teenager.

Pythias is consummately her father’s daughter. Despite her incongruence with other young women of the time, Pythias holds her own at a dinner with Aristotle’s peers:

‘Can [your daughters] read books?’ I ask. ‘Not just the household accounts. I mean real books.’
No reaction.
‘Could they?’ I ask. ‘If you tried to teach them? If an ass could read, would it be wrong to teach it?’

While sitting in a spot originally intended for her younger, mostly illiterate brother Nico, Pythias directly questions the men at her father’s dinner. Lyon writes Pythias to be independent, and so obviously the daughter of Aristotle. Pythias is not confined to cultural norms and wholly focused on logical discussion and facts.

Pythias also mimics Aristotle in her insults. She does so by telling her adopted brother Myrmex “you’re stupid and you can’t read and you might as well be a plant yourself.” A lack of reason and intelligence, of course, is the ultimate insult in Aristotle’s household.

Quasi-stepmother Herpyllis is certainly well-meaning, but does not jive with the household of Aristotle. She claims that “[t]hinking is unlovely on a girl,” which certainly does not fit with Aristotle’s—or Pythias’—view of the world. Herpyllis nonetheless dotes on Pythias, and is a reasonable substitute for Pythias senior.

Shortly before the passing of Aristotle, I came to truly appreciate Annabel Lyon’s portrait of the loving relationship between Aristotle and Pythias. They spend happy days at the beach, swimming and examining various water creatures, experiencing—according to the aging philosopher—“fun and science.” I soon discovered that, though their relationship is highly significant, that this novel intends to focus more on the journey Pythias makes after the loss of her father—the individual she modeled her thoughts and thus her life upon.

Nearer to the end of the novel, I began to resent the connotations of the novel’s title. Initially, The Sweet Girl truly does refer to a father’s fond love for his exceptional daughter. Later in Lyon’s novel, however, such ‘sweetness’ (and femininity) becomes the absolute insult to Pythias; that though she would always be known as her father’s daughter, she would never be able to accomplish as much as he had. Eventually, she does manage to involve herself in midwifery practices, but such work that the reader anticipates for the daughter of Aristotle does not last long.

As laid out in Aristotle’s will (which Lyon included at the outset of this second novel), Pythias is pledged to marry to her older cousin Nicanor. After various financial struggles, as well as struggles of other sorts, Pythias ends up exactly where the culture of the time would have her: as a wife to a husband, comfortably settled at home. I found this to be a difficult reading experience, as Annabel Lyon had me hoping for some highly-fictionalized, atypical gender role developments for Pythias. That somehow, all historical evidence aside, Pythias wouldn’t marry and would find fulfillment in some sort of medical practice. My hopes were, of course, dashed—and rightly so.

Reading this novel was uncomfortably enjoyable. History isn’t actually all that enjoyable most of the time, but it still fascinating and important. Annabel Lyon’s second novel is an excellent means by which to forget that you’re reading fiction rather than a history textbook.

* Full disclosure:  I received a complimentary copy of The Sweet Girl, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.