Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tattler's Branch

It's easy to tell when an author loves her characters. Someone has taken time to ensure they don't say trite things or move in conventional ways. The author has spent time with them, thinking them into full human beings, giving them circumstances in which their humanity raises up or flags under trial. Setting them in a specific time and place. It's wonderful to read a book that has been shaped so lovingly.

Tattler's Branch is a charming and tense read. The laborious opening descriptions of this apparently southern, or simply backwoods, community almost had me moving on, but I stayed in Skip Rock and was glad to meet Lilly. I thought this was an incredibly thoughtful and well rounded character. There was a strength to Lilly that I appreciated, but only because it was coupled with her honest fear in some of the more suspenseful scenarios of the book.

Impressed with her tenderness towards the people in her community I found the revelation regarding Lilly's pregnancies to be particularly touching and well written section of the book. The touching metaphor closing the chapter of this painful loss left me with a lump in my throat. "The breeze teased the petals just out of reach when she bent to pick them up. They danced across the yard and out of sight. Lilly lifted the vase and studied the peonies. They wouldn't last long either, but they were no less lovely, no less significant, for the briefness of their time. She would enjoy them while she could."

The book was more suspenseful than I had expected, but didn't seep into the margins of soap-opera-esque dramatics. I felt the tension of flesh and bone, love and failure, good and evil in every bend of the story. The only course it took towards the end was a little heavy handed in it's hope for Shade's salvation. I didn't think Lilly was out of line when she tells him that "we're all sinners...the ground at the foot of the cross is even", but I wasn't clear that Shade's response was genuinely redemptive. His perspective on things is lost by the end, we don't really know what he's thinking or how he's calculating thing, what's churning inside of him once the story stays with Lilly.

Overall, the story is a charming puzzler and one I would read again. I kept looking for traces of inauthenticity, but the characters feel true and the story is not overblown. The only detraction for me was the cover art. Why in the world would make a period piece and then put a woman on the cover who looks like a model in 2013? The only thing that tells you this might not be a modern-day story is the dress she's wearing. I guess even Christian fiction has to look Vogue.

You can read more from Jan Watson here.

This review has also been posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Blessed Woman (Idea)

I appreciated this book after having to have read a rather obnoxious Christian self-help book for women this summer with my church. I have grown very tired of Christian middle-school topics being pitched to mature Christian women and everyone “loving it”. I was ready for something more grown-up by the end of the summer study and this seemed like a good turn: reading about women of the bible and learning from them. What a refreshing idea!

The concept of the book was appealing to me: finding mentors in the bible when you can’t find them in real life. I don’t think there was anything terribly earth-shattering in terms of biblical study in this book, but it was mostly well written and with some good analysis of the characters. While I found the last chapter a bit trite (and unfair in her categorization and condemnation of Orpah), I did like what Morris had to say about the idea of maturity and leadership, teaching and bringing others along in the journey. In its usefulness I can see this book being more productive as a discussion with other women (utilizing the book study in the back of the book would be a good starting point) where you can ease away from denominational doctrine and boundaries.

Of particular interest were the chapters on Eve for her depiction of a woman without the benefit of a community of women who had gone before her; Mary for her devotion to God while facing an uncertain future; and Hannah for giving her heart’s desire back to God again and again (even when fulfilled).

There were drawbacks to this otherwise benign study: Her criticism of some women appeared to be too harsh. This is only compounded by the last chapter that encourages women not to tear one another down to get ahead. Morris seems fine with tearing down some of the women in scripture to make her points. Also, I don’t know that this book was really written for women who aren’t married with children. Nearly every non-scriptural analogy Morris offered hinged on her husband or children. I am married with a child, but I’d like to think I could offer some teaching from my life that didn’t start off with “So, my husband and I…“ or “when I talk to my daughter…” Further, her constant need to refer to her husband was tolerable in the beginning of the book (frankly, I’d probably write a fair amount about my husband if I were writing about my life), but as the book went on I realized she couldn’t really go that long without mentioning him. It became an annoyance that she didn’t really seem to have much to say that wasn’t about or credited to her husband.

I didn’t know anything about Morris or her husband when I selected this book to read. It had an attractive title, subtitle and inviting cover, so I picked it. Apparently Morris’ husband has a big church in Texas (I’ve never heard of him or his church), but I kind of got the feeling that she assumed everyone knows who her [big shot?] husband is, calling him one of his generations ‘greatest speakers’. I try to avoid biographical information about authors prior to reading their books simply because I believe someone’s work should stand on its own and insecure writers tend to put their pedigree in the pages. I kind of wish Morris’ editor had extracted more of the information plugging their church and her husband’s ministry.

I can say that Morris’ idea was one that I will follow, rather than reading this book again, I think I’ll just take my time and do my own study on the women I find inspiring from scripture.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.