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The Farm

The Farm
Tom Rob Smith

In his first book since wrapping up the Child 44 trilogy, Smith proves his skill again in this entirely different -but equally engrossing- novel.

Daniel stayed in London when his parents retired to Sweden, the land of his mother’s childhood. He put off visiting until his father Chris called him, telling Daniel his mother Tilde had been committed to a mental hospital. Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother shows up with a battered satchel full of evidence and her side of the story, desperate to have Daniel believer.
And oh what a story it is! Hakan, the neighbor of Daniel’s parents is a powerful man in the small Swedish town. Tilde comes to believe that he is harassing his adopted daughter, Mia. Hakan befriends Chris while attempting to make Tilde look like a mentally unsound stranger. Woven into the tale are elements of folklore: trolls, elk, deep cold lakes, and dark foreboding woods. Tilde knows her husband believes her to be insane, but has explanations for everything.
Who should Daniel believe: his mother or his father? Tilde’s story is just realistic enough to be true – but it’s also just twisted enough to be the dark imaginings of a troubled mind.
Daniel makes a surprising choice, but the story doesn’t end there. He eventually travels to Sweden, hoping to discover the truth for himself- and finds out there is yet another version of the story.

I read The Farm in two days, because once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. The most engrossing part of the book was Tilde’s story as she told it to Daniel. I kept going back and forth in my mind between “yes this seems plausible, I can totally see how this woman was a victim of conspiracy” and “this is totally paranoid and she is clearly imagining things.” But Smith makes you read to the very last pages of the book to find out which story is true.

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XL Love

XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis is Complicating America’s Love Life
Sarah Varney

I actually became aware of XL Love a couple of months before it was published. This article on CNN didn’t seem to have good things to say about the book: http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/22/living/obesity-sex-xl-love-relate/ So naturally, I had to read XL Love when it came out.

Varney explores sexual development, marital happiness, and intimacy across age,  gender and race line with one common factor- overweightness, or obesity. Since 2 in 3 Americans are overweight- and 1 in 3 are obese- its a perspective that can’t be ignored.

The single biggest factor in plus-sized love,  Varney concluded, isn’t body size-  it’s body image. While many factors play into a happy married sex life, the biggest component seems to be a  compatible spouse who values their partner at any size.

Varney is the first to admit that XL Love doesn’t have all the answers. Studies on weight, sex, and race are in the early stages (relatively speaking.) But as body sizes in this country continue to balloon, this is a subject that can no longer be ignored. Varney addresses plus-sized love with not only medical studies but also  insight and understanding.

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The Broken Eye

The Broken Eye (Lightbringer Series #3)
Brent Weeks.

I admit I am intimidated just trying to review this 795 page novel. It’s so complex, the characters are so well-developed, and so many things happen! I enjoy different fantasy authors, but every time I read a new book by Brent Weeks, I am reminded again why he is my favorite.

The Broken Eye picks up in the aftermath of the epic battle that ended The Blinding Knife.
Gavin, unable to draft at all, escapes on captivity only to end up in sucessively worse imprisonments.
Karris, no longer a Blackguard, finds herself stuggling to fit in as the right hand of the old, wise White.
Teia, learning more about her paryl drafting abilities all the time, ends up a double-agent spy, while also maintaining her place as a Blackguard trainee.
Kip, who appeared mostly as Gavin’s son at the start of the series, is now clearly established as the main character. Once a fat, outcast bastard child; he is now a powerful drafter, an acknowledged heir of the promachos, and a leader among his Blackguard peers. But he struggles with power, struggles with authority- always seeing himself as the unwanted fat boy.
Kip has to figure out how to truly become a leader- not just to rule through power or command but with wisdom and by example.

The Broken Eye brings all the elements that fans of Weeks’ work enjoy: the complex and well-developed mythos. The scheming. The battles. The sarcastic and humorous lines.
But while the story ranges all over the map of the Seven Satrapies, I think its greatest strength lies in the characters that Brent Weeks has taught us to love and hate. I can’t wait for the next book to find out who they all- ultimately- become!

Well done, Brent Weeks. You deserve every bit of success you have gained and more. But oww, my wrist…

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A little bit of reflection on my part: I can’t help feeling that there are times when Kip’s inner monologue reflects Brent Weeks’s own experience. He is not a small man, and I imagine as a teenager, he probably saw himself as a fat ginger nerd. Now he is a bestselling and well loved author. As far as I know, Weeks has never lead an army or gone green golem, but I think he lends a little bit of his heart to Kip.
I also can’t help thinking, in bits and pieces of his well-drawn female characters, that he is loaning them qualities that he loves in his wife. Not all of them (and never the evil ones!) but there were occasional lines when I thought, “that must be Mrs. Weeks.”

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House Reckoning

House Reckoning
Mike Lawson

Joe DeMarco is a lawyer who works on Capitol Hill. His official title is “Counsel Pro Tem for Liason Affairs.” In reality, he is a bagman for Congressman John Mahoney, a fixer who gets things done off the record.
The adventures of DeMarco have kept readers entertained for 8 books before,  so clearly this is the book where Mahoney fires him.
This is also the book that gives DeMarco’s backstory. In fact, it starts a generarion earlier with his father, Gino DeMarco, a “property manager” and hitman for mob boss Carmine Taliaferro. Gino was killed when Joe was in college. But Joe is an adult before he finds out who did it- and decides to exact his revenge.
Cue all the story elements that keep readers coming back to Lawson novels: murder plots, stakeouts, guns, hit men, and blackmail. The familiar characters of Emma (elusive former DIA agent) and Neil (reclusive hacker and information specialist) play important roles, as always.

Lawson’s Joe DeMarco bookss aren’t quite spy novels- all the intrigues are strictly domestic. They aren’t quite detective stories- DeMarco enables more crimes than he solves. But as political thrillers, they are solid and fun.
A DeMarco novel is a promise of a good read, and House Reckoning does not disappoint.

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Henna House

Henna House
Nomi Eve

In Yemen, Jews and Muslims live aide by side- but not always peacefully. The Muslims have decreed that any orphaned Jewish child must be adopted by a Muslim family. Adela, the only child of a sickly cobbler and a mercurial mother, lives in fear of the Confiscator taking her. In hopes of preventing forced adoption, she is engaged to her cousin Asaf when she is just a child. While she plays at being married with Asaf, she also enjoys the companionship of her childhood friend Binyamin. Adela is still a child when Asaf  leaves on a long journey….and other long-lost relatives arrive.
Adela’s aunt Rahel and cousin Hani introduce her to the world of henna, prized by Jews and Muslims alike. Henna is often used to decorate brides and is a ritual of beauty that women can share. For Adela and her relatives,  though, it becomes something much more complicated- a secret code, a battle ground,  a safe place, and a way to change their fate.

Henna House is one of the best books I’ve read about female relationships in years. Every mother, aunt, sister and cousin is a vibrant character. The story doesn’t shy away from the injustices that face women around the world, but it gives them strength and beauty.
I also liked Adela’s honest narration of her childhood. From time to time she recounts what she remembers, and then balances it with what an older female relative remembers. And isn’t that an honest take on memory?!
Henna House is about the lives of women, their loves and their relationships. When women are oppressed (because of their gender, religion, race, or marital status) they still find ways to influence and shape the story of their people. They communicate in any way possible- even in henna.
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You might like: The Red Tent, Diamant. The Pearl Who Broke Its Shell, Nafisi.

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We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
Matthew Thomas

Eileen Tumulty is the only child of alcoholic Irish parents, growing up in New York in the 50s and 60s. She dreams of reaching an upper-middle class respectability, having a comfortable suburban life.
Eileen feels that her key to that life is to marry the right man.  But she falls in love with Ed Leary. It doesn’t take too many years before she realizes his dream for the future is different than hers.  In time, Eileen and Ed manage to have a son, Connell. Eileen transfers many of her hopes for the future onto her son. But while she hunts for houses in respectable suburbs, her huband grows more and more resistant and withdrawn.
Eileen has to face the fact that life- and her choices- have led her to a very different place than the future she dreamed of as a young girl.

The story of We Are Not Ourselves is nothing new, but the characters are drawn with an incredible insight thst makes the book irresistible. This is a book that you stay up late to read, and wake up early to read- but every so often, you have to pause, and just let the words sink in. This is a book that spans generations and lifetimes, but no words are wasted. Every song, every literary reference, every house has been crafted by the author as part of the story.

We Are Not Ourselves is a story of family, of dreams, and of love- in all its many forms. It easily leapt onto my Top 10 list for this year. I believe we will be talking about Matthew  Thomas and his brilliant writing for years to come.

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*SPOILERS*
I don’t usually do much of a personal reflection but this excellent novel has given me a surplus of thoughts. I’m talking about some later plot points tho so spoiler warning.
Eileen fixates on owning a house as a symbol of success for her family. First she buys the multi-family house where they live, and moves into the best apartment. Not content with that, she starts touring homes in upscale neighborhoods, but she has delusions of grandeur. When she is finally honesy about what she can afford, the perfectly respectable houses seem shabby by comparison. Eventually she buys a house at the very top of her price range that she can only afford because of extensive water damage. When she moves in, tho, she doesn’t start to repair the roof or the foundation- she focuses on the dining room and kitchen so she can throw dinner parties. Thomas sums it up: “The base of the house might be rotting, but the visible portion was commanding enough…” He writes about a house, but he’s also giving insight into Eileen. It’s very well done.
Also. After several years of erratic behaviour, Eileen’s husband Ed is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. It made me think of my grandfather, who also has Alzheimer’s (although he is 90.) Some of Ed’s behaviors seem familiar. I’m starting to consider that maybe some of the things we kids thought were just Grandpop being Grandpop were, in fact, the coping mechanisms of a smart man realizing that things in his brain weren’t quite as fixed as they used to be. For example, writing in block letters instead of cursive, or making obsessive lists. But the line that hit home, written from Connell’s perspective, was: “…during the period when he’d gone around labeling everything.” I’m pretty sure every one in my extended family has inherited something labeled in my Grandpop’s big block letters.

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Psalm 23

I grew up with a theology that divided people into 3 parts: body, soul and spirit. The spirit could be redeemed,  but the soul and body were suspect at best.
However, I believe in a God that created ALL of me- all my senses, all my feelings- and intended that to be a source of wholeness, not shame. With that mindset, I’ve recently re-evaluated Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” No denial of physical and emotional needs, but a shepherd who meets all of them.
“He makes me to lie down in green pastures” signifying being fed, and comfort.
“He leads me beside still waters” most of us have at one time or another drank brakish, warm,  unsatisfying water. But this is not where the Lord leads us. He takes us to the cool waters that quench our thirsts- thirsts for comfort,  beauty, music, art, etc.
“He restores my soul” (I’ll come back to this)
“Tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil” for me the biggest enemy of fulfillment and expression has been fear.
“For you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me” I grew up hearing how a rod and staff were tools of discipline, and limitation. But this verse is talking about comfort. Soothing. The safety of knowing someone is looking out for you.
“You prepare a table before me In the presence of my enemies” look anyone can pull bread and fish from a knapsack. But this is a table. Its a feast, even a party. Its food that’s not only nutritious but satisfying to body and soul.
“You anoint my head with oil” biblical anointing oil was soft on the skin and also smelled good (due to additions of myrhh and such.) It was also applied with a hand. We’re not talking about just dumping oil on someone here. We’re talking about touch, physical contact (in a completely non-sexual, healing way)
“My cup runs over” well,  we already have cool water, and its a feast so… this is probably wine.  (If you’d rather it not be, also ok) Wine tastes good, looks good, and makes you feel good. Its also a symbol of joy, and abundance.
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me” mercy for my human failings. But goodness in the form of comfort to my soul and body: cool refeshing water, anointing, food that is also a feast, a cup overflowing with joy…
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” this, THIS is where I chose to dwell. Where all my  God-given senses are acknowledged. Where my needs- physicial, spiritual and emotional- are valued, and met.
” HE RESTORES MY SOUL.” Not just my spirit,  or the spirtual part of me. But my senses, my body, my soul. The part that loves good food, bright colors, certain comforting things, and yes, an overflowing cup. He restores my soul.