#30Authors: Erin Lindsay McCabe on Life Lessons in Sara Pennypacker’s “Pax”

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About #30Authors

#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit www.thebookwheelblog.com/30authors or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.

Erin Lindsay McCabe on Pax by Sara Pennypacker

I have a few confessions to make. First, when I saw Pax by Sara Pennypacker at the bookstore, I knew I was going to buy it simply because of the wistful fox on the cover, by illustrator Jon Klassen (here’s a lovely interview where he discusses the artwork). So yes, I do judge books by their covers. Secondly, though the book is technically middle grade, and thus I justified my purchase by saying it was for my five-and-a-half year old son, I really bought it because I knew I would like it. I am an absolute sucker for heartfelt (even heartwrenching) animal stories, having grown up loving books like Beautiful Joe, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and the like. The book sat on my son’s nightstand for a few weeks, where I hoped (in vain) that it would garner his interest. It wasn’t until we ran across the audiobook at the library and I stuck it on in the car (under protest, I might add), that we became utterly hooked. The book has now been in nearly constant rotation for two weeks (both in the car and at home), with no sign of my son’s interest waning. We have listened to the entire novel at least seven times, and I’m here to say that I get something new out of it each time.

Pax
Pax is the deceptively simple story, written in clear language with lovely imagery and insight, and told in alternating points of view, of an inseparable boy and fox, who find themselves separated by a coming war. That’s the story I’m sure appeals to my son, the one about a boy whose dad is going off to war and forces him to abandon his pet fox in the woods, and the adventures the two have as they journey back to each other, meeting other instrumental characters (of human and fox variety) along the way. While my son’s favorite character in the novel is Pax, I dare you not to fall for prickly war-veteran Vola and spikey big-fox-sister Bristle, who each conceal their tenderness with sharpness.

It’s Vola and Bristle who help illuminate the parts of the story that most appeal to me, the “second story” beneath the main story of Peter and Pax, about learning to be yourself, learning what matters to you, learning how to recognize the truths you feel “in your core,” and overcoming your wounds. It’s a story about friendship and grief, the costs of war and the importance of honesty. It’s also about empathy and duty and doing what’s right, even when it’s really hard, even when you might not be successful, even if you’re scared. It’s about so many important things!

Pax may be a “kids’ book” but the literary writing and the deeper layers of meaning ensure it’s a book that will resonate with readers of all ages. One word of caution—this story does include brief war scenes, told from Pax’s perspective, and not all of the animal characters survive unharmed. A final confession: the first and last chapters just might have made me misty-eyed. I told you I was a sucker.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker is available for purchase through Amazon. You can learn more about Sara at her website, and she can also be found on Facebook.

About Erin

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Erin Lindsay McCabe is the author of I Shall Be Near To You (Crown, 2014). A California native, Erin lives in the Sierra Foothills with her husband, son, and a small menagerie that includes one dog, four cats, two horses, ten goats and numerous chickens. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Published: July 5, 2005 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Format: Digital e-book
Source: Downloaded
Purchase (**Affiliate Links**): AmazonBarnes and NobleIndieBound

The Goodreads synopsis: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.”

I’ve probably spent more time writing this review than I’ve ever done before, and one thought keeps crossing my mind: This is so hard.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of those books that I really struggled with. I read it, I enjoyed its plot, and I related to some of its characters…but after I finished reading it, it took me almost a week to settle on how I felt about it. There’s so much going on within these pages as the Price family jumps back and forth between Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. The four daughters have to adjust to primitive life on the other side of the world from the sheltered existence they’re used to while their mother, Orleanna, has to work 25/8 to manage her family’s day-to-day life and their father, Nathan, endlessly preaches the Word of God to the unbelieving Congolese. Goodreads’ description of the Prices as undergoing a “tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction” is an understatement, that’s for sure. I don’t want to give away any details, but their transformation as a group is very rough and difficult to read about. I came away not feeling even the slightest bit of envy for them and all they’d been through, in terms of religion, politics, and personal experiences. Let’s just say I’m happy I’m not a Price.

I’m not religious at all but many of my relatives are devout Catholics, and one in particular verges on fanatical. I think they would appreciate Nathan’s convictions much more than I did — at one point, I was tempted to start skipping over his scenes because I was starting to feel like my teenage self again. Like the Price girls, I was raised in a religious household and was supposed to abide by the teachings of the Bible; as I grew older I first started skipping Mass out of sheer laziness (because, sloth or not, what tween or teen wants to get out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to go to church?). Then I started to think for myself and realized that my values and ideals were not in line with those of my inherited faith, and I basically stopped attending services altogether. I still believe in a higher power, but my opinion of the Catholic Church, the Bible, and the values within them would probably earn me a ticket straight to Hell in many eyes. While I understood the basis for Nathan’s religious fanaticism (again, no spoilers!), it didn’t make me empathize with him at all. It’s not reason enough to attempt to force people to share your beliefs, and those very beliefs are not an excuse to treat your all-female family like complete wastes of space. Honestly, I was thrilled when he stopped talking!

You know the phrase, “There’s two sides to every story”? In The Poisonwood Bible, we get more than two sides — we get five, from Orleanna Price and each of her four daughters. It makes for a multidimensional story, especially when it comes to painting a picture of Nathan Price and of adjusting to African life. Each of the girls, with the exception of self-centered and obnoxious Rachel, reminded me of myself. Aside from Nathan, Rachel’s was the only perspective I really didn’t care for; her selfishness and attitude toward the Congolese were particular turn-offs. At the start of the book, Leah is seeking her father’s love and attention and God’s redemption, until a major tribe event completely changes her perspective and she carves out a new path for herself. I connected with Leah when she reaches her crossroads: I tied her Katniss Everdeen moment with my “miracle” pregnancy as the point where I began to see my life and its purpose very differently. Adah, Leah’s twin sister, often speaks in palindromes that sound like slam poetry, and she enjoys books, so my link to her should be obvious. Finally, little Ruth May is like the mayor of the Price family, the first to reach out to the Congolese children and the one who connects best with them. She reminded me very much of myself as a child, and I was so sad to experience tragedy with her.

My favorite sections of the novel were those describing life in the Congo, especially pertaining to the help the Prices find in village natives Nelson and Anatole. As a white female, I can’t personally speak to the black experience and especially not to living in the Congo. Maybe it’s that innocence (or cluelessness?) that deepened my interest, I don’t know. What I do know is that it was fascinating to read about the Belgian-American-Congolese politics through the eyes of the Prices and to experience one of the girls — I won’t say which one — immersing herself into the culture through marriage. The book as a whole was a scary, eye-opening experience and, while it might not be my favorite book ever, I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

Be sure to visit Barbara Kingsolver on Facebook and at her website!

Book Review: Prince Lestat, by Anne Rice

Published: October 28, 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf
Format: Hardcover
Source: Self-purchased
Purchase (**Affiliate Links**): AmazonBarnes and NobleIndieBound

The Goodreads synopsis: “The novel opens with the vampire world in crisis…vampires have been proliferating out of control; burnings have commenced all over the world, huge massacres similar to those carried out by Akasha in The Queen of the Damned… Old vampires, roused from slumber in the earth are doing the bidding of a Voice commanding that they indiscriminately burn vampire-mavericks in cities from Paris and Mumbai to Hong Kong, Kyoto, and San Francisco. As the novel moves from present-day New York and the West Coast to ancient Egypt, fourth century Carthage, 14th-century Rome, the Venice of the Renaissance, the worlds and beings of all the Vampire Chronicles—Louis de Pointe du Lac; the eternally young Armand, whose face is that of a Boticelli angel; Mekare and Maharet, Pandora and Flavius; David Talbot, vampire and ultimate fixer from the secret Talamasca; and Marius, the true Child of the Millennia; along with all the other new seductive, supernatural creatures—come together in this large, luxuriant, fiercely ambitious novel to ultimately rise up and seek out who—or what—the Voice is, and to discover the secret of what it desires and why…

And, at the book’s center, the seemingly absent, curiously missing hero-wanderer, the dazzling, dangerous rebel-outlaw—the great hope of the Undead, the dazzling Prince Lestat…”

And dazzling, he is. (As always.)

Full disclosure here: Anne Rice is my literary idol. She’s the first “grown-up” novelist I ever read, completely obliterating all of my earlier literary experience. Before a family friend lent me her copy of Interview with the Vampire, the closest I’d come to adult literature was the teenage drama of Sweet Valley High. I mean, don’t get me wrong…yay for Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield! Team Todd! But Anne Rice introduced me to an entirely new world that I’d never before even dared to dream about. Tweens and teens these days have so many vampire series aimed at them, but they’re all child’s play compared with the canon of Anne Rice.

Prince Lestat fits in perfectly with Ms. Rice’s previous Vampire Chronicles, I’m so happy to say. This most recent novel is as deliciously, richly descriptive as its predecessors, and diving into the world of the Tribe, as the vampires have come to call themselves, felt like putting on an old favorite sweater. I’ve never physically left the North American continent, but Prince Lestat, like Ms. Rice’s earlier books, left me feeling like I should have been carrying a fully-loaded passport for all the countries and eras we traveled to. That being said, I have to admit that I haven’t read all of the Chronicles; several of the characters and backstories were unfamiliar to me, but I was able to keep up without a problem. I think that as long as you’ve read the first three Vampire Chronicles — Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and The Queen of the Damned — you should have a strong enough foundation in Ms. Rice’s mythology to understand what’s happening in Prince Lestat.

As to the story itself, I was initially a bit on the fence regarding whether I liked it. I found the Voice a bit irritating — why couldn’t he just come right out and tell someone what he wanted and why he was issuing these commands? — until I realized whose voice it was, which changed everything. What this has to do with Lestat and how he becomes known as the Prince, I’ll leave for you to find out. Lestat himself frequently disappeared from the early part of the book in favor of telling the stories of minor characters, and I found myself really missing him; he is, after all, the Brat Prince, the character around which the entire series revolves! Thankfully, his presence was much stronger in the back half of the book, and I’m thrilled that he’s the Prince (though I have to admit, I was pretty grossed out by the process through which he gained that power). Aside from Lestat, I mourned the lack of time we got to spend with Maharet, as she’s one of my favorite vampires, and celebrating the introduction of Seth who, as it turns out, has a very close connection to Akasha. I wonder if he’ll get his own book someday?

Overall, Prince Lestat is just what I was hoping for and pretty much everything I needed it to be. The OMG moments (all of which caused my jaw to literally drop open and Hubs to ask me what was wrong), the decadent description, the detailed conversations, the wonderfully-drawn and revisited immortals, and Lestat — oh, Lestat! — fill the pages with a story that, if you’re a fan of Anne Rice and her vampires, you just have to read! All hail Prince Lestat!

Be sure to say hi to Anne Rice on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and visit her website!

52 in 52: Measure Twice, by J.J. Hensley


[This review is based on the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) digital edition published by the Bad Day Books imprint of Assent Publishing in 2014, and provided by the author as part of The Book Wheel’s #30Authors Project.]

The single-sentence synopsis:
“Hero cop” Jackson Channing must overcome his traumatic past to discover who is killing Pittsburgh city officials, and why.

Judging the cover:
Stark, red and black, and a shiny, scary-looking knife cutting across the bottom? There’s definitely a thriller between the covers!

First thought I had after I finished reading:
I wish I could hug Jackson Channing and his partner, Tina Lambert, and express my sincerest gratitude for doing what they do!

And here’s why:
I wouldn’t know from experience, but I imagine it must be very difficult to be a cop. Dramatic, dangerous cases being solved by extraordinary men and women trying to maintain an emotional detachment from the victims and the perpetrators…I personally could never do it. Even more to the point, I’m not sure I could have continued to live after going through what Channing and his previous partner Alex dealt with. It’s some very scary stuff and I don’t envy them in the slightest — and these are fictional characters! I’m sure these things, along with the racism and sexism described by Tina, happen to actual police officers every day as well. Law enforcement is definitely not the job for me!

On the other side of the coin, Lester Mayton, whom we learn almost immediately is the perpetrator of these crimes (much like one of my favorite shows, Motive, does), is a somewhat sympathetic villain. He’s doing these horrible things to send a message and, when you discover what that message — and his motive — is, Mayton’s crimes become a bit more understandable. That being said, the stone-cold demeanor with which he ends lives is incredibly frightening and leaves you wondering about how a switch can be flipped on the human psyche to turn people into cold-blooded killers. J.J. Hensley explores this idea in-depth as he paints a picture of a man driven away from his faith (and possibly sanity) by tragedy.

One of my favorite parts of the book involve Channing’s fellow officers. Ambitious Tina Lambert, in the eyes of the department, suffers from the affliction of being a black woman in a white man’s job and uses her intelligence and wit to push back against the establishment. When Mayton’s second victim is discovered, the department sets up a task force headed by less-than-brilliant brown-noser Chester Hatley; the interactions between him and Lambert are equal parts annoying and hysterical. At one point, Lambert and Channing decide they’ve had enough of Hatley and she breaks his nose. Sure, it’s not proper behavior on her part, but as a Lambert supporter I couldn’t help but cheer!

Measure Twice is like some of my favorite TV police procedurals in book form. It’s completely engrossing and one of those books I struggled to put down. (In fact, I read it, cover to cover, in a 24-hour period!) I was both pleased and disappointed with the ending — while I’m happy for Channing and Lambert, I’m kind of hoping for a sequel. I’d definitely be up to reading further crime-solving adventures with them!

On a scale of 1-5, I would give it a…
5!! The characters are well-drawn and the story is frighteningly realistic — I could picture this truly happening. If you’re a fan of shows like Law and Order, CSI, or Motive, or if you read crime novels (or even if you don’t!), you should check out Measure Twice!

Follow J.J. Hensley on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and check out his website, too!

Click here to order Measure Twice via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound!

#30Authors: J.J. Hensley on FaceOff

30 Authors in 30 Days is a first of its kind event aimed at connecting readers, bloggers, and authors. Hosted by yours truly, this month-long event takes place during September and features 30 authors discussing their favorite recent reads on 30 different blogs. There are also some great prizes provided by GoneReading.com and BookJigs. For the full schedule of participating authors and bloggers, visit the main event page or join the Facebook group. You can also follow along on Twitter with the #30Authors hashtag!

Author J.J. Hensley on FaceOff, Edited by David Baldacci

Normally, I take every available opportunity to praise whatever small press gem I’ve found while scouring websites and reviews. I don’t often spend much time or energy helping to spread the word about authors who have marketing powerhouses backing their works since the small press writers face many more challenges when it comes to reaching readers. However, in this instance I’m going to deviate from my modus operandi and discuss how much I loved a book that was written by over twenty well-known writers.

The book FaceOff is a collection of short stories written by bestselling authors such as Lee Child, M.J. Rose, John Sandford, Joseph Finder, Jeffery Deaver, and several others. In this case, it’s not the collection of authors that makes the work special. The fact that the stories pair up the authors’ best-known characters with – or against – each other, is what makes this book unique. Each story stands alone and the writing (and editing done by David Baldacci) is excellent. This is your chance to find out what happens when Lee Child’s Jack Reacher meets Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller. If you ever wondered what would happen if Steve Berry’s protagonist, Cotton Malone, were to run into James Rollins’s character, Gray Pierce – here is your chance.

Often with short stories, I can find the plots to be lacking and I end up wanting more from the story. But these stories, while fast-moving, had enough depth to them to satisfy those who generally stick to reading longer stories. As a novelist, I found the collaborative aspect of the entire book absolutely fascinating. Each story is preceded by a few paragraphs describing the collaborative effort and the division of work between the writers. I often found myself wondering if I would have been able to team up with another writer and have the end result end up anywhere as good as these stories. Probably not.

I could probably write a lot more about FaceOff, but seeing as how it’s a collection of short stories I think there would be some irony there. So, if you are looking for something original that contains a variety of characters, consider checking out FaceOff. Even if you come across a story or two you don’t care for, at least it will be short!

About J.J. Hensley:

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service who has drawn upon his experiences in law enforcement to write stories full of suspense and insight. Hensley graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Hensley’s novel RESOLVE was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization. (His second novel, Measure Twice, was published today!) He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.

Be sure to stop by his Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads accounts and say hello!