Old book, new review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Copy of The circle review (1)

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? Yes. For more conservative readers, there will definitely be some sections to skip over (sex, rape, violence etc.). However, despite these flaws, Follett’s world is so captivating and the drama of the cathedral’s construction is so captivating, that if you love being sucked into a new world, you’ll find much to enjoy.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This September, Ken Follett will be releasing a new book — the first since he completed the Century Trilogy (which I’m currently reading). Out in September, A Column of Fire is the third book in his Kingsbridge series.

I decided to revisit book one in the series, The Pillars of the Earth, in a new review of the 1989 epic.

First, this book is no joke. At a whopping 1,000+ pages, it’s no quick read. This is not a Harry Potter-1,000 pages that vanish all too quickly. It’s a sizable commitment. But that shouldn’t scare you away, and here’s why:

 

The weird and ugly

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But there’s definitely some disturbing content. If you’re particularly sensitive to these topics, you might want to skip on Pillars.

Graphic sex and rape: There is a lot of sex throughout, and most scenes are pretty descriptive. I found it easy to skip over them (no major plot points lost), but the amount of detail felt unnecessary. I didn’t pick up a romance novel. Be warned: One rape scene is particularly disturbing and graphic.

Plot devices: As another reviewer pointed out, sometimes the plot felt a bit methodical: Things are going well, HUGE PROBLEM, solution is discovered at the last second, repeat. It’s no surprise that Follett started out writing thrillers.

I eventually came to expect that if things were going well, it was only a matter of time until things got crappy again. Nothing is sacred. No one is invincible. Even though I knew exactly what Follett was doing, I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Corruption and violence: Medieval England is about what you would expect — violent, cruel, every man for himself. There are accusations of witchcraft, misogyny in its worst forms, and evil, oppressive leaders. The injustice was so despicable at some points that it took my breath away.

Despite the ugliness depicted throughout Pillars, the stories rang true. Even today, evil exists and abounds. Nothing irks me more than a story that untruthfully depicts human nature.

Now, some of the characters were almost a little too evil, and much of the sex was highly dramatized. But overall, Follett does a good job of presenting flawed, believable characters who develop throughout the story.

 

The beautiful and good

Religion and the Church: For Christian readers, one important thing to keep in mind is that Follett does not believe in God. This is part of what drew me to the book in the first place. It’s totally fascinating to me that someone who doesn’t practice Christianity would write a book about the construction of a cathedral.

Yet somehow Follett creates multi-layered, three-dimensional characters who struggle with their beliefs and wrestle with discerning how God would have them live — something Christians experience daily.

For the most part, Follett was respectful of the church (even though he doesn’t subscribe to faith himself) and Prior Philip is still one of my favorite Christian characters.

World building: This is Follett’s true triumph. The world that he weaves is beautifully intricate and surprisingly real. The layered, rich world-building alone made it worth skipping over all the negative parts.

I’m amazed at how Follett has the ability to capture life in a different time and place, so that you really start to believe you’re immersed in medieval England. I was completely sucked into a different time and place.

Every time I read a Follett, I learn something new about history and people. I know everyone doesn’t love learning (so tragic), but when you read Follett, it doesn’t feel like learning. That’s the beauty of it.

I do wish the book had included a diagram of a cathedral. I’m not familiar with cathedral architecture and terms, and I ended up searching cathedrals online so I could visualize the descriptions of the construction.

 

Why I’m not interested in World Without End

This brings me to why I haven’t read the sequel, World Without End, and why I probably won’t be reading A Column of Fire.

It’s important to note that World Without End was written 20 years after Pillars. Several friends who have read both books (and many Goodreads reviews) point out that much of Follett’s political and personal philosophy seems to have shifted in the years since Pillars was published.

Whereas in Pillars we had Prior Philip — a believer in God, but also a strong, courageous, and flawed character — World Without End seems to be exclusively populated with religious figures who are evil and corrupt.

As a person of faith, I just can’t bring myself to read it. I’m not trying to be naive — I know that throughout history (and today) many religious institutions have been controlled by the corrupt. (Spotlight is one of my favorite movies!)

But why devote the time to reading a 1,000-page book that will likely just make me frustrated?

Life’s just too short and there are too many other good books to read.

 

Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What did you think? Have you read the sequel?

4 books to inspire your next big change

Reconsidering your career? Stuck in a funk? Ready to kickstart your daily routine?

Step into my office.

This year has been full of HUGE transitions for me. Maybe it is for you too.

Whether you’ve decided to beat that bad habit or you’re heading back to grad school (or moving across the country), these books will help streamline your focus. They’re inspiring and thought provoking, and I hope you’ll benefit from them as much as I have.

Confession: I listened to most of these on audiobook (Read earlier confession).

Enjoy!

1. Grit, by Angela Duckworth

grit angela duckworth nonfiction picks

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if it hadn’t been available for free at my workplace (what kind of person says no to a free book??). But I’m so glad I did!

This book was both convicting and encouraging. 

In Grit, Angela Duckworth debunks the myth that talent is a better predictor of success than effort. She argues that determination, purpose, and endurance are key to achieving long-term success.

In high school, I was successful because I worked hard, not because I was naturally talented in math or chemistry. I was determined to succeed and I was comfortable with failure. But something changed in college. I started thinking that because other students were “naturally smarter” than me, I couldn’t measure up. This book was a much-needed wakeup call. It helped me regain some confidence and perspective I lost in college.

Recommended if you feel a bit lost in your career and you wonder if you have what it takes to achieve your goals. Be warned, there are long passages describing her scientific methods, and some parts are repetitive. Be strong and stick around for the good stuff!

 

2. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

the power of habit charles duhigg nonfiction picks

The Power of Habit is a seriously fascinating book.

I’m a how-to junkie and I’m also fascinated by the way things (and people) work. I love tips for becoming more efficient and productive. I also love the How Stuff Works podcast and the TV show How It’s Made.

If that sounds like you, this is your book.

The Power of Habit explains the brain forms habits and how you can retake control of your own habits. Duhigg also talks about the history of habit science and how habits impact the way we live, work, and make decisions.

I especially enjoyed the sections on habit formation in the workplace and how marketers use the basic principles of habits to influence consumers. I swear I’m not a science junkie (AT ALL), but I still enjoyed this book all the same. (However, I do have a sneaky suspicion I would have had a harder time finishing it if I hadn’t listened on audiobook.)

The only part I didn’t like was the last section covering Angie Bachmann — I thought it was a bit weak, didn’t give any satisfactory conclusions, and wasn’t as interesting as the rest of the book.

Recommended if you want to adjust bad habits, cultivate good habits, and want to be more aware of how your subconscious impacts your decision making.

 

3. The Road Back to You, by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile

the road back to you ian morgan cron enneagram

I used to love the Myers-Briggs personality test, but I always felt like the half of my results described me, and the other half didn’t. (I’m an ESFJ, in case you were wondering.)

Then I discovered the Enneagram, and my whole personality-test loving world was shattered … in the best possible way.

The Enneagram described me so perfectly, it was a little creepy. I learned about my basic fears, my unique contribution to the world, and why I react to certain situations the way I do.

If you’re curious about learning more about yourself to improve your relationships, self-doubt, and workplace habits, The Road Back to You is a great place to start. As a primer for the Enneagram, it takes you through all nine personality types and explains how the enneagram works. It also offers plenty of helpful tips for overcoming your core “deadly sin,” learning to interact more productively with others, and using your unique strengths to contribute to the flourishing of others.

Knowing that I’m an Enneagram 6 helped me recognize how fear is always holding me back. For the first time in my life, I realized that most of my unhealthy beliefs, habits, and attitudes are based in fear. This is game-changing stuff.

Recommended if you want to understand yourself better so you can start relating to others better. (Aka: why certain things make you mad, how you can get along with that annoying coworker, and why your parents are so weird.)

 

4. Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warrenliturgy of the ordinary tish harrison warren nonfiction picks

Confession: I find the pressure to “live every day like your last” exhausting and overwhelming.

But in this cultural moment, there’s a pervading idea that your life — filled with the unglamorous tasks of laundry, 9-to-5 jobs, and doctor’s appointments — is being wasted unless you’re doing big, exciting, and audacious things.

If we’re not carpe diem-ing every moment, we must be doing something wrong.

Liturgy of the Ordinary offers a different vision: Although many years of our lives will be spent doing everyday, ordinary tasks, that’s ok.

In fact, it’s during these seemingly unimportant moments that we are forming spiritual (and unspiritual) habits that shape who we are. We are being sanctified through ordinariness.

Warren also points out that Jesus Christ was a humble carpenter for 30 years before He changed the world. If ordinary life was embraced by God Himself, then there must be deep spiritual value in the formative work He is doing in our rhythms and routines.

Recommended if you’re ready to start paying attention to how your habits and routines are molding and shaping you spiritually. Maybe you’re at a place in life where you need to stay planted, grow roots, and purposefully commit to endurance and ordinariness. This book will help you not let that time go to waste.

 

What books inspire you? Leave a comment and let me know!

 

Accidental Hiatus: That time I moved across the country

Hello, fellow readers. It’s been a while.

Two months ago, I totally didn’t mean to go on hiatus from blogging (and reading for that matter). But then, I totally didn’t mean to move across the country either, and that happened, so here we are.

A big life change has been on the horizon for a while. My husband and I have been waiting, hoping, praying, and longing for the “what’s next” in our life for a long time, but it came much faster than we were expecting.

accidental hiatus

In the form of moving from Virginia to Colorado.

In six weeks.

It’s been a whirlwind, to say the least. A stressful, exciting, strange whirlwind.

The mountains have been calling to us for a long time, and we (well, mostly me), finally found the courage to answer.

But I’m excited to be back to writing! I’m mostly (ish) settled in to my new place, my new routine, and my new life. We’re loving it out west so far (minus the whole not having any friends thing), and I’m ready to discover some new book stores, new libraries, and review some more books!

Thanks for sticking with me. Let’s get reading!

Snooze Alert: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

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Title: Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Author: Chris Cleave
My rating: 1 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? No. I found it to be long, flat, and confusing at times. Characters are underdeveloped, the plot tries to accomplish too much, and dialogue is tiresome. There are  so many great WWII novels out there … this is not one of them.

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

Where to begin.

If Everyone Brave is Forgiven hadn’t been the selection for the book club I’m in, I would have DNFed it pretty early on.

In a nutshell, Everyone Brave is Forgiven was one of the most disappointing books I’ve read in a while. All the elements of a great story were there: Little-known history of WWII, racial tensions, love triangle … but somehow it just falls flat. Chris Cleave is a bestselling author and many people have enjoyed this book.

Perhaps it’s just my personal tastes, but this particular book just didn’t work for me.

This is the only Chris Cleave book I’ve read, so I might just not like the way he writes. I’ve thought about reading Little Bee several times, but I don’t think I can do it if it’s similar in style to this one.

Characters & Setting

WWII is one of the most tragic, formative, and fascinating times in history. That’s why I was surprised to find Everyone Brave is Forgiven was so snooze-worthy. It lacked any of the drama that usually surrounds this era of history.

The characters were one-dimensional and the most emotional parts of the story left me nodding off to sleep.

The transitions and descriptions throughout the book were often very strange. At times I didn’t know what was real and what was a dream, what the characters were thinking or doing, or who characters even were (For example, one book club member didn’t know how Hilda was related to Mary until partway through the book). Once or twice I asked myself, Do I have to be British to understand this??

We never get inside character’s heads, understand their motivations, or see how they deal with grief, heartache, or joy.

Another strange thing: Almost all of the dialogue in this book was just witty banter. Characters rarely talked directly about the true, terrible things that were happening. Everything was a sarcastic joke. Maybe Cleave was trying to make the point that the war was too horrible for words, and could only be spoken about in jokes … but it came across as trite and shallow.

And if the dust cover description hadn’t mentioned that Alistair and Mary fell in love when they first met, I wouldn’t have picked up on that fact at all.

This is one of my ultimate book pet peeves: I can’t stand it when a dust jacket description is a bait and switch. The description for this book made it sound like the book was going to go one direction, but it went a completely different one. I don’t know why, but that always leaves me feeling deceived and shortchanged.

Story & Plot

I so wish Everyone Brave is Forgiven had focused exclusively on the relationship between Mary and black students during the war. Not only would it have been timely, it would have been valuable to read a black perspective during WWII. The dust jacket made it seem like that was where the book was going, but it was just a sidebar storyline.

In fact, there wasn’t any clear, dominant storyline throughout the entire book … it’s like it tried to cover too much ground without really making any clear point. We have Mary and Tom’s story, the school story, the war in general, Alastair’s experiences, Alastair and Hilda’s story, Mary and Hilda’s friendship, and then Mary and Alastair’s romance. None were particularly successful.

I walked away from this book not sure what, exactly, I was supposed to learn or get out of reading it.

But perhaps one of the most unbelievable aspects of the book is Mary’s behavior.

She galavants around London doing whatever her heart desires … like spending the night and sleeping with her boyfriend (did people really do this so willy-nilly before birth control?) or frequenting “seedy” clubs. If her family is really as affluent and concerned with image as the book makes them sound, I have a hard time believing that during the 1940s she could have slept at her boyfriend’s house or hung around the club without strong consequences to her parents’ political image.

Even the TV show Call the Midwife (which is set in the 1950s) clearly shows that sex outside of marriage was, in general, publicly frowned upon.

Final Thoughts

The most positive thing I can say about Everyone Brave is Forgiven is that it reads really quickly. Small mercies.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book. If the scope of the story had been pared down, and the characters and setting had been more developed, this could have been something special. But it just fell flat for me.

There was no drama. There was no anticipation. There was no conflict, climax, or resolution. And then the ending: No resolution. No hope. It ended on such a discordant note.

I think the most painful part or reading Everyone Brave is Forgiven was this: At the most dramatic, important, and tragic moments, I felt nothing. I felt numb. I just didn’t care.

As a reader, that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

DNF: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

DNF-

Title: The Nest
Author: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
My rating: DNF
Genre: Fiction, General
Is it worth reading? I wouldn’t recommend it. I thought this would be like reading a celebrity gossip magazine — a easy, breezy, guilty pleasure. This was definitely not that. The Nest was more like a romance novel featuring unlikeable characters and catty behavior.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

I hate marking a book DNF, especially on books I’ve made significant headway in or purchased (although I got the Kindle version for cheap through a Goodreads Deal email).

I especially hate disliking a book with cover artwork as beautiful as The Nest.

But I just can’t finish. I’m about 55% of the way through, and I just can’t read one. more. line. I can’t pretend to be interested in the sex, selfishness, shallowness, and frankly, boring storylines anymore.

Life is too short to finish books you don’t like. So I gave myself a gold star and moved on.

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The Nest started off promising enough, with interesting details and quirks about each character, but it quickly spiraled into mostly focusing on their sex lives. (What happened to the nest? I thought that was what this book was about?)

Honestly, I’m just not that interested in reading about a (gay or straight) character’s sexual experiences and explorations — especially when it doesn’t seem to have a point. The Nest is not a coming-of-age story, and it’s not trying to make a stance or a statement. Several characters felt like they were reduced to their sexual urges … like there was little else notable or interesting about them as people.

And then there’s the plot in general. The first 1/4 of the book actually deals with “the nest,” but halfway through I had no clue where this book was going. The different viewpoints and background stories were interesting, but there wasn’t a central narrative that tied all the random storylines together.

Also, The Nest had practically no sympathetic characters. It was hard to feel compassion, empathy, and understanding to people who are so utterly unpleasant (and made such terrible choices). I couldn’t find much to love or appreciate in any of them.

I had high hopes that The Nest would be a light and entertaining read. Instead, I feel like I need to go take a shower.

 

What did you think of The Nest? Did the ending justify the means?

Why you need to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audiobook note: Bahni Turpin does a fantastic job narrating. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her mastery of different accents and character voices. As you’ll see below, I think listening on audiobook really helped me finish this story.
Is it worth reading? Yes, yes, yes. The Underground Railroad is not a “comfortable” read by any means, but it’s an important one. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to listen to voices speaking out about racial tensions in our country. It may be written about the past, but The Underground Railroad is more timely than ever.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

It’s taken me some time to chew over what to say in a review of The Underground Railroad. Namely, how do you review a book about horrors that were not committed toward your ancestors? Horrors that your ancestors, in fact, might have committed?

Approaching this book, I wanted to assume a posture of listening and learning, attempting (though brokenly) to grow in my understanding.

In that regard, The Underground Railroad did not disappoint.

As I listened to the audiobook, all I could think was: “This is what reading is all about. This is so important for me to hear.”

The atrocities committed against slaves and blacks in America are easy to forget when we relegate their stories to textbooks and history classes. For me, The Underground Railroad was a powerful reminder of the importance (and power) of narrative in helping us understand not only history, but the experiences of another human being.

And this is what I love about books. I will never understand what it’s like to be a black slave in pre-Civil War America. Or even to be a black person in modern America. But I can begin to listen, learn, and grow through hearing their stories.

Another powerful message from The Underground Railroad is that it’s incredibly easy to celebrate all the good aspects of our country while completely forgetting the horror, evil, and despicable actions of Americans who killed, plundered, and destroyed the lives of Native Americans and blacks.

We cannot forget that much (if not most) of our country was built on the backs of slaves and the oppressed. We cannot sanitize history to ease our consciences. Erasing the horror only makes us blind to the world we’ve created — the world we live in today.

Choosing to intentionally avoid stories like The Underground Railroad is choosing to live asleep.

It’s choosing to willfully ignore — or even worse, willfully deny — the realities of our country’s origins, and the roots of so many racial tensions today. You cannot torture, murder, and dehumanize an entire people group for over two hundred years and then expect all the remnants of that torture to be gone within a few generations.

I know all of these things have been said before, by people much smarter, wiser, and more attuned to the nuances of racial tension than I am. But this is why I think The Underground Railroad is an incredibly important read.

One thing is abundantly clear to me after reading this story: I have not read nearly enough African American literature. Shame on me.

My only minor critique: From a purely personal standpoint, The Underground Railroad was not the most engaging book I’ve ever picked up. If I hadn’t been listening to it on audiobook, I think it would have been easy to put it down and not pick it back up. I think the reason isn’t the content, which was powerful, thought provoking, and highly relevant.

I think the problem for me was more in the style. I wish some of the portions had been in first person, or had delved deeper into the character’s psyche. The characters felt a bit flat at times, and the setting wasn’t fleshed out enough that I could visualize everything Cora and the other characters were experiencing.

The most interesting plot device of the story — the underground railroad as an actual railroad — doesn’t feel fully developed. I was left wanting something a little … more.

Whitehead’s writing felt a bit … clinical, for lack of a better word. The story was powerful. The plot was interesting. But the way it was written just wasn’t my favorite.

So that’s my struggle. On the one hand, you have this incredibly moving story that shines a bright light on the attitudes, atrocities, and belief systems of the slavery-era South.

But on the other hand, you have story that stalled, dragged on, and lost my interest at times.

At the end of the day, not every important story is going to have the readability that suits our absolute particular preferences, and that’s ok.

Should you still read it? Absolutely. But maybe check out the audiobook.

5 reasons I’ll stop listening to an audiobook

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I love audiobooks—or “books on tape” as we ’90s kids are still prone to call them.

There’s nothing better then finding a great story you can listen to over and over again (Lord of the Rings narrated by Rob Inglis, anyone?). They’re also a great way to make a dent in your reading goals.

But sometimes finding a great audiobook can feel like a Goldilocks pursuit.

They can’t be too this or too that. They need to be just right.

I’ll be the first to admit—I’m a little picky when it comes to choosing audiobooks.

My top audiobook pet peeves are things that distract me from focusing in on the story. Just like bumpy sentences and dry dialogue in print, certain narrator quirks often distract me to the point that I have to press “stop” and move on.

Here are a few things that make me DNF an audiobook:

Long pauses between words or sentences

I ran into this problem when I tried to listen to Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. Between every sentence, I could literally hear the narrator take a breath.

No surprise—the book moved along at the speed of mud and I hit stop before I’d even gotten to chapter two.

The opposite is also true.

This may be my Alabama roots showing, but if a narrator is talking so fast I have to tilt my head toward the speaker to keep up, I’m out.

The narrator sounds like Siri

This should be a given, but pretty regularly I come across audiobooks where is seems like the narrator is actually trying to sound a robot-like as possible. What?!

Give me some Jim Dale narrating Harry Potter any day of the week over that.

Audiobook magic happens when the narrator starts to fade away and the story is front and center. It takes an enormous amount of talent for a narrator to give each character their own distinct voice and personality. I love it when narrators craft an immersive world with their voice.

The voice doesn’t match the book’s vibe

There’s something really disjointed about listening to an audiobook narrated by a voice that so clearly does not match the vibe of the book.

Sometimes I can get used to it (like in The Circle), but other times it just doesn’t work. One of weirdest book/narrator mashups I’ve heard was Francine River’s Bridge To Haven. This is a story about a young, impressionable actress in 1950’s Hollywood … narrated in an elderly, mature-sounding voice. I don’t think the narrator is actually old, but the style just didn’t work for me.

The accent is all wrong

Ok, I know this is really a minor pet peeve.

But come on, if I’m going to listen to a British novel, I want to hear a rich British voice dripping with tea and scones and crumpets telling me the story. Not an American.

When the volume ranges from yelling to a whisper … the entire book

This is probably my number one pet peeve.

I listen to audiobooks most frequently in the car, and there’s nothing more obnoxious than constantly having to adjust the volume because one minute the narrator’s practically yelling, and the next they’re whispering.

I ran into this problem with The Light Between Oceans. I loved the narrators voice, but every time I pulled into a parking lot I felt like people were staring at me because I had a loud Australian voice blasting from my car stereo.

BONUS: The editing is bizarre

So this just happened to me recently while I was listening to Scary Close by Donald Miller. Instead of normal pauses between sentences or chapters, every space seems to have been edited out.

This is how it would go: … you knowChapter5When you think about …

I’m wondering if they edited it down to fit within a certain time frame? Either way, I had to stop and borrow the book from a friend because the reading was so fast, my brain didn’t have time to stop and absorb what was just said. Super frustrating!

 

We all have our pet peeves, but the good new is, most audiobooks are great.

What are some of your audiobook pet peeves? Who are your favorite narrators?