Once Was Lost

Once Was Lost by Sara ZarrOnce Was Lostby Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 224 pages

As a pastor’s kid, it’s hard not to buy into the idea of the perfect family, a loving God, and amazing grace. But lately, Sam has a lot of reasons to doubt. Her mother lands in rehab after a DUI, and her father seems more interested in his congregation than his family. When a young girl in her small town goes missing, the local tragedy overlaps with Sam’s personal one, and the already worn thread of faith holding her together begins to unravel.

In her third novel, acclaimed author Sara Zarr examines the coexistence of affliction and hope, and what happens when everything you thought you believed—about God, your family, and yourself—is transformed.

There are books that don’t seem much at first glance. They’re the ones that have only a few copies on the bookstore shelves, ones that rarely gets featured in its own section, ones that people (including me) would have ignored if it weren’t for some other thing. In my case, I have read the author’s other works.

I can’t say I’m a fan of Sara Zarr, but I have read her two other books, Sweethearts and Story of a Girl and liked them well enough for me to notice her new book, Once Was Lost. It took me a while to finally crack its covers though, and once I did, I couldn’t get out of the town of Pineview and from Sam’s life.

Once Was Lost starts out one hot summer day, when everything in Sam’s house seemed to be broken. Just like the book, the introduction was quiet and unassuming, but we know from the start that Sam is trying hard to deal with her situation without totally breaking down. Her mother has been in rehab for three weeks because of drinking, and instead of finding solace from her dad, she finds him more distant from her as he seemed to care more for his congregation than anything else, like compare annuity rates and the sad state of their family. The thing was, no one knew about Sam’s situation and she didn’t want to talk about it, not even to her youth group leader Erin or her best friend Vanessa. It would have just been a sad summer, but when thirteen-year-old Jody Shaw is abducted, Sam’s life is turned upside down. As she grapples with the tragedy that affected not only her but the entire town, Sam finds herself asking questions she had never thought of asking before, and wondering if she will ever find the answer to them.

This book is poignant. That’s the term. There is something about Sara Zarr’s writing that immediately touches the heart and leaves a mark, urging the reader to not just read but think. Zarr wasn’t afraid of lay it down hard on the reader and the use of such a scary ordeal — abduction — was an effective device to make all her characters grow. In a way, I felt like I was one of the residents of Pineview when Jody disappeared — I wanted to join them in the search, I wanted to join them in the prayer vigil, I wanted to send some comfort to the family in a trying time. At some point, I felt like praying for Jody, too, even if she was just a fictional character.

Sam is a sad character, but sad for the right reasons. You’d expect that a pastor would know how to be a good father, too, and I was annoyed for Sam as I see how her dad treats her, or did not treat her. But in a way, I can also understand why her dad acted that way. If you’re a person of importance, particularly in a church community, everyone expects you to always be okay. People looked up to Sam’s dad for spiritual guidance, and the pressure of having to be the God’s representative to the people is hard, and sometimes it’s easier to just not acknowledge the situations or ask the question when you’re not sure of what the reactions or answers will be.

But still, we’re only human. I think that was one of the important lessons in the book: that we are all just human. And God understands if you can’t bear everything that is happening — in fact, I don’t think He expects us to bear it all, at least on our own. Sam tried to hide it all, and just go along with whatever’s happening, but in the end, she learned that she didn’t have to carry it all on her own, and her family doesn’t have to either.

This isn’t a Christian book, but it read like one because of the setting and the situations. I liked how it showed community, and how people cope in the face of such a scary tragedy. I liked how it showed how Christians aren’t always happy (because we aren’t), and I liked how it wasn’t afraid to ask difficult questions, questions that I am sure everyone of us asked at one point or another. Some examples:

I want to close my eyes and ask for what’s right, and open them and have everything fixed. As I try to form the words, I only get angry. Why should I even have to ask? You don’t have to be all-powerful and all-knowing to figure out that this is a tragedy in need of divine intervention. (p. 38)

Perfect love drives out fear, is what it says in the Bible. Perfect love. And who, my dad included, really knows anything about perfect love? Anyway, if God loves Jody so much, how could he let this — whatever it is — happen to her? And what else is he going to let happen to me? (p. 62)

In a way, I could relate my experience of the flood last year with this book. I don’t think I doubted God then, but I had a lot of big questions, and I had no answers. I often relied on my own strength during those times when the strength I needed was freely offered to me, I just didn’t know if I should take it. Sometimes I think we’d rather just keep asking questions and focus on our fears and problems rather than see that there’s Someone who’s willing to not only share the burden, but actually take it from us.

But I digress. Sara Zarr’s writing was spot on, just like in her previous novels. Lines like these just make me stare at the page and wonder how can such simple sentences have so much impact?

And love can’t be the answer to everything. If it was, us loving Mom should have kept her from falling apart. Her loving us should have made her want to change. (p. 61)

There’s a blue ribbon around the Hathaways’ mailbox. When we’re sitting out here two weeks from now, in a month, in a year, will the ribbons still be up? I wonder how you’re supposed to know the exact moment when there’s no more hope. (p. 101)

I think that’s enough to say that I thought this was a remarkable novel. This isn’t just your ordinary contemporary YA novel. Once Was Lost makes you think, makes you ask, and in the end, makes you believe that no matter what the tragedy is, no matter how hard things are, there will always, always be hope. :)

Rating:

2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 64 out of 100 for 2010

Cover and Blurb: Goodreads

Sweet Caroline

Sweet Caroline by Rachel Hauck

Sweet Caroline by Rachel Hauck
Thomas Nelson, 320 pages

When a Southern waitress inherits the Lowcountry cafe where she works, she suddenly has to balance more than just her next food order.

Caroline Sweeney has always done the right thing–the responsible, dependable thing–unlike her mother who abandoned her family. But when her best friend challenges her to accept an exciting job adventure in Barcelona, Spain, Caroline says “yes” to destiny.

Then, without warning, ownership of the run-down cafe where she’s been waitressing falls right into Caroline’s lap. While she’s trying to determine the cafe’s future, handsome Deputy Sherriff J.D. Rand captures Caroline’s heart.

But when her first love, Mitch O’Neal, comes back to town, fresh from the heat of his newly-found fame as a country music singer in Nashville, Caroline must make some hard choices about love and the pursuit of the sweet life.

I had reservations with Rachel Hauck’s other novels because my reaction to her first novel, Lost in Nashvegas was just lukewarm. I liked it, but it didn’t amaze me or blow me away and I haven’t picked it up again since I read it the last time. I read Sweet Caroline with low expectations, just so I won’t be disappointed with this buy.

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t have much expectations, because I was really pleasantly surprised by this novel. Sweet Caroline is quite…well, sweet, for the lack of better words. Everything in this novel is just sweet and charming, from Caroline to the Frogmore Cafe staff to the other secondary characters to the town itself. This is one of the few times I really appreciated the setting of a novel, and it’s in a Southern town again. I love the quirkiness of the town, the Frogmore Cafe and everyone else in the story, as it provided me with a very warm feeling, almost like I was one of the Beaufort residents. It was almost like the book was welcoming me into its arms, inviting me to join them in their different town adventures.

Caroline is definitely a character, one I’d love to be friends with myself. In a way, I think a lot of women in their 20’s could relate to her, because I definitely did. She’s far from perfect, and most of the times, she had no idea where to go or what to do. But when extraordinary opportunities come knocking, she felt overwhelmed, and she didn’t know what to do. Don’t we all have that same reaction? Despite her confusion, Caroline chose the smaller thing over the big thing, and she proved to be faithful with that. My favorite part of the novel is when the staff were preparing for Hurricane Howard, and Caroline planned to feed the people of Beaufort for free, knowing that there wouldn’t be enough power to cook their meals in the next day. Caroline’s generosity is something to emulate, and I think she wouldn’t hesitate to give her staff a personalized grilling toolset if they really, really need it.

Caroline has a big heart, one that learned to forgive as she got to know the God of forgiveness. I loved how she came to know God, how she got to know God and how she learned to believe that God loved her so much. It was something out of the ordinary, yes, and I guess some people won’t believe those things happen anymore…but then who knows? I’ve heard more drastic stories, and if God wanted to get someone’s attention, then I bet He’d go all out on it. It almost felt like the words uttered to Caroline were for me — and maybe they were? I’d like to believe that they were lessons for me, too. For example, I could replace Caroline’s name with mine in this line, and relate to it almost 100%:

“You are so blessed, Caroline…I mean this: God is looking out for you.” (p 195)

Despite its sparse prose, the novel was still well-written, and easy to understand. There were no complicated words or long descriptions, and most of the lines were funny and crazy. I especially loved Caroline’s Head and Heart conversations:

Head: Interesting development.
Heart: For once, I agree with you.
Head: What do you think he’s up to? And, we’ve agreed before.
Heart: Do we risk it?
Head: No. Stay in neutral, heart.
Heart: But he’s changed. Really.
Head: Don’t make me come down there. (p.225)

These conversations were just right for Caroline because for other characters, I don’t think it would work. :P

The romance factor is also very, very juicy. This is a little bit of a spoiler, but I can’t not share this:

As the house lights dim for the second half of the performance to begin, Mitch offers his hand. “May I hold your hand, Caroline?”
Gulp. I nod.
His hand is firm and broad; his fingers lock perfectly with mine. “Mitch,” I say, barely above a whisper. “I’m afraid of falling.”
He presses his lips to my ear. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” (p. 235)

I practically swooned when I read that part! :) Heeee. But if you think it will end up the way it seemed from that part…well, there were still more surprises down the end, and those made the novel stand apart from others. It’s not really just a love story between two people. It’s a love story between a woman and her God, and a story of how a woman found herself through the love of Someone who loves her more.

Sweet Caroline is sweet, from the first page up to the last. I laughed, cried, and felt like I lost a friend when I closed the book. Good thing Rachel Hauck gives us another chance to visit Beaufort with a companion novel for Sweet Caroline, Love Starts with Elle. And it’s good that I have a copy of that. :P

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m glad I gave Rachel Hauck another try. :) Sweet Caroline is a light, thought-provoking read, and in some instances, the title would make you break out into song, too. :)

Rating:

2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 58 out of 100 for 2010

My copy: paperback, $5.00 from Amazon

Cover image & Blurb: Goodreads

→ Rachel Hauck’s website

CymLowell

Pulling a Job on Jane

The Book of Jane by Anne Dayton and May VanderbiltThe Book of Jane by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt
Publisher: Broadway Books
Number of pages:  304
My copy: paperback, ordered from Amazon

Jane Williams is the happiest woman in New York. She has a dream job, a perfect Manhattan apartment, and a man she wants to marry. Her whole life is mapped out to the finest detail, and things just can’t get any better. But in a New York minute, everything changes. After an evening on the town with a hot Hollywood actor her PR firm is wooing, she wakes up to a day filled with strange occurrences—a weird mark on her face and a red-haired woman who seems to be following her every move. This bizarre day turns increasingly horrible, and over the course of it, Jane loses her boyfriend, her best friend, her job, her home, maybe even her dog. Unsure of why she’s being tested, Jane struggles to hold herself together while her world falls apart. Has God forgotten her?

* * *

It’s a bit hard finding good Christian fiction in the Philippines because truth be told, not many bookstores carry it. Sure, there’s OMF Literature, but the last time I saw Christian fiction on their shelves that isn’t by Frank Peretti (not that I mind, except that I have a lot of Peretti’s already) or Ted Dekker was almost four years ago. I’m glad that I can find some good YA Christian fiction in Fully Booked, but as for chick lit or non-suspense Christian fiction…well, it’s hard. That’s why I result to getting books online instead, because there’s a bigger selection of them there, obviously.

So yes, I ordered this online, and I got it from a sale, which is even more awesome. I’m a fan of Anne and May’s Miracle Girls series (which I will review as a whole once I get the last book in the series, which I hope gets to Fully Booked soon!), but I’ve always been curious about their previous books. When I heard that The Book of Jane was included in Chicklit Club’s Ultimate 100 Chicklit Collection, I decided to put it in my Amazon purchases before my dad went home.

Enough of the story on how I got the book, and let’s get to the actual book. The Book of Jane is a retelling of the story of Job, told in a woman’s perspective and in New York City. We all know the story of Job, right? It’s about a man who’s been blessed by God all his life, and then God allows the devil to wreak havoc in his life (provided he doesn’t harm Job) so they could see if Job would still be faithful to God even if he gets all these misfortunes (I mean come on, his entire family dying? Getting boils all over his body? I experienced the flood and it’s enough to drive me nuts — to experience all that might drive me over the edge). It’s about Jane Williams, who has the perfect apartment, perfect job, perfect friends, perfect boyfriend and perfect family…until everything turns out to be not perfect, and she’s left scrambling for meaning and her faith.

I liked the novel, although I think the similarities to Job ended right there. Okay, I admit to not having read the entire book of Job yet so I can’t make perfect comparisons, but I do know that the book of Job had all these poems about Job’s friends who talk to him about his misfortunes and his faith. Jane seemed alone during her low points, except when she met up with Coates, but for the rest of the time, she had friends and she had things to remind her of her fortune despite the things that happened to her.

Not that it’s bad — it’s actually a pretty good lesson on perspectives. I don’t know what I’m wishing for here, really, except maybe I guess I felt that it was too tame, that Jane didn’t really have it that hard. Maybe I was expecting something more in Jane’s misfortunes, or something. Maybe I’m just a harsh reader? ;)

But the story is quite delightful, and it touches a lot of subjects — faith (obviously), relationships, friendships and even death. I loved Jane’s friend Lee, although I kind of had a feeling he was in the closet. I don’t know, he just had that vibe? I figured who Coates would be in Jane’s life early enough, but their relationship was kind of nice to see that there was more to Coates’ arrogant exterior.

Overall, it’s a good read. The basic idea of Job was there, and although I kind of wish for more, it’s a nice refreshing clean chick-lit that packs a lot of valuable life lessons. :)

Rating:

Book Stash – April

I’m sorry for not posting as much as I used to here — truth be told, I’m just having a hard time finishing the books I’ve been reading. Ever since I finished North of Beautiful, I haven’t been feeling much of the other books I have on my to-be-read list. Sure, I’ve got some reading challenges to guide me, but I just wasn’t feeling them that much. Ever had one of those days?

I’ve been browsing around bookstores again ever since Easter, and I found myself not being able to choose books to read. Strange, but it’s also kind of liberating because my wallet is happy. :P I did manage to get some  books from some bookstore visits. Then my dad arrived, and I realized why there’s a subconscious feeling why I’m holding back from buying books: he has my Amazon stash with him. :)

So now I present to you my first book stash post here. I wish I could post this every week, kind of like how other people do, but I don’t really acquire books every week, much less manage to finish reading them on time. So here’s a first (I think), and I can’t say when the next is going to be. :D

Book Stash - AprilIn this picture:

  1. BoneMan’s Daughters by Ted Dekker
    I’ve always been a Ted Dekker fan, and I’ve been wanting to buy the trade paperback of this book but it was just too expensive. When I saw this two weeks ago in Fully Booked, I just grabbed it. Here’s to liking this one. :) One day, I’ll do a Dekker bonanza and get all his books and read them. :P
  2. Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
    I picked this up to add another book in my Project 20:10 Challenge, and Blooey just gave a glowing review on this, and I can’t wait to get started on this. Should be good.
  3. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
    I’ve seen a couple of recommendations on this by Blooey and Myk, and the paperback is quite cheap, too, so I got it from Powerbooks. Looks promising, but it’s another series, so I think I’m going to have to collect this, too.
  4. The Book of Jane by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt
    I’ve been meaning to get this one ever since I started writing my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, but of course it’s not available here. When I did my Amazon shopping, this was the first one I got — and I got it for only $5! I’m reading it now and liking it, although I already guessed something from the story the moment the character showed up. :P But’s it’s still good, and I’m glad to have gotten my hands on some good Christian fiction again.
  5. Last Mango in Texas by Ray Blackston
    I’m a big Ray Blackston fan, from his Jay Jarvis series. I was surprised to see that he has new books out, and this was the cheapest I could find. I look forward to laughing with this once again.
  6. Sweet Caroline by Rachel Hauck
  7. Love Starts with Elle by Rachel Hauck
    For #6 and 7, they seem interesting, and it was on sale, too, so I got it. Good Christian chick lit, how I missed you!
  8. Flashbang: How I Got Over Myself by Mark Steele
    I have actually read this book already, but I had to throw away my copy when Ondoy hit. :( Good thing there was a sale on this, too!
  9. The Guy I’m Not Dating Trish Perry
    Once again, Christian chick lit! It’s very pink, and seems like a good story, so yeah, I threw it in the list. I hope this impulse buy is worth it. :)

Not in picture, but I hope this arrives soon:

  • Wonders Never Cease by Tim Downs
    Got Getting this from Booksneeze — I finally caught a fiction release from them! Pays to have them in my RSS reader. Now if only shipping books from where they are to where I am does not take two weeks, I can write their reviews faster. But oh well. Free books are free books, I shouldn’t complain. I hope the book arrives soon, though!

I still have this urge to buy some more books, but right now I’m waiting for some releases to arrive — and some books to lower their prices…or at least, for bookstores to go on sale! I mean, not all books come with low prices like cheap insurance, you know. Which reminds me…can I wait to buy some other books I want until Book Fair? That’s four months away! Hm…Let’s see! ;)