So, friends, do you know what you’re doing on March 12 of next year?
Let me tell you.
You’re going to get a package on your doorstep. And you remember, “Oh, yes, today is the day my pre-ordered book comes! Faith Elizabeth Hough loved this one so much I just couldn’t resist the chance to have it the day it comes out.”
You tear open the packaging, and pull it out. The Funeral Ladies of Ellerie County, by Claire Swinarski. It is gorgeous. “Just as beautiful as Faith said it was!” you think. But you’re a smart, experienced reader, so you won’t be swayed by something so superficial as a gorgeous cover. (You’re totally swayed, but your secret is safe with me.)
So you think, “I’ll just read a page or two to see if it’s as good as she said. Then I’ll make a cup of tea and really settle in.”
You open the cover and slip into the world of Ellerie County, Wisconsin, a place where the winters are snowy and cozy and the sumers are spent on the docks and the people come together to help one another through thick and through thin. A place so vivid it’s almost a character in its own right. But the characters! The characters are even better. There’s Esther, who reminds you a bit of your own grandmother, with her steadfast faith and the perfect pies and casseroles she whips up with her “Funeral Lady” friends for each and every funeral at the town’s little Catholic church. There’s Iris, her granddaughter, who is thoroughly modern with her Instagram savvy and her business plans, but who also is happy to fill in for her mom’s hour of Eucharistic Adoration every week. You get excited right along with them when Ivan Welsh, the Food Network celebrity chef, arrives in town for a funeral, along with his sassy teenage daughter and kind but haunted son, Cooper.
At this point you realize you’ve made some good choices in your life, because somehow a cup of tea has appeared in your hand and you don’t even remember how it got there. (You’ll thank them later.) You enjoy each sip, even while wondering what that chai would taste like with a hint more cardamom, or perhaps accompanied by a slice of apple pie. But you can’t dwell on it long, because Esther's kind heart got her in trouble, and Iris has a plan to help, but it’s kinda crazy and she might be falling in love with Cooper, and he’s got issues to deal with and what’s going on with Ivan, anyway, and can Esther’s good heart and perfect pie crust really save the day?
Somewhere mid-description of a gorgeous culinary creation by either a midwest grandmother or a Food Network celebrity, you realize you probably should eat something (and, for some of you, make a meal for those wonderful little humans that have been uncharacteristically self-directed in their play or schooling all day). You prepare the meal with exquisite attention to each detail, because your reading has reminded you that the little details matter and that food is a pretty darn good way to show love.
After your meal, you’re dying to get back to the book—but you pause. Because it’s also made you think a little more carefully about the time you spend with those little humans or other people around you. You muse, “If I take anything away from this book, it’s going to be that we have to be there for one another. We have to love and we have to forgive, but first we just have to show up. With a casserole or a book to read or arms open for a hug.” So you choose the right thing, and you hug your humans, and you just might slip into bed and read under the cover until you turn the very last page.
Sometime around March 13, you order a few extra copies, because The Funeral Ladies of Ellerie County is the perfect choice for your brilliant idea of a three-generational-book club with your grandma and mom and sisters. While you’re on the computer, you think, “I should send a quick note to thank Faith for convincing me to click on that pre-order link back in September. What a difference it made!” But instead you remember what Faith said, and you send a quick email off to the author, Claire Swinarski, thanking her for the time and energy and heart she put into writing such a beautiful book. Because imagine what a bleak March 12 it would have been without the chance to lose yourself in a perfect pie and a midwest town and your new favorite story.
Besides, Faith might be busy re-reading her shiny new copy, if she's not making a pie.
I know I’m usually all about middle grade fiction over here, but I just finished the most lovely adult historical fiction, and I have to share it with you all: Adrift, by Rhonda Ortiz, the second book in her Molly Chase series.
You guys, Adrift checks all the boxes of things I’d been dying to see more of in a book:
Historical fiction of a less-written-about time period (1793 Boston and Philadelphia), check.
Fascinating historical details, check.
Spies! Intrigue! Puzzles to solve! Check.
Romantic banter, check.
A beautiful representation of a realistic but God-centered engagement and a healthy, loving marriage, check check.
Adrift picks up right where In Pieces, the first book in the series left off: the engagement of Molly Chase to her childhood frenemy, if you’ll forgive me the modern term, Josiah Robb. Josiah has been recruited to be part of the new country’s team of intelligencers, as the war between France and England is threatening American shores. What follows is a story that is simultaneously adventurous and deeply philosophical at turns, while losing none of the good humor and historical richness of Book 1.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
Boston, 1793—Now engaged, Molly Chase and new federal intelligencer Josiah Robb want nothing more than to settle into quiet married life—or as quiet as life can be when one is hunting down a ring of traitors among Boston’s elite. But the plan has one glaring flaw: Molly herself, and the madness that has plagued her since her father’s death. Until Molly proves herself an asset rather than a liability, Josiah’s investigation cannot move forward.
Intelligencer Eliza Hall thought she had left her troubles behind in Philadelphia long ago. When she is sent back to follow a suspect, she’s ready to acknowledge the truth and make her peace—except that the man she loves, who doesn’t know about her past, is assigned to come with her. Now she must outwit her fellow spy and closest friend, lest he hate her for what she had been, while they maneuver to prevent Revolutionary France from dragging the fledgling United States into a war it cannot afford.
Both women are in search of a safe harbor. Little do they expect the winds to blow them into the most tumultuous waters of all—back home.
Since you’ll ask... Yes, in this case you should really read the series in order. In my opinion, you’d be a bit confused about the details if you jumped right in here. Do yourself a favor and order In Pieces if the series is new to you!
You can pre-order Adrift before its August 8 release day (and/or order In Pieces while you're there) at this link: https://rhondaortiz.com/store/adrift . Many thanks to Rhonda Ortiz and Chrism Press for providing me an e-ARC in exchange for my honest review.
I'll be doing an interview with Rhonda very soon—any questions you'd like me to ask her?
"As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o'clock in the morning kind. I mean unprepared courage, that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgement and decision."
Ah, two o'clock in the morning. We're old friends now. When I was young, and my first baby was born, I delighted in her midnight murmurings which meant I could wake up and stare at the astounding perfection of her features. A few years into mothering, with a backlog of missed sleep, it did indeed require a certain moral courage.
Luckily, by that point, I lived directly across the street from a Dominican monastery, where women of all ages awoke to pray throughout the night, without the alluring reward of baby snuggles. They were summoned by a bell and I by a baby's cry, but it was comforting to unite my own drowsy prayers with theirs on the mornings when my eyes simply didn't want to open. "O God, come to my assistance," I would pray (and still do), "Lord, make haste to help me."
In subsequent years, I've come to have a true appreciation for these early mornings of nursing and wakefulness. I wish I could say I always open my eyes with joy and alacrity every time… I don't. I'm middle aged now, and energy is in short supply. But once I do rustle up some motivation, I genuinely enjoy being awake while the rest of the household sleeps. I am glad for the time to speak and listen quietly with God. When I finish prayer, I enjoy reaching for a book (or my kindle, thanks to its backlit screen) and diving into stories while the baby nurses. It's another kind of two o'clock courage, I suppose, to open a book instead of scroll on a phone.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked my favorite question: "Do you have any books to recommend?" She needed some reading recommendations for her own two a.m. nursing sessions, and I was most happy to oblige. Since then, I've put some extra thought into this question… What makes for the best early morning reading during the early months of motherhood? Not just any book will suffice. It needs to be engaging, certainly, but also not require too much deep thinking. (I love a good, philosophical treatise…but not at two a.m.) For me, it can't deal with any terribly stressing topics--no child abductions or violent, traumatic deaths on this list. At that time of day, I tend to prefer character-centric works over plot-centric ones (although there are exceptions), but the pacing needs to skip along just as well as if it were a thriller.
Without further ado, then, my list of Best Books for Two O'Clock Nursing Sessions—or anytime you need some good, lighthearted, and brilliant stories in your life.
The Blue Castle is L. M. Montgomery's only "adult" novel—its main character is twenty-nine and there a couple more mature themes than her other books. It's funny and clever and heartwarming, and one of my two favorite books ever.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Excellent historical fiction that will definitely make you want to plan a trip to Guernsey.
While you're daydreaming about Guernsey… Green Dolphin Street, by Elizabeth Goudge, brings the nineteenth century version of the island to life in a thought-provoking and challenging book about the sisters and the power of the presence of God and the decision to love.
Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster, may technically be categorized as a children's or YA book, but its sweet romance, low stress, and epistolary style makes it a go-to recommendation for me to give anyone at all.
And if you love Daddy-Long-Legs, you should definitely give Katherine Ray's Dear Mr. Knightley a read! Her books (that I've read so far) are all delightful, with at least a touch of literary influence for you book nerds like me.
A recent (and wonderful) discovery for me was the writing of D. E. Stevenson. Her Miss Buncle's Book trilogy is lighthearted and hilarious, while still being very intelligent. I found the whole series, but the third book in general, full of sound advice for a good marriage. Bonus!
Maybe it's living in New England, but I will always love a good Revolutionary War story, and In Pieces, by Rhonda Ortiz fits that bill to a T. Romance, intrigue, beautiful dresses (the main character is a seamstress, and the descriptions are rich and historically accurate), philosophy, faith… This book has it all.
A Countess Below Stairs, by Eva Ibbotson is the perfect lighthearted read for those of you who binged Downton Abbey.
I love every word I've ever read by P. G. Wodehouse, but Lord Emsworth and Others is my favorite nighttime reading collection of his stories. I consider "A Crime Wave at Blandings" to be a perfect short story.
There are moments in my nights when my prayers are less like peaceful meditations and more like anxious raging. In those moments, I find the stories of The Little World of Don Camillo, by Giovanni Guareschi, particularly comforting. Even better than their steady humor is the beautiful relationship between God and the character Don Camillo portrayed in these stories. God is tender and patient and ready with a witty answer when needed. Don Camillo is imperfect but sincere. It's so good.
Are there any books you'd add to this list? What gets you through wakeful seasons of life with peace and poise—or at least general sanity?
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!