The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

The Sun is a Compass is an adventure story, a memoir, a story about a marriage, and a story about a woman grappling with the ideas of career, motherhood, and life. Van Hemert and her husband travel from Northwest Washington state to north of the Arctic Circle without using any motors or engines. They travel in canoes, skis, they also hike and raft, and hunker down and wait out a lot of storms.

Van Hemert, a biologist, gives us insight into not only her thought process of what to do after she receives her PhD, but also tells us her adventure story and links it to the birds  she sees along her way. As they make their way northward, they see a host of different kinds of birds, and she gives us a biologist’s insight into not just the birds themselves but also the effects of global warming and other human interventions on these animals. She compares her journey to the migration patterns of these birds, which becomes an opportunity to ponder the stages in her life and the greater meaning that this journey has for her and her family. The birds, the bugs, and the landscape are themselves characters in the stories as Van Hemert shares both her knowledge as a scientist and her wonder as a human with the reader.

This story is one of the best I’ve read all year, and I think it will be hard to top it. This is many stories, and they’re all treated with equal weight, and with equal literary skill. The nature writing sections are just as beautiful and evocative as the sections where Van Hemert shows us her equivocations about her career and her desire to have children. The writing made me think and ask myself questions about my own life that literally kept me up at night.  My verdict: Read it.

 

Christmas on Mistletoe Lane by Annie Rains

Christmas on Mistletoe Lane is a sweet holiday romance which brings together two strangers who jointly inherit a crumbling bed and breakfast and must work together to revive it. Kaitlyn and Mitch are forced together in a small town in North Carolina and the result is a charming story of healing, redemption, hard work, and creativity. Both hold secrets about their pasts that they’d rather not talk about, yet these secrets inform their lives in ways the other can’t dream about. Working on the B&B forces them to confront their pasts, together.

This was a very sweet, feel-good book that left me wanting more (I can’t wait to see which other characters the next books in the series will focus on, there seem to be so many options!). It captured the holiday spirit perfectly, and had a dose of diversity that was highly welcome in the genre.

What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde

To run the risk of using a tired cliché, this book is hauntingly beautiful. Nahid is an Iranian refugee living in Sweden, and she’s just been diagnosed with an advanced stage cancer. In this book, she looks back on her life as a wife and mother as she lives through her diagnosis and her daughter announces her own pregnancy.

Nahid narrates her own story. So while she is an unreliable narrator, she’s frank about her flaws in a non-judgemental way. She doesn’t care for being a mother, but she fiercely loves her daughter and does not feel guilty about this contradiction. She explains how she has become the woman that she is, and thinks about the life she lived.

I enjoy stories that complicate the narrative we’re told about refugees- it’s too easy to be reductivist about a group whose stories we think we know, when in fact we just know one small piece of their story. This book told an immigrant story, but more importantly it told a story of family, womanhood, motherhood, and legacy. The ending was exquisite, and tear-jerking. However, this book definitely has some trigger warnings- particularly for domestic violence.

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What I’m doing to be a better mom

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am a goals-oriented, learning-driven person. This manifests in my parenting as well- I often feel the best about what I’m doing as a parent when I’ve got some measurable plan of attack to “do a better job” and learn more about how to best help my kiddos learn and grow. Here are three things I’m doing lately, and why.

Read parenting books. One thing I’ve been doing is reading this book, “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne- I read about a chapter a day (sometimes less), so I can have time to process the content. It’s my own copy (rather than the library’s), so I can underline and annotate and mark up the book as much as I want. I try to do some reading early on during the day. Often mornings right after breakfast are when the girls play the nicest together and on their own, so rather than grabbing my phone and scrolling through Instagram, I’ll try to read a page or two. I find this helps me get in the mindset of mindful parenting for the rest of the day- almost like setting an intention for the day- it helps me focus on what’s most important.

Less phone time, more floor time. Inspired by the LookUp Challenge, I’ve been trying to spend less time on my phone during the day and more time on the floor, playing with my kids and paying attention to them. It’s so easy to be on my phone because it feels like a connection to other adults, which I don’t otherwise get, but it comes at too big of a cost. I want the girls to know that they’re the most important thing to me, not whatever is on the phone. I haven’t actually gone through A Friendly Affair’s full challenge (although I have the emails and materials, I just haven’t actually done it yet!)- but the idea behind it is inspiring and I’m working on it.

More me time / volunteering time. I’m finding that when I have a little time away from the girls, I am able to come back recharged and better able to focus on them. So I’m trying hard to make more time for myself and make space for things in my life that aren’t kid related. I’m about to start volunteering tutoring ESL to refugee women, and for some reason even though this is logistically complicated (it’s nowhere near my home!), it’s much easier for me to make the time when it’s helping someone else. That starts this week, so I’ll keep you posted!

What do you do to try to improve yourself as a parent? Sometimes I feel like there’s no such thing as self-improvement anymore– all improvement goes towards the kids, so all the more reason to become better!

Hooks Can be Deceiving by Betty Hechtman

Hooks Can be Deceiving is the twelfth book in the Crochet Mystery series by Betty Hechtman. Full disclaimer up front: I received a review copy from NetGalley, so I haven’t read the previous books in the series- although I’ve already requested the first book from the library so I can catch up!

One of my favorite types of palate cleansers and comfort reads right now is the genre that is cozy culinary mystery. These mysteries incorporate food as a big part of the storyline and include a recipe or recipes in the back. For someone who loves reading and cooking, they’re amazing! This particular version not only had a recipe in the back, but also two crochet patterns- which made it even more appealing. I’ve been a Knitter for my entire adult life (bonus points to you, reader, if you know the reference to a Knitter versus a knitter), but I just taught myself to crochet this year, so I loved reading a book that incorporated crochet and fiber arts along with food and cooking.

Because I haven’t read the others in the series, I won’t provide much of a synopsis- I don’t know what parts of the story are spoilers. But the basic story is: bookstore employee Molly runs a crochet group in the yarn section of her bookstore (side note: please sign me up for this kind of bookstore!). There is a murder committed, and she strives to uncover whodunit. The plot is, therefore, a pretty straightforward cozy mystery.

What the book brings to the table is its portrayal of female intergenerational friendships and a middle-aged protagonist whose love life is unbothered and ambiguous. Too often we see female friendships that are one-dimensional, but in this story, we see both sides of Molly’s relationship with her friends, particularly her best friend Dinah. These are friendships in which Molly is both giving and receiving support in meaningful ways. I felt like these relationships themselves were an important part of the story, not just a plot device. Molly also had a love life, but it was a teeny bit ambiguous, and she was unbothered by this (I’m positive there are spoilers here, so I’m treading lightly). At the beginning of the book I was definitely afraid that the romance was going to get very tropey, but it managed to avoid that and remain focused on Molly herself. She was able to retain her independence and strength in the midst of a romantic relationship that supported her without smothering her. In a world full of books which portray women trying to have a certain type of relationship (or none at all), this book was refreshing. The romantic relationship(s?) in this story felt incidental to the story, and as a nice added bonus to Molly’s life, but not its sole purpose.

Overall, a great cozy mystery with not only an interesting angle to the series, but a character with solid relationship goals.