Megan's Review of PAX by Sara Pennypacker

 

Reviewed by Megan K. Shea, Assistant Manager of The Mustard Seed Bookstore

 

“Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” With that epigraph, readers step outside their own story and into the world of Sara Pennypacker’s new children’s book, PAX. This powerful middle-grade novel explores coming-of-age amidst impending war, separation from family, and what it means fight for someone, or some animal, you love. With chapters alternating between the boy Peter's voice, and that of his pet fox Pax, readers find themselves immersed in this contemporary imagining of the Hero’s Journey, complete with a quest to unknown lands, challenges and trials along the way, a wise mentor, sacrifice and reward. 

 

 Included in Pennypacker’s seventeen previous works is the novel Summer of the Gypsy Moths, and New York Times bestselling Clementine series, geared toward emerging readers. Among her many books PAX stands out, in part due to its original story, and also because of the artistic collaboration between Pennypacker's words expertly paired with cover art and intermittent illustrations from Jon Klassen. Klassen, 2013 Caldecott winner of This Is Not My Hat, offers his distinctive artwork here, giving readers just enough physical imagery to enrich this tender novel. 

 

With thematic echoes of beloved classics like Watership Down, The Little Prince, and Old Yeller, PAX will have readers reliving the book long after the turning of pages ends. Pennypacker has crafted a story that, ultimately, is about a boy’s search for peace (in Latin pax), both literal and figurative.

Megan's review of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Reviewed by Megan K. Shea, Assistant Manager of The Mustard Seed Bookstore

           “It is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience,” states Elizabeth Strout on her professional website. My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout’s fifth novel, delves into this idea of the shadowy, gray space of human life. Strout, Maine-born and Bates College alumnus, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 with Olive Kitteridge.               

            Unlike Kitteridge’s longer vignette style, Lucy Barton  reads like a slim novella using a first-person narrator. Also unlike Strout’s prize-winning novel, Lucy Barton’s title character is not as fully developed as Olive Kitteridge, though she is definitely more likable. Using narration that hops back and forth, Strout shuffles readers between rural Illinois in the 1970s, to the rise of New York City’s 1980s, to the present, where our title character shares her memoir with readers. The main plot arc places Lucy in a Manhattan hospital recovering from a near-fatal illness. She recalls the week of her mother’s visit to the hospital, the two women not having seen each other in years because of family tension and emotional (and physical) distance. Strout, fully harnessing the power of words, uses gentle and lyrical prose to cultivate pervasive loneliness in the novel.                                     

Overall Lucy Barton is a melancholic rags-to-riches story highlighting the complicated nature of family ties. However, I found myself more interested in the what was happening between the lines and underneath the main narrative, than in what Lucy chooses to tell readers about her life. Were this novel a few hundred pages longer, giving breathing room for subplots and minor characters, I imagine being more satisfied. But if only taken as a treatise on the human condition’s murkiness, Strout succeeds. 

Aimee Jo's Review of Walking Home by Sonia Choquette

In Walking Home, Sonia Choquette, a renowned spiritual teacher, brings the reader on a 34-day pilgrimage through Europe via the historical Camino de Santiago trail. Her autobiographical narrative is a transformational one, and I felt as if we were travel partners on the 500-mile journey together. As we walked I could not help noticing that the environmental conditions mirrored our internal landscape of thoughts and feelings - the rough, the lovely, and everything in between. She shared experiences of loss that I could relate to, and her honest introspection created space for new awareness. Being with her reflective process carried me to find forgiveness and healing perspective in my own relationships. Even without lugging actual gear or getting blistered feet, the trek challenged my perseverance and I often summoned patience to bear the details. It was a worthwhile journey and I am glad to have stuck with it. I appreciate Choquette's inclusion of pilgrimage photos in the book and admire her vulnerability, heart-warming tenderness, and sense of humor. I also had fun finding metaphor in the everyday happenings. Here are some of my take-aways:

  • Reflect kindness and gratitude of heart in all relationships.  
  • Set prayerful intentions and keep listening for Spirit's guidance.
  • Mine seemingly negative encounters for their gold. 
  • Know when to honor the wisdom of silence.
  • Appreciate the gift of learning from the stories and errors of others.
  • See everyone as a fellow pilgrim and respect their chosen paths.
  • Eat what is offered when hungry and move along. 
  • Focus and go slow enough to pay attention to signs.
  • Pack light and share what is no longer essential.
  • Savor being in each moment rather than collecting stamps and souvenirs. 
  • Eliminate all that does not support reaching the desired destination. 
  • Overcome toxic pride, blame, and judgment.
  • Make more room for grace, always.

After a brief career in aerospace engineering, Aimee Jo enjoyed having a small art business and earning a master's degree in art therapy and counseling. She is now tending a budding metaphysical practice and learning to draw. She likes reading biographies and all kinds of inspirational books.