On Friday, December 27, 2019, I filled my bird feeder for the first time in four months.
These past four months have been beyond difficult. We returned home from a blessedly relaxing vacation on August 31, and things fell apart the very next day.
This fall, my family has experienced two very serious health crises; September 1 marked the beginning of an extremely rough time. For six weeks, I spent about half my time traveling back and forth to northern New Jersey to help with things there. After that, an illness closer to home kept me here, taking care of one while simultaneously feeling guilty about leaving my family “up north” behind.
And just as things began to settle down, we emptied our entire home into the basement, the garage, and a storage pod so some long-overdue renovations could be completed; we lived in an extended-stay hotel for 2 1/2 weeks.
On Saturday, finally, I loaded my brand-new bookcases with books I hadn’t laid eyes on since early November.
All this to say: My bird feeder has been sorely neglected. I was barely keeping up with work. I took shortcut after shortcut when it came to meals, and the laundry got done, but when I sat down at 7:30 to relax with a book, I’d be snoring on the couch within 15 minutes. I had no bandwidth left for birds, or anything else.
We’re back in the house. My loved ones are still feeling the effects of those health crises, but things are improving for them all the time.
My bookshelves are full, and so is my bird feeder. I’ve missed taking those five minutes to fill that up. I’ve missed seeing the sparrows, cardinals, and house finches nibbling at the birdseed. I’ve missed hearing the birds gleefully begin to chirp when I approached the feeder with cups of seed in my hands. In all the necessary rushing around, I’ve missed those moments.
Four months is a long time to let a feeder go unfilled. That 5-star bird feeder rating that I’ve worked years to achieve is not mine to claim right now. But I hope that by the time the juncos return to herald the winter snow, the neighborhood birds will have discovered that my feeder is open for business.
This New Year, I’m resolving to keep the feeder full. Because it feeds me, too.
The Great Adventure Catholic Bible from Ascension Press combines a beautiful Bible with color-coded timelines, a 90-day Bible reading plan (which covers the highlights of salvation history), and guidance on interpreting the Bible, applying Scripture to our lives, and praying with Scripture. The Bible is divided into sections, each of which has a fascinating introduction featuring maps, charts, and historical background. Read my full review. (Review copy received from publisher)
Best Children’s Book
Inspired by the true story of an architectural marvel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, A Staircase for the Sisters tells about the miraculous construction of a staircase to the choir loft of a tiny church where there wasn’t room for any stairs. I remember visiting this church during a cross-country trip as a child, and I was struck by the fascinating story of a mysterious carpenter who was an answer to prayer. Insisting upon working alone, the carpenter constructed a spiral staircase without nails or a center support — and then he disappeared. At the end of the book, readers will find information on the Loretto Chapel, St. Joseph, and a novena to St. Joseph. This short book is an excellent read-aloud for children 5 and up, and older independent readers will enjoy it as well. (Review copy received from publisher)
Best Christmas Novel
Catching Christmas by Terri Blackstock. I’m pretty sure the first chapter’s premise came from a meme: cab driver pulls up to house that looks like no one’s home. Reluctantly going to the door, he finds an elderly woman asleep in wheelchair and takes her to medical appointment. That’s where the meme ends and the novel begins. Over the next several days, former restauranteur Finn needs to pay his rent, but Callie, the elderly woman, is so insistent that he not only drive her to the places she needs to go (including Christmas shopping), but bring her in to each and every one. That means he can’t leave the meter running. That means he’s out the cash – and plenty of it. He alternates between anger at Callie’s granddaughter, Sydney, who apparently is too tied up in her work to care for her grandmother, and remorse for the way he treated his own mother when she was dying. Great story. (Netgalley review)
Best Christmas Series
Where Treetops Glisten by Tricia Goyer, Cara Putman, and Sarah Sundin: three linked Christmas romance novellas set during World War II. This was a lovely series with nearly-seamless storytelling; you couldn’t really tell that different authors were behind the three stories. Set in Lafayette, Indiana, these stores span several wartime Christmases and focus on the three Turner siblings and how the war has changed their lives.
Anyone but Him by Theresa Linden. Some of my favorite characters from Roland West, Loner, are all grown up in this novel directed at the new-adult audience. In a surprising twist right off the bat, Caitlyn wakes up one morning to discover she’s married to her friend Roland’s bad-boy older brother, Jarret — and she’s horrified. She also can’t remember anything that’s happened in the past two or three years. Her coworkers at the private detective agency aren’t much help, and Jarret’s trying to solve the problem by keeping her locked in the house and not letting her call her family. There’s plenty of suspense to keep this story moving along, between strange encounters with both Caitlyn and Jarret’s coworkers and Caitlyn’s various escape attempts. Jarret seems like he’s changed since high school, and Caitlyn’s biggest mission is to find out if that’s for real. (ARC received from author)
Hunger (short story) by Jane Lebak and Elissa Strati. Horror is not a genre I read, but I’m a big fan of Jane Lebak so I gave this story a try. It’s not at all gory or graphic, and I was surprised to see how much the good vs. evil conflict really came into play in this story. Waitress Sarah stays at her job in a small-town diner to protect patrons from the hungry creature that seems to want to protect her — and that kills anyone who slights her in any way. Come for the pie; don’t hassle this waitress!
Relic of His Heart by Jane Lebak. When a midwife is suddenly confronted by an angel who wants her to restore a relic stolen 70 years ago to a church in Italy, she thinks he’s crazy. Then she finds out the depth of her family’s connection to that church, and the dire state of the town — and her journalist husband gets on board to help with this mission. Along the way, her own livelihood is threatened as lawmakers try to enact legislation that will effectively outlaw midwifery in her state. One of the things Jane Lebak does very well is human-angel banter, and this novel is no exception. This is an excellent story, with plenty of clever humor, a great twist at the end, and almost no gory birth-center details to deter the squeamish (like me). Interwoven in the dialogue is a wonderful explanation of what Catholics believe about relics. Recommended!
Some decluttering books are written by people who act like they have it all together. Those books are not for me. In Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, Mary Elizabeth Sperry readily admits that she has a lot of work to do, and that her home is not perfectly neat and tidy all the time. I like the connections made between homemaking and the spiritual life. This book addresses necessary topics like spiritual discipline, reconciliation, prayer, and materialism. The best chapter, in my opinion, is the one where the author draws parallels between clutter and sin. This book spoke to me so much, I’ve got whole paragraphs underlined, never mind the circles and arrows … (ARC received from publisher)
It was Mine by Jeanne Grunert. This novella is a George Bailey story that begins with a Twilight-Zone scene: Stanley, who’d given up an ambitious life plan to care for his aging parents, is a beloved retired teacher in his community. The ancient furnace his father installed in the family home is on the fritz, and Stanley meets a man posing as the furnace repairman who offers him the opportunity to find out what his life would have been like had he abandoned his family and followed his dreams. It’s not at all spooky, and the twist at the end is not to be missed.
From Dust to Stars by Jake Frost. The author captures the reader’s imagination by grounding the poetry in history. The poems cover topics ranging from biblical figures and events to persecution of Catholics in Britain to saints of the Church. Some of them are even prayers, written in verse. I received a review copy of this book from the author. Read my full review. (Review copy received from author)
Best Prayer Book
Father Edward Looney’s A Heart Like Mary’s: With 31 chapters, this book is a month-long mini-retreat that you can start reading anytime. Each day’s entry contains a Scripture passage, reflection, prayer to Mary our intercessor, and an action item: a step toward living with a Marian heart. (Review copy received from publisher)
The Thirteenth Chance by Amy Matayo. What a fun read! Olivia, a pretty teacher with a bad case of OCD, gets mixed up in a MLB pitcher’s scheme to get his career back on track. Turns out she’s a bit of a good-luck charm, and while the two of them irritate each other, sparks begin to fly. This book is funny, and the characters have enough quirks to keep it interesting (there’s nothing worse than plain vanilla characters). A clean romance with plenty of banter. Great read for the summer!
Best Southern Gothic
The Ghosts of Faithful by Kaye Park Hinckley. Not your usual ghost story, Kaye Park Hinckley’s Southern Gothic novel takes place during a single week — Holy Week — and follows a family haunted not only by ghosts, but by each family member’s secrets, betrayals, and regrets. Acts of unspeakable violence, in the past and the present, are connected by the ghosts whose mission seems to be to enact justice, even when everyone’s lives, careers, and marriages seem to be falling apart. (Review copy received from author)
Keeping Lucy by T. Greenwood. Her rich in-laws expect perfection, so when Ginny’s baby is born with Down Syndrome, the family whisks the child off to an institution. Two years later (1969), Ginny learns that this school is under investigation for mistreatment of the residents, and goes there to see for herself. She and her best friend Marsha wind up taking Lucy from the institution, then taking off to Florida with the toddler and Ginny’s six-year-old while they desperately try to figure out how to protect the child. An excellent suspense novel, coming August 2019. (Netgalley review)
Best YA Anthology
Secrets: Visible and Invisible from CatholicTeenBooks.com. This anthology of Catholic fiction for teens will introduce readers to seven diverse authors. Many of these stories, in a variety of genres but linked by a common theme, offer a peek at characters from full-length novels. Readers already acquainted with these authors will enjoy new perspectives on favorite characters. Kudos to CatholicTeenBooks.com and these seven authors for dreaming up this excellent collection. From dystopia to historical fiction to sweet romance to mystery, there’s something for every reader to like in this collection — and it might even encourage a reader who’s locked in to a certain genre to branch out a bit. (Review copy received from publisher)
Best YA Contemporary
3 Things to Forget by Cynthia T. Toney. A satisfying conclusion to the engaging “Bird Face” series for teens, this novel sees Wendy finally getting to visit her friend Sam in Alaska, and trying to reconnect with Sam’s grandmother, Mrs. V, whose dementia is quite advanced by now. Typical Wendy wants to protect those around her from doing things that could be harmful to themselves, and this time her well-meant intervention focuses on Dev, a fellow volunteer at an animal shelter who’s depressed and angry at her family. It was easy to jump right back into the series, and I’m sad to see this 4-part series end; I really enjoyed this cast of characters.
Best YA Historical
Charlotte’s Honor by Ellen Gable Hrkach. This second book in the “Great War Great Love” series is the story of Charlotte, who serves as a medical volunteer near Soissons, France, and has a heart for aiding the most critically wounded patients, patiently comforting the dying soldiers. She shows her strength when she volunteers to stay behind with these patients and a surgeon when the field hospital is evacuated due to enemy fire. Charlotte’s unique combination of devotion and grit attracts the attention of Dr. K, whose own heartbreak steers him away from pursuing a relationship with her. Another volunteer is jealous of the time Dr. K spends with Charlotte and tries to undermine Charlotte’s character. Meanwhile, Charlotte discovers a cryptic note in a hidden old chapel, a note which leads to a surprising discovery. (Review copy received from author) Read my full review.
Best YA Novella
Unlikely Witnesses by Leslea Wahl. Can’t get enough of the characters in Leslea Wahl’s full-length books? This novella puts couples from The Perfect Blindside and An Unexpected Role in the same location, on a trip to a dude ranch that turns into a mystery they just can’t leave alone. The four wind up being interrogated by a disgruntled FBI investigator, who finds himself unexpectedly impressed by their guts and their faith. Comic moments keep the story from being too heavy. You don’t have to have read the novels that introduced these characters before you read this story, but I recommend you read them anyway! My only complaint? This is under 100 pages. I would have been happy for more!
What are the best books you’ve read this year?
Unless otherwise noted, I purchased these books myself.
All Amazon links in this article are affiliate links; your purchase through these links supports my efforts here. Thank you!
We rang in the year as we usually do, with 4 out of 5 of us visiting Middle Sister’s BFF’s family. In this case, BFF really does mean forever; the girls are 16 and have known each other since they were 2 1/2! It was a low-key time, just hanging around, laughing, watching the Twilight Zone marathon, eating, and heading out the door at 12:01 for a really impressive fireworks display.
I think it’s been a whole year since I’ve stayed up until 1 AM. And the Hot Flash Express rolled through at 6:30, mercifully an hour or so late, though still earlier than I’d like.
I enjoyed a quiet start to the day; the Big Kids both stayed at their friends’ houses (Big Brother rings in the New Year with a friend he’s known since kindergarten) and Little Brother is still asleep. Cup of tea in hand, I had some uninterrupted time for morning prayer and the newspaper.
Then the sun came up and I moved over to the chair by the window to watch the cardinals, mourning doves and sparrows. I got a new bird feeder for Christmas–it looks a lot like this:
Basically, it’s a basketball-sized cage around the bird feeder tube. It’s taken them a few days, but the birds are finally getting the hang of it. And having my desk near the window lets me get a good view. I like that the big bully birds (starlings and blue jays) can’t get in, but the sparrows and other small birds can. Haven’t seen any snowbirds this winter, but then again, we haven’t seen any snow–and that’s not necessarily a problem.
Christmas vacation is almost over; today, there’s noon Mass; tomorrow our little family business will hold its annual meeting and review, and then on Tuesday, it’s back to work and school for everyone!
For right now, I’ll enjoy my perch at the desk where I can watch my bird feeder. 7 sparrows, no waiting–and the starling has been foiled again!