Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814)

mp You know, I wasn’t expecting much out of this book. I have heard SO MANY TIMES that this is the most boring of Jane Austen’s novels, and that Fanny Price is too… I don’t know, too prim, too perfect, too nauseatingly virtuous to be exciting enough to read about.

And well, given that today’s society isn’t particularly obsessed with virtue, I can see why Fanny Price would produce such controversy.

You know what I think? Fanny Price is a strong woman. She’s quiet, she’s sweet, she doesn’t want to bother anyone, she’s always worried about other people’s feelings instead of trying to take care of herself. When she’s in love, she doesn’t say a word, because it wasn’t proper. She endeavors to be happy in her circumstances. And that is SO not what the modern feminists tell us a strong woman looks like.

And I don’t think that makes her weak! She’s so full of integrity that I just can’t help but love her. It takes so much stretching of soul to do what Fanny does in this book, even if people are pretty sure she never DOES anything throughout the novel. I’d say Fanny does a LOT, but it’s hidden inside her mind and soul.

I was surprised to find myself identifying with Fanny despite the fact that I do sometimes get a little bubbly in social settings… something that really just isn’t in Fanny’s nature. Fanny is just like the quiet inner self that I don’t share with people, though. I identified with Fanny’s extreme discomfort in social situations, and not wanting to marry the “it” guy because I didn’t actually think (based on observation) that he was firmly attached to principles of any sort, and not wanting to profess love to someone because it wasn’t proper. She also reminded me of my sister in her self-effacing ways.

One thing I read on Wikipedia this morning is that Austen could have titled this book Conscience and Consciousness because really the novel is about the contrast between how Fanny and Edward always try to follow their conscience, and many others such as the Crawfords are far more conscious and worried about their public image than what is actually right and wrong.

So really, I adore Fanny. I’m only a little bit like her, but enough that I understand her. And I think I understand why she isn’t well liked today, although I suppose that means a novel about me probably wouldn’t be well-liked in today’s world… Oh well. I can deal with that. And you know what? I like Mansfield Park at least as much as I like Pride and Prejudice. I know, blasphemy.

But I think the contrast between conscience and consciousness is just too missing in today’s world, that maybe more people should read Fanny’s story, even if they think she’s too perfect: even reading about “too perfect” people is instructive in how to live, even if we’re perfectly well aware we’ll never achieve that perfection ourselves. You need to be able to shoot for something above you if you’re going to rise above yourself.

Now… to find a film adaptation that hasn’t completely rewritten Fanny’s character to make her more relateable to modern audiences… Is that even a thing? Hmmm.

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Manalive by G.K. Chesterton (1912)

manalive

Ah, yes. I needed a happy book. This book is happy. Invigorating, even. I loved it.

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you drew a gun on a guy who had just claimed there’s no use in living and it’d be a mercy to die… this book is for you. The main character of this book, Innocent Smith, sees it as his solemn duty to awaken mankind to the joy of being alive, and he uses his gun to fire like into whatever incurable pessimists he can find.

Innocent Smith makes me happy, because he’s the sort of man who would understand why I sometimes do some rather unconventional things. I went to a social gathering of young single adults back when I was single… and ran up to a child’s rocking horse which was mysteriously present. And then I rode it, quite happily, for a little while. Most of the other singles looked at me like I was crazy, except the one I eventually married.

So yes, the short description on the cover is accurate: “A Comic Novel by G.K. CHESTERTON about Murder, Bigamy, Burglary, Insanity, and Truth, Beauty, and the Goodness of Life”. That sounds like a recipe for a good book.

Here’s a little blorp from Chesterton’s autobiography, which sheds a little more light on the ideas in this book:

“… I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing… At the backs of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy…

“ Thus, among the juvenile verses I began to write about this time was one called ‘The Babe Unborn’, which imagined the uncreated creature crying out for existence and promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life. Another conceived the scoffer as begging God to give him eyes and lips and a tongue that he might mock the giver of them; a more angry version of the same fancy. And I think it was about this time that I thought of the notion afterwards introduced into a tale called ‘Manalive’; of a benevolent being who went about with a pistol, which he would suddenly point at a pessimist, when that philosopher said that life was not worth living.”

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr (1977)

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Well, for Amy’s Modern Classics Challenge I needed to read a children’s book, and I walked over to my shelf and pulled down this one. I’m kind of regretting it actually. I’m reading lots of depressing books this year, it seems, and THIS ONE MAKES YOU CRY. Despite being like… 50 pages.

It’s a kids’ book… and I vaguely remembered reading this book when I was a kid, because my elementary school library had it. So I actually even remembered that it’s a sad book.

So this is all my own fault. I read a sad book on purpose. Right after Zlata’s Diary, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and concurrently with The Gulag Archipelago… This is my own doing.

Sniff.

Spoiler alert.

Sadako dies.

Of leukemia.

Because of the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb that dropped when she was two.

Sniff.

And when she’s in the hospital she desperately tries to fold a thousand cranes because that’s good luck.

And she dies anyway.

And really, it’s a short book. There’s not much more to it than that. And apparently Ms. Coerr got a lot of the facts wrong when she wrote the book, because it’s based on a true story… And I don’t even care about the inaccuracies because it was total news to me that Sadako was real and really did die of leukemia because of that Hiroshima bomb. Sniff. (Did you know she managed to fold 1,400 cranes before she died? Sniff.)

Okay. So anyway: yes, it’s a classic. To be honest, I knew that before I re-read. It’s a classic for sure. It’ll be read for ages after this, it’s staying on my shelf, and it’s one of the best historical easy readers a kid is likely to get his hands on. But still. Sniff.

I, uh, need to stop reading all these sad books.

Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo by Zlata Filipović (1993)

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Yet another book which I’m not sure how to review. It’s a diary, originally written in Bosnian. Or Serbo-Croatian, depending on who you ask. But probably the Bosnians would very vehemently say that Bosnian and Serbian are NOT dialects of the same language.

I’ve been learning Serbian. Most of the textbooks I have access to all lump Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian and sometimes a few others into one big Serbo-Croatian language, despite pretty bad feelings all around.

I wanted to understand a little more why so many people in former Yugoslavia hate each other so much, and so when I found a used copy of this book at the library book sale, I bought it. And then I read it.

Zlata is an 11-year-old Bosnian girl living in Sarajevo when she starts writing this diary, and it starts out pretty boring, because her life is what you’d expect from an 11 year old. Until, that is, war breaks out.

Zlata doesn’t have the slightest clue WHY war is breaking out. Throughout the entire diary, she remains naive… so this isn’t the book to read if you want to know all about the politics of the Bosnian War. She does comment that there are three sides… the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosniaks. But since representatives of all of these are spread all over the former Yugoslavia, it turns out this doesn’t clarify things at all for her. Several of her friends are Serbs, some are Croats, and some are Bosniaks. And their ethnicity never mattered before; she doesn’t understand why it does now.

Anyway, Sarajevo took a terrible beating and Zlata tells us about what it was like to live in the city while it was being shelled every day. She tells about their lives without water, gas, electricity, and the like. She tells about everyone trying to leave, but there’s no way most of them can get out.

It struck me that amid this terrible tragedy, the people stuck in the middle of it all had parties all the freaking time: if there is a birthday or a wedding or ANYTHING to celebrate, they have to celebrate. They have to. Celebrate the little things, so they can live through the terrors of the big things. Zlata and the friends in her neighborhood grew together during those years, and it seems like they were having a massive birthday party for somebody as often as they could. I think I’d do that too.

I also noticed other little things that gave them such joy. Their pets became of paramount importance. Music was important; Zlata ached to practice the piano, but the piano was in the most dangerous room in the house, so if there was shelling going on, she couldn’t practice. Yikes.

I’m glad I read this book; it is one of the most raw looks at war-time life, precisely because Zlata hasn’t a clue about the politics involved. Sometimes politics cloud the real events and real suffering happening.

There were a few snapshots of Zlata’s original diary in Bosnian, and I am proud to say after studying Serbian I was able to understand most of what I read of her original diary, though since European handwriting is a bit different than American handwriting seems to be, it was a bit hard. Plus, it was in little girl handwriting. Oh, and there are some words the Bosnians use that Serbians don’t that I was not familiar with. It makes me wonder how hard to would be to find a copy of Zlata’s Diary in the original. If I ever read her diary again, I’d like to read her words, not some translator’s.

I decided to count this as my book in translation for Amy’s Modern Classics Challenge. I think I have to say this is definitely a classic, though my stomach turns at reading it again. It’s a painful read.

P.S. This book also made me look up why my favorite Christmas song is called “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” since I know that song came out about the time of the Bosnian War. It turns out there was a cellist named Vedran Smailović who would play Mozart and Beethoven in the rubble of Sarajevo while the bombing was happening, and that inspired the song I love so much. I always knew there was power behind that music, but knowing the story makes it ever so much more meaningful.

From Wikipedia:

“… We heard about this cello player born in Sarajevo many years ago who left when he was fairly young to go on to become a well-respected musician, playing with various symphonies throughout Europe. Many decades later, he returned to Sarajevo as an elderly man—at the height of the Bosnian War, only to find his city in complete ruins.

“I think what most broke this man’s heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster—it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart and Beethoven as the city was bombed.

“He came every night and began playing Christmas Carols from that same spot. It was just such a powerful image—a white-haired man silhouetted against the cannon fire, playing timeless melodies to both sides of the conflict amid the rubble and devastation of the city he loves. Some time later, a reporter traced him down to ask why he did this insanely stupid thing. The old man said that it was his way of proving that despite all evidence to the contrary, the spirit of humanity was still alive in that place.

“The song basically wrapped itself around him. We used some of the oldest Christmas melodies we could find, like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” part of the medley (which is from Ukraine, near that region). The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope.”

 

Know and Tell: The Art of Narration by Karen Glass (2018)

katOkay, so basically I think it’s time to admit that, despite this blog being mostly book reviews, I’m actually not all that good at reviewing books. Doom.

Oh well. I’m here to say, though, that Know and Tell is fantastic. If you’re at all interested in a Charlotte Mason education, this is probably the one book outside of Charlotte’s own works I’d say you have to have. Narration is the keystone of this style of education, and Karen Glass explains in her book how it works and why it works, all while giving all the right sort of advice so that you can do it in your own home.

I feel SO much more confident going into homeschooling this way with this book read and sitting comfortingly on my shelf. I know I can go reread relevant passages when I need to, and I’m sure I’ll feel that need.

I also feel kind of special because this book happens to have art by ME in it, although honestly whenever I flip through the book and see things *I* drew inside, it doesn’t really feel real. Ha.

Anyway, since I knew I’d be reading this book, I decided it should count for double: I also read it for Amy’s Modern Classics Challenge as my nonfiction selection. Is it a classic? Yes, it most certainly is. This sucker definitely has an honored place on my shelf; it is THE best in the genre; and I’m pretty sure it will stand the test of time, though maybe Karen herself might update it after another forty years. (Hah!)

Nature Study in the Desert

chihuahuan desert

So… I grew up and we currently live in the deserts of the Southwest United States. When I first started reading The Handbook of Nature Study, I thought I knew nothing whatsoever about nature and was ashamed. And then I got The Great Southwest Nature Factbook. And my eyes were opened. It turns out I’d learned a lot about nature growing up in the desert, but it was desert nature. You’d think it would have been obvious, but it hadn’t been.

Anyway, we homeschool with Ambleside Online, and they have a nature study rotation… and I’ve decided to use The Great Southwest Nature Factbook by Susan J. Tweit (Amazon) largely, though not entirely, in place of HONS.

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I love this book; it is SO fun to read. To show you why I love it, here is one of its entries:

TARANTULA HAWK

Tarantula hawks (genus Hemipepsis) are named for their prowess at fighting and subduing even-larger TARANTULA spiders. In this wasp genus, the larger females, up to 4 inches long, are the hunters; male tarantula hawks sip nectar from flowers. Both sexes are slender and handsome, with metallic-black bodies and striking, translucent, mahogany-colored wings. They frequent the Southwest’s lower elevations, wherever tarantulas are found.

After mating, female tarantula hawks run about on the desert surface, searching for tarantulas, the preferred food of their grublike larvae. Once the female wasp finds an active spider burrow, she lures the big, slow-moving spider out, swiftly climbs on its back, and thrusts her half-inch stinger into the spider’s abdomen, paralyzing it. The wasp then laboriously drags the comatose but still-living spider off to her burrow, lays an egg atop the spider, and seals the burrow. Soon the tiny, grublike larva hatches, devours the still-fresh spider, and grows. It eventually pupates, metamorphosing the following spring into an adult wasp. If the offspring is a female, she sets off tarantula hunting; if a male, he hies himself to a lookout post in a tree or shrub atop a promontory and scans for passing females to mate with. Such “hilltopping” is a common insect strategy for locating mates where females are widely dispersed.

See? I told you you’d love it. There’s all kind of nature study in the desert, even if Anna Comstock never wrote a Handbook of Desert Nature Study. If you live in Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, extreme southern Colorado, or Utah south of I-70, you should totally check this sucker out. 🙂

I made myself a list of topics covered in the Factbook, broken up into term subjects as covered in AO’s nature study rotation. You might notice that some of them are also covered in HONS, so HONS isn’t completely useless.

Maybe you live in the desert, too, so I’m going to share this with you. If you don’t have the Factbook, or are on a book-buying fast (ha!) it might still be a good springboard for topics to Google and learn about on your own. 🙂

Birds

  • Black-throated sparrow (pg. 23)
  • Sandhill crane (pg. 32)
  • Dove (pg. 38)
  • Hawk (pg. 45)
  • Hummingbird (pg. 48)
  • Kestrel (pg. 53)
  • Magpie (pg. 55)
  • Mockingbird (pg. 55)
  • Oriole (pg. 57)
  • Owl (pg. 58)
  • Phainopepla (pg. 60)
  • Piñon and other jays (pg. 62)
  • Poorwill (pg. 64)
  • Quail (pg. 67)
  • Raven (pg. 71)
  • Roadrunner (pg. 72)
  • Thick-billed parrot (pg. 83)
  • Thrasher (pg. 84)
  • Vulture (pg. 87)
  • Wren (pg. 91)

Mammals

  • Bat (pg. 18)
  • Bear (pg. 19)
  • Bighorn sheep (pg. 21)
  • Burro / donkey / ass (pg. 25)
  • Coati (pg. 29)
  • Coyote (pg. 31)
  • Desert cottontail (pg. 35)
  • Jackrabbit (pg. 51)
  • Kangaroo rat (pg. 52)
  • Kit fox (pg. 54)
  • Mountain lion (pg. 56)
  • Pika (pg. 61)
  • Prairie dog (pg. 64)
  • Ringtail (pg. 71)
  • Tassel-eared squirrel (pg. 81)
  • Woodrat (pg. 89)

Wildflowers / Flowerless Plants

  • Columbine (pg. 111)
  • Datura (pg. 117)
  • Desert annual wildflowers (pg. 117)
  • Desert-marigold (pg. 119)
  • Devil’s claw (pg. 119)
  • Elephant head (pg. 121)
  • Evening primrose (pg. 122)
  • Globemallow (pg. 125)
  • Indian paintbrush (pg. 140)
  • Mariposa and sego lilies (pg. 133)
  • Mistletoe (pg. 136)
  • Night-blooming cereus [cactus] (pg. 137)
  • Penstemon or beardtongue (pg. 142)
  • Rabbitbrush (pg. 150)
  • Resurrection plant (pg. 150)

Trees / Shrubs / Vines [… and Cactus]

  • Agave (pg. 99)
  • Arizona cypress (pg. 101)
  • Aspen (pg. 101)
  • Bristlecone pone (pg. 106)
  • Buffalo gourd (pg. 107)
  • Cactus (pg. 108)
    • Barrel cactus (pg. 103)
  • Cottonwood (pg. 113)
  • Creosote bush (pg. 115)
  • Douglas fir (pg. 120)
  • Fir (pg. 123)
  • Ironwood (pg. 127)
  • Jojoba (pg. 128)
  • Joshua tree (pg. 129)
  • Juniper (pg. 130)
  • Lechuguilla (pg. 131)
  • Maple (pg. 133)
  • Mesquite (pg. 134)
  • Oak (pg. 137)
  • Ocotillo (pg. 138)
  • Palm (pg. 140)
  • Paloverde (pg. 141)
  • Piñon-juniper (pg. 143)
  • Piñon pine (pg. 145)
  • Ponderosa pine (pg. 146)
  • Prickly pear and cholla cactus (pg. 147)
  • Sagebrush (pg. 151)
  • Saguaro (pg. 152)
  • Saltcedar or tamarisk (pg. 154)
  • Yucca (pg. 156)

Amphibians

  • Tiger salamander (pg. 73)
  • Spadefoot toad (pg. 76)

Cultivated Crops

  • Beans (pg. 104)
  • Chiles (pg. 110)
  • Corn (pg. 112)
  • Cotton (pg. 113)
  • Salinization (pg. 206)

Weather / Climate

  • Dust devils (pg. 186)
  • Lightning (pg. 192)
  • Mirage (pg. 197)
  • Monsoon (pg. 198)
  • Sunsets (pg. 210)

Insects

  • Ant (pg. 15)
  • Antlion (pg. 17)
  • Bee (pg. 20)
  • Blister beetle (pg. 24)
  • Butterfly (pg. 26)
  • Cochineal insect (pg. 30)
  • Darkling beetle (pg. 33)
  • Digger bee (pg. 37)
  • Grasshopper (pg. 43)
  • Sphinx moth (pg. 78)
  • Tarantula hawk (pg. 80)
  • Termite (pg. 82)
  • Velvet-ant (pg. 86)
  • Yucca moth (pg. 92)

Reptiles

  • Coral snake (pg. 30)
  • Desert tortoise (pg. 35)
  • Gecko (pg. 41)
  • Gila monster (pg. 42)
  • Horned lizard (pg. 47)
  • Rattlesnake (pg. 68)
  • Whiptail lizard (pg. 88)

Brook / River / Ocean

  • Arroyo (pg. 165)
  • Bajada (pg. 166)

Garden flowers / Weeds

  • Tumbleweed [Russian thistle] (pg. 155)

Invertebrates

  • Black widow spider (pg. 23)
  • Centipede and millipede (pg. 29)
  • Freshwater shrimp (pg. 40) [These magically appear wherever there’s a puddle, believe it or not.]
  • Scorpion (pg. 74)
  • Tarantula (pg. 79)

Rocks / Minerals / Soil

  • Arches (pg. 163)
  • Caliche (pg. 169)
  • Coal (pg. 179)
  • Copper (pg. 184)
  • Desert pavement (pg. 186)
  • Desert varnish (pg. 186)
  • Fungus (pg. 123)
  • Hoodoo (pg. 191)
  • Lichen (pg. 132)
  • Malpaís (pg. 193)
  • Mesa (pg. 194)
  • Microbiotic crusts (pg. 196)
  • Natural bridges (pg. 200)
  • Playas (pg. 204)
  • Sand dunes (pg. 207)
  • Slickrock (pg. 210)
  • Turqoise (pg. 211)
  • Uranium (pg. 211)
  • Watermelon snow (pg. 146)

Fish

  • Eel (pg. 39) [Yes, there are eels in the Southwest. Specifically in the Rio Grande.]
  • Pupfish (pg. 65)
  • Squawfish (pg. 78)
  • Sturgeon (pg. 79)
  • Trout (pg. 85)

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2015)

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So… I tend to avoid modern books because I tend not to like them so much. But the invitations to book club kept coming, and I noticed this one had been made into a movie. And, well, I’d been a little stumped about what book to read for Amy’s Modern Classics challenge in the “book that’s been made into a movie” category. So there. I killed two birds with one stone. I went to a book club meeting (just in time to make friends and move away! wait…) AND I checked off a book for a reading challenge. 😛

 

All that said, while I never would’ve picked up this book on my own, I heartily enjoyed it. This isn’t the broccoli and kale of reading: it’s a light read, definitely, and it’s not meant to engage deep thoughts. Naw, this is a book for kicking yourself in the feels with. Over and over again. Honestly, I was quite outraged no one had told me I’d signed up to read a tearjerker, when I’ve already been wading through Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Gulag Archipelago. I’m already reading about serious human suffering… no need to add the mourning of a grumpy old man onto that, right?

But seriously, you start the book rolling your eyes at Ove and thinking, “Wow. Get a load of THAT GUY. What a prude.” And by the end you’re in love with his old curmegeonly ways. Ove is definitely the most memorable character I’ve read in a modern book in a while. I enjoyed reading it.

Now, will it ever be a classic? … No? I don’t think so. It’s one of those books the library buys ten million copies of so everyone can read it the year it comes out, and then they have to make “book club in a bag” with their excess of copies afterward. I don’t know that it’ll last 100 years. I’m undecided if I’d pay a quarter to keep it on my shelf, not because I didn’t love it, but because there are some mature issues made light of inside it, that I’d prefer not to have glossed over like “Of course, it’s okay, only curmudgeons still believe these things.” So anyway. Not a classic. A sweet read anyway.

I’m watching the movie tomorrow at book club. I hope it’s as good as the book!

Jenna

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

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Well, I read this one with some other women on the AO forum. It’s a depressing one. I expected that. It made me weep sometimes to read the stories of mistreated slaves, particularly where families were broken up. It sounds so inadequate to say such a simple sentence and not just tell you all the atrocities I read about. And the worst part is, that although this is a work of fiction, Stowe based her fiction on all the real-life account she could get hold of. It was haunting to read what men will do to each other, particularly when they can reassure themselves that their victims don’t feel as a normal human being would feel in such a situation.

 

It was also heartrending to have to read about Tom going from master to master. At first he goes from a good master to another good master, who even intends to set him free: and THEN the good master dies unexpectedly, and no amount of good intentions are the same as actually being free. Tom is sold along with the rest of the estate and then he ends up in REALLY BAD CIRCUMSTANCES. It was a surprise to read of that master’s death, but retrospectively, I see it was a completely necessary plot element. It doesn’t matter how nice your master is if you’re a slave. If you’re property, your fate is up in the air. A nice master can die, and next week you’ll be in the hands of a terrible master who, in a just world, would not ever be able to buy a human soul to do he pleases with.

This was a difficult book to read all the way through, because I’d dread picking it up to read more sad tales, especially in the last half. Near the end it gets a little more comforting, but it remains a book to hurt you in the soul, and quite on purpose. Now that I’ve read it, I understand why this book was such a powerful influence in the politics of the day, and despite being a harrowing experience, I think everyone should read it for themselves.

Jenna

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis (1945)

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The first time I read this book… well, I admit I rushed it. I had gone over to an aunt’s house to introduce my new fiancé to my extended family. But that aunt had just married someone with a decent library, and in that library I found The Great Divorce. So, it was a pleasure to re-read this one at a more leisurely pace… and also, after I had read something by George Macdonald and could be a proper fan girl when I realized that Macdonald is to Lewis as Virgil was to Dante.

This is a fantastic story. Literally; it’s a fantasy. Imagine that a bus takes a load of passengers from hell to visit heaven, and they can stay, if they choose to. The fascinating thing is… they don’t. They’ve changed their perspective so much by justifying their pet sins, that they cannot even see that heaven is heaven. They’re incapable of accepting the happiness of heaven as long as they’re determined to bring their sin with them into heaven. Interesting, no?

This is definitely a worthy read.

Jenna