With eloquent sensitivity, Tomáš Halík, a clandestinely ordained Roman Catholic priest, pulls back the Iron Curtain to illuminate a dark period of Czechoslovakian history. From the Underground Church to Freedom is a memoir enfolded with spiritual wisdom, incisive and frank in its assessment of Halík’s life and of the continuing narrative of the church universal as she has moved into the twenty-first century.
“Human life is ongoing self-interpretation,” begins Halík. Drawing from a deep well of harrowing and sublime experiences, he traces the arc of post-World War II Czechoslovakian history alongside his personal experiences in the underground Catholic priesthood. Accounts of secret police interrogations, Mass celebrated without vestments in cellars, and samizdat publications are neither rosy nor too bleak. Rather than wallowing in bitterness, Halík transmutes trauma into powerful observations on the human condition and the nature of God.
Hagiography of the church—Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—is not to be found here. Halík relates his bouts of doubt and ecclesial conflict with honesty, including his stint on the Cyril and Methodius Theological Faculty just after the fall of the communist regime. His reflections on this dark night of the soul are cathartic—a buoy to those who have been hurt by the church.
A spirit of ecumenism runs throughout. Halík is eager to build bridges between varying sects of Christianity and between other faiths in a more and more globalized society. He describes his first meeting with the Dalai Lama as an encounter with something powerful and good, though it did not convince him to take the Buddhist path, and he is especially keen to repair the damaged relationship between Christianity and Judaism.
Poignant and profound, From the Underground Church to Freedom is a needed reminder that hope springs eternal even in the face of overwhelming evil.
MEAGAN LOGSDON (August 27, 2019)
Abigail Tarttelin’s Dead Girls is an ultra creepy, occult-tinged horror story. Focused on a missing girl, it shows that the wild places of childhood are not all magical and good.
Billie—who likes Slater from Saved by the Bell, “angel pudding, Australian accents, [and] the tiniest orange in the bowl”—has vanished. Her best friend Thera is the last person to have seen her.
A self-described expert on Billie, Thera is very different from her friend. She’s haunted by images of a cold, dead girl; she has prophetic dreams about wicked black dogs; and when she touches a Ouija board, terrible things transpire. When Billie is found murdered, Thera becomes obsessed with finding the killer, but her search unlocks dark forces within herself.
Set in a small English village, the story is packed with 90s cultural references that capture the characters’ specific experiences of childhood. From curfews to secret diaries and dreadful lunches, Thera’s world is conveyed in clear, complete detail. Her rising interest in the occult, and her access to her grandfather’s library of witchy books, adds another layer of creepiness. The games and tools Thera used to spy on her family or divine the future take on new significance as she hunts for the person who killed her best friend.
Thera’s boldness defines her, but there is softness in her too. Her astute observations of other people, nature, and herself hint at the adult she will become. Her obsession with Billie’s murder drives the story, and her response to the tragedy feels natural and real. Suspense heightens as Thera carries out her plan to seek revenge. Her confidence in herself makes her forget that she’s only a little girl—and just as vulnerable as her best friend was.
Dead Girls is a heartstopping horror novel and a frightening coming-of-age story.
CLAIRE FOSTER (August 27, 2019)
And Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes
Charming horror may sound like an oxymoron, but it is an apt description of Landis Blair’s whimsical graphic novel The Envious Siblings. Inspired by the works of Edward Gorey, the eight macabre nursery rhymes tell tales of skeletal big sisters, a child lost in a monstrous underground, strict parents served rare, and covetous kin trading everything from hair to feet.
Black-and-white illustrations echo the dark content, with crosshatched textures adding overlapping layers and depth to plaid dresses, plush rugs, and the dapper suit and bow tie of a murderous tiger. In “The Awful Underground,” these evocative illustrations stand alone, absent of the jaunty, rhyming verse juxtaposed with the nightmarish pictures in other entries, allowing imagination to fill in the fear and foreboding. The title story is another standout, taking sibling rivalry to new heights as two sisters’ jealousy leads to lobbed-off tongues and drums played with dismembered hands. Focal characters are rendered with simple features, their bulbous eyes and gaping mouths portraying fear, fury, delight, and madness as the stories demand.
The rhyming verse is light and concise, playing off the intricate illustrations. Amusing turns of phrase, repetition, and other poetic devices are used with intent, propelling the flow of the twisted narratives without distracting from their visual counterparts. Familiar themes and images appear—children enjoying a playground or parents at their wits’ end—but surprise endings abound with dark satisfaction, as evidenced in “Honourable Beasts,” the story of a merry band of carnivores who invite a young girl to a feast after her mother scolds her.
A mature play on the nursery rhyme archetype, The Envious Siblings is an entertaining embrace of the dark side of humor from a rising talent in cartooning.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (August 27, 2019)
A Counting Book Thriller
Count along from one to ten with this surprising, suspenseful tale. It unfolds through the clever use of numbers and mixed media collage artwork, with glowing eyes, sharp teeth, and bright fur and feathers, captivating as they stand in dramatic contrast to the dark night sky. A sly fox sneaks into a barnyard henhouse, hoping for a midnight snack, and young audiences will learn to recognize basic numerals and their word counterparts while they enjoy the results.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (August 27, 2019)
Nature in Spiritual Practice
Spiritual wanderer, mystic, and ordained minister Gretel Van Wieren’s memoir of her stint as writer-in-residence in Oregon’s Cascades covers her quest to rediscover her connection with the natural world, which is her main source of spiritual sustenance.
Recalling memories of growing up in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, the book affirms the rich connection between nature and spirituality. Earthy and poetic, it touches on what can best be learned through intimate contact with nature, from the constancy of change, to how life and death intermingle, to the way lowly spiders create shimmering lace.
Honest and at times raw, the book records moments of intense awareness. Silence opens up the paradoxical creative space between the via positiva and the via negativa. Noting the work of scientists who study the way the forest responds to change, Van Wieren also responds to the forest in body and soul. A spot calls her to sit for a time in silence, answer a wild urge to run, and then refresh herself by skinny-dipping in a creek. Questions open up, inspired by awareness of what is lost when ecosystems are destroyed. Van Wieren muses on mourning irreversible losses and facing inevitable suffering.
Touched by the beauty, the vitality, the myriad shades of green, and the depth of silence encountered in the forest, Van Wieren confronts her lack of answers. She ends as one person faced with the enormity of change. Listening at Lookout Creek, while revealing how immersion in nature can help and be healing, stops short of antidotes for the advancing effects of climate change, and instead reveals how listening to the forest and breathing with it in silence can lead to true care.
KRISTINE MORRIS (August 27, 2019)