After four years of retirement, Father Tim still hasn't come up with a good answer to the inevitable question, "So what are you doing these days?" He volunteers, chews the fat with the regulars at the Main Street Grill, jogs with his dog Barnabas, tries to keep his diabetes in check and watches his wife Cynthia go into her studio to create award-winning children's books. But Father Tim feels like he's not doing nearly enough.

Then, just when he finds a new commitment, he allows his blood sugar to get out of hand, with catastrophic results. Soon he doubts his ability to do anything.

In This Mountain, Jan Karon's seventh novel in the Mitford series, makes some hard observations about aging. Yet, at the same time she assures readers that through the grace of God, there is always reason for optimism.

When Father Tim, almost 69, finds himself in a deep depression, all of Mitford struggles to bring him out of it. To the author's credit, she is honest about how hard that can be. Of course, long-time fans of this North Carolina series will know that through some combination of prayer, love and possibly medication Father Tim will smile again.

The suspense that propels the book comes from smaller questions. Will Father Tim ever go online? Will his adopted son Dooley find his siblings? Will Mitford accept ex-convicts who have paid their debt to society? Will the bookstore manager find true love? This meandering novel begins with the unlikely exclamation "Moles again!" and moves through familiar territory a place that feels like the hometown few of us ever had. Karon excels at generating folksiness, love and genuine caring among her eccentric characters as she allows them to age and grow.

Some characters seem overdone, however. Consider the pool player known as Pink, who introduces his friend thus: "This here's Skin Head Bug Eye Snaggle Tooth Austin, you can call im Bug f'r short." More true to life, and to the book, is Uncle Billy who punctuates his conversation with "don't you know?" and searches for jokes to make Father Tim laugh.

Plenty happens in the closing pages of the book, pointing to a sequel. Jan Karon is not finished with Mitford yet. Anne Morris writes from Austin, Texas.

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