Monday, September 25, 2017

Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package by Kate DiCamillo, 2017

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What will it take for a cynical older sister to realize she's a born accordion player -- with music in her heart?

Eugenia Lincoln is a practical person with no time for gee-gaws, whoop-de-whoops, or frivolity. When an unexpected package containing an accordion arrives at her house, she is determined to have nothing to do with it. But her plans to sell the accordion, destroy the accordion, and give the accordion away all end in frustration. How can Eugenia stop being tormented by this troublesome package? Might she discover that a bit of unforeseen frivolity could be surprisingly . . . joyous?

(112 pages)

I've read many of DiCamillo's books over the years (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, The Magician's Elephant, etc.), and have enjoyed all of them. I loved Because of Winn-Dixie so much that I actually opted to read a translated version of it in Spanish class a couple years ago! I knew that she'd written some books for younger kids, and had actually picked up the first Mercy Watson book at some point but decided it was a little too young for my normal reading tastes. When I was offered the opportunity to review an early copy of DiCamillo's upcoming release Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package, though, I simply couldn't refuse on the basis of its target age group.

Every few months, I find myself holding onto a kids' book that I've somehow decided to review. Each time, I discover something new about the unfamiliar genre–whether it's that the stories can be way more complicated than I'd expected or that the "kiddy" illustrations often actually really enhance the reading experience. This time, I wasn't blown away by the story's complexity (though I did like the way so many eclectic characters are thrown into Eugenia's life!). The illustrations were quite nice. I enjoyed the simple little story about Eugenia's annoyance about the accordion and her attempts to free herself from it, though the very cynical part of me argues that her sister and neighbors were really being pests by continually trying to make her play the instrument she clearly wasn't comfortable with. Does privacy and personal autonomy not really exist in children's books?

Anyway, younger readers of the Mercy Watson books will be happy to know that Mercy (who, just so everyone else knows, is a sentient pig) is featured in Eugenia Lincoln. There's a range of characters in it, and I honestly have no idea how many other ones are also from the other children's books DiCamillo has written. Regardless, though, it's a cute story that's well told and I'm sure many kids will snap it up.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson, 2017

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When the vuvv first landed, it came as a surprise to aspiring artist Adam and the rest of planet Earth — but not necessarily an unwelcome one. Can it really be called an invasion when the vuvv generously offered free advanced technology and cures for every illness imaginable? As it turns out, yes. With his parents’ jobs replaced by alien tech and no money for food, clean water, or the vuvv’s miraculous medicine, Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, have to get creative to survive. And since the vuvv crave anything they deem classic Earth culture (doo-wop music, still life paintings of fruit, true love), recording 1950s-style dates for the vuvv to watch in a pay-per-minute format seems like a brilliant idea. But it’s hard for Adam and Chloe to sell true love when they hate each other more with every passing episode. Soon enough, Adam must decide how far he’s willing to go — and what he’s willing to sacrifice — to give the vuvv what they want.
(160 pages)

Okay . . . what?

This book is pretty awful. And kind of pointless. Why is everyone giving it such high ratings on Goodreads? I must be missing something big here.

I mean, if I switch on my AP English brain and squint a little, I guess I can see Landscape with Invisible Hand as some sort of social commentary–almost. Or maybe it's just supposed to be artistic or something, and everyone likes that. I don't know. I'm not a particularly artistic person–at least not when it comes to stories about human teens in an alien-dominated future Earth society who swear like sailers (I'm talking the f-word multiple times on every page!) and decide to turn their romance into a reality TV show even though one of them struggles with explosive diarrhea.

You read that right. Explosive. Diarrhea. For some strange reason that makes zero sense to me, the vuvv decided to quit purifying city tap water and so Adam has developed a fake illness called "Merrick's Disease" (pronounced, bizarrely enough, like a real-life chicken disease). I don't remember the explanation, but basically he has bad bacteria messing up his gut and giving him gas and sudden attacks of diarrhea. It's really disgusting. Chloe's awful about it, but I have to be honest: I probably wouldn't want to make out with a boyfriend who had Merrick's, either.

The story is oddly short, focusing mainly on the build-up and destruction of Adam's and Chloe's relationship and Adam's struggles to help his family survive (despite being abandoned by his father) while keeping his artistic integrity intact. There are a surprising amount of details included in the story for its short length, but I thought it needed to be longer to really capture more of the creative sci-fi world Anderson invented. Also, I don't like how sudden the ending is. Or at least, I wouldn't if I'd been enjoying the book. By page 160, I didn't really care how it ended anymore.

But can we just go back to the explosive diarrhea? I found that detail incredibly unecessary. And why on earth did the vuvv do away with clean water?! That makes no sense, they're supposed to be health geniuses. Water purification is pretty basic. But even with the dirty tap water, this is supposed to be in the future. Why do characters have fancy 3D technology at their fingertips but no simple water filtration devices? Why is there not a whole market of bottled water available? Adam mumbles something mildly economics-sounding once or two to explain the way things are, but I just don't buy it. There are still humans on the earth, aren't there? So what happened to the government regulations about sanitation? And why does the fact that human money doesn't work with the vuvv mean that our societies basically collapse? It all goes back to the basic rule of supply and demand: if the vuvv services are too expensive, why are there no human alternatives that are cheap enough for people to afford? An influx of new market options should not wipe out all of our previous inventions and accomplishments.

Gah, but this is me approaching a fictional novel as a future economics major. I think I'll just give up now, because I am clearly missing whatever the point of Landscape with Invisible Hand was. If anyone else feels differently about it, please do comment below explaining to me what it is that I'm missing.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Brave Red, Smart Frog by Emily Jenkins, 2017

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Step into a wintry forest where seven iconic fairy tales unfold, retold with keen insight and touches of humor.
There once was a frozen forest so cold, you could feel it through the soles of your boots. It was a strange place where some kisses broke enchantments and others began them. Many said witches lived there -- some with cold hearts, others with hot ovens and ugly appetites -- and also dwarves in tiny houses made of stones. In this icy wood, a stepmother might eat a girl's heart to restore her own beauty, while a woodcutter might become stupid with grief at the death of his donkey. Here a princess with too many dresses grows spiteful out of loneliness, while a mistreated girl who is kind to a crone finds pearls dropping from her mouth whenever she speaks. With empathy and an ear for emotion, Emily Jenkins retells seven fairy tales in contemporary language that reveals both the pathos and humor of some of our most beloved stories. Charming illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason add whimsical details that enhance every new reading.

(104 pages)

Like most people, I've always loved fairy tales. There's something really magical about reading the stories that have been honed through generations of telling and retelling, where magic exists and it usually teaches a lesson and bad people/decisions wind up in terrible trouble. I haven't read all the original tales, but I had a storybook when I was little that told the "true" stories in a pretty way without putting too much emphasis on the gore. I always liked those versions more than the Disney ones.

That's why I chose to review Brave Red, Smart Frog. I did indeed know six of them in some form or another (though my version of the woodcutter who gets three wishes involved a river spirit throwing increasingly-ornate axes onto the bank); the only one that was completely unfamiliar was "The Three Great Noodles," which was actually a really cool story. It may well have been my favorite from the collection, and not just because it was the only new one for me!

I do like these retellings; they stick with the original material but cut out the worst parts and very cleverly fill in some of the logic gaps left by the originals. They also feature familial relationships that are much more realistic than the ones usually described in the fairy tales (full of dysfunction, yes, but also love). However, I wish the stories were longer–they each take up about 13 pages or so, a shortness that I'm just not used to anymore. I suppose this is good for kids listening to the stories at bedtime, but it leaves me wishing for more!

If you like fairy tale retellings, then Brave Red, Smart Frog might be what you're looking for. I can't say that it stands head and shoulders above all the other fairy tale retellings out there, because it doesn't really, but I can say that I enjoyed it and I'm sure others will as well. It doesn't have many illustrations, which is a pity, but the stories are told very well. Jenkins put together a very nice collection!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Thief's Mark by Carla Neggers, 2017

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As a young boy, Oliver York witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents in their London apartment. The killers kidnapped him and held him in an isolated Scottish ruin, but he escaped, thwarting their plans for ransom. Now, after thirty years on the run, one of the two men Oliver identified as his tormentors may have surfaced.

Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are enjoying the final day of their Irish honeymoon when a break-in at the home of Emma's grandfather, private art detective Wendell Sharpe, points to Oliver. The Sharpes have a complicated relationship with the likable, reclusive Englishman, an expert in Celtic mythology and international art thief who taunted Wendell for years. Emma and Colin postpone meetings in London with their elite FBI team and head straight to Oliver. But when they arrive at York's country home, a man is dead and Oliver has vanished.

As the danger mounts, new questions arise about Oliver's account of his boyhood trauma. Do Emma and Colin dare trust him? With the trail leading beyond Oliver's small village to Ireland, Scotland and their own turf in the US, the stakes are high, and Emma and Colin must unravel the decades-old tangle of secrets and lies before a killer strikes again.
(336 pages)

I know I've said this before, but I'm a huge murder mystery fan. Agatha Christie is my gold standard, but I'm always open to trying out new murder writers. That's why I jumped at the offer to participate in a TLC tour for Carla Neggers's Thief's Mark.

The one downside to starting my exploration of Neggers's books with Thief's Mark, however, is that it's actually the seventh book in the "Sharpe and Donovan" series. For you the review reader, this means that I need to warn you now: there are definitely going to be some spoilers for the earlier books in the series. For me as the reviewer, it means that my experience of the book was a little more . . . well, muddled than it was probably intended to be.

Because there are a huge amount of characters in Thief's Mark, not all of whom seem strictly necessary. I can tell that a lot of groundwork was laid in this story universe in the previous books, and that the author and readers have become indoctrinated and invested into all these different people/agencies, but as an outsider to the series I mainly just found them confusing. There were several times when I had to pause and do some calculations to figure out who a minor character was. Also, it's a very international book–set primarily in England and Ireland with characters from both of those countries as well as from America–but I didn't feel like Neggers did a good job separating out the different dialects. I kept forgetting which characters were supposed to have which accents, because they all just sounded American in my head. The author's American-ness probably didn't help with this.

As for the actual mystery, it's a very intriguing one (though I still don't quite understand the motive as it was explained in the end). And I did like the main characters who were investigating it. Two of them are on their honeymoon, which could have resulted in some icky scenes but was handled very tastefully. The third main investigator/suspect, Henrietta, actually provides the most sensual material in the book: she has one or two fairly-explicit daydreams about being in bed with one of the male main characters. I personally did not feel the need to read that.

As murder mysteries go, Thief's Mark is a very good one. It's definitely much more plot- and mystery-focused than most of the Christian murder mysteries I usually find myself reading (which often devolve into long character studies), so I may well pick up more of Neggers's books in the future. But I have to say that Agatha Christie is still, forever and always, my favorite crime writer.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in order to participate in a TLC tour.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuser Hill, 2017

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Who are you, if you can’t be what you always expected? A moving coming-of-age tale of prodigy and community, unlikely friendship and growing things.

Twelve-year-old Rose Brutigan has grown seven inches in the last eight months. She’s always been different from her twin brother, Thomas, but now she towers over him in too many ways. The gap in their interests continues to widen as well. Musically talented Rose is focused on winning the upcoming Bach Cello Suites Competition, while happy-go-lucky Thomas has taken up the challenge of growing a giant pumpkin in the yard of their elderly neighbor, Mr. Pickering. But when a serious accident changes the course of the summer, Rose is forced to grow and change in ways she never could have imagined. Along the way there’s tap dancing and classic musicals, mail-order worms and neighborhood-sourced compost, fresh-squeezed lemonade, the Minnesota State Fair — and an eclectic cast of local characters that readers will fall in love with.

(448 pages)

Giant Pumpkin Suite
may not be a book for everyone, but I for one really liked it.

For students who are a little bit wary of reading, I will point out the 400+ page-count and acknowledge that there isn't much "adventure" in the traditional sense of the word. With its focus on Rose's self-perception issues and a neighborhood-wide quest to grow a pumpkin (complete with discussions of planting techniques and compost recipes), Giant Pumpkin Suite is not going to appeal to every reader.

But for those who do choose to enjoy the book, it really is a very nice read. My least favorite parts were probably those that focused on Rose's obsession with being prim and proper and grown-up (and the inevitable portrayal of her as an academically advanced yet emotionally stunted child, a stereotype that I find mildly offensive). It's not as bad as in many other books, though, and there's so much else to balance it out. Her twin brother Thomas isn't depicted as being mentally slow, but rather as just a very normal, typical twelve-year-old boy. Their quest to grow the pumpkin is interesting enough on its own, but it's the eclectic cast of characters from the neighborhood who join together to help them do it who really carry the day. My favorite neighbor was probably the Japanese woman across the street who donated leaves from her yard for the mulch and who provided a beautiful glimpse into the culture of her home country and also provided emotional support for Rose while she was going through some rough times.

It's a slow book, but it's an interesting one and a very diverse one. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks it might be interesting.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Wonderling by Mira Bartók, 2017

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Have you been unexpectedly burdened by a recently orphaned or unclaimed creature? Worry not! We have just the solution for you!

Welcome to the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, an institution run by evil Miss Carbunkle, a cunning villainess who believes her terrified young charges exist only to serve and suffer. Part animal and part human, the groundlings toil in classroom and factory, forbidden to enjoy anything regular children have, most particularly singing and music. For the Wonderling, an innocent-hearted, one-eared, fox-like eleven-year-old with only a number rather than a proper name -- a 13 etched on a medallion around his neck -- it is the only home he has ever known.

But unexpected courage leads him to acquire the loyalty of a young bird groundling named Trinket, who gives the Home's loneliest inhabitant two incredible gifts: a real name -- Arthur, like the good king in the old stories -- and a best friend. Using Trinket's ingenious invention, the pair escape over the wall and embark on an adventure that will take them out into the wider world and ultimately down the path of sweet Arthur's true destiny.

Richly imagined, with shimmering language, steampunk motifs, and gripping, magical plot twists, this high adventure fantasy is the debut novel of award-winning memoirist Mira Bartok and has already been put into development for a major motion picture.
(450 pages)

This is the second book I've read in a row featuring anthropomorphic animals and talking mice, after Kristin Kladstrup's The Nutcracker Mice (the review of which, due to a fluke of scheduling, won't be up for another month). Besides those initial similarities, though, the two books don't really have much in common. Where The Nutcracker Mice is about ballet-dancing mice living in the Mariinsky Theater in 1892, The Wonderling features a semi-historical world in which there are humans, normal animals whose complex languages are indecipherable to all but our protagonist Arther, and the creatures like Arthur himself called "groundlings." These groundlings are mixtures between humans and animals, or two to three different animals, and they are treated like absolute scum by the humans they live alongside.

The book reminds me a little bit of the Redwall series, actually. It's got the whole "setting out from a walled-in building on a quest" thing and everything, though Arthur is escaping his oppressive orphanage rather than setting out to protect his abbey. And the plot of The Wonderling is definitely more original than the recycled plot that made up the backbone of every single book in the series. It's darker than Redwall, too. Maybe the fact that it's more similar to real European history makes it feel more serious.

Honestly, it's hard to pin down The Wonderling. It's a very beautiful book, with its elaborate world building and detailed descriptions of characters are extremely diverse both physically (the groundlings are fascinating!) and emotionally. And that simple description doesn't even include the fascinating implications of the socioeconomic differences between the groundlings and the humans.

I suppose I'm going too deep into this children's book, though. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I should mention that I didn't like the book quite as much as I'd hoped. I loved the premise and most of the execution, yes, but I didn't like everything that happened/was revealed in the conclusion. It was still a very interesting and exciting read, though, so I do recommend it. If you do decide to read The Wonderling, let us know in the comments sections what you think!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Promise of Dawn by Lauraine Snelling, 2017

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When Signe, her husband, Rune, and their three boys arrive in Minnesota from Norway to help a relative clear his land of lumber, they dream of owning their own farm and building a life in the New World. But Uncle Einar and Aunt Gird are hard, demanding people, and Signe and her family soon find themselves worked nearly to the bone in order to repay the cost of their voyage. At this rate, they will never have land or a life of their own.

Signe tries to trust God but struggles with anger and bitterness. She has left behind the only life she knew, and while it wasn't an easy life, it wasn't as hard as what she now faces. When a new addition to the family arrives, Signe begins to see how God has been watching over them throughout their ordeal. But after all that has happened, can she still believe in the promise of a bright future?

(276 pages)

Going into reading The Promise of Dawn, I didn't really have a good idea what it would be like. I won it in a giveaway on LibraryThing, and when I entered I'd just kind of assumed it was one of those fluffy Christian romantic historical fictions. I thought it would be kind of meh, but still entertaining, so I took the two seconds to click "Request It."

It turns out that The Promise of Dawn is a lot more serious than I originally expected, and it's not really a romance novel since the main characters are already married with three sons old enough to work for Uncle Einar. It is indeed a Christian novel, though, but the religion in the book is not as cloying as it is in most from the genre. And it is definitely a historical fiction story–which is what I loved best about it!

You see, I'm nearly 1/2 Swedish by descent. My great-grandfather and his family moved from Sweden to Nebraska around the same time Signe and Rune's family move from Norway to Minnesota, so it's easy for me to read about this family's fictional struggles on the American frontier and imagine my own ancestors into their place. True, my great-grandfather was a farmer in a tree-less state while Uncle Einar  is a tree logger, but that's small potatoes. The comparison is still real to me.

Plus, I actually really liked watching Signe fight to bring orderliness and civility into a house that was truly disgusting when she first arrived. Gird is bed-ridden, miserable, and miserly when they arrive; Einar is curt, unpleasant, and solely focused on his tree-logging endeavors to the point of abandoning everything (and everyone) else. It's impossible not to cheer for Signe as she puts the house and farm to rights with the help of her two younger sons and begins the process of helping Gird regain her strength. I also loved watching the way her sons always obeyed her, even though they were growing big and tall and lived during a time when women weren't always given much respect. Seeing the give-and-take of Signe and Rune's relationship was also very satisfying. I also just really liked getting such a different angle on frontier life, focused on the individual struggles of the people making their lives on the frontier rather than on the more publicized "drama" of cowboys and Native American struggles/raids and the like. This is the authentic story of the West, because it's the story of the individual family.

Basically, if you're looking for an character-focused book about Scandinavians moving to the American frontier in the early twentieth century, then The Promise of Dawn fits the bill to a T. Let me know what you think if you read it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel through the BookLook Early Reviewers program.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Unreformed Martin Luther by Andreas Malessa, 2017

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Will the real Martin Luther please stand up?

After five hundred years of examining the life of the "father of the Reformation," we must surely know all there is to know about Martin Luther. But is that true?
Did he really nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door?
Did he throw an inkpot at the devil?
Did he plant an apple tree?
Did his wife escape her convent in a herring barrel?
German radio and television journalist Andreas Malessa looks at the actual history of Luther and concludes that many of the tales we know best are nothing but nonsense.
Diving gleefully into the research, Malessa investigates many of the falsehoods and fallacies surrounding the reformer, rejecting them in favor of equally incredible facts. Full of humor and irony, this book educates and entertains while demonstrating a profound respect for Luther's life and mission.

If you're looking for the truth of the man behind the theses, come discover his faith and influence--with the myths stripped away.
(168 pages)

First, I want to describe my background going into The Unreformed Martin Luther: basically, I am not a Lutheran and I don't really worship the ground Luther once walked on. I do, however, think he was a very important historical figure and that his life warrants historical examination. I'd read a biography about him in the past and learned a little bit about him in AP European History, but I had never even heard most of the rumors being debunked in this book until, well, the book said them right before debunking them.

But you know what? The middle ages were a very interesting time period. And people back then were . . . well, not exactly living up to the Victorian standard. Even Martin Luther, this Catholic priest and religious leader, was bawdy at times. And he also, apparently, liked to write in detail to his friend(s) about his constipation. Because oversharing was definitely a thing back then.

Speaking over oversharing, did you know that newlyweds in the Middle Ages had to have witnesses on their wedding night to make sure they were really consummating the marriage? They would slip away once things really started to get going, but still. That is yet another reason I am glad I don't live in the Middle Ages (ranked fourth after 1. they didn't have glasses so I would have been blind as a bat and 2. women were stuck making bread and raising babies and 3. everybody died young).

But honestly, some of these chapters were really cool. My favorites were probably the one on constipation (because I just think it's hilarious we know so much about the bowel movements of some guy from 500 years ago!) and the one about the origin of the "Here I stand" quote. It turns out that when Luther said "Here I stand" he was actually saying "Look, I've already given my speech in two different languages today and it's really hot and I feel sick and I can't do it a third time. All I can do now is stand here." The actual end to his speech was good too, but I can't remember what it was. Obviously not as memorable as "here I stand," I guess.

Before I end I suppose I should also add that, in keeping with the slightly vulgar nature of discourse back then, a few of the Luther quotes are rather lewd. I pretty much just took that in stride, though, because the whole point of the book is to show us the "unedited" version of who Martin Luther really was.

Basically, The Unreformed Martin Luther is a really funny and infomative book about a major historical figure and his time period. Whether you agree with his beliefs or not, you can't help but get a hoot out of reading this unfiltered examination of the real man behind the myths.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Get Coding! by Young Rewired State, 2016

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Learn how to write HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and build your own website, app, and game! An essential guide to computer programming for kids by kids.
Crack open this book and set off on several fun missions while simultaneously learning the basics of writing code. Want to make a website from scratch? Create an app? Build a game? All the tools are here, laid out in a user-friendly format that leads kids on an imaginary quest to keep a valuable diamond safe from dangerous jewel thieves. Presented by Young Rewired State an international collective of tech-savvy kids in easy-to-follow, bite-size chunks, the real-life coding skills taught in this engaging, comprehensive guide may just set young readers on the path to becoming technology stars of the future."

(208 pages)

I actually agreed to review this all the way back in October, but I only got around to reading it a few weeks before this review needed to go live. Why? Because it's a fun premise for teaching kids to code, and I really love it, but I already knew how to do almost everything the book teaches. I did a two-semester HTML/JavaScript/CSS web coding class several years ago and took AP Computer Science (which teaches Java, similar to JavaScript) in my junior year. I already love to code–thus the fact that I'll be majoring in it when I start college (two weeks from now!)–so I don't really need the introductory material anymore.

"Why did you agree to review it, then?" you may be asking. It's a fair question, but honestly, I was hoping I could pass it along to my youngest brother and see him interacting with it. He's frankly more of the target age, and he was just getting into coding at that point. But he took one look at the book, saw that it didn't involve coding mods for Minecraft, and said he wasn't going to do it. Hmmph.

But honestly, after flipping through it, I still think Get Coding! would be absolutely perfect for just the right kid. I probably could have gotten my brother hooked on it if I'd tried sooner–heck, I probably would have gotten hooked on it if I'd gotten it before I took the other classes. It teaches a lot of interesting skills in a meaningful way, tying them together with letters and "missions" connected to this stolen gem that the coder is helping to protect from the "Bond Brothers" who want to steal it back. You have to make a website for exchanging information about the gem, then password-protect it, then build a checklist web app, then plan a route through a city (by embedding Google Maps), then make a game to train the security guards at the museum, then put together a full website to inform the public about the gem. It's sequential and interesting, and there are little newspaper articles to go along with the letters at each step.

If anything, I worry that the book packs too much of a punch at just 208 pages. It moves extraordinarily quickly, and while it explains things well I bet there will be kids who will get stuck early on, copy the code straight from the book without analyzing it, and struggle to understand the trickier concepts further on. That was definitely a problem when my brother and I worked through the web design textbooks a few years ago. The support website for the book,, actually looks very helpful, though, so it could be okay.

Basically, if you or your kid thinks the book's "mission" gimmick will make coding fun, then definitely buy Get Coding! If you don't think it will hold interest, though, then you would probably be better hunting around to find something that will be more attractive.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Next Together by Lauren James, 2017

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Katherine and Matthew are destined to be born again and again, century after century. Each time, their presence changes history for the better, and each time, they fall hopelessly in love, only to be tragically separated.

Spanning the Crimean War, the Siege of Carlisle and the near-future of 2019 and 2039 they find themselves sacrificing their lives to save the world. But why do they keep coming back? What else must they achieve before they can be left to live and love in peace?

Maybe the next together will be different...

(356 pages)

I'd definitely heard of this basic scenario (two souls in love reborn again and again throughout time), but I love it so much I just had to request The Next Together. I was so excited when it came that I cracked it open that same day and read the whole thing by bedtime.

The sad thing is that it wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be. And it's strange, because in some ways it lived up to my expectations: it features true love, multiple fascinating and under-represented periods in European history, drama and sacrifices galore.

But it was also a disappointment. Because I never really felt the connection between Katherine and Matthew, I was just told that there was this big special tie between them. And there was so much skipping around between time periods that I never really got invested in any of them. And the side characters were basically footnotes in the stories. And in at least one storyline, Katherine and Matthew are both a little too . . . promiscuous for my tastes.

Instead of being a beautiful epic love story about two intricate people throughout time, and the mystery of why they kept being separated from each other, The Next Together basically turned out to be four rather shallow romance novelettes about unremarkable people who are tied together by some funky time travel shtuff. And the time travel shtuff wasn't even explained in the end. I was prepared to be really mad about that in this review, but then I looked on Goodreads and found out that there's actually a sequel coming that will probably explain everything (though I don't think I'll read it). As an aside, the main character of this sequel is lesbian. I think that gives you a good idea of the author's outlook on certain things.

I did enjoy the storyline that was told entirely through notes between the two characters, though. They may have been rather naughty from time to time, but they were also so sweet and hilarious that I couldn't help but love them. I kind of want a whole book now just made up of the sticky-notes they sent each other via the fridge.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Back on the Map by Lisa Ann Scott, 2017

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With their mother long dead and their father unknown, eleven-year-old Penny Porter and her twin brother Parker have been bouncing around foster homes for as long as they can remember. Inspired by the historical figures in her favorite book, Penny likes to imagine who she could be related to. Sacagawea? Her genes would be good ones to have. Or maybe Ghandi, or Harriet Tubman. There are endless possibilities!

But while Penny embraces the question marks in her family tree, she and Porter are both ready for a real home. Living with their aging, ornery Grauntie isn’t easy, but it’s better than other places they’ve been, and they don’t want to get moved again—or worse, split up. Penny believes the key to keeping them from being bounced to another new home is getting their town of New Hope, North Carolina back on the state map. And what better way to do that than to spruce up and sell New Hope’s Finest—an old orphanage that was supposed to reopen years ago as the best attraction ever, but never did.

She’s got the creativity and the gumption to do it. And maybe knowing who you are doesn’t matter so much as knowing what you can do. But will that be enough to finally keep her and Parker in one place for good?

(306 pages)

There are a lot of books on the market out there about kids living in quirky small towns, learning some valuable lesson about life while trying to overcome a challenge. They often have quite a Southern twang to them. I've liked a few of them, but they often ring rather hollow/cliche for me.

If that category of books is a circle, then Back to the Map is lying on the edge of that circle with part of its body in the circle and part of it outside it. I think it actually gains a lot for keeping the quirkiness a little more contained than some of the other books do. Penny's passion for trading items around town and fixing junk up into art is very fun to read about, and the interesting side characters add fun distractions to the story. The central project of fixing up New Hope's Finest (a decrepit, abandoned orphanage) is very interesting to read about. I never quite could follow Penny's logic that tied selling New Hope's Finest and getting the town back on the map to gaining a forever home there, but I suppose 11-year-olds aren't known for having the soundest reasoning skills.

I think the bits I mainly didn't care for revolved around characters' quirky semi-magic "gifts" that popped up here and there, just because I don't really care for that particular trope. Others might like it more than I did, though. I also didn't really like the depiction of Porter, which offered a rather stereotypical "behaves like he has autism and has special powers" character, but I don't know enough about the issue to know whether it's actually offensive or not.

There was also a plotline about Penny's search for information about her father, whom she and her twin brother Porter have never met because their mother gave birth out of wedlock without him. All they know is that he must have been some dark ethnicity because their mother was white and they look Black. Racism is lightly touched on (Penny thinks her mother's family is extra ashamed that she and her brother were born out of wedlock and dark, and she remembers times when strangers called her a mutt), with a subtlety that I think works well in a book which is really focused on other issues. There are a lot of snippets of information about historical figures who Penny likes to "try on" as potential ancestors on her father's side, which is sweet and sad and educational all at the same time.

Basically, Back on the Map is a sweet, fun read that I enjoyed. It's probably not going on my top twenty favorites list, but that's not really saying much about its quality since I've literally read hundreds (if not thousands) of books. If you're interested in it, then go ahead and read it. You won't be disappointed.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Beneath Copper Falls by Colleen Coble, 2017

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USA TODAY bestselling author Colleen Coble returns to her beloved Rock Harbor—but both danger and romance hide in this idyllic small town.

Dana Newell has just moved to Rock Harbor to take a job as a sheriff's dispatcher and is settling in next door to Bree and Kade Matthews. The abusive relationship she left behind seems a distant memory in this perfect place.

Her first day on the job, Dana receives a call from her friend Allyson who screams "He's going to kill me too" before the phone goes dead. Dana immediately dispatches a deputy, but it's too late. Allyson's death is ruled an accident, but Dana just doesn't believe it. She knows Allyson—an investigative reporter—was researching a new story. Did someone want to keep her quiet?

Dana continues to look into the accident with the help of Bree and also Allyson's cousin Boone. Romance quickly blooms between Dana and Boone but the game is much more complex than either of them imagined. When Dana's ex-fiance locates her, she's caught in the middle. It’s a game of cat and mouse as she and Boone fight to catch one killer while evading another.

(368 pages)

Beneath Copper Falls is an interesting and engaging read, but ultimately not a very memorable one. It struggled to incorporate a wide variety of characters and storylines while picking up speed in a murder mystery that was more head-scratching than anything.

I mean, the murderer's attitude and demeanor . . . doesn't really match the psyche of his crimes. Forgive me if I'm wrong about this, because I am definitely not a mental health expert, but it seems like his behavior over time is not really cohesive with a single psychological profile. Even so, I still confidently guessed the murderer 1/3 of the way from the book's end. The murder mystery part of the story wasn't really much of a twisty surprise.

As for the other part, the characters, I thought they were pretty well done. Like I said, I did enjoy reading Beneath Copper Falls, so take this with a grain of salt . . . but I thought the characters were rather too plentiful to be necessary (the side effect of writing multiple books set in the same town!) and that a lot of the dialogue was pretty cheesy. And the romance was just painful to read.

Also, Dana really didn't ring true to me as a 911 dispatcher. I don't know exactly what training they go through, but it must be pretty intense; the way she reacts when things go wrong throughout the story just didn't feel like she'd been taught to cope with emergencies. And it seems like the sort of person who helps out in emergencies all day long would already have some basic self-defence training (if for no other reason than that she'd have seen first-hand how necessary it can become). Finally, several times on the job Dana has to fight the urge to offer to pray with people as she helps them–and, indeed, she mentions that she used to get in trouble at her old job for doing just that. I shouldn't even need to say it, but that is utterly inappropriate and unprofessional behavior. It's not "nice" or "godly" to try and shove your religious practices on people when they're at their most frantic and fragile, it's just potentially adding a new stressor to an already-extreme situation. I can't believe this hadn't been drilled into Dana at some point.

This review reads pretty negatively, but I just want to reiterate that I did enjoy reading Beneath Copper Falls. It may have had its flaws, and it may not be the best book I've ever read, but it was still a nice, fluffy read that helped me while away my summer hours. That is certainly worth something in and of itself!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, in order to participate in a TLC blog tour.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer on Earth by Peter Thompson, 2017

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The night that eleven-year-old Grady Johnson looked out his window and wished upon a shooting star, his life changed forever. Grady, his Ma, and younger sister Luanne are having a hard summer. Dad has died and the family isn't the same. Though Ma is trying her best, Grady knows they don't have enough money to get by. The shooting star he saw was a space craft plunging to Earth, and landing at the back of their farm. Extraterrestrial engineer Ralwil Turth has one goal, to fix his power drive and go back home. But things don't go as planned. Stuck in human form, he gets to know Grady and his family as he works on their farm. He starts to learn about what it means to be human, and the exotic charms of this planet like the taste of potatoes, and how amazing bugs are. As Ralwil grows to care for Grady and his family, he comes up with a plan to help them, sure it will solve all their problems. But when trouble comes, the family's survival and Ralwil's very life are on the line. Can Grady find the courage to help his family and save his friend?
(296 pages)

When Peter Thompson reached out to me to review his new MG novel, Summer on Earth, I leaped at the chance to read it. I'm a huge sucker for sci-fi stories, and MG books, so Summer on Earth looked like a really good combination for me.

And it was. I really loved the combination of futuristic alien tech, realistic small-town ambiance, and meaningful relationship growth between the characters. I was fascinated by Ralwil's exploration of earth, I loved watching him experience everything we take for granted for the first time. His enthusiasm for corn, for example, and his analysis of human family dynamics were both thought-provoking and funny. I especially loved when he observed Grady's widowed mother in control of the children and the farm and decided that earth must feature matriarchal societies. I wish!

If I had to pick one book that Summer on Earth most reminded me of, I would say Alexander Key's The Forgotten Door. There's a little bit of the same underlying story, the idea of an alien from a futuristic world becoming stuck on earth and learning about human ways as he attempts to find a way back home. I wouldn't be surprised, actually, if Thompson got some of his inspiration for Summer on Earth from reading The Forgotten Door as a kid. And as someone who absolutely loved the earlier book but hated how short it was, I have to say that I totally love getting that vibe from Summer on Earth.

Honestly, there's not much else to say. I suppose my one "complaint" is that Summer on Earth doesn't dive quite as deep into some of the issues it brings up as it might have done, but I also recognize and appreciate that it's written for a middle school audience and thus isn't meant to go as far as I would sometimes prefer. I really liked Summer on Earth, but I think I'm also a little older than its target audience. When I handed it off to a younger boy a little closer to the middle-grade target he loved it even more than I did.

Basically, if you're looking for an interesting and engaging sci-fi book aimed at middle schoolers but still interesting for any age group, then Summer on Earth fits the bill. If you do decide to read it, comment below to let us know what you think!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 11, 2017

College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year, Revised Edition by Julie Zeilinger, 2017

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College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year is a comprehensive and authentic guide for girls to everything related to the college process. Unlike other college guides, College 101 is written from the honest, humorous, and relatable first-person perspective of a young woman who recently experienced the process, while also offering the advice of experts and unique experiences of other college-aged women. This guide shows girls what to really expect from the college planning process as well as their first year of college, including pro tips and common pitfalls to avoid. From test-taking tips, to finding the right college for you, to how to make the most of your freshman year, this book answers all young women's questions, including those they didn't even know they had! Presented in a dynamic and varied format, College 101 imparts seriously valuable information and secrets about the process in an extemporaneous and entertaining way.
(207 pages)

I figured that, as a high school graduate getting ready to head off to college next year, I was the perfect person to read and review College 101. I may not be able to judge the quality of her advice against personal experience, but I can describe how this member, at least, of its target audience responds to the book.

Unfortunately, I have to report that I really didn't like it that much. Some of Zeilinger's advice is helpful, especially her comprehensive to-bring checklist and her detailed descriptions of financial tips and advice/resources for anyone who suspects they may have been assaulted. But, and I couldn't find a way to say this that wasn't really awful, Zeilinger is just way too feminist-focused to write a college guidebook.

And for the record, I say that as a feminist.

The thing is, men and women really aren't that different. When I picked up College 101, I barely processed (and definitely care) that it was addressed solely to girls. But it's a really big deal to Zeilinger, and she's constantly talking about how we women "owe it to our grandmothers" to do well in school because they fought for our right to attend it, and how any bad thing that happens to us–ever!–is definitely the result of sexism. I don't know about you, but my first thought when another woman is rude to me is not "oh, it's not her fault, she's just responding to the sexist pressures placed on women that force them to push others down to get ahead." I think "that woman is responsible for her own actions, and she is choosing to be a jerk to me." Also, Zeilinger talks a lot about how terrible and sexist it is that a lot of women feel pressured to do it all–to look good, get good grades, and balance school and a social life. Yeah, sure, it can suck sometimes. But does she think guys don't face those same pressures? Hello?

She also goes into way too much detail about sex, and sexual freedom and sexual experimentation for my taste. I'm all for letting people make their own choices, but my choices do not involve sexual activity and so I really don't enjoy reading so much about it.

Basically, I gained a little bit of new information from College 101 but I didn't agree with a lot of the author's attitudes and outlooks so my enjoyment of the book was marred by that. It could be better for other readers, I don't know, but I for one will keep an eye out for another college guidebook–maybe one that's not addressed just to girls this time.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Captivating Lady Charlotte by Carolyn Miller, 2017

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Lady Charlotte Featherington is destined for great things on the marriage market. After all, as the beautiful daughter of a marquess, she should have her pick of the eligible nobility hen she debuts. She, however, has love at the top of her list of marriageable attributes. And her romantic heart falls hard for one particularly dashing, attentive suitor. Sadly for Charlotte, her noble father intends her betrothed to be someone far more dull.

William Hartwell may be a duke, but he knows he was Charlotte's father's pick, not the young lady's own choice. And the captivating Lady Charlotte does not strike him as a woman who will be wooed by his wealth or title. While she has captured his heart, he has no idea how to win hers in return--and the betrayal and scandal his first wife put him through makes it difficult for him to believe that love can ever be trusted. His only hope is that Charlotte's sense of responsibility will win out over her romantic notions.

Can a widowed duke and a romantically inclined lady negotiate a future and discover love beyond duty? Will they be able to find healing and hope from the legacy of grace? Poignant and charming, this is another beautifully written, clean and wholesome Regency romance from Carolyn Miller.

(310 pages)

First, a word of warning: The Captivating Lady Charlotte is the second book in the Regency Brides: A Legacy of Grace series so there may be some accidental spoilers for its prequel, The Elusive Miss Ellison (my review). There's a fairly strong connection between the two, since Charlotte is the younger cousin of Lavinia Ellison from the first book. Lavinia and her–ahem–personal life actually wind up taking a pretty big role in the story, but I'll try to steer around the biggest spoilers.

I went back to read my review of Miss Ellison after reading Lady Charlotte, and I was reminded of the strengths and weaknesses of the former. It's funny, because I think this second book is directly opposite its prequel–better where Miss Ellison was weak, and weak in areas it was strong. What do I mean? Well, the religion in Miss Ellison was so cheesy and pushy (perhaps because Lavinia's father was a pastor) that I found it almost hard to read; discussions of faith and religious duty in Lady Charlotte, on the other hand, are sparse and focused mainly on a duty to help those who fall through society's cracks (as well as a few mentions among fellow believers of the importance of prayer during hard times). On the other hand, I actually really loved the romance in Miss Ellison–it was entertaining and realistic, if unrealistically enabled by the plot at times, and everything was just really sweet. In Charlotte's case, however, I never really get the vibe that she and William had enough of a connection or a shared passion for anything that would tie them together. William basically decides he needs a new wife and that Charlotte is pretty enough (and, you know, probably has enough substance) to take on the role. She never shows any interest in him until very late in the book, and I honestly feel like she just managed to convince herself that she was in love with the older man so she could comfortably resign herself to the situation dictated by her parents and society.

I know. That's not exactly the most romantic storyline, is it? The whole premise of the book (basically, "Charlotte is eighteen now so she must be married off to the highest bidder!") becomes more sexist the longer I think about it. I don't entirely hold that against Miller, since I'm pretty sure that's just how things were back then and she does try to create realistic loving relationships amidst the arranged marriages, but it still just rubs me the wrong way. As an eighteen-year-old young woman myself, I can't really stomach the way Charlotte's entire life revolves around getting married, loving her future husband, and bearing an heir and a spare for his family. Ick.

I really did enjoy reading The Captivating Lady Charlotte, even if it sounds like I didn't. While I didn't love the main characters quite so much this time, and the plot was a little more murky/rambling than that of Miss Ellison, I actually enjoyed it just as much. I look forward to also enjoying the third book in the series, The Dishonorable Miss DeLancey, when it comes out in a few months.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in order to participate in a Kregel blog tour.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Name Unknown by Roseanna M. White, 2017

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Edwardian Romance and History Gains a Twist of Suspense

Rosemary Gresham has no family beyond the band of former urchins that helped her survive as a girl in the mean streets of London. Grown now, they concentrate on stealing high-value items and have learned how to blend into upper-class society. But when Rosemary must determine whether a certain wealthy gentleman is loyal to Britain or to Germany, she is in for the challenge of a lifetime. How does one steal a family's history, their very name?

Peter Holstein, given his family's German blood, writes his popular series of adventure novels under a pen name. With European politics boiling and his own neighbors suspicious of him, Peter debates whether it might be best to change his name for good. When Rosemary shows up at his door pretending to be a historian and offering to help him trace his family history, his question might be answered.

But as the two work together and Rosemary sees his gracious reaction to his neighbors' scornful attacks, she wonders if her assignment is going down the wrong path. Is it too late to help him prove that he's more than his name?

(432 pages)

I was a little wary of reading A Name Unknown because I get rather frustrated with the cheesy, unrealistic nature of a lot of historical fiction novels (and most especially Christian historical fiction novels). I really liked the premise, though, so I decided to take the plunge and review it.

And I'm very glad I did. While the writing was indeed slightly cheesy in parts (mainly in the few–rather skippable–scenes where the characters were talking/writing about religion), I was impressed by how normal A Name Unknown really was. I didn't read it thinking "ick, this is cringe-worthy but it's fluffy enough that I'm enjoying it;" rather, I was so engaged by the story and its characters that I wasn't really thinking anything to myself at all. I believe I can unequivocally say that A Name Unknown is not only the best Christian fiction novel I've read in a very long time, but it's also straight-up one of the best romances I've read in a while.

I think a huge reason for this is the male lead. Most books feature male protagonists who are handsome and brooding, rich and intelligent, well-spoken and clever. Peter Holstein is many of these things–he's middlingly handsome, quite wealthy, very smart, and extremely clever–but all of this is hidden from the world by his terrible stutter. That's right, Peter has a stutter. Like, a really bad one. And I love that, because it makes him so much more real and vulnerable. I mean, the man communicates important things to people by letters because he can't make his tongue trip out all the right words! Peter is also definitely not some high-society golden boy: he's basically scorned by everyone but a close few, because his family and last name tie him too closely to the hated Germans (the book's set during the lead-up to WWI, a fascinating time I know far too little about).

I also love that we get to watch Peter and Rosemary develop a very natural relationship over the course of over 400 pages–there's zero insta-love involved. They don't look at each other for the first time and get a strange spike in their heartbeat, they don't find themselves yearning to be close to each other, they don't rush to fall in love with someone they just met because they're physically attracted to them. During the first half of the book their relationship grows carefully, slowly, respectably, and genuinely. It's a beautiful thing to watch.

Now for a few negatives. I have to say, A Name Unknown does fall for the usual trap of having the characters start saying stupid, unrealistic things after things have developed a bit: Rosemary and Peter express their high opinions of each other in terms that are way too frank, for example. The only other bad dialogue comes in once or twice when Rosemary is supposed to be showing off her street smarts and cleverness–her dialogue in those scenes reads more like something from a movie than anything from real life. Come to think of it, Peter was a little too perfect as well.

But I'm really not complaining too loudly. He's a sweet, humble bookworm, for crying out loud. A bookworm and an author. And they grow to know each other by reading books and talking about them, which is like my ideal romance. So I'm just going to make a passing reference to the political stuff that I've completely ignored (and which was actually quite fascinating, by the way!) and end the review here.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 24, 2017

You'll Think of Me by Robin Lee Hatcher, 2017

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In a small town in Idaho’s idyllic wine country where the past looms large, can two people realize their individual dreams for the future … together?

Abandoned once too often, Brooklyn Myers never intended to return to Thunder Creek, Idaho. Her hometown holds too many memories of heartache and rejection. But when her estranged husband Chad Hallston dies and leaves his family home and acreage to her and their ten-year-old daughter Alycia, it's an opportunity to change their lives for the better—a chance Brooklyn can't pass up, for Alycia's sake if not her own.

Derek Johnson, Chad's best friend since boyhood, isn't keen on the return of Brooklyn Myers to Thunder Creek. He still blames her for leading his friend astray. And now she has ruined his chance to buy the neighboring ten acres which would have allowed him to expand his organic farm. To add insult to injury, Chad's dying request was that Derek become the father to Alycia that Chad never was. How can he keep that promise without also spending time with the girl’s mother?

Brought together by unexpected circumstances, Derek and Brooklyn must both confront challenges to their dreams and expectations. He must overcome long held misconceptions about Brooklyn while she must learn to trust someone other than herself. And if they can do it, they just might discover that God has something better in mind than either of them ever imagined.

(320 pages)

First, let's just acknowledge that the premise of You'll Think of Me is slightly creepy. Brooklyn's husband dumped her penniless ten years ago when he found out she was pregnant, but he decided to track her down and leave her his family land to raise their daughter Alycia. He then proceeds to write to his childhood best friend Derek, whom he'd been promising to sell that same house and land to for years, and told him "yeah, I changed my mind. Also, I want you to be the father I never was to Alycia."

I'm sorry, but . . . what? It doesn't sound like Chad ever paid a penny of child support to Brooklyn in all this time–he owes her big-time! But instead of bequeathing her the money she really needs, he leaves her a dusty old fixer-upper and a bunch of land in a town she hates. Then he asks a friend of his to be Alycia's father, as though he has any parental claim to the girl (or any right to ask a stranger, without Brooklyn's consent, to take on such an intimate role with her daughter!). I feel like Derek never completely acknowledged how messed-up his old best friend's actions really were. Brooklyn does, which is good, but he just skirts around it and talks about "honoring Chad's last wishes" with Alycia.

Setting that aside, though, I did enjoy reading You'll Think of Me. Once in a while, it's nice to just read a fluffy romance book. This one reminded me of that old Sandra Bullock movie, Hope Floats, just with less questionable behavior and more religious lines. This is one of the first Christian romance books I read where I didn't feel like the portrayal of faith was so cheesy it was ridiculous, though, so that's good.

Basically, if you're looking for a fun, fluffy romance read then this fits the bill. It's nothing extraordinarily memorable, but it's entertaining and even meaningful and better than most of the books out there. Once you get past Chad's questionable role in Brooklyn's life, there's a lot of good to be discovered here–the characters are realistic and flawed, the situations are plausible enough, and the relationship that grows up between Derek and Brooklyn is sweet (though I never felt as emotionally invested in it as I'd have liked).

Have you read You'll Think of Me? If so, let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Batgirl at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee, 2017

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Get your cape on with the DC Super Hero Girls the unprecedented new Super Hero universe especially for girls! Readers of all ages can fly high with the all-new adventures of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, and some of the world s most iconic female super heroes as high schoolers!
Batgirl has always hidden in the shadows but does she have what it takes to stand in the spotlight at Super Hero High? 

Barbara Gordon has always been an off-the-charts, just-forget-about-the-test super-genius and tech whiz, and then she gets the offer of a lifetime when Supergirl recognizes that Barbara s talents make her an ideal candidate for Super Hero High. Donning the cape and cowl, Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl, ready to train at the most elite school on the planet, next to some of the most powerful teenagers in the galaxy. She s always had the heart of a hero . . . but now she ll have to prove that she can be one. Good thing she loves a challenge! 

Award-winning author Lisa Yee brings mystery, thrills, and laughs to this groundbreaking series that follows DC Comics most iconic female Super Heroes and Super-Villains. Move over Batman and Superman the DC Super Hero Girls are ready to save the day and have fun doing it!

(240 pages)

Oh, gosh.

I honestly don't know how to review this book. For one thing, it's an audio book; I'd literally never listened to an entire book on audio before Batgirl at Super Hero High, so my library of comparisons is completely blank. I have no idea if this was a good or a bad narrator, whether the packaging was appropriate, nothing. So I guess I'll just talk a little bit about what I noticed and then discuss the story some.

Packaging first, I guess. It comes in a rectangular cardboard box which holds a plastic thing that takes up about half of the box's width, and then a white cardboard fold-out thing that holds the four CDs that contain the actual audio. The entire audiobook takes 4.5 hours to listen through from beginning to end, which was very convenient for me–I listened to the entire thing over the course of two days while I did hands-on jobs like cleaning my room and walking the dog! I really liked the narrator, a rather perky young woman, and listening to her speak was almost like watching a movie. Once or twice I couldn't tell which character was supposed to be speaking, because there are so many she had a hard time giving them all distinct voices, but that was a very minor issue.

As for the story, well, what do you expect from a story set at "Super Hero High?" It's ridiculously hokey and unrealistic–Batgirl's ability to reprogram complex objects in mere seconds is a particularly egregious example of this–but it's so fun and exciting that you can't help but engage in some major suspension of disbelief. It is a superhero story, after all, so logic (and science!) work a little bit different there. I was never a huge superhero reader when I was younger, mainly I think because I just wasn't exposed, but Batgirl at Super Hero High shows me the sort of ridiculous fun my young imagination was missing out on for all those years. If you or a kid you know is looking for a superhero book, then this one might be just right!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A. Bussie, 2016

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Jacqueline Bussie knows that too many Christians live according to unspoken "laws" that govern the Christian life: #1: Never get angry at God; #2: Never doubt; #3: Never question; #4: Never tell your real story; #5: Always speak in cliches about evil and suffering; and #6: Always believe hope comes easy for those who truly love God.

Living according to these rules is killing real Christian life;
Outlaw Christian proposes a rebellious, life-giving, authentic alternative. Through captivating stories and with disarming honesty, Bussie gives concrete, practical strategies to help readers cultivate hope, seek joy, practice accompaniment, compost their pain, and rediscover the spiritual practice of lament. Tackling difficult questions without political divisiveness, Bussie speaks to both progressive and conservative Christians in ways that unite rather than divide. And in doing so, she provides a new way to handle the most difficult and troubling questions of life in a broken world that God will never abandon.
(288 pages)

I moved eight times over the course of my childhood, which means I've attended nine churches (plus visiting dozens more). We've found several good permanent churches over the years, but they've been in a variety of denominations. Over the past 18 years, I have been a part of Presbyterian, Church of Christ, and even non-denominational churches. There are even more denominations, I'm sure, that I simply can't remember at the moment.

I say all this simply to point out that my family has never stuck to a specific set of "laws" tied to a certain sect of the church. We're definitely not revolutionaries, and most of my parents' (and my) beliefs likely fall most closely in the "moderate" area of the political/religious scale, but I was raised to pursue my own ideas about God and religion rather than to parrot the dogma of any one specific church. For a long time, though, we faced limited church options and wound up attending a rather strange conservative church. Looking back now, I realize that I gained a bitterness and disrespect for the church from my time there because I was constantly in interaction with people who had their own set of rules about what it took to be a "good Christian" that didn't match my own. Now that we've been away from that church for almost two years, that outlook is fading–largely thanks to books like Outlaw Christian that introduce me to other people who share some of my criticisms of church culture but still participate in it and pursue a meaningful relationship with God.

Reading Outlaw Christian, I get the vibe that Bussie is someone I would legitimately like if I ever met her in person. She's thoughtful about her faith and honest about her struggles, patient with those who disagree with her, and open-minded/nonjudgmental while still confident in her own beliefs. She tackles the hardcore issues like death, grief, hardship and abuse, arguing that we should feel comfortable bringing our anger and doubts to God instead of letting them fester while we do our best to feign perfection. I really like her arguments against the misconception that a Christian has to be happy all the time.

Just a note, her points are great and sort of organized by topic by the different chapters, but they meander a little bit. I didn't mind, but others who are a little more finicky than I might. Also, I really want to take Bussie's college class on religion now. Any chance you'll be heading to St. Andrews, Scotland any time soon, Dr. Bussie?!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.