Monday, April 24, 2017

Head Strong by Dave Asprey, 2017

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From the creator of Bulletproof Coffee and author of the bestselling The Bulletproof Diet comes a revolutionary plan to upgrade your brainpower—in two weeks or less.

For the last decade, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Asprey has worked with world-renowned doctors and scientists to uncover the latest, most innovative methods for making humans perform better—a process known as "biohacking." In his first book, The Bulletproof Diet, he shared his biohacking tips for taking control of your own biology. Now, in Head Strong, Asprey shows readers how to biohack their way to a sharper, smarter, faster, more resilient brain.
(256 pages)

Oh, gosh.

I thought this was going to be a book with actual, science-proven methods for improving your brain function. There would be, like, brainteaser puzzles and healthy recipes and tips for staying focused and productive during the work-day.

As soon as I read a few pages in, though, I realized that this is pretty much the opposite of that. First, Asprey spends like half the book blathering on about how great this program is, how long it took him to put together and about how you, too, can soon be smart like me! I was annoyed, sure, but I flipped forward (it's definitely a flip-through sort of book) and read some of his actual advice. Basically, his entire strategy boils down to the mitochondria. Asprey argues that mitochondria control our brain function, and that we just have to boost our mitochondria to boost our brain function. His mitochondria-helping tips range from healthy food recipes to some sort of custom coffee (that his company sells, of course) to meditation.

Um, yeah. I smelled something stinky, so I set the book down and asked my father about it. He's a microbiologist, the kind of scientist it might have been helpful for Asprey to consult when he was coming up with his plan. Dad says that mitochondria are like the battery pack of life, that they power all parts of our body including our brain. But all of the stuff Asprey does literally has zero effect on the mitochondria. The only thing we can do to help our mitochondria out is to eat. And not just healthy food: mitochondria can use literally any food substance, except fiber, to make energy.

Suffice it to say that I will not be finishing Head Strong, nor will I recommend it to anyone. I suppose this is a good lesson to me in being careful, though: next time I agree to review a book that has to do with science, I'll be sure to look up its author first!

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cody and the Rules of Life by Tricia Springstubb, 2017

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Doing the right thing can be hard! When prized possessions start going missing, Cody gets a crash course in the most important rules of all — the rules of life.

In Cody’s life, many things are hard to predict. Like why her older brother, Wyatt, is obsessed with his new bicycle called the Cobra, or why her best friend Pearl suddenly wants to trade favorite toys. Pearl says she will trust Cody with Arctic Fox because Cody is a trusty person. But Cody doesn’t want to give up her beloved Gremlin, and she regrets it as soon as she hands him over. When the Cobra goes missing, Cody has to decide for herself who is trusty and who is not. If only she had Gremlin to talk to! Surely Pearl wouldn’t mind if she secretly traded back . . . it’s not stealing if it belonged to you in the first place, right?

(176 pages)

I don't usually review books this short, but I was offered a copy of Cody and the Rules of Life and it looked intriguing enough that I couldn't say no.

And really, it was a good book. It has much more depth to it than I went in expecting, and a variety of storylines that weave together to make the story. My favorite scenes were probably actually with Cody's teacher, Mr. Daniels. Cody writes in her class journal about the search for her brother's missing bike, which is a model Cobra, and Mr. Daniels thinks her brother lost an actual snake! It's funnier than you'd think watching him ask Cody concerned questions about her family's lifestyle, and her confusing him even more (while thinking they're on the same page!).

I didn't care much about the storyline with the swapped toys, largely because Cody should never have traded Gremlin away. I have a hard time relating with a girl who would do that–there's no way I would ever have given my treasured baby blanket away to anyone when I was her age, no matter how nice they were to me. In fact, now that I think about it, I still wouldn't give it away for anything.

But what really appealed to me about the book was the way Cody grapples with issues bigger than herself. She's grown up in a home with strict "rules of life," not just against hitting and saying mean things and stealing and all the other things that aren't nice but also against just generally being mean or unkind to anyone, and she largely views the world as black and white through the lenses of those rules. As the book goes by, she has to face that fact that someone did a very mean thing–and that her brother is terribly angry at whoever that person is. For her, this combines with other moral issues (some of them connected to the loss of Gremlin) to result in her learning several valuable lessons over the course of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Cody and the Rules of Life. It was a pleasant read, far more complex and mature than I expected it to be, and just the sort of book I would be happy to hand over to elementary and middle schoolers looking for an interesting read.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Double Cross: Deception Techniques in War by Paul B. Janeczko, 2017

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How does deception factor into fighting wars, and is it effective? In an intriguing companion to The Dark Game, Paul B. Janeczko reveals the truth about the strategic lies of war. The biblical account of Gideon. The ancient story of the Trojan horse. Deceptive techniques have been used in war through the ages. But while the principles have changed very little, the technology behind fooling the enemy has evolved dramatically. Paul B. Janeczko s fascinating chronology focuses on the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf Wars to reveal evolving attitudes toward the use and effectiveness of deceptive operations. Find out the secret plan behind the invasion of Normandy and the details of General Schwarzkopf s "Hail Mary play" during the Gulf War, among many other strategies and maneuvers designed to pull the wool over enemies' eyes. Back matter includes source notes, a bibliography, and an index."
(256 pages)

It's funny how things work out sometimes. I agreed to review Double Cross months ago, but didn't get around to it until now–which just so happens to be the exact same time that we're covering WWII and the Cold War era in my APUSH class. Deception techniques from WWII, the Korean war, and the Vietnam war make up the bulk of the content, so it works out perfectly for me: I get to study and work on my blog at the same time!

Because Double Cross is definitely educational. It talks a lot about military maneuvers on the Allied side during WWII, and on the American/UN side in the more recent wars. It also touches on the Trojan Horse story, but I already knew about that. What I really enjoyed reading about was the new stuff. Did you know that Britain invented a whole new army that was going to invade Europe at Pas-de-Calais (rather than Normandy), and that they had a group of people driving around Scotland to send out telegraph messages simulating conversations between the different parts of the army? Not only that, but they also built props on the ground to look like trucks. And they put little articles in the newspaper about how, say, the presence of thousands of soldiers was demoralizing the young Scottish women. The attention to detail that went into the operation was incredible–and it worked beautifully. Hitler actually kept a large amount of his troops near Pas-de-Calais even after the invasion of Normandy because he thought a second attack would still be coming from there!

There are way more stories in here than just the one about Scotland's notional (fake) army, though. I don't want to go into all of them too much, because Janeczko does a better job explaining all of them than I ever could, but suffice it to say that there have been some very fascinating deception operations over the years. I don't love reading about war as a rule, just because it's too horrible to think of all that death, but I really enjoyed learning about all the stranger-than-fiction ideas people had that actually worked and fooled the enemy. It's also cool to see how, in some instances, these deception tactics saved many thousands of lives. I'm all for cutting down on the casualties!

Anyway, this is a very interesting book that I actually enjoyed more than I thought I would. If you're interested at all in trickery, or war-time strategy, or a combination of both, then I definitely recommend you give Double Cross a try. It's also a great bouncing-off book for a variety of other war-time topics, because it has inserts with information about cool spy stuff and technology scattered throughout its pages as well.

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Epic Measures by Jeremy N. Smith, 2017

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Moneyball meets medicine in this remarkable chronicle of one of the greatest scientific quests of our time—the groundbreaking program to answer the most essential question for humanity: how do we live and die?—and the visionary mastermind behind it.

Medical doctor and economist Christopher Murray began the Global Burden of Disease studies to gain a truer understanding of how we live and how we die. While it is one of the largest scientific projects ever attempted—as breathtaking as the first moon landing or the Human Genome Project—the questions it answers are meaningful for every one of us: What are the world’s health problems? Who do they hurt? How much? Where? Why?

Murray argues that the ideal existence isn’t simply the longest but the one lived well and with the least illness. Until we can accurately measure how people live and die, we cannot understand what makes us sick or do much to improve it. Challenging the accepted wisdom of the WHO and the UN, the charismatic and controversial health maverick has made enemies—and some influential friends, including Bill Gates who gave Murray a $100 million grant.

In Epic Measures, journalist Jeremy N. Smith offers an intimate look at Murray and his groundbreaking work. From ranking countries’ healthcare systems (the U.S. is 37th) to unearthing the shocking reality that world governments are funding developing countries at only 30% of the potential maximum efficiency when it comes to health, Epic Measures introduces a visionary leader whose unwavering determination to improve global health standards has already changed the way the world addresses issues of health and wellness, sets policy, and distributes funding.

(352 pages)

First, full disclaimer: as the daughter of a doctor and a physician-scientist, I came into this book probably with more inherent interest and familiarity with the world of research than the average reader will. I found the book very interesting (if slow and overly-detailed at times); you might just find it boring.

But honestly, I don't know how anyone could find it completely boring. It's a book about the development of a universal health measurement resource! Chris Murray's research has so much potential for helping us pack the greatest punches against illness with the most efficiency, and I think it's awesome. Is it the be all and end all of such rankings? No, as Murray himself points out, the study is too new to have all the bugs worked out. It needs competition to keep it as fresh and relevant as possible, and it needs critical eyes to find any flaws hidden in the data. But it's amazing nonetheless, leaps and bounds above any other measurements that have been attempted. Kudos to all the amazing researchers who pulled it off, and to Bill Gates for funding such crucial research.

Setting aside the amazing stuff that Murray and his peers accomplished, what of the book itself? It does struggle at times to stay interesting–especially when going through all the meetings Murray attended, all the jobs he had, all the research he did before he got funding for this main project, etc. I do think seeing the journey Murray took to publishing the Global Burden of Disease is important, though, because it gives us more insight into who he is as a person and as a researcher.

And Murray truly is a genius. He's extraordinarily passionate about his work, extremely gifted intellectually, and full of seemingly boundless energy. I think his dedication to his research is good, when it comes to the research itself and all the people it will help, but I do struggle a little bit to empathize with him much. As I said, I know lots of scientists. I've seen how wrapped up they can get in their work. Murray's wife divorced him and took custody of their three children, and they don't say why but I can only guess that a lot of that tension stemmed from him never being home. It's great that he could accomplish so much for all the sick people on the planet, and to the world he's a hero for his dedication to the cause, but I'd be willing to bet that his kids' opinions of him are far less glowing.

Ah, well, who wants to focus on the negatives? Epic Measures is an interesting, important, and well-researched book about an interesting, important, and well-researched project that has great potential to change the world. Definitely check this book out if you're interested in learning about the struggle to end human suffering around the globe.

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson, 2017

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It’s July 1940 on the south coast of England. A plane crash-lands in the marsh, and sixteen-year-old Peggy finds its broken pilot—a young Polish airman named Henryk. Afraid and unwilling to return to the fight, Henryk needs a place to hide, and Peggy helps him find his way to a remote, abandoned church.

Meanwhile, Peggy’s eleven-year-old brother Ernest is doing his best to try to understand the war happening around him. He’s reading all the pamphlets—he knows all the rules, he knows exactly what to do in every situation. He’s prepared, but not for Peggy’s hidden pilot.

Told in alternating points of view, this is a beautifully written story about growing up in wartime and finding the difference between following the rules and following your heart.

(298 pages)

I've read a huge amount of WWII books over the past few years, so I've gotten rather picky about them. No, not exactly picky–not bored, either–just really eager to read books that approach the war from unique angles. I don't grow sick of reading about, say, Jews in hiding, but I do like to learn something new from the books I read rather than always focusing on the same (albeit terrible) things.

All that to say . . . I thought That Burning Summer stands out, but isn't incredibly unique. I've never read a book about a Polish airman before, and the details about his past ordeal are absolutely fascinating and horrifying, but the whole idea of someone harboring a fallen pilot in rural England was already covered wonderfully in Dan Smith's My Friend the EnemyI've read a lot of books that included details about the paranoia the Brits felt about an imminent German invasion, so those details also weren't novel to me, but I did appreciate seeing them carried to the level of almost Cold War-era paranoia–I hadn't realized just how much "doom and gloom" many average Brits felt about the war.

Moving on to analyzing the book as a novel, though, I have to point out that everyone (hopefully!) knows going in that the British isles were never invaded during WWII. This takes a lot of tension out of the read for us, because we never seriously worry about this the way Ernest does. Watching him obsess over the impending invasion does give us an insight into his personality, though, so it does serve some purpose.

To be honest, I enjoyed reading That Burning Summer but I didn't absolutely fall in love with it. I liked the different components of the story–learning about Henryk's past, the paranoia in town, Ernest's feelings of inadequacy, the whole storyline about their father that leaks out as the story goes on (and that gave me more new historical perspective!), etc.–but I also felt like many of them could have been fleshed out more. And the ending is fairly abrupt, jumping forward several years and then ending rather suddenly. I would have liked more detail about what had gone on between everyone in the interim years.

Overall, though, this was a pretty good read. If you're interested in it, then by all means do check it out!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, and this post includes Amazon affiliate links.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Double or Nothing with the Two and Only Kelly Twins by Johanna Hurwitz, 2017

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What's the same about identical twins -- and what's different? Sleepovers, poetry projects, and new haircuts are in play as seven-year-old Arlene and Ilene start coming into their own. 

Arlene and Ilene love so many things about being identical twins. They like sharing a room, sharing friends, and wearing matching outfits. But they're in different classes at school, and one twin has a scar that the other one doesn't. One morning, their friends Monty and Joey point out a new difference that takes the sisters by surprise and gets them thinking: if they are identical twins, why are there differences between them at all?Their tongues must be the same, so why do they like different kinds of ice cream? Why does Arlene wear pink nail polish while Ilene thinks it's silly? Why is Ilene sleeping soundly when Arlene is awake, wondering how she can be sure that she is Arlene, not Ilene? Revisit the funny, lovable characters from The Two and Only Kelly Twins and take a peek at the wonders -- and puzzles -- of being an identical twin.

(80 pages)

Well, this is a very short book.

I don't usually review little-kid books, but I've always had a thing for identical twins. When Candlewick Press offered me a short book that was all about twin sisters wondering about what made each of them unique, I knew I had to say yes.

And I'm glad I did, because I got a short and sweet read out of the book. It took me about half an hour to read since it has only five chapters (80 pages) of really big text with lots of spaces for pictures. I have no idea what the illustrations look like since my ARC didn't include them, but there's an average of one picture every two or three pages.

The nit-picky part of me has to say that this isn't exactly a deep look into the issues of nature vs. nurture, that the girls seem unrealistically excited to constantly be lumped together, and that the odds of them having best friends who were also identical sisters (but who also had a fraternal male triplet) seem really, really low. Also, there's a scene early on describing how the sisters wanted to be in the same classroom in school, and how they were perfectly willing to wear nametags all year long so their teacher could tell them apart. I thought this was kind of funny, because I just watched a YouTube video the other day (here if you're interested, starting around 2:20) about the worst things about being identical twins, and the sisters in that video described feeling really singled out and embarrassed when their teacher did make them wear nametags all year long in fourth grade. I suppose every sibling pair is different, so it's certainly possible that some twins would actively seek out the nametags, but I just thought there was an interesting contrast there.

Anyway, this was a very quick and fairly shallow book that could be good for kids who are interested in identical twins. If you have one who reads it, please let us know in the comments section how they like it!

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, April 3, 2017

KJV Word Study Bible from Thomas Nelson, 2017

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Imitation Leather, Brown, Red Letter Edition: 1,700 Key Words that Unlock the Meaning of the Bible

The KJV Word Study Bible includes in-text subheadings and 1,700 easy-to-use word studies with select Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words explained in every chapter from Genesis to Revelation, helping you dig deeper into your Bible study. By looking into these ancient texts we are able to read scripture as it was originally written and passed on from generation to generation, bringing these words to life and allowing you to almost hear Jesus teaching on the hillside or crying out to God on the cross. As you study you will discover the richness and significance of the original languages of the Word of God and experience scripture in a whole new way.

(1664 pages)

Yeah, yeah, I know. This is the fifth Bible that I've gotten for review in the past year. What can I say? There's something really fun about cracking open a brand-new Bible and seeing what makes it different from all the other ones I have. Though I'm definitely going to work on finding a way to get rid of a few, because I think I have about eight Bibles now. Maybe I can donate them to a church or something.

Anyway, I do have an honest reason for getting this particular Bible: I've never had a King James Bible before, or even read more than a verse or two in one. From that fact you can probably deduce that I'm not one of those "Bible purists" who think the KJV is the One True Translation, but I have always been interested in having a King James translation just because I love history and languages and I adore the idea of reading a translation that was written almost five-hundred years ago. The English language was so pretty and poetic back then! I'd been hoping for a KJV Bible for a while for precisely that reason, so when this one came up I snatched it at once.

And honestly, the translation is just as gorgeous as I'd expected it to be. I just flipped the Bible open to a random page and found Mark 3:13,
And he [Jesus] goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him.
I just think the whole translation is so gorgeous! It gives me a feeling of connectedness, too, because I know that Christians were reading these exact words in England literally before America was even a country. Very, very cool.

Anyway, on to discussing the Bible itself. I love the cover, it's a pretty shade of brown that's pretty dark but not quite as black-ish as the image up above makes it seem. There's a pretty light brown ribbon, which I love–it's always such a pain when there's no ribbon to keep track of my place. Instead of having clarifications for tricky words included at the bottom of each page, they're placed into the text in light blue boxes that the text just jumps around. In the back there are four different indexes and a concordance, for when you're looking for something in particular. The words of Jesus are printed in red, and every book of the Bible gets a little intro that takes up about half a page. The font is a good size, pretty big and very comfortable to read.

Honestly, I don't know what else to say about this Bible other than that I really like it and I know I'll be using it in the future. I might not make it my go-to, just because the language makes it a little harder to comprehend than my NIV and NKJV Bibles, but this Bible is so pretty (both in its binding and in its words) that I know I'll be drawn to it again and again.

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this Bible from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers program in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 31, 2017

1,001 Ways to Slow Down by Barbara Ann Kipfer, 2017

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This irresistible list book from National Geographic provides lighthearted quick hits of inspiration for those of us who feel overwhelmed--which is to say, all of us. Musings, activity suggestions, and illuminating quotes are paired with whimsical art on themes such as living in the moment, achieving balance, relieving stress, developing patience, and appreciating the world around us. "Slow living" sidebars, such as "Foods to Cook Slowly" and "Things to Do the Old-Fashioned Way," are interspersed throughout the book.
(320 pages)

What a nice book this is.

It's not a novel, but instead a collection of 1,001 gentle tips for slowing down and enjoying life.

1,001 Ways to Slow Down is a gorgeous book in and of itself, a thick hard-bound square book with a luxuriously textured dust jacket. Every two-page layout of the book is bordered by a different pretty design (usually either flowers or loops), and the color of the numbers above each tip correlates with the color of the border. This creates a very nice effect, though a slightly confusing one at first: I thought there was some organizational reason for the different colored numbers, but it turned out they were just decorative.

As for the tips themselves, I thought most of them were wonderful. There were a few that didn't apply to me, about doing things with your kids or having relations with your partner, but most of them were directly applicable to my life. Flipping through them again, here are a few favorites that stick out:
#405: Read long, slow, calming, class books.
#481: Ask yourself, "What bad thing will happen if I don't keep moving and doing? Can I just be for a while?"
#768: Read gravestones. Stories are there to be discovered.
Scattered between the 1,001 entries are also beautifully-illustrated quotes about slowing down/finding peace, and a handful of helpful lists (foods that need to be cooked slowly, ways to spend time outside, ways to productively slow down at work, etc.). The entire vibe of the book makes me think it's geared toward millenials, with all its description of "me time," adult coloring books and yoga, but I think its messages are still good and not just catering to the hip crowd. For me, reading 1,001 Ways to Slow Down was a much-needed reminder to slow down and appreciate the present without agitating about my future. I will definitely keep my copy of the book, and will flip through it for inspiration when I start to feel overwhelmed by the stressors in my life.

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel for the purpose of participating in a TLC Book Tour.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Matylda, Bright and Tender by Holly M. McGhee, 2017

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In a courageous debut novel, Holly M. McGhee explores the loss that shakes one girl’s world — and the unexpected consequences of the things we do for love.
Sussy and Guy are best friends, fourth-graders who share their silliest thoughts and deepest hopes. One afternoon, the two of them decide they must have something of their very own to love. After a trip to the pet store, they bring home a spotted lizard, the one with the ancient face and starfish toes, and they name her Matylda (with a y so it’s all her own). With Guy leading the way, they feed her and give her an origin story fit for a warrior lizard. A few weeks later, on a simple bike ride, there is a terrible accident. As hard as it is, Sussy is sure she can hold on to Guy if she can find a way to love Matylda enough. But in a startling turn of events, Sussy reconsiders what it means to grieve and heal and hope and go on, for her own sake and Matylda’s. By turns both devastating and buoyant, this story is a brave one, showing how far we can justify going for a real and true friend.

(224 pages)

Oof, this is a sad one.

Honestly, I was not emotionally prepared to handle such a heartbreaking topic. That's why I kept pushing it down my TBR list. But now I'm to the end of March, and it came out in March, so I really have to review it. I downed it in a single sitting last night.

I just . . . I don't like books about death. No, scratch that. Sometimes I love books about people getting over the deaths of loved ones (case in point: Suzanne LaFleur's Love, Aubrey). I like reading about the turmoil, watching characters face the very worst-case scenarios and come out the other side still living. There's something very poetic and encouraging about seeing someone recover from the unthinkable. And we get some of that in Matylda, as Sussy takes baby steps to begin functioning again after Guy's death, but I would have liked to see even more.

Actually, my biggest struggle with the book is that it was so short. Cut out the lizard trivia (and let's be honest, I want to cut out the lizard trivia–I am so not an amphibian person!) and the book becomes even shorter. We get a few chapters of background that gets us to care about Guy (who, for the record, is way more well-spoken than any nine-year-old I've ever known), one chapter in which the accident actually occurs, and then about a hundred pages dealing with the aftermath.

For the book's short length, it packs in a lot of details about Sussy's grieving process. She has wonderful parents, who know just when to push and when to leave her be, and Matylda is a great focus for Sussy's evolving emotions about Guy's death. I thought everything was very well done, and what I would imagine the grieing processing could be like (though I've never gone through it on such a scale as Sussy does). I did wish we got a little more background with Guy, a few more scenes with his grieving parents, more details about Sussy's and Guy's school life, an explanation about why these little kids run around saying they love each other all the time (no nine-year-old I know would be caught dead saying the word "love!"), and a little background on why all these nine-year-olds are allowed to roam free on their bikes all the time (even after Guy's totally-preventable death) . . . but, you know, maybe all that would have detracted from the raw story.

Anyway, I do recommend Matylda. I think if you're in the right mood, and a little less squeamish than I, you'll enjoy it much more than I did. Every once in a while a person is just itching for a good sad book to wallow in for a while; this is just that sort of book.

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Elusive Miss Ellison by Carolyn Miller, 2017

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Pride, prejudice and forgiveness...
Hampton Hall's new owner has the villagers of St. Hampton Heath all aflutter--all except Lavinia Ellison. The reverend's daughter cares for those who are poor and sick, and the seventh Earl of Hawkesbury definitely does not meet that criteria. His refusal to take his responsibilities seriously, or even darken the door of the church, leave her convinced he is as arrogant and reckless as his brother--his brother who stole the most important person in Lavinia's world.

Nicholas Stamford is shadowed by guilt: his own, his brother's, the legacy of war. A perfunctory visit to this dreary part of Gloucestershire wasn't supposed to engage his heart, or his mind. Challenged by Miss Ellison's fascinating blend of Bluestocking opinions, hoydenish behavior, and angelic voice, he finds the impossible becoming possible--he begins to care. But Lavinia's aloof manner, society's opposition and his ancestral obligations prove most frustrating, until scandal forces them to get along.

Can Lavinia and Nicholas look beyond painful pasts and present prejudice to see their future? And what will happen when Lavinia learns a family secret that alters everything she's ever known?

(304 pages)

Meh. This is a very forgettable Christian romance book that tries not very successfully to be a Jane Austen novel with "Christian morals" (i.e. lots of moralizing) squished in around the edges. It certainly got in the Christian parts, but got nowhere near the wittiness of Jane Austen.

I'm sorry, is that too harsh? To be honest, I didn't hate the book–I enjoyed reading such a complete escapist story set in Regency-era England. Some of the back-and-forth between Lavinia and Nicholas really is quite clever, and once I stop implicitly comparing the book to Pride & Prejudice I can enjoy it for what it is. The story had a lot of elements I like in old-timey stories–wealthy settings, hatred turn to romance, outspoken females–and I enjoyed reading them.

The book's two main errors, though, are taking things too far and being too obvious about it. Lavinia isn't just outspoken: she's a downright feminist, and she spends her days devoted to caring for the poor. These are both excellent traits, but they are also slightly annoying (she is way too perfect!) and are very unrealistic for her time. There's a constant tension between Lavinia and the very backward way everyone else approaches wealth, class structure, etc. I would have liked to see some evidence that Lavinia was a product of her own time, that her egalitarian tendencies weren't just some convenient flash of inspiration from God, and that she had given a little more thought to why her beliefs about social decorum were so different from everyone else's. I liked Nicholas more than I did Lavinia, though, and seeing him gradually move to her way of thinking (after originally being very prim and proper about what women could and couldn't do!) felt more realistic.

Everything is very melodramatic in The Elusive Miss Elison. Lavinia and Nicholas are constantly accidentally hurting each other's feelings, and their "hearts start pining for each other" from the first time they're separated–despite the fact that at that point they've only ever snapped meanly at each other, and Nicholas's brother literally killed Lavinia's mother when she was a little girl. Lavinia gets past that way too easily, in my opinion. You can forgive someone without falling in love with them, you know? And the plot twists themselves are straight out of a soap opera: Lavinia falls hopelessly ill with the influenza and winds up spending months being taken care of in Nicholas's elaborate house. She moves to London to visit some conveniently-discovered estranged family members, learns all sorts of juicy secrets about her past (that her aunt decided to wait twenty-three years to tell her about, because reasons), and so on and so forth. It's fun to read, sure, but it's also cringe-worthy in how cliche everything is. And don't even get me started on the fakey-happy way everyone's always talking about religion; I may be a Christian, but I don't start randomly talking about the Bible with casual acquaintances like that–and I certainly don't start giving religious advice when they may or may not be Christians themselves. Telling someone to pray about their worries, or to ask God for help, is not always a socially appropriate thing to do.

All in all, I spent a few pleasurable hours with Miss Ellison but I've certainly read better books in its genre. In fact, excuse me, I feel the urge to re-read Pride & Prejudice coming over me . . .

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Loyal by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, 2017

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on National Geographic 
This treasury features heartwarming photographs and touching stories of dedicated working dogs who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and proven themselves as true heroes.
This special collection of dog stories and photographs features four-legged heroes who have worked side by side with soldiers, searched the wreckage of natural and man-made disasters, changed families' lives through emotional support, and administered aid around the world and at home in the United States. Heart-warming photographs and touching anecdotes bring to life thirty-eight caring canines who have served the people who mean the most to them, from a German Shepherd who leads a blind man on his marathon training mission to a belly rub-loving Sheltie who supports at-risk youth in the classroom. For anyone who has experienced the extraordinary affection of a dog, 
Loyal is a lasting celebration of the joys of canine companionship.
(160 pages)

I love my dog to pieces, but she is so useless.

That's my main takeaway from Loyal. All of these dogs are so loyal, heroic, and dedicated; they spend the best years of their lives entirely devoted to doing their job and improving lives for the humans around them. In the meanwhile, my boxer Daisy has lived a life of luxury surrounded by fluffy pillows and caresses from humans who homeschool and therefore never leave her alone for more than a few hours at a stretch. Don't get me wrong, Daisy is an amazing dog–she never barks, never growls, never steals from the table, and devotes her life to loving us unconditionally–but she's never provided nearly the level of service that some of these dogs have. I actually think she would have made an amazing therapy dog if we'd ever taken the time to go through the training and testing, but it's too late for my old fur-baby now.

But seriously, the stories in here are just incredible. There are dogs that find trapped victims after earthquakes, docs that monitor their human companions and warn them before they start to have a seizure, dogs that spend their days comforting soldiers with horrible PTSD . . . the list goes on and on. The book packs a lot of stories into its 160-word format, each one taking anywhere from a single two-page spread to about four of them to tell its tale. There are gorgeous pictures of each dog, including several different pictures of the ones whose stories take up more pages, and for many of them there's also an insert that gives some basic information about the personality traits of their breed.

It's a very attractive book, too–rectangular, hard-back, with glossy pages. It would make a great coffee table book, or even more perfect for a vet's office waiting room. The short stories are just the right size for a dog lover to flip through and read one or two while they're waiting to take their own dog in for a check-up.

The big emphasis throughout the book is on dogs who nobody wanted, who were on the shelter list to be put down, who were instead rescued and turned into heroes for the community. I think this is amazing, and it's "show, don't tell" approach to pushing shelter dogs would I'm sure be very convincing for anyone who's on the fence about where to get their next dog. My favorite rehabilitation stories, though, were the ones about the prison programs some counties run: they adopt dogs off of the kill lists at shelters and have the prison inmates train them into model house pets and even service dogs. That's such an amazing way to provide a second chance for the dogs as well as a sense of purpose and inspiration for the inmates, isn't it? I think all prisons should have a program like that!

Basically, this book is exactly what it promises to be: a heartwarming book about dogs whose love for humans makes the world a better place. If you think that sounds like what you're looking for, then I definitely recommend it!

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel for the purpose of participating in a TLC Book Tour.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Murder is No Accident by A.H. Gabhart, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Young Maggie Greene may be trespassing in the old, empty Victorian mansion on a quiet street in Hidden Springs, but all she wants is some private time in the magnificent tower room to write her stories. Certain she'll be in trouble if caught, she hides when a realtor shows up. But someone else is in the house too, someone even more worried about getting caught. When Maggie finds the realtor's body at the bottom of a flight of stairs and the other person gone, Deputy Sheriff Michael Keane is called in. He assumes the realtor's death is a tragic accident--until a second person is found dead in the house. When Maggie is threatened, Michael must catch the murderer before anyone else dies.

Cozy mystery fans will love this third installment in The Hidden Springs Mysteries series from an author who knows how to make small-town America sweet, sentimental--and a little sinister.

(352 pages)

First, just so you know, this is the third book in the Hidden Springs Mystery series. I have not read the first two, so I have no idea what details in this book count as spoilers for them. I'll be reviewing it more or less as though it was a stand-alone.

Though I have to say, starting with Murder is No Accident definitely did feel like I was stepping into the middle of something. Most of the characters are given introductions, so I didn't have to constantly guess about who everyone was, but I think I was supposed to already be attached to the characters at the start of the book. I couldn't have cared less about the main character Michael in the beginning of the book, and even though I grew to like him by the end (how could I not, with his love for kids and his tragic back-story?), I still found myself skimming the pages about his personal problems in the second half of the book. What can I say? I wanted to know what was happening with the mystery! And I really didn't care about his personal life that much. There's a fair amount of romance drama between Michael and his girlfriend, and I just couldn't convince myself to feel any anxiety about the relationship between two people who, to be perfectly honest, I did think should just break up and continue in their completely different lives.

To be fair, though, what interest I lacked for Michael and his girlfriend was more than made up for by my interest in Maggie and her boyfriend. It was so cute watching her grow increasingly connected with Anthony, who seems like a really sweet boy. I also just liked Maggie in general, because she seemed like a really nice person whose life was constantly on the verge of catastrophe. The family dynamics, especially with her younger brother and laid-off father, were very well done and I enjoyed them. Basically, Maggie and everything directly connected to her were the biggest things that I loved about the book.

Since this is a murder mystery, I suppose I should talk about the mystery itself. I can't really say much about it without spoilers, obviously, so I'll try to tread carefully. I've read tons of murder mysteries over the years, beginning when I was just nine years old with Murder on the Orient Express, but the number of non-Agatha Christie murder mystery novels I've read can be added up on just one hand. This one is definitely the best of those by far–more engaging, with a wonderfully character-driven plot–but it still doesn't even approach the genius of Christie's mysteries. I didn't guess the murderer, per se, but I definitely wasn't surprised by the end reveal. I was a little bored by it, honestly, but I can't say why because that would be a massive spoiler.

All in all, though, this is still the best murder mystery book I've ever read by anyone whose last name wasn't "Christie," so that's a win in my book. Also, to any other murder mystery fans out there: can you recommend some new names to me? Murder is No Accident has gotten me in the mood for the genre again!

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 13, 2017

With Love, Wherever You Are by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Everyone knows that war romances never last. . . .Helen Eberhart always had to fight for what she wanted. Survival in a family of thirteen gave her the grit to push through nurse’s training and support herself. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she can’t stand catering to the pampered patients on Chicago’s North Shore. Enlisting as an Army nurse, Helen is transferred to a military hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. There she comes face-to-face with the waves of broken bodies of the wounded soldiers, many no older than her beloved brothers.

Frank Daley wasn’t trying to be a hero. He’d only enlisted to finish medical school, confident that the war would be over before his deferment ran out. Life just worked out for him that way. But Lieutenant Frank R. Daley, MD, is sent straight from his graduation to boot camp in Battle Creek as his last stop before a battlefield hospital in Europe. And none of his training prepares him for the chance encounter with the spirited nurse who steals his heart.

After a whirlwind romance and courthouse wedding, Helen and Frank are sent to the front lines of Europe with only letters to connect them for months at a time. Surrounded by danger and desperately wounded patients, they soon find that only the war seems real—and their marriage more and more like a distant dream. If they make it through the war, will their marriage survive?

(466 pages)

I've been a long-time casual fan of Dandi Daley Mackall's books for years now, ever since I got hooked on the Starlight Animal Rescue series when I was younger. Mackall always writes children's books filled with equal parts thrills and heart, my favorite combination. When I saw the option to review this book, though, I knew straight away that it was a different beast. This is no 200-word animal rescue book for kids; rather, it's a 450+ page adult novel about a married couple serving as medical personnel in different parts of Europe during WWII.

The first thing I have to say is that this is a fascinating book. It provides an intimate, and often startling, perspective on WWII by focusing explicitly on the lives of Helen and Frank, army nurse and doctor, who are both serving in Europe during the height of the war. The scenes they each see throughout the course of the war and even after it are terrible, yes, but also educational–they show us the depths of human evil, the horrors of human-on-human violence, and the unalterable fact that we need to never engage in such a terrible world war ever again.

Maybe it's because I'm the daughter of two physicians myself, but I've always seen doctors and nurses as some of the greatest heroes during wars. They're the ones who go out to the front lines, risk their lives, do anything it takes . . . to save lives. When everyone around them is focused on destroying the enemy and throwing their men in front of bullets, medical personnel are the ones who stay focused on keeping soldiers alive. I especially appreciate that Helen chooses to help treat German soldiers in the French hospital, despite the flack she gets for it from the other nurses; her determination to help every patient and save every life she can, no matter the stigma, is truly admirable in a time when so many people were focused on mistreating anyone they didn't perceive as being "worth" common decency.

As for the story's central romance, well, I personally didn't care for it that much. Since I figured out who the real Helen and Frank were (hint: their last name is Daley, which is Mackall's maiden name), I was pretty sure I knew how it would turn out. I still don't really agree with the super-fast way they jumped into marriage, which strikes me as very stupid, but the characters themselves do acknowledge the insanity of their decision and spend most of the book building up their marriage bond through daily correspondence. Since they're a newlywed couple who are forcibly separated most of the time, when they rendezvous every few months there are some definite innuendos about what they do together alone–they're not even approaching explicit, though, so I was fine with them. Mainly, though, I just thought their emotions were really strong and rather volatile, and I couldn't get over the fact that they felt so intimate with each other when they'd barely even spent a few weeks together in person before getting married. I guess it was just a different world back then, one where a whirlwind romance like that actually has a chance at success. Plus, memories of their horrible experiences during the war probably helped them bond in later years.

Anyway, Dandi Daley Mackall definitely has the writing skills to try her hand at any genre she chooses. I'm so glad I gave With Love a try, and I look forward to seeing what else she'll be doing in the upcoming future!

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, 2017

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on Goodreads 
When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands - the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny, round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she meets Bronze, who, unable to speak, is ostracized by the other village boys. Soon the pair are inseparable, and when Bronze's family agree to take Sunflower in, it seems that fate has brought him the sister he has always longed for. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze's family can barely afford to feed themselves. Can the little city girl stay here, in this place where she has finally found happiness?
A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution.

(384 pages)

I honestly have no idea how to review Bronze and Sunflower.

I don't know what it is about the book, but I just can't wrap my head around it. I'm actually a little puzzled by the ending, which is still not entirely clear to me even after I've read it a few times. I think that's a translation trouble–in fact, I think a lot of my confusion comes either from translation ambiguousness or cultural differences. Since I know nothing about the Chinese cultural revolution–or indeed about anything in Chinese history, culture, or politics–I have the overwhelming feeling that all sorts of important themes and references are passing right over my head throughout the story.

Because of that, I advise you to take my review with a grain of salt. After all, I'll be the first to admit that I am on very shaky ground here. But anyway, I did enjoy the book. It was very different from my usual fare, rather strange to my American mind (though Chinese readers might find it perfectly normal, I don't know), and very interesting. It felt like a fairytale in many parts, in large part due to its fairly unrealistic characters. Both Bronze and Sunflower seem unrealistically perfect (never squabbling, never selfish, never unpleasant). The levels of sacrifice they're willing to go through for each other makes their relationship very sweet, but also makes both of them ring false to me.

The troubles they face definitely aren't fairytale-like, though. The family is very poor, and they struggle to afford school (eventually deciding to send just Sunflower because, you know, they hadn't thought about the fact that Bronze wouldn't be able to attend school too before they invited her to stay with them). Toward the middle of the story a swarm of locusts comes through and devours everyone's crops, and people begin to starve. Things get really hard, and Wenxuan doesn't pull any punches when he describes what it's like for them.

I may have a few issues with the choices made by the adults throughout the book, but those pale in comparison to the sense of wonder I feel reading a book that was written in an entirely different language from my own, in a world and a culture entirely distinct from mine, and which has given me a peek into the world of Chinese literature. I loved diving into the world of Bronze and Sunflower for a time, as theirs was an engrossing story that provided a fascinating cultural insight for me, but now I'm ready to set it down and return to my usual fare that strikes closer to home. I'l definitely be keeping an eye out for more international novels in the future.

Disclaimer: This is an Amazon affiliate link, and I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Every girl dreams of being part of the line—the chosen seven who tunnel deep into the mountain to find the harvest. No work is more important.

Jena is the leader of the line—strong, respected, reliable. And—as all girls must be—she is small; years of training have seen to that. It is not always easy but it is the way of things. And so a girl must wrap her limbs, lie still, deny herself a second bowl of stew. Or a first.

But what happens when one tiny discovery makes Jena question the world she knows? What happens when moving a single stone changes everything?
(272 pages)

Yikes. Just, yikes. This book has some serious grit in it. We're talking dystopian, cult-like, surgically-alter-your-daughters-to-make-them-thinner grit.

I know, when I say that your thoughts immediately leap to eating disorders and low self-esteem. But in Jena's world, the "Mothers" who run the village encourage girls to be as small as possible so they can crawl deep into the heart of the mountain that surrounds them and harvest the mica that provides them with fuel. It's a cruel world, this closed-off little village that has been completely isolated for generations because of a landslide that closed off the pass leading outside the mountain. This really weird semi-religious cult society has risen from the ashes of the villages that lived there before the landslide, and everyone is taught from birth to worship the mountain (which is seen as the giver of all life, since it holds the mica they need for survival). It's a dog-eat-dog world, one where life-giving mica is allocated to families in proportion to their usefulness, and where parents willingly bind their baby daughters from birth to force them to grow up small. It's like a more practical version of the Chinese foot-binding custom: they bind the whole body, to make suitable seekers of fuel, and then they actually use surgical procedures to alter girls whose bones are becoming too big. It's gruesome and horrible, but it also makes sense in a sick sort of way. After all, I suppose I'd rather be tiny than dead.

But the trouble is that all too often the girls become both. Because the mountain is treacherous, and maneuvering through its crevices a nightmare. I can't say much about specific instances of this, because I don't want to spoil the story, but some horrible things happen on and inside the mountain. It's painful and gruesome to read, but so fascinating at the same time that I devoured the entire book in one sitting.

Unfortunately, I can't talk much more about the plot, because even the most basic aspects of the story's set-up are teased out throughout the book. The story of Jena's past, for example, comes in bits and pieces: we learn that she's living with her best friend's family very early on, but the exact reason for this isn't fully revealed through flashbacks until over halfway through. I always love this sort of narrative technique, so I'm honestly not complaining, but that does make reviewing it a little trickier.

Actually, I think I'll just stop here. I really enjoyed reading A Single Stone and that others will, too. Have you read it? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section down below!

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

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Whydah by Martin W. Sandler, 2017

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on Goodreads 
The exciting true story of the captaincy, wreck, and discovery of the Whydah the only pirate ship ever found and the incredible mysteries it revealed. The 1650s to the 1730s marked the golden age of piracy, when fearsome pirates like Blackbeard ruled the waves, seeking not only treasure but also large and fast ships to carry it. The Whydah was just such a ship, built to ply the Triangular Trade route, which it did until one of the greediest pirates of all, Black Sam Bellamy, commandeered it. Filling the ship to capacity with treasure, Bellamy hoped to retire with his bounty but in 1717 the ship sank in a storm off Cape Cod. For more than two hundred years, the wreck of the Whydah (and the riches that went down with it) eluded treasure seekers, until the ship was finally found in 1984 by marine archaeologists. The artifacts brought up from the ocean floor are priceless, both in value and in the picture they reveal of life in that much-mythologized era, changing much of what we know about pirates.
(176 pages)

After subsisting on romance novels and boring long nonfiction books for the past few weeks, it was really nice to pick up this 170-page book about a thrilling topic (pirates!) and read it in just an hour or two. I've always had a particular interest in shipwrecks, ever since I became obsessed with the Titanic and read detailed accounts of its discovery/recovery, so this book was extra fascinating to me.

Actually, my previous knowledge of ship-finding techniques also kicked in while I was reading about the Whydah's recovery. The searchers basically forced massive amounts of air into the ocean, blowing away layers of sand before diving down to look for pieces of the wreck that had been buried over time. I couldn't remember exactly, but I knew that this practice risked hurting the ship's remains. The author actually brings up these concerns, which have apparently been raised by professionals in the field, as well as mentioning another that hadn't occurred to me: the concern that this "blowing" technique was harmful to the local ocean ecosystem. The author doesn't really make a judgment statement for or against the techniques used by the team excavating the ship, but it definitely made me concerned. We only get one Whydah, so I hope it's being treated as carefully as possible!

But really, the book doesn't start with the wreck; it starts with a slave ship commanded by one of the meanest men around, and a young man who became a pirate in pursuit of wealth. It traces the career of that young man, Captain Sam Bellamy, who stole Whydah and reached dazzling heights of success before suddenly meeting his end during a dramatic night of storms and treachery off Cape Cod. It also has lots of inserts that provide general information about what life was like for pirates, explaining things like the origins of the Jolly Roger and the "pirate code" that all of the men followed. It's interesting to see that the pirates, who were truly horrible to many of the ships they captured, were also some of the most democratic and disciplined people on the face of the earth during that time. They were a very racially mixed group, and non-whites were given the same job and the same rewards as their Caucasian peers.

Basically, if you're looking for a book about pirates and the discovery of a ship straight from 1717, then this is probably it. If you do read it, let us know in the comments what you think!

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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Unbound by Steph Jagger, 2017

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on the publisher's
A young woman follows winter across five continents on a physical and spiritual journey that tests her body and soul, in this transformative memoir, full of heart and courage, that speaks to the adventurousness in all of us.

Steph Jagger had always been a force of nature. Dissatisfied with the passive, limited roles she saw for women growing up, she emulated the men in her life—chasing success, climbing the corporate ladder, ticking the boxes, playing by the rules of a masculine ideal. She was accomplished. She was living "The Dream." But it wasn't her dream.

Then the universe caught her attention with a sign: Raise Restraining Device. Steph had seen this ski lift sign on countless occasions in the past, but the familiar words suddenly became a personal call to shake off the life she had built in a search for something different, something more.

Steph soon decided to walk away from the success and security she had worked long and hard to obtain. She quit her job, took a second mortgage on her house, sold everything except her ski equipment and her laptop, and bought a bundle of plane tickets. For the next year, she followed winter across North and South America, Asia, Europe, and New Zealand—and up and down the mountains of nine countries—on a mission to ski four million vertical feet in a year.

What hiking was for Cheryl Strayed, skiing became for Steph: a crucible in which to crack open her life and get to the very center of herself. But she would have to break herself down—first physically, then emotionally—before she could start to rebuild. And it was through this journey that she came to understand how to be a woman, how to love, and how to live authentically.

(304 pages)

Hmm. This was not exactly what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be a book about traveling around the world, about experiencing new cultures and broadening your horizons and gaining new perspectives on yourself through those multicultural experiences. That's the sort of tale I'm looking for right now, as I try to decide whether or not to attend college in Scotland.

Instead, though, Unbound is a book about a deeply confused young woman who spent the first few decades of her life trying to emulate her father's masculine example before realizing that it wasn't for her. She spends a lot of time realizing that she doesn't actually want to be that masculine, that she's suppressed her femeninity for far too long with the urge to be an independent woman of the world. I'm glad she found a way to balance her competitiveness, her "masculine" traits and her womanhood, though I'm not sure I completely agree that, say, to be competitive or to live independently are necessarily "manly" things. I'm a young woman who's going to major in computer science, and likely spend at least some time living independently, and I certainly don't consider myself to be stifling my womanhood by going into such a lucrative and male-dominated field. If that's the way Steph felt about things, though, then it's good that she dug down and realized the things she needed to change.

That being said, I didn't really enjoy reading this memoir at all. For one thing, she swears in it–constantly. We're talking the f-word on almost every single page, often more than once, along with the s-word and the h-word and a whole alphabet of other words besides. It was very unpleasant and distracting. Also, she has a lot of sex throughout the book with two different guys. The scenes aren't described in too much detail at first, but as the book goes on they become more explicit. There are some things that are intimint, that should stay between two people, you know? Plus, I was just very uncomfortable with how willing Steph was to sleep with people at the drop of a hat. I know not everyone wants to wait until marriage, which is what I believe is best, but she seemed very . . . well, easy. And I really didn't enjoy reading about that.

Honestly, there's no way I'm ever recommending this book to anyone–it's just too explicit. If the content I described doesn't bother you, though, and you think the concept is interesting, then by all means do give it a try. Maybe you'll get something from it that I wasn't able to.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel for the purpose of participating in a TLC Book Tour.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Sisters of Sugarcreek by Cathy Liggett, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Many lives were changed the day a fire burned down Faith Community Church, devastating the small town of Sugarcreek, Ohio.Now a young Amish widow, Lydia Gruber faces an uncertain future. Her husband, a craftsman and volunteer firefighter, always took care of everything, keeping her isolated from others in their community. Without anyone or any skills, how will she survive?With the death of her beloved aunt Rose in the fire, single mom Jessica Holtz inherits Rose's Knit One Quilt Too cottage. Though determined to keep the shop open in her aunt's memory, she doesn't know the first thing about knitting and quilting and begins to see her aunt's dream slip through her fingers.When Liz Cannon lost her dear friend Rose, she also lost her partner in the Secret Stitches Society--the name they gave themselves while delivering gifts of hope to troubled folks in the dark of night. Liz convinces Jessica to keep the anonymous society going, despite the younger women's inadequacy with knitting and sewing needles. But soon Liz has problems of her own as the life she has rebuilt for herself begins to crumble again.When Liz and Jessica choose Lydia for their first mission, the three women cross paths and form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of tragedy. As they walk together through triumph and heartbreak--through grief and new chances at love--they begin to discover that with friends by your side, a stitch of hope can be found anywhere.
(388 pages)

This was just the sort of book I needed: fluffy yet meaningful, silly yet sweet, and full of drama that took me away from the drama in my own life.

This is a very . . . busy book. There are three main characters, all of whom have their own lives to live and storylines unique from each other. They're all brought together, in a roundabout way, by a church fire from before the start of the book that stole huge chunks of each of their lives: Lydia's husband, Jess' aunt who raised her, and Liz's church community. It was very interesting to watch them all pick up the pieces, struggling in different ways as they each began to heal and move forward from the tragedy.

But to be honest, I wish the focus had stayed on grieving and moving on and all that sort of stuff. As it went along, other storylines began to be thrown in that I didn't find nearly as interesting. Each woman gets a love interest of sorts, and of varying seriousness. I thought Lydia's potential connection with her neighbor, a very nice single man, was nice. It's not given much attention, and for good reason–she's still processing through her husband's death from the fire. I appreciated that a door was opened for her in the future, but that things were pushed so quickly that Lydia would have seemed callous about her first husband. As for Jess, hers was definitely my second favorite of the three romantic storylines. I liked Derek, Jess's childhood best friend who moves back to Sugarcreek and wants to strike up the same easy friendship they used to have. The cynical side of me thinks that he's a little too perfect, and that Jess sure gets flushed and self-conscious an awful lot around him for an old childhood friendship, and that if they were really so perfect for each other they would have figured this out long before they got to their mid-thirties. But, hey, why be critical when you can enjoy yourself instead? If I let myself ignore those things, then I can see Jess and Derek's rekindled relationship for what it is: a sweet love story about childhood best friends who were always meant for each other.

As for the third romantic storyline, I have to say that I didn't much like Liz's. Her love interest, Daniel, is just as pseudo-perfect as Derek but doesn't have a sweet backstory to excuse away that fact. He's the repairman who agrees to fix Liz's kitchen ceiling (because apparently this woman is so helpless without a man in her life that she didn't notice the ceiling was literally about to collapse? Huh?). They strike up a friendship, pour their hearts out to each other over plaster of paris, and proceed to go through a dramatic series of "will they or won't they" that was too much for my stomach. I wound up flipping through a lot of their scenes, because they just felt forced and didn't interest me the way the rest of the book did.

Oh, and I can't discuss this much but the book also includes some interesting themes about both gender roles in marriage and childhood sexual assault. I'm not sure that I exactly agree with how the former was addressed, but I thought the latter was handled very delicately.

Anyway, this is getting rather long so I'll wrap it up. If you're interested, the publisher also sent me the link to some goodies related to the book that you can check out. Here they are:

· Random Acts of Kindness Cards
· Amish Friendship Bread Recipe
· Lemon Bars Recipe
· Shepherd’s Pie Recipe
· White Chocolate Chex Crunch Recipe
· Blank Recipe Card
· Blog Post

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Despite her training as a master violinist, Rebekah Carrington was denied entry into the Nashville Philharmonic by young conductor Nathaniel Whitcomb, who bowed to public opinion. Now, with a reluctant muse and a recurring pain in his head, he needs her help to finish his symphony. But how can he win back her trust when he's robbed her of her dream?
(448 pages)

I want to start by saying this book is not quite as "soft" a story as the cover and description suggest. It's true that it's essentially a love story, and that most of the pages are full of character descriptions and increasing romantic tension between the two leads, but we also get (relatively vague) flashbacks to the time Rebekah's step-father attempted to rape her in her childhood. There are a few more "modern-day" creepy scenes with the man sprinkled throughout the book, despite Rebekah's attempts to avoid his company at all costs, and the material is still pretty heavy even though it's handled as gently as possible.

Besides Rebekah's relationship with Tate (i.e. Nathaniel Whitcomb), which I'll get to in a moment, there were several storylines that received generous time in the spotlight throughout the book. I was impressed by that, because I always hate when books seem completely wrapped up in the romance with a plot only thrown in as an afterthought. We get to watch Rebekah struggle in a man-dominated world, trying to find a way to join a symphony in an age where women were considered too "delicate" for such grueling work. We also get glimpses (though not quite as much as I would have liked) at Rebekah's strained relationship with her mother, who is completely oblivious to her husband's abuse and bitter about Rebekah's independent and liberal life choices. That storyline doesn't really get a conclusion, which is too bad. We also get to see Rebekah working to tutor a young girl on the violin, but–again–this isn't given as much page space I would have liked.

The biggest "side issue" that's in the book, actually, is probably race relations. The story takes place about a decade or so after the Civil War ended, in Nashville, and Rebekah's own family used to own slaves. They still keep on one or two of them as "servents," and Alexander is careful to depict Rebekah as an open-minded woman who sees African Americans as human beings (and who dearly loves the black housekeeper who essentially raised her). I can't say for sure what struck me as being a little off about the treatment of African Americans in the book, because I honestly think the author did make her heroine as liberal as she possibly could while remaining within the confines of historical realism, but reading about how Rebekah's mother beat her when she went to sing in the slave quarters as a little girl, or about what happened to the black slave who protected her from her stepfather that night, it's sad to see snippets of the racist, slave-upholding society of the period. I suppose my discomfort is more with the basic facts of slavery and of racial discrimination, though, so I don't hold them against A Note Yet Unsung–in fact, I think the book provides a good starting point for thinking about such issues.

Now for the romance. I've left it until the last for a reason, and it's a simple one: I really don't care much for romance. I don't dislike stories about people falling in love per se–I've read many Grace Livingston Hill books just for their cute old-fashioned romances, for example–but I truly hate descriptions of people panting after each other, of how their bodies "thrum" every time they touch or of how their minds stray, in the middle of conversations, to fantasizing about getting physical with the other person. It's fine for characters to be attracted to each other, of course, but when they keep focusing on each others' bodies then that debases the romance for me, turning it from a beautiful meeting of sympathetic minds to a baser lust. I will definitely say that the romance in A Note Yet Unsung is far less obnoxious than many others I've read, and that the main characters clearly clicked on professional and emotional levels before their thoughts got too mushy. They had some ridiculous thoughts, not just about kissing each other but also about realizing "I truly love him!" despite having despised each other for most of their relatively short acquaintance. These lapses into foolishness were relatively few, though, and even near the end of the book they didn't become as cloying as I'd dreaded. The author never loses her grip on the plot of the book, and she introduces some very serious issues throughout the story to keep all readers–even those not interested in the mushy thoughts–hooked.

I won't say this is the best book I've ever read, but I will say it's probably one of the best Christian historical fiction romance novels I've come across. I was impressed with how much substance the book had, despite the fact that it's essentially marketed as a sparkly romance novel, and I'm glad I decided to take the plunge and try a genre I don't usually read. If more books in the Christian romance genre were like this one, then I'd probably read them a little more often.

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