Monday, July 30, 2018

La La Lovely by Trina McNeilly, 2018

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Through beautiful designs and imagery, LA LA LOVELY invites readers to find their true identity where there is brokenness, discover the love of God, and design their own special place of beauty.
Author Trina McNeilly has been blogging for nearly a decade. While she spent her days sharing beauty, looking for lovely things, and redecorating her childhood home, her parents' unexpected divorce shattered her ideals of "home."

Through this journey, Trina learned that beauty is not beyond the laundry pile, chipped paint, dirty dishes, broken table or broken life. It's right in the center of it. Trina found that God IS beauty. And that he invites us to look, discover, uncover and find because when we find beauty, we find God. 

In LA LA LOVELY, Trina shares stories and inspiration from her journey of finding, and being found, by beauty. You will find deep matters of the heart along with practical pointers on things like decorating your home, finding your style, and creating beautiful spaces. Each chapter offers essays, beautiful photographs, design tips, and practical advice for creating a place of beauty and belonging no matter where you live or what you're going through.
(400 pages)

This was very different from what I thought it was going to be.

I was expecting a how-to book, a guide to slowing down and finding the beauty all around me. I thought it would have inspirational quotes, beautiful prose, pictures of lovely items, etc.

It had some of all of those things, but to a much lesser extent. The majority of the book is actually made up of McNeilly's reminisces about her own life and lessons she's learned from personal experience. On one level, it's interesting–and some of her mini essays have points that I think are important, like learning to not miss happiness by stressing about small things.

But on another level, it's kind of boring. I'm not a mother. I don't have a house. I don't follow her blog. I feel sorry for her that she had such a hard time with her grandfather and grandmother dying, plus her parents getting divorced, all within a couple years of each other, but lots of people have sad stories. I'm not really any more interested in hers than I would be in anyone else's.

The truth is that if someone wants to share lots of details about their life, from their childhood to adulthood, I need to either be already invested in them or they need to make their stories directly applicable to my own life in some way or other. McNeilly's stories didn't really meet either of those criteria, so I wound up flipping through the book by the end. If you're in a situation more similar to hers, or you follow your blog, then you might find the book more interesting than I did.

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

A Breath of Hope by Lauraine Snelling, 2018

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With her younger brother Ivar in tow, Nilda Carlson is on her way to America to join her older brother Rune and his family in the northern forests of Minnesota. While she sees this as a golden opportunity, she has enough experience in life to know it won't be easy. The transatlantic voyage itself proves to be an adventure, and she hopes she will feel safe in her new home.

Rune and Signe Carlson are thrilled that Nilda and Ivar are coming to Minnesota, but life on the Strand farm remains a struggle. Rune is trying to build a house for his wife and children, but Uncle Einar Strand, obsessed with his own ambitions, refuses to help. What's more, he forbids anyone from the community to step foot on his land, leaving Rune to toil on his own. When a tragedy lays bare the truth behind Einar's anger and isolation, the Carlsons and Strands will have to come together like never before to become a true family.
(336 pages)

I really, really enjoyed the first book in the "Under Northern Skies" series, The Promise of Dawn. I was excited to see the story continue with A Breath of Hope.

And, on the whole, I'm satisfied with this second instalment in the series. Nilda is an interesting new character, though I almost found her a little bland in comparison to the rest of the family. It's hard for a young, single woman who mostly just helps with the cooking and takes some English classes to compete for the spotlight with Signe, Rune, the boys, the baby, Gerd, and Einar. I didn't care much about her potential romances. I think my favorite parts with Nilda have to be her reaction to an attempted assault back in Norway (and her attempts to see justice done), and she and Ivar's stop at a wealthy woman's mansion during their journey to Minnesota. Both are compelling storylines that I thought were done well.

I also really appreciated seeing the continuation of the story started in the first book, following the characters we grew to love in The Promise of Dawn. I didn't enjoy them quite as much as in the first one, because Einar's surliness got a little old after a while and most of the drama of living on the farm and growing accustomed to everything was already hashed out in the previous book, but it was still nice to see the continuation of their transition to their own place in Minnesota.

I've really enjoyed this series so far. While The Breath of Hope wasn't quite as good as The Promise of Dawn in my opinion, I still loved it and I am excited to read any more books in the series that might be coming out.

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

The College Girl's Survival Guide by Hanna Seymour, 2018

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Hanna Seymour, a mentor to thousands of young college women, provides a plan for success in college based on experience, illustrations, and biblical principles.

Each year millions of young women enter the college scene and are surprised to find their glittering preconceptions shattered. College isn't exactly what they had imagined--it's a lot tougher. Social challenges, a demanding schedule, pressure to succeed, shifting family dynamics: how do girls tackle these issues, learn to thrive, and really enjoy this new phase of life?
THE COLLEGE GIRL'S SURVIVAL GUIDE is packed with experienced-based advice that can help. Written by a mentor with ten years of experience helping college girls succeed, it's like having a big sister along for the journey. With proven tips, scripture, and inspiring illustrations, this book will coach, comfort, and inspire young women so that they can make the most of the college experience.
Thousands of young women have asked Hanna Seymour what to do about roommate drama, boyfriend trouble, choosing a major, balancing family and school life, and so much more. She's poured her best insights into this book--answering the top 52 questions she has received--so that readers everywhere will be armed with the knowledge and inspiration to make college the most epic, enriching time it can be.

(249 pages)

I just finished my first year of college, so I figured I would be the perfect person to read The College Girl's Survival Guide and see how its tips for freshmen compared to the reality of college life.

I was right. But also wrong. Because most of this advice turned out to be pretty irrelevant to me. I didn't have a roommate, so that negates a good chunk of the book right there. I also don't have friends who pressure me to party hard or drink to excess, I don't have to face the rush to register for classes before they fill up, and I don't have the flexibility to change my major outside of some very narrow confines defined by my first-year classes.

So basically, I still don't really know how practical some of this advice is. But it all sounds solid, so that counts for something. And for those of you who do have to deal with these sorts of topics, the book does indeed cover all of the ones I listed above plus many more. Seymour covers a lot of potential problem spots, and she does so with love. She encourages her readers to pursue a fulfilling, happy college career and to deal with problematic roommates/neighbors/etc. with kindness and grace (but also firmness, when necessary). I definitely agree with that.

Seymour states at the beginning of the book that she thinks it will be helpful for girls of all faith backgrounds, not just Christians, but I don't agree. She puts a Biblical spin on most topics, quoting relevant Bible verses and encouraging her readers (in a loving, not judgemental, way) to consider God in their lifestyle choices. If I weren't Christian, I would have quickly put the book down. I still disagreed with her in some areas (mainly her belief that the guy should do the pursuing in a relationship because he would be head of the house someday), but on the whole I appreciated her practical and loving perspective.

All in all, it's a pretty good book that seems to anticipate a lot of the problems that might come up at college. It's probably a good thing that I didn't read it before I started college, because it would have scared me, but people who want a "survival guide" of this type might appreciate Seymour's advice.

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

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Most Noble Heir by Susan Anne Mason, 2018

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Will gaining the world cost him everything he holds most dear?

When stable hand Nolan Price learns from his dying mother that he is actually the son of the Earl of Stainsby, his plans for a future with kitchen maid Hannah Burnham are shattered. Once he is officially acknowledged as the earl's heir, Nolan will be forbidden to marry beneath his station.

Unwilling to give up the girl he loves, he devises a plan to elope--believing that once their marriage is sanctioned by God, Lord Stainsby will be forced to accept their union. However, as Nolan struggles to learn the ways of the aristocracy, he finds himself caught between his dreams for tomorrow and his father's demanding expectations.

Forces work to keep the couple apart at every turn, and a solution to remain together seems further and further away. With Nolan's new life pulling him irrevocably away from Hannah, it seems only a miracle will bring them back together.

(360 pages)

Oh, gosh. So much cringe.

But in a good way. Definitely a good way. Everyone needs one of these once in a while, right? A story about a stable hand who turns out to be the heir to a vast fortune and a title, but who marries his kitchen maid fiance in secret and then gets swept away from her by his new life. There's drama–make that melodrama!–galore, and surprise relations, and more than enough stupid decisions to fill the novel.

It's painful, on one level. But also fun.

I can't even pretend to review A Most Noble Heir as fine literature, but it serves its purpose well as chick lit: it's a good length, has no offensive content, and is written well enough to keep the reader's attention. Some of the adult characters are especially cringey, and I never really stopped hating Nolan's father, but I liked Nolan and Hannah and was definitely rooting for them. I could barely comprehend the reasoning behind why there was any drama about them potentially separating, but it made for a fun read so I won't pick at it too hard.

Really, that's all I can say about A Most Noble Heir. It's an entertaining read, but you have to be in the mood for it.

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver, 2018

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In a racially polarized classroom in 1970 Alabama, Lu's talent for running track makes her a new best friend — and tests her mettle as she navigates the school's social cliques.

"Miss Garrett's classroom is like every other at our school. White kids sit on one side and black kids on the other. I'm one of the few middle-rowers who split the difference."

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera just wants to keep her head down and get along with everyone in her class. Trouble is, Lu's old friends have been changing lately — acting boy crazy and making snide remarks about Lu's newfound talent for running track. Lu's secret hope for a new friend is fellow runner Belinda Gresham, but in 1970 Red Grove, Alabama, blacks and whites don't mix. As segregationist ex-governor George Wallace ramps up his campaign against the current governor, Albert Brewer, growing tensions in the state — and in the classroom — mean that Lu can't stay neutral about the racial divide at school. Will she find the gumption to stand up for what's right and to choose friends who do the same?
(288 pages)

I don't know what it is about this book, but it's taken me literally six months to work up the energy to review it. Even now, I'm only doing it because it's worked its way to the top of my review calendar.

Perhaps I've just read one too many books about desegregation in the South. It's an interesting topic, but there reaches a point where all these books about white girls learning to stand against racism for the sake of their one black friend become a little repetitive.

That's not to say that My Year in the Middle is derivative or bad, because it really isn't. Weaver adds a very interesting angle by making her protagonist an Argentinian immigrant, because it adds a layer of complexity to the story that similar books don't have. I also feel like Lu and Belinda's relationship is very realistic, since they share a passion for running (definitely a hobby I have no interest in sharing!). Plus, the politics of the upcoming election and the racist mud-slinging are interesting (and hard) to read. I can't believe that the author's note says she didn't make them up.

Also, can we just stop to acknowledge the fact that public schools in Red Grove, Alabama weren't desegregated until the 1969/1970 school year? That is ridiculously close to modern day. This book is set in 1970, but it feels like 1950 for all the racism Belinda has to face. Seriously, Alabama?!

Honestly, My Year in the Middle is a great book. Looking back now, I think my reluctance to review it largely stemmed from the fact that I hate thinking about how much racism there still was just a couple of decades ago. It's a good book, though, well-written and entertaining while also thought-provoking. I definitely recommend it!

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

Friday, July 13, 2018

[Finished] GIVEAWAY! (Ends July 15)

[Note: due to a glitch with Rafflecopter, I had to use to pick the winner. That winner is . . . drum roll please . . . 

Jillian Too!

I will contact her to mail out the prize. Thank you so much to everyone who entered!] 

It's finally happened: I've run out of shelf space. And also floor space. And top-of-my-desk space. Basically, I'm drowning in books and I have to give some of them up.

This is an inherently sad process (no bookworm enjoys losing some of their books!), but I've decided to cheer myself up by giving some of them to good homes with my lovely readers.

So now it's time for me to help fill up your shelves. Some of these are books that I loved; some of them I . . . well, didn't (you can find my reviews on this list). But I'm confident that there is at least one book here that each of you could love to pieces. That's why the winners of this giveaway will be allowed to choose their prize from the Goodreads bookshelf in the widget to the left of the screen (which you can also see here). Note that most of these books are ARCs, but a few are finished paperbacks. If you want to know the details about a specific book, just comment below or email me ( and I'll fill you in.

The number of winners is flexible: I will give away 1 book if there are up to 499 entries, 2 if there are 500-999 entries, 3 if there are 1,000-1,499 entries, etc., up to at least 10 books. You are not limited to winning just once, so share the news with all of your friends: the more they enter, the more books you might win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If that doesn't work, here's a link to the giveaway.

Please note that this giveaway is only open to readers in the United States, due to the high cost of shipping abroad.

Dreaming Dangerous by Lauren DeStefano, 2018

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Brassmere Academy for the Extraordinary is a school for orphans with strange and wonderful gifts. Twelve-year-old Plum has lived there forever, and each night, she ventures into her dreams alongside her three best friends, Vien, Gwendle, and Artem, to fight monsters and journey on dangerous quests. But one night, Plum gets a mysterious warning that she and her friends are no longer safe. And the next morning, Artem is nowhere to be found.

As Plum, Vien, and Gwendle search for their friend—in both the dreaming and waking worlds—they start to uncover alarming secrets about Brassmere and its intentions. Will they be able to find Artem before it’s too late, or will they be next to disappear?

(208 pages)

This is the sort of book I would have absolutely loved when I was younger. I was a sucker for stories set at boarding schools or orphanages, and I loved main characters with special powers.

In fact, these aspects of Dreaming Dangerous reminds me quite a bit of Victoria Forester's The Girl Who Could Fly. It's basically a shorter, slightly younger alternative of the other book. Which is good, because The Girl Who Could Fly was (and still is) one of my all-time favorite books.

I love the ambiance of these books. The setting and workers at Brassmere are described in a deliciously spooky way, and the dreams Plum shares with her friends are fascinatingly weird (as is the fact that Plum doesn't even realize all the ways her control over her dreams are unique). I loved reading the dream sequences, especially.

Honestly, my main issue with Dreaming Dangerous was that it wasn't long enough: it didn't give us long enough at Brassmere to explore that oppressive ambiance, it didn't give us long enough with the kids to really get to know them or their friendship dynamics on a deeper level, and it didn't give us enough time with the drama and adventure later in the book. If it had been longer, it would have been even closer to perfect.

This is a reaction I actually share with my middle-school-aged brother, by the way: I lent the book to him when I was done with it, and when I asked what he thought he said he wished it had been longer and more detailed. The conversation about the book also morphed into a long debate about medical ethics, so I have DeStefano to thank for that as well as for the fun read! I always love when media forces us to think about deeper topics.

All in all, Dreaming Dangerous is a great little book that really just suffers from one main flaw: length. And that's only an issue for us–if you or your reader likes shorter reads, then Dreaming Dangerous could be absolutely perfect.

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Slave Prince by Jeyna Grace, 2018

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For fifteen years, Thom believed he was a prince of Alpenwhist. He had climbed the castle turrets to survey his kingdom, learned to duel with the sharpest blades, and stirred up palace intrigue in disguise. But one day his identity is suddenly shattered by the revelations of a blind woman: he learns that he isn’t a prince at all, but a wretched slave.

In a kingdom where ruthlessness is part of everyday life, Thom fears this new truth could be deadly. He takes flight, running from the life he knew and the one he despises, but the call to free his people beckons him home. Armed with a magic stone that instructs him through surreal visions, he must topple his once beloved brother who has since become a tyrannical king.

A fantastical retelling of the story of Moses, Thom’s adventure forces him to question if he can succeed in his quest without truly understanding who he is. He must unravel his past, present, and future before he can set his people free.

(280 pages)

I hate to say it, but The Slave Prince would have been better if it weren't a retelling of a Biblical tale.

Why? Because as soon as I realized that it was a pretty close adaptation of the original story, I knew exactly how it was going to end. It's hard to create suspense when you've told the reader the exact blueprint you're using.

That's not to say that The Slave Prince isn't a good book, though–far from it, actually! Grace takes the bare blueprint of the story (Moses's adoption into the royal family, banishment after killing an Egyptian, etc.) and paints a beautiful new world onto it.

I think my favorite part of the book is actually the introduction, which describes the story of how the Eklaysians were forced to flee their beautiful home country and seek refuge in Alpenwhist, then eventually become enslaved by their adopted countrymen. It's a sad tale, but told absolutely beautifully. The first few chapters, showing Thom's life before he fled Alpenwhist, are similarly wonderfully done: they quickly paint a picture of everyday life in the brutal city, as well as the royal family's rough dynamics and Thom's spotty relationship with his adoptive older brother.

I have a few gripes about the logic of some of the characters' decisions (mainly with Thom and his royal brother Dedric, both of whom seem to make decisions based more on the plot's demands than on logic or character traits/history). I also kind of hated Thom by the end of the book, because he let the magic do such horrible things to Alpenwhist. I know he does it for a good cause, and that it's meant to be okay because he behaves a lot like Moses did in real life, but the difference is that Moses was following the commands of God, the Creator of the universe, who had the authority to do such things to his creations. Thom, on the other hand, is just blindly obeying an old magic stone that called to him in a cave. Maybe he has a right to be so terrible to the people of Alpenwhist since they've been so brutal to the Eklaysians, but that's something that should be wrestled with even more than it is in the story.

All in all, The Slave Prince was a very magical and innovative retelling of the story of Moses. I would have enjoyed it even more if Grace had jumped off the rails and made up her own story after Thom left Alpenwhist, but as a retelling of Moses The Slave Prince manages to see the story through to the end, doing so in a way that underscores just how disturbing the plagues would have been. If you're looking for a regular entertainment read, this wouldn't be the first on my list. However, as a retelling of Moses, I would definitely recommend The Slave Prince.

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

Friday, July 6, 2018

Listen to Your Heart by Kasie West, 2018

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Talking to other people isn't Kate Bailey's favorite activity. She'd much rather be out on the lake, soaking up the solitude and sunshine. So when her best friend, Alana, convinces Kate to join their high school's podcast, Kate is not expecting to be chosen as the host. Now she'll have to answer calls and give advice on the air? Impossible.

But to Kate's surprise, she turns out to be pretty good at the hosting gig. Then the podcast gets in a call from an anonymous guy, asking for advice about his unnamed crush. Kate is pretty sure that the caller is gorgeous Diego Martinez, and even surer that the girl in question is Alana. Kate is excited for her friend ... until Kate herself starts to develop feelings for Diego. Suddenly, Kate finds that while doling out wisdom to others may be easy, asking for help is tougher than it looks, and following your own advice is even harder.

Kasie West's adorable story of secrets, love, and friendship is sure to win over hearts everywhere.

(336 pages)

Kasie West's flavor of chick lit is my favorite out there. I discovered her last summer, when I blew through Lucky in Love, The Distance Between Us, and P.S. I Like You. All three of those books are fun, fluffy reads with realistic-ish characters who find themselves in deliciously dramatic, and at least mildly plausible, romantic scenarios.

Listen to Your Heart continues this pattern, but I have to say that it's probably my least favorite of the four West books I've read so far. I couldn't really connect with Kate as a character, since her two big focal points are loving the lake and hating the guy in her class whose family competes with hers for business based around the lake. I have very little interest in the former, and I was a little surprised at the vehemence of her feelings toward the latter, especially since her parents were really pretty cordial about the whole thing.

I was also frustrated because there were really two different guys who could have turned out to be her "true love," not just one obvious "best match." That guessing game takes away some of the sweetness of the interaction of the final match, especially because I was actually hoping she'd end up with the other guy.

If I'm really laying out all the negatives, I also thought the drama was a little more forced and ridiculous than it was in the other books. The main characters all seem like smart, reasonable people, but then whenever something has to do with the romance storylines they start acting like idiots.

But don't get me wrong, I really did enjoy reading Listen to Your Heart! The details about being a podcast host were really interesting, and I would have loved even more about that part of the story. Plus, I have this book for getting me hooked on podcasts. I'd never really tried them before, but after reading this I tried a couple and got really hooked on "Stuff You Missed in History Class" and "Stuff You Should Know." I listen to a podcast almost every night now!

All in all, this is a fun, entertaining read that isn't quite as good as the other West books I've read but which still stands on its own as a good read. I recommend it if it seems like the sort of book you're in the mood for this summer.

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

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Button War by Avi, 2018

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Renowned, award-winning author Avi pens a stark, unflinching tale of ordinary boys living in wartime as tensions — and desperations — mount among them.

Twelve-year-old Patryk knows little of the world beyond his tiny Polish village; the Russians have occupied the land for as long as anyone can remember, but otherwise life is unremarkable. Patryk and his friends entertain themselves by coming up with dares — some more harmful than others — until the Germans drop a bomb on the schoolhouse and the Great War comes crashing in. As control of the village falls from one nation to another, Jurek, the ringleader of these friends, devises the best dare yet: whichever boy steals the finest military button will be king. But as sneaking buttons from uniforms hanging to dry progresses to looting the bodies of dead soldiers — and as Jurek’s obsession with being king escalates — Patryk begins to wonder whether their “button war” is still just a game. When devastation reaches their doorstep, the lines between the button war and the real war blur, especially for the increasingly callous Jurek. Master of historical fiction Avi delivers a fierce account of the boys of one war-torn village who are determined to prove themselves with a simple dare that spins disastrously out of control.
(240 pages)

I'll be perfectly honest: I had very, very high expectations for The Button War because it's written by Avi. Most people love Avi for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, but the truth is that I barely even remember that book; no, the reason I had high hopes for this new Avi read was because I was obsessed with his The Secret School when I was little. It grabbed my fascination in a big way, with its tale of children banding together to trick their parents into letting them continue to get an education after their teacher leaves.

I suppose that in some ways The Button War is the opposite of The Secret School. Where the earlier book showed children banding together to improve themselves, devoting themselves to their studies and staying relatively well-behaved, The Button War tells the story of a band of school-aged boys who, when left to their own devices, egg each other on to do reckless, stupid things–like the titular competition to steal the brightest, fanciest buttons from the uniforms of the various armies invading their small town.

It's frankly not very fun to read, because I spent most of the book wanting to reach out and smack Jurek–and the other boys for caring enough about his words to put themselves and their families in danger like that. It's one thing to read about people putting themselves in danger during WWII to save Jews from the Holocaust, but watching Patryk's band of friends get in danger for the sake of such a stupid game was just painful. I suppose it's a reflection of the violence they've grown up around, that they've become so desensitized to it and reckless that they would behave in this way, but I didn't really enjoy it.

I think The Button War is a pretty good book, but I for one just found it so frustrating that I didn't get much out of it. You might like it more than I did, though.

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