Trick or Read

  1. An Acceptable Time

    There was a ton of buzz in the #bookstagram world about “A Wrinkle in Time” this year, and rightfully so. BUT. “An Acceptable Time” is a little more grown up and is positively dripping with autumn vibes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is spooky, but there are sinister undertones that work perfectly for a Halloween read. I pull this one out every year on the 31st.

  2. The Devil in the White City

    Looking to go the nonfiction route? Look no further than this ultra-creepy true story from the Chicago World’s Fair. I mean, we’re talking serial killer who REALLY LIVED AND BREATHED AND DID THIS STUFF. I don’t even know if I’m brave enough to read it on Halloween. If you are, do.

  3. Rebecca

    “Rebecca” is everywhere these days. Why? Because there are few books so immersed in setting and character and MOOD FOR DAYS. This book is dusty and cobwebby (it’s a word) and there are secrets galore. And romance too. So if you want to pick the one off this list that has a little “he loves me, he loves me not,” this one is for you.

  4. And Then There Were None

    You can’t go wrong with anything Agatha. If you have the time, you can make your way through the entire Hercule Poirot series from the start (Do it on audio. You’re welcome.). If you only have time for one though, this is it. It does everything good that Agatha Christie is famous for (fast developing plots that wizz by in a few hours and mysteries that often feel positively unsolvable), with a little extra va-va-voom. Oh, and in case you’re tempted to go this direction, trust me and save “Murder on the Orient Express” for a snowy winter day.

  5. The Screwtape Letters

    What happens when the devil and his nephew demon are pen pals? This book happens, that’s what. And listen, this is not a sermon, but if we are going to have a holiday that involves ghosts and witches and other things we probably shouldn’t be dabbling with to begin with, it’s probably not a bad idea to recenter with the guy who understood spiritual warfare better than most, C.S.Lewis. Just a little reminder that it’s all fun and games…until it’s not.

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The Struggle is Real.

What mom hasn't thought, at least a dozen times (okay a thousand), "the struggle is real"?! Nicole Unice's book takes this common phrase and embraces it. With the wisdom of a woman who knows her Bible, but the approachability of a girlfriend at the playground, she shares simple ways that women can find freedom and release from life's sticky situations.

I loved Unice's voice in this book. You just felt like she got it. She got you. She did a wonderful job of weaving personal anecdotes in with stories from scripture and more academic thoughts. Just when one method of communicating her thoughts might be getting stale, she switched to a new medium, keeping my attention. This means, of course, that she knows her audience. The busy mom whose attention span is...wait, nope, it's gone. So it mattered that she was able to pack a ton of information and helpful tips into a book that moved along.

Unice also included sections at the end of each chapter called "Keeping It Real". This was an opportunity for personal application that would be welcome for an individual reader or for a book club or Bible study group.

So the next time you find yourself cleaning melted gummy bears out of a car seat, or scrubbing crayon off your white walls, or answering the fiftieth "why" question of the day, just remember the struggle is real, but we're all on the same team. Then, just maybe, grab a copy of this book and charge up on Nicole Unice's good words of encouragement.

Tyndale House provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Laurentian Divide

Why is it that, when I usually think of a sequel, I hear that corny “wah-wah” sound effect in my head. I expect to be disappointed. But then, something like “Laurentian Divide” happens, and suddenly, my faith is restored. A follow-up book can not only be good, it can be excellent.

“Divide” does what a good sequel should. It fills in details and updates on the characters that we love, but also tells a compelling story of its own. Sarah Stonich did a perfect job of picking the characters from "Vacationland" to highlight in its follow-up. I couldn't help but root for each person to find fulfillment as the story unfolded, and Stonich delivered, with the raw and willing sense of reality she brings to her work.

This narrative takes place over the course of just a few days, in the run-up to widowed Alpo and diner waitress Sissy’s wedding. Not only do we experience “all the feelings” with those two characters, we also follow along as one character struggles with alcohol addiction and as the town experiences growing concern over one of its missing citizens.

If you read “Vacationland”, the first installment in this series, and didn’t hope against all hope that Pete, Alpo’s son, would be the main character in this new book, I can’t help you. He was clearly the man to call to the plate this time around, and not surprisingly, his story was a homerun. No spoilers here, but I can almost guarantee that you will be rooting for him through every painful, struggling moment of his story. Alpo and Sissy provided good supporting characters in my read, although other readers may gravitate towards one of them instead of Pete. They are given equal screen time.

This idea of a smaller cast of characters being central to the story worked well in “Divide”, but did provide a startling contrast to “Vacationland”. The literary magic of the first book came from the oddly named chapters, the different character focus in each one, and Stonich’s ability to put it all together into a story we cared about. In losing that for the second book, the story took center stage. The effect of that decision is hard to pin down. Some of the magic may be gone, but the narrative flow only increased. A win or loss is for the individual reader to decide.

Not lost in “Divide” is Stonich’s very special ability to develop a character, to show who they are in the everyday decisions they make. There are surely big moments in this story, but I found that the small ones were the revelations. There is in “Divide” an understanding of the bittersweet realities of life, an acceptance of the good and bad that comes with the simple act of living. I closed the book feeling the contagious contentment of the people on the pages, and that is quite a gift.

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Hidden Among The Stars

Time-slip is a genre that has the power to grab you and not let you go, if it is done well. "Hidden Among The Stars", the new novel from Melanie Dobson, certainly is. 

Dobson takes her readers on two journeys that are set on a collision course (as time-slip novel duel story lines usually are). In the present, Callie Randall is a book store owner who loves books but often hides from real life challenges due to fear. Back in 1938, Luzia Weiss is a young Jewish woman on the cusp of fame due to her musical talent. Both Callie and Luzia will face their own set of challenges, and the decisions of one will lead the other on an adventure she never expected.

One of the things that was so attractive about this book was the setting. Dobson did a wonderful job of immersing readers in the setting, whether it was an adorable bookstore in 2018 or a fairy tale castle in Nazi-controlled Austria in 1938. Also, I couldn't decide which side of this story I liked better, and that is a high compliment. Often with books like this, I can't wait to return to my "favorite" side, which can make a book drag. Not so with "Hidden Among The Stars". And the ending was so satisfying.

The thing about this book is that it wasn't sappy. Dobson didn't insist on happy endings for everyone involved, nor did she sugar coat the struggles the characters faced. She managed to balance reality with hope, struggles with breakthrough. 

I did guess at the main plot points that were meant to shock the reader well before their revelation, but I don't think it took away from my enjoyment at all. Playing these secrets closer to her vest may have put Dobson's book over the top, but it was still extremely enjoyable and I will be passing it along to other lovers of the historical fiction/time slip genres.

*Tyndale Fiction provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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The Wondering Years

I laughed. I cried. I did all the things, then I came back for more.

Knox McCoy’s “The Wondering Years” is a candid look at his life and faith, told by way of a series of entertaining anecdotes and cultural references galore. It is -a rare thing- a book that will make you think about your own relationship with God while not boring you at all. A book that sounds and feels personal, like a friend talking to you in a coffee shop...talking to you, not at you. Big difference.

Every kid who grew up in church faced a moment when they had to decide if they wanted a faith of their own, separate from the one presented to them by their parents. I distinctly remember this phase of my life. I also know that, for many second or third-generation Christians, the struggle to reconcile the image of God we were taught, with the world we live in can be difficult. Knox addresses these struggles and more, wondering what faith should feel and look like as well as asking who God is at our darkest moments. Disguised in this easy-to-read book are deep thoughts and challenging statements. And I didn’t hate that at all.

On the lighter side, you are going to be hard pressed to find a book that has a stronger 90’s pop culture game than “The Wondering Years”. Knox hits all the high points AND all the Christian pop culture hits too (yes, that is a thing!). If you can work a reference to Nicolae Carpathia into your book, you’re winning in mine.

If the honest look at faith is the heart of this book, the pop culture is the heartBEAT. It keeps you moving right through the pages until you’re done and you don’t want to be.

Perhaps what I loved most about “The Wondering Years” was Knox’s willingness to leave his faith journey unfinished. He bypassed the pitfall of so many spiritual books, the painful pull to tie his story up in a neat bow. You don’t finish this book feeling like Knox has it all figured it out. You might not even agree with some of the things he says. That’s okay. He is just one of us, processing and reprocessing as he moves along life’s journey, and his willingness to admit that makes this book even more worthy of your time.

*Thomas Nelson provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. "The Wondering Years: How Pop Culture Helped Me Answer Life's Biggest Questions" will be on sale November of 2018.*

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Virgil Wander

“Virgil Wander” is set in the present but it feels perfectly, irresistibly old-fashioned. That is, above all else, its greatest method of seduction.

Set in a midwestern town, Leif Enger’s new novel follows the story of Virgil, an everyman-type who owns a failing movie theater and works for city hall to make ends meet. When Virgil’s car plunges into Lake Superior, he escapes death but is left to put the pieces of his life back together, beginning with his failing memory. The result is a heartbreakingly honest portrayal of a man’s journey to discover the best version of himself.

Thanks to Enger’s masterful writing, this book drew me in from the very start and never let go until the last page...maybe not even then. His beautiful descriptions of small town scenes and relatable characters were in perfect contrast to a plot that was sometimes realistic and sometimes achingly artsy. It has been said that it took Enger ten years to write this book, and I could see why. Each detail was polished. No word was wasted, no scene overplayed.

I was sad to see these characters go when I closed the book. And while Enger did an admirable job of accelerating and then wrapping up a plot that took a turn I never expected, he also left some strings hanging in the air. He didn’t resolve everything and he didn’t even come close to answering every question posed within in the pages of “Virgil Wander”. I was okay with that...more than okay. It only added to the appeal of a book that was hard to pin down, like a kite on a stormy day.

If you are looking for a read alike to this novel, I found it to have a similar vibe and plot progression to “Empire Falls” by Richard Russo. But that is only a loose comparison. This novel stands as a unique work that is certainly worth your time.

*Grove Atlantic provided me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. “Virgil Wander” releases on October 4, 2018.

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Adrift

In the vein of “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson, “Adrift” is a larger-than-life true story about survival in the midst of the most impossible circumstances. It is, in turn, shocking, tragic, and inspiring. And worth your time if you love nonfiction.

Brian Murphy weaves the story of the fated ship John Rutledge into a greater fabric of ships sailing into dangerously icy waters in 1856, one of the deadliest years for sea travel on record. By placing his story against a larger backdrop, Murphy is able to make the survival of a single sailor aboard the John Rutledge all the more remarkable.

Any history junkie will enjoy the unique details Murphy is able to cull from historical records. Even the story of the lone survivor, Thomas Nye, is filled with “bonus content” that includes pleasurable rabbit trails of stories about his extended family. As the amount of information the reader is given grows, you will begin to feel as if you too have spent time in the myriad of libraries, museums, and  historical sites that Murphy visited to put together his book.

Murphy did take some liberties with dialogue and thoughts ascribed to various people in the story, but I was able to forgive him for this based on two things. First, this is the style of many best sellers in this genre lately, including the books by Erik Larson. Second, Murphy addressed his decision to do this before the book even began, in an Author’s Note. The extra dialogue, which he separated from actual documented words by not using quotation marks, did add to the narrative flow of the story, which I’m betting was his intention.

By the time I finished this book, I was astonished that I had not heard the story of the John Rutledge and Thomas Nye before. I was sad it had never found its way into any of the many historical classes I had taken in school. And I was glad to have stumbled upon it now.

The final test of a good book was one that “Adrift” passed. I spent the hours after I finished forcing my family to listen, in great detail, to the tragic story of the John Rutledge and the other ships lost in the same sea that year, and to the inspiring story of Thomas Nye, who lived to share what had happened. I couldn’t stop talking about it. Nye’s story, interpreted through the skilled pen of Brian Murphy, is one I would definitely recommend you pick up.

Da Capo Press provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchanged for an honest review. "Adrift" is due to be released on September 4, 2018.

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The Dinner List

What five people, living or dead, would you choose to have dinner with?

We've all been asked this question, and in "The Dinner List", Rebecca Serle takes it on and uses it to weave a beautiful, dreamy story. 

At the opening of the story, the narrator, Sabrina, finds herself seated in an Italian restaurant with the love of her life, her best friend, her dad, her favorite college professor, and...Audrey Hepburn. As the story unfolds, Sabrina is forced to confront issues with the most important people in her life. She is challenged to rethink long held views and get past her own emotional hang-ups for a chance at healing and reconciliation. 

This book's tone reminded me a lot of the television show Younger. The main character and her friends and boyfriend are very Brooklyn hipster (even if Sabrina prefers Manhattan) and I'm not going to lie, it worked for me. I loved the references to places around New York City and Serle made me believe that she was an authority on it, which matters to me. 

The relationships that find themselves at the center of the story were just messy enough to be interesting, and the way the story unfolds, dancing between fantasy and reality, definitely kept the pages turning. "The Dinner List" features quick chapters and a low page count that makes it one of those rare stories you can binge read in a day. It reads young and fresh and maybe a little corky. And while the appearance of Audrey Hepburn as one of the characters rang a little odd, I'm always up for her presence anywhere for any reason, so I went with it. 

If the goal of this book was to reveal deep truths, it fell short for me. The word "young" keeps popping into my mind, and in the sense of lessons learned, it felt like a young voice was trying to deliver life lessons to me. I didn't come away with any newfound revelations. However, if the goal was to tell a love story in a fresh, new way, it definitely succeeded. It is perfect if you're looking for a great weekend read with a nice big dose of romance. And if you're an Audrey Hepburn fan? No question this one is for you. 

Flatiron Books provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Forest Therapy

I picked up “Forest Therapy” by Sarah Ivens around the same time that my family moved into a neighborhood that bordered on a large park. Turns out, it was just the right book at just the right time.

Ivens infuses her book with beautiful descriptions of nature that make you want to get outside immediately. She points out again and again how forest therapy is extremely beneficial to our health and offers tons of tips for how to rejuvenate your inner tree hugger. The chapters in the book make it easy to cherry pick subjects you feel strongly about, like getting outdoors with your kids or allowing nature to rekindle the romance in your relationship.

I love a good list, and “Forest Therapy” is brimming with them. Ivens offers everything from book lists to playlists to recipes for natural face masks. I found myself dog earing pages again and again so that I could revisit them with each passing season and take some of her suggestions.

I am someone who loves the outdoors. Still, I realized after reading this book that I could get into nature even more. Since reading “Forest Therapy”, I have found myself reading outside in the twilight hours instead of on the couch, doing my yoga in the grass, and paying extra attention to the plants inside and outside my home. And the park across the street? I am listening to its invitation to visit whenever possible. In a time when we are urged by our culture to be inside more and more, I am so thankful for a voice that reminds us there is another way. If you need that reminder, “Forest Therapy” is the book for you.

*Da Capo Press provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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The Hidden Side

Oh gosh. This book dug into deep, dark places. It got serious REAL fast, and it never really came up for air. And, honestly, I couldn't put it down.

Heidi Chiavaroli, author of "The Hidden Side", took on a myriad of tough topics in this fast paced, addictive piece of historical fiction. From bullying to school shootings to family tragedy to some good old fashioned war-time espionage, the subjects just kept coming and Chiavaroli handled them carefully and with an expertise that was impressive. That said, this is not a breezy read.

In 2016, a family finds their entire world turned upside down after a school shooting. Their quest to find new life, new hope, after tragedy is compeling in part because Chiavaroli has created characters that we can root for. She has also created characters that feel real. They are not shined up, made pretty for a Christian fiction title, forced to minimize their problems and make them tidy. Instead, they find redemption and hope from a God who accepts them, even in their worst moment.

In 1776, one woman must decide if she will support a cause she believes in with all her heart, that of the Revolution, by living a double life. Her decision gets more and more complicated as she realizes that, in spite of their allegiance to Britian, the redcoats are in some cases well meaning and [dare I say] worthy of her affection.

These two stories absolutely held my attention from the first page to the last. There was not a moment of lag, not a moment I didn't care about the outcome of their narratives. Don't read this book for a breezy break, do read it for a well-written and challenging story.

I only have one critique of this book, and it was large enough to make me rate it 3/5 on Goodreads. The character in 1776, by all appearances in my own research, did not exist. She is tied to extremely influential historical figures in the story, and it bothered me that she was not real. I am a big fan of historical fiction, and for me, the most successful stories manage to hug close to history enough so that you are not alterring it. Creating this particular woman and placing her right alongside real people, often motivating their decisions, seemed one step too far. BUT, it sure made for a good read!

Tyndale has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Things I Never Told You

There are secrets lurking just beneath the surface of this book, and I know it even before I open it. 

Thanks to a great title, "Things I Never Told You" had me excited from the first time I heard about it. I happened to start it over Memorial Day Weekend, and it had all the things I hoped for in a summer read. Great characters, a little romance, and a lot of mystery to keep the pages turning.

Beth Vogt did a great job of making me care about her characters, particularly the three who took on narrative roles. There is nothing quite as satisfying as spending your journey through a book rooting for people you care about. She took on big issues, like recovering from the loss of a family member and dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and did so with care and skill. The struggle felt real, and that is the mark of a good book.

In the end, the "things" mentioned in the title didn't turn out to be quite as shocking as I had expected. I wished Vogt had pushed the plot a little farther to make the payoff even more satisfying. But she did convince me that the secrets the main character had kept were important enough to her to alter her life. And I loved the redemption that followed their release.

If you are looking for a good book, particularly a chance to plug into a series with great characters (this is just the first of the Thatcher Sisters books), I would definitely recommend picking this one up.

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The Read-Aloud Family

Before you even open Sarah Mackenzie’s new book, “The Read-Aloud Family”, the subtitle tells you what the contents will help you to accomplish: “Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids”. Who wouldn’t want to read a book that promises to unlock some of the keys to those connections?

If you’re like me, you cravy quality time with your kids, an hour [or minute] to cuddle up with them and enjoy a good book or talk about their day. A time to truly connect and let them know they are heard and loved and valued. “The Read-Aloud Family” offers practical ways to find that time and to maximize it once it is found. From ideas for conversation starters to handy checklists for what your kids can do while you read aloud, this book is chock full of actionable items. My personal favorite was Mackenzie’s suggestion to play audiobooks on long car rides. My kids love them, and we’ve been able to take on books that might have felt a bit boring without a great narrator.

Mackenzie comes into this project with a whole lot of street cred in the children’s book world. She hosts the popular podcast, “The Read-Aloud Revival”, which features guests who are prominent in the book world as well as a bevy of book suggestions. She also keeps her website brimming with ideas for reading to different age groups or during different times of year. That expertise is clear in the book, where she offers plenty of wisdom for parents looking to expand their read-aloud horizons.

Ultimately, there will be two types of people who will enjoy this book. The first, parents who have no history of reading with their kids, will be encouraged by Mackenzie’s “You can do it!” attitude in every chapter. She even directly references what to do when you’re starting out. Then, the second group, parents like myself who have been reading to their children for a long time, will also find a place in the pages. With fresh, unique ideas and an up to date booklist overflowing with current titles, Mackenzie will reload the arsenal of even the most seasoned read-aloud families.

We only have so many years with our kids, and any resource that can help to make those years more rich with is invaluable. “The Read-Aloud Family” is just such a resource.  

*Zondervan has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. "The Read-Aloud Family" is available on March 27, 2018.*

 

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From ideas for conversation starters to handy checklists for what your kids can do while you read aloud, this book is chock full of actionable items.

The Saturday Night Supper Club

Sometimes you just need some good food and a Hallmark movie. And that is what “The Saturday Night Supper Club” by Carla Laureano feels like.

Laureano artfully weaves the story of Rachel, an acclaimed chef living in Denver. Almost immediately, her life collides with that of freelance writer Alex. When he offers her an opportunity to overcome a social media disaster and rebuild her career, Rachel realizes she is putting her faith in a man she barely knows. She is scared of opening up and trusting other people, but suddenly, she has no choice but to trust Alex.

This story is chick lit at its best. You can pick it up and be guaranteed a sweet romance and lovely characters you will want to root for. You can also expect to be starving. Because Laureano writes as if she has been working in high-end kitchens all her life. Or maybe she’s just been watching a whole lot of Food Network. The point is, this story feels really accurate. From bacon, cheese, and chive scones to pistachio financiers with orange blossom ice cream, your mouth will be watering. “The Saturday Night Supper Club” is definitely a foodie’s dream.

As satisfying as the food is, the love story is even better. Following along with Rachel and Alex as they struggle to balance their work lives and emotional baggage with the challenges of a budding relationship is a treat to read. They are both very likeable characters, as are the additional side characters you will meet along the way. 

If you are looking to settle in for a Sunday afternoon of easy reading, or if you just need a break from heavier fare, “The Saturday Night Supper Club” might just be the right fit for you. It was for me. Now, about that scone...

 

*Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Breaking Cover

Every once in a while, you have the good fortune to stumble upon a book like “Breaking Cover” by Michele Rigby Assad. A book that packs all the intrigue and intensity of a spy thriller flick into a non-fiction title. One that features a narrator who is humble and real, who owns both her ups and [perhaps more importantly] downs. The type of page-turner that exposes the evils of the world, but also serves up a healthy dose of hope.

“Breaking Cover” opens with Michelle and her husband interviewing a man in Iraq, a man who appears to be lying to them. Since the couple has spent a decade in the CIA, serving in war zones in the Middle East, they are uniquely equipped to detect a suspicious person. And wow, is this guy suspicious. Is he who he claims to be?

After that tense and intriguing opening, Assad hits the rewind button. She tells the reader about her upbringing, and specifically about what brought her to the CIA. The drama of the story intensifies as she and her husband are deployed to dangerous countries on important missions. Throughout much of the journey, Assad is honest about her struggles and lack of understanding about the direction her life has taken. Why is she sent on countless assignments to difficult places while other agents land themselves spots in more desirable locations? Is she even qualified to take on the high stakes work she is saddled with? What is she supposed to do with her future?

Then, suddenly, everything becomes clear when her background as an agent qualifies her to run a mission to save hundreds of internally displaced people in Iraq who are fleeing a murderous terrorist organization. That mission puts her across the table from the previously mentioned suspicious man, the one who may or may not be who he claims to be. Thanks to her schooling and work, she is able to make a determination with expert confidence. And she is able to be a leader in the mission to give the persecuted Iraqis a chance at a new life.

From start to finish, Assad weaves a story that is stunning...because it’s true. Her story is fascinating, and her accomplishments are impressive. She is a strong and intelligent role model to any woman who reads her story. More than that though, “Breaking Cover”, tells the story of a woman who knows it is not about her. And that is perhaps the most impressive thing of all.

 

*A cool way to enhance your read of this book would be to look up the 20/20 piece that ABC did on Assad’s mission to liberate Iraqi Christians. I watched it after I read the book and was so glad I did.
**Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Island of the Blue Foxes

Most of us have heard of places like the Bering Straight or Bering Sea, yet if you're like me, you probably have no idea who Bering actually was, nor the part he played in the exploration of the world. "Island of the Blue Foxes" offers an intimate view of the Great Northern Expedition, a mission initiated by the Russian Empire's Peter the Great to explore the far reaches of Siberia and the western coast of America. If the mission had been a complete success, the story would be interesting. However, in the struggles, trials, and eventual disasters that befell the crew of expedition, I found a story that I couldn't put down.

Stephen Bown, the author of "Island", puts the reader right in the middle of the action from the start. The prologue of the book immediately places us with a group of sailors that has found themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island. Bown then rewinds and fills in the entire story of the expedition. This was the perfect way to make the story even more engaging. 

Due to the nature of the expedition, there are many stories from the crew that were doubtless left unrecorded and will never be told. But Bown was able to take the existing narratives and piece together a story that felt well-rounded and complete. It is a story of the fallibility of individuals, but it also a story of triumph. I am so glad I had the opportunity to read this book, and to learn about Bering and his daring crew on "the world's greatest scientific expedition".

*Da Capo Press has provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Habits of the Heart

365-day devotionals, or their cousin the daily rip-off calendar, can tend towards oversimplicity. Even if they are encouraging, I don't really expect them to delve deeply into spiritual issues or disciplines. And that is what makes "Habits of the Heart" stand apart from the crowd.

This devotional is broken down into weekly themes. Each one explores an essential spiritual theme, breaking it down into its finer points each day. For example, the week on "Practicing Self-Examination" features days like "What's In Your Heart?" and "Who Do You Want to Be?". I found this format easy to read, and it allowed me spend a good amount of time meditating on each concept.

The emphasis here is definitely on scripture, and the notes from the author are short and to the point. However, Butler has found a way to sneak in lots of helpful tips that I know will be useful for many modern users. She emphasizes using features like the reminder app on your phone to reinforce verses or ideas that are meant to be revisited day after day.

Speaking of modern, the design of this book looks like it came right off the set of Fixer Upper. The beautiful wood grain cover makes it either the perfect gift or something you can be proud to leave out in your home. At least for me, when it comes to little daily devotionals like this, design does play a part in whether or not I pick it up. This one gets an A+.

The truth is, we are all battling to make time in our day for spiritual discipline. "Habits of the Heart" is the perfect blueprint to guide you through that process.

 

*Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Stones of Remembrance

I have an awful memory. Usually I refer to it with a laugh as mommy brain, but the truth is, even when I laugh about it, my inability to remember even basic things is pretty depressing. So I was immediately attracted to “Stones of Remembrance”, which promises to specifically help the reader with memorization, and more broadly with general brain health. 

The book is broken down into three sections: twelve spiritual disciplines for improving your memory, twelve verses to remember in various life circumstances, and twelve verses every Christian should know. 

I found the first section to be filled with good reminders about how to live a well-balanced life. It was a good check-in on concepts that weren’t necessarily ground breakingly new in this book, but still vitally important to remember.

The second section was great. I will absolutely keep this book on my nightstand just so I can reference this section again and again. It broke encouraging Bible verses down by what specific season of life you find yourself in. Whether you are happy, depressed, scared, tired, or thankful, there is a section with twelve appropriate verses listed out for you to meditate on. This was great.

The third and last section held verses that many readers are likely to already know. I expected the choices to be a little more surprising, but they are definitely the “greatest hits” of scripture, from John 3:16 to 1 Corinthians 13. Still a great read even if you know them, although the version of scripture used (New Living Translation) made them all slightly different from the famous versions I’ve memorized.

Overall, this book was a quick read which I plan to revisit often. I would love to commit every verse in this book to heart and mind over time because I know I will need and use them as I walk through different seasons of life. Just like when the Israelites took stones from the Jordan River to remember the promises of God, I plan to keep this book around so I too can hold on to those promises.

* Please note that Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Queen Victoria's Matchmaking

I remember my mom telling me that, when she was a teenager, her mom [aka my grandma] would approach lifeguards on the beach and brazenly introduce them to her daughters. At the time, I didn’t think anyone could top that level of bold matchmaking. Then I read “Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking” by Deborah Cadbury. Let’s just say Queen V could give my grandma a run for her money.

“Matchmaking” chronicles the efforts of Queen Victoria to orchestrate the marriages of her children and grandchildren. At its root was a desire to honor the vision of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, to bring unity in Europe through a network of marriages that would tie different countries and empires to each other. However noble the plan was, as the years passed and Queen Victoria found herself a widow destined to execute the plan on her own, things got more and more complicated...even messy.

This book succeeds in showing the overarching dynamics playing out in Europe at this time, as well as the intimate inner workings of a family that spread itself from England to Germany, Greece, Russia and numerous other countries. Each story, each individual member of the family, is more fascinating than the last. Seeing their love stories play out is more gripping still.

Cadbury tells a story that I knew very little of. So many of the names that star in this book were mere footnotes in my knowledge of history until I read this book. Within a few chapters, I found myself anxious to learn the fates of the colorful characters that made up one of the most intriguing families you will ever encounter. And I must admit, in spite of her shocking frankness and shameless interference, I was rooting for Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking to win out every time. Because you always have to root for grandma.

Educated

Some books just blow you away.

 

I read “Educated” by Tara Westover in two days. When I was finished, I had that rare and special feeling of wanting more. Maybe that is because even though the book is finished, Tara’s story isn’t. Maybe that is part of the magic of the narrative. It is the story of a living, breathing person whose story is still playing out. That in and of itself makes the stakes in this book so much higher.

 

The book tells the story of Tara and her family, a clan that is led by her survivalist father. In the shadow of a beautiful mountain in Idaho, he has committed to preparing for the end of the world and expects his wife and children to do the same. This involves packing “go bags” in case they have to hide in the mountains from federal agents, burying a gas tank so that they can function when the rest of society is crippled, and canning countless jars of peaches so that they will not starve.

 

Tara’s tumultuous upbringing is also devoid of one key component: an education. Because of her father’s fear of the government, Tara is not allowed to attend school, and home schooling is minimal at best.

 

There were moments in this book that drew me out of the narrative in the best possible way, to remind me that this was not just a well told story. This was REAL. Two in particular were her remembrances of Y2K and 9.11. Tara and I were born two months apart in the same year, so hearing how divergent our interaction with those events was really drove home how unique her upbringing was.

 

In “Educated”, you will definitely find heartbreak and pain. It is at the core of her narrative. But you will also find a victory that is so unbelievable it will have you cheering for the little girl, now woman, who could have given up but didn’t. I could throw around a lot of words: shocking, inspiring, powerful. They would all be true of this book.  

 

Please note that Random House has provided me with a complimentary advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Masterpiece

Boys meets girl. They fall in love and live happily ever after. So simple, right? Not if Francine Rivers has anything to say about it!

 

For years, Rivers has faithfully produced stories that tug at our heartstrings...works like “A Voice in the Wind” and “When the Shofar Blew”. Most recently, “A Bridge to Haven”. Now, in her book that is set to release in January 2018, she is back and yes, still producing love stories that are both agonizing and glorious.

 

“The Masterpiece” follows two main characters. Roman is an artist with a troubled past who uses anger as a weapon and builds walls to make sure he is never hurt again. Grace is a struggling single mom with any equally complicated history. She chooses to hide from things that scare her, and often finds herself making choices that please others but ultimately harm her.

 

As you would expect, from the very start, Roman and Grace are set on a crash course into...well, each other. But there is so much more to their journey, starting with their separate struggles to understand the role God plays in their lives.

 

“The Masterpiece”, first, is a very enjoyable read. Rivers is an expert at cloaking her stories in mystery, in such a way that you find yourself turning page after page long after you should be asleep. She tells a story that moves quickly, and if the action doesn’t pull you along, the tug on your heart will. Second, though, and just as important, this book felt well-researched. It covers sensitive topics like childhood trauma, drug use, single motherhood, as well as exploring what the life of a graffiti artist is like. All were handled well, all treated with respect and I felt, without cliche.

 

Fans of Rivers may find that a novel set in the present day lacks some of the romantic muscle that, say “A Voice in the Wind” might have. But the characters of Roman and Grace are equal to the beloved names we all know from Rivers: Hadassah and Marcus, Paul and Eunice Hudson, Angel and Michael. You will find yourself rooting for them from the early pages of this novel. And with a heavy dose of spirituality, Rivers takes the book to a place that transcends place and time. Make room on your bookshelf for this one!

 

Please note that Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.