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.

Under a Cloudless Sky

I loved this book.

Sometimes you just have to lead with that. 

From the start, this book vaguely reminded me of the film "Promised Land", which starred Matt Damon. "Promised Land" was the story of how a big corporation was trying to convince people to give up their way of life in the name of progress. "Under a Cloudless Sky" by Chris Fabry told a very similar tale...until it took a turn that hooked me even more.

The book alternates between 1933 and 2004, telling the story of two girls named Ruby and Bean. Ruby, an elderly woman in 2004, is looking back through the years and confronting some difficult memories. Those memories are veiled in mystery, a mystery that kept me turning pages until I polished off the book in two days.

We all want to route for the underdog, and I'm going to guess that we all want to see the everyday, "little man" win in the face of a big company. We also want to bring exploitation and abuse to light, to see wrongs righted and the innocent given a voice. The story that "Under a Cloudless Sky" tells gives the readers all those gifts. And it gives them wrapped in a beautiful, engrossing story. I am so glad I got to read it. 

*This book is set to release in January 2018*

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

Death at Thorburn Hall

Calling all Agatha fans!

I often wonder what it would be like to live in the era when new Hercule Poirot mysteries were coming out. I've imagined opening a catalog and discovering that a new one was available, or reading an excerpt from one in my morning newspaper. There are probably many Agatha Christie fans who can relate. That's why the Drew Farthering mysteries are so much fun. Julianna Deering has somehow managed to make me believe that we're all living pre-World War II in England, and every new release from her makes my dream of new Agatha mysteries feel a little bit more like reality.

Drew Farthering, the star of the series, is a young wealthy man who is reminiscent of Poirot in that you kind of love him, but also kind of find him to be obnoxious. Somehow that works. Nick is the Watson to his Sherlock, and for me, he is what makes the series so enjoyable. He is sweet and down to earth, patient with Drew and caring to the victims left behind in their cases. All in all, Deering has created a cast of characters that is flawed enough to be real, and fictional enough to be fun.

This particular installment in the series, "Death at Thorburn Hall" was one I found especially interesting because of its tie-in to history. It comes on the scene at the time when Hitler was rising to power and spies were gathering information in England and throughout Europe before the war broke out. I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll just say that this historical backdrop made the story extra intriguing.

As for the mystery itself, I have to be fair and say that I guessed the murderer pretty much from the start. That was where this stopped feeling like an Agatha Christie. I wished that the culprit was more carefully veiled, that the motivations of other characters felt more believable, that in general the possibilities of whodunnit felt equally weighted. But, even though I was pretty sure I saw where the story was going, I found the journey to be incredibly entertaining. 

If you're looking for a good, old-fashioned mystery series to invest in, I would definitely recommend the Drew Farthering Mysteries. And if you've already started and are wondering about continuing, go for it. The developments in the lives of the main characters alone are worth it. As for the whodunnit, I'll leave that to you to find out.

*This book is set to release in November 2017*

The Four Tendencies

I do tasks that will only take a minute immediately instead of saving them for later. I open boxes carefully so as not to damage them. I [try to] remove splinters with tape. I occasionally ask myself how future Nicole would feel about choices I am making now. And when I want to eat better, I abstain from garbage food because I know I’m not built for moderation.

 

I do all of these things because of suggestions from Gretchen Rubin. So, needless to say, I was very excited to receive a copy of her brand new book, set to release next week, called “The Four Tendencies”.

 

If you read Rubin’s last book, “Better than Before”, or listen to her podcast, “Happier with Gretchen Rubin”, the ideas in this new book will not be new to you. It takes her concept that all people fall into four broad personality profiles and expands on it, carefully outlining each one: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

 

On the technical side of things, I found the structure of the book to be just right. Chapters start with a broad definition of each tendency, including pros and cons. Then follows sections on how to deal with spouses, kids, coworkers, or healthcare patients with that tendency. It even talks about what type of jobs might suit you if you have that tendency. Although there were definitely a lot of points I had already heard her make, she also had saved some material for the book, and I found new ideas and tips as I read.

 

As far as personal application goes, I found a ton of treasures in these pages. First, I hope this book gets into the hands of tons of teachers. They should donate it to them, make it mandatory reading, something...my teacher husband is sure going to hear about it. I spent my entire education being made to feel rebellious and like a “less-than” student because I questioned the status quo. The answer “because I said so” used to drive me bonkers because it made absolutely no sense. It really hampered the amount of success I had in high school because so much of my energy was spent fighting the injustice of the system instead of learning. When I got to college, where questions were not only welcomed but celebrated, I thrived. Now I know it is because I am a questioner. I wish my teachers in those younger years had taken the time to know me and figure that out.

 

I love the idea that by knowing myself and others better, I can be a better wife and friend, daughter and mom. I can treat myself better and chase my health goals more effectively. Like all of Rubin’s books, I finished with real action items to chase that I knew would result in a happier and more productive lifestyle. And who doesn’t want that?!

 

On the other side, I did feel that this book lacked some of the magic that was abounding in her huge hit, “The Happiness Project”. I missed the way she wove facts and applications into her own unfolding story. There were still anecdotes from herself and readers, but it didn’t feel like a memoir. This didn’t take away from the readability, I just hope she returns to her former glory in the next book she writes.

 

One other minor note. I wished she hadn’t plugged her app and podcast. She could have even mentioned them, but the way she pointedly talked about them by their full names made it feel like unnatural commercials stuck in the middle of a book. I would have saved that for the endnotes, where incidentally, she also mentioned them.

 

Finding the negatives in a great book can get super nit-picky. And that’s what I’ve done here. Because this is a great book. It’s worth picking up, maybe to kick of the new year, which is when I usually read her books, to start the school year, or as a Christmas gift for anyone and everyone. I doubt there is anyone who wouldn’t benefit from it.  

*THIS BOOK IS SET TO RELEASE ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2017*

Anatomy of an Affair

"This book is so important."

That's what I kept thinking as I read it. It's what I told my mom as I explained it to her on the phone this morning. It's what I told my husband over and over again as I passed along thoughts from the text.  

The fact is, whether your marriage is healthy or not, you can't be too careful about guarding it. I really value books that help to do just that. "Anatomy of an Affair" gave real instruction and practices that you can take right into your marriage and apply. It wasn't heavy on accusation towards either men or women, which some books can tend towards. It was a balanced view of a problem we all face: the close calls that are all around us, that can so easily undermine our marriages.

In many ways, this book reminded me of Andy Stanley's "Guardrails". It had the same practical advice and I recognized a lot of the tips as being the same. The benefit of "Anatomy" is that is a very easy, short read (I finished it in two days of on-and-off reading). I know I will be using so much of what I learned to strengthen and guard my marriage, and I'm sure anyone who picks up this book will as well.

Read this book if: You are married or planning to be married. We can all use these reminders.
Don't read this book if: This book may contain triggers for people struggling in difficult relationships. While it may help, it might be a good idea to talk to your pastor or counselor first before you start reading.

Seven Days of Us

Can we all agree up front that reading a Christmas-themed book during the summer is THE BEST?

Okay, now that we have that out of the way..

"Seven Days of Us" has a few things going for it right out of the gate: Christmas time and a solid setting (old, weathered English estate, anyone?). It also has the benefit of a British author, which in my book is always a good thing. There's a certain tone to British books that totally appeals to me. 

Christmas traditions come up a lot in the book, and as I sat down to share my thoughts about my reading experience, the idea of traditions carried over to what I will share here. Hornak has written a story that delivers many of the traditional components of a novel about a family: difficult/distanced dad, kind if not overbearing mom, two daughters (one smart and serious, one flaky and immature). There is the big secret waiting to reveal itself and change their lives forever, there is the force of nature that causes them to live together in confinement (in this case, in quarantine), there is...well, you get the idea.

So the truth is, this novel isn't going to reinvent the wheel. But isn't that okay? You know you love these stories. You know you drop them into your Amazon cart before you've finished the back flap description. I know I do.

I genuinely loved pieces of this book. The author is a very good writer. She has a way of using words that made me reread paragraphs over just to enjoy them. That is a wonderful thing in and of itself. I also thought that, while so much of the plot followed expected form, there were a few moments that totally surprised me. 

The part that I struggled with was that I just didn't love the majority of the characters. I need to want to root for someone. The mother, Emma, was lovable. She was the redemption in the midst of a crew that didn't seem to care a whole lot about the effect their actions had on others. This was definitely meant to be a story of redemption, but even in the redemption, I didn't trust these people. I just felt like the manner of their failures revealed character flaws so deep that the redemption wasn't terribly satisfying. 

Lastly, the lone American in the story is likable, but I struggled with all the stereotypes packed into his character, and it made it hard for me to take him seriously. Using "like" all the time, being vegan, practicing deep breathing and yoga, obsessing about Whole Foods Market, being overly friendly with strangers...one or two are okay, but all piled on, it became a bit much.

That big old dump of negatives really isn't fair, though. This book is a fun read, a fast read, and if you love the holidays like I do, delivers a truly satisfying representation of a family holiday. 

Read this book if: You love British lit, holiday lit, or just are in the mood for a book that is the print equivalent of a "The Family Stone"-style holiday film.

Don't read this book if: You want to be bowled over by a new concept. Also, this really pushed the boundaries of what I accept in terms of language and general racy content from books. I find this to be fairly common in British lit, but still found it disappointing.

***THIS BOOK WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE ON OCTOBER 17, 2017***

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

There are characters every kid should meet early in their reading life. Scout Finch, Laura Ingalls, Ramona Quimby, to name a few. Well, I didn't get to meet Calpurnia Tate until I was thirty, but you can be sure I will introduce her to my daughter much sooner!

"The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" is the story of an almost-twelve-year-old (as she says) growing up on a prosperous cotton plantation. She is surrounded by brothers and a rather mysterious grandfather, who spends his days doing science experiments and attempting to turn pecans into a palatable drink. When she finally connects with him, Calpurnia finds her world blossoming with new experiences and possibilities. 

The book deals with a lot of history and ideas, such as the struggle to adjust to life after the Civil War and the role of women in society. It celebrates the idea that girls have just as much a place in society as boys do, a lesson we all would do well to teach our daughters. It also does a great job of framing the struggle so many of us face with the now infamous work-life balance. Calpurnia is already encountering it in her young years.

All in all, this was a lovely story and Calpurnia made for a fun and lovable heroine. I will say that I was disappointed to discover there was a sequel to this book, as I find these kind of narratives do better as stand alones (see "To Kill a Mockingbird" as the prime example), but I am curious to see how the characters grow and evolve with time, so I will definitely be picking up #2 and hoping for the best.

Read this book if: You love the characters I mentioned above, smart girls (or boys) with a ton of potential and a healthy dose of mischief in their personalities

Don't read this book if: YA isn't your thing, or historical fiction...or if you demand perfection from your HF (the author makes a point of saying that she was inaccurate with historical and scientific facts in several places, which I found to be a bit disappointing)  

Under a Summer Sky

Sometimes you really need a fun summer read. Something that won't weigh you down with heavy thoughts or fancy language. You know the type of book I'm talking about, the one where you kind of know the ending right from the start, where the love story unfolds with perfect precision, where problems are identified and solved within the confines of a few hundred pages. 

I know why these types of books are called beach reads. When I go on vacation, I want to read something that makes me feel good. And "Under a Summer Sky" does exactly that. It follows the story of Nicole, a high school art teacher, who [no surprise here] has recently experienced a break-up and is feeling stalled in her life. Then comes an offer she can't refuse to spend her summer working at an art gallery in Savannah for old family friends. Old family friends who just happen to have two handsome and eligible sons hanging around town.

This novel delivers everything you would expect from chicklit. Simple, sweet and satisfying. 

Read this book if: You love chicklit, want a quick easy read, like a romance that doesn't go PG-13 on you.
Don't read this book if: You are looking for high literature or want to be stretched or challenged in your reading life. Save this one for another day. Or if you are expecting Christian Fiction that actually gets spiritual. Sorry to say this one mentioned prayer a few times and that was about it.

Waking Gods

Writing a good novel? Really hard.
Writing a good sequel to your good novel? Really, really, really (really, really) hard.

And that is just what Sylvain Neuvel did with "Waking Gods". The opening story of the Themis Files, "Sleeping Giants" was just so good. It finished with a cliff hanger and I had to wonder if the second book would deliver the payoff plot I so desperately hoped for. Yep, it did. 

*If you haven't read "Sleeping Giants" (Themis Files #1) and plan too, don't keep reading this review. There are no spoilers for "Waking Gods", but I may give away plot items from "Giants". Moving right along...

The style of this series, with the story being told through mission files, interviews and journals, continued to be totally enjoyable. It keeps the pace of the books so fast. There is absolutely no information that you don't need. It all feels important, even vital to the mystery that is unfolding. What a rare treat that is!

And the characters...I really appreciate how Neuvel treats characters. He is, at once, respectful of the ones that we love (like Rose, who is BACK!) and brutal (like...oh no way, I'm not saying who he treats brutally). He doesn't shy away from death, but with the sci-fi rules in play, you kind of never know who is truly gone. I like knowing that at any moment a main character may be taken out while trying to save the world. I like an author who is fearless enough to say goodbye to one person, especially when they are good enough at their craft to introduce new characters to love along the way.

The last thing I will say is that -and I'm being careful here- I had read Neuvel was planning a third book and I was skeptical. What in the world is left to cover in this story? And then...the last scene of "Gods"...and BOOM! Okay, yes, I'll be back for #3. No question.

Read this book if: You love sci-fi, or even if you're skeptical but love a good adventure. It's worth giving the genre a try.

Don't read this book if: You just plain hate sci-fi. There is also some strong language, and some of it is spoken by or in front of a younger character, which I didn't love. Don't be talking like that in front of the kiddos, people! : )

Sleeping Giants

When you wait for months on your library hold list for a book, you really (really, really) hope you like it. You hope it was worth it. "Sleeping Giants" TOTALLY was.

I first heard about this book on the popular podcast "What Should I Read Next". The plot sounded really interesting. A little girl takes off into the forest on her brand new bike and disappears, to be found hours later resting in a metal hand in a deep hole that has mysteriously and suddenly opened on the forest floor. Years later, that little girl grows up and is chosen to run a project whose mission is to find more metal body parts and determine their origin and purpose. 

What I didn't know about this novel, and what was a very pleasant surprise, was the structure. The story is told through interview transcripts and additional files. So most of the story is simply back and forth dialogue. How the author, Sylvain Neuvel, managed to use this style to tell an entire story, I cannot tell you. But he does, and he does it so well.

I am not a series girl. I prefer stand alone books. However, when I finished this one, I was desperate to get my hands on the second book in the Themis Files. There is just so much story left to tell. It seems like the deeper you get into the series, the more sci-fi it will get. The first book is all about unveiling the secrets of the sleeping giants, so the second book, Waking Gods, will likely be more action packed as the characters use their knowledge to move forward. And boy, do I want to move forward with them!

Read this book if: You like "light" sci-fi (it is not overwhelming in "Sleeping Giants"), if you like stories told in a unique way, if you want a book that reads fast but is by no means a shallow beach read.

Don't read this book if: You don't like books that get into science, or are looking for a more straightforward narrator-driven story.

Hello, Sunshine

After I write this review, I will immediately go to Instagram to post a #bookstagram picture that I took to link with this review. Then, I'll go to Twitter and also link to this spot. I'll do this so quickly, so instinctively, that it will require very little thought to accomplish it. That's how integrated social media is into my life. And that, "Hello Sunshine" argues, may not always be a good thing.

I didn't expect this novel to make me think. I had it pegged as an easy beach read (which, to be clear, it still is), which would deliver a good story but not necessarily anything to take away. That was the pleasant surprise here. 

"Hello Sunshine" follows Sunshine Mackenzie, a YouTube vlogger and soon-to-be Food Network personality. She has it all, including a super cute husband and a home in NYC that has been featured in Architectural Digest. But within the first few pages of the book (no real spoiler here), Sunshine loses it all. I'll leave how it happens and all the rest to your reading, but safe to say it isn't a pretty unraveling she experiences. It is from rock bottom that the rest of the novel moves forward, with Sunshine attempting to rebuild a life she barely recognizes as her own.

What is at the center of Sunshine's struggles is authenticity. In a world where social media dominates our lives, her quest to find fame has led her to "curate" a life that is less than an accurate portrayal of her story. And haven't we all done this? How often do we pull out our iPhone and start to take a candid shot, only to realize the light isn't right, or the dishes haven't been washed, or a thousand other things. How often do we spend fifteen minutes staging a picture that we will later hashtag #everydaylife or try to pass off as a true reflection of our day to day life? How do these little social media white lies affect us and the people who view them? All of these questions play out in Sunshine's story.

Credit to Laura Dave for not writing a chick lit story that was all fluff and no meat. She did a great job of leaving us with something to think about and potentially improve in our own lives. I know she made me think. 

On the less sunshiny side, I will briefly mention that I found a lot of the characters to be unlovable. The majority of them were either angry or disillusioned or both. One side character, Ethan, who befriends Sunshine in her time of need, is such a lousy guy (having an affair, three kids with three moms and admittedly a lousy father to at least one of them) that I just couldn't get on board with any part of the story that involved him. Generally, the lack of a supporting character who I could root for took away from my love of the book. Also, all the characters had no problem dropping F-bombs and more. Which just felt unnecessary. 

Overall, this book is the perfect beach read. It is a well written, quick read that was satisfying because it delivered what I would expect of it and maybe even a little more. An interesting story with just enough twists to keep me turning, plus a little thought-provoking life message. 

Now let me post this so I can get on over to Instagram ; )

Read this if: You've been looking for some good chick lit or if you love novels centered around the food scene

Don't read this if: You don't do profanity or are NOT looking for something easy-breezy

The Hired Girl

If books were drinks and "The Hired Girl" were a cocktail, I would say it was the perfect blend of Anne, Little House, and The Chosen.

This book hit all the marks for me. It is so rare that I pick up a book, recently published and on the young adult shelves of my library, and find it to be old fashioned. And I mean old fashioned in a good way. I actually went back and double checked to make sure this wasn't published earlier than I originally thought, but indeed, 2015. 

"The Hired Girl" traces the story of a fourteen year old girl growing up on a farm. You discover in the opening pages that her mother died years earlier and her father is a cold, hard man who we would today call emotionally abusive. The main character, Joan, is struggling to survive under his tyranny and is about to discover that that is simply impossible.

I don't like to give any spoilers, so I won't get into the plot, but it is safe to say that this is a coming of age story, and a well done one at that. I found myself remembering my first experience of loving a boy (the author handles those emotions SO well), the moments when my religion became my own (one of my favorite scenes in this novel revolves around that), and the struggle of having one of your feet in childhood and the other in adulthood. Schlitz used her grandmother's diary as reference for this book and it shows. It feels so real.

The book is well-researched and the pace is excellent. It doesn't rush at all, but there are no dull moments either. I had trouble putting it down the few times I was forced to.

Read this book if: You are tired of modern YA (think The Sun is Also a Star or The Fault in our Stars) and could use a visit back to the books that have sparked so many of our imaginations over the years (the previously mentioned Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, The Chosen); also great if you love historical fiction

Don't read this book if: You don't like period piece lit or are sensitive to parents passing away playing a part in the story line

To purchase: CLICK HERE

Dark Matter

1. Great writing
2. Great idea
3. Great ending
4. Great characters

Those are four of the things that I look for in a good book. You have to have at least one or two of them if I am going to feel that a book was any good. But when you have all four? That's when we get into five star territory. 

This book is so well written and takes twists and turns I never expected. And they worked! 

Jason, the main character, is an entirely approachable character. He has made choices in his career and home life that have reaped many benefits, but did not come without sacrifice. Anyone faced with difficult work-life balance problems will totally relate to this central theme in the book. Other characters were painted vividly, especially his wife Daniela and Amanda Lucas, whose role I will leave you to discover on your own. I loved Amanda in particular and thought we received just enough of her narrative to allow the imagination to wander about what wasn't shared.

The plot becomes increasingly complicated as the story unfolds, but it always feels tidy. You can tell that the author, Blake Crouch, took his time and developed his narrative with great care. This was no easy task with the material he covered.

For the record, I didn't actually buy into the science in the book. But as a work of fiction, it was done with excellence and I loved every page-turning second.

Read it if: You love a great concept and a great page turner.

Don't read if: You are sensitive to language (I could have done without it) or don't like thriller/mind-bending plots.

To purchase: CLICK HERE

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

"As the mail boat lurched into the harbor, I saw St. Peter Port rising up from the sea on terraces, with a church on the top like a cake decoration, and I realized that my heart was galloping. As much as I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I've come to know and even love a little, waiting to see-me."

We all know that every book does not resonate with every person. But every once in a while, we have the great honor to stumble upon a book that leaps off the pages and announces, "I've been waiting for you! What took you so long?"

That is what "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" said to me. And if you've never heard a book talk, I'm terribly sorry : )

"Guernsey" is a story told through letters, telegrams, and once, a detective journal. The style was a refreshing break from the normal chapter divisions. 

To me, this story represents everything wonderful about historical fiction. It introduced me to the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII, which I new nothing about. It did so without ever feeling heavy on information. If you've ever read HF that sometimes felt like an encyclopedia entry, I can promise that does not happen in "Guernsey". 

I loved the main character, Juliet. She was light-hearted and honest, the perfect person to deliver the bulk of the information in the story. Mary Ann Shaffer, the author, played with the balance of every day events and joys against the difficult stories of the war so well. The story of Elizabeth, a daring woman who makes difficult choices that result in even more difficult consequences, is folded so carefully into the rest of the story that by the time all is revealed about her, you may just have come to love her as I did. The emotions that follow the resolution of her story are inevitable. I won't say what happens, but I will say that I cried (tears of joy or sorrow, I won't say!).

Read this book if: You love historical fiction, particularly set during or directly World War II. You love a whimsical narrator and a story of common people doing uncommon things.

Don't read this book if: You're generally cynical about hopeful stories, ones that, as the author says, "enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised".

To purchase: CLICK HERE