Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Shorts

I was a judge for the INSPY's! I got to read some very good Christian fiction - here are my thoughts on what I read....

Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke
published 2012

Synopsis from publisher -

Michael Dunnagan was never supposed to sail on the Titanic, nor would he have survived if not for the courage of Owen Allen. Determined to carry out his promise to care for Owen's relatives in America and his younger sister, Annie, in England, Michael works hard to strengthen the family's New Jersey garden and landscaping business.Annie Allen doesn't care what Michael promised Owen. She only knows that her brother is gone--like their mother and father--and the grief is enough to swallow her whole. As Annie struggles to navigate life without Owen, Michael reaches out to her through letters. In time, as Annie begins to lay aside her anger that Michael lived when Owen did not, a tentative friendship takes root and blossoms into something neither expected. Just as Michael saves enough money to bring Annie to America, WWI erupts in Europe. When Annie's letters mysteriously stop, Michael risks everything to fulfill his promise--and find the woman he's grown to love--before she's lost forever.

My thoughts -

This novel had lovely writing and it's foray into WWI was quite interesting. I found the character of Annie to be a bit annoying at times, and the plot was slow at first, but picked up as the relationship between Michael and Annie developed. The romance was fairly predictable - nothing new or earthshattering there - but the Christian elements of forgiveness and acceptance of undeserved love would be applicable to those of any faith. A somewhat standard but still entertaining read.

Finished - 5/19/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG for mild war violence
My rating - 7/10

The Messenger by Siri Mitchell
published 2012
374 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Hannah Sunderland felt content in her embrace of the Quaker faith...until her twin brother ran off and joined the army and ended up captured and in jail. Suddenly Hannah's world turns on end. She longs to bring her brother some measure of comfort in the squalid, frigid prison where he remains. But the Quakers believe they are not to take sides, not to take up arms. Can she sit by and do nothing while he suffers?

Jeremiah Jones has an enormous task before him. Responsibility for a spy ring is now his, and he desperately needs access to the men in prison, whom they are seeking to free. A possible solution is to garner a pass for Hannah. But while she is fine to the eye, she holds only disdain for him--and agreeing would mean disobeying those she loves and abandoning a bedrock of her faith.

My thoughts -

This novel was fine, but it had so many of the elements of what I think of as a traditional Christian romance that I didn't find it to be particularly inspiring. I wasn't drawn to either of the main characters, and they plot twists were easily predictable. It was well written, for what it was, but I think Christian fiction needs to do better than this if it wants to garner a wider audience.

Finished - 5/29/13
Source - review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating - G - this is a highly sanitized war!
My rating - 6/10

Stardust by Carla Stewart
published 5/31/12
300 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Shortly after burying her unfaithful husband, Georgia Peyton unexpectedly inherits the derelict Stardust motel from a distant relative. Despite doubts from the community and the aunt who raised her, she is determined to breathe new life into it. But the guests who arrive aren't what Georgia expects: Her gin-loving mother-in-law; her dead husband's mistress; an attractive but down-on-his-luck drifter who's tired of the endless road; and an aging Vaudeville entertainer with a disturbing link to Georgia's past.
Can Georgia find the courage to forgive those who've betrayed her, the grace to shelter those who need her, and the moxy to face the future? And will her dream of a new life under the flickering neon of the STARDUST ever come true?

My thoughts -

This is very much a work of Southern fiction - it drips from every page like honey. I don't think I could make novels like this my main source of literature, but as a change it was nice. Setting the story during a polio outbreak made for interesting reading, and Stewart does a fine job with characters and plot. Recommended for light summer reading.

Finished - 5/31/13
Source - review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating - PG
My rating - 7/10

Into the Free by Julie Cantrell
published 2/31/12
368 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a "nothing mama," she struggles to find a place where she really belongs.

For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family's longstanding cycle of madness and abuse.

Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

My thoughts -

This was quite good. Millie was an immediately captivating heroine, and Cantrell really nailed her struggles to break free from her past even while searching to discover it. The "christian" portion of the novel was subtle and blended seamlessly into the story - I think readers who don't normally enjoy a "religious" novel might not even realize they are reading one. There were a few places that felt rushed, or possible under-developed, but overall this was a highly entertaining read that certainly tugged at my heartstrings. I will definitely look for more by this talented author. Recommended.

Finished - 6/4/13
Source - review copy from publisher
MPAA Rating - PG-13 for violence and adult situations
My rating - 8/10

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Thoughts - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
published 1943
489 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

My thoughts -

Okay, friends, this will have to be the quickest glowing review ever, because HOLY COBWEBS are my kids being 2 YEARS OLD lately. Our most recent adventure involved a bottle of pancake syrup and my kitchen floor, and I do not feel like I can turn my back on them even for a second! Yikes!

But seriously.....what a wonderful novel this was. Francie Nolan and her family absolutely crept in under my skin and started to walk around with me in my thoughts, they felt so real and full of life. Smith does a perfect job of rendering her characters as both sympathetic and flawed - I want to sit down and have coffee with Katie and Sissy, and comb the library shelves with Francie, and have an evening out with Johnny. Each character makes you find a way to fall just a little bit in love with them.

Watching Francie and Neely start to grow up, figure out their world and make a place for themselves in it, is a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking journey. Watching them find ways to bring joy into their sometimes cheerless surroundings is inspirational. Watching the adults in their lives navigate their dysfunctional but strangely loving relationships is often painful. This novel is so full of emotion and truth that is practically bleeds from the page.

I have a LOT of sections marked, so I'll just share a couple of my favorites -

"From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography..." (p. 164)

"Francie couldn't understand why the heroine didn't marry the villain. It would solve the rent problem and surely a man who loved her so much that he was willing to go through all kinds of fuss because she wouldn't have him wasn't a man to ignore. At least, he would be around while the hero was off on a wild goose chase." (p. 217)

" 'People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,' thought Francie, 'something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone - just to be with someone you love. These things make happiness.' " (p. 448)

I just loved this book. If you think you don't like older novels - that they will be dull or the style difficult - give this one a try. I don't think it will be long before you will be falling in love with Francie Nolan too. Highly recommended.

Finished - 6/23/13
Source - my bookshelves
MPAA rating - PG-13 for honest discussions about alcoholism, sexuality, and poverty
My rating - 10/10

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners by Libba Bray
published 9/31/12
narrated by January LaVoy
running time 18 hours 14 minutes

Synopsis from publisher -

Something dark and evil has awakened....

Evie O'Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City - and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It's 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries her uncle will discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho is hiding a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened....

My thoughts -

Libba Bray has become one of my must-read authors, even though her novels don't always live up to my expectations. I always appreciate, however, the creativity and unique approach she brings to each novel, so I was excited to pick up a copy of her latest. And hoo boy, this one was a winner!

It took me a little while to warm up to the story - the light, devil-may-care attitude of the main characters made me roll my eyes a few times in the beginning. But Evie gradually developed depth, and soon I was rooting for her to make her mark in the world. Bray's secondary characters were interesting and full of life, and I was even able to forgive a near-miss on the life of Theta, who quickly became my favorite.

The Diviners is full of twists and turns, and some genuinely scary situations, and I couldn't wait to listen to what was going to happen next. The roaring 20's really comes to life in Bray's words, and I found myself even using some of the slang of Evie and her crowd as I went about my day. (Posi-tute-ly!)

January LaVoy was a fantastic narrator - she completely captured the energy and spark of the time and characters, and did an amazing job of giving each character their own distinct voice. I loved listening to her read, and would love to find more of her work.

I was completely enthralled by this wonderful novel. I can't wait to read Bray's next installment in this fun new series - I have to find out what happens next to Evie, Theta, Will, Jericho, and the whole gang. Highly recommended.

Finished - 6/17/13
Source - audiobook from the library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence, adult situations, and scary stuff
My rating - 9/10

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Audiobook week 2013 - How do you choose?

Today's prompt -

How do you decide what you’ll listen to? Do you mostly listen, or split time between listening and reading? Particularly if you split time, how do you decide what you’ll consume in audio and what in print?

Honestly, up until this point I've just been finding books I'm interested in reading and checking out the audio verson. It has worked well - or I've been lucly! - but I'm hoping to pay MORE attention to the narrator this year - hopefully by this time next year I will have a handful of favorites!

For me, listening to an audiobook is something I always do to make another task more enjoyable. I haven't ever just sat down and listened - I always have something that needs to get done, and I listen while I'm doing it. Thankfully, with a full-time job and two toddlers, I ALWAYS have SOMETHING that needs to be done, so I have plenty of chances to listen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Audiobook Week 2013 - My audiobook year

Today's prompt -

Are you new to audiobooks in the last year? Have you been listening to them forever but discovered something new this year? Favorite titles? New times/places to listen? This is your chance to introduce yourself and your general listening experience.

I have "re-discovered" the audiobook in the past couple of years, and it's been so much fun! As a kid, I listened to those records that came with the book - surely someone else here remembers them? There was a little chime that indicated it was time to turn a page? I also had a set of Sherlock Holmes mysteries on cassette tape that I listened to many times, but it had been a LOT of years since I'd really even given audiobooks much thought.

Then in 2010, I stumbled across METAtropolis: Cascadia, the amazing collaborative sci-fi work that ended up winning a Hugo that year, and my love was rekindled. My husband and I decided to get a subscription at, and then I realized that my local library has an ever-growing audiobook collection as well. Now I'm hooked - I have an audiobook going all the time. 

I've discovered that I like housework SO much more when I'm listening to my audiobook - it's a great companion when the kids and I are on walks - and it makes my daily commute to work just fly by. I've even delved into some classics that had always intimidated me, and found that listening to them on audio is a great experience. Some of my favorites from the past year include -

It's been so much fun getting to know this fantastic genre, and I'm excited about Audiobook Week to learn even more about my newest obsession!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Faith Words - Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans

My faith is a constant in my life - I have tested it, doubted it, argued with it, fought against it, and it still remains. I don't fit easily into a cookie-cutter definition of a Christian. I read a lot about faith - things I agree with, things I reject, things that frustrate me, things that encourage me. Faith Words is a journal of my readings in the area of faith.

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans
published 2010
232 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Eighty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial made a spectacle of Christian fundamentalism and brought national attention to her hometown, Rachel Held Evans faced a trial of her own when she began to have doubts about her faith. Growing up in a culture obsessed with apologetics, Evans asks questions she never thought she would ask. She learns that in order for her faith to survive in a postmodern context, it must adapt to change and evolve.

Using as an illustration her own spiritual journey from certainty, through doubt, to faith, Evans adds a unique perspective to the ongoing dialogue about postmodernism and the church that has so captivated the Christian community in recent years.

My thoughts -

I stumbled upon Rachel Held Evans in the most contemporary of ways - someone posted a blog post on their Facebook page. (It was this post - where she encouraged men to speak out about the issue of a woman's "place" in the church), and from there started regularly following her blog. I found I could relate to much of her journey. And when I saw the title of her book, I knew I had to read it - because heaven knows, I've BEEN the girl who Knows All The Answers.

I appreciate Evans' style because while she is obviously a smart girl, her writing never comes across as highbrow or "intellectual" - she is writing smart, challenging words for the everyday person. It's a great balance between making the reader think and keeping them entertained - and honestly, many nights when I'm exhausted from my day, intellectual just isn't where I need to be.

I could relate to so much of Evans' journey - the growing up years in a conservative Christian community, the seeds of doubt pushed back into the recesses of the mind, the dawning realization that the faith of her parents might not be the right faith for her. It's chronicled beautifully throughout the book, and it struck a powerful chord for me.

"What makes a faith crisis so scary is that once you allow yourself to ask one or two questions, more inevitably follow. Before you know it, everything looks suspicious....The space between doubting God's goodness and doubting his existence is not as wide as you might think." (p. 95-96)

"For as long as I can remember, the Bible has been compared to a weapon, and for as long as I can remember, it has been used as one....Rather than using the whole Bible as a sword, however, we tend to pick out certain verses and use them as daggers so we can fight at closer range." (p. 187)

"Many of those who consider ourselves more progressive can be tolerant of everyone except the intolerant, judgmental toward those we deem judgmental, and unfairly critical of tradition or authority or doctrine or the establishment or whatever it is we're in the process of deconstructing at the moment." (p. 208)

I don't think this book will be for everyone. For some it's not a topic they are interested in; for some, it will be difficult to stomach. For me, it was an honest and beautiful picture of one person's struggle to come to a place of authentic faith. I look forward to reading more by this author. Recommended.

Finished - 6/8/13
Source - my shelves
MPAA rating - G
My rating - 9/10

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What's Making Me Happy This Week

(Shamelessly stolen from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which also makes me happy each week.)


It's been very rainy lately, so a morning bright with warming sun was wonderful. The kids enjoyed the park, and I tried to pretend I was someplace tropical....

I've mentioned before that I'm a little bit obsessed with NoiseTrade, and since I play the piano myself I'm always interested in new artists in that genre. This particular album has been in heavy rotation at my house this week.

You remember Will Wheaton, right? Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: TNG? Well, he's all grown up now, and hosts a series of podcasts, one of which is the always entertaining Table Top, where he assembles a random group of people and they play a board game. This week's episde was especially entertaining because it featured one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi. Enjoy!

What's making YOU happy this week? Let me know in the comments - I love finding new stuff!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
published 2012
audiobook read by Mark Bramhall

Synopsis from publisher -

At the turn of the twentieth century, in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest, a reclusive orchardist, William Talmadge, tends to apples and apricots as if they were loved ones. A gentle man, he's found solace in the sweetness of the fruit he grows and the quiet, beating heart of the land he cultivates. One day, two teenage girls appear and steal his fruit at the market; they later return to the outskirts of his orchard to see the man who gave them no chase.

Feral, scared, and very pregnant, the girls take up on Talmadge's land and indulge in his deep reservoir of compassion. Just as the girls begin to trust him, men arrive in the orchard with guns, and the shattering tragedy that follows will set Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect them but also to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past.

My thoughts -

This novel was absolutely mesmerizing in it's simplicity. This is not a novel that relies on heart-pounding action or page-turning adventure to keep the reader engaged. While there are certainly moments of edge-of-your-seat tension, this is a novel of relationships - relationships between unlikely people brought together by unusual circumstances, and relationships between broken people and the land that sustains and nurtures them.

Coplin's prose is beautiful - elegant and wild like the land she describes, she makes the orchard and the hills as much a part of the story as Talmadge and Della. Her descriptions are never overblown, but perfectly contained to allow the reader to see each scene, each character, each moment of the story along with her.

“Her hair gathered at her neck, its color in the lantern light like young oak. How like the orchard she was. Because of her slowness and the attitude in which she held herself - seemingly deferent, quiet - it appeared even a harsh word would smite her. But it would not. She was like an egg encased in iron. She was the dream of the place that bore her, and she did not even know it.”

Coplin's characters are heartbreaking. They are everyday people trying to weather overwhelming trials, and they are not always successful. They come together as an unlikely family, and they struggle to hold on to each other. These characters will invade your heart and burrow into your soul, and they will live in your thoughts long after the last page of the novel has ended.

I am confident this will be one of the most memorable reads of my year. It was absolutely stunning, and I know it will be a novel I will revisit in the years to come. Highly recommended - don't let this one pass you by.

Finished - 5/31/13
Source - audiobook from the public library
MPAA rating - PG-13 - lots of really bad things happen, but never in a gratuitous manner. I would absolutely give this novel to a mature teenager to read.
My rating - 10/10

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What's Making Me Happy This Week

(Idea shamelessly stolen from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which also makes me happy each week.)

Downton Abbey - The Musical?!?!?! I am SOOO in!

"Who cares if I am right about things or I'm a better person than you are if all it gets me is anger and bitterness?" 

My mom told me awhile back that you can choose to be angry, or you can choose to let it go. I'm trying really hard to learn to let it go, and this post made a lot of sense to me this week.

Noisetrade Summer Mix Tape

I love new music - finding new artists to love is one of my favorite things. I've been using NoiseTrade a lot recently, and today they sent me a link to a download of their 65-song Summer Mixtape. I've been having a BALL listening to this collection - there is some great stuff here. All you have to do to access these 65 songs is like their page on Facebook - worth it, as far as I'm concerned. Happy listening!


I jokingly mentioned to my sister that she should get me a signed copy of the latest novel by one of my favorite authors when he was near her city - and she did! Best thing that has arrived in the mail in months. This was a fantastic surprise - I really do have the best sister ever!!

What's making YOU happy this week? Share with me in the comments - let's keep the happy flowing.