Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

Sweetbriar Cottage Review



2.5/5 stars.

Whenever I see a new Denise Hunter book up for review, I have to snag it because I always enjoy how her books are quick, easy reads.  She has a way of sucking me into the story, and even when I think I can't take the drama anymore, I somehow can't help myself from turning the pages!

In this Sweetbriar Cottage, Noah and Josephine thought they got a divorce 18 months ago - only to realize that a paperwork glitch resulted in them still be married.  Through the book we find out more about how their relationship started, how it ended, and glimpses into Josephine's troubled past.

I have to say, this wasn't my favorite book by Hunter.  The main character's past was pretty dark, involving r.ape, and subsequent promiscuity, all that she hid from her husband while they were married.  I thought Hunter handled it all in a tactful way, but it was more than I was expecting and the subsequent problems in Josephine and Noah's marriage got all psychological, more so than in her other books.  Hunter also has had a tendency in all her books to focus on the physical attraction between her characters too much for me, and it seemed especially pronounced in this book - I'm assuming because of the sexual sin in the character's past, and remembrances of previous intimacy in her marriage to Noah.  Like I said, it all ended up being too much.

Also, we find out a lot about Josephine and her past, but hardly anything about Noah's.  He didn't seem to have as much of a backstory, and I wish he had.

My final complaint about this book is that the salvation message was really weak.  Josephine asked Jesus "into her heart" as a child, but obviously turned away from Him.  She has a renewal of "faith" in this book, and "the cross" is briefly mentioned, but it is never clear what she is being saved from.  She is plagued by the guilt of her past sins in this book, but her sin is never called sin (neither is Noah's, as he acknowledges his lust several times) and it's never clarified that that's why Jesus died in the first place - to cleanse us of our sin when we repent and put our trust in Him.  He didn't die for us so we could feel less guilty about our sin, He died so He could take our sins away from us and give us His righteousness.  This wasn't communicated well at all, and that troubled me.  The message seemed to be about Jesus's "unconditional love" for us, but didn't address sin and repentance really at all - and that's pretty much crucial to salvation.  So I was disappointed in that.

All that said, I did shoot through this book.  Like I said, she always keeps me turning the pages to find out what happens.  But this book wasn't my favorite.

Note: I received a digital copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Of Austin Review

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As you probably saw on my list of books I brought on vacation, I have dipped my toes back into Jane Austen novels again this summer.  I have also read other books that I enjoyed by Hillary Manton Lodge, so when I saw that she had written a modern retelling of Sense And Sensibility, it was just meant to be!

In Jane Of Austin,  Jane and her sisters lose all their respectability when their father is accused of a financial crime - since they can no longer work in the financial world, they decide to open a tea parlor.  However, when their landlord dies they are kicked out of their tea shop's rental space, and decide to start over again in Austin.

First, I'll say that whenever I see that a novel has been published by a Christian publishing company, I expect some sort of Christian element to it, even if it's slight.  However, this book really had zero spiritual references at all, and I wouldn't consider it a Christian book.  So going forward with this review, I'm approaching it as a secular novel.



Content: The only objections I had to the content were some sexual implications.  One of the characters speculates on whether a couple of the main characters may have moved in together (they didn't). One of the characters suggestively says that Jane should "come back to his place" (she doesn't).  And there is a lot of making out.  

These things would have bothered me more if I had been thinking this was supposed to be a Christian book, but like I said, I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn't.  However, considering it is coming from a Christian publisher, I think it's just a good example of why we shouldn't necessarily trust "Christian books" to never present questionable morals.

Characters:  The story is told from the perspective of the "Maryanne" and "Colonel Branden" characters in this book, which I was excited about when I began reading.  Their love story is my favorite one in Sense And Sensibility, and I was excited to see how the book would play out from this perspective.  However, I have to say, Jane ("Maryanne") just really wasn't working for me.  I liked her character well enough, but she just seemed too Type A to be really "Maryanne-ish" to me.  My picture of Maryanne is that she is this free-spirited, creative type; and while Jane was creative, she was like snooty-type-A creative.  Lodge tried to make her passionate and emotional, but I felt like those emotions didn't seem to fit as well on the character of Jane because I saw her as more logical/Type A.  It just didn't jive with my vision of who Maryanne was.  That's just my personal opinion, others will probably disagree with me here!

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed the way Lodge managed to incorporate all the elements of the story of Sense And Sensibility into this book!  She did a really good job, and I found myself remembering different parts of the original story as I read.

I thought the tea shop aspect of it was particularly fun, and Lodge includes a lot of recipes for some of the foods mentioned in the book.  She did this in her other books too, and just from the writing it is obvious the author knows what she is talking about culinarily.  I just loved the extra coziness all the recipes add to Lodge's novels, and her food descriptions made me hungry.

If you'd like to read a Jane Austen retelling, this one was a fun, clean one, and I'd recommend it overall!

Note: I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

The Separatists Review (Not Recommended)



I finished this book in one afternoon, not because I was enjoying it, but because I knew if I put it down I would probably not want to pick it up again.

The plot line of this book was interesting enough, and I thought the political thriller aspect of it was written well enough.  Erica is a news anchor, who investigates separatist movements around the country for a news special.  Little does she know that one of them is gaining a lot of political traction and is a much bigger threat than it initially seems.

Like I said, the political thriller part of the plot was interesting enough, but a few things ruined this book for me.

Unnecessary Political Jabs

Within the first couple chapters there are disparaging remarks about at least three different political opinions, all of which are held by the "right-wing".  Erica is the "good" guy in the story, and her political opinions are no secret in this book as she expresses her more liberal viewpoints.  The "bad guys" in the book come from the Republican Party or "right-wing".  

I thought this was poorly done.  I've read Wiehl's novels in the past, and they never got politically partisan in this way.  This novel could have been written without all the political statements, and it would have been much better.

The Fact That It Was Published By A Christian Publisher

There was absolutely no faith element to this story at all, which surprises me since it's coming from Thomas Nelson.  In addition there was some content I was surprised at in a book coming from a Christian publisher, such as minor cuss words, infidelity presented as no big deal, talk of women faking orga.sms, references to po.rno.graphic TV shows, etc.  I was actually really disappointed that Thomas Nelson published this, and I don't appreciate the trend of publishing secular books under a Christian publishing company.  

The Main Character

I just really disliked the main character.  She drove me nuts to be honest.  Half the book was about the political plot, but the other half was about Erica's personal problems, and I honestly just wanted to slap her.  She was so self-centered and narcissistic.  She was stuck up, expressing disdain for small towns and the people in them.  She didn't seem to think much of her husband and his career, and was so insensitive about the fact that she was in a better position in her career than he was.  She seemed cold-hearted, snapping pictures of a corpse she found in a bathroom so she could investigate for her story.  She was an awful mother, thinking her daughter was out to get her or ruin her career.  She obliviously thinks her daughter is jealous of her, when anyone could see that her daughter just wants her mom to be with her more.  She even tells her daughter in the end that she will never be the mother her daughter wants her to be because she gets annoyed at the demands of motherhood and loves her career (nice, huh?).  She was hypocritical, despising the villain's ambition and quest for power when she herself seems willing to sacrifice all the things in her life that really matter on the altar of her own ambition. 

Bottom line, she was stuck in her own little narcissistic bubble, and really had no redemption or epiphany at the end.  I might have liked the book better if the main character had been even a little likable to me, but she just wasn't.

I thought it was unfortunate to publish this particular book at a time when the media's approval ratings are at such a low in the country.  People don't trust the media these days, and this character certainly didn't do anything to counter that trend.


I definitely cannot recommend this book, and I'll also be hesitant to pick up another book by Lis Wiehl after the unnecessary partisan spin this book presented.  I was disappointed in it.

Note: I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.


Under A Summer Sky Review


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I read the first book in this series a few years ago, and though the ending was rushed, I really enjoyed it.  I decided to pick up Under A Summer Sky by Melody Calrson for a light, summer read.

Nicole heads to her mother's friend's house to run her gallery for the summer, and get's caught in between two sons who are vying for her attention.  She goes through mishaps in running the gallery and in figuring out how her relationship with one of the sons can move forward - because doesn't he have a girlfriend?

First I have to say that I would NOT call this a Christian book.  Aside from a couple of the characters shooting up a prayer before meals a couple times, there were no faith references at all.  So don't expect much in that department.  I would have loved this as a clean, romantic read, but it just irks me when it's presented as a Christian book when it really isn't.

There were many references in this book to the "ghosts" in Savannah, which irked me after a while. One of the characters briefly wonders if her love interest is living with someone - once again, not really representing how important following and obeying Christ should be in the lives of those who I am assuming were supposed to be following Him.  But I'm only assuming that because this was presented as a "Christian" book.  But it's not.

That said, for what it was, I really did enjoy this book!  The story was sweet, the different plot lines were all interesting.  I really liked the characters, and how it all played out.  The atmosphere of Savannah was described beautifully and made me want to visit.  Though the ending came quickly, I didn't feel like it was as abrupt as the previous book I've read by this author.  I did feel that a couple of the storylines could have been wrapped up better though, and in that sense it still felt rushed.  I always feel like this author's books could use another 50-100 pages.

Still, if you want a quick, light read, this book was fun, and overall I'd recommend it!

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

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You Review (Highly Recommend)



I picked up the 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You audiobook, because like many of you, I feel like I often check my phone too much.  I thought this book would give me a good little kick to break some bad habits, but I got so much more than I was expecting!

This book goes over different ways smartphones, and technology in general, has changed us not only individually but as a culture.  The author incorporates different statistics and studies, and then takes a deeper look at the spiritual impact of our phone choices.  He doesn't tell you what you need to do with your own smartphone habits, he just neutrally gets you thinking.

There were two specific things in this book that really stuck with me.  First, the author wrote that checking your phone or texting while driving (disclaimer: which I obviously try NOT to do unless changing my music - which maybe I should be careful about too) is a disregard for your neighbor - the neighbor who is in the car whizzing past you.  You are not caring for your neighbor as you should, and as Scripture calls us to do, when you flippantly put them at risk like that.  I had honestly never even thought about the whole don't-text-while-driving thing like that and thought he made some really good points.

The other item that I remembered with this book, and that will honestly change some of how I handle social media is that we so often trade eternal reward for a few temporal "likes" on social media.  The example he used was those posts on Instagram with a picture of your Bible as you finish up your devotional time.  Any heavenly reward we may have received from spending time with our Savior is instantly traded for pats on the back by other people on Instagram.  This is supported by Matthew 6:1

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."

How sad is that?  And once again, I never thought about it before, but I have been guilty too of trading eternal rewards for "likes" - guilty of caring more about men's applause than pleasing God.  Now whenever I see those Bible posts, or those "humble brag" posts, I cringe a little more than I used to.  Since listening to that chapter of this book, I've been trying to refrain from trading eternal rewards like that myself.  It's a bad trade.

There were so many other excellent points in this book, I'll honestly probably listen to it again.  I even thought about buying the print version so I could highlight some of the pieces that I like.  

If you are like me and feel that little itch for an eternal perspective on your smartphone use, definitely check this book out!   It's given me a lot to think about and has already motivated me to change some of my habits, and I highly recommend it.

Note: I received the audio of this book for free from christianaudio in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Maternity Fashion: My New Favorite Park Day Dress

(Note: I received the maternity dress I am wearing here for free from PinkBlush in exchange for this feature post.)


For this pregnancy (and my pregnancy with Clarice), I've received several comments to the effect of "Poor you!  Is it hard being pregnant through the summer?"

To which my answer is: no.  I actually enjoy being pregnant in the summer better than in the winter, and the major reason is cute maternity dresses!



When you are pregnant in the winter, you still have to dress winter-appropriately, which means lots of layers on top of my belly.  I hate that.  Summer pregnancies mean lighter fabrics, and comfortable, flown maternity dresses - and that's a huge plus in my book!

We took a quick trip to the park the other day, and I broke out my new favorite maternity dress from Pink Blush.  This dress is seriously the most comfortable dress I own.  The fabric is so soft, it doesn't restrict me at all while covering everything comfortably - which makes it the perfect park-day dress, because I can run after the kids and move around so easily in it!




















I dressed it up a little with the white leather vest for church, but I abandoned the vest pretty quickly at the park - I actually like the look of the dress even better without it.  The best part is that I think this particular dress is roomy and comfortable enough to last me through the rest of this pregnancy, and I'll be able to wear it post-baby too!

Where is your favorite place to buy maternity dresses?  
Have you ever tried PinkBlush maternity clothes?  And what do you think, aren't dresses the best part of being pregnant in the summer? (Unless you're not a dress kind of girl, in which case the "poor you!" might actually be applicable!)




Glory In The Ordinary Audiobook (Highly Recommend)



On somewhat of a whim I decided to grab the audiobook of Glory In The Ordinary recently.  The subtitle caught my eye, "Why Your Work In The Home Matters To God".  As someone who has struggled with my identity, especially after I quit working as a hygienist, I thought this book sounded helpful.

This book was so refreshing to me, because I find so much of Christian non-fiction that is directed toward women to be...fluffy.  This book was not fluffy!  It was packed full of Scripture references to support her points, and focused on the biblical view of work.  The author writes to stay-at-home-moms and working moms, because both groups are also working at home.  

As a mom, I could relate to so much of this book.  I struggled for a while to find my "purpose", my meaning in working at home, because so much of the work it is mundane.  Kriessig writes about how our work in the home brings order out of chaos and loves and ministers to those God has given us, and that brings Him glory.  She emphasizes how work in the home is not only valuable to God, but this very work is preparing us for the work God will have for us in eternity.



The narrator of this book did an excellent job, I thought.  Her voice inflections differentiated the sections well, and she made it easy to follow along with what the author was saying in audio format.

I got so much out of this book, and I wish I had come across it a couple years ago when I was really struggling in this area!  However, even now when I have settled in and feel more content with my work at home, I found this book so challenging and encouraging.  I think it will be a re-listen for me! I highly recommend it to all wives and mothers - no matter your stage or time constraints or style of homemaking, I think you'll be encouraged too!

Note: I received a copy of this audiobook for free from christianaudio, in exchange for this review.  This is my honest opinion.

Fraying At The Edge Review (Enjoyed It)

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I haven't read an Amish fiction book in so long, and the description of Fraying At The Edge piqued my interest.  The story is about two girls, one Amish and one secular, who were switched at birth.  The mistake is discovered, lawsuits are threatened, and the girls are forced to go live with their biological families...and experience a whole new world that they know nothing about.

I really enjoyed this book, and thought the author did an excellent job with some of the internal struggles with the characters.  Even the character that I didn't want to like, a drug addict with an attitude, I couldn't help but sympathize with.  She made the characters really believable and at the same time likable.

I listened to the audio of this book, and I think they picked a great narrator.  I thought she really brought out the characters emotions well.  Often with women narrators I think it sounds creepy when they read the male characters' lines, but this narrator did an excellent job at reading male characters.  She did a different voice for each character, but in such a natural way that it didn't feel ridiculous or weird at all.

I didn't realize this book was part of a trilogy until I got close to the end and couldn't figure out how the author was going to wrap everything up!  Now I want to pick up the next book to see what happens!  This was not your typical Amish fiction, because it brought in both worlds in such an interesting way, and I really enjoyed it!

Note: I received the audiobook for Fraying At The Edge for free from christianaudio in exchange for a review. This is my honest opinion.

Craving Connection Review

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So through no fault of it's own, this book was not what I thought it was.  I picked up Craving Connection thinking it was formatted more like a traditional book.  When I read the back cover more closely later, I realized that this book is actually written by multiple authors and contains personal stories about how these women have found connection with others.

Overall, I thought the book was good.  It was hard to get past the initial "this is not what I was expecting", but once I did get over it I started to enjoy it.  Since each chapter is written by a different author/blogger, it was more like reading a collection of blog posts than a book...and with that came a lot of variety.  Some of the chapters I really enjoyed and felt challenged by, and some were just okay.  

After each chapter are a couple quotes and some short "challenges" to help you get started in connecting with your community.  I liked those sections, but found myself skipping past them a bit toward the end of the book, but mostly because the format was different in the version I read.  I'd love to see how pretty everything looks in the print and finished Kindle versions of this book!

This is more of a devotion type book, so if you pick it up I'd say to expect to read it in short sections.  It's not the type of book you can sit down and read several chapters at once, at least for me.  However, I enjoyed it overall!

Note: I received a digital galley of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Quick Tips For Busy Families Review (Thumbs Up)

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This book - Quick Tips For Busy Families - caught my eye when I saw it on a book review list a couple months ago.  It has taken me forever to finish it - not because it isn't good, but because it's just what the title says, quick tips!  

Each chapter is short and to-the-point, but every page is also full of great ideas for ways to use teachable moments with your kids, fun stuff to do together, creative discipline ideas, and encouragement to use every opportunity to train your child in the way they should go.  I found myself not necessarily wanting to skip to the next chapter, because I wanted to remember some of the things he had just shared!  Not all of the chapters pertained to me (a lot of them included school/teacher-realted tips, which I probably won't need since we're homeschooling), but I still got a lot out of this book.

This definitely isn't a book to read once and put forever on the shelf, it's a book that could be a reference when you need a quick shot of encouragement or creativity in parenting.  I really enjoyed it!

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

The Illusionist's Apprentice - Great Book

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I wasn't sure what to expect going into The Illusionist's Apprentice by Kristy Cambron.  I don't know much about 1920's vaudeville, and I don't even know that much about Harry Houdini (besides that he was an amazing illusionist).  This book sucked me right into that world though!

This book opens with a man named Stapleton supposedly raising a man from the dead - only to have him die moments later.  Wren Lockhart, a famous illusionist, is very skeptical and dislikes when performers feed off of other's grief...so she agrees to help Elliot Matthews, an FBI agent who is investigating the supposedly-raised-to-life man's death.  However, it quickly becomes clear that this mystery goes a lot deeper than a trick, involving Wren's past that she would rather keep buried.

While this book is subtly Christian, with passing references to Christ being the only man to truly conquer death, the story itself wasn't rooted in the Christian faith.  Sometimes it bothers me having a book with hardly any trace of Christianity coming from a Christian publisher, but the way Cambron handled her story made it seem more natural.  If she had forced in too many faith references it would have been awkward, so I understood it in this book, and it seemed to work.  I'd say this book isn't overtly "Christian", but has some Christian influences since the author is a believer.

I thought this book was so well-written.  The whole thing had a mysterious air about it, before we even got to the mystery part of the story, and I credit that to Cambron's ability to create atmosphere.  The author weaves in so many elements to the story but really manages to make it all cohesive.  I was rooting for Wren and Elliot right from the start, and their romance was full of old-style flair.  The author also seemed to take a lot of care with her historical facts, and wove in so many pieces of history that I didn't recognize them all until I read her Afterword - still it gave a really authentic feel to this book.  I also liked what the author did with some of the secondary characters, and everyone's personality was colorful and distinct.  I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more books by Cambron!

Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Treasured Grace (Not Recommended)



1/5 stars.

I have to admit, I didn't enjoy this book.

The back cover of Treasured Grace by Tracie Peterson sounded interesting, which was why I picked it up.  I had read a book by Peterson in the past, and though I didn't remember loving that one, I thought I'd give her another shot.  I probably would have thought better of it if I had realized this book was about a massacre.

I don't have a problem with books that deal with tragedy, but I have little patience for historical fiction books that portray historical events by heaping one tragic event after another upon the characters, with no lighthearted moments to break it up.  That's what this book did, and by the end I was just so tired of the book.  It felt like every time something got slow she'd throw another death or other difficult situation in there to try to keep it interesting.

This book also just dragged on and on to me, and I think that is because I just don't personally like Peterson's writing style.  I felt like a lot of the deaths and tragedies felt cold, because I never felt like we really got into the character's heads and emotions.  The author was just telling us how the characters were feeling instead of letting us feel things with them, if that makes sense.  The characters seemed one-dimensional, and any personal histories that were woven into the story seemed like an afterthought, instead of something that was incorporated from the beginning.  There was nothing really driving the plot forward, it just felt like a bunch of historical events and personal tragedies were strung together, and that was it.  

I also felt like Peterson tried to address too much in this book.  This book tried to address loveless marriage, alternative medicine, hypocrisy, racism, death and grief, r.ape, abortion, adoption - all in one book, and it was too much.  I couldn't pick out an overall theme or point to the story.  

I also had little confidence in Peterson's portrayal of historical events.  Some of the historical figures were portrayed in less than flattering ways, and she provided no historical research to back up her representation of their personalities.  I'm thinking particularly of Dr. Whitman, the missionary involved in the massacre, who came off like a total jerk.  When I read historical fiction, I like to know that the author tried her best to get it right, and I didn't see the effort here aside from a short note at the beginning of the book.  There was no explanation of her research and why she included certain figures/events/conversations.  It felt careless.

On top of that, I find the main character very unrelatable, and almost unlikeable.  She acted like a know-it-all and got on my nerves.  This is obviously just a personality conflict between me and the character (that does happen, and I don't blame the author for that).

Finally, and this was disturbing to me - there was also a comment on page 89-90 where a character made a very sympathetic statement about someone wanting to marry their dog...I think it might have been a joke, but the context didn't seem like that statement was a joke.  No characters laughed after he said it.  Some people might not take this seriously, but I do, because I know in many countries around the world people do actually marry animals.  And it's animal abuse, and it's sick.  That sentence came out of left field and made me very uncomfortable.  We no longer live in a global culture where a sentence like that can automatically be counted as a joke, and I have no idea what she was getting at by including it.

The one thing I did think she did well was to incorporate the salvation message into her story.  She did it very naturally I thought, and I like when Christian authors take that kind of effort.  However, I can hardly give the author any points for that considering my other problems with the book, especially the seemingly sympathetic reference to be.asti.ality.

Overall, this book just really wasn't for me at all.  Others with different tastes may like it more.  I will not be reading Peterson again.


Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Love Story Book Review

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I was so excited that I got the chance to read Karen Kingsbury's new novel before it comes out in June!  Many years ago I got sucked into the world of the Baxters through Kingsbury's books, and it's been exciting to see her writing more books about them again.

In Love Story, we finally learn the full story of John and Elizabeth Baxter, how they met and fell in love, and how Elizabeth was sent away to have their first baby out of wedlock, forced to give the baby up for adoption.  That sounds terribly sad if you haven't already read the rest of the Baxter Family books and know how it all worked out, so I wouldn't recommend reading this book at all unless you've read the rest of the books in those series.  A lot of the characters and stories in this book won't make sense or mean as much if you don't already have the backstory from the other books.

I also liked how Kingsbury gave us updates on Bailey's marriage and Cody's life through this book.  Bailey and Cody were some of my favorite characters from her series, and it was fun to see how things are working out for them.  

The only thing I haven't loved about Kingsbury's books in the past is how she will have God "speak" to her characters.  At times she has even said that the characters heard God's voice audibly, and I have had concerns with whether she is giving the correct impression of how a Christian can expect to hear from God.  I'd hate to have a Christian who was younger in their faith feel like they must be missing some way that God is speaking to them, instead of realizing that God speaks to us through His word, the Bible.  There were a couple instances in this book, but I do appreciate how she almost always has God "speak" something that comes from a Bible verse at least.  Thankfully I find that Kingsbury has been toning down that aspect of her stories in her more recent books, which has let me enjoy them even more.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and finished most of it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon. Kingsbury's writing is done in a  way that keeps you reading, and I'm a sucker for a happy ending.  If you have read any of the Baxter books in the past, I definitely recommend catching up with the Baxters and Flannigans with this book!

Note:  I received a digital copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Deep Undercover (Highly Recommend)

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I didn't really make New Year's resolutions this year, but I mentioned before that an unofficial "goal" for me is to read more about the Cold War.  The Cold War was kind of a big deal, and it's pretty amazing when you think about that we fought an entire war without any official shots being fired back and forth.  Like many millennials though, I didn't understand it that well, so this is the year I chose to remedy that.

Deep Undercover is the story of Jack Barsky, a former KGB spy turned proud American citizen and Christian.  I loved this book!  Barsky's story is written as narrative non-fiction, so it reads more like a novel, and it is fascinating.  This book gave me a really good idea of what it was like in East Germany in the post-World-War-II era, and how many East Germans thought their communist government was anti-Nazi, and the answer to the world's problems.  Even though Barsky doesn't realize until much later the atrocities that have been committed by communist regimes, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into how this ideology was explained to those who had to live under it, and how the American way of life was demonized and the truth hidden under government propaganda.  

Barsky is eventually recruited by the KGB, and the stories of his "spy training" were so interesting.  I think we have this glamorized view of spies in our culture, but this book made me see that a lot of these spies are just normal people, and their tasks are rather mundane.  Dangerous, but not necessarily glamorous.  It was so interesting.  The way he ended up defecting from the KGB was really clever too!  I didn't see it coming.

The best part of this book was reading about how Barsky's view of the US (and Christianity) started to change when he actually started living here, how he developed a love of freedom through experiencing it in America and realized how much of that freedom the people in East Germany did not have.  

After many personal and family struggles, Barsky ends up hiring an assistant who is a Christian.  He researches the Christian faith and eventually comes to know Jesus as His Savior.  This was the coolest part of the story to me.  Barsky never found out why exactly he was recruited to the KGB, but if he hadn't been recruited, he never would have formed a life in America, and perhaps never would have come to Christ.  It was amazing to see God working through his life, even as a KGB spy.

I highly recommend this book.  Even if you aren't particularly interested in the Cold War, this book was an absolutely fascinating read!  I couldn't find a big enough chunk of time to finish it in one sitting, but I was sorry every time I had to put it down!

Note: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion. 

Noah, Noah, What Do You See? (Children's Book Giveaway!)



I have been gathering a lot of classic picture books for the kids over the years, and one of them is "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"  I find that book to be a little repetitive (I know, I know, that's the point).


(Affiliate link below.)

However, Tommy Nelson just came out with a Christian version of that book called "Noah, Noah, What Do You See?"  And I have to say, I like this one so much!  It's written by the same people act wrote "Brown Bear", but this one is focused on Bible stories!

Each page features a major Bible hero and asks them "what they see".  Then a snippet of each Bible story is given.  At the end, all these people are gathered together with Jesus, and Jesus "sees" all these people seeking after Him.

The illustrations in this book are gorgeous, it's a board book (always a plus for me), and the Bible references are given on each page as well so it is easy to look up the full story in the Bible.  The thing I love best about it is how it keeps the spirit of "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" but is so much more meaningful (and a lot more fun to read, in my opinion).  It's definitely a winner around here!



HINT: This would also be a great space-filler for Easter baskets!

And the great news - Tommy Nelson is giving away a copy to one of YOU! You can enter either by commenting here and telling me your favorite children's book, or by entering on Instagram (or both).  I'll announce the winner next week!

(Giveaway open to US residents only.  Ends 4/2 at 11:59 PM.)


Note: I received a copy of this book for free as part of the Tommy Mommy program.  This is my honest opinion.

The Simplest Way To Change The World




If you are a Christian, read this book!

You might remember that the main goal I have chosen for this year is to reach out to those around me more.  So when I say that a book on hospitality was up for review a couple months ago, I requested it immediately.

The Simplest Way To Change The World (affiliate link) discusses biblical hospitality, both in terms of biblical teachings on hospitality and in terms of practical way we can become hospitable people.  I got so much out of this book.

What I really liked about this book was the way the authers discussed theological topics relating to hospitality, and alternated those chapters with practical suggestions.  

On the theological side, they framed the gospel in terms of hospitality in one chapter, writing about how in Scripture God is a hospitable God, and I found that really interesting.  They discussed the truth of the Gospel and what Jesus did in dying to save us, and expressed how that is what motivates us to reach out to those around us with biblical hospitality.

Some of the best chapters were definitely on the practical suggestions though.  The authors know that opening your home and lives to those around you is hard in this culture, in which it is more normal to lock yourself behind closed doors to "relax" than to open the doors and invite people in.  They gave so many practical and fun suggestions for starting to open your homes to other people.  I loved how they encouraged you to incorporate hospitality into the regular rhythms of your life, and how they made it seem easy and desirable to become more hospitable (even while acknowledging the parts that are hard and sharing their own mistakes).  

The end of the book includes a group study guide - I think this would make an amazing small group study.

Everything the authors had to say on how hospitality can be the most effective way to reach other people for Christ was spot-on.  You don't have to preach from the sidewalk, give a "gospel presentation", travel to foreign countries, or do something "radical" to reach other for the Lord.  Through simply being hospitable, we "share our lives" with people and naturally let them see how important Jesus is in our lives through words and actions - and God can use that to stir their hearts to know more.

Highly, highly recommend this book!  Easy and enjoyable to read, convicting and motivating!

Note: I received a digital copy of this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Behind The Scenes Review




When I was a teenager, my sister and I had a couple groups of friends who like dot write stories.  We would labor over those stories when we got together or between seeing each other, and then we'd read them to each other and laugh and laugh.

(Affiliate links below - you know, so I can buy more books.)

Behind The Scenes by Jen Turano reminded me of those stories, in the best possible way.

In this book, the main character, Permillia, is an official wallflower, relegated to the edges of all the exciting society events.  However, that's just fine with her since she writes an anonymous society column for a local newspaper and is more interested in business than marrying well. However, on the night of a certain ball she not only makes better acquaintance with a gentlemen named Asher Rutherford, but she also learns of a murder plot with him as the target.  She is determined to either figure out who is trying to murder Asher, or at the least make him take the threat seriously.

What I Liked

This is one of those books with over-the-top characters and situations, but done in a really fun and comical way - and I loved that!  I love light-hearted historical fiction that avoids that "tragedy" formula and takes a comedy route instead.  That was the part that reminded me of the stories I used to write with my friends, because I have always loved a story or book that can make me laugh, and this one delivered!

The ending of this book was nearly perfect too, with almost every loose end tied up in a nice bow.  Some people don't appreciate that because they like their fiction to be more true to real life...I am not one of those people, and if you are, this is probably not your book!  I loved everything that was slightly over-the-top, and I loved that everything came out alright in the end.  It was just fun!

What I Didn't Like

Permillia's character was a little too ambitious for me at times, and it seemed she expected everyone else to recognize her value.  She came off as lecturing other people when she really wasn't in a position to be lecturing.  All this was framed within the context of the women's suffrage movement, since this story takes place during that time.  However, Permillia did not come off as pursuing a good cause (like women's right to vote, etc.), but instead she just seemed arrogant, which is a character flaw not really addressed in this book.  She seemed like a know-it-all in places.  Despite that, I still liked her character overall.

The only other thing that I had a problem with was in the scene where Permillia learns her father and stepmother were really only married because they were using each other.  Her stepmother used her father to escape financial ruin, and her father used her stepmother to help Permillia become more accepted in society.  When this all officially comes out, there are tons of accusations and very hurtful words hurled between the parents, and between Permillia and her stepsister, with a couple of side characters even joining in with the verbal thrashing.  It was probably meant to be amusing, but I did not find this scene funny.  Even though this book wasn't meant to be realistic, even over-the-top fictional characters would have a hard time coming back from that.  

In the end, this sad conflict with Permillia's family was the one loose end that wasn't tied up well.  I wanted relationships to be repaired, especially in the marriage of Permillia's father and stepmother, because the careless words they flung at each other really seemed to bring down the whole view of marriage itself within this book.  So I'm taking off a star for that.

Conclusions

Even though those last two books sound fairly bad when they're all typed out, just take my word for it that the book overall was fun and funny and lighthearted!  Despite my couple of bones to pick, I really enjoyed reading it, and I'd still recommend it if you want some not-too-serious reading!  It comes out in April if you want to check it out, or preorder here!

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.  

Of Stillness And Storm



2/5 stars

So I just finished this book, and I'm sitting here with my mind whirling, trying to decide how to describe it.  I'm torn between knowing what the author's aim was and thinking she accomplished her goal really well, and also thinking that I am not completely thrilled with the final tone of this book.

I was going to try to keep this spoiler-free, but then I realized that if it were me reading this review, I would want enough spoilers to decide if it was going to be a book that was worth reading to me personally.  So there are some slight spoilers below.  You've been warned.

What I Liked

The best way to describe this book is a cautionary tale, on three fronts, and I guess what I liked about the book was that the author got her points across in a really powerful way.  

1. The first is a cautionary tale about what can happen when Christians put a supposed call to ministry ahead of their families.  This book follows Lauren and Sam as they meet, fall in love, and have a baby...then as they proceed onto the mission field.  However, it becomes clear pretty early on that "the call" is really Sam's exhaustive drive to bring about his own vision of what he wants to do with his life - and to bring his family along without regard to whether they are also feeling the same "call".  The results are disastrous and heartbreaking.  We watch Ryan, a happy six year old, slowly descend into a sullen teenager who feels rejected by his father in favor of Nepali villagers, and consequently rejected by God.  This brings him to a very dark place, and he attempts suicide.  This was especially hard for me to read, since I currently have a happy six year old.  However, I thought this is where the author made her point so well. The first ministry that we are given by God is to our own family, and any other ministry comes second to that...and mixing up the order can destroy lives and even faith.  This book is a sobering story, even chilling.

2. The second cautionary tale was about how easily one can slip into an emotional affair if they aren't careful.  In the process of the story, Lauren starts communicating with a childhood friend, and eventually becomes so infatuated or in love with him that it has negative effects on her marriage and family.

3. The third caution seems to be about submission, and how a wrong understanding of it can lead wives to submit to things that they know in their hearts go against God's plan.  This happened when Lauren kept submitting to Sam's missionary plans instead of listening to the Holy Spirit's still small voice that told her this wasn't right.  Unfortunately, Sam's character in this book is pretty single-minded in the worst way when it comes to the getting on the mission field (and though the book doesn't say it, I think it's for his own glory, not God's), and if Lauren stood up to him he would have gone without her.


What I Didn't Like

Appropriately, what I didn't like about this book can also be separated under those three points the author was trying to make.

1. First, with regards to priorities in ministry - I felt that in the process of making this point, the author didn't do a satisfactory enough job (to me) in clarifying that God does not call us to sacrifice our families for the sake of ministry.  The book talked about how Lauren and Sam neglected Ryan, but I thought the author could have done a better job explaining how Sam's "call" really wasn't from God if Sam was willing to sacrifice his family for his own idea of what mission work should look like.  Phoenix attempts to show this in the end when she writes about how Lauren turns back to "her God", the God who loves His children and is grieved by all they excused in His name, as opposed to "Sam's God".  But it wasn't quite good enough for me, because it wasn't God at all who "called" Sam to abandon his family, and I wish that was shown more clearly.

2. Second, on emotional affairs - I felt that what Lauren did was never really presented as wrong.  Sure, Sam was totally neglecting and disregarding his family for his own glory, but I still think Lauren should have been more on guard, and at least recognized what she did wrong with regards to getting so involved with Aidan.  I don't feel like she ever did.  We as the reader are just left to our own devices on the morality of her emotional affair (note: it's not okay).  The consequences are seen, but the repentance is not.

3. Third, I kind of hate how this book threw in phrases like "the tyranny of submission", without really explaining more about biblical submission.  It makes submission the bad guy, when really I think it was a misapplication of submission.  I don't think the command for wives to submit to their husbands involves standing by and doing nothing while your child is neglected and goes down a dangerous path because of his parents' poor choices.  Lauren's character acted like she was helpless because of "submission", when really she just didn't want the conflict that would result if she stood up for what God was showing her about the effects of Sam's plan on their family.  And instead of seeking God about her struggle, she just distracts herself with her emotional affair (see above).  Not a great example of biblical submission at all, and maybe that was the point, but again, I wish it was clarified more.

Conclusions

I'd also just like to note that while there was a lot of talk of "reaching" people, there wasn't a lot of talk about what the characters were trying to reach them with.  Only passing references to the Gospel and Christ, but the characters themselves didn't seem to personally recognize what Christ did in dying to take away our sins and rising again, not in a way that impacted their lives - they were just going through the motions of "ministry", either to keep the peace (Lauren) or to do something "great" (Sam).  

Once again, maybe that was the point, but the bottom line is, I wouldn't recommend this to someone who didn't already know what it means to believe in Jesus to take away our sins, or have a strong foundation in their knowledge of what it means to be saved.  I appreciated what the author was trying to do here in presenting us with the perils of jumping recklessly into missions, but only because I am grounded in my faith.  For someone who doesn't really know what Christianity is about, this book presents a very negative view of "Christian" intentions gone amuck.  

I wish the salvation message had been presented more clearly through the ending in this story in case any non-believers pick it up, because without that this book lacked a shot of the Truth that I felt it desperately needed.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend it because of that.  I would recommend it with caution to believers in Jesus if they want a book that gets them thinking about the kind of struggles missionaries may face, and a book that gives a good shot in the arm about the importance of ministering to your own family - but don't expect to leave this book feeling encouraged, because you will be disappointed.

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Silent Songbird Review (It Wasn't Great)



2/5 stars.

I picked The Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson because I love a good fairytale retelling, and I had never read one of Dickerson's before. However, I have to admit, I skimmed the second half of the book because it just didn't grab me and I found myself getting annoyed at a few things.

Positives

I really liked the idea of this story, which was somewhat of a fairytale retelling...the main character was like a mix of Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Merida from Brave (let's just ignore the fact that both of those are at the bottom of my list of favorite Disney Princesses).  The bones of the plot had a lot of potential.  The part I liked best about this book was that I thought the author did a pretty good job of incorporating faith into this book in a really natural way, including a brief presentation of the Gospel.  A lot of times this feels forced into Christian fiction, but I thought it was done pretty well in this book.


Negatives

There are a few reasons I wouldn't recommend this book.

(One) - I didn't like the way this book represented men.  For the most part, all the male characters were either villians, had questionable character, or were made to look ridiculous or unreasonable at some point. This was also reflected in the way some of the female characters talked about men.  The only man who was not portrayed negatively was Westley, and even he was made to look occasionally clueless. 

They also made him apologize to Eva a little excessively, in my opinion.  Why does he have to apologize for not unquestioningly accepting her word?  He didn't even know her!

(Two) - I also found many (really, a lot) of the situations in this book really not believable.  If Westley was supposed to be some sort of a noblemen, I just don't think he would be fraternizing so much with the servants in his house.  Whenever anything happened to Eva, he was always right there.

One particular scene stood out as a little ridiculous to me.  Eva is practicing her archery (and of course Westley happens to be there), and a friend of Westley (who Eva saw trying to kill Wesley earlier in the book), comes up and greets them in a friendly way.  Eva swings her arrow around and points it at the man, to "protect" Westley, and accuses and threatens the other man. 

Let's go over why this bugged me: 1) In the real world during this time, I'm pretty sure she would have been fired on the spot for the way she handled that, even if she was right about the man. 2) I hate how this situation made Wesley seem clueless and helpless.  Once again, it felt like a negative view of men being reflected in this scene.  3) I have a HUGE pet peeve about women "protecting" men in fiction or film, with the clueless man standing there doing nothing.  This always seems to me like a cheap ploy to make the heroine seem strong and "empowering", and it just really irks me.  It's a lazy way of making a woman seem "strong".  And I don't know what's particularly strong anyway about foolishly threatening to shoot a nobleman and accusing him without any proof!

And finally, I just have to mention how at one point the characters end up walking, eating food at a festival, and laughing together about how they just fended off the bad guys who almost murdered them.  Like they had just finished watching a movie instead of fighting for their lives! Oh boy.

(Three) - On top of all that, the writing in this book left much to be desired.  The characters felt really one-dimensional, and the plot didn't have a lot of internal tension, it was mostly driven by external situations.  It felt like the author just thought of a bunch of characters and events, and wrote it all out linearly without taking time to paint the scene or develop the characters or relationships.  Many of the scene-shifts were jarring (like the above scene for an example - one minute we're practicing archery, the next we are threatening to shoot somebody, with no real transition or glimpse into Eva's thought process for this rather foolish move).  It also felt like there was a lack of historical research for a book that was supposed to be set in 1300's England.  Dickerson threw in a couple nods to history and a few old English words, and seemed to think that was good enough, but I think even the intended audience of teenagers appreciates a well-researched and well-thought-out book.


Bottom Line - Though this book had the potential to be a cute story, the writing was not great, and the portrayal of men was troubling to me.  I wouldn't recommend this book to adult women because of the lack of depth, and I wouldn't recommend it to the intended audience (preteen/teen girls) because of the (in my opinion) generally negative portrayal of men.

Note: I received a digital copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion. 

A Homeschool Usborne Book Wishlist (First Grade)



One of the most fun things about homeschooling so far has been researching and trying to decide on different curricula.  For Kindergarten we haven't really done a curriculum per se, we've just been working our way through a bunch of different books, doing crafts, and working on reading and math skills.  I haven't quite made up my mind what curriculum we will use for first grade this next year, but I've been searching through different options, and I've come to a conclusion - whatever we pick, I want to use (or build) a curriculum that uses real books.



We got Wyatt the Usborne Children's Encyclopedia for Christmas, and he poured over it for two days.  He asked me questions about all the pictures, and I told him what the words on the page said, and he was just fascinated.  It was so fun to watch him learning just for the joy of it.  While I think we will follow some sort of curriculum, I want to make sure we have plenty of interesting books around that fit in with what we are learning, to make the whole year more fun.

I've been making book lists galore, but today I wanted to focus on Usborne books!  A friend of mine, Brittney, asked me if I would host an Usborne Facebook party, and it sounded like a lot of fun - so I've been going through their thousands of books and making a list of the ones I'd like to get for school next year.  I'll share the ones I'm thinking about getting, but first, let's talk quickly about the ones I have, shall we?

Usborne Books We Already Have




The Children's Encyclopedia - Like I said above, this one has been a hit.  I think it's the full-page gorgeous illustrations that have really sucked Wyatt in.  I'm not going to lie, there were a few pages I felt the required more explanation (like the world religions or aliens pages), but they are easy enough to skip if you don't agree with or your child isn't ready for some of it.







How Things Work - This book is just so cool.  It's a flap book, and under each flap it gives pictures and descriptions about how the different things in this book work. 






Horses & Ponies and Weather - I bunch these together because they are the same type of book.  These books have fun illustrations and less text because they are meant for younger readers - but I love it because the few words are used really well, and these books get a lot deeper into the topics than you would expect them to.  They have a bunch of these on different topics, and I'm hoping to get more!




Birds Pocket Book - Have I mentioned that our family is really into birds?  We don't know a lot about distinguishing birds, but we would like to learn more.  All of my kids love flipping through the Audubon bird app on my phone, and this is like the book form!

Starting Chess (not pictured) - I forgot I had this one until I sat down to start typing!  Derek is very good at chess, and I picked this up as a supplement for when Wyatt is ready to start learning (which probably is sooner than I think).

So those are the books I have, now on to the books I want.

Usborne Books On My Homeschool To-Buy List

These are the books that I would love to have as we introduce different subjects over the next few years, in addition to the ones I already have.


Science And Nature

The Outdoor Book - I think we would love this for ideas of activities to do outside and nature study!

Human Body Reference Book and Shine-A-Light Human Body Book - This is my area of interest (biology), so I think this looks fun.  And the shine-a-light book adds an interesting element!

Poisonous Animals (etc.) - This is one of those great books for young readers!

How Things Grow - I think I need this book to help my black thumb.

Astronomy And Space Reference Book - I don't know if I even need to explain this. Yay for space!

100 Science Experiments - Someone told me I need this, and I think I do!

History

Big Picture Atlas - I think this will be good for context with different historical events.

Living Long Ago - I'm still not sure my kids grasp how different life was 200 years ago, so this looks great!

Christopher Columbus - One of the few American history books.  Usborne, I know you are British, but more on the American History front please!

See Inside Exploration And Discovery and The Story Of Inventions - These looked really interesting to me.


Reading and Writing

Illustrated Grammar And Punctuation - We are a way off from needing this yet, but my grammar nerd is coming out!  I love this idea!


Illustrated Classics: Huckleberry Finn And Other Stories - This is one of a few classics collections that are condensed and rewritten for young readers, and I am really curious about them.


Miscellaneous (aka. Just For Fun)

Over 50 Secret Codes - I would have loved this as a kid.

Fingerprint Activities: Animals - This just looks adorable, and would be so fun for everyone, including the little two!

First Book About The Orchestra - The kids love Maestro Classics (#affiliate), and I think this book would be a great visual to understand the different instruments.

Big Keyboard Book - We are still hoping to teach our kids how to play the piano, and this looks useful!



I could go on, but you get the idea! There are just a lot of really fun books.  Clearly it's probably going to take me longer than the next year to collect all these!  Maybe I should retitle this post "Usborne Books For Early Elementary", because I think all of these will last well beyond first grade!

Now for a little plug - the Facebook party is tomorrow night at 8 PM EST, and Brittney has a bunch of fun things planned - including a drawing for a book prize!  So if you want to check Usborne out, this is a good chance! If you comment below saying you want to join, I'll send you an email to add you to the party!  Or if you have your eye on something and want to buy without attending the party...can you purchase through any of these links and select my eShow on the left before checkout? Because then I can earn discounts on books! (Shameless plug, I know.)  Party is open until next Monday!

Do any of you have some Usborne books?  What would you recommend to me for the elementary school years?  

I'd love to hear!




P.S. Brittany also made me this handy graphic for Usborne books that go with different curricula!  Pin this!






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