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It’s July, and that means the monsoons are sweeping over our desert mountains. It gets hot—very hot—and just when we think we can’t take it anymore, the sky growls and pops and (finally) showers blessed relief. There’s something beautiful about reading a book during a balmy rain.
This month, I want to tell you about two books that I didn’t finish and why. I also read a steamy (but clean) Regency romance as well as a classic travelogue and a beautifully crafted Christian exegesis.
Now, onward to the reviews!
The Measure book review (DNF 50%)
By Nikki Erlick
Genre: Contemporary realistic fantasy
Format: Audible audiobook (thank goodness for free returns)
Mood: Worldly, exhausted, and stressed
You’ll love it if you want (yes want) to relive all the psychotic distress of the 2020 news cycle.
Well, this book had one of the most intriguing hooks I’d ever encountered. But the execution was just, well, sad.
The hook: On a random day, everyone in the world who is 22 years or older wakes up to find a wooden box with their name on it and a strange inscription that reads something like “inside is the measure of your life.” Open the box, and there’s a piece of gauzy fabric. Lift that, and you see a string. The string’s length corresponds to how long you’re going to live, from the day you’re born to the day you die.
The arrival of these boxes, of course, changes a LOT of things for a LOT of people. Some people open their boxes, and some don’t. Some people make huge life-changing decisions based on the length of their strings. The people who have short strings are soon labeled as a quasi-underclass, and they are stereotyped and feared by the long-stringers.
This is all quite interesting, and this setup…painting the world as a tinderbox with a lit match inching toward it...it’s a thrilling idea.
The characters were bad. I did not love them. I barely cared about them. The characters were like little puppets. They were lifeless wooden dolls acting the way that the author wanted them to act to serve the story’s messaging. (This story lacked meaning but was jam-packed with messaging, most of which was too trite for me to bear.)
If the characters had been real, then I might’ve kept reading in spite of the messaging, but I just couldn’t go on. The inciting incident was SO good. It could’ve been the start of a really wonderful story, and maybe things perk up in the second half, but I didn’t have the stomach to stick around.
Content warnings: Two of the main characters are in a lesbian relationship. There’s a shooting at a hospital and at a rally. Not sure what goes down in the second half.
It Ends With Us book review (DNF 33%)
By Colleen Hoover
Genre: Contemporary romance
Format: Library paperback
Mood: Emotional, sexy, disillusioned
You’ll love it if you’ve got a gnarly craving for an angsty romance.
For some reason—Verity, I suspect—Colleen Hoover’s books have blown up this past year! She’s, like, skyrocketed to fame. Her backlist is selling like there’s no tomorrow. So, naturally, I’m curious.
I tried reading Verity for the second time last month and had to put it down at the 25 percent mark. I got a little further with this one, but I just can’t justify spending time on it. Too raunchy and lusty for my tender little soul.
This book is what I consider mommy porn. It’s a book that your average, everyday mom can read in public and nobody bats an eyelash, yet the book contains explicit sex scenes (and seems to exist primarily for these scenes).
Content warnings: Lots of sex and swears. Also, the protagonist’s father is verbally and physically abusive. There is a teen boy who is homeless.
The Cheat Sheet book review
By Sarah Adams
Genre: Contemporary romance
Format: Kindle ebook
Mood: Frothy, fun, silly, steamy
You’ll love it if you want to read something so sweet it’ll give you cavities.
Kindle said, “This ebook is only $1.99!” So, I impulse-bought it, knowing beforehand that it’s a sassy closed-door romance about two best friends who become lovers. There’s also a fake relationship. And dual POVs. Okay, Amazon, I’ll give it a try!
I read it in three days flat, and it was exactly like watching a PG-13 romcom from the early 2000s. It’s full of witty dialogue, and steamy romance, and it had me literally laughing out loud. Netflix or Hulu could take this book and adapt it to the screen with minimal effort—it reads just like a movie, with adorable banter and with adorable banter and screenplay-ready episodes fully loaded.
I’m gonna call this “Hallmark meets MTV with a dash of Sports Center.” Weird, I know
Now, this book is cute as all get-out, BUT it’s pure escapism—the fluffy, wish-fulfillment kind. It was a total cupcake, and too much of this kinda thing can’t be good for me.
But what about just a liiiiiittle every now and then? Honestly, the tension between what I can read and what I really should avoid is a sleeping bear that I’m currently poking at with my proverbial stick. You can bet I’ll letcha know how it’s going.
Content warnings: This book brings the steam, but without true substance to go along with it. There are makeout and bedroom scenes that are on the PG-13 side of things, but it does not depict the entire sexual act (i.e. fade to black). It does depict one of the characters having a panic attack.
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers book review
By Dane C. Ortlund
Genre: Christian exegesis
Format: Library audiobook
Mood: Lyrical, unhurried, deep
You’ll love it if you secretly say to yourself, “If Jesus really knew me, I don’t think he’d love me.”
How do you describe the heart of Jesus Christ? This book takes a deep look at scripture in an attempt to find out. The conclusion is that the heart of Jesus draws near to sinners and sufferers. We don’t have to be perfectly righteous and content in order to be near the heart of God.
Often, we feel like we’re pestering Jesus with our constant needs, our constant backsliding, our constant selfishness. How can he possibly have a soft heart toward us when we’re so pathetic? Or, we think, yes, Jesus loves me, except THAT part of me. (No, he loves that part too.) Or, yes, Jesus wants a relationship with me, but if he gets too close, he has to hold his nose. (No, Jesus doesn’t just tolerate us in his family, he fervently wants us to be part of his family.)
Here are a few other things that resonated with me:
- Jesus looks at our sin like a parent looks at cancer that’s afflicting his child. Just because the child has cancer doesn’t mean he stops loving his child. He hates the cancer and wants it gone, but he never hates his child.
- Jesus is our mediator (continually acting as our lifeline to the Father, going before us day in and day out) and our advocate (clearing our name after we sin bigly and repent sincerely). This imagery helps me think of what Jesus is doing for me right NOW. It takes the cross and brings it to this present moment.
- Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion WITHOUT the filter of sin to dull the highs and the lows. That’s why he’s the perfect empathizer. He felt ALL the emotions with more clarity and force than we ever will. If anyone knows what we’re feeling, it’s him.
A huge strength of this book is Ortlund’s beautiful prose. He’s a great writer! This book could’ve been dry and intellectual, but it’s filled with imagery and (no surprise) heart.
Content warnings: Ortlund is Calvinist, so that’s good to know because this naturally affects his commentary. I’m not Calvinist, but I found a lot to take away nonetheless.
The Matrimonial Advertisement book review
By Mimi Matthews
Genre: Regency romance
Format: Audible audiobook
Mood: Mysterious, romantic, on the slow burner
You’ll love it if you’re craving a soap-opera version of Jane Austen.
It’s a Regency romance! (Roll the Rs.) Rrrregency rrrrromance! Yes, that’s it. That’s how I feel about this book. It’s kinda silly and kinda great. When I think of “Regency romance” I think of Jane Austen but with more soapy social drama and at least one bout of fisticuffs. This book delivered on both counts.
Honestly, I thought this book was decently well written, but my expectations were low. It was crafted with more historical care, better characterization, and more believable plotting than Edenbrooke (IMO).
What’s the story about? Well, for reasons unknown to us at the outset, Helena has traveled far from home to answer a newspaper advertisement for a bride. She meets the man, a Byronic hunk with a shrouded past, and they agree to go ahead with the marriage, despite the fact that they’re both obviously hiding things.
The less you know going into the story, the better.
The romance was very steamy but most definitely closed door, which is how I prefer things. No explicit bedroom scenes here. And it was like a 5 out of 10 on the Cheese-O-Meter. Some cheese but not so much that I was rolling my eyes. I was caught up in the story, which was dramatic but reasonably so, and this allowed me to enjoy the romance without getting distracted by too many “oh puh-leeeze” moments.
Content warnings: Some spoilers in this section. Helena was nearly strangled by her uncle and has bruises. She was subjected to “treatments” at a mental facility that amount to torture. Her mother suffered from post-pardum depression, but it isn’t discussed in detail.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America book review
By John Steinbeck
Genre: Travel (historical)
Mood: Lively, ironically funny, introspective
You’ll love it if you’re itching to jump in a camper and tour the great U S of A (1960s-style).
John Steinbeck is a masterful writer. I’d forgotten. The man writes beautifully, and this travelogue is worth a read for the sheer enjoyment of his prose.
Travels with Charley is the true story of how John Steinbeck wanted to see America. So, he outfitted his truck with a camper of sorts, and he set off on a grand tour of the U S of A. His travel companion? An intelligent blue-gray poodle named Charley (born and raised in France and therefore very discerning, although prone to bladder infections).
Steinbeck had traveled the globe, but he’d never made a concerted effort to look closely at America. He wanted to learn about America. What makes America itself? What are Americans like? Is it possible to characterize this vast, diverse nation?
He starts in the late summer of 1960 at Sag Harbor, New York, where he lives. He drives up to the fingertips of Maine, and then back down, across no-nonsense New England and then the Mideast (Ohio is very friendly) and up through Michigan and over through Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana, which stole his heart.
He makes it clear to Seattle, which isn’t what it once was, he says. He then heads south (through San Francisco “the City”) to his beloved Salinas Valley in California (a prophet is always rejected in his own country).
He speeds across Arizona and New Mexico (which exist in spite of themselves) but spends Thanksgiving in Texas at a millionaire’s ranch. Then, with trepidation, he enters the south, which is bowstring-tight with racial tension. Then, he makes a mad dash north to get home for Christmas.
Steinbeck doesn’t presume to have really “learned” anything in a general sense. What good are generalities when you’re talking about a land so wide-ranging as the U.S.? But, he has a wonderful way of retelling his encounters with people along the way. Individual people that he met at singular moments in time. He captures those moments, and that’s the stuff the book is made of. Brief roadside episodes. Sounds boring, right? NO. It’s not about the stories as much as how Steinbeck tells them.
Steinbeck is no fool. He didn’t just randomly slap this book together. He carefully selected the stories he’d tell, and I’m sure he had his reasons for each. But, his telling is so personal and relatable that I didn’t feel like he was lecturing or putting anything over on me. I think he was genuinely trying to understand his country because he LOVES it, despite all its shortcomings. And that warms my little newsfeed-shriveled heart.
“I do know this—the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”
Content warnings: Steinbeck visits New Orleans and witnesses a group of women (surrounded by news crews and a crowd of gawkers) who are loudly and obscenely protesting the desegregation of schools. This is an important part of the book, but it could be disturbing for some.
The Witches book review
By Roald Dahl
Genre: Children’s realistic fantasy
Format: Paperback (and audiobook)
Mood: Comedic and tongue-in-cheek
You’ll love it if you want to give your kids the creeps (in the good ol’ campfire-ghost-story kinda way).
I still have my tattered childhood copy of The Witches, and it was this copy that got the attention of my 5- and 7-year-olds. Witches? Oooooooh. What’s it about?!
It’s been ages since I’ve read this book, and it is one of the weirder Dahl stories…I know, they’re ALL weird, but this one is extra weird.
What’s the point of this book? To laugh over a silly story, maybe. To get that fun-creepy tingle up your spine at the thought of witches living among us. I dunno. But it held the same appeal for my kids as it did for young me.
Our narrator is a young British boy who is never actually named (truly!). He is tragically orphaned and then put in the care of his beloved Grandmamma, who is a Norweigian witch expert. She’s a great storyteller, and she loves the topic of witches. They are REAL. And they HATE children. It’s very important that a child knows how to spot a witch to avoid getting squelched. Witches look just like nice ladies, you know.
Well, our intrepid narrator DOES come in contact with witches, and thank goodness he has his Grandmamma by his side. The book relies on a lot of slapstick humor and adventure-type scenes to keep things interesting.
I read about half of the book aloud, and the other half we listened to the audiobook narrated by Miranda Richardson. The voice she does for the Grand High Witch was a little hard to understand at times.
Content warnings: If you suspect that the idea of “witches hiding in plain sight” might freak your kids out, then pass on this for now. The Grand High Witch kills a witch by melting her with her eyes. Kids are repeatedly threatened with death.
The Whipping Boy book review
By Sid Fleischman
Genre: Children’s historical fiction
Mood: Funny, adventurous, and heartwarming
You’ll love it if you need a read-aloud that’s a morality tale wrapped in a romp.
My 5- and 7-year-old boys were NOT into this book much at all. It’s not a complicated story, but it was a little over their heads, and this surprised me!
I, on the other hand, thought this book was great. It’s not the end-all, be-all in children’s literature, but I loved the morality tale it presents.
We’ve got two main characters, Prince Brat, a terribly spoiled royal child. Then, we’ve got Jemmy, his whipping boy. Whenever Prince Brat gets in trouble, Jemmy gets a whipping (because it’s against the law to lay a hand on a princely hide.) Of course, this is terribly unjust, and kids can see that right away.
In the dead of night, Prince Brat decides to run away because he’s “bored.” He commands Jemmy to go with him. They are terrible runaways and get kidnapped immediately by two highwaymen who stink of garlic. They meet a girl with a dancing bear and a potato seller and a rat catcher, and it’s all good fun in medieval times.
There’s a hearty moral takeaway and plenty of vocabulary words tucked into the narrative and strong historical flavor. But it’s mostly a growing-up / unlikely friendship story that I think will appeal to my boys when they’re a tad older. 😉
Content warnings: As the title suggests, our two protagonists take a few beatings. There are also two (rather silly) highwaymen who kidnap the boys and threaten them.
Sarah, Plain and Tall book review
By Patricia MacLachlan
Genre: Children’s historical fiction
Mood: Sweet, understated
You’ll love it if you want a tender, emotional read-aloud (that’s super-short).
A beautifully bare-bones story that kids can relate to. Anna and her younger brother Caleb live on the prairie with their father. Their mother died giving birth to Caleb, but now Papa has decided to advertise for a wife. He gets a response from Sarah, who describes herself as plain and tall. The children desperately hope that she’ll fill the void in their home. Will she?
In addition to dealing with the loss of a parent, this book also presses into the topic of “moving away,” and might be a cathartic read for kids who are struggling with a move. Sarah was born and raised in Maine on the coast, so moving to the prairie is a big change for her.
Patricia MacLachlan is known for tackling tough topics in a way that kids can understand…and she does it in a way that isn’t too terribly sad. In fact, the narrative focuses primarily on hope for a happy future (versus the grief of the past). Her writing style is stripped of anything superfluous, so it leaves lots of room for discussions with kids.
I was surprised by how closely this book sticks to the children’s POV. We get hints as to what’s going on in the minds of the adults, but it’s very surface-level. (MacLachlan leaves all the adult issues to the imaginations of the parents who are reading this to their kids, haha.)
The kids are primarily concerned with whether or not Sarah will stay with them. Or will she miss her home by the sea in Maine too much and return there? Are they “enough” for her? Does she like them? Could she love them? This is so simple and straightforward. As adults, we realize just how fraught and complex this scenario would be for Papa and Sarah, but this book centers squarely on how the kids’ experience.
Content warnings: The children’s mother died in childbirth, and this is a central element of the plot. It may be sad for very sensitive kids. Anna has the image of her mother’s coffin being carried away in a wagon.
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