Book Reviews for June 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

June 27, 2023

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Behold! My book reviews for June 2023.

This was an interesting reading month because I…

  • Worked in some good ol’ spiritual nonfiction—it’d been too long
  • Was deeply disappointed by Sophie Irwin’s sophomore novel (I adored her debut)
  • Inhaled The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry
  • Consumed some quality YA and middle-grade books

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads. Connect with me so that I can see what you’re reading, too!

Tell Me the Stories of Jesus

By R. Albert Mohler Jr.

All the biblical parables explained

You’ll love it if you crave a fluff-free scriptural explainer

Right off the bat, Mohler states that he won’t try to pick apart the parable or assign allegorical significance to each detail that Jesus mentions. Instead, he focuses on the main thrust of the story and the overall idea it’s teaching.

He also maintains that each parable speaks to 3 things: God’s kingdom, God’s mercy, and God’s judgment. He touched on all three in each chapter, which made the book feel cohesive, and maybe a little repetitive.

He basically takes each parable in turn and explains what it means and how it should impact us as Christians. About two-thirds of the way through, Mohler told a personal story, and I was like “Ah, that’s nice. The story makes it more relatable.” I wish he would’ve done more of that throughout—kinda reinforces the whole concept of Jesus using stories to convey big ideas.

I don’t hold to all of Mohler’s theology (average me disagreeing with the genius) but I very much enjoyed this anyway.

The audiobook narrator sounded a tad robotic. I don’t recommend the audio version.

Content warnings: None

A Lady’s Guide to Scandal

By Sophie Irwin

A regency romance with modern underpinnings

You’ll love it if Sanditon (the PBS miniseries) was your jam

It’s with great heaviness of heart that I give this book 2 stars. I enjoyed Sophie Irwin’s debut so much that I was VERY excited to read her second book. The writing is great! The plot surprised me! The characters were fully developed! But the heart of the book is mostly deceitful, and that’s why I can’t give it more than 2 stars in good conscience.

Here’s the wonderful premise: Like Persuasion, this book is about thwarted young love and the possibility of a second chance. After 10 years of marriage to an elderly lord she didn’t love, Eliza finds herself a young widow. She hopes in her heart of hearts that her first love, the man she was engaged to before her parents forced her to marry the crusty earl for title and wealth, may still. love her. To her surprise, Eliza inherits some lands that make her a wealthy widow. After spending 10 years doing what everyone else expected of her (her parents, her husband) she decides she’s going to strike out on her own (with her loyal cousin Margaret). They go to Bath, and it’s FUN.

The first half of the book follows Eliza as she blossoms from a timid, spiritless creature into a woman with greater backbone. It’s neat to see her come out of her shell. I enjoyed the first half of the book (probably because I was looking for something fun and light). Her first love enters the scene, as well as an infamous and flirtatious writer who vies for Eliza’s affection, and their banter is great.

At the 50 percent mark, the book went downhill for me. FAST. Now, I must say that I was thoroughly surprised by the turn the book took. It was thoughtful and sincere and very well conceived. It didn’t conform to expectations.

HOWEVER, this book supports the idea that we all need to do what’s best for ourselves, and that will lead to happiness and fulfillment. If we put ourselves first, then we will grow into who we truly are. Family needs (posed as pressures) must be cast aside if they conflict with what we want for ourselves.

I cannot tell you how much I oppose this message. It just isn’t true. Eliza is blissfully happy on the last page of this book, but I’ll wager that in 10 more years, she won’t be enjoying a life of peaceful fulfillment. Living riotously and selfishly (however authentic that may feel) just isn’t the cureall it’s made out to be. It’s not brave. It’s not outrageous. When we lay our lives down for what’s right—now that’s courageous (and scandalous).

There is a huge mix of good and bad here. There were a lot of things that I agreed with but too much that I didn’t.

Content warnings (with spoilers!!!!!!!): This book is most definitely rated PG-13. There are no open-door bedroom scenes, but some characters make out. There’s reference to infidelity. There’s also a lesbian relationship that comes to the forefront in the second half of the book. Two of the main characters are biracial and there’s discussion of prejudice. Eliza wants to be an artist but she can’t because societal norms frown upon it, and many of the men are portrayed as boorish and overbearing. I felt like the publisher gave the author a checklist of social issues to include in this book, and she got them all.

The Secret Book of Flora Lea

By Patti Callahan Henry

On her last day of work, a rare-book seller stumbles upon a book telling the exact story that SHE used to tell to her baby sister

You’ll love it if historical fiction + fairy tale sounds like a magical mix

It’s 1960, and it’s Hazel’s last day working at a rare-book shop in London. Her last task is to catalog a few newly purchased items, and she comes across a recently published fairy tale written by an American author—and Hazel recognizes the story. It’s a story that she invented for her 6-year-old sister, Flora, when they were children and sent from London to the countryside to escape the Blitz in the ’40s. Only Hazel and Flora knew this story. It was their special tale, and they never told anyone about it. When young Flora goes missing one day, Hazel feels the story is to blame, so she quietly places it in the bottom drawer of her traumatized mind…until it shows up again in the form of this book.

Is this American author Flora? Did Flora survive? Or did she tell the story to someone before she went missing? Hazel is determined to learn the truth. In the process, she must confront the past that she’s been running away from and decide what she wants for the future.

The plot and the characters were great—if not exactly believable. These two crucial elements are what made the story fun to read. The plot didn’t drag, and the stakes are sky-high. The author alternates between the two time periods, but it’s not hard to follow at all. The writing is engaging and charming.

It’s important to know that this isn’t your typical WW2 novel. The war impacts events, but it mostly looms in the background.

The underlying message rings mostly true for me. I love how Hazel relentlessly pursues the truth, no matter the cost. In fact, she’s kind of hoping that there’ll be a cost…then maybe she’d be able to atone. Instead of having to atone, Hazel finds absolution instead, which is a lovely message of grace. This book takes the T-shirt slogan “Be True to You” and digs deeper. So often, we fashion our lives around what other people or our culture tell us to. Hazel realizes that she’s living a lie, and she fixes it, even though it’s painful. So, this is a mostly good take on the “Be True to You” mantra.

FYI: This is a writer’s ode to writing. Storytelling is idealized. This can feel a bit trite, but it always gets me itching to turn into a novelist.

Content Warnings: The plot revolves around the loss of a child—in this case, a disappearance. This may not be a great pick for anyone who is currently very anxious or emotional over child safety. Hazel and her current boyfriend are living together and sleeping together. There is some language, including a precious few F-bombs. Mostly “damn.” Overall, the book did have more of a worldly vibe to it than I expected. The religious characters aren’t the best, which is always a little disappointing.

Famous for a Living

By Melissa Ferguson

A canceled Instagram influencer retreats to the boonies and finds love waiting there

You’ll love it if you just want to keep the sweet romcoms a-comin’

A cute, clean romance about a mega-famous social media influencer who discovers that there’s a wonderful world waiting for her outside of her phone.

This reads JUST like a Hallmark movie. Fun, light, not too deep. It follows the established conventions of the genre. It’s what you expect from a clean contemporary romance published by a Christian house, but it’s cute! I wouldn’t stereotype it as a piece of cardboard or something to roll your eyes at—even though we’re all tempted, aren’t we? This is a mood read. When you’re in the mood for this type of book, then this is the book you pick!

The strength of this book is in the colorful cast of characters. I don’t want to spoil it, but Melissa Ferguson does a great job of mixing together distinctive characters who stay consistent throughout the book and who create sparks (good and bad) when they’re thrown together.

Our main character, Cat, is a social media influencer based in NYC. It’s her job to act as a walking billboard for brands and influence people to buy stuff. But SHE’S the one who has been influenced by the pressures of living a public life online. She knows she has an unhealthy relationship with her phone and (as a result) herself. Because she’s under so much pressure to DO and BE, she makes a bad decision that gets her canceled.

So, she escapes to the boonies of Montana where her only living relative, Uncle Terry, gives her a job as social media manager for the tiny national park he works for as a ranger. So, glitzy NYC glamour girl gets dropped in small-town middle of nowhere against her will. Hallmark!!!! Of course, there is a hunky and sensitive park ranger looking for commitment. Hallmark!!!! And she comes to appreciate “real living” and the wonders of nature. Hallmark!!! Seriously, if you love Hallmark, this book is for you.

The romance is clean but not completely sterile. I’d feel comfortable giving it to a mature teenager.

Content warnings: I wouldn’t call this a Christian romance, even though it’s decidedly closed-door. There are no Christian elements at all, such as prayer or church attendance. I also wouldn’t call this a spicy romance—it’s like 2 out of 5 jalapeno peppers. There are allusions to unmarried people “traveling together” as in, staying in the same room. There are no same-sex relationships.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

By Suzanne Collins

Get the backstory on President Snow in this page-turning HG prequel

You’ll love it if you want to return to Panem and contemplate theories of civil governance

This was just the right audiobook to listen to while raking pine needles in my yard. A couple of weeks ago, I struck up a random conversation with a young girl who was, like, 11 years old. She mentioned that she’d just finished reading all the HG series, including this one. I was like, wow, she’s young to be reading these! Since I’ve read the other three, I figured I’d complete the set.

This book gives the backstory of President Snow. I have a love-hate relationship with the sympathetic villain, so I wasn’t sure about this book. What would the message here be? Like the first three HG books, Suzanne Collins does a nice job of laying all the pieces on the table and letting the reader move them around, seeing what fits and what doesn’t.

Collins is a master of the young adult genre. Her books are perfectly paced. The story races forward with minimal fluff or padding. This is a hallmark of YA, and she does it so well. But, Collins doesn’t allow her books to feel formulaic, either. Because I didn’t know anything at all about the plot ahead of time, I was surprised by the twists and turns.

Coriolanus, Lucy Gray, and Sejanus felt like true teenagers. They weren’t super set in their beliefs. They were trying to figure out what to do (and what is right, in some cases) while the world around them shifted and changed. Each character voices opinions and thoughts that young readers (hopefully!) don’t take at face value but instead juxtapose and debate. Who is right? (Nobody.)

The book did a nice job of overlapping with the original series just enough to be interesting but not so much that it used the trilogy as a crutch.

Content warnings: Like the original trilogy, this novel depicts teens murdering other human beings. It is not condoned. In fact, we see how Coriolanus becomes desensitized to it, and we’re supposed to recoil. One scene depicts a public hanging. If you’re wondering, there is teen love but no teen sex. There are a handful of minor characters who are gay.

Jack Zulu and the Waylander’s Key

By S. D. Smith and J. C. Smith

Young Jack Zulu and his trusty pal Benny discover a portal that leads to other worlds

You’ll love it if you’ve got a soft spot for funny dialogue and the ’80s

What FUN! This is an ambitious portal fantasy—the first in a series that’s still being written by S. D. Smith and his son, Josiah. It’s about Jack Zulu, average kid of the 80s, and his best friend Benny. Jack’s father was killed in the line of police duty, and his mother is dying in the hospital. He takes refuge in baseball and books. One day, Mr. Wheeler, the elderly bookstore owner, asks him to protect a curious box while he goes on a mysterious errand. After that, Jack’s life is never the same, and neither is Benny’s. They go from being regular kids to heroes of the Wayland.

S. D. Smith is straightup hilarious, and his humor SHINES in this book! There’s tons of situational humor and even more hilarious dialogue. I think this is perfect for kids who want a book that’ll make them laugh but that brings a lot more to the table than just cheap jokes.

The time and place (’80s small-town West Virginia) add a lot of charm to the story as well. I loved the pizza dive, the bookshop, the wood. It has a great flavor to it.

The themes in this book just can’t be beat—friendship, courage, hard work. The author’s note states that their goal was to write a story that makes kids “dangerous to the darkness.” They wanted to build kids’ courage and help them to see the good AND the evil that coexist in this world and show kids that they are capable of choosing what’s right even in the face of sore temptation.

I feel like this book resembles Book 1 of The Green Ember because it’s an investment in the rest of the story that’s to come. It’s a little too long, and the beats felt off. I liked the Wayland, but I wish it had the same level of charm as Myrtle. And the story’s message was a little too on the nose.

But overall, YES, what a great book. I hope gets the attention it deserves.

Content warnings: PG-13 peril and danger. The main character is black, and the Smiths are white—do they touch on racism? Yes, but it’s not the point of the book, exactly. The bigger issue is that the various life forms in this book—whether humans, elves, or monstrous crows—manage to feel prejudice against other groups. So, the idea is that EVERYONE has a tendency toward prejudice (because it’s easy, because we’ve been hurt in the past, because we’ve been influenced by gossip, etc.). It’s a universal temptation, and it’s a tendency we ALL need to curb if not nip in the bud.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

By Louis Sachar

And you thought Hogwarts was a dangerous school…just wait till you enter Wayside

You’ll love it if you just want a few good laughs with your kids

This weird little book was actually a very fun read-aloud to kick off summer—even though it was all about a school, haha. My boys laughed equally at the crass humor and the subtle irony. Honestly, I’m a little torn about this book. It definitely leans toward the Wimpy Kid side of things, and there’s really not much to it. But I do appreciate the fact that it’s uncomplicated and funny, and I do want to show my kids that we can read things for the sheer fun of it.

Content warnings: There are a few things that make this a bad fit for the very young (like under 6 years old). Mostly crude humor and general meanness of the kids.

What did you read in June?

Drop a note in the comments. Want to link to your own reviews? Sure! I’d love to check out what you’ve been reading.

Adding to your TBR?

Check out this handy digital TBR spreadsheet that you can pull up on your phone whenever you’re at the bookstore or library.

Want to see ALL my book reviews?

Here’s the master list of every book I’ve reviewed since starting The Book Devotions.

More along these lines…

4 Comments

  1. Beth Gross

    Famous for a Living looks good!

    I had a similar reaction to yours after reading The Secret Book of Flora Lea.

    Thanks for sharing your reviews!

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Thank you, Beth! I always love reading yours too!

      Reply
  2. L Nagel

    Great list! Albert Mohler’s book is on my radar, too, as is Patti Callahan’s newest. Appreciate your reviews!

    This month I read two books aloud to my kids, both by Elizabeth Enright:
    – The Four Story Mistake
    – Then There Were Five

    For myself I finished Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri.

    Reply
    • Michelle Watson

      Oooh, Lisa! I loved Everything Sad Is Untrue. I’m interested in reading his next book also. I enjoyed Gone-Away Lake by Enright (so wholesome!) and I have Thimble Summer on waiting my bookshelf.

      Reply

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