Book reviews for February 2024

Book reviews for February 2024

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

It’s been a while since my monthly reading mix was so, well, mixy!

My book reviews for February 2024 include a modern mystery/thriller, a nonfiction on productivity, two historical middle-grade books, a couple of fantasies, and a rare dystopian YA.

I even reviewed two books as ARCs, which is always fun!

I’m including one DNF because I think some of you might love this author, even though her books weren’t my cup of tea at this moment in time.

Will any of these make your TBR? Leave a comment and let me know.

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

Let’s dive in!

Do More Better

By Tim Challies

How to be a productive Christian human

You’ll love it if you want a few good reasons WHY productivity matters in our walk with the Lord

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This would make the perfect high school graduation gift for a Christian kid. This is a short, practical method to getting things done that comes from a Christian perspective. It wasn’t earth-shattering for me, but I can imagine it would be super helpful for my teenage nephews who are about to embark upon Real Life after high school.

This is my first interaction with Challies, so I don’t know him in any other context besides this book, but I liked what he had to say about centering life on loving God and serving others. We’re not getting more things done just so that we can amass wealth and accomplishments and fame. We’re trying to steward our lives in a way that will honor God because we love and revere Him, and we acknowledge that He is in charge of our plans and path.

I think this book would’ve felt more “new” if I hadn’t read Mystie Winkler’s planner book. She draws on several of his frameworks, including a weekly review. I liked the planner book a lot because it’s specifically for moms, and it felt more relevant to my situation right now.

I’m not a big app person. I do much better with paper and ink, but I can apply the general principles attached to the digital tools (Todoist, Google Calendar, and Evernote) to my paper planner.

I did enjoy the section on Serve and Surprise. I like the idea of surprising people by going over and above.

Content warnings: None

The Silent Governess (DNF 50%)

By Julie Klassen

When a young woman in regency-era England is forced to flee home, where will she turn?

You’ll love it if you like slow-burn, clean regency romances with Christian undertones

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is the second Julie Klassen book that I’ve DNFed since the beginning of the year. I tried listening to Castaway in Cornwall on audio first, and then I got bored at the 35 percent mark. I decided to start this one, and I find that I’m forcing myself to go back to the audiobook…I have no desire to continue, so I’m going to just stop.

I don’t know if it’s the audio format or if it’s just not the right time for a regency romance. The books aren’t bad, but I think they’re lacking the conflict and emotion that I’m craving right now.

There are times when a relatively sedate and buttoned-up story is just the ticket. But, that’s falling flat for me at the moment.

Not giving up on you, Jules! I’ll be back.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic, but there was one scene when a man made unwanted advances toward the protagonist, and she got away.

First Lie Wins

By Ashley Elston

When a young spy needs to redeem herself in her boss’s eyes, she finds herself tested in twisty ways

You’ll love it if you puzzle-y thrillers that are low on graphic content

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I needed something different. I saw that this popular thriller was high on twists and low on sex and violence, so I gave it a try. I’m NOT much for thrillers, but about once a year, I’ll pick one up. I never seem to love them, so take my review with a grain of salt.

Here’s what appealed to me: I knew this was going to be a plot-driven book. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of character arc, and, turns out, there wasn’t much of one. The plot was interesting and did deliver some twists and turns that I enjoyed and didn’t see coming. It was fast-paced and short. A nice palate cleanser.

I could’ve done with MORE character, especially from the lead.

I won’t spoil the end, but…I had issues with the note it ended on. It didn’t have good resonance, even though it is discussable.

Content warnings: The book didn’t rely on graphic scenes for shock and awe. So, no graphic violence or sex. The main character is living with a man. Some deaths occur. There was the usual foul language that you’d expect, but it was moderate—not minimal but not everywhere. Of course, this is a worldly book, so it comes with, well, worldliness.

The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry

By Anna Rose Johnson

An awkward orphan girl is adopted by a big family who lives on a tiny lighthouse island

You’ll love it if you’re craving a short middle-grade book that feels like L. M. Montgomery

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What a delightful story. Like Anna Rose Johnson’s debut, this book has that classic, vintage feel. What’s more, Lucy Landry is Anne Shirley reincarnated. She’s dreamy and inattentive, but it’s obvious that her behavior is a coping mechanism, and so, even though she makes us cringe, we FEEL for her.

This is one of those stories where the young protagonist is plopped into a completely new life. Think Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, and, of course, Anne. Lucy Landry has lived primarily alone with an elderly caretaker. When she’s adopted by a couple with six children who live on a tiny lighthouse island, she’s utterly unprepared for the chaos and conflict. I’m glad that the author didn’t shy away from this conflict. It was HARD for Lucy to fit in, and this constant tension made the story interesting.

I loved the mystery of the long-lost necklace that’s woven through the story. While this is a subplot and not the point of the book, it adds a layer of interest to liven up the main plot, which is Lucy’s transformation. Plus, finding the lost necklace gives Lucy a goal and deepens her connection to her past.

This book is short and easy to read. It’ll appeal to kids (and adults) who want a quick win.

Also, Lucy deals with some debilitating fear. Since so many kids struggle with fears, this is another touchpoint that will appeal to anxious kids without triggering them (I think).

And a huge WOO-HOO to the depiction of a homeschooling family. This is rare! (But spilling stuff all over our school supplies is, sadly, not. Haha.)

Thank you to NetGalley and Holiday House for a digital ARC of this novel.

Content warnings: Lucy is afraid of sailing on the water. The book shows her getting anxious about the prospect of (and the reality of) getting on a boat. She and one other character freeze up in panic, but it’s not depicted as a detailed panic attack. Mentioning this just in case it’s relevant for your youngster.

Once a Queen

By Sarah Arthur

A teenage American girl visits her English grandmother’s mystical estate for the first time and learns there’s much more to her family than she thought

You’ll love it if you, as a kid, hoped with all your heart that doors to other worlds actually existed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After hearing Sarah MacKenzie from Read-Aloud Revival (I love her) interview the author, I was ready and rearin’ to love this book, and maybe my expectations were too high. I liked it but did not love it. Now, I do love the premise: There are portals to other worlds. They exist, just like in fairy tales. All we have to do is find them. That’s a common childhood fantasy, right? But the execution felt a tad off for me.

The protagonist is young Eva, an American who travels with her mom to visit her Grandmother in England for the first time ever. Soon, she realizes that her regal Grandmother was once a queen in fairyland.

Positives: Complex female relationships—whoooo-wheeee. Women. We can be weird. We don’t always treat each other right, and this book is packed with strong females who all seem to have fraught relationships with one another. This didn’t detract from the book at all and was one of the highlights for me.

Negatives: The writing wasn’t as immersive as I’d hoped. The pacing of the plot did drag a bit for me. I found myself wondering more than once, “Where is this going?” Eva was always finding clues and making little discoveries, but they all seemed a tad disjointed. I couldn’t see how the story was building to any sort of climax. The chapter-ending Ternival tales (fictional excerpts from a book of fairy tales) were a little hard to follow. It was a lot of new information to keep track of.

Thank you to NetGalley and WaterBrook for an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Content warnings: I wouldn’t hesitate to let any teenager read this. There’s nothing graphically scary or violent, and there is a sweet romance but it’s very much a side note until the end, and even then, there’s just a hint.

What the Moon Said

By Gayle Rosengren

How will 10-year-old Esther survive now that her family must move from the city to a farm due to the Great Depression?

You’ll love it if you loved Sweet Home Alaska or any of the Little House books

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What a sweet, heartfelt book! I read it in just over a day, and it’s perfect for kids who love pioneer or homesteading books.

It’s the Great Depression, and we see one year in the life of 10-year-old Esther. All she wants is to earn her mother’s love. Her Russian immigrant mom is exacting and superstitious. She scolds easily, worries constantly, and hugs not at all. What can Esther do to make Ma love her?

When Esther’s dad loses his job in Chicago, the family moves to a Wisconsin farm to try country life. How will Esther adjust?

This story has two strong journeys: the outer journey: Will the family make it on the farm? And the inner journey: Will Esther at long last receive her mother’s love? This makes it a simple yet layered growing-up tale.

It is a sweet story, with lots of emotion. I got teary-eyed a few times. I appreciate how the book doesn’t villainize the city or the country. I also love how there is a faith element. The family prays and goes to church. Ma and Pa also carry a lot of superstitions from the Old Country, and it’s interesting to see how that’s handled.

The reading level is low, so younger kids should be able to tackle it. The plot touches on many universal “kid dilemmas” that anyone can relate to, and it also opens a window to a distinct time in history and how people lived back then.

I got this book recommendation from this list of page-turners.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic or overly scary. However, one character has a medical emergency that requires hospitalization. One character chokes on food.


By K. B. Hoyle

When B-Seventeen is ripped from her perfect life, how will she survive in a world of lies?

You’ll love it if you’ve got a soft spot for YA dystopian fiction but wish they weren’t so filled with despair (this one isn’t!)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I inhaled this book in a couple of days, and I’m very picky when it comes to my teen dystopias. This book has a lot in common with The Hunger Games—I’d definitely call it a read-alike—but it’s a lot less depressing. In fact, this book is incredibly life-affirming. But it’s most definitely for teens and no younger.

So, we’ve got a strong female lead, who lives in a futuristic society that has tried to rid the world of inequality by making people the same—as “same” as they can get them. All aspects of life are controlled by the powers that be. People are drugged into submission. Rebels are driven into hiding.

Our young, female protagonist, Pria, works as a Breeder. Her job is to birth babies for the new world. Sounds a lot like The Giver series, right? It’s very similar to the Birthmother role in that series.

Well, something happens to Pria. She begins to feel discontent with her “perfect” life. She begins to ask questions—gasp! This puts her in danger. I don’t want to spoil it, but the plot is strong, and the themes are solid.

The pacing of this book is fantastic. It didn’t drag. It starts small and just gets bigger and broader, but everything that happens to Pria is tied to the overall story question and the main theme. It’s a great way to get teens thinking about systems of governance, issues of freedom, and also abortion and eugenics.

Content warnings: There are dramatic scenes of peril, as you’d expect. Physical and gun violence. There are scary monsters called Unfamiliars that attack. But nothing goes graphically over the top. There is a romantic subplot that involves some physical intimacy but no sex. There is an attempted rape that does not occur.

The Black Cauldron

By Lloyd Alexander

Everyone’s favorite assistant pig-keeper is off on another adventure, but this one will test him to the core.

You’ll love it if you want to read a high fantasy rescue story filled with dramatic dilemmas

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dilemmas. That’s why this book is so good. The characters are faced with one impossible choice after another until the very last chapter. My boys and I really enjoyed this second installment in the Prydain Chronicles.

The evil Arwan is gaining power. To stop him, Gwydion gathers a crew of loyal Prydainians to sneak into his fortress and steal the black cauldron—the wicked pot he uses to create undead warriors for his army. Naturally, everything goes wrong, and Taran must learn what it means to make hard choices—all by himself.

This book was better than the first one, and I think it’s worth reading the first book in order to experience this sequel more richly.

This is HIGH fantasy in the same vein as Tolkien. It’s hard to miss the parallels between LOTR and these books. But, these books are much shorter and accessible to a younger audience. My 7- and 8-year-olds wouldn’t be able to read them solo, but they can understand them perfectly well when I read aloud (and clarify some of the high-brow vocab). The books are written in a lofty, grand tone.

Again, this book was great because of the series of difficult choices that the characters faced. I felt like the plot was tight and economical. Overall, YES.

Content warnings: Nothing overly concerning. Several characters die, and one must sacrifice him/herself in one scenario.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book reviews for January 2024

Book reviews for January 2024

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for January 2024 lean heavily into children’s fiction—but don’t bail yet. I’ve also got an adult mystery and fantasy to share.

Even though I read a high percentage of kids’ books, they are the kind of books that adults will enjoy (truly).

Will any of these make your TBR? Leave a comment and let me know.

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

Here we go…

Tress of the Emerald Sea

By Brandon Sanderson

A cup-loving small-island girl is forced out of her comfort zone to rescue her true love in a fantasy world where pirates roam the spore seas

You’ll love it if you’re a fan of swashbuckling underdogs and strong narrative voice 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brandon Sanderson wrote this book for his wife, Emily, and he wrote it in secret, without telling a soul except her. He wanted to write something that would entertain and delight her. In his Postscript, he said he wanted to write something free from business constraints and fan expectations. His goal? A fairy-tale-adjacent story that appeals to adults. Something with a similar feel to The Princess Bride and Good Omens.

The result? Pure FUN. As I was reading, I could feel how much fun he was having. The book feels light and effortless, even though it ventures into grave danger and looks into the face of evil. Like Bride, it’s making fun of itself slightly. Like Bride, it doesn’t feel dark. In fact, it’s downright optimistic.

If modern writers can draw any conclusions from Sanderson’s experiment, it seems to me that writing free of business and fan pressures is a great place to start. Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I can sense the social and political stress that the author was feeling—make sure you check these boxes…defnitely can’t say X, Y or Z…just go ahead and sanitize the book of any real meaning, but fill it with messages that have been approved by the culture at large. Kay?

Those books confuse me. But books like this ring clear as a bell. And I absolutely adored Hoid’s narrative voice, and, can I just say, Sanderson is a genius to include a world-hopping character like this in all his books. Talk about giving your fans something to discuss forever and ever amen.

Content warnings: There are the usual things you’d expect with a swashbuckling rescue story, such as death, fights, and such. But there is nothing overly graphic. Very few curses (if any) and no sex.

Hickory Dickory Dock

By Agatha Christie

When a collection of strange items is stolen from an international boarding house, Poirot takes an interest in solving the puzzle.

You’ll love it if you want a small-time mystery with a big-time cast of characters

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Hercule Poirot is my favorite fussy detective. And Hugh Fraser did a fantastic job of narrating the audiobook version of this novel. It was everything I wanted in a Christie book, and it was a quick win for me, but it just wasn’t my favorite Christie book.

We start with a boarding house filled with 20-somethings from all over the globe. An odd collection of things go missing. Some turn up again. Some are destroyed. Then, people are in danger… What starts off as a puzzle turns into more.

I like the stage: an international boarding house, which is basically like a college dorm full of students from different countries, different backgrounds, and different worldviews. I liked the varied cast of characters, although I can see how they might not sit right in today’s tiptoe political climate. I like Poirot because he’s old-fashioned, and so am I. That’s why I like Mma. Ramotswe, too. There’s a tension between modern ways and old ways, and there’s something inside me that loves to see the old ways win, but not from a pulpit.

The plot was good, but it wasn’t gripping. The characters were what made this book enjoyable for me. I would’ve liked a little MORE Poirot here, actually. His police colleague, Detective Sharp, (I may have the name wrong) got just as much page time, although he’s not as entertaining as my Belgian.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic, but people die and plot, as you’d expect. Some mention of opiate use and the mishandling of drugs. One character has a drinking problem.

20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them

By Ronald B. Tobias

Why do some stories just work???

You’ll love it if you’re a story nerd

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This was just plain fun to listen to on audio. I’m not a writer of novels, but I am a reader of them. I’m interested in why some stories work and others don’t. This book sets forth 20 plot skeletons that writers over the centuries have used as a basis for some of the most enduring stories of all time.

Why do they work?

Well, they have certain elements in common. Without those elements, the plot doesn’t ring true—or it just skids off the path and into muddlement, leaving the reader confused. All of the plots, too, touch certain foundational human impulses, desires, and questions.

Ben-Hur is a revenge plot
Beauty and the Beast is a transformation plot.
Othello is a wretched excess plot.

It’s neat to look at these skeleton plots and see how different authors and writers apply them, whether unknowingly or purposefully. For example, I was watching the 1982 version of Annie with my boys, and I realized that it’s an ascension plot. More than anything else, it’s about Annie (a magnetic central character around whom everything revolves) and her rise from a poor, unloved orphan to the cherished daughter of a billionaire.

I don’t pretend like this book is the ultimate and last word on plots. It’s just interesting information to add to my foundation as a literature nerd. Since this was written back in the ’90s, it comes from a strong Western, Judeo-Christian worldview, and, therefore, it makes a lot of sense when you stand it up next to the Western canon (naturally). There are other storytelling traditions outside of this worldview, but those aren’t mentioned.

Content warnings: None

The Puppets of Spellhorst

By Kate DiCamillo

A collection of puppets go on a gentle adventure

You’ll love it if you enjoyed the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Rating: 5 out of 5.

By now, I know what to expect from Kate DiCamillo when it comes to a book like this. The Puppets of Spelhorst felt a lot like the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s about a collection of puppets, and things happen to them, and they are changed. Very similar to Edward Tulane, who is a toy that things happen to, and he is changed.

It’s got big-time Velveteen Rabbit vibes, let’s just say that.

This book is charming, and like DiCamillo’s other books, the scope is intimate, but the themes are big. Although the puppets are inanimate, they have an inner life in which they think and communicate with one another (but they can’t move around or speak aloud like in Toy Story).

The big theme revolves around stories and their power. What is a puppet made for if not to tell a story? But the puppets don’t know who they are or what their story is.

All of the puppets start out by defining themselves in terms of what they have (a crown, sharp teeth, real feathers, etc.). But each puppet has a desire for something more (to have a real experience of some kind), and this desire is achieved in a small way by the end of the book. Of course, this led me to ask myself to what degree are we all puppetlike creatures who exist to play a part in a much larger story that we can’t control?

This book uses repetition like the Mercy Watson / Deckawoo Drive books do, and I can see why this might distract or exasperate some readers, but, for me, it slows me down and makes it crystal clear what the author wants me to pay attention to.

I read this book to myself in about an hour. I’m wondering if my boys will enjoy it, too, or if it’ll fly over their heads and leave them wondering what it was all about.

Content warnings: None

Jane of Lantern Hill

By L. M. Montgomery

A stifled young girl finds freedom and purpose on P.E.I.

You’ll love it if you’ve got a soft spot for wholesome growing-up stories (and wicked adults who get their comeuppance)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I love children’s stories where the little protagonist starts out as an underdog (like Mary Lennox or Anne Shirley) and then has a chance to blossom into who they truly want to be. Jane is just like that.

Jane lives in Toronto under the thumb of her impossible-to-please grandmother. She also lives with her mother, who is a total pushover and won’t stand up to her mother. Grandmother makes life miserable, and Jane is afraid, friendless, and talentless. Who is Jane’s dad and where is he? That’s a mystery, until one day, a letter arrives. From him. Requesting that Jane spend the summer with him on (you guessed it) P.E.I.

Like so many Montgomery books, this one is an ode to the wonders of nature and a free-range childhood. Many passages linger on dewdrops and whitecaps and fenceposts. Montgomery is never too busy to slow down and look at nature.

Jane expects to hate the island and her father, but she instantly falls in love with both. Instead of being told to act like a little lady, Jane gets to decide for herself who she’ll be and what she’ll do. She decides to work, work, work. She delights in all the housework that most modern women can’t stand. Laundry, cooking, gardening. Haha! She finds purpose in caring for her father, her pets, and her plants. Instead of living to please her grandmother, she finds joy in living to serve her family and friends. What a difference!

But will her father and mother ever reconcile? What drove them apart? These are big questions for little Jane, but she must face them.

This isn’t my favorite Montogmery novel, but it’s a charming one. It’s beautiful to see a picture of what a healthy childhood could look like in an idyllic, intimate community.

Content warnings: Jane’s parents are separated. Good to know if you’re reading it with kids.

Book Uncle and Me

By Uma Krishnaswami

Can one little girl save her neighborhood lending library?

You’ll love it if you’ve got a bookwormy kid who needs an easy read

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This was one of the read-alouds that came with our homeschool curriculum. It was very quick, and my boys liked it, but it’s not going down as a family favorite.

The most interesting part of this story is the setting in India. A lot of our recent read-alouds have been set in the U.S. or in fantasyland, so this was a nice change, and it gave us a chance to discuss how things are different in other countries than they are here.

The main character is a young girl, Yasmin, who loves to read. She gets a new book every day from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has a lending library on the street corner outside her apartment complex. When he’s forced to close up shop, Yasmin rallies the neighborhood to make Book Uncle a campaign issue in the mayoral election.

Thankfully, this didn’t get TOO political, and I think that the message here is “If it matters to you, then make it known” versus “Protest anything you don’t like.” With this being a presidential election year, it was a good way to get words like “election,” “campaign” and “vote” into the vocabulary of my very young children. There were friendship and family issues in the book that helped balance out the focus on politics. And, in the end, readers are warned against putting their trust in political figures, which is something I agree with.

The book is written in Yasmin’s childish voice, and it’s very sweet and appealing for the younger set. It wasn’t too long and didn’t try to be “too much.” Overall, a good book, but not a standout.

Content warnings: None.

Twenty and Ten

By Claire Huchet Bishop

Can a group of 20 French kids protect a group of 10 Jewish kids during WW2?

You’ll love it if you can’t resist a tight, tense WW2 story. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

My two boys were RIVETED to this story. Granted, it starts slow, but by the end, they were hanging on every last word. This book contains five short chapters. You could read the whole thing in an hour or two, and it’d be well worth your time.

The story is simple. Twenty French children have been sent away to live in the safety of a convent during World War II. One day, the nun in charge introduces them to 10 new children, Jews. She tells them that the Nazis want to hurt these children, and they must all keep them safe and hidden. She makes each of the 20 French kids solemnly promise not to betray the 10 Jewish kids—no matter what.

All goes well until the Nazis pay a surprise visit when the nun is away on an errand. What will the children do when faced with this pressure and without any adult protection?

The story is told in the POV of one of the French girls, and this works so well because we’re better able to relate to her dilemma—things get tricky when the Nazis show up, and the kids have to think on their feet.

The book crescendos at the climax, where you’re not sure how things are going to play out, and then everything comes full circle, and you’re glad you read that first chapter, which started off slow, because it makes the ending all the more satisfying.

Content warnings: It’s made clear that the Jewish kids will be in danger if they are caught.

The Book of Three

By Lloyd Alexander

An unskilled young boy is forced into a quest where he must face menacing, magical foes

You’ll love it if you want to read a kid-friendly quest-story that feels like Lord of the Rings

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My 7- and 8-year-old boys REALLY enjoyed this. This is the first book in a fantasy series in the tradition of LOTR (the parallels are unmistakable). So, it would be a fun series for kids who aren’t quite ready for Lord of the Rings yet—or, on the other side of the coin, kids who have read LOTR (bless them) and want something that feels similar.

This book is a rescue/quest. Taran, our preteen hero, has just one job: keep the magical pig in her pen. But, when an evil warrior and his minions ride into the vicinity, the pig runs for her life, and Taran runs after her.

The story starts quickly and there’s swift pacing throughout. By chapter two, we see Taran plunge into the forbidden woods after the pig. From there, he meets many friends and foes. He’s tested and transformed. It’s got everything you want in a medieval adventure.

The reason why I gave it four instead of five stars is because the climax was a bit soft, and the ending abrupt. This is the first book in a series, so, hey, there’s more! But as a book in its own right, the ending was a bit wah-wah.

Content warnings: There are the normal swordfights and battles that you’d expect in a book like this. The description of the Horned King (pictured on the cover) may be a little much for sensitive kids. There is one quick mention of the bad guys making human sacrifices (gross). And one of the female foes has a particularly wicked interaction with our main characters…but it’s easily self-censored if you’ve got littler kids listening.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book reviews for December 2023

Book reviews for December 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for December 2023 are a mix of Christmas children’s stories, light romances, and one heavy classic.

Will any of these make your TBR? Leave a comment and let me know.

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

Let’s dive in!

The Carver and the Queen

By Emma C. Fox

Deep in the Russian mountains, two peasants discover a magical realm. But will this power bring good fortune or bad?

You’ll love it if cozy fairy tales are your cup of tea

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This book hit the spot. I loved it, and I thought it was even better than The Arrow and the Crown. The dual protagonists were lovable. The villains were mysterious and not made of cardboard. I also loved the supporting cast.

This book is based on a fairy tale that I’m not familiar with, so, for me, it read like a story set in a fairy tale world. It didn’t feel strange or contrived in any way, which sometimes happens with a retelling when you aren’t familiar with the source. You don’t NEED to know the source story to enjoy this one.

This is a sweet romance, too! Perfect for teens who want clean, mature romance. No spice, just heart.

I’m very much looking forward to Emma C. Fox’s next book!

Content warnings: None

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

We see how love, loss, and jealousy play out in the lives of an interconnected group of Russians

You’ll love it if you want to grapple with big questions on an intimate level.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I don’t usually go into a book this long on a whim, but I did this time. I thought I’d listen to a little of the audiobook to see if I liked the narration, and then, I thought, maybe I’d start it for real in 2024. Before I knew it, I was through part one and totally invested.

I think the short chapters propelled me on. And it was great listening on audio because the complex names didn’t trip me up. Also, this book has that “train wreck” quality that makes it impossible to NOT gawk. I just zoomed through!

This book probably hits everyone differently, but, for me, the central question of the book is “What do we live for?” Ourselves? Our passions? Our families, work, religion? Do we live for God? Each character grapples with this at some point, and I love that there are no tidy answers.

It was fascinating to watch Anna go from a “good” woman to a “bad” one. To watch her get increasingly self-centered and consequently more unhappy and paranoid. When you look at her, you realize that it can happen to anyone. Easily.

I love how life is portrayed in all its complexity and how everyone’s life seems both good and bad, one way from the outside and another way from the inside. And it’s always changing.

Content warnings: Nothing is portrayed graphically. The book deals heavily with adultery, but there are no bedroom scenes. There are some gristly deaths, one of which is suicide.

I haven’t seen the movie yet—is it good?


By Georgette Heyer

What happens when a selfish lord decides to help a poor family get a foothold in London society? Rrrrrrrromance! (Roll the “R.”)

You’ll love it if you just want to keep reading Jane Austen over and over forever and ever

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This was delightful. Georgette Heyer is often described as the inventor of the regency romance genre when she started publishing novels like this one back in the ’20s. This book is like Jane Austen with antics, haha.

Frederica is determined to see her drop-dead gorgeous younger sister, Charis, have one London season. That’s all she needs to make a comfortable match with a gentleman. Since Frederica lost both her parents and has long been in charge of her younger siblings, it’s up to her to make this happen for Charis. Frederica appeals to a distant cousin, Lord Alverstroke, who agrees to help her (at first) only to needle his bothersome sisters. But then, Alverstroke realizes that Frederica might just be his kind of gal. Romance ensues.

This book is CUTE. Clean romance. Regency period. Sparkling morals. Sweet to the bone. But, unlike Jane Austen, this isn’t all quiet action in parlor rooms and gardens and country estates. Here, we mix with people of all classes. We have adventures—barking dogs, hot air balloons, steamers!

The only critique I have (and it’s a small one) is that the writing can be clumsy to read at times. It’s not seamless. I found myself halting through some passages, especially those thick with period slang and colloquialisms. Also, Heyer uses exclamation marks with zero hesitation!!! Haha.

The next time I read a Heyer novel, I’d like to listen on audio. I bet that would be even better.

Side note: I can’t believe that filmmakers haven’t picked up on Heyer yet. Instead of making bad adaptations of Jane Austen, they could pick ANY Georgette Heyer novel and run with it.

Content warnings: None. The romance is as clean as it gets.

A Boy Called Christmas

By Matt Haig

How did Santa Claus get to be Santa Claus? Here’s a cute origin story for ya.

You’ll love it if you want to read a Santa-centric book to your kids.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This was pure fun. It’s an origin story for Santa Claus, as imagined by Matt Haig, author of The Midnight Library. There’s nothing about Jesus or the reality of Christmas—just the North Pole characters associated with the secular winter holidays. Despite lacking any faith element, it’s a cute, heartwarming story that reinforces the value of life, looking on the bright side, and finding joy in giving to others.

My kids know that Santa isn’t real. Every year, we read Gail Gibbons’s book “Santa Who?” because it discusses all of the different traditions and legends that have contributed to who Santa has become, starting with Jesus Christ, then moving to Saint Nicholas, and then beyond. We treat Santa as a character more than anything—like the Grinch or Scrooge. We visit Santa at the annual Christmas tree lighting. We lay out cookies and milk. I don’t want to deprive them of any childhood magic. But I’m not going to lie and tell them he’s real when he’s not. So, this book provided some Santa fun, and I felt that it helps to reinforce him as a fictional character vs. a reality.

We listened to the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry, and it was adorable. He reads like Jim Dale, doing all the voices.

Content warnings: Nicholas is mistreated and betrayed, but there is nothing troublingly graphic here. I also want to emphasize that this book is secular and unconnected to any other Santa myths that I know of. There is no mention of religion of any kind, not even St. Nicholas.

I haven’t seen the movie—have you?

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Barbara Robinson

A gang of troublemakers want to be in the church Christmas program. Hilarity ensues.

You’ll love it if you’d like to read hands-down winner for best modern Christmas novel for kids

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Seeing this play with my Brownies Troop was one of the formative events in my childhood. I still remember the girl who played Imogen swinging the baby Jesus doll around and Mrs. Robinson urging her to hold him like he was precious.

Reading this story was just as good as it’s ever been for me. It asks the question: What would happen if the neighborhood hooligans showed up at church and wanted to star in the Christmas pageant? What is a funny romp for kids is quite convicting for the parents who are reading it. At least it is for me.

My boys loved this book and laughed a lot. We read one chapter a day for a week, and it was a great experience.

Content warnings: The Herdman children smoke, steal, lie, and set things on fire, but it’s all melodrama, not real.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book reviews for November 2023

Book reviews for November 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for November 2023 include some great YA fiction and some tiny books that pack a punch.

Will any of these make your TBR? Leave a comment and let me know.

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

Now, let’s get to the reviews…

The Arrow and the Crown

By Emma C. Fox

A beast roams the woods of a fairy tale land, and one young girl is destined to cross paths with him

You’ll love it if you’re craving fairy tale vibes with a splash of romance

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I can’t resist a fairy tale, and this was an enjoyable, quick read that ISN’T a retelling. I’d recommend this for mid-schoolers and young adults, as it’s a tad more mature with a teenage protagonist.

The most enjoyable part of reading this book, for me, was going into it completely blind. At first, I thought it might be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and although it draws on some imagery and themes from that story, it isn’t. The plot moved along, and the characters are all good. It’s set in a standalone Euro-fairy-tale-esque world with magic. Good magic and bad magic are at major odds.

The story starts out very small in scope, and it expands nicely as the plot moves along to encompass the entire kingdom. What could’ve been a very slow-moving trilogy is, instead, a brisk standalone novel, and I LIKED that. So often, it seems, in the YA world (especially fantasy, my goodness) everything must be a series…there’s money to be made, people. But this story is so much better as a solo.

Another interesting thing: The emotional impact far outshines the writing craft. I’m very willing to overlook so-so execution if the story makes me FEEL something, and this one did. Also, the moral value is 5/5 stars. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this to any adolescent. There’s romance, but it’s done in the best of taste.

Content warnings (with spoilers): None

Hello Stranger

By Katherine Center

A portrait artist comes down with “face blindness” and then falls in love with a guy who she can’t see so well

You’ll love it if you want a cute, clean-ish romance that won’t make you think too hard.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a solid 3-star worldly romance that you can read in one day if you’re down with a rowdy sore throat. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

This book is cute and sweet and fun, and it deals with a rare medical condition that I’d never heard of before: facial blindness. It’s a condition where people can see individual pieces of a person’s face—an eye, a nose, teeth, lips—but they can’t put those pieces together into a cohesive face. It’s like everyone’s face is a Picasso, and you can’t recognize people who you’d normally know at a glance.

What happens when a portrait artist can no longer see faces? She falls in love, of course! Ha. As you can imagine, a lot of the action in this romance revolves around mistaken identity. It’s unbelievable, but it’s entertaining.

The thing that really stuck out to me most was Katherine Center’s Author’s Note at the end of the book. She describes how she was a student reading lots of serious literature when she was gifted her first historical romance novel. She devoured it, and it was a turning point for her. She realized that reading could be fun. It wasn’t just a scholarly pursuit. It could be entertainment. Then, she goes on to defend entertainment books, romances in particular. She says that they have an upward arc of hope. We KNOW the two leads are going to end up together, but instead of criticizing romances as predictable, we can just enjoy the overarching sense of anticipation that “it’s all going to be okay” and “life will get better.” Although I don’t agree with everything she said, there’s a lot to like.

Side note: The action takes place in spring, so it could be a seasonal read.

Content warnings: Romance is steamy but not open-door. One character has a panic attack. One character has a seizure and brain surgery.

Small Things Like These

By Claire Keegan

An Irish coal merchant in the ’80s stumbles upon something disturbing during a Christmastime delivery

You’ll love it if you need a quick win, but you want to think and feel things, too

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A Christmas novella that you can read in one or two sittings? Yes. Literary? Yes. Emotional? Yes. I’m so glad that a friend recommended this to me.

This book reminds me of when I read Anton Chekhov’s “At Christmas Time” last year. I read it and was like…that’s depressing. Why would he write a story like this? What in the world is going on? And I did not stop thinking about it for a few days. And guess what? The story began to coalesce and make sense to me. I realized that, even though the story was strange, it had spoken something to me.

This book is similar. I kept thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more it felt meaningful.

We get a slice of life for a middle-aged coal deliveryman named Bill who lives in Ireland in the ’80s. He and his wife have five girls. It’s a stressful time of year, but it’s also full of family traditions and small joys. Bill reminisces about his upbringing, and we see who he is below the surface. One day, while delivering coal, he stumbles upon something that he can’t unsee. And that brings him to a crisis of conscience.

This story offers no pretty bow on top. There are lots of loose ends, but that makes it all the more interesting and discussable. This is a great book club pick for December if people don’t have a lot of reading time but still want to have a great discussion.

Content warnings: Ill-treatment of young people, but nothing overly graphic.


By Claire Keegan

A young girl finds love and acceptance in the home of relatives

You’ll love it if you want Anne of Green Gables for grownups

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A heartfelt novella/short story that you can devour in one sitting. I enjoyed this, but I liked Small Things Like These better.

This sweet story opens with a young girl unexpectedly getting dropped off at her relatives’ home for the summer. In that home, she finds love and care that she never had with her parents. Yet, the whole time, there’s a sad undertone and ripples of possible danger.

This story shows that family is something that can transcend blood. A child who is a burden in one household might be a blessing in another. I think it’s interesting that, if I’m remembering correctly, we never get her name. It’s like she’s up for grabs.

I love the tension between what is socially right (the girl belongs to her biological parents) versus what is heart-right (the girl belongs to the people who love her most). In a way, this reminds me of the family of God. We belong in this heart-family regardless of our bloodline, and we’re supposed to find acceptance and comfort there.

Content warnings: Child loss figures into the plot, but we don’t see anything graphic.

About the Sleeping Beauty

By P. L. Travers

A deep dive into the Sleeping Beauty myth

You’ll love it if you want to see this timeless fairy tale from every angle and every culture

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I came across this obscure little book by the author of Mary Poppins when I was volunteering at the public library and perusing the discards. Here, Travers presents her own retelling of the myth of Sleeping Beauty, followed by a short essay on fairy tales in general and this one in particular. The last half of the book is a collection of various “sleeper” stories from around the world.

“The shock they [fairy tales] give us when we first hear them is not one of surprise but of recognition. Things long unknowingly known have suddenly been remembered.”

“Fairy tales never explain. But we should not let ourselves be fooled by their apparent simplicity. It is their role to say much in little. And not to explain is to set up in the hearer or the reader an inner friction in which one question inevitably leads to another and the answers that come are never conclusions. They never exhaust the meaning.”

Content warnings: None

The Emotional Craft of Fiction

By Donald Maass

Why do some books make us cry, gasp, and melt…and others don’t?

You’ll love it if you’re an author or you’re just nerdy about story craft (me!)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I don’t typically read a ton of writing craft books, but they’re becoming catnip for me. I love the idea of seeing a story from the novelist’s side of the page. This book zooms in on how authors can give their readers not just great plots and quirky characters but an all-important emotional experience.

Donald Maass says, I think rightly, that when we turn to a fictional story, we’re craving, above all, an emotional experience. We want to feel something transcendent. We don’t want the author to slather us in sentimental garbage. We don’t want the author to manipulate our emotions to serve an agenda. We want the author to write in a spirit of humanity and honesty, and we want to connect to that in an emotional way.

As someone who reads a lot, I’d like to pay closer attention to my emotional response to a story. Sometimes books that aren’t all that well written or creative can make me feel something deeply, whereas beautifully crafted and imaginative novels can leave me feeling nothing at all. It’ll be interesting to keep tabs on this in my reading life and see if any patterns emerge.

Content warnings: None

A Wizard of Earthsea

By Ursula K. Le Guin

A poor kid learns he has magic powers, goes to magic school, and defeats a shadowy evil

You’ll love it if you want to read Harry Potter again, but with zero merriment or cheese

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Wow, this is a well-written book. It’s about a boy who learns that he has magical powers, and he must defeat a shadowy evil that’s hunting him. Sound familiar? There are a lot of Harry Potter parallels, although this was written about 30 years prior.

This book’s hero is an underdog in that he’s a poor country boy with no apparent greatness in him. But when he learns that he’s magical, then he begins to seek power and prestige. His hubris leads him to unleash a faceless, nameless evil that wants only one thing: to destroy him.

This feels very much like the first book in a series, like this is the setup required for the wizard-boy, Ged, to go on to bigger and more exciting adventures later on.

I’ll be honest—I was not completely riveted. I felt like the audio version was a little flat, so maybe that had something to do with it. But the writing was so good that I wanted to keep going.

Content warnings: None

Ember Rising

By S. D. Smith

Heather and Picket both have the worst week imaginable—until the last few chapters

You’ll love it if your family is enthralled with this rabbity adventure

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’m not 100 percent sure why this third installment in the Green Ember series didn’t land for me and my boys. I think it’s just too long. All of the novels have been too long, and I think this one in particular is longer than it needs to be.

I care about the characters and their plight. I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot. But the book just needs editing, and I say this as someone with absolutely no creative writing expertise, so take it with a grain of salt. I feel like a tighter execution would’ve had us turning pages. Instead, it took us an astounding four weeks to finish this one, which is longer than usual.

Also, this book is on the darker side because nearly all of it is set in enemy territory. We see the slave city of Akolan and the communist dictatorship of First Warren. Perhaps that’s why it feels a tad bleak.

So, not my fave. But I’m sure we’ll get around to reading the fourth and last book. I will say that I love S. D. Smith and Story Warren and everything he’s doing. Plus, he’s hilarious. He’s on my side, and I’m on his.

Content warnings: Battles and carnage.

Adventures With Waffles

By Maria Parr

Trille and his best friend Lena get into all kinds of kid-trouble by the cozy Norwegian seaside

You’ll love it if you want to have a good, healthy cry at the end of what you thought was a safe book

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a re-read for me. I read it aloud to my boys as part of our homeschool curriculum, and they loved it.

Trille is a sensitive 9-year-old, and Lena is his brash, tomboy best friend. They are polar opposites, and it’s cute. Their episodic adventures are funny and outlandish, yet there’s depth there, too. Trille needs to hear Lena say the words “You are my best friend” because he’s not sure she cares about him as much as he cares about her. This tension is the throughline of the book, and it’s very nicely done.

I love how the cast is multigenerational. Grandpa and Auntie Granny are a big part of the story. It was beautiful to see children connect with their elders in such a heartfelt way.

Then, there’s the irresistible, cozy setting on a secluded cove. The children’s freedom to roam and their connection with nature and animals is something that most kids these days will never experience outside of a book.

Content warnings: Lena doesn’t have a dad. Will your kids have questions about why? Might want to have some answers ready. One of the elderly people in the book dies. A few potty jokes, but they’re few and far between.

Leave me a comment with what you’re reading right now!

And if you’re 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.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book reviews for October 2023

Book reviews for October 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for October 2023 include two frosty (as in wintery) women’s novels, a classic fantasy book, and a smattering of kids’ books that I read with my boys.

I hope you find something worthy of your TBR!

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

Let’s dive in!

Mrs. Mike

By Benedict and Nancy Freedman

A teenage girl marries a Canadian Mounty—awe, how cute—and then life gets REAL.

You’ll love it if you enjoyed the general vibe of When Calls the Heart, yet you want something with flesh on its bones

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book reminds me of A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich! This is one of those RARE books where the main character is a true wife and mom, and much of the action centers on her fulfilling these two important callings (in the face of great hardship).

Kathy is a 17-year-old city girl with breathing problems, so she decides to visit her uncle in Canada to hopefully relieve her symptoms. She grows stronger and hardier…and she falls in love with a handsome mounty. They quickly marry and move to where he’s stationed in the Canadian far north. This is a harsh, inhospitable land, and Kathy develops incredible strength of mind, body, and spirit.

They forge a life together in a wild, wintry land that seems determined to kill humans who dare to inhabit it. Kathy and Mike form relationships with the native tribes and other Canadians crazy enough to move there. The land and its people are a huge part of this book—so much of the action is instigated by the effects of nature (blizzards, fires, bugs, and wolves).

Warning. This book contains some VERY SAD things—way beyond what I expected. It’s not exactly a light, breezy romance. It’s about a married couple surviving pretty much every awful thing that life can throw at them, yet continuing on. So, in that way, it’s the most inspiring kind of book.

There’s also some foul language, but this is limited mostly to the gruff utterings of the trappers, traders, and mountain men.

Content warnings (with spoilers): This book contains child death as a plot point, and even though it’s treated with great tenderness, there’s also no sugarcoating, so please be kind to yourself.

No Two Persons

By Erica Bauermeister

Different people encounter the same book and have widely different reactions

You’ll love it if you love books about books

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was expecting to like this a lot more than I did. This is a book for book lovers, no doubt. But there was something missing here, and I’m struggling to nail it down. It wasn’t a bad book by any means. I just didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped.

This is a book of short stories that are tied together with a common thread, (similar to Kitchens of the Great Midwest). In the first story, we meet young Alice, who writes her debut literary novel. The book is born after a painful event derails her life. Beauty from ashes. We like Alice and really hope her book gets published! (It does in the next short story.)

The subsequent stories all feature individuals who read Alice’s book (actually, some don’t read it) and the book impacts them in different ways. Each character connects to a different aspect of the story depending on where they’re at in life when they read it. A new mom sees it differently than the bookseller or the teenager or the actor. But, each person has a powerful emotional reaction/breakthrough due to the book.

I fancy myself a sensitive reader…which is why I feel strange, like I’m missing something. The writing was great—no complaints there. I think I was hoping for a little more from each character. There were some who were more endearing than others. They were all suffering in some way. They were all flawed. This should = round, relatable characters. But something was missing. It’s probably because the book’s moral soil is comprised of FAR different ingredients than mine. Or it could be that my expectations were too high.

The meta thing is that the book strives to capture this exact scenario—the whys and hows of the reader’s experience. How can one person love a book while another person detests it? Why do we connect with a certain character over another? Why can’t we say what we want to say about our experience reading a book? So, hey.

Content warnings: Some characters are in deep depression, have lost loved ones, are homeless, and in other states of hardship, but I can’t remember anything too gutting.

The Snow Child

By Eowyn Ivey

A childless couple build a snowgirl, and she…comes to life? Nobody knows.

You’ll love it if you’re a sucker for fairy tale retellings that are set in the real world

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Infertility is close to my heart because…I’ve been there. So, this fairy tale retelling about a middle-aged couple building a snow child that comes to life has a built-in draw for me. When you want a child and can’t have one, you grasp at any glimmer of hope that presents itself, even if you question your own sanity. Mabel and Jack are developed with such honesty and compassion. I loved them as dual protagonists.

This book is beautifully put together. It magnificently displays the natural beauties of Alaska—it’s no wonder the author lives there. She also writes with the unfussy straightforwardness of a journalist. Yet, each character has his/her own voice, and I just loved the boisterous Esther and George. All said, it was a great mix of character-centric flavor contrasted with an understated narrative tone. The plot did not drag for me at all.

The drawback to this book is that I’m not quite sure exactly what I’m taking away from it in terms of meaning. There are themes of happiness vs. depression—what makes us happy and can we make ourselves happy? Also fate vs. choice—are Mabel and Jack FATED to lose Faina because that’s how the fairy tale goes, or can they rewrite the story? Sometimes when there are magical elements involved, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of those. In this book, magic and reality are intertwined with such force that we’re not supposed to be able to tell the real from the unreal, and that feels strange to me.

One thing that I will take away is this: If God does not grant you children, and you want children, there are ample opportunities to love children and young people in other families, and being a mentor and guide (one that does not usurp the parents but instead complements the parents) is a role that shouldn’t be downplayed but instead highly valued. The relationships that Jack and Mabel have with Faina and Garrett are precious and lovely and the best part of the book.

Content warnings: Infertility plays a main role in Mabel’s backstory, but it’s not the point of the book. Since it’s the woods, animals are killed for food (sometimes graphically). There’s sex outside of marriage.


By Brandon Sanderson

Underdogs must buck the power system in this fantasy citadel in order to preserve freedom and life

You’ll love it if you’re curious to read the book that launched Sanderson’s career

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I admit, I was SO glad to hit the “I’m finished” button on this book. It was NOT bad. It was FAR from bad. It just wasn’t the right book at the right time for me. I needed something quicker and lighter, and this was long and complex. (Plus, I had to take about 12 days off from listening right smack in the middle of the book.) I’m giving it four stars here because that’s what the book deserves, especially as a debut (I mean, wow), but my reading experience was three stars flat.

I listened to this book on audio, so I have no clue how to spell any of the characters’ names, which makes writing a review tricky. I will say that our dual protagonists, Reyoden and Serene, are likable and easy to root for, and the rest of the cast is good. In the beginning and middle of the book, I questioned whether all these ancillary characters were necessary (there are SO many swirling around to and fro) but now that I’ve finished, I’m satisfied that they all (sort of) had their place.

This book deals heavily in themes of government and religion. Even though Sanderson invents fake governments and fake religions, the book makes a strong case for capitalism and against holy crusades. The romantic subplot could’ve had more page-time, IMO, but it’s also nice that it wasn’t too overdone.

One thing I will say for Brandon Sanderson, he knows how to deliver a third act. He will kill anyone, no matter how essential they are to the story. He will force characters to do the unthinkable. I will say that a lot of this is shock and awe, but it’s not out of place in modern high fantasy. It’s not exactly my happy place. I like stories with a smaller more internal scope. But Sanderson sure can have fun.

Content warnings: There are some gruesome (but not too horrid) killings and battle scenes, as well as some icky religious rites. The romance is clean as can be.

Write Your Novel From the Middle

By James Scott Bell

From the middle? A close look at the magical midpoint moment in any story

You’ll love it if you want a closer look at story structure

Rating: 4 out of 5.

No, I’m not writing a novel. But I love short little books like this because it gives me a peek at how modern authors might be crafting their stories. And I find that highly interesting! Nerd.

Bell analyzed dozens of his favorite books and movies, going straight to the exact middle, and poking around to see what he found. Interestingly, he realized that near the middle of every story is a quiet moment where the protagonist looks in his or her proverbial “mirror” and asks, “Who am I, and where am I going?” It’s the reflective pause between the character’s pre-story psychology (where they start) and their final transformation (where they end).


Content warnings: None

In Grandma’s Attic

By Arleta Richardson

Episodic tales of Grandma’s childhood on the farm

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Little House on the Prairie

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was a completely delightful read-aloud for me and my boys! This is a book of episodic stories told by a grandmother to her granddaughter. There’s no overarching plot that ties the stories together—there ARE themes that reoccur, but no throughline—so it feels like a collection of short stories or sketches. We read one chapter per day, and it was perfect.

Each story has a moral, of course. Apparently, Grandma Mabel was quite a thoughtless young thing back in the day. There are scrapes, misunderstandings, and dangers. She has to learn to be more responsible and dependable.

It’s a very sweet book. The frame of the grandmother telling the story to her granddaughter conveys this deep sense of safety. Like this: “Bad things happened to Grandma, and she survived. In fact, now, she can laugh about so much of it. I think I’ll be okay, too.”

Content warnings: None

The Great and Terrible Quest

By Margaret Lovett

A young boy has a chance encounter with a wounded knight who has lost his memory. Then, adventure!

You’ll love it if you’ve got a boy who is crazy about the middle ages and quests

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I read this obscure oldie from the ’60s in one sitting on an airplane flight. This is medieval middle-grade fiction that reminds me of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings or Gary D. Schmidt’s novel Straw Into Gold. It’s high on chivalry and will appeal to young boys (no romance and hardly any girls).

Trad is a young boy who lives with his grandfather in a country cottage. Sounds nice except his grandfather is an abusive scoundrel who perpetrates dastardly deeds on behalf of the corrupt lords of the land. One day, Trad encounters an injured knight who is on a quest—except a blow to the head caused him to lose his memory, and he can’t remember what he was questing after. Trad agrees to help him, and it’s all high adventure from that point on.

I wouldn’t recommend this for the youngest of readers. Probably 9 or 10 and up because you’ll see the bad guys engage in betrayal, thievery, violence, and abuse, but not on a graphic or grand scale.

Content warning:

Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet

By Graham Salisbury

A normal kid getting into trouble all day, every day (but in Hawaii)

You’ll love it if you’ve got a kid who likes mischief-making main characters

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Calvin Coconut lives in Hawaii with his mom and little sister, and he’s your typical 10-year-old trouble magnet. This book is written in Calvin’s slangy first-person voice. It’s got the same feel as a Wimpy Kid book. There are friends, bullies, teachers, and parents, very much reflecting a kid’s life. This book was cute, and I wouldn’t mind my boys reading it on their own, but it’s not worthy of a read-aloud. The writing leaves much to be desired, and the story wasn’t overly well-crafted or inspiring.

It’s set in Hawaii, and I was pleased to see a lot of local color—sometimes books set in fun locations don’t actually have a strong sense of place and could be set anywhere for all the details they offer.

Every middle-grade book needs a theme, right? This one is “responsibility.” Calvin ups his game in this department, so that’s good.

One thing that this book has going for it is the dichotomy of bad and good male role models. Calvin’s dad left his family behind to be a famous singer in California, so he’s your typical MIA dad. But the mom has a boyfriend who is a nice guy, and Calvin’s fourth-grade teacher is an ex-army guy who is a very decent dude.

Content warnings: Calvin gets into several fights and tells half-truths. None of this is necessarily condoned.

Leave me a comment with what you’re reading right now!

And if you’re 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.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book reviews for September 2023

Book reviews for September 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for September include a mix of classic novels, children’s books, and one super-short nonfiction book for busy moms.

I hope you find something worthy of your TBR!

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

Onward to the reviews!

Northanger Abbey

By Jane Austen

Our unlikely heroine has her first brush with society, duplicity, and romance

You’ll love it if you want to witness Austen at her most tongue-in-cheek

Rating: 5 out of 5.

After too many pages of bad contemporary fiction lately, Jane was just what I needed. Northanger isn’t my favorite Austen novel, but it’s short, and I haven’t read it in many moons, so I was due for a reread. (Actually, I listened on audio.)

This book is FUNNY. It doesn’t sparkle quite like P&P, S&S, or Emma, but it’s a great example of Austen’s tongue-in-cheek wit, which is almost as biting as Mansfield, but decidedly more lighthearted.

I have no idea how Austen felt at this point in her career, but it’s almost like she’s making fun of herself for writing a romance novel. By repeatedly poking fun at the over-the-top gothic romances that were popular at the time, it’s like she’s going out of her way to say, “Hey, my book isn’t like those others. It’s not cheap trash that rots the brains of young women. This book is completely different, and you should give it a chance because there’s virtue to be found here.”

Austen is the narrator, right? The narrator inserts herself again and again, reminding us that this is a story told from the imagination of an authoress. She constantly draws comparisons between her story and the bosom-clutching, heart-stopping books written by Mrs. Radcliffe, et al. She also includes that famous aside in defense of the novel, a newfangled genre that hadn’t been around for long when Austen took up her pen.

One of my favorite grad school classes was on the 18th-century novel. Those firsty-first novels were something else. Tristram Shandy, Roxana, and, of course, Tom Jones…it’s no wonder they got a bad rap. It’s neat to see Austen express uneasy feelings about joining their ranks.

Content warnings: None.

Side note: I do recommend the 2007 movie starring Felicity Jones. The adaptation is light, funny, and faithful to the heart of the book.

The Secret Adversary

By Agatha Christie

Two poor young people in postwar Britain decide to dabble in some private detective work to earn their bread. What could possibly go wrong?

You’ll love it if you like Agatha Christie, but you’re not a huge fan of Marple or Poirot. Tommy and Tuppence are totally different!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I love Hercule Poirot, and I can certainly appreciate Miss Marple. But Tommy and Tuppence are completely different! Mostly, I think they’re great.

First of all, they’re young, and they work as a team. Poirot and Marple are so distinct. They each have a flavor all their own, and their quirks and mottos and methods stay consistent throughout all their books, and this predictability is what makes us love them. They are caricatures in a sense. Tommy and Tuppence are a little more true to life. Tommy is a sensitive introvert who looks before he leaps, and Tuppence is a plucky extrovert who plunges headlong into adventure. But they aren’t quite as theatrical as Poirot or Marple.

Poirot is a supremely confident professional with a long, distinguished career. Marple is an amateur, but she’s so perceptive and (often) manipulative that we don’t put anything past her. Since both are solo acts, we have no anxiety about them coming out on top in every story—you can’t kill off your star, after all. But T&T are a pair, and they share the spotlight, so the book has a totally different feel. They’re amateurs, but they’re also young and inexperienced, so we get the feeling that they’re muddling through, and will one actually die??

The plot here is quite different from the usual Poirot and Marple novels because it covers a wider scope, and the adversary that they’re battling is a man of mythical proportions who perpetrates crimes on a global level. It’s a far cry from the intimate crimes that take place on a much smaller scale (in hotels, mansions, cruise ships, and the like).

Overall, this was an enjoyable, quick audio-listen for me. It was a tad dated, but I enjoyed the large cast of characters and the many twists and turns.

Content warnings: There is some PG-rated peril. Guns fire. Punches are thrown. But nothing gruesome or twisted.

Counted With the Stars

By Connilyn Cossette

A young Egyptian girl’s life is turned upside down when God brings plagues upon her homeland

You’ll love it if Christian historical romance is your happy place

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is some solid Christian historical fiction right here. Plus romance. This genre is close to my heart because I cut my teeth on Francine Rivers back in the day, so reading books like this is nostalgic for me. This story is about a young Egyptian woman named Kiya living in the times of Moses. As you can imagine, her life is turned upside down when the plagues hit.

Often, Christian fiction is a little too on the nose for my taste, but I definitely have room in my reading life for it, especially if it’s historical fiction. I enjoy experiencing stories from scripture told in this way, but I also keep a grain of salt in my pocket, too, because some books are better researched and written than others, naturally. I felt like this one did a great job of presenting facts and beliefs from both Israel and Egypt, making Kiya seem more believable as she questions why the gods of Egypt aren’t protecting them.

Overall, this book is just as good as any of Francine Rivers’ historical romances. The plot zooms along, and the characters are flawed and loveable (not too good to be believed). The story arc is ambitious, but it isn’t entirely plot-driven. Kiya’s character journey is front and center the whole time.

The romance really picks up in the second half of the book. It’s got two-to-three jalapeno peppers worth of spice, which is quite a lot for this genre, but it’s all chaste as can be. Cheesy? Of course! But very sweet—sweet enough for me to feel comfortable recommending this to a teenager.

Content warnings: None. If you’re recommending this to a young reader, please note there is PG-rated romance stuff, such as kissing. Kiya references having had consensual sex with her fiance, but nothing is depicted. One female references being “attacked” by a male, but no details are given. Adultery is also referenced, but not condoned.

How to Use a Planner Without Wasting Time: A Busy Mom’s Guide

By Mystie Winckler

This book delivers exactly what the title promises—when’s the last time that happened for you?

You’ll love it if you have a talent for buying planners, setting them up, and then quickly abandoning them

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Again, Mystie Winkler gets straight to the heart of the matter and explains things simply and quickly. She says that the planner itself doesn’t matter as much as getting into the habit of using it and iterating so that we can get to the version that works best for us in the season of life we’re in.

This book is SO worth it if you’re a planner-aholic like me. I love planners, but I tend to abandon them after a while because they’re just not helping me like I thought they would. Mystie says, “Yeah, that’s your problem. You can’t expect the planner to change you. It’s a lifeless object. You need a strategy that works, and then you need to work at it every day…that’ll make you more productive and organized.” BUT—Mystie don’t lie—she CLEARLY states that this process doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey and a process, but it shouldn’t be an all-consuming one.

Mystie sets forth the six necessary types of planner pages that we need to organize our big picture, our week, and our day. She adds meals and projects and running lists to the mix. She also explains what a weekly review is and lays out the steps to do one.

Honestly, this book was SO motivating. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat for anyone who wants a long-term plan and not just a quick fix.

Content warnings: None. (Unless you’re trying to avoid feeling convicted.)

Here’s a Penny

By Carolyn Haywood

A year in the life of a 6-year-old adopted boy in the 40s

You’ll love it if you want to read a gentle book with an adopted protagonist

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a perfectly sweet-as-pie children’s novel from the ’40s. It has that postwar vintage feel to it, which some people find completely charming while others find it a tad syrupy. For me, this book leaned toward the syrupy side of things, but it did have its redeeming qualities.

We’re trying out Sonlight’s History-Bible-Literature program this year, and this is one of the read-alouds in the pack. I will say that my boys thought it was entertaining and funny. It wasn’t as fulfilling a book for me, as the adult in the room. Thankfully, it was short!

This book is about a boy named Penny, and he’s adopted. So, if you’re looking for a kids’ book that has an adopted protagonist (that’s set after 1890, haha) then you might give this a try. The action is very gentle and small in scope, revolving around Penny’s personal dramas, which include getting a cat, dressing up for Halloween, selling newspapers, and ruining his overalls. This childlike vibe does have its charm.

I will say that this modern cover is terrible. Penny looks like he has a 5-o’clock shadow, and in the book, he’s only 6 years old.

Content warnings: None. I will say, though, that Chapter 1 presents a very sweet (and maybe sensitive?) message for adopted kids. Penny’s friend, wanting to wound him a little bit, says that he’s not “really, truly” his parents’ son. His mother quickly shuts that down in love.

Sled Dog School

By Terry Lynn Johnson

Matt is going to fail math unless he can earn extra credit by starting a small business

You’ll love it if your kids love dogs, math, or both

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This book was part of our homeschool literature curriculum. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t my favorite—same for my two boys.

Matt Misco isn’t your average kid. His parents don’t believe in electricity or indoor plumbing in the 21st century. Instead of playing video games and watching TV, he whittles wood and runs sled dogs. Matt’s schoolmates think he’s weird, but that’s not his big problem. Matt’s big problem is that he’s failing math class and he MUST get a good grade on his entrepreneurship project or his teacher will doom him to the remedial class (dun, dun, DUNNNN).

This is a cute, inspiring story that helps kids see that their value as people does NOT hinge on their accomplishments or skills. It also incorporates basic business concepts and the accompanying math. It makes me want to have my boys set up a random lemonade stand (or Rice Krispies Treat stand? Haha) just so they can see the ideas in action.

The story has a lot of value, but the writing and overall craft was lacking for me (snob).

Content warnings: None

Riding the Pony Express

By Clyde Robert Bulla

Dick Park moves from NYC to the prairie, where his dad rides for the Pony Express

You’ll love it if you need an easy read for a kid who craves high action

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Why don’t more people know about Clyde Robert Bulla? His books are excellent beginning readers for second and third grade. They’re also perfect for older kids who are just learning to read or who are learning English as a second language. Here’s why:

The writing is easy and simple, but the stories are exciting and full of drama. The prose is easy to read, and his books are incredibly short, so this really cancels out the intimidation factor. But the stories are MUCH more mature than Dr. Seuss or Mo Willems, so older kids can read them without feeling self-conscious.

There are always complex characters who contain a mix of good and evil. In this book, Mr. Kelly is the complex character. He’s a hard, stingy man at times, and he makes some poor choices, but we also see him be loving and kind as well.

In a Bulla book, the protagonist is usually a young person who is struggling to understand life and his/her place in it. This makes the stories relatable to an 8+ audience. His books aren’t about birds trying to find their mothers or mice making friends at school.

PLUS, many of his best books are works of historical fiction. You can add them into nearly any history curriculum you’re doing for homeschool, and they’ll make history come alive for your student.

The more of Bulla’s books that I read, the more I like them.

Content warnings: None.

Leave me a comment with what you’re reading right now!

And if you’re 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.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book reviews for August 2023

Book reviews for August 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

August is a “cuspy” time for reading. We’re moving from summer to fall, and I tend to start reading with our homeschool year in mind.

That’s why my book reviews for August 2023 contain a lot of (stellar) middle-grade books, a few homeschooling books, and only a couple of adult novels (which were stinkers).

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

Now, let’s get to the reviews…

Fourth Wing

By Rebecca Yarros

A dragon fantasy for adults (no kids allowed!)

You’ll love it if you’ve been waiting for an R-rated mashup of Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’m always interested when a book with little-to-no marketing behind it goes viral with organic hype. What’s so great about this book that it sets TikTok on fire?

The answer: It’s easy to read and rated R. Here’s my take on reading explicit books.

This particular dragon fantasy is a mashup of Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games. If you like any of these series and wish they were written more for an adult audience, then you’ll love Fourth Wing.

Here’s how FW stacks up against the other three:

Harry Potter: Magical worldbuilding with a setting that feels both threatening and fun. It also takes place in a school where our protagonist makes friends (and enemies). Like the HP books, there’s tension between groups—in this case, those in power vs. the defeated rebels. The children of the rebels are looked down upon, just as half-bloods are by some wizards in HP.

Divergent: They share the school/training element, and in both books, the training is brutal and violent. Also, both Violet and Tris are physically weaker than their peers, so underdogs. Also, our protagonist has a super-hunky, super-dangerous teacher/commander with a murky past.

The Hunger Games: In both books, a young woman is thrown into a dangerous situation against her will and must fight her way out to survive. She rises to power and prominence on a national level. Also, the two books both have a love triangle.

So, even though this book isn’t, shall we say, original, it does fulfill market demand for an adult version of these popular teen series. I can definitely see a studio scooping up the rights and making a killing.

Major downsides for me: This book is as open door as it’s possible to get in the sex department, with cheese on top. There’s also a ton of language, including a handful of F-bombs per page, which just isn’t my thing. The writing is average with lots of repetition, but it’s not crazy-distracting.

The book’s strength is in its plotting and pacing. It didn’t drag for a second, which is impressive given its length. Yarros manages to deliver one exciting episode after another but also maintains a strong through-line for the plot straight up till the last line. That’s impressive in a book this long.

Content warnings: Literally everything.

The Unseen World

By Liz Moore

A young computer genius is given a puzzle to solve by her eccentric father

You’ll love it if you like nontraditional family stories with a tinge of mystery and math (and set in the ’80s)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was caught up in this sciency historical fiction novel until the 3/4 mark when I flat-out lost momentum. I’m not sure why. The whole thing took a nosedive after that, and the ending was not my cup of tea.

The first part of this book is strong and interesting. I loved the protagonist, Ada. She captured my attention immediately. I also loved the mysterious premise: Her father, a mathematician and codebreaker by trade, hid personal secrets inside one of his computer programs, and he tasked Ada with cracking the code in order to retrieve this information. The book also touches on some of the early issues regarding AI, which has now become a complete reality with the debut of ChatGPT, et al. All of this intrigued me, and I wanted to know more.

Young Ada is innocent and insecure and brilliant. I loved watching her grow up and face challenges. I felt a kinship with her because I grew up innocent and insecure (not brilliant, haha). I also loved Listen and her boys. I felt like their dynamic was honest and real. Ada’s time with the Listens was my favorite aspect of the novel.

I did not love David, Ada’s father, even though the author intended me to. I couldn’t connect with him very much, and I realize now that I was reading the book largely for Ada’s sake, not his. Although Ada and Listen love David, and he becomes rather larger-than-life as the book goes on, I wasn’t crazy about him. I think I felt like he was too much of an institutional intellectual for my taste. Too removed from his daughter. I was hoping that he’d grow into greater humanity as the book progressed, but I always felt like he stayed at arm’s length from me. This could’ve been intentional on the author’s part because (turns out) David is haunted by many fears, causing him to conceal much of himself.

The ending felt a little bleak, even though it’s supposed to be sunny in a sense. There are big questions regarding AI and its possible ramifications. When does humanity end and programming begin? Can humans bond with computer programs (and, eerily, vice versa)?

Even though this book didn’t provide much ROI for me, I will say that one thing stood out bright and bold: This story shows how hollow life is without God and a firm understanding of divine-created life. It’s like stepping from solid ground into quicksand. Technological advances are cool. But I don’t want to embrace them without counting the cost.

Content warnings (with spoilers): This book comes from a worldly perspective, no doubt. David is revealed to be gay and persecuted away from his government job during the McCarthy era. There is a scene where Ada gets her first kiss thrust upon her, but there are no sex scenes.

The Unhurried Homeschooler: A Simple, Mercifully Short Book on Homeschooling

By Durenda Wilson

An experienced homeschool mom talks the rest of us off the cliff of doubt and comparison

You’ll love it if you’re a mom/teacher who needs a lil shot in the arm and a pat on the back

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What struck me about this book (besides that it, in fact, IS mercifully short) is its simplicity. There are no step-by-step directions that will lead you to homeschool success. Instead, Durenda Wilson provides a sketch, an outline, that we can adapt to our family and change as our family changes.

She basically says this: Teach them how to read, write, and do arithmetic (when they’re ready). Give them chores, and make God the center of your home by bringing Him into every part of your life. Beyond that, let the kids take ownership of their own learning, and get help when they’re interested in something you know nothing about. And that’s it. That’s the sketchy outline that she suggests we tailor to our kids.

Durenda Wilson encourages us not to rush things by overschooling our kids too young before they’re ready. She encourages us to make school revolve around the home, not the other way around. She encourages us to do what’s best for our unique family and not force a curriculum or educational philosophy when it’s not fitting or working.

This is a great reminder of all the learning that happens outside academics and the huge opportunity we have to equip our kids for real life. We can give them the freedom to figure out what they’re interested in (because they aren’t burned out on tons of schoolwork).

She ends with the wonderful story of the boy with the loaves and fishes—God takes our not-enough offering and makes it more than enough. That’s a promise we homeschool moms clutch with all our hearts.

Content warnings: None, except a possible trigger: Durenda does mention how one of her children had serious health complications at birth.

The Four-Hour School Day: How You and Your Kids Can Thrive in the Homeschool Life

By Durenda Wilson

Not sure if homeschooling is for you? This book explains why it might be just the ticket

You’ll love it if you’re on the fence about homeschooling and want to hear the “pro” side from a mom who’s been there, done that.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a super-inspiring homeschool book. Full of motivation and spiritual realignment. Wonderful to re-read at the start of a new school year. BUT there’s one thing I find odd: There is NO mention of a 4-hour school day anywhere in the book. Haha!

The title implies that this may be some sort of how-to guide for completing school in four hours or less. But it’s not that at all. It’s an inspirational book that helps you wrap your mind around homeschooling and how you can make it work for your family. And, why you don’t need to rush, stress, or compare your methods to anyone else’s—or institutional best practices.

The older my kids get, the more I’m starting to embrace interest-led learning. Now that my boys are well on their way to grasping the basics of reading, (hand)writing, spelling, and math, I’m starting to look ahead and think about what our homeschool might look like in a year or two when I’m no longer teaching them to read, form their letters, spell, and do basic arithmatic. What will be the driving force behind what we learn and how we learn it?

It seems to me that helping my boys learn how to teach themselves things that they’re very interested in is one of the best gifts that I can give them. As I teach them to become independent learners, books like this become more relevant for me.

Content warnings: None.

Beneath a Swirling Sky (The Restorationists, #1)

By Carolyn Leiloglou

Young artists magically travel through famous paintings in order to stop villains from twisting art into propaganda

You’ll love it if Fablehaven was a family favorite, but you want something with a totally different flavor.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This brand-new middle-grade fantasy was a total pleasure to read! This is a real gem for homeschool families who want a fun book that ties in art history, Bible, and even geography.

Our young protagonist, Vincent, is spending a week at his elderly uncle’s house, along with his adopted sister, Lili, while his parents go on vacation. Soon, Vincent realizes that his parents have been keeping a big secret from him. (Sounds a little like Fablehaven, huh?) Their family has the ability to travel through paintings—this is revealed VERY early on in the book.

Speaking of which, the pacing of this book was just great. It’s a pet peeve of mine when the author takes too long to get the story moving, especially when the cover art and marketing copy spoil some of the early action. No need to draw out the reveal when we all know what’s coming. The swift pacing held true throughout the book, with quite a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting.

There’s a great faith element in this book. It’s overt, not hidden in the least. But it’s also handled with care.

Vincent loves art, and his parents always told him he was good at it. But, Vincent’s peers don’t agree that he’s all that talented, and Vincent decides to give up on the hobby he loves. I think that most kids can relate to this. Our parents encourage us and love us and tell us that we’re important and talented…but contact with the outside world makes us doubt all that they say. (It’s often easier to believe the bad stuff.) This story is about embracing your talents and using them for a good purpose—not to shine the spotlight on yourself.

I also like how the author touches on the whole idea of agenda-driven art vs. truth-driven art. This is a neat way for kids to interact with this concept.

Content warnings: None

I Am Kavi

By Thushanthi Ponweera

An endearing novel in verse set in 1990s Sri Lanka

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Inside Out & Back Again, but you want a change from the immigrant storyline.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a middle-grade book set in the late ’90s. What nostalgia for me! Spice Girls, Titanic, Dawson’s Creek, banana clips! The author’s note explained how she used her own experience growing up in Sri Lanka to inform Kavi’s story, which is told in free verse. That makes this a very quick read.

This is a bridge-building book. Even though Kavi grows up in a poor rural community in a country that’s in the throes of a civil war, she experiences all of the same teen issues that seem to be universal among the human race. Above all, she’s struggling to know her place. She’s very relatable, and even the bad stuff she does seems completely within reach of what a normal teen would do under pressure.

The book opens with Kavi getting the chance of a lifetime—to leave her poor community for the bustling city of Columbo, where she’ll attend one of the best high schools in the country on scholarship (for free)! But, she must leave her mother behind—this relationship is beautifully complicated.

When she arrives, she immediately feels the pressure to fit in—not with the other scholarship students who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. With the cool kids. She’s willing to do just about anything to be accepted. She’s straddling two worlds, which is the quintessential theme for all teen books, since teens have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood, and they’re not sure to which world they belong.

Overall, this was a beautiful, emotional book that rang true for me. Looking forward to the author’s next release!

Content warnings: Death of a parent happens before the story begins.

Brother’s Keeper

By Julie Lee

A North Korean family living under communist rule in the ’50s must decide whether to stay or flee to the South

You’ll love it if you liked A Long Walk to Water and you’re in the mood for a book to rip your heart out.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wow, what a fantastic middle-grade book about a family escaping communism. North and South Korea went to war around 1950, and the author based this book on her mother’s first-hand experience fleeing from north to south. All I can say is thank God for the families who were able to make it to safety and freedom.

Sora, our protagonist, is 13, so this book is definitely more appropriate for the upper end of middle-grade, and I think it’s a beautiful choice for teen readers, too. Even though Sora is faced with an incredible task—escape to the south without getting killed—the author does an expert job of helping us understand her inner struggles that are going on simultaneously. She struggles with with the expectations of her overbearing mother, and she yearns for more independence to make her own life choices. Beneath that, she struggles deeply with her self-worth.

This book depicts some very sad images of death and suffering. It reminded me of A Long Walk to Water, so be careful with sensitive kids. Overall, though, this book is a tribute to freedom that was heartwarming and inspiring for me to read.

Content warnings (with spoilers): This book isn’t for very young or sensitive kids. It’s not gory or sensational, but it does depict death and extreme privation. One of Sora’s family members dies, so please take care.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic

By Betty MacDonald

An eccentric widow uses magic to cure the neighborhood’s children of their bad habits

You’ll love it if you need a funny read-aloud for your 6-to-9-year-old kids.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I enjoyed the first Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book, but the subsequent two that I’ve read have been a little less imaginative than the first one. This was our first read-aloud of the school year, and my boys enjoyed it…go figure! (I think they like the “old lady” voice I do for Mrs. P-W.”)

In this installment, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle again helps the parents in the neighborhood “cure” the bad habits of their offspring. But instead of using strategies (like she does in the first book) she uses magic cures, such as tonics, powders, and pills—and, in one special case, a pig! Their supernatural effects cause the children to suffer because of their bad habits, and because they want the suffering to stop, the kids decide to shape up.

This is funny, and I think my boys “got it.” Bad habits = bad outcomes. But, the habits resolved a little too quickly and easily. The kids weren’t experiencing the natural consequences of their actions. They were experiencing extremely exaggerated consequences that would never, ever occur in real life.

So, not my favorite, but definitely quirky and silly and full of rich vocabulary for sure.

Content warnings: None

Leave me a comment with what you’re reading right now!

And if you’re 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.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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

Book Reviews for July 2023

Book Reviews for July 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

We’re coming to the end of the summer reading season, friends.

It’s flown by!

My book reviews for July 2023 include

  • One of the oldest stories known to man
  • A middle-grade novel by one of the best in the biz right now
  • A true crime account with no dead bodies (phew)
  • A Christian devotional for the chronic overachiever
  • The kids’ books my boys loved

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

The Odyssey

By Homer

The age-old “journey home” tale, filled with monsters, magic, and madness

You’ll love it if you want to start recognizing classical allusions, archetypes, and plotlines in your modern stories (they’re all over the place!)

I listened to the audio version narrated by Dan Stevens. It was a great way to consume this dense epic. I haven’t read it since high school (in college, my professor chose The Illiad instead).

What struck me this time around is how IMPORTANT hospitality is to the Greeks. You must welcome, feed, and house a stranger YOU MUST DO IT. Since Odysseus is wandering for the entire book, we see him received in many different ways by many different hosts. Some hosts do the exact right things. Others (like the Cyclops) try to eat him. Others try to trick, tempt, or enchant him.

Then, there’s the other side of the hospitality coin. If you’re a guest, there’s certain etiquette that you need to abide by. Don’t mooch or show ingratitude or outstay your welcome. Penelope’s suitors are the ultimate examples of horrid houseguests, literally eating up her resources, corrupting the servants, and disrespecting Odysseus at every turn.

So, I’m asking myself, WHY is this so important? Why does it show up in every episode and play such a huge role? Finally, when I was listening to the last few chapters, it hit me. Because the way we treat a guest—especially one who has nothing to offer us in return—reveals our true character. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat a beggar. Or a shipwrecked dude. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat a host (are they grateful or entitled?).

When Athena wanted to ensure that Odysseus was accepted by a host, she made him bigger, stronger, and better looking, and it worked like a charm (pardon the pun). When she (or Odysseus himself) wanted to test his hosts, he’d disguise himself to look weak and poor. We gravitate toward the powerful and beautiful people, and we don’t want to associate with the lesser set. It’s the way we are. But, the Greeks had an expectation that we’re capable of rising above that and behaving in a more noble manner. (I believe that’s something God has given us, when His Spirit draws us toward a higher call.)

That’s just one thing that stood out to me. I must say that there were some dull parts, but it was a great Greek myth refresher, and the poetic style and epic epithets and twists and turns were pure joy.

I read this alongside Chapter 1 of Realms of Gold by Leland Ryken, which defends the value of myth. He has a lot of great insight to offer on why myths aren’t necessarily antiChrist, even though they are thoroughly pagan. He quotes G.K. Chesterton, who said that mythology is an attempt to arrive at religious truth through the imagination alone. The pagan ‘feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents’…’mythology is a search.’ It expresses a need but does not satisfy it.” He also mentions that when we compare the God of scripture to the gods of myth, any reader can see that God is superior, and there’s value in that dichotomy.

Content warnings: Your general PG-13 rating for violence, thrills, and sex.

The Feather Thief

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

Why would anyone steal dead birds? (Hint: 💰)

You’ll love it if true crime sounds cool, but you don’t want to read anything gristly

It’s been a Very Long Time since I’ve consumed some narrative nonfiction, and since I’m too sweet and tender for gristly murders, I thought, “Why not read about a nonviolent, gore-free crime?” This book is just THAT.

Edwin Rist is probably a sociopath, but thankfully he decided to steal feathers and bird skins instead of setting his sights on more heinous crimes. Why steal musty ol’ carcasses from the bowels of a British museum? For money (always the money) and for the love, nay, the obsession, of fly tying. (Fly tying is the art of tying flies for fishing. But you’d never dare fish with a fancy tie. You post a picture of it to the internet so other fly tiers can ooh and ahh over your work. I mean, duh.)

The most interesting part of this book for me was the inside peek at the fly tying community. What a tight-knit group! Talk about niche hobbies. Johnson explores the obsessive nature of this hobby, and maybe it speaks to the obsessive nature of many artistic outlets. The only problem with fly tying is that many of the most historic recipes call for endangered bird parts. And maybe this speaks to the nature of being human—we intensely desire the very thing that’s forbidden.

He describes how Edwin Rist managed to steal a vast quantity of bird feathers—and nearly get away with it scott-free! He delves into notions of justice and punishment. (I don’t want to give too much away.)

Overall, this was a very interesting and light read. It wasn’t too heavy handed, and (even though it was about a crime) it felt almost “fun” due to the white-collar nature of the theft. I will say that I was hoping there’d be more “there” there, ya know? It wasn’t a roller-coaster ride of thrills—it was much quieter. But definitely an interesting and diverting listen.

Content warnings: Just in case you’re concerned, stealing is not condoned in this book. You just never know these days, right?

When Strivings Cease

By Ruth Chou Simons

Let’s stop working so hard to gain what we already have in Christ

You’ll love it if you naturally gravitate toward the legalistic, performative side of Christianity (or you just need help understanding grace)

I was drawn to this book because of the title. Who doesn’t want to stop striving?! Ruth Chou Simons does a great job of explaining why self-help doesn’t actually help and why the gospel of grace is the only place we can find welcome, favor, rest, and true transformation.

Simons is very relatable! She tells stories from her upbringing, explaining how Chinese culture puts a huge emphasis on performance and achievement. This was a stumbling block for her in her early walk with the Lord, and she confesses that she still struggles with it. Don’t we all?

The book is divided into two parts. The first part explains why we can’t strive for attention, approval, enoughness, or belonging. The second part explains how embracing grace makes all the difference. It makes us new, not better. It fuels good works. It cancels our debt (no need to pay Jesus back). It’s solid.

For me, the book felt quite repetitive. I found myself engaged in her stories and nodding in agreement with a lot of her conclusions…but it’s impossible to discuss this topic without circling back around to the same phrases. But I think that I, personally, do (kinda) need this knocked into my head over and over again.

Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly striving to do my best each day in all of my roles, but I don’t know if it’s coming from the wellspring of God living inside me or if it’s coming from my inner perfectionist and people-pleaser. Both, alternatively, I suppose.

Content warnings: None

The Labors of Hercules Beal

By Gary D. Schmidt

A grieving young man must live up to his mythological namesake in order to pass seventh-grade English class

You’ll love it if you have a soft spot for snarky middle-school protagonists who push you away when you try to hug them

This book is BEAUTIFUL. Gary D. Schmidt is a master at creating snotty middle-school kids and then making us fall head over heels for them. What a STELLAR story!

(Even though this book will appeal to a middle-grade audience, I think it’s adults like me who will get teary-eyed and full-hearted over it.)

If Wednesday Wars made you want to read Shakespeare, and if Okay for Now made you want to pour over Audubon illustrations, then The Labors of Hercules Beal will make you want to revisit Greek myth. (But young readers don’t HAVE to know mythology in order to enjoy this story.)

Hercules (7th grade) and his brother Achilles (20-something) are recovering from the worst kind of heartache—their parents were killed in a car crash, and now they are left alone to run the family business (a plant/tree nursery) and to, ya know, grow up parentless.

They live in a tight-knit beach community on Cape Cod, and a colorful cast of neighbors and teachers step up to the plate to help the two brothers survive. Time period is present day (not historical, like Schmidt’s other books).

At the start of the book, Hercules starts a new middle-school, and his teacher, a retired lieutenant colonel who reminds me of the Rock, assigns a yearlong literature project on classical mythology. He tells Hercules that, for this project, he must “do” all the labors that the mythical Hercules did. Hercules the seventh-grader is like “HOW?” But that’s the premise of the book, and each of the chapters center on each of the 12 labors and how our plucky protagonist manages to be an average, ordinary, everyday superhero.

This story DOES show how we can all be heroic in some way, how we can be heroic even when we are hurting, and how we rarely perform heroic acts without the help of others. It’s also about recovering from a traumatic event and the blame we often put upon ourselves (needlessly).

Content warnings: Hercules and his brother are dealing with deep-rooted grief. This could help young people process and understand grief, or it could trigger some anxiety. But the book ends on a hopeful note versus a bleak one.

Wise Words: Family Stories that Bring Proverbs to Life

By Peter J. Leithart

A collection of short stories that illustrate the proverbs

You’ll love it if you’re looking for straight-up biblical allegories for kids

This is a small book of Christian short stories for kids. Each one connects to a specific verse from the book of Proverbs. The stories are designed to bring those proverbs to life. All the stories have a fairy tale setting and atmosphere—castles, kings, peasants, magic, etc.

My boys and I worked our way through this book over the summer. It was good, but it wasn’t amazing. Some of the stories were sad and show the terrible end of pursuing sin. Others had a classic happy ending. Not only did the stories attempt to illustrate a proverb, but they also pulled in imagery, stories, and words from other parts of scripture. It could be fun for kids to see how many references/allusions they can spot in each story.

The reason this didn’t get 4 stars is because the stories were a little too didactic for my taste, and the writing was a little flat.

Content warnings: Some of the stories are a tad depressing because they’re illustrating the results of bad choices and a lack of wisdom. A few lascivious women show up here and there, but nothing crazy.

Peter Pan

By James M. Barrie

Gay, innocent, heartless kids fly off to Neverland and return home unchanged

You’ll love it if you want to reawaken your inner child (and sorta appreciate your inner grownup)

There is something so wistful about the way growing up is presented in this book. There is so much to lose and so much to gain by growing up, and the book does a great job of portraying this, but…it’s mostly me, Mom, who feels the knife-twist in my gut. Just like the Darling children, my own are still gay, and innocent, and heartless. They did not feel anything but a grand sense of adventure and magic.

I’m discovering that, as an adult reading children’s classics to my little boys, I’m identifying more with the grown-ups in these stories and seeing them in an entirely new light. I was astonished by how Barrie portrays Mrs. Darling. She’s fresh and sweet and utterly motherly. But she’s got her faults. Her soft life is too wrapped up in her children, and they break her heart too easily.

And Peter. I asked my boys, “Is Peter Pan the hero or the villain of this book?” One boy said, “The hero,” as if it were obvious. Then, we pointed out Peter’s many faults (extreme selfishness being No. 1, but also forgetfulness, foolishness, hubris). Then we talked about his strengths (fun, brave, fearless, loveable, and leadership). We did this at the kitchen table while eating hamburgers.

I understand why people have issues with this book. I see them, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I also think that this book is the product of its time, and I’m willing to take it in my hands and turn it around and inside out and look at it for what it is. Not objectively, because I can’t. But LOOK at it.

I will say that the book’s language is forever etched into me. There are scenes and phrases that give me the shivers just because I know them so well and they feel so close.

Overall, this was a fun summer read-aloud with my 6- and 7-year-old. Did anyone else grow up watching the TV version of the Mary Martin stage play, or was it just me?

Content warnings: There’s a lot of killing, and because it’s Neverland, the deaths are treated like “play” deaths that occur when kids are acting out battles and such. The redskins are treated like stereotypes, and so are the pirates, lost boys, and females in general. This doesn’t take away from the book’s nuance, but it can leave a bad taste in our oh-so modern mouths.

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.

Book Reviews for June 2023

Book Reviews for June 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

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.

Book Reviews for April 2023

Book Reviews for April 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Did you know that April 23 is Shakespeare’s birthday? (Well, we think it might be. No records exist to nail down the exact date!)

It’s when we celebrate it, anyway. And I did a lot of Bard-related reading this month! I started by exploring the idea of a Shakespeare unit for my homeschool, but then I got sucked in and started reading more for my own enjoyment. (Don’t fear Shakespeare, my friends! He’s nice!)

I also wrapped up a few books that I started in honor of Middle Grade March.

Come on in and see what’s new! (Or, cruise the oldies on my Master List of Book Reviews.)

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

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

By Ken Ludwig

Learn how to memorize Shakespeare from a Tony-winning playwright

You’ll love it if you want one simple strategy to instill a love of Shakespeare in your kids

Well, I did NOT expect to read through this whole book! I figured I’d skim it for the teaching tips and shelve it for future reference. NOPE. This was just TOO MUCH FUN. I read it cover to cover. I loved taking a close look at each passage—my inner English major was so happy—and why it’s worthy to commit to memory.

If you DO want to teach your children Shakespeare, then it’s important you know this book does NOT contain “curriculum.” No, no, no. Fie on that. It contains only one basic strategy for “teaching” Shakespeare: Memorize It. Ludwig walks you through 25 passages that he taught his kids to memorize. He explains how he did it so that we can do it too. Simple as that!

The real fun here IS Shakespeare. It’s reading his words, figuring out what they mean, and then just taking a bath in them because they are so delicious.

There’s also a pretty dope bibliography in the back.

Content warnings: None

William Shakespeare & the Globe

By Aliki

A wonderfully illustrated bio of Shakespeare, as well as a history of the original and reconstructed Globe theaters

You’ll love it if you enjoy blurby fact books

The first three-quarters of the book tells the story of Shakespeare’s life. The final quarter discusses the Globe Theater and the replica that was built in the ’90s.

This one’s low on text and high on illustrations.

Content warnings: None.

Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare

By Diane Stanely and Peter Vennema

The life and times of Shakespeare told in traditional picture book style

You’ll love it if you want to give your kids a robust intro to the Bard

This picture book focuses solely on Shakespeare and his work. You learn the little we know for sure about his life, but there’s also a lot of fun detail about stagecraft, theatergoing, costumes, scenery, and politics.

It’s dense with info but not too long, making it a great choice for a simple intro to the “man for all time.”

Content warnings: None

Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare

By Michael Rosen and Robert Ingpen

A meatier, reference-style children’s biography of Shakespeare and his times

You’ll love it if you want a longer look at this great poet

Here, you’ve got a much longer picture-book-style bio of William Shakespeare. The illustrations are more lifelike than the other two children’s biographies here, and there’s a lot more information that’s framed around questions that a young person might want to know, such as, “Why is Shakespeare so important? Why do we still read his works?”

One section of the book is devoted to summaries of his plays.

Content warnings: None

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare

Two pairs of lovers and a group of everyday workmen enter a magical forest filled with fairies and fall in and out of their spells (and love).

You’ll love it if you want to read Shakespeare’s most accessible comedy

What a blast from the past. I played Helena in my high school production of this play, and it was such fun. This play is straight-up brilliant fun. The Arkangel audio version is A+.

This time around, I appreciate Bottom a lot more. (In high school, I thought he was just B-plot comic relief) He really is awesome actually. He’s at the bottom of the social ladder, yet when he becomes the paramour of the Queen of Faeries, he essentially remains who he is, wanting (not riches or power) but only oats and a back scratch. Yet, he longs for the glories of the stage and wants to play all the parts in the play because he’s confident that he can do them justice.

I’d also forgotten how the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play is an echo of Romeo and Juliet, and it reminds us of what happens when the “blocked love” of young people goes terribly tragic rather than comedic. Including it here, even in fun-making, reminds us of how easily things could’ve gone the other direction and (somehow) makes us happier at the end…happy that it was a good dream and not a nightmare.

Content Warnings: None, really, in the straight text, but you’re going to get some sexual innuendo in any type of production, film or theater.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

By J. R. R. Tolkien

The epic saga takes its time wrapping up.

You’ll love it if you love battle scenes, love scenes, and bittersweet endings

Battles. Lots of battles. The first part of this book details how the good guys defeat the bad guys. Then, Tolkien spent a long time explaining what happened to everybody, and it took forever for everyone to travel back home.

But nothing beats the segment where Sam and Frodo limp their way to Mount Doom with Gollum on their heels—and what happens after. That alone is worth the price of this book.

Then, there’s the crazy chapter that I wasn’t expecting: “The Scouring of the Shire.” Head over to Goodreads to get my full take on this because it’s too long for this roundup.

Content warnings: Battles, but it’s all blood and glory. Andy Serkis yells his guts out in the audio narration, which is just as perfect as the other two were.

The Enchanted April

By Elizabeth Von Arnim

Four women high-tail it to Italy for a month in spring

You’ll love it if you enjoy introspective, meandering stories wrapped in Italian beauty

The first segment of this book is charming and relatable. Two women, Lotty and Rose, are toying with the idea of renting an Italian castle for a month in spring. They’ve had a long, dreary winter in London, and they’re both trapped in loveless marriages, and they need to get away, but…the GUILT. It was exquisite to watch them grapple with this and finally decide to take the plunge.

Once they get to the castle, there are two other ladies (a gorgeous heiress and a malcontent spinster) who share the castle with them, and then the book got slow for me. The plot kind of stalled and sputtered a bit for me…but what came through loud and clear is the transformative power of beauty to reawaken us to life. It makes us beautiful, so we act beautiful, and others treat us like we’re beautiful, and it’s a beautiful cycle that repeats to our benefit.

Content warnings: None. I was afraid that the women were going to have naughty affairs when they arrived in Italy, but they behaved like civilized humans.

The Wizards of Once

By Cressida Cowell

Unlikely heroes perform hilarious, ill-advised acts, and we are kind of scared for them

You’ll love it if you like fairy-tale-esque books that break all the rules

In honor of Middle Grade March, I decided to give this magical tale a try. It was cute and funny, but it didn’t really capture me until the very end. Then, I sat up and said, “Hm! Interesting.” No spoilers, but I was glad that I stuck it out. This is the first book in a series, and it really can’t be read as a standalone with perfect satisfaction.

The two main characters, Xar and Wish, are very distinctive and loveable, with giant flaws that make them interesting. I wonder how this book connects to The Tempest and the Dream because the sprites and magical creatures have names that STRONGLY hail from those two Shakespeare plays.

The book is obviously crafted with a lot of thought. I love the idea that “stories always mean something, even if we’re not sure what.” That’s likely what the author was genuinely thinking as she felt her way through the writing process.

The major downside for me was the writing! For some reason, it was a little difficult to fully immerse myself in the short, choppy sentences. I felt that the story could’ve been better with a higher level of craft. Having said that, the low-ish reading level, the humor, and the illustrations are EXACTLY why I handed this to my teenage nephew.

Content Warnings: Best for ages 8+, due to the wickedness of the witches and some intense scenes.

The Tale of Despereaux

By Kate DiCamillo

A tiny mouse performs big deeds

You’ll love it if you enjoy emotional animal adventures in medieval times

I have a soft spot for Kate DiCamillo. I love the way she writes, and apparently, my boys do, too. This was a can-you-read-more-pleeeeeeease? kinda book.

The story is simple, but the telling makes it feel grand. An especially tiny mouse falls in love with a princess and vows to honor her. When dark forces put the princess in danger, the mouse steps up to save her. That’s just ONE of the plots. There are three nonlinear plots that weave together in the final section of the book.

There are symbols and allusions galore. Beautiful words like chiaroscuro, perfidy, and empathy. There’s a Narrator with a capital N, who addresses the reader directly, asks questions, defines the vocab, and mulls over the big themes.

Ultimately, this book is about the mix of light and darkness that we all have inside us, and it’s one of those classics that will appeal to kids over a wide span of years.

Content warnings: None, although there are some things that could affect the especially tenderhearted. Ex: Miggory Sow gets hit on the ear every day. Princess Pea’s mother dies.

The Black Star of Kingston

By S. D. Smith

The backstory of Old Natalia

You’ll love it if you’re reading these rabbity tales with your kids.

Before moving on to the third “big” Green Ember book, we’re going to fill in the blanks with these short novellas that provide backstory to the old tales and legends referenced by Picket and Heather and the rest in the main storyline.

It gives some of the origin story behind the royal crown and the actual Green Ember stone itself. It also explains where the famous phrase comes from, “My place beside you. My blood for yours. Till the Green Ember rises, or the end of the world!”

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.

Michelle’s Master List of Book Reviews

Michelle’s Master List of Book Reviews

Welcome to my master list of book reviews! 

Here’s how to use this page:

  1. Click Command+F or CTRL+F to open a Find window. Then, enter keywords to search the page. 
  2. Or, just scroll and browse till something catches your eye!

I don’t have a page dedicated to each book. I review my books in monthly batches. So, when you click on one of these reviews, you’ll get whisked off to a page with a handful of reviews. Simply scroll down till you find the book you’re looking for. 

Want to see all my book review posts ordered from newest to oldest? Here they are.


Adult Fiction

Since I read a LOT of fiction, I’ve subdivided this list into genres.


Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy

Middlemarch by George Eliot. Reviewed in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

The Odyssey by Homer

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Contemporary Fiction

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano (DNF 30%)

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

No Two Persons by Erica Bauermeister

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Foster by Claire Keegan


The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers (includes movie review, too!)

Under Gemini by Rosamunde Pilcher

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge

It Ends With Us (DNF 33%) by Colleen Hoover

The Cheat Sheet by Sarah Adams

The Matrimonial Advertisement by Mimi Matthews

Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer

Summer by Edith Wharton

The Matchmaker’s Gift by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin

A Lady’s Guide to Scandal by Sophie Irwin

The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan

Famous for a Living by Melissa Ferguson

Hello Stranger by Katherine Center

Frederica by Georgette Heyer


Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry

Counted With the Stars by Connilyn Cossette

Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (fantasy crossover)

The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen (DNF 50%)


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross

The Measure (DNF 50%) by Nikki Erlick

Neverwhere (DNF 30%) by Neil Gaiman

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

About the Sleeping Beauty by P. L. Travers

Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson


The Maid by Nita Prose

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie

First Lie Wins by Ashley Elston

Adult Nonfiction

The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman

Loving the Little Years by Rachel Jankovic

The Magic of Motherhood by Ashlee Gadd

Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke

Mama Bear Apologetics by Hillary Morgan Ferrer, general editor

Gentle and Lowly by Dane C. Ortlund

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison

Reading Picture Books With Children by Megan Dowd Lambert

M Is for Mama: A Rebellion Against Mediocre Motherhood by Abbie Halberstadt

Enough about Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self by Jen Oshman

Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation (DNF 50%) by Madeleine L’Engle

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig

Tell Me the Stories of Jesus by R. Albert Mohler Jr.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

When Strivings Cease by Ruth Chou Simons

The Unhurried Homeschooler: A Simple, Mercifully Short Book on Homeschooling by Durenda Wilson

The Four-Hour School Day: How You and Your Kids Can Thrive in the Homeschool Life by Durenda Wilson

How to Use a Planner Without Wasting Time: A Busy Mom’s Guide by Mystie Winckler

Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias

Do More Better by Tim Challies

Young Adult

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zuzak

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Arrow and the Crown by Emma C. Fox

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Carver and the Queen by Emma C. Fox

Once a Queen by Sarah Arthur

Breeder by K. B. Hoyle

Middle Grade

A Drop of Hope by Keith Calabrese

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg

Pat of Silver Bush by L. M. Montgomery

A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

The Islander by Cynthia Rylant

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Messenger by Lois Lowry

Son by Lois Lowry

The Star That Always Stays by Anna Rose Johnson

The Green Ember by S. D. Smith

Ember Rising by S. D. Smith

The Black Star of Kingston by S. D. Smith

The Last Archer by S. D. Smith

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo

Jack Zulu and the Waylander’s Key by S. D. Smith and J. C. Smith

The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt

Beneath a Swirling Sky (The Restorationists, #1) by Carolyn Leiloglou

I Am Kavi by Thushanthi Ponweera

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Sled Dog School by Terry Lynn Johnson

The Great and Terrible Quest by Margaret Lovett

Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet by Graham Salisbury

Jane of Lantern Hill by L. M. Montgomery

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry by Anna Rose Johnson

What the Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren


The Sword in the Tree by Clyde Robert Bulla

Eagle Feather by Clyde Robert Bulla

Poppy by Avi

Heartwood Hotel: Home Again (#4) by Kallie George

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Paddington Helps Out by Michael Bond

Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien

Freckle Juice by Judy Blume

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh

The Light at Tern Rock by Julia L. Sauer

The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls: The Beginning (Book 1) by M. J. Thomas

Begin (The Growly Books #1) by Philip & Erin Ulrich

The Dragon Masters Series by Tracey West (illustrated by Graham Howells)

The Storm by Cynthia Rylant

Tales from Deckawoo Drive Series by Kate DiCamillo

The Fabled Stables by Jonathan Auxier

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

Wise Words: Family Stories that Bring Proverbs to Life by Peter J. Leithart

Peter Pan by James M. Barrie

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic by Betty MacDonald

Here’s a Penny by Carolyn Haywood

Riding the Pony Express by Clyde Robert Bulla

In Grandma’s Attic by Arleta Richardson

Adventures With Waffles by Maria Parr

A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The Puppets of Spellhorst by Kate DiCamillo

Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami

Twenty and Ten by Claire Hutchet Bishop

Let’s be friends on Goodreads

Connect with me on Goodreads so I can see what you’re reading too!

Is your TBR longer and more grizzled than Merlin’s beard?

Yep, I used to have a TBR like that, too! But now, I use this amazing TBR spreadsheet to keep everything in tidy order. Plus, since it’s a Google Sheet, I can pull it up on my phone when I’m at the bookstore or library.

Book Reviews for March 2023

Book Reviews for March 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

It was a GOOD reading month for me!

Here is some candid footage of me sneaking in some reading time:

Yeah, my pants feel tight. 🫣

My book reviews for March 2023 include

  • An extra-long, bucket-list classic (finished ahead of schedule, go me!)
  • An absolutely adorable regency romance (no smut!)
  • An addicting modern romcom (PG-13)
  • An emotional novel that made me cry
  • Cute kids’ series and middle-grade books

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


By George Eliot

Small-town comings and goings brilliantly described

You’ll love it if you crave a story with subtext.

I FINISHED. The amazing thing about this book is how deeply the characters are drawn. Let’s pretend all the characters in this book are trees. At some point, each one is cut down by something—some tragedy or disappointment or twist of fate—and then, we look at the stump and examine the rings. Each ring-layer reveals an aspect of the inner person that wasn’t known or understood until the hewing down.

There’s no point in trying to describe the plot. But know this: George Eliot takes seemingly mundane things (and a few not-so mundane things) and makes them feel immense. And aren’t all the little dramas of our lives intensely dear to us as we’re living them in the moment? Don’t all the little choices we make add up to something of great significance?

Content warnings: None

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

By Sophie Irwin

Kitty must save her family from poverty by marrying money. Can she snag a husband before the repo men come callin’?

You’ll love it if you want a fun little escape from everyday life, Jane Austen-style

This is now my go-to recommendation for a feel-good, clean romance!!! Fast-paced, sweet, funny. This is the best kind of cupcake book! Kitty is a fortune hunter, yes, but she’s selling herself in marriage to save her sisters from poverty and disgrace, so we’re rooting for her. 😂

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Eleanor Tomlinson, the actress who played Demelza in Poldark, and she’s GREAT.

Content warnings: None, really. Everyone keeps their bloomers and pantaloons on. YAY!

The Bodyguard

By Katherine Center

An emotionally stressed female bodyguard is assigned to protect a hunky film star, and ANTICS.

You’ll love it if you want to inhale a cute romcom in one gulp

This book was like a romcom movie in my head—totally unbelievable but totally adorable and cheer-worthy. This is the kind of escapist, wish-fulfillment book that I’m often wary of…we can’t read a book like this and then be sad because Hollywood A-listers aren’t falling in love with our personalities. 😆 But, it’s a worthy beach read—tons of fun and very sweet. (Just make sure your disbelief is fully suspended.)

Content warnings: There’s PG-13 language with a few F-bombs. This was decidedly closed door, which I appreciated. There’s kissing and references to sex but nothing explicit is described.

The Light Between Oceans

By M. L. Stedman

A couple living on an isolated lighthouse island find a rowboat with a dead man and a baby inside.

You’ll love it if you’re craving a gorgeously crafted story with tons of moral layers.

I received this book as part of a Christmas book exchange—Hi Natalie!!!—and I knew that I wanted to savor it. Based on what I’d heard and the excellent taste of the giver, I knew I’d enjoy it!

This is the type of book that’ll rip your heart out if you allow it. It’s written with so much empathy for everyone. It forces you to see these people as people, to feel with them, even as you’re begging them, “No! Please don’t! Don’t do it!”

Content warnings: Miscarriage and adoption loss are two huge triggers for this book.

Fortunately, the Milk

By Neil Gaiman

A father runs out to the store for some milk. What could go wrong?

You’ll love it if you want a lightning-quick, funny book to read aloud with your kids (ages 8+)

I read this in about 30 minutes one night. This is the kind of “pure fun” book that you can read for a good chuckle. Snap it closed, and you’re done. Personally, I prefer kids’ books with a little more there there.

Content warnings: It’s a weird book. You may love the weirdness or detest it. I decided to wait before sharing this one with my kids, just because I think the humor will fly over their heads.

The Storm

By Cynthia Rylant

A lonely lighthouse cat saves a dog, and they adopt mice.

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Brambly Hedge, the Heartwood Hotel, and other simple animal tales.

Super cute animal story and the first in this notable series by the wonderful Cynthia Rylant. My boys and I listened to this 45-minute audiobook in the car one day as we were running errands around town. It’s very gentle and sweet.

Content warnings: None

Eight Cousins

By Louisa May Alcott

A spoiled, sickly teenage girl is restored to health and happiness with help from her eight cousins.

You’ll love it if you want a cross between The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables

Rose is prim and delicate, just like the flower she’s named after. When her father dies, she’s ultimately put in custody of her uncle, a cheerful sailor-doctor. (What do they call the doctor aboard a ship—is there a name for that job?) He quickly realizes that what Rose needs is plenty of time outdoors and lots of adventures with her eight cousins—a clan of rough-and-tumble boys ranging in age from 16 to 6.

This is just what you expect from Alcott. Lots of amazing parenting advice packaged in a sweet story. Yay.

Content warnings: None

Tales from Deckawoo Drive

By Kate DiCamillo

FUN chapter books loaded with pictures and tons of homeschool potential

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Mercy Watson and want deeper, longer stories where the supporting cast take center stage

I’ve read these with my boys before, but we’re doing it again, just for fun. These chapter books are longer and more complex than the original Mercy Watson books. As a homeschool mom, I see lots of awesome potential for teaching vocabulary, theme, foreshadowing, and detail in a way that’s fun. These books are nothing if not funny!

Hot off the press! The latest installment is available for pre-order: Mercy Watson Is Missing. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think that hot buttered toast may play a pivotal role.

Content warnings: None

The Fabled Stables

By Jonathan Auxier

Auggie is a kid with a job—to care for the fantastic beasts living in the Fabled Stables

You’ll love it if you want a fun adventure story decorated with incredible full-color pictures

Honestly, the first book in this series didn’t capture me like I thought it would, but I absolutely loved the second (The Tattle-tail) and the third (Belly of the Beast). The amazing full-color illustrations in this series make it total eye-candy for kids!

Auxier said that his goal is to write a book series that’s equally enjoyed by young and older kids. Basically, he wants to write the ultimate family-pleasing read-aloud. And it’s a contender, for sure.

Content warnings: None

Adding to your TBR? Try this! 👇

Check out all the books I’ve reviewed

Book Reviews for January 2023

Book Reviews for January 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Well, my friends. We have a fresh year of reading ahead of us. What stories will come our way in 2023?

Here are my book reviews for January 2023—a fresh batch, I’m happy to report.

This month, I’m sharing…

  • A knockout memoir—and I don’t even like memoirs that much
  • A brand-new middle-grade novel that feels wonderfully old-timey
  • Loads of kids’ books—I’ve done the prereading, you’re welcome 😜

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

Everything Sad Is Untrue

By Daniel Nayeri

Memoir of an Iranian refugee as told (hilariously) by his adolescent self

You’ll love it if poop jokes make you laugh and the truth makes you cry

This ain’t your typical woe-is-me memoir. This book is crafted so beautifully and written with so much tenderness—I laughed, I cried, I loved it. Don’t expect a linear storyline. You’ll be a little disoriented at first, but please do give it a chance. I promise all the pieces will come together.

Content warnings: Domestic abuse (not graphically portrayed). Drug smuggling (not condoned).

The Death of Ivan Illych

By Leo Tolstoy

Novella-length cautionary tale

You’ll love it if you want a challenging story that’ll disinfect your soul

This tiny book is brilliant but extremely uncomfortable. I think most of us have more in common with the unremarkable and self-centered Ivan Illych than we’d care to admit. So, let’s heed the truth of Tolstoy’s cautionary tale. (Fun fact: The name Ivan Illych is the Russian version of John Doe.)

Content warnings: There’s passing mention of Ivan visiting a red-light district.

The Matchmaker’s Gift

By Lynda Cohen Loigman

Alternating timelines chronicle the stories of a Jewish matchmaker in the early 1900s and her granddaughter in the 1990s

You’ll love it if you want to read something light and mildly romantic

I wanted to read this book because I’m interested in the role that matchmakers play in Jewish culture, especially in modern times. How do they make matches? How do they work with families? What’s the process? The fee? This book provided NO such sneak peek, sadly. It was cute, but not for me.

Content warnings: This book portrays a very worldly view of romantic love, so don’t expect much substance.

The Two Towers

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Aragorn and company tackle Saruman, while Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to Mordor

You’ll love it if you’re craving a fantasy adventure written by a master craftsman

I will say it again: The Andy Serkis audio version is tremendous. I’ve only ever seen the LOTR movies, so I had no clue that this book is structured in two parts with parallel timelines. The first one follows Aragorn and his crew to Rohan and onto Helms Deep and then to Orthanc. The second part, which is far and away more intriguing, follows Frodo, Sam and Gollum to Mordor. These books are off the charts.

Content warnings: Wars and violence. Andy Serkis does that raspy/gurgly Gollum voice, which may creep out younger listeners.

Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation

By Madeleine L’Engle

Reflections on Jesus Christ in human form

You’ll love it if you want to grapple with some of the harder-to-understand aspects of Christianity

I read this book off and on during the Christmas season. It’s not exactly an advent book, but it examines the Christian belief that God took human form. Why did God choose to redeem the world THAT way? How should the incarnation affect us? I didn’t finish this one. It wasn’t bad at all, but there were a few things that struck me as woo-woo.

Content warnings: She briefly describes an icky incident in which an adult male molested her.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

By Elizabeth George Speare

A free-spirited young girl from Barbados tries to survive in Puritanical New England with mixed results

You’ll love it if you want to read superior historical fiction (with more than a touch of romance)

I’m on a mission to read all of Elizabeth George Speare’s books because I never read ANY of them as a kid. I can definitely see why this is her most popular work. The plot is nice and tight, and all of the characters have virtues AND flaws that make them human. Preteen me would’ve loved the romance element—I was a big sucker for that stuff (and still am).

Content warnings: Some parents don’t like when a book is overly focused on romance, and this one definitely has its share, although it’s all tastefully displayed. There is a witch hunt, but no actual witchcraft is portrayed.

The Star That Always Stays

By Anna Rose Johnson

A young girl in the 1910s must figure out who she is, past, present, and future

You’ll love it if you’re a fan of Anne Shirley, Jo March, and the Penderwick sisters

Do you ever wish that a modern author would write lovely, wholesome books like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women? Do you also wish that authors would have the guts to point their young readers to The Truth? If you answered yes, then you MUST check out this debut middle-grade novel. I can’t wait to read more from Anna Rose!

Content warnings: None

The Green Ember

By S. D. Smith

It’s rabbits vs. wolves in this inspiring children’s fantasy

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Watership Down (or you’ve got kids who want an animal adventure with teeth)

I have a confession: I’m not a fan of animal protagonists. (I prefer people.) But I will say that this was a GREAT read-aloud for my boys, who thoroughly enjoyed the rabbity adventure. The first half of this book is too long and needs to be edited, but the second half really picks up. If you haven’t heard of S. D. Smith before, he’s hilarious and I dare you not to like him immediately.

Content warnings: There are some scary wolves and birds of prey that’ll be too much for the very, very young.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain

By Alice Dalgliesh

Will Jonathan meet bears on Hemlock Mountain, even though his mom says he won’t?

You’ll love it if you want a lightning-fast read-aloud for young kids

This is a great early chapter book that my 7-year-old is reading right now in homeschool. It’s a super-simple story with a slow build of suspense—will there actually be bears???—and a wonderfully fun climactic moment. This reminds me a lot of Robert Clyde Bulla’s kids’ novels.

Content warnings: None

The Light at Tern Rock

By Julia L. Sauer

Can young Ronnie help his elderly aunt keep the lighthouse working in winter?

You’ll love it if you want a highly discussable Christmas book to read with youngsters over the holidays

What a gorgeous kids’ Christmas book! Not only are there beautiful black-and-white illustrations throughout, but the story. It’s complex without being complicated. My boys’ll need to be older to appreciate this, but I was thoroughly charmed.

Content warnings: None

The Door in the Wall

By Marguerite de Angeli

A young boy in Medieval times becomes a hero in spite of a physical handicap

You’ll love it if you want to empower a young man in your life with a tale of bravery

If you’ve got a kid who can’t get enough of knights, castles, or Ye Olde Britain, then this slim novel serves up a lot of historical flavor, and it has a wonderful message to boot. One day, young Robin, our protagonist, can no longer walk. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he learns to find the next “door in the wall,” i.e. a way to pass through whatever barrier is stopping him from progressing in life. The first half of the book is somewhat slow, but the second half picks up, and the ending brings all the drama.

Content warnings: None

The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls: The Beginning (Book 1)

By M. J. Thomas

Kids time travel to Bible events

You’ll love it if you want your kids to get hooked on a chapter series that’s connected to the Bible

Remember the Magic Treehouse series? This is like the Christian version. A brother and sister time-travel back to Bible events. In this first book, they witness God create the world. They have a (somewhat silly) mission to complete. There are more books in the series with more missions. My opinion: just okay.

Content warnings: I wasn’t crazy about the mission the kids had to complete, which was to translate Hebrew writing on a scroll. It seemed like an arbitrary plot device and a little too derivative of Magic Treehouse. I don’t want my boys to think that God would ever leave them stranded up a creek without a paddle just because they couldn’t complete a random mission.

Book journal pages you can color

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Book Reviews for Winter 2022

Book Reviews for Winter 2022

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for winter 2022 include quite a mix of fiction, nonfiction, light and heavy, short and long books.

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

Letters from Father Christmas

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Collection of real-life letters from Tolkien to his children

You’ll love it if you wish you could be pen pals with Santa Clause

This book is a collection of letters and drawings that Tolkien sent to his children each Christmas, starting in the ’20s and into the mid-’40s. For real. He writes pretending to be Father Christmas, telling them about the goings on at the North Pole (polar bears, snowmen, and even goblins). This was extra-merry on audio with sleigh bells ring-a-linging.

Content warnings: There are some goblins who try to take over the North Pole, but nothing scary. If your kids believe in Santa, they will still believe at the end of this book. 😉

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

Literary historical fiction

You’ll love it if you want a complex plot and complex characters, richly rendered

I loved The Lincoln Highway, but I was hesitant to try this book because it sounded SO boring. And it might be boring to you—but I adored it. This is my kind of book. Simple plot + complex characters = 5 stars. You don’t need a degree in Russian history to enjoy it, either.

Content warnings: This is an adult book, and there is the normal stuff, but nothing gross.

The Thirteenth Tale 

By Diane Setterfield

Historical mystery

You’ll love it if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre or gothic novels in general

A young bookish woman receives a mysterious handwritten letter from the most prolific and famous writer of her time. This writer has long evaded biographical questions from the press. But now, she’s ready to spill all her secrets, and she’s chosen an unknown, unpublished person to write what will surely be the biography of the century. Expect plenty of chills and a gothic atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Content warnings: There is some major family dysfunction (including incest, rape, and self-harm) in the first third of the book, but thankfully this doesn’t persist into the middle and ending.

M Is for Mama: A Rebellion Against Mediocre Motherhood

By Abbie Halberstadt

Christian motherhood

You’ll love it if you’re seeking iron-on-iron motherhood advice that’ll convict you as much as it’ll inspire you

I forced myself to listen to this on audio SLOWLY. One chapter a day max. It was a solid five-star read for me. Abbie basically says, “Here’s an issue that tempts us toward mediocre motherhood.” Then, she says, “Here are some scriptures that speak to this issue.” And then she offers sound, grounded advice that points us toward excellence in our chosen profession.

Enough about Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self 

By Jen Oshman

Christian inspiration

You’ll love it if you’ve tried “self-care” and “self-love” but it didn’t work as promised

This is a well-written, scripturally based argument for why a me-first mentality leads (eventually) to deep unhappiness and disillusionment. Instead, Jen Oshman offers a life that is Christ-centered and that leads (eventually) to deep joy and peace. This is a solid, brief primer on God-first living.


By A. J. Hartley

YA thriller

You’ll love it if you’re seeking a YA thriller with robust multicultural worldbuilding

This book wins major points for original worldbuilding and atmosphere. Major points. But, it’s not going on my list of favorite YA dystopian thrillers. Like many other novels in the genre, it stars Katniss Everdeen in different trappings. “The fate of the world hangs on an obscure, oppressed teenage girl…” you know the drill.

Content warnings: There is an attempted rape, murder, and violence. But it all stays within the realm of what you’d expect from YA. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much romance at all in this one and no sex.

I Am the Messenger

By Markus Zuzak

Magical realism

You’ll love it if you’re in the mood for grit, humor, mystery, and LOADS of teenage male angst

I adored The Book Thief, so I had high expectations. Like The Book Thief, this was brimming with emotion and foul language. But the message at the heart is…solid gold. This book will appeal most to young males because it (rightly) reflects their maleness in a way that’ll (logically) feel a tad alien to a female reader.

Content warnings: Lots of violence and aggression. Rape occurs offstage. I’d recommend 16+ years at the very youngest.

The Giver Quartet  (the 4-book series)

by Lois Lowry

Middle-grade and YA dystopian

You’ll love it if you prefer dystopias that are free from raunch and graphic violence

Every autumn, I get the itch to re-read a series (just for the comfy-ness of it). Last year, it was The Hunger Games. The year before, it was Harry Potter. This year, it was The Giver Quartet. I have so many memories reading The Giver as a young person. These books do venture into social and political issues, so I recommend that young people read these with guidance, if possible. (This is because there will be no earthly utopia unless Jesus Christ says so, and we can’t rely on systems to get us there.)

  • The Giver: A must-read for anyone of any age.
  • Gathering Blue: An interesting story with a somewhat muddled message.
  • Messenger: A quick, easy read with a much stronger and cohesive message.
  • Son: A good series-ender, but much longer than it needed to be.

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Book Reviews for July 2022

Book Reviews for July 2022

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

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.

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

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’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)

Format: Paperback

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

Format: Paperback

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

Format: Paperback

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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