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The Magnolia Story

The Magnolia StoryThe Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a slight addiction to HGTV. It’s not a constant addiction; it merely flares up from time to time. However, there is one HGTV show that I always watch as soon as an episode airs, and that show is Fixer Upper. I love Chip and Jo’s relationship, and the family dynamic they have with their four kids. I love seeing little snippets of their life on their farm and how Jo handles Chip’s endearing but exasperating dorkiness. I love how involved they are in their community, and how supportive they are of artisans in their area and how they do their best to promote them. I love their lifestyle, laid-back and kind of old-fashioned and unapologetically Christian but in a way that loves instead of judges. And, obviously, I love their designs, how they take a run-down house that others would bulldoze without a second thought and make it a home that is perfect for their clients.

When I saw that Chip and Jo had written a book, I honestly just picked it up because I love them and want to support them. I’m not a big nonfiction reader, so I wasn’t sure that I’d ever actually read it. But I needed something bright and positive and inspirational, and this tiny book was exactly what I was looking for. Here is a couple who has faced hardships and muscled their way through with prayer and unflagging optimism. From a really rocky start after returning from their honeymoon to becoming HGTV’s darlings, they’ve worked incredibly hard for everything they have. (They’ve never even owned a television!) What I loved most about this book was seeing the evolution of their relationship with each other, and how it’s the foundation upon which they built every aspect of their business. Even in the pages of the book, each of them was present on every page, with Chip and Jo each having their own font. It was adorable.

The Magnolia Story was so inspirational to me. It focused so much on family and helping each other follow their dreams. If something is your passion, share it with those you love most and start working to attain it. That’s not to say that there won’t be highs and lows. There will be seasons of feast and seasons of famine, seasons of celebration and seasons of mourning, in every life. Because that is life! I know personally, I appreciate the highs in life so much more for my time spent in the trenches. But sometimes that fixation on hills and valleys can lead up to putting off our dreams until the perfect moment. Forget someday; dive in now. You never know where God will take you.

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Treasure Island

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the words of Italo Calvino, “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” These are stories that have stood the test of time, that communicate a thought or weave a tell that has touched deeply a multitude, and continues to do so decades and centuries after its inception. But that doesn’t mean that every single “classic” work of literature will strike a cord with anyone who picks it up. Unfortunately, this book is now an example of that in my life.

I wanted so badly to love Treasure Island. Here is a tale of pirates and buried treasure and gun fights and a young boy named Jim Hawkins who seems to be the center of everything. Here is the origin of Long John Silver, one of the most famous pirates in literature. This novel is one of the ultimate classic adventure stories. And yet, I couldn’t connect with Stevenson’s writing at all. For such a small book, it seemed to drag on forever, with little resolution. I just couldn’t make myself care. Jim Hawkins annoyed me, with his propensity for getting into trouble that somehow ends up saving the day. For a tale of piracy and mutiny, everything Jim “stumbled” into and out of seemed awfully convenient to me. The most three dimensional character in the book was Silver, who I’m pretty sure Stevenson never meant for his readers to like. Every single scene in the book also felt overblown to me, too fraught with emotion compared to the circumstance. I guess it just struck me as overly dramatic, like a literary soap opera from a bygone era.

While this story didn’t speak to me, that doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Classics just tend to be hit-or-miss, and though it was a miss for me, I know plenty of people who absolutely loved it. The wonderful thing about books is that we all read them differently. So don’t let me experience deter you. It just might draw you in!

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When She Woke

When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Warning: Due to the heavy religious tone of the book, this review is going to be religious in nature and will in large part be a discussion of my faith. If you’re offended by this, please feel free to skip reading this particular review.

Some books disturb you psychologically. For authors like King and Koontz and Barker, that psychological fear is their bread and butter, and many of us will pay good money to be frightened. But then there are the books that disturb you on a moral level. A spiritual level. And often, though I’m sure not always, these books are not written with marketing in mind. These books are written because the author has something to say and will burst if they don’t get to vent their anger and concern and fear onto paper, and it doesn’t really matter to them if no one ever reads a word of it. But books like this, like 1984 and The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale, will always be picked up but a like-minded reader and passed on to like-minded friends, and perhaps even friends whose minds have rusted shut at the hinges, hinges that creak open reluctantly with every page they read. Because the unknown is always questioned and feared, and what greater unknown is there than the future? If we read to know that we’re not alone, we also read (and write) to know that we’re not alone in our questions and our fears.

When She Woke disturbed me on a moral and spiritual level. Here is a society where religion is king, and has begun to mandate law. I’m a Christian. I believe that God is real, that He created everything that exists, that He is involved in our lives, that He sent His Son to die so we could have freedom and eternity, that life is sacred, that I have been blessed beyond measure, that He has been there with me in my darkest hours and that I will never have to suffer anything alone. I believe all these things with all of my heart. And yet the only thing that scares me as much as a world where religion is outlawed is a world in which religion is THE law. God created us with free will, with the inalienable right to choose for ourselves whether or not we will follow Him, and that’s a right that no government on earth should have the power to take away. To quote the book itself:

“You don’t have to stop thinking and asking questions to believe in God, child. If He’d wanted a flock of eight billion sheep, He wouldn’t have given us opposable thumbs, much less free will.”

I’m not going to get into the plot of the book itself here, though I will say that the comparison made on the back cover claiming the story is “The Scarlet Letter by way of The Handmaid’s Tale” is completely accurate. It was a well-written, thought provoking story that will stick with you long after you finish the last page, and I’m glad I read it. I will say, however, that this book made me incredibly sad. It’s hard to see your faith twisted in such a way that it ruins the lives of others, even if those lives and others are fictional. Christians can be some of the most unforgiving and judgmental people on the planet, which has to infuriate Jesus. He spent His time with fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes and beggars, with the poor and the broken and those rejected by society. He was despised by those who should have recognized Him, and He died for it. Thankfully, that death couldn’t hold Him and He rose again three days later, but that doesn’t negate the pain and torment He endured at the hands of the very people He had come to save. And if He had chosen to come a couple thousand years later, I think He would have met the same fate; it just would have been televised. Todd Agnew wrote in one of his songs that “My Jesus would never be accepted in my church; the blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet.” Harsh, but true.

Jesus told His disciples on the night of His arrest, “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35) THAT is supposed to be how the world knows we’re Christians. Not by the words we spout or the bumper stickers on our cars or the way we look down or noses at others. And I hope and I pray every single day that people see the love of Jesus in me when I interact with them, not judgement or hatred. Because Jesus doesn’t hate. God doesn’t hate. God is love. And if we remember this, if we do our best each day to live this, then the future forecast in this book will never become a reality.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. I really did. And all I could manage was deciding that it was okay, that I respected the story Saunders was trying to tell and the research it required. But I just couldn’t make myself love it.

Not that there weren’t aspects of the story that I liked, because there were. There was real emotion here, deep emotion. There were philosophical questions on death and what lies beyond the grave, thoughts on war and parenthood and religion. Racism and sexism were addressed in ways that were harsh and real. Saunders also provided a plethora of quotations from various historical documents on Lincoln, on his personal life and appearance and presidency, on the state of the White House and the state of the Union while he served as Commander in Chief. And he provided readers with some great information on Willy, the poor Lincoln son who died too soon. This was Willy’s story, and Lincoln’s story, and the story of a nation represented by ghosts in a graveyard.

This all sounds like the makings of a new literary classic. And it probably is, or will be. But it fell flat for me. There were some descriptions and language that felt uncomfortably overdone, as though Saunders included them for shock value alone. (I never want to hear about a ghost’s grotesquely swollen member ever again, for example. And the Barons! Good grief at the mouths on that couple.) It could be that I’m a prude, and others probably wouldn’t be bothered as much. Also, some of the writing just felt so pretentious which is my problem with a lot of literary novels. Again, this might just be me, and I can’t put my finger on a particular example because I listened to the audiobook and thus can’t flip back through.

Speaking of the audiobook, listening instead of reading is likely the only reason I finished this. The vocal cast was phenomenal including the talents of Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, the author himself, and many more. There were 166 voice actors in all, which is quite possibly a world record. (Penguin Random House Audio has applied to Guinness for exactly that.) And, had I not made it to the end, I would have missed a pretty great ending. Which is why I settled on three stars here. A lot of people are going to love this book. It might even be life changing for some. Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t for you.

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Silence Fallen

Silence Fallen (Mercy Thompson, #10)Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 entertaining stars.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If I enjoy something, I see absolutely reason to be embarrassed of that enjoyment. Years ago, before I came to that conclusion, Urban Fantasy was one of my guilty pleasures. Now it’s simply a genre I enjoy spending time in, especially when I need something lighter. How is it that urban fantasy is “lighter,” you might ask. Many series in the genre, such as the Dresden Files and the Hollows and the Mercy Thompson series, of which this book is one, follow the misadventures of one particular individual over the span of multiple small books. So going in, I am almost certain that the main character is going to be okay, no matter what happens. It’s like visiting an old friend, hearing about terrible situations they had found themselves in some time past, but because they’re here now, telling you the story, you know everything must’ve worked out alright. So, compared to epic fantasy where even central characters are fair game, visiting the urban fantasy genre is fairly relaxing.

Mercy, our coyote shapeshifter and VW mechanic who pals around with werewolves and vampires and all manner of other paranormal creatures, is always getting into trouble. In her defense, it’s often through no fault of her own. And Mercy is not some hapless, helpless damsel, waiting for some man to come to her rescue. This little coyote can save herself, thank you. In this book, the tenth in the series, she finds herself in Europe, cut off from her wolfpack and, worst of all, her husband. This installment was a bit different from its predecessors, providing both Mercy and Adam’s perspectives, instead of staying focused on Mercy. Seeing the different sides of the story was a fun change.

All in all, this was an entertaining and comfortable read. There weren’t many surprises, but that’s exactly what draws me back to the story; knowing that everything is going to turn out alright is a good thing sometimes. Also, there was a recurring Doctor Who reference as well as a brief Star Wars reference, which made my little nerd heart happy. Now, excuse me while I go prowl the internet for news of Mercy’s next adventure.

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Malice

Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen, #1)Malice by John Gwynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, rounded up. (Half-star taken off for a slow start. But man, did that ever change.)

Move over, Martin, because Gwynne is here to steal yo’ girl.

The A Game of Thrones comparisons here are completely understandable. As in Martin’s series, there is a varied cast of characters from whose perspectives we witness this story unfold. There is no time travel here, no resurrection for those who die. Death is final, and it is an equal opportunity reaper, not caring how good or bad a person is, how likable, or how important. As with Martin’s work, no one is truly safe here.

However, Gwynne has already surpassed Martin in my mind, even though I’ve thus far only read this, Gwynne’s first novel. (Side note: I do really like A Song of Ice and Fire. This is in no way me dissing Martin. So don’t yell at me.) Martin is a king of backstory and plot twists, but Gywnne was far more successful in crafting characters that I care about. They aren’t just well polished pieces on a chess board; they breathe. The love and are loved and fight and mourn and laugh and rage. These people are as real as ink and page can produce. Their physical appearances aren’t touched on much, but I was actually okay with that. The characters took on the features of people in my life who shared their personality traits, causing me to care even more about their well being.

I also really appreciated Gywnne’s choice of setting. The Banished Lands weren’t overwhelmingly large, and I enjoyed the smaller scope of the story because of decision. The effects of disagreements between kingdoms was more immediately felt than in a larger fictional land like Westeros. And the Scottish feel of the setting, of the society, of the names, was wonderful. It gave a weight to the story that some fantasy series that focus more on unique setting and societal norms tends to lack, in my opinion. The many kings of small neighboring kingdoms, the importance of and methods of warring, the names of both places and people, all whispered of Scotland as I read, but with enough differences to plant this solidly in the fantasy genre. As far as I know, there aren’t actually giants or wyrms or saber-toothed wolves in Scotland.

Something else than made an impression on me was the mythos of the Banished Lands. The creation myth, beginning with the God-War. Asroth, Elyon’s beloved first-created and captain of the Ben-Elim, sowed seeds of discord and split the heavenly host. When Asroth was defeated, he turned his hatred on Elyon’s new creation: man. He wreaked havoc and Elyon, in his rage, almost destroyed the world. The He realized what He had done and almost done, He grieved. In the aftermath, Elyon vanished, turning His back on all creation to mourn. The Ben-Elim still seek to protect it, out of love for their Creator, while their fallen brethren still work toward destruction. The Judeo-Christian influence here is overwhelming, and I loved contemplating the theology here. The parallels are fantastic; Elyon is even a Hebrew name for God, meaning “Most High.” I don’t believe that He has abandoned us, as I’ve felt His presence in my life, but I understand how His disappearance works better for the story Gwynne is telling here. The Bright Star/Black Sun prophecy was also a big draw for me, the Bright Star as savior and the Black Sun as antichrist. The idea of a Chosen One is a trope as old as storytelling itself, but it was deftly handled here, and gave me all kinds of theological and philosophical goodies to chew on as I read.

One other thing Gywnne did incredibly well was present a wide variety of relationships. We were given fantastic friendships, mortal enemies, beautifully close families, and their dysfunctional counterparts. We see kings interact with subjects, warriors interact with their leaders and each other, and mentors training younger generations. And best of all, we see some incredible kinship between man and beast. The animals in this book had so much personality, and their relationships with their humans was beautiful to behold. Family was so important in this story, whether that family was formed by blood or bond, and some of these animals were truly part of an amazing family.

I’ve read some truly stunning debut novels in the past, but the best of them are standalones, and sometimes it’s many years before the author puts out another book. If ever. And often that next book is a letdown after the masterpiece that was their first book. But rarely have I read a debut as fantastic as this one that was the first in a series. A series that I have it on good authority only improves with each successive book. I am undeniably impressed. Congratulations, Mr. Gwynne; you’ve earned yourself another fan.

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The Jungle Book

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first book completed on the Serial Reader app, an awesome way to read classic works of literature in less than fifteen minutes a day. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading some classics, but who doesn’t want to get bogged down in them. And no, I haven’t been asked to advertise the app; I just really think it was a fantastic idea, and the execution of that idea was incredibly well done.

End advertisement. 😉 Onto the story at hand.

Most everyone probably knows at least a little about this book, due in large part to Disney’s animated movie and their more recent live-action film. I enjoyed reading about Mowgli and his adventures growing up as the lone man-cub in the jungle. Bagheera the Panther, Baloo the Bear, and Kaa the Python all had different personalities than their film counterparts, but were just as much fun to read as they are to watch. Mowgli was headstrong and clever and never backed down from a challenge. Raised by a Wolfpack against the wishes of Shere Khan, the man-eating Tiger, Mowgli lived an interesting life to say the least. He learned every language present in the jungle, and then spent some time in a human village and learned to speak as they speak. But the village could not hold him. He conquered his foes and returned to the jungle, triumphant.

Besides the main story of Mowgli, Kipling also included the stories of Kotick, the White Seal; Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the Mongoose; Toomai, the Elephant boy; and different animals in the military, who argue about whose method of fighting is right. Of these, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s story was by far the best. I completely understand why his is the segment included in so many literature books, because it was the most engaging story in the entirety of the Jungle Book, in my opinion. I enjoyed the adventures of the little mongoose even more than I did the tales of Mowgli the man-cub. Second-best out of these secondary tales was the story of Kotick, the White Seal. I was thrown by his story at first, because it was the first after Mowlgi’s story, but once I adjusted to the change I enjoyed the little white seal, out to save his people from being butchered. He swam to the beat of his own drum, and I can always respect that.

The last two stories weren’t enjoyable to me. They’re where I bogged down and just had to make myself power through to the end. I found Toomai annoying, and I could care less about which animal thought they were the most important in a battle. If the book had ended after the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I would’ve easily given it 4 stars. But, because of the drudgery of the last two stories, I’m settling at a 3 here. It was a short, mostly fun classic to mark off of my “to-read” list, and I enjoyed marking it off in the 24 episodes that Serial Reader provided. It novelty of the app added to my enjoyment, and I will most definitely be reading more classics this way!

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Scythe

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if we were able to cure death? What if disease and old age and accidents were a thing of the past, and we could live forever? How would this impact our society? And how would we keep out population growth under control? These are questions Shusterman raises in his new book, and he addresses them well. In his imagined future, life is pretty close to perfect, but something has to be done to keep the population to a manageable number. That’s where the Scythes come in.

Scythes are individuals chosen to live a life set apart, to “glean” others from the population. Only death doled out by a Scythe is truly irreversible. Scythes are respected and revered, are given anything they want for free, and live outside the laws that govern others. Scythes’ families are immune from gleaning for the lifespan of the Scythe, and the only way for a Scythe to die is by gleaning themselves. How would you handle being assigned to become a professional murderer? Do the pros outweigh the cons? If they do, you probably won’t be selected to become a Scythe.

I enjoy Shusterman’s books a lot. He raises interesting philosophical questions, he has characters that grow or at least change throughout their stories, and he doesn’t take an interesting storyline and destroy it by focusing almost exclusively on romance, as an unfortunate number of YA authors tend to do. This was the tale of two reluctant Scythe apprentices. In the beginning, I liked Rowan much more than Citra out of our two main characters. But as the story progressed and plot twists were thrown at them both, Citra grew on me and became Rowan’s equal. Many of the other Scythes were interesting, as well, especially Faraday, Curie, and Goddard. Curie was incredibly interesting, and probably my favorite. I loved how Shusterman wrote each Scythe doing the same job in completely different ways, and I personally thought Curie’s method was the best.

I was excited when I picked this up because I thought it was a standalone, which there is a severe shortage of lately. But I can’t say I’m disappointed that this turned out to be the first book of a series. I’m looking forward to reading more about the Scythes, and contemplating whatever other philosophical questions Shusterman throws my way.

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Norse Mythology

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a little girl, I was completely obsessed with mythology. Greek, Roman (or Greek with different names, because Rome was nothing if not unoriginal), Norse, Egyptian, Indian, Native American, Japanese, Russian, etc, were all equally interesting to me. I wanted to know what ancient civilizations believed and why, and how those beliefs still influenced their culture. My faith was important to me and heavily influenced how I viewed the world, so why wouldn’t I be interested in what so heavily influenced other people groups throughout history? As a fourth grader, I was teaching short mythology lessons to junior-high kids before state testing. I loved to learn, and the natural overflow of that love was teaching others. Even then, I always included a segment on Judeo-Christian beliefs, so I could share what I believed as I had shared what ancients believed. I cut my teeth on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Bulfinch’s Mythology, most of Joseph Campbell’s mythology books, and more.

There was one problem, though. Even though mythology books held incredibly interesting myths, they were generally conveyed like research papers instead of stories. They put forth the tales, but the telling of those tales was generally severely lacking. That was not at all the case with Gaiman’s addition to the mythology genre. He brought in his natural storytelling and breathed new life into the Norse mythos. The book seems small, but writing something of this magnitude was completely outside of his norm, and required more research and tighter restrictions on how that research was interpreted that most novelists ever have to worry about. I respect what he did here immensely, and am excited that now, when a kid develops a love of mythology, they’ll have access to tales well told.

The adventures of Odin, Thor, and Loki were a pleasure to read. There were a lot of myths that I had forgotten about or never retained due to the clunky writing of other mythology books. Quite a few of these had me grimacing at one paragraph and laughing at the next. Norse myths are incredibly violent. Their creation myth was the bloodiest creation mythos I ever remember reading. But even in Ragnarok, the end of the world as foretold by the Norsemen, there is hope to be found.

I could go into dissecting the stories, but I would hate to spoil anything for someone who is just becoming interested in mythology. But I will say that now I have a burning desire to reread Gaiman’s American Gods. Pick this up if you’ve ever had any kind of interest in ancient beliefs. Just know that this is no novel; this is a faithful retelling of ancient tales, but with style. You’ll learn something if you decide to read this, and you’ll have fun doing it!

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #1)The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally know the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

This was my third attempt at reading this book, because it’s just so gosh-darned silly that I could never get past the first three or so chapters. Well, what was the difference this time, you might be asking. The difference was a British gentleman by the name of Stephen Fry. I would have never made it all the way through this admittedly short book without the voice talents of Stephen Fry. The man is a genius! Every character had a completely unique voice, and they were all engaging. I’m not positive which came first, the movie or the audiobook, but Fry’s version of Arthur Dent sounded incredibly similar to Martin Freeman, who played Dent in the movie.

I’m not usually an audiobook girl. I tend to get frustrated with the slow pace and pick up the print version of whatever book I was listening to, because I can just read faster. But I never had that desire listening to Fry. He was absolutely fabulous, and now I want to track down other audiobooks he’s read. Just another reason to wish I was British, so I could have Audible access to his readings of Harry Potter. *disgruntled sigh*

Onto the book itself. I’m pretty sure Douglas Adams is a national treasure of the U.K., as he well should be. These books are meant to be silly, and they most definitely are. The tone of his writing was great, and I love the idea of the story, but something about the humor didn’t translate well for me. It was just too much, somehow, as stated earlier. Honestly, the book itself would have been somewhere between a 2 and 3 star read for me (please don’t lynch me!) had it not been for Fry’s marvelous audio. His reading saved the day and bumped the book up to 4 stars for me. I did end up really enjoying listening to this story, though I’m not sure I’ll continue the series. However, I’m glad to have read this book, and to now understand the cultural references and impact Adams provided here.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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