War Is Declared

Jul 31, 2013

The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

Release Date: November 2003
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 352 pages
Series: Ashbury/Brookfield #2
Source & Format: Bought; Kindle ebook
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Three girls. Three boys. One of them's a total psycho.
It's teenage life as it really feels. Only funnier.

The Ashbury-Brookfield pen pal program was designed to bring together the "lowlife Brooker kids" (as they're known to the Ashburyites) and the "rich Ashbury snobs" (as they're called by the Brookfielders) in a spirit of harmony and the Joy of the Envelope. But things don't go quite as planned. Lydia and Sebastian trade challenges, like setting off the fire alarm as Brookfield. Emily tutors Charlie in How to Go One a Date with a Girl. But it's Cassie and Matthew who both reveal and conceal the most about themselves - and it's their secrets and lies that set off a war between the two schools.

Thoughts on The Year of Secret Assignments
I bought this book because I liked the cover (the nail polish!), thought the summary sounded interesting and it was $1.99. When I looked it up on Goodreads and saw a five-star review from Mandy @ VeganYANerds, I was even happier that I made this spontaneous purchase. And then I read it and was totally shocked by just how much I loved the book!

Three Reasons to Read The Year of Secret Assignments

1. The Composition.
The Year of Secret Assignments is written as letters, diary entries, emails, lists, school notices... and it totally nails the epistolary format. It's not always my favorite type of book to read, but Moriarty absolutely won me over. I loved how clever and creative it felt. I think the format also made the book very readable and fast-paced, which was perfect since I was reading it beachside.

The entry format reveals so much about the characters and their relationship with one another, so I quickly grew to love each new thing I learned or discovered while reading. The characters' voices were all so unique - I never once had to flip back to remind myself of who was writing since the book includes six different perspectives. Moriarty definitely had a clear picture of who her characters were and how they spoke/wrote. As a reader, it just made me love them all the more.

If I had one complaint about this format, it would only be that I probably would have enjoyed it more if I was reading a hard copy of the book. Things don't always look right on a Kindle when the book relies on non-traditional formatting.

2. The Characters.
The three girl characters go to Ashbury, and the boys go to Brookfield. In an attempt to improve relationships between the two schools and remind students of the power of letters, the girls' English teacher creates a pen pal program. Each girl is paired with a boy from Brookfield, and the letters begin.

As I already mentioned, each of the characters had a really unique voice and personality. I loved getting to know them better! Even in a book that juggles so many perspectives, the characters all had depth. They were relatable, hilarious and such fun to spend time with. I love the friendship between the girls - how they take care of one other and tease each other.

And then there's the banter in the letters. Seriously, this book is heavy on the banter, which I adored. The girls are all witty and smart, and the boys are quite the charmers, too. Well, there's one that's not... but you'll see!

3. The Crazy.
Finally, I really loved the little stories and adventures that run through the letters and other entries. From pranks to lessons on dating, there's some hilarious and silly stuff that happens. It made for such a fun read! But there's also a serious aspect. A secret identity and a hurtful trick lead to a mystery and some hijinks in defense of the wronged friend. While I still would have loved the book without this conflict, I think it made it all the better to see the friends rally to protect one of their own.

So, be prepared for some shenanigans and craziness to ensue! Because you don't want to mess with these girls or there'll be hell to pay.

Just trust me!
I wasn't expecting a ton from this book, so I was completely caught off guard by how charming I found it. I realized later it was actually book two in a series, but I immediately fell right into the story and never felt like I was missing out on important information. If you want something light, funny and unique, I'd definitely recommend this book!

So Quotable
"For a start, I think I have this idea that I can do anything by writing. Like I can be myself if I write letters, and I can help my friends if I write Secret Assignments. Like I can change things, punish people, fall in love, and find myself, all by writing the right words. Maybe I'm just hiding behind the words?"

Off To A Good Start

Jul 30, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week they post a new topic/top ten list and invite everyone to share their own answers. I'm so obsessed with lists - so it makes perfect sense that I'd love this feature!

Top Ten Favorite Beginnings In Books

1. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife." - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

2. "Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like a Benihana chef, and ate them, one by one." - The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum

3. "My daddy used to say I had the devil in me." - Looking for Cassandra Jane by Melody Carlson

4. "It was difficult, later, to think of a time when Betsy and Tacy had not been friends." - Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace

5. "My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die." - Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

6. "If it had not rained on a certain May morning Valancy Stirling's whole life would have been entirely different." - The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

7. "Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amelie and Moulin Rouge." - Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

8. "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." - I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

9. "It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die." - The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

10. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Find the Clues

Jul 29, 2013

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

Release Date: April 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster | Gallery Books
Pages: 336 pages
Source & Format: Library; Hardcover
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Who is Lucie Walker? Even Lucie herself can't answer that question after she comes to, confused and up to her knees that the chilly San Francisco Bay. Back home in Seattle, she adjusts to life with amnesia, growing unsettled by the clues she finds to the selfish, carefully guarded person she used to be. Will she ever fall in love with her handsome, kindhearted fiance, Grady? Can he devote himself to the vulnerable, easygoing Lucie 2.0, who is so unlike her controlling former self? When Lucie learns that Grady has been hiding some very painful secrets that could change the course of their relationship, she musters the courage to search for the shocking, long-repressed childhood memories that will finally set her free.

Thoughts on Love Water Memory
I snagged this book off the New Releases shelf at the library - struck by the lovely cover as soon as I saw it. I just love the look of the watercolors. Having finished the book, I can also say that the cover really complements the story inside - simple but memorable.

The story opens with Lucie Walker standing knee-deep in the water of the San Francisco Bay. Strangers on the beach are concerned about her because she has no idea who she is and why she's there. She's checked into a hospital and diagnosed with dissociative fugue. It's a psychiatric disorder - reversible amnesia for personal identity. Lucie remembers who the President is, but she couldn't tell you anything about her life or identity. It's a state that's also associated with unplanned travel or wandering, which explains how Lucie finds herself in San Francisco even though she's from Seattle. She just has no idea how she got there.

Her fiance, Grady, comes to bring her home and is shocked to find that she's nothing like the woman he remembers. They must both learn how to rediscover each other - their pasts, their new identities and their future that hangs in the balance.

The novel is told from both Grady and Lucie's perspectives. I actually really liked this aspect. You can truly sense Lucie's fear and anxiety. You're also right there inside her head as she begins to experience different moments of lucidity and memory retrieval. Getting to see Grady's perspective allows you to understand his frustration and confusion. I enjoyed seeing them try to adjust to their changed roles.

Lucie is incredibly different in her before and after, so it's interesting to see all the puzzle pieces fall into place and her secrets start to be revealed.

There's a sense of sadness that hangs over this novel. Lucie and Grady are unsure around each other, and the tension is often thick. They're both hiding things from each other, so miscommunication plays a huge role in the book. There were a few times that I really wished the two people would just talk to each other (and avoid repeated misunderstandings), which made me occasionally frustrated with the characters. But, at the same time, I could see how it was a pattern in their relationship that they were having a hard time breaking. They're both so scared to talk to each other, to mess things up, that they often make things work.

Despite the somber tone, I enjoyed this book. A few things that didn't totally make sense and a slow pace kept me from loving this book, but it was still an interesting portrait of how we choose to define ourselves in light of our past.

So Quotable
"They stood together as if connected; their arms knew where to go, their bodies how to shift to accommodate each other. His cheek rested against her hair. Her head knew where to nest along his smooth neck; she inhaled and knew his scent. Lucie marveled at this, that their physical selves seemed to know each other so well, even though her mind was still trying to find clues to make it all fit."

The Classics Conundrum

Jul 26, 2013

An Introduction to Classics
If you've visited this corner of the Internet before, you may know that I love reading classics. I don't know when or how my love for them began, but I know that it helped having great teachers in high school who made them feel exciting and relevant to my life. Were they boring and confusing sometimes? Absolutely! But I was able to develop an appreciation for them that I still have today.

Not everyone feels that way about classics. For a lot of people, the word "classics" brings up images of assigned reading and antiquated language. You might picture dry, boring books that suck the life out of you while you're reading them. I understand that response - it really does make sense.

Classics are typically books that you have to read at some point in your life, and sometimes people turn up their noses if you haven't read certain classics... as if you're less of a reader because of it. All that combined, I understand why many readers aren't interested in classics.

My Classics Conundrum
But I'm sometimes torn on classics. These are two of my reading truths:
  • Reading should be enjoyable, and life is too short to read books that you dislike.
  • What you choose to read doesn't determine whether or not you're a "reader," and no one should be dismissed or belittled for what they like to read.
But I also believe these two things:
  • Sometimes, you have to work the hardest for the things that are most worth it.
  • Just as you shouldn't dismiss what others like to read, you shouldn't dismiss an entire category of books as something you "don't like" just because of experiences you've had in the past.
This is my classics conundrum. I can absolutely understand why people say things like: "I just don't like classics" or "Classics are hard to read, and I don't want to force myself through them." I get it! But it also makes me sad because it sounds so dismissive and final.

Classics are the foundation upon which literature is built. You wouldn't have the books you read today without the books that came before them. They've paved the way for books you know and love. Does that mean you're required to read classics? Certainly not. But I think you're missing out if you just dismiss them as a whole.

Why Read the Classics?
Writer Italo Calvino wrote a book titled Why Read the Classics? It's a collection of thirty-six essays that aim to answer this daunting question. While I haven't read the book, I've added it to my TBR after seeing Calvino's 14 definitions of a classic (source). Here are two definitions that stood out to me.
2. The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
As someone who has loved a number of classics, I wholeheartedly agree with Calvino's assessment that they are a "treasured experience." But I like the second part of that definition even more. I love the phrase "reserve the chance" because that's what I want to encourage non-classics readers to do. To give classics a chance WHEN the time is right. Classics aren't going anywhere - you don't have to rush out and read them right away. Just keep an eye out for when the time is right for you to give one a try.
11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
I love the idea of finding "your" classic. Not every classic will be a good fit for you, will impact you, or will stay with you. But that's true of books in general. I hate when people say - "Oh, young adult is so juvenile and cheesy." Are some young adult books more juvenile than others? Sure. Just like some classics are more boring than others. The goal is to find the classics that are a good fit for you!

8 Tips for Reading Classics
When you pick up a classic, you're reading a book that's been read and loved (or hated) by millions before you. It's simultaneously specific to the time in which it was written but often still relevant to your life today. So, here are eight things to try if you're just getting started with classics:

1. Adjust your attitude. Often, the first step is adjusting your attitude. You can't let past experiences or preconceived notions keep you from missing out on some of the best books history has to offer. Not interested in reading them now? That's cool. Just don't say never! Keep your reading horizons open. Don't read them out of obligation, but don't dismiss them entirely either.

2. Start at the beginning. I think one of the best ways to start reading classics, particularly if you've struggled with them in the past, is to start with children's classics. They're often more accessible and can be a great place to begin your classics journey. Whether it's Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables, there are so many great options out there to try. As you grow comfortable with children's classics, you can start branching out even more.

3. Go slow. Another thing I've found helpful is to take it slow when I'm reading a classic. I usually read really fast, so it's sometimes hard for me to adjust to reading classics because I need to read at a much slower pace. I usually need to go slow to fully grasp what is going on, what the characters are saying and how they're all related. So what do you do when feel like it's taking forever to finish one book? Well, great question...

4. Mix it up. I like to read classics while I'm reading something else. I'll pick other books that are lighter and faster reads, and I'll alternate which book I'm reading. It's hard to confuse the two books/plots since they're typically really different, so that avoids one issue many people have with reading multiple books at the same time. Reading a newer book and a classic at the same time often helps me enjoy the classic more than I would have if I'd devoted my attention solely to it.

5. Take a break. I don't usually read classics back-to-back. While some people can, I typically take a break after finishing a classic before I read another. It's nice to take a breather - to step away and focus on lighter/easier reads. It helps me clear my mind and get refreshed before diving into another challenging read.

6. Find a reading buddy. Any time I want to tackle a classic that intimidates me, I team up with my cousin, Rachel. We'll figure out a loose schedule so we're always in the same general section of the book, and then we just read and discuss via text message, email and/or phone calls. We motivate each other to keep going if there's a boring section. We get clarification from each other on plot points that we think are confusing. We share what quotes we've loved, what's made us stop and think, or what's made us want to toss the book across the room in frustration. It makes the reading experience so much better, particularly for a book that's difficult. We don't take it too seriously - it's just about having someone there to help you make it through to the other side when the going gets tough.

7. Do your research. While it's not always necessary, sometimes it helps me to do a little research on a classic before I begin. I want to know when it was written and at least a little bit about why it was influential at that time. What was the public's reaction to the book? What are some of the themes to be aware of while reading? For some classics, I'll even print out a list of the characters and their relationship to each other and then tuck it in the front of the book for reference. The point isn't to make it feel like homework - it's just to enrich your reading experience by being able to understand the book in its original context. It also helps me appreciate a book if I have a better sense of its significance in the literary landscape.

8. Apply yourself. Finally, look for ways that these books are still relevant to you today. It's easy to look at a classic and see nothing to applies to your life. After all, you aren't going to have to wear a literal scarlet letter for committing adultery like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. But haven't you seen references to and discussions about slut shaming in popular YA novels? Isn't Hester's story, in a way, just an early example of this concept? I enjoy classics more when I'm able to connect to them, to see myself or some aspect of my world in them, even when they were written in a completely different time and place.

Never Say Never
This isn't a post to guilt anyone into reading more classics because I'm certainly not the reading police. No one can tell you what you have or should to read. It just doesn't work that way. And I won't love anyone less for never picking up a classic.

But it's also good to stretch yourself and to be challenged to try new (or old) things. I've seen posts and comments lately where people just emphatically declare that classics (and occasionally other genres) aren't for them, and it reminds me of the adults I talk to who say they'll never read Young Adult books. "But why never?" I want to ask. Don't shut yourself off completely from books that are out of your comfort zone. You never know where a book might take you or what it might teach you.

Here is one of my favorite things I've found on the Internet. This graphic, created by Matchbook Magazine, lists 50 classic novels that are a great starting point if you've got no idea where to begin!
So, let's discuss!
How do you feel about the classics: love, hate or indifferent?
Thinking about trying any of the tips I mentioned?

The Grand Tour Continues

Jul 25, 2013

Grave Consequences by Lisa T. Bergren

Release Date: March 1, 2013
Publisher: David C. Cook
Pages: 448 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Series: The Grand Tour #2
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
For Cora Kensington, the journey of a lifetime take unexpected twists. And her future - her very life - depends on the decisions she'll make at each crossroad. As her European tour with her newfound family takes her through Austria, France, and Italy, an unseen enemy trails close behind. Meanwhile, a forbidden love continues to claim her heart, putting everyone's plans in danger.

And as Cora stays one step ahead of it all, what might need the most protection is her own heart, torn between the dramatic pursuit of a dashing Frenchman and a man who has been quietly staking claim to her affections all along. Love has dangers all its own. She must escape the bonds of the past and discover the faith to make the right choices, as each one has grave consequences.

Thoughts on Grave Consequences
Okay, so I immediately started Grave Consequences (book two in the Grand Tour series) after finishing Glamorous Illusions. The book picks up right where the previous one left off, which might be a little disconcerting for anyone who has let some time pass in between reading the two books. While I don't like too much recap at the beginning of a new book in a series, I do think it's sometimes necessary to transition into everything with a refresher on what happened previously.

As with Glamorous Illusions, I found Grave Consequences to be an entertaining read. There was a little more action in this book, which certainly improved some of the pacing issues I'd noted in the previous book. There were times were the action felt a little melodramatic - like I was reading a soap opera where things working out a little too perfectly or drama got a little too over-the-top.  But I didn't dislike the book because of it. I just think it's important to know that the book seems to lack a little depth overall.

One aspect that did become more central to the plot than the previous book is the love triangle. I think it serves the purpose of externalizing the internal conflict Cora keeps facing - who will she be in the future? One man is rich and the other poor. It's Cora's present and her past... but which one represents what she wants for her future? It was frustrating that this seemed to be the novel's driving conflict, but I can see how it represents the larger theme introduced in the first book.

However, I became frustrated by Cora's indecisiveness and the way she seemed to just string both guys along. While I don't think she was intentionally trying to hurt them, it often seemed like she was completely unaware of the effect of her actions. I also think she felt a little too modern at times - like her thought process didn't entirely make sense in the context of the time period in which she lives.

I liked many of the same things from the previous book - the theme, the characters and the setting - and also felt that the pacing was improved in this one. So that was really nice! I still struggled with the repetitive nature of certain thought processes, but I don't think it was as frustrating in this one as it was in the one before.

Reading this book was a little like watching reality TV for me. I really enjoy it and can spend hours doing so once I'm sucked into it. But at the same time, I don't really take anything away from it when I'm done. I liked this book and thought it was a fun summer read, but there wasn't a lot of depth or memorableness to it.

I'm still looking forward to finishing this trilogy and seeing how the conflicts are resolved. Grave Consequences was a quick read (despite being pretty long) and I liked it, even if I was a little disappointed by certain aspects. Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens next!

So Quotable
"Sometimes fear is something we must battle through. Other times it's something the Lord gives us to warn us to take heed."

*I received a copy of this book from David C. Cook in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for this review.

A Whole New World

Jul 24, 2013

Glamorous Illusions by Lisa T. Bergren

Release Date: June 1, 2012
Publisher: David C. Cook
Pages: 416 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Kindle ebook
Series: The Grand Tour #1
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
When Cora Kensington learns she is the illegitimate daughter of a copper king, her life changes forever. Even as she explores Europe with her new family, she discovers that the most valuable journey is within. The first book in the Grand Tour series takes you from the farms of Montana through England and France on an adventure of forgiveness, spiritual awakening, and self-discovery.

Thoughts on Glamorous Illusions
I bought Glamorous Illusions when it was free for Kindle in one of those random sales, and then I just let it sit there for a while. I adored the cover, but I didn't have the motivation to actually read it. The downside for me to getting a book for free is that it usually spends a lot of time on my TBR before I finally get around to reading it.

When my best friend told me that she had enjoyed this book, I figured it was time to finally dive into the world of Cora Kensington and family. It also helped that, at that point, I already had the next two books in the series from NetGalley. Glamorous Illusions is the first in the Grand Tour series, which is a Christian historical fiction trilogy. The second book, Grave Consequences, was published this past March and the third and final book, Glittering Promises, will be published this coming October. Since the Summer Series Challenge is encouraging me to prioritize the series in my TBR, I was raring to go with this one.

The novel opens with Cora returning home for the summer from school where she's studying to become a teacher. She knows that her parents' farm is struggling due to the lack of rain, but she and her mother are completely caught off guard when her father has a stroke. When his health worsens, Cora and her mother fear the worst. They might lose him and their home in one tragic blow.

That's when Cora learns a long-kept secret. She's the illegitimate daughter of her mother's former employer, a powerful copper king. He was married and Cora's mother was in his employ, so she married someone else and moved away. While he wasn't the one to raise her, he's kept tabs on his daughter over the years and now he's paying her a visit. He offers her a chance to get the best medical care for her father and save her childhood home. But it comes with a price - she's got to join his three other children on a Grand Tour through Europe. It's a journey that he promises will change her life, and he's right in more ways than one. Things will never be the same for Cora.

What I Liked
  • The theme. While the premise is a little far-fetched, I liked the question that is at its heart. What do you do when you find out that everything you knew about yourself was a lie? How do you react and who do you become as a result of that news? This book is all about discovering yourself and, once you know who you are, remaining true to yourself. I really like this concept and theme because I think it's so relevant and worth considering.
  • The setting. Since the book occurs while the characters are taking their Grand Tour of Europe, it's probably a given that I enjoyed the setting. I love books that involve travel, and it was fun to read about a tradition that meant so much to society. While I wish we'd been able to "see" a little more of the places the group travels to, I really enjoyed the journey in Glamorous Illusions.
  • The characters. There were moments when the characters annoyed me (which happens with real people in real life, too), but I really enjoyed the people in this book overall. I liked that Cora was stubborn, independent and wasn't cowed by others. William seemed really believable, and I was absolutely rooting for him. I even thought that Cora's siblings and their reaction to her introduction into their lives seemed realistic. I enjoyed spending time with these characters!
What I Disliked
  • The multiple narrators. This book tells the story from three different perspectives - Cora's, William's (the Tour guide), and Cora's biological father. While it's nice to understand the thoughts and motivations of the two men, I kept wishing I could just focus on Cora. It's just a personal reading preference, but I don't always love when a book flips back and forth between different characters. As a reading experience, I think it can make a book feel choppy and leave you a little disconnected from the story. And that's what I felt at times with this one. I wanted to get back to Cora and found the other perspectives to be distracting instead of crucial to the book.
  • The internal dialogue. I enjoy books with a first-person narrator, but I found it a little annoying at times in Glamorous Illusions because you can't escape the character's constant thought process. Cora keeps many of her feelings internalized, so much of the action felt like it was just her internal running thoughts on what was going on. She'd have a dilemma, think and/or pray about it, and then have a "revelation" that was supposedly going to have a huge impact on her journey. It just seemed like that happened too many times and became a little too noticeable.
  • The pacing. Finally, this dislike ties into the one mentioned above. Since the book focuses so heavily on Cora's thoughts, the pacing felt like it was off at times. There wasn't enough action, and the action that did occur didn't have the tension that would have had me racing to find out more. The end is also very action-heavy in a way that left the book a little unbalanced. If this had been a little evener, I think I would have "really liked" this book instead of just "liking" it.
All in all, Glamorous Illusions was a fun read. I definitely think it's a "me" book, so it was a spot-on recommendation from my friend. Historical fiction, travel, society... all things I love reading about it. Despite a few frustrations with the pacing and Cora's constant internal dialogue, I definitely think it lives up to its lovely cover and was a delightful summer read!

So Quotable
"The question isn't how society defines you, nor how I define you, but rather how God defines you, and in turn, how you want yourself to be defined."

Don't Forget to Write

Jul 23, 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Release Date: July 2013
Publisher: Random House | Ballantine
Pages: 304 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole's atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland's remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence - sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets - their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he'll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth's daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn't understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth's house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth's whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

Thoughts on Letters from Skye
I read Letters from Skye while sitting on the beach, and it was the perfect read for a quick trip back into time. As a lover of historical fiction, I was really excited to pick up this debut novel set during two time periods I enjoy reading about - World War I and II.

Letters from Skye is an epistolary novel, meaning it's written entirely as letters between the main characters. The book is primarily centered around one couple, Elspeth and David, but it also includes letters between Elspeth's daughter, Margaret, and her fiancé. In many ways, the novel feels like a bit of a mystery. We're immediately introduced to David Graham because the book opens with a fan letter he's writing to Elspeth Dunn, a poetess who lives on the Isle of Skye.

While I'm often apprehensive about epistolary novels, I was sucked into this one almost immediately. Reading the correspondence between David and Elspeth allows you to get to know the characters on a really personal level from the very first page. You are able to see their friendship blossom in a realistic way, and so it's also easy to see how their feelings transition into more. Their writing styles and "voices" were really unique, so it was easy to distinguish between the two characters while I was reading. That's an absolute must in a book written only with letters, so I was pleased that this was never confusing while reading.

Margaret's storyline was a little underdeveloped, but I don't think it was a flaw in the novel. Her letters and story were there to complement the larger story of Elspeth and David, so her story doesn't receive as much attention or detail. But that didn't bother me, since there's an air of mystery that her perspective adds to the book. As a reader, you're able to see the two storylines converging. Margaret wants to piece together the past and understand her mother, and we get to take that journey along with her.

What's interesting to me is that I really enjoyed this novel, even though I didn't fall in love with the romance between the two main characters. They are facing a dilemma - whether they should act on their feelings (despite the pain that will result) or deny what they feel for the sake of what's "right." Truthfully, I wasn't really rooting for the couple because their relationship was founded on unfaithfulness. But I still liked Letters from Skye, even though I wasn't entirely invested in the romance.

One thing I loved about the letters is how "real" they felt. I could imagine these two individuals waiting for their words to cross the ocean and reach each other. They are letters that are meant to be savored, revisited and cherished. This was evident from the letters, and it made me enjoy this novel all the more. The book moved really quickly, and it wasn't long before I was turning the last page.

Letters from Skye felt like it was, at its heart, a celebration of the written word. A story about the power of words and letters to "stir the heart," as the book summary states. The book was a quick read that was moving, quiet and delightful. I'd absolutely recommend it for fans of historical fiction!

So Quotable
"Envelopes. Always envelopes in my life."

*I received a copy of this book from Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

I Spy...

Jul 22, 2013

Spies and Prejudice by Talia Vance

Release Date: June 2013
Publisher: Egmont Press
Pages: 304 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Fields' Rule #1: Don't fall for the enemy,

Berry Fields is not looking for a boyfriend. She's busy trailing cheaters and liars in her job as a private investigator, collecting evidence of the affair she's sure all men commit. And thanks to a pepper spray incident during an eighth grade game of spin the bottle, the guys at her school are not exactly lining up to date her, either.

So when arrogant - and gorgeous - Tanner Halston rolls into town and calls her "nothing amazing," it's no loss for Berry. She'll forget him in no time. She's more concerned with the questions surfacing about her mother's death.

But why does Tanner seem to pop up everywhere in her investigation, always getting in her way? Is he trying to stop her from discovering the truth, or protecting her from an unknown threat? And why can't Berry remember to hate him when he looks into her eyes?

With a playful nod to Jane Austen, Spies and Prejudice will captivate readers as love and espionage collide.

Thoughts on Spies and Prejudice
As a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice and Veronica Mars, I was immediately interested in this book! Strawberry (Berry) Fields is a private investigator for her father, just like in Veronica Mars. She's perfected the art of the stakeout, and her dad's been entrusting her with some of his most important cases for years since (as she points out) nobody pays very much attention to kids. They'll never suspect her of spying!

She's on a stakeout with her best friend, Mary Chris Moss, when Berry spies Mr. Moss (Mary Chris' dad) in a questionable situation. Her years as a PI have left her jaded, and she immediately suspects that he's cheating. Snapping a few quick pictures, she waits until later to investigate what she's seen. Going through the photos on her computer once she's home, Berry notices her mother's letterhead on a piece of paper Mr. Moss was holding. Which is strange... because Berry's mom is dead. Something strange is going on, and Berry's got to find out how her mother is connected to it all.

As you can guess from the title, there are a number of parallels to Pride and Prejudice in this story. The blurb calls this "a playful nod to Jane Austen," and I think that's accurate. It's a fun and quirky take on Austen's famous novel. However, I often feel like adaptations rely so heavily on the source material that they no longer feel original or I spend all my time trying to identify how the two compare (such as, "Oh, this character must be the Wickham!"). So, unfortunately, I think the Pride and Prejudice aspect hampered the story in some ways because I'm such an avid lover of the classic novel. 

It immediately associated this story with Austen's in my mind, and I couldn't help but compare. Even though they were totally different! Unfortunately, I'd also just finished Ally Carter's Heist Society series. I say unfortunately because Carter and Vance's books are very similar in topic and tone, so I was also comparing Spies and Prejudice to those books.

That being said, there were a number of things I really enjoyed about this book. Berry's friendship with Mary Chris seemed really realistic. You can see how much they love each other, and I love books with girls who are genuinely good friends and really look out for each other. Even when they argue, you can tell that they'll work it out in the end. The detective aspect was really fun, too. Although it didn't feel entirely believable that a teenager would be doing all these things, I still had fun reading about it.

The plot is entertaining, and I thought it moved quickly. There's always something going on - so it's a fast-paced read with enough action to keep you hooked. However, I did feel like it was somewhat predictable. And I didn't find the mystery 100% believable - to the point that I thought, "Really?!" when all was revealed.

Despite those quibbles, I thought this was a humorous and mysterious take on a well-known story. If you want a strong heroine with a dash of mystery, I'd recommend Spies and Prejudice. It's funny, cute and would be a great pick when you need something light!

So Quotable
"There's a reason it's easier to talk to strangers than people you love. Strangers don't come with preformed expectations about who you are. Strangers don't hold you to a higher standard than you deserve. Strangers won't be hurt by anything you say."

*I received a copy of this book from Egmont in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Redemption & Restoration

Jul 20, 2013

Popular by Tindell Baldwin

Release Date: June 21, 2013
Publisher: Tyndale
Pages: 238 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Tindell Baldwin's words best describe her passion and this book:

"My heart is for teenage girls because my story is much like so many of theirs. I was just a girl who made a lot of mistakes. I was a girl who had sex before marriage and then had a broken heart. I was a girl who was desperate to be popular. A girl who, like so many others, didn't know the dark side of sin. So my aim is to reach teenage girls, and through an honest account of my darkest sins, show them what they are up against. My heart is that teens would hear my story and flee to Christ. My greatest desire is that God would be glorified above all else."

Through a two-part journey ("Dark" and "Light"), Tindell describes how she said goodbye to her family's God and pursued popularity at all costs while climbing the social chain in high school. During a night of partying, she even encountered the man suspected of killing Natalee Holloway in Aruba. But God did not leave Tindell. The "Light" part of her story shows how she reconnected with God, changed her ways, and discovered abundant and real life through Christ.

Thoughts on Popular
Although I'm not a teenage girl and not necessarily the target audience for this book, I knew I wanted to read Tindell's story. She grew up in a family with parents who loved each other, loved Jesus and raised their kids to glorify Him. I was actually familiar with her brother's name because he is a well-known worship leader at a church here in Georgia. So, I was intrigued and wanter to hear her story.

In her teenage years, Tindell started rebelling against her parents and their rules. She didn't see anything wrong with the choices she wanted to make, and she wanted to be liked by others. Her desire to be popular caused her to turn her back on the things she'd been raised to believe. In her memoir, she calls this period "Dark." Tindell doesn't hold anything back in telling her story. She's honest and vulnerable, and you can absolutely see her heart on every page. It almost reads like a diary, and I think that made this a particularly powerful section of her book.

In the "Light" section, she describes her life and her heart after she'd truly come to know the Lord. It almost brought me to tears when she talked about finding forgiveness and grace because you can see her joy. It's truly a transformation! I was struck by a line that talked about how God forgives sin, but He doesn't take away the memory of it. I could feel her pain and regret, but her made her journey to redemption all the sweeter.

For anyone who feels like they've gone too far or made too many mistakes, Tindell brings a message of hope, of love and of restoration. But she's also honest about the consequences of her choices. Her book didn't read like a warning message to teens. It felt like someone sitting down over coffee and just sharing their story and pouring out their heart. She talks about finding a truly fulfilling life - one that isn't about the rules but is rooted in a relationship. Popular is like a conversation put to paper.

If I have anything negative to say about the book, it's only that I don't know if teens who are actually making these same choices would read it. While I think they could likely relate to the emotions and experience she describes, I don't know that they'd be open to taking the time to read Popular. Either way, I think her message would resonate with them if they did.

On so many levels, I loved this book. While I've had different experiences in my life, I still found her relatable and refreshing in her honesty. Tindell knows that she's not perfect and has truly seen the power of grace in her life.

Popular is a powerful testimony, and I love how God can use Tindell's story to touch others' lives. I think it's incredibly courageous of her to put her darkest moments out there for the world to see, and I hope that others will be touched by her message of redemption and grace.

So Quotable
"God has never won people over with dos and dont's; He wins them over with His compassion and love. And then, after He wins their hearts, He guides them to a more fulfilling life. The rules are nothing; the relationship is everything."

*I received a copy of this book from Tyndale in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

A Rip Roarin' Ride

Jul 19, 2013

Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer

Release Date: June 2013
Publisher: Bethany House
Pages: 347 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
On his way to interview for a position at a church in the Piney Woods of Texas, Crockett Archer can scarcely believe it when he's forced off the train by a retired outlaw and presented to the man's daughter as the minister she requested for her birthday. Worried this unfortunate detour will ruin his chances of finally serving a congregation of his own, Crockett is determine to escape. But when he finally gets away, he's haunted by the memory of the young woman he left behind - a woman whose dreams now hinge on him.

For months, Joanna Robbins prayed for a preacher. A man to breathe life back into the abandoned church at the heart of her community. A man to assist her in fulfilling a promise to her dying mother. A man to help her discover answers to the questions that have been on her heart for so long. But just when it seems God has answered her prayers, it turns out the person is there against his will and has dreams of his own calling him elsewhere. Is there any way she can convince Crockett to stay in her little backwoods community? And does the attraction between them have any chance of blossoming when Joanna's outlaw father is dead set against his daughter courting a preacher?

Thoughts on Stealing the Preacher
I have a soft spot for Christian historical fiction, and I first discovered Karen Witemeyer in 2011. I've since read all of her books and have enjoyed the sweet romances. Stealing the Preacher, her newest book, continues the story of one of the characters introduced in her previous book, Short-Straw Bride. Readers first met Crockett Archer in the previous book, but they are able to truly see him come into his own in Stealing the Preacher.

Crockett is the brother that wanted to be a preacher and the one that helped his brothers grow spiritually. Now on his own, he's headed to a church for the chance to finally lead his own congregation. His train his held up by bandits, but it's not ordinary robbery. They're stealing the preacher!

Silas Robbins made a promise to his daughter, Joanna, and he's not going to let her down. She wanted a preacher, and he's ready to provide one by any means necessary. Crockett is willing to hear Joanna out, and he discovers why she's so desperate for a pastor that can help her bring her father to faith.

Personally, I didn't really love this beginning. Something about it just didn't ring true, and it sort of left me wanting a little more from the book as a whole. Silas Robbins is wary of Christians and preachers in particular. He's had a bad experience with them in the past, and he wants nothing to do with them now. But everything about Crockett confuses him. Crockett is a hard worker, and he stands up for himself and what he believes.

Of course, circumstances bring Crockett back to the Robbins' ranch... and you'll have to read the book to find out what happens from there!

This was my least favorite of Witemeyer's books, but I think it's because I wasn't really connecting to the conflict in the story. I liked that Crockett was a cowboy preacher and that Joanna was so mature and grounded in her faith, so it wasn't that I didn't like the characters. I think that it just felt somewhat predictable at times, so I felt like I always had an idea of what was coming.

There was only one aspect I truly disliked, and it involved the difference between the two main female characters. Joanna is presented as perfect and the very picture of purity, and Holly (another young lady) is depicted as conniving, selfish, and basically wicked. I disliked that they seemed like such black and white characters. It seemed very much like the angel versus the fallen woman, and it didn't really sit well with me.

The other central tension in the book is the story of Silas and his lack of faith. I found this aspect of the plot more enjoyable and realistic. While it was still somewhat predictable, I liked the discussion about and focus on telling the truth and trusting God. Both of these issues are at the heart of Silas' story, which I found much less problematic than the other conflict in the story.

While it's a book I found a little lacking, I did like this story overall. It was entertaining, and I think fans of Witemeyer or Christian historical fiction will enjoy it.

So Quotable
"Why was it that thoughts and plans always made more sense when confined to one's mind than when they exited one's mouth?"

*I received a copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

A Royal Romance

Jul 18, 2013

Once Upon a Prince by Rachel Hauck

Release Date: May 2013
Publisher: Zondervan
Pages: 352 pages
Series: The Royal Wedding Series #1
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Susanna Truitt never dreamed of a great romance or being treated like a princess - just to marry the man she has loved for twelve years. But life isn't going according to plan. When her high-school-sweetheart-turned-Marine-officer breaks up instead of proposing, Susanna scrambles to rebuild her life.

The last thing Prince Nathaniel expects to find on his American holiday to St. Simon's Island is the queen of his heart. A prince has duties, and his family's tense political situation has chosen his bride for him. When Prince Nathaniel comes to Susanna's aid under the fabled Lover's Oak, he is blindsided by love.

Their lives are worlds apart. He's a royal prince. She's an ordinary girl. But everything changes when Susanna receives an invitation to Nathaniel's coronation.

Thoughts on Once Upon a Prince
I'll be completely honest and tell you that the cover and title of this book immediately caught my eye. Then, I read the summary and knew I was hooked. The book includes two things that I included in my Top Ten Tuesday post about words that make me instantly pick up a book - Georgia and royalty.

Once Upon a Prince opens with Susanna getting the worst news of her life. Instead of the proposal she expected, her boyfriend of twelve years is breaking up with her. The plans she made and the future she envisioned won't be coming true, and she hardly knows what to do with herself. It doesn't help that she's from a small place where news travels fast. It's not long before everyone knows that she's been rejected.

Susanna grapples with the realization that she cared more about comfort and stability than passion and devotion. Heartbroken and in shock, she confides in a man named Nate. Well, his name is actually Prince Nathaniel, but she doesn't know that yet. Nate, on the other hand, is basking in the freedom of being unknown and developing a friendship that isn't influenced by his royal title. Of course, Nate can't keep his secret forever. Sooner or later, the truth will come out.

I enjoyed Susanna's struggle to come to terms with the past and the way it's influenced her actions in the present. There was so much upheaval and instability in her parent's marriage that she's clung so tightly to what's familiar. Her relationship may not have been incredible, but it was safe. I really enjoyed this aspect - the idea of holding on to something good but potentially losing out on what's best in the process.

I adore movies like The Princess Diaries and The Prince and Me, so I was already predisposed to love this book. There's just something about the idea of a happily ever after, of an ordinary girl who is chosen by a prince, that just resonated with me and made for a delightful read. As a Christian fiction novel, it's a clean, light and feel-good read. The romance is sweet and charming (although lacking in the swoon department), but I still found myself grinning at the pages.

In many ways, it really did read like a modern-day Cinderella. The only aspect of the plot that I didn't really love was the character Aurora, who was essentially the fairy godmother of the story. She felt a little too magical and didn't really fit with the tone of the rest of the book. Otherwise, from the setting to the sweetness, I thoroughly enjoyed this fairy tale!

For someone who is so obsessed with William and Kate, this book really hit the spot. I've already recommended it to a few friends who can't get enough of royal romances!

*I received a copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

The Joy of Strife

Jul 17, 2013

Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio

Release Date: October 2008
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Pages: 684 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Mary Henley Rubio has spent over two decades researching Montgomery's life, and has put together a comprehensive and penetrating picture of this Canadian literary icon, all set in rich social context. Extensive interviews with people who knew Montgomery - her sons, maids, friends, relatives, all now deceased - are only part of the material gathered in a journey to understand Montgomery that took Rubio to Poland and the highlands of Scotland.

From Montgomery's apparently idyllic childhood in Prince Edward Island to her passion-filled adolescence and young adulthood, to her legal fights as a world-famous author, to her shattering experiences with motherhood and as the wife to a deeply troubled man, this fascinating, intimate narrative of her life will engage and delight.

Thoughts on The Gift of Wings
It feels like I've always adored L.M. Montgomery because her books are so intertwined with my childhood. I first fell in love with Anne Shirley, but I quickly grew to love her other heroines and quirky secondary characters. I'd originally planned to re-read a number of her books last summer, but I ended up just spending time with the first three Anne books.

Well, I got the L.M. Montgomery itch again this year and picked up on the Anne series where I'd last left off. Revisiting a series that meant so much to me was a delight, but I also saw some aspects of it in a whole new light as my age and experiences brought new parts of the books to life. That's something I love about re-reading - a book is never quite the same each time you read it. The words may not have changed, but your interaction with it does.

So, my Anne re-read made me curious about the woman behind the books. What was she like? How did her life impact or inspire her writing? And what was her story? While I knew a little about her life (from previous reading), I didn't know her full history. This book is considered the definitive Montgomery biography at almost 700 pages, and I was excited (but a little intimidated) to dive in.

As with many biographies, this book will likely be most interesting to Montgomery fans. While it's a well-written and engaging book in its own right, I do think that you'd want to have read and enjoyed some of her books to fully appreciate this biography. For the most part, I found the book to be incredibly interesting. It never felt boring or pedantic (although I did enjoy some sections more than others).

Since Montgomery lived various places during the different stages of her life, Rubio has divided the book into sections that correspond to those places and time periods. Montgomery was a prolific journaler throughout her life, and I believe the book sections also correspond to the five volumes of her journals that have been published. I did wish for a little more information about the Prince Edward Island period of her life since it covers the largest span of time (36 years) but only represents about a fourth of the book. I do have theories about why this is the least represented time of her life (such as the fact that she appeared to journal more heavily in her later years), but it did leave me wanting more in the very beginning of the book.

I have not read Montgomery's journals, but Rubio does reference them often in the book. I didn't feel as though I needed to have read them to understand the events taking place, but there were a few times that I wished Rubio had perhaps elaborated a little more on certain events. However, in other cases, there were a few details that were repeated a number of times (within a few pages of each other and almost word-for-word) to the point that the repetition was a little annoying. Either way, the research that Rubio put into this book is clearly evident.

What's interesting about Montgomery's life is that there is a central conflict between, as she describes it, her "passionate Montgomery blood and the Puritan Macneill conscience." This battleground - the tension between passion and conscience - is highlighted throughout her life. Another key discussion point in her life is depression and mental illness. Montgomery and her husband both suffered in ways that made their lives so tragic. These overarching themes make for a fascinating character study, particularly in light of how "happy" most of her novels are.

There is also interesting information about her sons, one of whom broke her heart and embarrassed the family with his behavior, and the way her relationship with them impacted her mental state. I was also intrigued by the information about the lawsuits with her American publisher and getting a peek at her writing process. She was continually producing more work - from full-lenth novels to short stories - and I loved getting to see how her books and life both overlapped and diverged.

Montgomery's work was highly praised when her debut novel, Anne of Green Gables, was published but she had fallen out of favor with the literary world by the end of her life. It was heartbreaking to read about how a beloved author was ultimately shunned and shut out from the world she loved so much. This was an aspect that made me want to do further research on her place in Canadian literature.

There's so much I could say about this book - from the research that went into it to the revelations about her life - but I think it's enough to say that this has been one of my favorite reads of 2013 so far. If you love Montgomery's books, I'd highly recommend this biography for a look at the woman behind the pages. I think Montgomery's struggles make me appreciate her books all the more because it's even clearer to me now how much writing meant to her.

So Quotable
"One cannot have imagination and the gift of wings, along with the placidity and contentment of those who creep on the earth's solid surface and never open their eyes on aught but material things. But the gift of wings is better than placidity and contentment..."

All Bets Are Off

Jul 16, 2013

Perfect Scoundrels by Ally Carter

Release Date: February 5, 2013
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Pages: 328 pages
Source & Format: Library; Hardcover
Series: Heist Society #3
Amazon Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Katarina Bishop and W.W. Hale the Fifth were born to lead completely different lives: Kat comes from a long, proud line of loveable criminal masterminds, while Hale is the scion of one of the most seemingly perfect dynasties in the world. If their families have one thing in common, it's that they both know how to stay under the radar while getting - or stealing - whatever they want.

No matter the risk, the Bishops can always be counted on, but in Hale's family, all bets are off when money is on the line. When Hale unexpectedly inherits his grandmother's billion dollar corporation, he quickly learns that there's no place for Kat and their old heists in his new role. But Kat won't let him go that easily, especially after she gets tipped off that his grandmother's will might have been altered in an elaborate con to steal the company's fortune. So instead of being the heir - this time, Hale might be the mark.

Forced to keep a level head as she and her crew fight for one of their own, Kat comes up with an ambitious and far-reaching plan that only the Bishop family would dare attempt. To pull it off, Kat is prepared to do the impossible, but first, she has to decide if she's willing to save her boyfriend's company if it means losing the boy.

Thoughts on Perfect Scoundrels
I loved the parallel between this book and the very first, Heist Society. In the first book, Kat's con affected her dad and his future. Now, she's got to risk everything for her boyfriend, W.W. Hale the Fifth, and it's a job that could change his entire future.

When Perfect Scoundrels begins, things are finally looking up for this couple. It's taken forever (!) for them to be together, but it finally seems like they are on the same page and their relationship is moving forward. I was SO EXCITED because hello, I love Hale. He's handsome, rich, kind and mysterious enough to keep you guessing (but not in a bad way).

And then... Hale's grandmother passes away and he unexpectedly becomes the head of her billion dollar corporation. It's a role that means a lot to him because of his relationship and love for his grandmother. Since he's often overlooked by his family, this news feels like validation and confirmation that he is capable of doing great things.

The new responsibility introduces a little tension into Kat and Hale's relationship. After all, the gap between their two worlds is widening by the minute. And the tension just grows when Kat suspects that the will might have been altered and be part of an elaborate con. Should she tell Hale? And if she does, how will he take the news that the gesture that meant so much to him might not have been real?

Kat is wrestling with what seems like an impossible choice. If she investigates the suspicious events, will she lose the boy in the process? I loved seeing Kat navigate these tricky waters and figure out what the right thing is to do, regardless of the risks or result.

Just like the previous two books, the group dynamics are one of my favorite parts of this series! I love when the team is all gathered, brainstorming and debating how they'll pull off an impossible heist. From the names of the cons to the hilarious banter, Ally Carter really nails this aspect. It makes these books such a fun read!

I also loved that we see a little more depth in this book. Whereas the previous two were very light and funny, these have a little more emotional weight. It's still ultimately a fun read, but I loved the relationship tension because it gave both Kat and Hale a chance to grow and mature. The loss of Hale's grandmother sparks some emotional moments that made the characters seem more real and made me love them all the more.

This is my absolutely my favorite book of the series. It's got all the elements of the previous books (an impossible heist and the incredible group) with the added dose of emotion and tension that had me wishing for a book four so I could see where the characters go from here. Hopefully, there will be more Heist Society books to come!

So Quotable
"The things that are most precious to us are sometimes the most secret."
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