Book Series I’ve Finally Finished Reading!

All of the latest book series I've finally finished reading (some of these are all-time favorites!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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There are so many book series that I’ve enjoyed and yet took forever to finish reading, and I’ve finally decided to make finishing some of those series a priority. Okay, some of these series are ongoing, but I’ve read all the books that have been published, so I think that’s close enough!

(Please note that, because I’m providing a quick summary of many or all the books in a series, there will be spoilers!)

Flavia de Luce

I’ve read a couple of these books previously (reviews here and here), and I was glad to pick them up again. Flavia is as precocious and irritating as ever, which depending on your point of view is either the whole charm of the series or the reason you hate it.

The latest books in this series are Speaking from Among the Bones, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. I found Speaking from Among the Bones a particularly great continuation of the series, as Flavia actually starts connecting with her sisters, Feely and Daffy, as their lives start changing and Buckshaw is sold.

Unfortunately, I thought the quality of the series started to decline with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Flavia is still a wonderful character, but (*spoiler alert*) the fact that she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is secretly training her to be a secret agent feels like an unrealistic twist to a *mostly* realistic mystery series.

In Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia returns to England, where she finds her father in the hospital and a corpse hanging from a door, and the series gets back to normal. I’m hoping that further installments in the series will follow that trend, rather than the out-of-left-field twist in As Chimney Sweepers.

Incorrigible Children

This series is one of my favorite reads of 2017! Penelope Lumley, a young governess in Victorian England, is hired to care for three children with a unique problem–they were literally raised by wolves. Miss Lumley has high expectations for her pupils, and she lovingly guides them through learning both table manners and epic poems.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the Incorrigible children, and possibly Miss Lumley, too. As the children and their governess (along with the oblivious Lord Ashton and his spoiled wife) travel throughout England and face various strange and hilarious perils, we uncover more and more of the mystery behind these children.

This series has been described as Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of narration which is very charming, and the series puts a fun twist on Gothic elements. If you like silly, strange MG novels, you’ll like the Incorrigible Children series.

Miss Peregrine

I had to look up a synopsis of the first book before reading the rest of the series because it has been so long since I read it. In case you, like me, need a quick review, here it is: After the dramatic events of the first book, in which Jacob finds out that he is one of a group of peculiar children and discovers that he can see the hollowgasts that are trying to hurt him and his new friends, Jacob and his friends have to fight off hollowgasts and wights in order to get Miss Peregrine back to her human form.

Am I glad I finished this series? Yes, although I won’t remember these books a few months from now. The books are quirky and strange, and the photographs are always a highlight, but I wish they had been a bit more memorable. Still, the sweet ending was worth it for me.

Septimus Heap

Ahhhh I loved this series so much! After reading the first book years ago, I was finally inspired to read the rest of the Septimus Heap series, and I’m soooo glad I did! To me, this was a more lighthearted, MG take on a Harry Potter-esque series. But don’t let that scare you off–there’s enough of a difference between that series and this one that Septimus Heap doesn’t suffer from the comparison.

As the story progresses from Magyk, in which Septimus finds out who his true family is and becomes the apprentice to the wizard Marcia, we go through Flyte, in which Septimus has some growing pains as a wizard; Physik, when Septimus gets sent back in time and Jenna, Nicko, and Snorri attempt to save him; Queste, in which Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle have to rescue Nicko and Snorri from the House of Foryx (and Septimus gets sent on a deadly queste); and Syren, when Septimus, Jenna, Beetle, Wolf Boy, and Lucy all end up on an island with a syren and Tertius Fume tries to release an army of jinn.

So many things happen in those books that it’s difficult to provide a summary–you’ll just have to read them yourself! But the last two books were my favorites by far. in Darke, Septimus and his estranged brother Simon have to team up as a Darke Domaine takes over the Palace and tries to enter the Wizard Tower, despite Marcia’s best efforts. Merrin, Beetle, and many other characters from past books make an appearance as Jenna accidentally joins a witch’s coven and Septimus completes his Darke Week by exploring the Darke Halls and searching for Alther’s ghost. And finally, Fyre, the finale of the series. I loved having all the gang back together, and Septimus gets to finally resolve some of the plot threads that have been hanging for books.

If you like magic, dragons, quirky characters, and plot threads that continue throughout the series and are resolved in a most satisfying fashion, you have to read the Septimus Heap series. I can’t recommend it enough.

What I’m Into + Small Goals: September 2017

I'm sharing what I'm into and my small goals for the upcoming month. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I’m linking up with writes like a girl for my September small goals, and Leigh Kramer for my monthly what I’m into.

Despite the temperature, which continues to hover around 95 degrees here in SWFL, summer is officially over! I spent much of this month battling anxiety, which meant a lot of my plans went undone. But I’m over the hump, and I’m starting to feel ready to buckle down and get things done in September.

  • Get paperwork in order. Yessss. One of my most boring adulting skills is filing paperwork, and I’m happy to say I was able to utilize that skill this month.
  • Go to the beach. Yeah, no. I’ll try this again in September.
  • Gear up for the busy season at work. Sort of… I didn’t prep new games like I wanted to (see above), but I did get my schedule in order. I’ll count this one as half completed.

1.5/3 for August? I’ll take it. Now for my September goals! (Will five goals be too many? We’ll see…)

  • Go for a walk every day after work. When I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I tend to want to curl up in a ball and ignore the world, but I know getting in some movement outside always helps me feel better.
  • Finish a couple of book series I’ve started but have yet to finish. Am I the only one who enjoys the first book in a series and then lets the later installments languish on the TBR list for months?
  • Listen to In the Heights. As obsessed as I am with Hamilton, it’s hard to believe it has taken me this long to listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous musical.
  • Spend time connecting with friends and family. September always reminds me of back to school and my old school friends, and it makes me realize how long it has been since I’ve spoken to some of them! I want to take a few minutes to text/email/call the friends and family members I haven’t been in contact with recently.
  • Scrapbook. People, I still have memorabilia floating around from my college graduation… which was over four years ago. I want to stick these items in a scrapbook where I can actually look at them.

What I’m Into

Books I’m looking forward to reading: I just started book five in the Incorrigibles series, and I can’t wait to reveal some answers to the mysteries in the previous book!

TV shows I’ve watched: My husband and I are finally watching the latest season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I think it’s the funniest season so far.

Instagram account I’m loving: This guy rescues cats in Istanbul and also plays piano with them. It’s super sweet.

My favorite Instagram:

I built an Ikea shelf a couple of weeks ago and was super proud of myself.

I built this ikea shelf all by myself and I'm feeling absurdly proud of it.

A post shared by Monica Fastenau (@monica.fastenau) on

If you’d like to follow me on Instagram (I post lots of book pictures and the occasional selfie), you can do so here.

If you want to see more of what I’m into every month, along with sneak peeks and my favorite posts from the blog, sign up for my email newsletter! It’ll show up in your inbox once a month and bring you the latest blog news and the things I’m loving.

What are you all up to this month? Let me know in the comments!

Fragile Chaos

Fragile Chaos, a YA novel about gods, love, war, and sacrifice, is one of my favorite books of the year. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received this ARC from the author as a contest prize. She did not ask for a review in exchange. All opinions are my own.

Theodric, the young God of War, has a talent for inciting conflict and bloodshed. After being stripped of his powers by his older brother, King of Gods, he sets out to instigate a mortal war to prove himself worthy of being restored to power.

Sixteen-year-old Cassia, like many in the modern era, believes gods and goddesses to be just a myth. Enemy to her country and an orphan of the war, she has no time for fairy tales. That’s until religious zealots from Theo’s sect offer her up as a sacrifice.

Can Cassia and Theo end the mortal war and return balance to the earth and heavens? Or, will their game of fate lead down a path of destruction, betrayal, and romance neither of them saw coming? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I absolutely loved this book! I don’t normally like mythological stories or books based on a romance, but this book defied all my expectations for those genres. Fragile Chaos reads almost like Beauty and the Beast set in the world of the gods.

Cassia, an unwilling sacrifice, is put in a position she never wanted to be in–an advocate to a god she didn’t believe in for the country that turned against her. Theo, the god of war who is forever a hot-headed seventeen year old, has to work against the distraction of Cassia as he fights with his brothers and sisters to regain his full powers and earn their respect.

Cassia and Theo, though both flawed characters who sometimes make rash decisions, struggle to make the right choices in a chaotic world. Cassia works to understand the politics of the gods she never believed in so she can find a way to escape, and Theo tries to figure out a way to keep war from devouring the mortal world while still fulfilling his purpose as the god of war.

We also get wonderful characters in the other gods, Theo’s advisor, and Cassia’s Kiskan acquaintances. There’s a good mix of fantasy and romance and war, and coming from someone who usually dislikes all three of these, that’s really something to pull off.

Basically, even though Fragile Chaos seems as if it were written for any reader but me, I couldn’t put it down. The characters are ones you can’t help but root for, the tension keeps you hooked but never seems over-dramatic, and if you like mythology and fantasy, they are wonderfully done. This book took me by surprise and landed a spot at the very top of my favorite reads of 2017.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Jasper Fforde–Shades of Grey and The Fourth Bear

My latest reads by a favorite author, Jasper Fforde. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I love Jasper Fforde‘s writing, especially his Thursday Next series, and recently I’ve been exploring some of his other novels. These books are both part of different series, and although I didn’t love them the way I love the Thursday Next books, I’m still glad I read them. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Shades of Grey

Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.

I enjoyed this book for Fforde’s sharp wit and creative world, but it’s much darker than his usual fare. Eddie is a young man growing up in a dystopian society in which your social status is based upon your color perception. There are the usual love across societal boundaries and discovery of governmental secrets that are so typical of dystopian novels, but I’m a fan of those tropes, so it worked for me. I did enjoy Shades of Grey, but I’m not sure I’m going to seek out the rest of the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Fourth Bear

The Gingerbreadman—psychopath, sadist, genius, and killer—is on the loose. But it isn’t Jack Spratt’s case. He and Mary Mary have been demoted to Missing Persons following Jack’s poor judgment involving the poisoning of Mr. Bun the baker. Missing Persons looks like a boring assignment until a chance encounter leads them into the hunt for missing journalist Henrietta “Goldy” Hatchett, star reporter for The Daily Mole. Last to see her alive? The Three Bears, comfortably living out a life of rural solitude in Andersen’s wood.

But all is not what it seems. How could the bears’ porridge be at such disparate temperatures when they were poured at the same time? Why did Mr. and Mrs. Bear sleep in separate beds? Was there a fourth bear? And if there was, who was he, and why did he try to disguise Goldy’s death as a freak accident?

A fun addition to the Nursery Crime series. As always, Fforde’s sense of humor will keep you coming back for more, even if the zany mystery doesn’t hold your interest (and it likely will). If you like quirky fairy tale retellings with a dash of mystery, you’ll probably enjoy this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Nonfiction Roundup: August 2017

In which I review the latest adult nonfiction books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s adult nonfiction roundup covers a lot of ground. There are fun how-to books, a biography (?), and some more serious fare as well. Whether you want to learn more about social issues or Jane Austen, there’s something here for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

$2.00 a Day

After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.

Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones) with her procurement of rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.

$2.00 a Day was fascinating and frustrating. The authors show how families across America are surviving on less than $2 per person per day. They explore welfare and other governmental assistance, attempts at getting and holding subpar jobs, and the role of abusive families in these people’s lives. If you don’t know much about these poorest of the poor in the U.S., this book will open your eyes. I found myself talking about the stories in this book for days, and I still think about the issues presented here whenever the discussion turns to poverty.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Jane Austen Education

Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same.

A pretentious English major learns to love Jane Austen as he grows and applies her lessons to his life. I love Jane Austen, but I really disliked the author’s take on her works. He’s “too good” for Austen, and it takes a lot of work for him to appreciate the lessons she teaches in her novels. Sure, there are a couple of interesting points about Austen’s works which I enjoyed, but I’m never a fan of pretentious authors, and that really impeded my enjoyment of this book.

Rating: Meh

The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.

In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims, separated from their names, are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths. It’s DIY CSI.

The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.

The Skeleton Crew provides an interesting look at the “web sleuths” who are helping solve cold cases involving missing persons and unidentified bodies. There’s a surprising amount of drama surrounding the web sleuth community, but the real draw for me was the solving of cases the police have given up on. The author weaves several real-life cold cases that were solved by amateur sleuths into her book, and I found myself racing to the end so I could discover who the unidentified bodies turned out to be.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

We Should All Be Feminists

With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

This succinct, insightful essay should be mandatory reading for all of us (cliche but true). If you or someone you know isn’t convinced that they are or should be a feminist, this essay is for you. It’s short enough that everyone can make time to read it. I’m certainly glad I did.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Little Book of Hygge

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

I like the ideas of hygge, but this book just rehashes a lot of things that are already familiar to many readers who have spent time on Pinterest. I feel the book would have worked better as a series of blog posts.

Rating: Meh

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

This book tells the interesting, upsetting, fascinating story of the woman whose cancer cells were stolen to create HeLa. HeLa became a line of cells that helped create polio vaccines, went into space, got blown up by nuclear bombs, and were experimented on in countless ways that advanced science and medical care by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Lacks’s family was never compensated for or even told of the HeLa cell line, and her descendants struggle to pay for their own medical bills.

The author goes on a journey to discover who Henrietta Lacks was, and along the way, she spends time with the Lacks family, medical researchers, and anyone else who has been affected by Henrietta’s cells. The book offers an exploration of ethics, racism, and law as they relate to medical research, and it made me think very differently about the research we do with human subjects. Although the book is part biography, part scientific exploration, it reads like a novel, even for those of us without a strong medical background.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla

A child’s concept of race is quite different from that of an adult. Young children perceive skin color as magical–even changeable–and unlike adults, are incapable of understanding adult predjudices surrounding race and racism. Just as children learn to walk and talk, they likewise come to understand race in a series of predictable stages.

Based on Marguerite A. Wright’s research and clinical experience, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla teaches us that the color-blindness of early childhood can, and must, be taken advantage of in order to guide the positive development of a child’s self-esteem.

This book was recommended to me as a useful book for people considering adopting a child of a different race, and although I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla was not written primarily with that focus in mind, I did find it very interesting for parents or teachers of any race who work with children of color. It offers Dr. Wright’s thoughts on how to raise healthy black and biracial children in our race-focused world, supported by dozens of stories and interviews from her own research on the topic. This book brought up a lot of points I wouldn’t have thought of, like the fact that children don’t see race/color the same way adults do, and that adults need to be careful not to impose our own racially tinted viewpoints on children.

I do wish there was an updated version–this book was published in the late 1990s, and I feel like there is more to say on this topic given the events that have taken place between then and now. Still, the book provides a lot of food for thought, and I’ll definitely reference it in the future.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC: Witch Chocolate Bites

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.

When novice witch Caitlyn Le Fey heads to an outdoor cinema festival at a beautiful Cotswolds manor, the last thing she expects is for the evening to end in murder. But when a dead man is found with fang marks in his neck and her old vampire uncle, Viktor, is arrested, Caitlyn must use all her newfound magic powers to clear his name.

Sleuthing isn’t simple, however, with so many strangers arriving at her grandmother’s enchanted chocolate shop: there’s the secretive village tenant with creepy Goth tastes, the inscrutable new butler at Huntingdon Manor–and a charming Frenchman keen to win Caitlyn’s heart. And that’s before she has to master the art of making the perfect chocolate soufflé or deal with a Levitation spell gone horribly wrong! Still, at least she has the help of a friendly English mastiff and her naughty kitten, Nibs, not to mention her sassy American cousin and all the village gossips! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you’ve been following this blog for long, you know that I’m a fan of H.Y. Hanna’s cozy mysteries, and I’m lucky enough to be part of her review team. Witch Chocolate Bites is the latest in the Bewitched by Chocolate series (you can see my other reviews of this series here, here, and here), which features Caitlyn, a budding witch who has just discovered her talent for magic, along with a family she never knew she had.

I enjoyed this story more than the others in the series. As always, Caitlyn’s cousin Pomona is a lot of fun, and we got a lot more scenes with Caitlyn and James. Caitlyn’s budding relationship with James is so good, and I can’t wait to see it grow! The magic in this book was even more integral to the story than in the past, which I enjoyed.

If you like cozy mysteries with a touch of the supernatural (and a bit of romance too), you might want to check out this frothy, fun series.

An Exploration of Christian Books

Today's post takes a deep dive into the Christian books I've been poring over recently. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In an attempt to better understand where I am in my faith and to reconcile the things I believe about Christ with the things I see many Christians doing and saying, I’ve been drowning myself in books about the Bible, modern Christianity, and Christianity in the US in particular. This post is meant to give you a taste of some of the most interesting and influential books I’ve read on this topic, so if you’re not into reading about Christian books, today’s post is not for you. But if you are also interested in exploring diverse views on faith, read on! I have some amazing books to share with you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Biblical scholars Brandon O’Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O’Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways. Getting beyond our own cultural assumptions is increasingly important for being Christians in our interconnected and globalized world. Learn to read Scripture as a member of the global body of Christ.

If you’re only looking for the highlights, this is one of my two “must reads” on this list. (I’ll let you know when we get to the other!) Misreading Scripture illustrates the “things that go without saying” in our own Western culture, in non-Western cultures around the world, and in biblical cultures, and explains how that affects our reading of the Bible. This book has made a powerful difference in the way I read the Bible, especially the stories and parables that are so familiar to those of us who grew up in the church. The book is not meant to explain every part of the Bible (although I sometimes wished it would!) but rather to give modern, Western readers a framework for understanding Scripture in the way it would have been understood by its original readers.

In college I did some cross-cultural studies in preparation for time spent overseas, so you would think I would be able to make the leap concerning the shame/guilt dichotomy or the individualist/collectivist societal differences on my own, but no, I was not. Understanding how these very different, deeply ingrained ways of being and thinking change the way Western readers understand verses written for a collectivist society is one of the most powerful things I took away from this book. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; the authors do a great job of explaining these concepts. Because the authors have both spent time living, working, and ministering in cultures very different from the US, they have first-hand accounts and stories to illustrate their points.

If you’re serious about studying and understanding the Bible and are concerned that you’re missing something because of our very different culture, you must read this book. This book is compulsively readable (at least it was for me) and steers clear of technical jargon that theological books often fall into, so whether you have a ministerial degree or are simply trying to learn how to read the Bible better, you will get something out of Misreading Scripture. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Everything Must Change

How do the life and teachings of Jesus address the most critical global problems in our world today?

In “Everything Must Change, “you will accompany Brian around the world on a search for answers. Along the way you’ll experience intrigue, alarm, challenge, insight, and hope. You’ll get a fresh and provocative vision of Jesus and his teachings. And you’ll see how his core message can infuse us with purpose and passion to address the economic, environmental, military, political, and social dysfunctions that have overtaken our world.

This book offers an interesting look at Jesus as a political figure. The author talks about the “peace insurgency” and how Jesus thinks about social justice, global warming, violence, and other hot button issues that we normally think of as political. I certainly didn’t agree with all of his theology (in fact, I found this book the most theologically questionable of the group), but I wish more of the church would read his conclusions.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Searching for Sunday

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

Reading this book was a bit surreal for me. I’ve never met Rachel Held Evans, but her father was a professor of mine in college, and I know almost every school and church in the tiny town that Rachel grew up in. I felt like Rachel’s journey–her frustration with the church over social and political issues–was very close to mine. As with most of these books, I don’t agree with all of Rachel’s viewpoints, but I resonated deeply with her experiences. This book is more of a memoir than most of the other books on this list, but I think it could be very helpful if you are also feeling the disconnect between your faith and your social beliefs. It certainly made me feel less alone.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reconciliation Blues

What is the state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches today? Are we truly united? In Reconciliation Blues journalist Edward Gilbreath gives an insightful, honest picture of both the history and the present state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches. He looks at a wide range of figures, such as Howard O. Jones, Tom Skinner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and John Perkins. Charting progress as well as setbacks, his words offer encouragement for black evangelicals feeling alone, clarity for white evangelicals who want to understand more deeply, and fresh vision for all who want to move forward toward Christ’s prayer “that all of them may be one.”

This book, written by an African-American writer in the evangelical Christian world, talks about the many ways Christians have messed up in regards to creating a multicultural, multiracial church. To me, as someone who has thought and read a fair amount about this, the author’s tone sometimes seems too gentle. I wanted Gilbreath to leave less room for white Christians to say, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me.” Still, I think this gentle tone is a good way of talking to people who need to hear this message and maybe haven’t been exposed to it before. Definitely an important read for white Christians, though I’m sure Christians of all races and backgrounds will get something out of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Ragamuffin Gospel

Many believers feel stunted in their Christian growth. We beat ourselves up over our failures and, in the process, pull away from God because we subconsciously believe He tallies our defects and hangs His head in disappointment. In this newly repackaged edition–now with full appendix, study questions, and the author’s own epilogue, “”Ragamuffin” Ten Years Later,” Brennan Manning reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. The Father beckons us to Himself with a “furious love” that burns brightly and constantly. Only when we truly embrace God’s grace can we bask in the joy of a gospel that enfolds the most needy of His flock–the “ragamuffins.”

This is a classic in the Christian world, and I can’t believe I had never read it before now. I loved Manning’s emphasis on God’s love and grace, even during his darkest times. This book is powerful, and I definitely suggest reading it if you’re feeling far from God or stuck in your faith.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The 7 Experiment

Do you feel trapped in the machine of excess? Jen Hatmaker was. Her friends were. And some might say that our culture is. Jen once considered herself unmotivated by the lure of prosperity, but upon being called rich by a child who was living in poverty, evidence to the contrary mounted, and a social experiment turned spiritual journey was born. This study will lead you through this same experiment, at whatever level you choose, in seven key areas: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.

What s the payoff for living such a deeply reduced life? It s the discovery of a greatly increased God a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends a social experiment to become a radically better existence.

This book is Jen Hatmaker’s Bible study follow up to 7. If you want to enact some of the things Jen did in her original book, you should check this one out. It provides a clear and sometimes painful look at how our levels of consumption are causing people around the world to suffer, but it also gives concrete ideas on how to change the way you think about your time, money, possessions, food, technology, waste, and more. Jen backs everything up with biblical passages and discussion questions for your Bible study group.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Irresistible Revolution

Many of us find ourselves caught somewhere between unbelieving activists and inactive believers. We can write a check to feed starving children or hold signs in the streets and feel like we’ve made a difference without ever encountering the faces of the suffering masses. In this book, Shane Claiborne describes an authentic faith rooted in belief, action, and love, inviting us into a movement of the Spirit that begins inside each of us and extends into a broken world.

Shane’s faith led him to dress the wounds of lepers with Mother Teresa, visit families in Iraq amidst bombings, and dump $10,000 in coins and bills on Wall Street to redistribute wealth. Shane lives out this revolution each day in his local neighborhood, an impoverished community in North Philadelphia, by living among the homeless, helping local kids with homework, and “practicing resurrection” in the forgotten places of our world. Shane’s message will comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable . . . but will also invite us into an irresistible revolution. His is a vision for ordinary radicals ready to change the world with little acts of love.

If you’ve been waiting for the other book on this list that I consider a “must read,” this is it. This book is a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels stifled by traditional Christianity, for those who are tired of only hearing about orthodoxy and want to talk about orthopraxy. Shane’s views may rub some people the wrong way, but his idea of being an “ordinary radical” and showing great love to everyone is powerful. He spends time with Mother Teresa and the lepers in India; he travels to Iraq only a short while after 9/11; he opens his home to the homeless. And while this might sound extreme to some readers, Shane argues that this is the Christian life that Jesus wanted us to live.

To be completely honest, I’ve been struggling more and more with how much American Christianity has become intertwined with American politics, patriotism, and war. I’ve thought and talked and prayed about how we can return to the simple, painful path of radical generosity and love that I believe Jesus modeled for us. Even though I disagree with a few of Shane’s ideas, I was captivated by his vision of that radical love, and it has influenced my thinking on how to spend my time and money and skills. If you are at all disillusioned with the modern American church, you need to pick up this book.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

YA Reads: Summer 2017

I'm sharing my latest YA reads: the good, the bad, and the popular. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Summers are made for YA reads, and that’s exactly what I’ve been reading all summer. Some have been really fun; others have been disappointing. I’m sure you’ll find at least one book on this list for your summer YA reading needs! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Ana of California

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California.

When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, and Emmett Garber is skeptical that this slight city girl can be any help on his farm. His sister Abbie, however, thinks Ana might be just what they need. Ana comes to love Garber Farm, and even Emmett has to admit that her hard work is an asset. But when she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.

This book was not as good as I had hoped. Ana, a foster kid running from her past, has to try to prove herself by working on a farm–it’s her last chance before being sent to a group home. I love the idea of having more MG and YA books focused on the foster care experience, but this book is filled with way more drama than necessary. I also wish Ana hadn’t spoken so poetically–no teenager talks like that, guys. I was hoping for a more realistic depiction of teenage life and foster families, and this book left me cold on both areas.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lucky Strikes

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

I loved Melia’s voice in this book. Her 1930s Southern accent comes across well without making the text unreadable, as written accents sometimes do. (There is a fair amount of swearing in this book, so be forewarned.) In Lucky Strikes, a motley family made of three children and a homeless man pretending to be their father attempt to keep Brenda’s Oasis from falling prey to the local petroleum baron after their mother’s death. The three children, especially Melia, are scrappy and resourceful, and even when they make mistakes (I don’t know any adult who would think Melia’s decision to force a stranger to become the father of the family was a good one) they are relatable and understandable. Unique and fresh, with a good balance between heavy moments and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris–until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all…including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

Cute teen romances aren’t for me, apparently. Anna and the French Kiss was a fun, quick read, but I got annoyed at the characters for being so immature. (I know, I know, they’re teenagers in love… I was still annoyed.) I can see how I probably would have loved this book as a teenager myself, but reading it as an adult wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stars Above

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories—and secrets—that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies?

Stars Above is so much fun! If you haven’t already read through the Lunar Chronicles, I highly recommend it, both on its own merits and because this book won’t make any sense without it. As someone who greatly enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles series, I loved seeing the characters I grew to love having new adventures (both before and after the events of the series). These short stories are a great continuation of the world Marissa Meyer has created.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I feel I should warn you right away: This book is not for the fainthearted. It shows the very different paths of two Muslim sisters living in France. One becomes more religious and gets expelled for wearing the hijab (illegal in French schools); the other becomes more secular, wearing tight clothing, smoking, and drinking. One of these sisters has something horrific happen to her, and the other sister is left to consider where it all went wrong. This is a powerful book and I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to read it again.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Chasing Eveline

*Note: I received this book as a gift from the author. She did not request a review. All opinions are my own.

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Higgins is the only student at Carmel Heights High School who listens to cassettes. And her binder is the only one decorated with album artwork by 80s band Chasing Eveline. Despite being broken-up since 1989, this rock band out of Ireland means everything to Ivy. They’re a reminder of her mom, who abandoned Ivy and her dad two years ago. Now the music of her mom’s favorite band is the only connection she has left.

Even though Ivy wavers between anger and a yearning to reconnect, she’s one-hundred percent certain she’s not ready to lose her mom forever. But the only surefire way to locate her would be at a Chasing Eveline concert. So with help from her lone friend Matt—an equally abandoned soul and indie music enthusiast—Ivy hatches a plan to reunite the band.

I really wanted to like this book. A teenage girl tries to remember her mom by getting her favorite band back together–what’s not to like? Well, to start off with, Ivy is super irritating and immature. Her and her friend’s attempts at raising money to travel to Ireland and reunite the band include being a scam charity and making fun of homeless people during their attempts to be street performers, and I found this kind of gross. The book should have been more about Ivy dealing with her mom’s disappearance, but it was more about her achieving her ridiculous goal (and *spoiler alert* being disappointed in the results anyway). I’d give this one a pass, unless you have a much higher tolerance for irritating characters than I do.

Rating: Meh

August Small Goals + What I’m Into

I'm linking up to share my August small goals and the things I'm into this summer. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I’m linking up with writes like a girl for my August small goals, and Leigh Kramer for my monthly what I’m into.

Friends, I have to say I did terribly on my small goals from last month. But here we go!

  • Relax! Yes, kind of, but even our relaxing plans (see the Harry Potter World picture above!) turned out to be a lot more complicated than we anticipated. (The month started with us having to rent a car and ended with us buying new cars. Not really our plan for our summer vacation…)
  • Watch A Very Potter Musical. No, I still, still haven’t seen it.
  • Get my pants hemmed. Yeah, no.
  • Finish reading my stack of books. I did make a dent in the stack… but it has also grown quite a bit this month.

Okay, so July turned out a bit differently than anticipated. Here’s hoping August will go a little more smoothly!

  • Get paperwork in order. This is my boring goal for the month. We’ve got car information, payment paperwork, and a thousand other papers waiting to be dealt with or filed.
  • Go to the beach. And this is the fun goal! I live close to the beach, but we rarely go because it’s a bit of a hassle. Still, it’s always a fun time, and I want to make an effort to go at least once this month.
  • Gear up for the busy season at work. Back to school time always brings an influx of students, and this year has me particularly booked up. I want to spend some time getting new games, activities, and plans organized before school officially starts.

What I’m Into

Books I’m looking forward to reading: I’ve been on a Jasper Fforde kick recently, and I’m on the hunt for the later installments in the Thursday Next series.

TV shows I’ve watched: I found out that the Great British Baking Show has a Masterworks spinoff in which Mary and Paul demonstrate how to make the bakes from the show. So lovely!

Music I’m loving: It has been Bastille all day every day for a while over here.

My favorite Instagram:

You know it had to be this one from our recent Universal trip!

If you’d like to follow me on Instagram (I post lots of book pictures and the occasional selfie), you can do so here.

If you want to see more of what I’m into every month, along with sneak peeks and my favorite posts from the blog, sign up for my email newsletter! It’ll show up in your inbox once a month and bring you the latest blog news and the things I’m loving.

What are you all up to this month? Let me know in the comments!

1930s Newbery Reviews

Meggy Macintosh

Meggy MacIntosh had a gentle manner and an adventurous spirit inherited from her father who had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie. But there was no adventure in Edinburgh where Meggy was the neglected ward of her titled uncle, so she ran away to North Carolina to find her heroine, the celebrated Flora MacDonald. Meggy reached the Carolinas in March 1775 where she finally meets the Highlanders of her dreamson. (Summary via goodreads.com)

This book is an interesting historical fiction novel about a Scottish girl who makes the trek to America and becomes a Patriot. Meggy spends a lot of time adjusting to the new, wild environment of the New World, and she is torn between her childhood heroine (a supporter of the king) and her growing sense that America is worth fighting for. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of racism toward slaves and Native Americans contained within. I enjoyed Meggy’s story, but it was greatly marred by its racist content.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Garram the Hunter

Garram, son of the chief of the Hillmen tribe, is forced to flee his home when it is revealed to him that a planned usurping of his father’s position as chief will take place soon unless Garram goes into hiding. The journey that Garram subsequently embarks upon helps prepare him for the inevitable confrontation with his father’s political enemies that is sure to occur when he eventually returns home. (Summary via goodreads.com)

If you like hunting and fighting, you might like this book. That’s pretty much all that’s involved in the story. As you might expect, a white American man isn’t a very sensitive author to write about tribal Africa. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it certainly isn’t one I’d read again.

Rating: Meh

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