After what felt like a stretch of mediocre books, my reading took a turn for the better this month! I’m excited to share these reviews; they’re long, so I will get right to ’em.
I Can’t Believe You Just Said That: Biblical Wisdom for Taming Your Child’s Tongue, by Ginger Hubbard: As a mom of three littles, I feel like I spend a bulk of my day policing my kids’ speech. From bickering and tattling to whining, interrupting, and arguing—I see it all, often, and I rarely know how to handle it. In this book, Christian mom and teacher Ginger Hubbard reminds parents that our kids’ words matter, and it’s our job as parents to help them tame their tongues so that their speech is honoring to God.
Hubbard begins with a reminder that we should not be surprised by our kids’ inappropriate speech: we are all sinful, and unwholesome language (in the form of complaining, gossiping, lying, boasting, etc.) naturally stems from our sinful nature. Rather than shaming our kids for their poor speech behavior, or resorting to negative language patterns of our own, we should use these as opportunities to train our children, reminding them that they are sinners in need of a Savior and redirecting their words to align with God’s righteousness. To do this, Hubbard offers a three-pronged approach that involves 1) asking the child some heart-probing questions to reach past the outward behavior and identify the root sin; 2) determining what specifically needs to be put off and explaining to the child what God’s Word says about the behavior or attitude; and 3) examining what needs to be put on and showing the child how to replace wrong behavior and attitudes with right ones. Hubbard addresses fifteen types of speech “challenges” we face with our kids, using anecdotes to model what these language issues look like and walking us through the steps of getting to the heart of the behavior, reproving our child, and training our child in righteousness. Each chapter is packed with Scriptures we can use to help our kids identify their sin and direct them toward appropriate, Godly behavior.
I love the heart of this book—explicitly and directly using Scripture to train our children, watering their little souls with an outpouring of God’s Word so that they may bear wholesome fruit. It was helpful for me as a parent to see why issues such as whining or teasing are sinful (and not just annoying), and I was convicted of many of my own language sins. I also appreciated Hubbard’s continual redirection beyond observed behaviors to the root causes and sins we are addressing as we help our kids to change more than just their outward speech but the heart behind their actions and words.
Unfortunately, the presentation of these excellent concepts is done in a way that weaponizes Scripture. Yes, I want my kids to know why I expect certain behavior from them, but I don’t know that reciting verses in the midst of behavior issues is always the right time and place. I would never want my kids to have purely negative associations with God’s Word, which the ideas in this book (if applied strictly) could do.
Beyond the potential for spiritual damage that could result from the strategies prescribed in this book, I just don’t know that they work. I have implemented many with my 8-year-old, who has a thriving relationship with the Lord, and for him this is fairly effective; but my 3-year-olds are too young to grasp the concept of speaking in a certain way because “God tells us to”. I am beginning this training with them now, and praying we will eventually see the fruit, but at their age they are in need of more straightforward disciplinary action.
I’ll be holding on to this book so that I can reference relevant Scriptures when language misbehaviors arise for my kids in the future. There is some solid wisdom here (once you get past the cheesy stories and simplistic explanations). But this was not the magic bullet for solving behavior issues that I kind of hoped it would be. YES, God’s Word points us to wisdom and truth in all things—including how to train up our children—but at this stage in my parenting I am leaning more heavily into the power of the Holy Spirit as I correct and discipline in ways that go beyond a formula outlined in a book.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars (Rounded to 4 Stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: Kindle
All My Knotted Up Life, by Beth Moore: You would be hard-pressed to find a Christian woman of my generation (or slightly older) who has not sat under the teaching of Beth Moore. Whether through her video studies, books, or conferences, or via podcast interviews, nearly all of us have grown in our understanding of Scripture and our relationship to the Lord thanks to Beth’s incomparable ministry. Even those who have not learned directly from Beth Moore have likely been influenced by her in some ways thanks to the impact she has had in the area of women’s ministry and the precedent she’s set for female Bible teachers over the past few decades. But though we have learned directly and vicariously from her, few of us know very much about her. That changes with this memoir, in which Beth shares candidly about all that has happened for her “behind the scenes.”
Beginning with her tumultuous childhood in Arkansas, followed by a somewhat “wild” adolescence that led to a remarkable conversion story and decision to commit her life to full-time ministry, we join Beth in the hardships of her early years that molded Beth Moore into the strong, passionate teacher we all love. Beth also pulls the curtain back on her (difficult) marriage and (joyous) life as a mother, walks us through her history with the Baptist denomination (the good, bad, and ugly) and her decision to begin attending an Anglican Church (this was fascinating), and details her growing personal study and ministry impact. She does not hold back in sharing about the hard years she’s faced in the past decade as she has received much negative attention from both inside and outside the church.
Even if Beth Moore were not the “Christian celebrity” she has become, this would be a fascinating memoir for all of its twists and drama. The fact that it is by and about a woman we all thought we knew (but didn’t quite) makes it even more interesting. This is a riveting read! It is also beautifully written, packed with metaphor and emotion and artful storytelling.
Unfortunately, the artfulness frequently overpowers fact: in many instances, the coded language obscures the details of stories she is sharing. I can understand her desire to maintain some privacy (especially regarding the ways she speaks of other individuals, particularly family members), and at times this veiled language is appreciated (I was thankful she did not detail her childhood sexual abuse, for instance). But mostly I found myself a little confused and wondering what she was ACTUALLY saying when she told us things were hard, or that she made many mistakes, or that she endured harsh treatment. Having said that, I appreciated her ability to give us a general understanding of certain situations without throwing any public figures or family members under the bus. She does not disparage others in this memoir, even while admitting to the hurt she has experienced as a result of others’ sins.
This cannot have been an easy book for Beth Moore to write, and I admire her courage in disclosing so much of her story and her heart. I was inspired by her faith journey and her resilience; her stedfast exuberance for the Lord, and her commitment to the truth and to the healing of her own soul, comes through on every page.
Memoirs are always best on audio, and this one is particularly well done. Beth utilizes her strong southern accent when recounting her earlier years, adding a strong sense of place and authenticity to her story.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
WayMaker: Finding the Way to the Life You’ve Always Dreamed Of, by Ann Voskamp: In a life marked by seemingly insurmountable and unsurvivable waves, it’s easy to lose our way. In this powerful, genre-bending book, Ann Voskamp offers a roadmap for Christian sojourners as we make our way back to God and surrender to His guidance and provision. Through the most intimate stories—beginning with an unconsummated honeymoon and journeying through decades of steadfast but difficult marriage, a gut-wrenching adoption story, and Ann’s experience with heartbreak and literal heart failure—and with writing that is more poetry than prose, Ann walks the path along with her fellow wayfarers as we lean into the headwinds of our faith, trusting in the truths of Scripture and the sovereignty of our Savior.
I can hardly give words to the masterpiece that is WayMaker. Though some of the narrative arc is buried beneath too many layers of imagery and metaphor (not unlike Beth Moore’s memoir, which I listened to just before this), I was captivated by Ann’s incredible stories, inspired by her faithfulness, and fascinated by the parallels she draws between her own (vulnerably detailed) marriage and adoption experience and our walk with the Lord. Ann’s life is ribboned with remarkable opportunities for the author to utilize the wayfarer’s compass for a SACRED way of life (Stillness to know God; Attentiveness to hear God; Cruciformity to surrender to God; Revelation to see God; Examine to return to God; and Doxology to thank God).
The stories and emotions Ann shares are heartfelt and intensely vulnerable, yet the tone is not one of oversharing. The narration is tasteful, honoring the intimacy of Ann’s personal relationships while also offering a gift to readers who crave companionship and camaraderie in our own hard journeys. Every story is an arrow pointing back to our WayMaker, an invitation to seek Him.
While I wish I had read this in print or Kindle so I could highlight and savor the countless noteworthy passages (about expectations and hopelessness, fear and despair, and suffering, and miracles, and rebirth), I so enjoyed Ann’s beautiful narration of her audiobook. Her soothing, lyrical voice and emotional reading made this a truly sacred reading/listening experience.
My Rating: 4.75 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan: In the midwestern United States in the late 19th century, Anna and Caleb live with their widowed father who, though still grieving the loss of his wife many years earlier, has decided his children need a mother and writes a newspaper ad for a mail-order bride. He receives a response from Sarah, a woman from Maine, who comes to the farm to spend time with the family before deciding whether or not to make the move a permanent one. Caleb and Anna quickly warm to this strong, kind woman, who delights them with her stories of the sea and astonishes them with her persistence and brazenness. Still, they are afraid of growing too attached to this woman whom they want to be their mother, but who may soon move on from their lives.
This short book offers young readers a vivid portrait of the sometimes-brutal but occasionally-beautiful world of prairie life more than a century ago. It’s a different time and place, but the emotions of longing, uncertainty, and bittersweetness are timeless. It is a quiet story with much to discuss regarding family, loss, belonging, and kindness. It pairs well with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, which offer a different example of family life in a similar time and place.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print // Charleston’s Rating: 3.25 Stars
The BFG, by Roald Dahl: Sophie, an 8-year-old girl living in a London orphanage, gets the shock of her life one night when an enormous giant lifts her from her window and carries her off to a desolate land populated with bloodthirsty giants. Happily for Sophie, her giant is not bloodthirsty, but a Big Friendly Giant who has no intentions of eating Sophie or any other humans. When Sophie learns of the other giants’ intentions to set off for England in search of children to eat, Sophie convinces BFG to join her in seeking assistance from none other than the queen of England!
I have such fond memories of this book from when I read it when I was around Charleston’s age, and I couldn’t wait to read it with him. The story is much more gruesome than I recall, and also more absurd. While I am not a fan of the recent calls to cancel Roald Dahl, I can see how his edgy humor and complete disregard for social niceties may ruffle some feather. It is this very absurdity and blatant grotesqueness, though, that appeals to kids. Charleston found this book hilarious, and I too found it funny, charming, and immensely creative.
The BFG is a rare children’s novel that holds equal appeal for both boys (who will enjoy the potty humor and gross giants) and girls (who see themselves reflected in our young heroin and her role model, the queen). There is even some literary merit, with opportunities to discuss grammar and language (thanks to BFG’s silly phrases), geography, government, and even philosophical and ethical issues.
We read this in print while listening along to the audiobook, which is excellent, with fun sound effects, music, and voices that make the story come alive.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Print & Audiobook
More Than You’ll Ever Know, by Katie Gutierrez: In 1983, Lore Rivera met and fell in love with Andres Russo during a business trip to Mexico City. Their relationship evolved, and two years later she agreed to his proposal of marriage. What Andres did not know was that Lore was already married, and the mother of twin boys—her original family also unaware that Lore was leading a double life. Lore continued to split her time between Mexico and her hometown of Laredo, Texas, with neither husband suspecting her deceit.
More than thirty years later, true-crime writer Cassie Bowman learns of Lore Rivera’s duplicitous relationship that ended abruptly in 1985 when one of Lore’s husbands was arrested for murdering the other. Cassie herself has a troubled past and is living elements of a double life, so she is drawn to Lore’s story and wants to know more. Cassie also believes that a book told from Lore’s perspective could be the big break Cassie needs to escape the darker world of true-crime blog writing and establish herself as a legitimate author.
Cassie reaches out to Lore and begins recording her story. As Lore unloads her secrets, Cassie starts to understand the older woman’s decisions and the choices that led to such a catastrophic ending for so many. But Cassie also begins to suspect there may be more to the story than Lore is telling, just as there is so much more to Cassie’s own past that she has been keeping from her devoted fiancé.
The chilling premise of a woman leading a double life immediately piqued my attention when I heard Sarah discussing this novel, and after hearing Sarah’s interview with the author, this was a book I just had to read. I’d never considered the possibility of a woman leading a double life (I’ve heard of men doing this, but a woman pulling off such a deception seems even more shocking, though apparently it has happened), and I was equally intrigued and repelled by the premise itself and by Lore in particular. Though Katie Gutierrez is sympathetic in her portrayal of Lore—making her actions believable, if not entirely understandable—I felt strong dislike for the woman’s selfishness, audacity, and disregard for the pain of others at the cost of her own personal fulfillment. I also did not care for the character of Cassie, who is uncharitable and opportunistic. (That said, I felt it was unfair of the author to equate Cassie’s poor choices/selfishness with Lore’s—ostensibly as an invitation to the reader to empathize with Lore, just as Cassie does, and believe we all could act similarly in her shoes.)
Unsurprisingly, this story that revolves around adultery and murder—with two unlikable protagonists at its center, and with side plots involving addiction, domestic abuse, poverty, economic recession, infertility, miscarriage, and natural disaster thrown in)—is a disheartening read. But I found the sweeping family drama entirely absorbing and was left with so much food for thought: who are we, how much of ourselves do we share with those we love, and is it possible to live out our full potential and tap into our entire identities within one solitary life? This is an exploration of love, obsession (particularly our cultural voyeuristic obsession with true crime), family culture, the nature of secrets, and the power of storytelling.
The author was a new mother when she was writing this book, and her mama’s heart bleeds out onto the page. We witness the intensity of a new mother’s love for a child, the physicality and brutality of parenting (especially in the years of pregnancy and infancy), the challenge of reconciling one’s nurturing heart with personal desire for fulfillment apart from our mothering roles, and the ache a woman experiences in seeing her child grow and having to loosen attachments. This theme within the book felt most real to me, and was the one with which I connected most deeply. I always appreciate reading stories of motherhood, even when (or maybe especially when?) other mothers’ experiences are very different from my own.
Another aspect of the story I loved was the duality of it all: the story takes place along two separate time lines, in two countries (with much of the present story set in Austin, a fun personal connection for me!), with two protagonists, and even in two languages. (There is a LOT of Spanish in this book; with my own understanding of the language, I liked this, but I can imagine it would be frustrating for someone not fluent in Spanish to attempt to interpret the mixing of languages seen throughout the narration.) This kept my interest, though around the halfway point of this book that is almost 500 pages I was feeling its length (it easily could have been cut down by a third or more). Gutierrez’s prose, setting, and structure are as vivid, nuanced, perceptive, and complex as the story itself. She is a powerhouse of a writer and this debut has me itching to read more from her.
This book is marketed as a thriller, and though there are aspects of a mystery here, the story is not suspenseful (though the twisty conclusion could hold its own among a sea of Agatha Christie’s shocker finales). Mostly, this is a literary family drama, and one that this reader will be thinking about for a long time.
My Rating: 4.25 Stars // Book Format: Kindle
The Levee, by William Kent Krueger: In this novella inspired by a short story from William Faulkner, and set in 1927 during the most devastating flood in American history, four men paddle a rowboat across the waters to the ancestral home of Ballymore in order to save a stranded family. The rescue team is made up of three convicts and their leader, each with different motives for making this harrowing journey. When they reach the home that is protected by a high, circular levee, they are met with resistance that leads to a stalemate: who will flee, who will remain, and what new loyalties will be forged in the meantime?
I was impressed with Krueger’s ability to share such a harrowing story in so little space. Our characters are intriguing, with secrets and backstories that are tantalizingly dripped out over the course of the novella, and the story carries strong themes of courage, loyalty, regret, and sacrifice.
Knowing this was inspired by true events enhanced my appreciation of this book, as did having read (and LOVED) This Tender Land (I noticed many parallels). This is an audio original, and while I did like J.D. Jackson’s narration, I’m not the biggest fan of fiction on audio and am certain I would have enjoyed this even more in written form.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
The Golden Spoon, by Jessa Maxwell: It’s time for the tenth annual Bake Week—a baking competition that takes place at the stunning Vermont estate of celebrity baker Betsy Martin—and six amateur bakers have arrived to compete for the coveted grand prize. But all is not well in the competition tent: bakes are being sabotaged, bakers are concealing their true motives, and enmity between the two cohosts is threatening to derail the show known for its congeniality and camaraderie. Chaos at the Grafton estate reaches its peek when a body is discovered and everyone becomes a suspect.
This premise of a Clue-like mystery taking place in a Great British Bake-Off(ish) setting is so perfect, I’m shocked it hasn’t been done before. This book is pure catnip for mystery lovers who also carry an affection for baking competitions (I’m assuming there are many of us!). This is a fairly mild mystery, with the murder (and the even the revelation of the victim’s identity) occurring in the final quarter of the book; the remainder of the novel is character development and baking, and I appreciated that this was a mystery that was unafraid of being more than a straightforward whodunit without also turning into a nail-biting thriller. The tone is mostly cozy, with the first-person narration from our seven primary characters adding a little depth that takes this a step above your traditional cozy mystery. Not all of our characters are likable, but most are quite endearing, and they are diverse and entertaining (even if they do feel prototypical at times).
This quick, fun read was the palate cleaner I needed amid a stack of heavier titles. It reminded me of Nine Perfect Strangers, and I found myself wishing this book, too, had been written by Lian Moriarty or another seasoned writer who could elevate this from a good book to something exceptional. I found myself wanting more from this novel—more story, more character development, more dimension.
As it stands, the book is enjoyable but not solid. The prose and story arc are unpolished, to the extent that it felt more like a rough draft than a finished product; there are some loose plot threads, an ending that was far too tidy, and some intriguing themes (privilege, workplace abuse, childhood trauma, addiction) that deserved more thorough treatment than the brief page time each is given. Still, it’s a great atmospheric mystery that I’m comfortable recommending to the right audience. I can’t wait for the screen adaptation, and would love an illustrated cookbook accompaniment showcasing the tantalizing bakes described in the bake-offs!
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Kindle
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabreille Zevin: Sam and Sadie’s complicated relationship began when they were children, at a time when they were both in need of a friend and some diversion. They bonded over a shared love of video games, and after a falling out that spanned their adolescence, it was the games that brought them back together.
During their college years in the 1990s, Sadie and Sam collaborate to design a game that is met with instant success, catapulting them into gaming fame. Over the following decades, these two eccentric and wounded individuals will face innumerable personal and relational hardships as they form a company, build games, and navigate the complexities of loss, abuse, mental illness, and disability. Their friendship will strain and break under the pressure of their work, creative differences, and too many misunderstandings to count. But their mutual respect and genuine love for one another remains and serves as the glue to the gaming compay that is built on passion and fueled by their creative genius.
I am not a video game fan (in fact I am the antithesis of a game fan, I actively dislike them!), and the premise of this book held no appeal for me, but I trusted my history with Gabrielle Zevin’s books (lifetime favorite A.J. Fikry is one of the books I recommend the most!) as well as reviews from many fellow readers who insisted a love of games was not a prerequisite for enjoying this book. The reviewers were right! This is a book about games, but really it’s a story of friendship, love, and creativity. We do get some pretty heavy deep dives into the creation of games, but I found this fascinating, mostly in the ways that the creation of a video game paralleled the creation of other art forms I do enjoy (movies, books, etc.).
The book itself is a work of art, with multilayered meanings and a creative construction that travels back and forth in time, dipping in and out of various characters’ points of view and into alternate storytelling styles. I am such a sucker for a unique story structure and this book was an abundance of riches in that regard! I was also very invested in the story of two famous creatives and the ways that fame and their desire for further success played into their process. This felt very realistic, not unlike Daisy Jones and the Six (another “behind the scenes” look at fictional celebrities). The book offered windows into several other worlds, too—most notably, life with a disability and the day-to-day experiences of Asian Americans. The level of authenticity that comes through in these portions of the book speak to either the author’s own experiences or an incredibly high level of research.
While I appreciated the inclusion of so many themes, it almost got to be too much, especially as these themes are very heavy and politically charged (LGBTQ, sexual abuse, depression, suicide, gun violence, racism, and more are all explored at some level, some rather gruesomely). The book is also weighed down by its length: I was immediately engrossed for the first quarter of the book, but the middle seemed way too long. It didn’t help that I deeply disliked all of our main characters. The one shining light (a friend of Sadie and Sam) meets with an unfortunate ending that I hated, in a plot twist that was needed for the furthering of the story but that left me feeling cheated.
I can understand how this book has gotten such acclaim, as it is unique and masterfully written. I felt like I knew these characters to the point of dreaming about them as I was reading this book, and their story will absolutely stay with me. I will also never view video games in quite the same way again. Although aspects of the novel kept it from being a personal favorite, I am so glad that I gave this quirky but powerful book a chance.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Kindle
Have you read any of these titles? What did you think? What are you reading (or looking forward to reading) right now?