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Welcome to Part One of this month’s roundup of quick(ish) book reviews. There are a couple of strong reads here, as well as a few books I would have a hard time recommending. I sometimes question my decision to share reviews of the books I TRULY hated: I wouldn’t want someone to see a book highlighted on my site and take its presence as a ringing endorsement from me. On the flip side, I wouldn’t want somebody to write off a book because I gave it a low star rating; just because I didn’t care for a book doesn’t mean it won’t be a good fit for you. So please be sure to look at the entirety of my reviews, and not just the book image and the rating; they definitely don’t paint the complete picture.

Okay, with those reminders in place, let’s get to our reviews! 

A Share in Death, by Deborah Crombie: I considered this book for my last Reading Challenge selection (the first book in a new-to-me series). I ended up taking a different route with my Challenge book, but used the nudge to read my first Deborah Crombie novel.

A Share in Death introduces Scotland Yard Superindentant Duncan Kinkaid, who reminded me quite a lot of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache. While on holiday at a luxurious Yorkshire time share, Kinkaid is forced to step out of vacation mode and put his detective skills to use when a body is found in the resort’s hot tub. It’s clear that one of Kinkaid’s fellow guests at Followdale House is to blame for the death. Then the killer strikes again, and Kinkaid grows determined to solve the crime before the death toll grows higher.

This is a great little whodunit with an ending that completely took me by surprise. The book has a great sense of place with a locked room setup reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s novels. Crombie’s characters are colorful, and there are just enough of them to keep the mystery a puzzle without inundating the reader with a laundry list of names and backstories. I enjoyed Kinkaid and am looking forward to seeing more of him and his enthusiastic young assistant, Gemma, as the series continues. If you enjoy a police procedural without a lot of grit, you’ll love this one.

My Rating: 4 stars.

Looking for Lovely: Collecting the Moments That Matter, by Annie F. Downs: I know I talk a lot about writers and teachers and thought leaders that I JUST LOVE. Not to diminish the great work of those other (for lack of a better term) “Christian celebrities,” but Annie Downs just might be my favorite. She is funny, genuine, insightful, and lighthearted, but also willing to go deep and be real and explore some seriously difficult territory—all while clinging tightly to her faith and shining the spotlight on Jesus. I was slightly disappointed when I listened to her book Let’s All Be Brave a few months ago, because the Annie in that book wasn’t quite the Annie I’ve gotten to know over the past year of listening to her podcast and following her on social media. Not only was Let’s All Be Brave read by someone other than Annie (huge distraction), but the words in that book felt a little too forced, a tad too superficial. I realize now that it was because that book was written before Annie’s most recent faith journey and period of intense personal growth—a journey that is documented in this more recent book. And in Looking for Lovely I found the Annie I’ve come to know and love.

In this brief collection of essays, Annie uses Biblical truth and personal object lessons to share the work that God is doing in her life, and to inspire her readers to open up to God’s presence in our own lives. Annie shares how she lost sight of her lovely as she listened to the enemy’s lies about her abilities and self worth; she gave into the message that she was ugly, fat, a quitter, and unworthy. After reaching an emotional and spiritual breaking point, Annie began seeking professional help that led her closer to her Heavenly Father and inspired a quest to find the lovely in the everyday—from art museums to relationships to tragedy and even her fingernails. Finally, Annie shares candidly and vulnerably about what has taken place since she’s found her lovely. I appreciated Annie’s openness about the fact that, while she’s come a long way, she is still unfinished, her story hasn’t found its happy ending—but despite her rough edges, God is still able to use her and her messiness to inspire others. I could relate to her precarious situation of longing for complete and total health, while also celebrating the progress that has been made.

I’ve read so many books in the last few years of women who are struggling to let go of their insecurities and embrace the freedom promised in Christ. One would think this message would grow old, but I continue to find encouragement in these stories—a reminder that nobody has it all together (even successful, strong, accomplished leaders like Annie), but also that there IS hope with Christ. I’m deeply thankful for articulate, brave individuals like Annie who use their words and their lives to spark positive transformation in so many.

My Rating: 4.5 stars.

The Ensemble, by Aja Gabel: Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel—they’re friends, but as the four members of a successful string quartet, they are also family. Janet, the first violinist, is their aloof and ambitious leader. Brit, a kind and quiet orphan, is the second violinist. The cellist, Daniel, is the oldest of the group and is a bit rough around the edges. Then there’s Henry on the viola, a prodigy to whom life and music have always come easily. The novel begins with the group’s youthful start in the early 90s and follows their careers and personal lives over the next two decades. We see how music binds them together, even as they attempt to lead lives apart from the group. As the years go by, the quartet faces health difficulties, family tragedy, lovers quarrels, and identity crises, but their music and their artistry lives on.

This book was unlike anything I’ve read before. It reads like a family saga, but with each member bringing a unique background and baggage into the clan. Tying their stories together is the language and experience of music. Gabel’s prose is complex, passionate, intimate, and lyrical, echoing the melodies of her quartet.

Having spent my high school and college years performing with small musical groups (through choir and handbells), I was immediately drawn to the intense dynamic within the quartet, which felt at once familiar and also totally foreign (I have a hard time imagining the cutthroat world of elite musicians). Though I didn’t care for the characters at first, I warmed to them as the novel unfolded and I witnessed their lives’ trajectories. Their emotions and circumstances are rich and resonant—they are at once enigmatic artists and intensely flawed humans. Their experiences with aging out of their music are especially powerful.

Though the writing is exquisite and the characters are truly unforgettable, the story here is minimal, making it a slow read. It’s indeed beautiful, but I would have liked a little more plot to hold my attention. That said, I would definitely read more from this insightful author.

My Rating: 4 Stars.

The Wedding Date, by Jasmine Guillory: It begins in an elevator, as all great relationships do. Alexa Monroe is immediately attracted to Drew Nichols, a dashing white man who is in town for his ex’s wedding. In an uncharacteristic moment of flirtatiousness, Alexa agrees to be Drew’s plus one at the wedding. Though both parties acknowledge that she is simply posing as his girlfriend for the wedding, sparks fly throughout the evening and soon they are in bed together. The next morning, Drew flies back to his job as a pediatric surgeon in Los Angeles, and Alexa returns to Berkley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. But neither one is able to forget about their time together. Soon they are doing all they can to make their long-distance relationship work, but having never discussed the nature of their “relationship,” both remain unsure as to what they are doing or how long it will last.

This book was NOT for me. Predictable, amateurishly written, riddled with clichés, and way WAY more sexy time than I’m comfortable with. (These explicit scenes constituted at least half of the word count; without them the book would have merely been a very, very short story.) It was pretty clear from the first chapter that I wouldn’t like where this book was headed, but my stubborn resistance to quitting books kept me moving forward. I was also prompted to keep reading by the fact that this title was on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide, and Anne almost never steers me wrong. Sadly, this book was an exception. (Anne did warn that it was racy, but this was far racier than I could have predicted.) On a positive note, I now have a definitive answer as to my least favorite book so far of 2018.

The book’s single redeeming quality (i.e., the reason it received that extra half star rating) is the character of Alexa who (outside of her ridicules and ill-advised relationship with the immature and narcissistic Drew) is a strong character who models healthy ambition, compassion, and a positive relationship with her curvy body. I’ve been wanting to read more novels by or about black women, and this book checks both those boxes. But without an engaging story or worthwhile themes, this is not a diverse read I could recommend.

My Rating: 1.5 stars

Smart Girl, by Rachel Hollis: Smart Girl is the third book in The Girls series, and it was SUCH a disappointing finale to the trilogy! The book begins shortly after the conclusion of Sweet Girl and is narrated by Landon and Max’s friend Miko, a brilliant designer and book nerd who has fallen for Max’s haughty older brother, Liam. Though Liam has shown no interest in Miko, she believes that he is her one true love and she will stop at nothing to make him hers. Before long, the two have fallen into a “secret relationship”, with Miko serving as his nightly booty call. Despite warnings from her friends and concern from her family, Miko—ever the hopeless romantic—is confident she is on her way to a Happily Ever After. But she might have to sacrifice her own self worth to find it.

While the first two books in this series were far from stellar literature, I enjoyed them, particularly their (mostly) wholesome content, confident female characters, and positive/empowering messages. Smart Girl lacked all of these good qualities. Miko (a character I’d enjoyed in the previous two books) willingly compromises her values and her career for a man who treats her like garbage (goodbye confident female characters); there is quite a bit of page time dedicated to Miko and Liam’s physical relationship (so much for wholesome); and though Miko’s journey serves as a cautionary tale (inspired by Hollis’s own experiences with her now-husband as she describes them in Girl, Wash Your Face), the positive message is overshadowed by Miko’s stupidity and the completely unrealistic happy outcome she achieves despite her poor choices and actions.

Smart Giirl is dripping with literary references, inspired by Miko’s effusive love for fiction. I always appreciate a bookish kindred spirit, but the book-name dropping got a little old after a while (though I’ll admit to feeling some smug satisfaction every time I caught a reference). I did enjoy the peripheral updates on Max’s and Landon’s stories, and the romantic in ME couldn’t help but love the sappy ending. Unfortunately, it didn’t make up for the disappointment I felt throughout the rest of the book. Call me old fashioned, but I wanted so much more from this book and for this character I’d come to love!

My Rating: 2.5 stars.

A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet: Southern Stories of Faith, Family, and Fifteen Pounds of Bacon, by Sophie Hudson: I’ve enjoyed getting to know Sophie Hudson through her podcast and wanted to read one of her books. This is her first, so I figured it would be a good place to start.

A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet is a collection of memories and moments from Sophie’s upbringing and adult life amid a big, quirky Southern family. Each of her family members comes alive on the page, but I grew especially attached to her eccentric mother-in-law, Martha, with her perpetually astonished attitude, aversion to large portion sizes, and her special cooking coat (I mean, one simply must have a special coat for cooking in, you just must! <— Just reading about Martha had me imitating her speech patterns for a moment!)

Sophie clearly loves this wacky family that has made her the woman she is today, and her stories are infused with warmth and kindness. There is no trash talking or gossip, just sweet (and hilarious) recollections and the lessons Sophie has gleaned from them about life, love, and God. Her writing is cheerful and tender, filled with enough Southern phrases and dishes and names to have me longing for a tall glass of sweet tea and a front porch filled with my people.

My Rating: 4 Stars.

On Friday I’ll be back with reviews of six more books: three recently published novels, two inspirational books, one Enneagram tutorial, and ALL of which I really enjoyed. See you then! 

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