We are nearly a quarter of the way through 2019 (crazy!), so let’s do a little check in: how is your reading life going so far this year? I am so happy to report that mine has been great! I’m reading at a slightly slower pace than last year, giving more attention to books I read with my eyes rather than relying on audiobooks to boost my book count. I’m also carving out more stretches of time for reading, and keeping my phone in another room while I read so that I’m not distracted. The shift feels great!

I’m not sure whether it’s the new approach that has me appreciating reading more, or if I’ve just been having incredible luck with my book selections, but I have LOVED almost all of my book encounters lately, and I am especially excited about the books I’m sharing with you today. All five of these books are fantastic, and they deserve all the attention and praise I can give them!

Next Year in Havana, by Celeste Cleeton: Nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is the daughter of a wealthy sugar baron in 1950s Havana. As part of Cuba’s high society, her family has been largely unaffected by the country’s political unrest. Elisa is content in her Cuban identity and her role within her family—until she falls into a passionate and forbidden relationship with a revolutionary. She is torn between loyalty to her family and love for the man who has opened her eyes to the heartbreaking living conditions of many of her fellow Cubans. . . .

Sixty years later, Elisa’s granddaughter, Marisol, returns to her family’s native country. Marisol grew up hearing stories of her grandmother’s elite Cuban upbringing—a life she left behind when her family was forced to flee Cuba during the revolution. Upon arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the unromantic reality of life for most Cubans, who continue to fight for their existence in a still-tumultuous political environment. During her time in Cuba, Marisol begins to uncover secrets from her grandmother’s past, and soon Marisol falls into a forbidden love affair of her own.

As the narration moves back and forth along the timeline, we follow these two courageous women as they explore the meaning of love, loyalty, family, and patriotism. I was equally invested in both storylines, and captivated by the vivid Cuban setting. The novel takes its time, inviting the reader into the history and people of Cuba and evoking sympathy for the plight of those displaced by political unrest. While it isn’t an issue-driven novel, it makes some strong political statements that are couched within two surprisingly beautiful love stories.

Next Year in Havana taught me a lot about Cuba, past and present, and the United States’ complicity in the plight of the Cuban people. But even though the book is rich with facts and history, it is neither dry nor pedantic. It is also not just a book about a single country; it goes beyond its setting to illuminate universal experiences of misplaced loyalties, intentional (and unintentional) ignorance, and one’s willingness to forsake comfort and myopic values for the sake of the greater good.

Poignant and thought-provoking, this is a captivating and insightful read that is perfect for lovers of historical fiction, family sagas, and books that offer a new perspective on a fuzzy-yet-familiar topic.

My Rating; 4.5 Stars

We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, by Celeste Headlee: Several weeks ago I was sitting in a MOPS meeting when my phone started to ring. I saw that it was my mom calling and my blood immediately went to ice. Let me be clear, I love my mom and am always happy to communicate with her. But we NEVER talk on the phone; in fact, I never have unscheduled phone calls with anyone. So I assumed some huge emergency had prompted the call. Thankfully all was well, but the incident was a stark reminder that talking—on the phone, or otherwise—has become a lost art for me. And I’m not alone.

In We Need to Talk, journalist and radio host Celeste Headlee highlights the importance of communication skills and presents some startling facts about what abhorrent communicators our generation has become. Our attention spans have plummeted, we have zero interest in hearing what others—especially people who are unlike us—have to say, and it’s become nearly unheard of for people to sit down for honest, meaningful, undistracted, person-to-person conversations. Headlee argues that now, more than ever, we need to learn how to be in healthy communication with people whose views differ from ours. Having conversations will increase empathy, combat narcissism, and diminish loneliness; the art of conversation is definitely one worth relearning!

Though titled We Need to Talk, this is really a book about listening. Headlee walks readers through ten simple tools that facilitate better conversations. These aren’t the usual (contrived) tools often suggested for better communication, such as nodding one’s head or making eye contact. Headlee’s suggestions go deeper, with strategies such as: keep your message short and to-the-point; learn to ask good questions; eliminate distractions; and keep an open mind. The book is filled with stories and statistics, as well as several counterintuitive insights. (A few that I found especially fascinating were: repetition can hinder a conversation rather than help it; reflecting on our own experiences can lessen empathy; wealthier people have a lower EQ; and intelligence is inversely correlated with bias—meaning that smarter people have MORE cognitive blind spots!)

Headlee does an excellent job of balancing her own experiences with her message. I appreciated her unique perspective as a biracial woman who has conversations for a living in her job as an interviewer. Headlee is unafraid to acknowledge where she has fallen short as an effective communicator, and points to individuals who are succeeding in this arena.

This is a quick read that would benefit nearly everyone. It has certainly prompted me to be a more intentional, thoughtful listener. Highly recommend!

My Rating: 5 Stars!

Rooted: The Hidden Places Where God Develops You, by Banning Liebscher: Annie’s interview with Banning Liebscher was one of the most inspiring and convicting podcasts I have ever listened to, and I knew I needed to get my hands on some of his writing, stat! In Rooted, Banning (a pastor and director of the Jesus Culture ministry) reminds readers that we are each born to make an impact in this world, and in order to do so we must be firmly rooted in Jesus. He reminds us to step out of the spotlight, letting go of our own dreams and ambitions so that God can take over. He expands upon this idea by outlining specific steps we can take to develop our spiritual root systems as we find intimacy with God, serve others, and live within Christian community.

This is a short book that is PACKED with solid truths. I loved the emphasis on developing a healthy, thriving root system without focusing on the specific fruits in our lives. This requires trust, patience, and humility, and goes against societal pressure to take the fast track to success. As we submit ourselves to our Divine Gardener, He will cultivate the fruits He would see grown in us, and He will use us for HIS purposes in HIS timing. Banning’s thoughts on how we hear from God and on serving outside of our passions are especially helpful.

Banning is a dependable role model in this process of becoming firmly rooted. He has had success in leadership, but his spiritual journey has embodied the slow pace and complete dependence on God that he writes about in this book. His writing is straightforward and accessible and reads like a series of highly relevant sermons. This is a great books for pastors (especially millennial leaders), but pertains to all believers. Rooted was a relevant encouragement to me as I focus on Abiding in Christ this year.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield:I inhaled The Thirteenth Tale when I read it in January, and couldn’t wait to dig into the most recent novel from this remarkable author. Once Upon a River was not at all what I was expecting, but after a slow start, it far surpassed my expectations.

On a bitterly cold solstice night, villagers have made their way to the local inn for a night of storytelling—a beloved pastime for these people who dwell upon the Thames, whose lives revolve around Fable and Water and the fluidity of life and story. The jovial night is interrupted when a man barges into the inn, carrying a lifeless young girl. What happens next becomes the source material for the villagers’ stories for years to come: the girl, whom everyone assumes is dead, is brought back to life. But how can this be? And who is this mysterious, mute child?

Two families claim the girl as their own: a wealthy couple whose only daughter was kidnapped two years earlier are certain their Amelia has been returned to them. Meanwhile, a local farming family has reason to believe she is the daughter of their estranged son. And then there’s the parson’s spinster housekeeper, who insists the girl is her younger sister, come back from the grave to haunt her. In their quest to determine the girl’s identity, each family must wade through the waters of history and past regrets, peeling back layers of deceit to unravel mysteries of their own.

I don’t know if I have words to do this book justice, so I’ll begin with this description from the editor: “Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.”

As I mentioned above, this book was a slow start for me. The unusual setting and extensive cast of characters required patience and quite a bit of careful rereading. But my persistence was richly rewarded, and after conquering the first few tedious chapters, I was utterly captivated by this poignant, richly plotted ode to storytelling! Once Upon a River is a bewitching tale, dripping with symbolism, impeccable setting, and a riveting story marked by heartbreak and redemption. The characters are hauntingly lifelike and I found myself deeply invested in their plights. Through their journeys, we explore heavy yet nuanced themes of identity and image, love and loss, fact and fiction, loyalty and sacrifice. Setterfield’s masterful wordsmithing will likely go unappreciated by readers craving a fast-paced plot and black-and-white characters, but I found her exquisite prose to be the true gem of this novel.

My Rating: 5 Stars!

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way: Finding Unexpected Strength When Disappointments Leave You Shattered, by Lysa TerKeurst: I’ve read several of Lysa Terkeurst’s books in the last few years and she’s become one of my favorite, most trusted Bible teachers. I’ve also admired her life and ministry; from a distance, she was a woman whose life seemed perfect. Which is why I was floored when I heard an interview with Lysa last year in which she shared her story of a crumbling marriage, followed by numerous health problems including a battle with breast cancer. I was devastated for Lysa and inspired by her perseverance and sustained joy, which shone through the interview even as she shared her incredibly painful circumstances.

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way chronicles Lysa’s heartbreaking past few years, beginning with her husband’s decision to leave her which was soon followed by her numerous health crises. The book was written in real time, without Lysa knowing her eventual outcome, so her story is raw and real, filled with palpable pain and heartfelt cries to God. Through it all, Lysa’s faith does not waiver. She continually acknowledges that God is using her circumstances for His glory, that although her life is dominated by disappointment, she need not fall prey to the enemy’s advances but can remain steadfast in her assurance that God is good and that His hand of guidance and protection is upon her. She remains focused on God’s trustworthiness and on His Big Picture plans for humanity and for each of us, His children.

This is one of the most inspiring books I have read in a very long time! This is not the first book I’ve read about God’s presence through trying circumstances, but most books of this sort are written after the fact, when everything has been wrapped up with a tidy bow. Their answers can feel trite, the pain of their stories dulled by the passage of time. Not so with this book. I was in awe of Lysa’s faith and resilience in the midst of her trials. She is a trustworthy and relatable guide for readers who also have found themselves in a life that “wasn’t supposed to be this way,” helping us to make peace with our pain as we allow God to redeem our trials, as he has with Lysa’s. Lysa’s prose is poignant and beautiful, filled with impactful metaphors and backed by Scripture. Lysa herself is not the center of this story; her situation is simply a way to point us to God, just as our own crippling circumstances can lead us to Him. This is an excellent read for anyone who is suffering, and struggling to understand why.

My Rating: 5 Stars!

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear what you thought of them!

I’m linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share what we’ve been reading. If you’re here from the linkup, thanks for stopping by! Be sure to head here to read Part One of this month’s book reviews.

If you have little ones at home, you might also be interested in this recent post where I shared some of the pictures books I’ve been enjoying with my 4-year-old lately.

Next Wednesday I’ll have my third and final batch of this month’s book reviews. Until then, happy reading!

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