Fiction

Making Faces, by Amy Harmon

“There’s a lot I don’t understand, but not understanding is better than not believing.” Ambrose Young

Yesterday someone asked this question on Facebook: “If an alien came to earth, what is one book you would recommend that explains why books exist?” I immediately went through my mental file of favorites. Which one would I choose? My old standbys, Jane Eyre or Cold Sassy Tree? Or one of my newer beloveds, Entitled or Happiness for Beginners?

Now there is an additional one I would consider–Making Faces by Amy Harmon. An absolute triumph of a book that I will say right now is going to get a 10 star rating by the end of this review. (Unapologetic spoiler alert.)

It’s a few months before 9/11 in a small Pennsylvania town. High school wrestler Ambrose Young is the star. He’s exceptionally handsome, polite, sensitive, and a hard worker. He’s also humble, helps his dad at the bakery, stands up for others, and Fern Taylor has loved him since they were kids. Fern, who was blessed with a mass of red hair, freckles, and a diminutive boyish figure. Add in the glasses and braces and it’s no wonder Fern suffers from “UGS.” Ugly Girl Syndrome.

But Fern is too busy to focus on herself. Bailey Sheen, her first cousin, next door neighbor, and best friend in the whole world depends on her. Bailey, as upbeat and charismatic as they come, suffers from Muscular Dystrophy, and its only getting worse. Like Fern, Bailey also reveres Ambrose Young, but his reasons are different. Ambrose is a true inspiration and a physical representation of something Bailey will never be. Girls love Ambrose and the town adores him. Bailey’s body is rapidly weakening and he’ll be lucky to see his twenty first birthday.

The events of 9/11 affect everything. Flight 93 has crashed only a few miles away. The nation is on high alert. Patriotism intensifies and priorities change. Ambrose decides to enlist after graduation, convincing his four closest friends to do the same. When their tour is over, only Ambrose comes back. But he is a different man now. Broken, bitter, traumatized, and disfigured, only those who saw him for more than his looks and accomplishments can help him heal. It’s Fern and Bailey to the rescue.

The rest you will have to discover on your own. Making Faces is one of those near-perfect books where the stars aligned in its creation. You will fall in love with Fern, Bailey, and Ambrose–one of the most heartwarming literary trios I’ve ever encountered. Their strengths and inherent goodness will stay with you for a very long time and Amy Harmon’s writing has a quality to which every author should aspire. I loved this book in every way possible.

10/10 Stars

Author Spotlight, Fiction

Author Spotlight: Brigid Kemmerer

The time has come to pay tribute to Brigid Kemmerer. I just finished another one of her Young Adult books, swept up the pieces of my shattered heart, and am experiencing that familiar numbness that I always feel after saying goodbye to her characters.

Each of her YA books, Letters to the Lost, More Than We Can Tell, and Call it What You Want are stories of high school students with broken lives. Each have a guy and a girl who meet in an unusual way while grappling with his-and-her individual pain. The characters are always extremely smart, deep, sensitive, and possess an inner strength. Sometimes these traits conflict with each other. There are often issues with self-esteem and there are always parents whose choices are the cause of these challenges. But the stories are not about criticizing parents. They are a reminder that respect is earned and everyone, including parents, is going through something.

Letters to the Lost: Declan and Juliet’s story. They meet in the cemetery where Declan is doing community service and Juliet is visiting her mother’s grave, leaving behind letters she thinks no one will read. It’s spellbinding. Please click HERE to read my review and learn more about this 10 Star book.

Call It What You Want: This book is a standalone. It is Rob and Maegan’s story. Both are social outcasts. Rob is suffering the fallout from his father swindling most of the townspeople out of their savings. Maegan is unwelcome and full of regret after cheating on her SATs. They are paired up for a math assignment when no one else wants to come near them. You can read more about their story in my review HERE.

And then there is More Than We Can Tell, which I finished this morning. This is part two of Letters to the Lost. It is Rev and Emma’s story. Rev is Declan’s best friend. He’s eighteen and the survivor of abuse. His body is a map of scars and homemade tattoos of Bible verses courtesy of his cruel father, a religious zealot who can talk his way out of anything. Rev was adopted by a loving couple, Geoff and Kristin, who go above and beyond to make him feel safe and worthy, but a lot of hurt still lies buried beneath the surface. When Rev’s father tries to contact him, sending passive-aggressive messages full of emotional venom, Rev takes a walk to cool down. Sitting on a patch of grass near a church he meets Emma and her dog, Texas. Emma is dealing with an online stalker and her parents are on the verge of divorce. Two wounded young people who feel misunderstood and lonely, Rev and Emma begin meeting each evening to talk and to listen. 9.5/10 Stars

Of course there is more to all of these stories. Things escalate and emotions heighten. But the real triumph is in the characters’ development and growth. Brigid Kemmerer taps into feelings that all of us have experienced, even as adults. Feelings of being lost, unfairly treated, ignored, and underestimated. And though these young people are all victims of a sort, they must still face the consequences of their own decisions, usually being called upon to help someone else.

I highly recommend these books for anyone age 16 and older. They are masterpieces of modern fiction.

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections, Suspense

Theme: Two Unforgettable Women

When was the last time you read a book that was so immersive, you felt numb after turning the last page? What about two books in a row? Numb, reeling, in awe, emotionally exhausted in a good way…that is me right now. What makes it even more unusual is that I never even heard of either of these books until very recently.

Whiskey When We’re Dry, an incredible debut novel by John Larison, and The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld, need to go on your reading list ASAP. Are they sweet, comfortable reads? No. Both deal with unpleasant subjects. But presentation is everything and even unpleasant subjects can be handled in such a deft way that the power lies within the reader’s imagination. That, my bookish friends, is high quality writing.

Each of these stories centers around a female protagonist. Jess Harney in “Whiskey” and Naomi Cottle in “Child.” Both of them are motherless and isolated, forcing them to figure out on their own what it means to be a woman. Both have been through extreme hardship. Both use that hardship in positive ways to help others. Both sacrifice greatly.

Whiskey When We’re Dry is western historical fiction. Left alone on the family homestead in 1880’s Montana, Jessilyn Harney decides to find her last remaining relative, beloved older brother Noah. Dressed as a man and armed with above average shooting skills, she and her trusty mare, Ingrid, set off on an unimaginable adventure. Along the way, Jess encounters people of every sort, good and evil. She must defend herself, but she also learns from what she sees, tucking away that knowledge for the future. The most fascinating secondary characters are the women who come and go throughout Jess’s odyssey. Because of their limited choices, women did what they had to do to survive whether it was marriage, spinsterhood, masquerading as a man, or selling their bodies. Rich and poor, submissive and rebellious, frontier women and city women, Jess encounters them all. Knowledge and wisdom is exchanged. (The weaker sex? I think not.) The jaw-dropping ending will leave you gasping and Jess’s narrative voice is one of the best I’ve ever read.

9.5/10 Stars

The Child Finder is contemporary suspense. Naomi Cottle is a twenty-nine year old survivor of childhood abduction. She is one of the lucky ones, if you can call not knowing her parents and a deep mistrust of men lucky. But she’s alive and her foster home was a loving one. Now she is the “child finder,” a private investigator who makes it her mission to rescue missing children. She’s been hired to locate Madison Culver, who disappeared at age five from the Oregon forest. It’s been three years, so the chances she is alive are slim. Meanwhile, hidden away in an old cabin, live Mr. B and the Snow Girl. Their language is silent. Their relationship is odd. Snow Girl knows something isn’t right. There is friendship and there is terror, two things that cannot coexist forever. Some missing children are found alive and make something of their futures. Some always remain victims. The brilliance of this book is the way it shows both of these scenarios, as well as the fortitude that lies dormant within all of us until it is needed.

9.5/10 Stars

I recommend both of these books most highly. I found myself transported into other times and other worlds. They are undoubtedly raw, but the writing is magnificent. Both deserve accolades and attention.

Fiction, Young Adult

Restart, by Gordon Korman

If you look up author Gordon Korman on your digital library site, you’ll discover two things. Thing 1: He’s written a lot of books. Thing 2: All of his books are checked out. Now I know why.

Because I loved Restart! I just heard about it yesterday, found the audio on Hoopla, bought the Kindle version for four dollars, and am now a huge fan.

Chase Ambrose is a thirteen year old alpha male at Hiawasee Middle School. Captain of the football team, world-class bully, proud delinquent, and king of the cafeteria, Chase has got game. Or he had game. Because now Chase is suffering from amnesia, the result of falling off of his roof and landing on his stupid head. Memories of his family, friends, sports accomplishments, and a laundry list of intimidating others–all gone. Yeah…his mother left out the last part when she dropped him off at school for the first time after the accident.

Now Chase is learning things all over again. He still knows how to walk, talk, and feed himself. But he doesn’t understand why kids scatter in the hallways when they see him coming or why they pick up their lunch trays and move to a new table. His buddies, Aaron and Bear, assure him that it’s all in a day’s work as the hulking pranksters of the school.

Meanwhile, past victims of the terrible trio are skeptical and confused. Their leader is different. He’s helpful. Polite. Kind, even. What is going on? Does he know what he’s doing? Does he know what he did? Does he understand the fear he’s instilled to the point that parents have even taken their kids out of the school? And then what? Is everyone supposed to pretend like nothing happened? Chase might have amnesia, but nobody else does.

And so, throughout the school, a ripple effect begins. Everyone has decisions to make. Forgive? Forget? Embrace the new guy trapped in the body of the old guy? The guy that would shove you, humiliate you, or make you wear your mac and cheese?

Yes, it’s funny and there were plenty of times when I laughed out loud. But Restart is also about being the bigger person. Not the bigger bully, but the person who takes the high road, the person who looks in the mirror and realizes that we all have our less-than-stellar moments, the person who is wise enough to know that it takes just one good example for everything to change. To be better than it was before.

This is a story for young people and adults. It is a story for young people and adults to read together and discuss. Never heavy-handed and brimming over with humor, this book makes us realize that everyone can erase their past mistakes even if we remember them. We just need a little pause and a little humility to Restart.

9.5/10 Stars

Fiction

Entitled, by Cookie Boyle

Spoiler alert: This book is getting 10 stars.

A Disclaimer: No matter how much I praise this book, I still won’t be able to do it justice.

Now that those things are out of the way…

Think of your favorite song. Think of your favorite movie. Think of your favorite book. What do they all have in common? They speak to you on a higher level, right? Do any of your favorites have a brilliant simplicity to them? One where you find yourself asking, WHY has no one ever thought of this before? Do any of your favorites have a perfect efficiency? One where you admit that there is not one single thing you would change?

This is how I feel about Entitled.

How do I explain the basics? Entitled is a book…about a book…narrating what it is like to be a book…that houses a book…who lives among other books…who take on the personalities of their type of book…all searching for the ideal Reader to appreciate them as books.

That was fun. Now allow me to fill in the blanks.

In a San Francisco bookstore, a novel called The Serendipity of Snow waits patiently. Like every book of every genre, she longs for her forever home. It’s a home where she is cared for, where her story is appreciated and discussed, and where there are other books who she can call friends. Because, yes, books talk to each other. They comfort and compete. They expound and observe. Some think they’re superior (nonfiction.) Some are blunt (reference.) Some are vacuous (frothy romances.) Some are philosophers of experience (Westerns.)

But once a book is bought, it must acclimate. Is the new owner really committed to reading it? Will he or she treat it kindly? Will the book sit on a shelf with a decent view? Or be stuck in a dark, dusty box? Will it travel? Will it be shared, borrowed, traded, stolen, or (gulp) recycled? With few exceptions, a book is at the mercy of its owner. Serendipity will tell you…being a book can be amazing or it can be terrifying. A book must stay hopeful but also be ready for anything.

Entitled will leave you looking at books differently. You will think about the forgotten ones sitting on your shelf. (You might even think about which way they’re facing.) You will revisit the ones that are so loved they’re falling apart. You might think of books that were milestone reads, books that seemed to appear in your life at just the right time, and those who left you in a state of awe.

This seemingly simple-looking book is not simple at all. You will follow Serendipity on her journey through life. You will smile and laugh. You will gasp in disbelief. And you will be impressed. Very, very impressed.

Read it.

10/10 very worthy stars!

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Women's Fiction

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott

Available tomorrow! January 10, 2023

Where do you go when you want to find pettiness, gossip, mayhem and murder? Look no further than the PBA (Parent Booster Association) in an upscale Connecticut town.

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott is hilarious. A satirical look at a group of women who represent those committees we’ve pretty much all had to participate in at one time or another. There’s the Type A president, who ruthlessly clutches to her position as though her life depends on it (it does,) who overshadows and overachieves, basking in the glory of her success and leaving baffled and intimidated worker bees in her wake. That is Ainsley Aames Anderson. A triple Type A. Her name says it all.

With someone like Ainsley, you’re either a minion or an enemy. You do not question her. You do not compete with her. You certainly do not defy her. A tough lesson learned by her seemingly faithful entourage, Bee, Dayna, and Lanie. The outliers have a more difficult time. There’s working mother Nina, a successful accountant with more brains than charm, and the town’s prodigal daughter, single mom Paige Lancaster. Paige has returned to her hometown after being let go from a successful job writing crime shows in LA. She’s worldly and strong, the complete opposite of the submissive women who work with, um for, Ainsley. And it doesn’t help that Paige’s first love happens to be Ainsley’s husband.

Things fall apart at the PBA’s annual Parents and Pinot fundraising auction. By the end of the night the PBA president everyone loves to hate is dead. Suspects are everywhere. A surprising amount have access to weapons. Unsurprisingly, the blind adoration of Ainsley’s followers isn’t quite as blind as it once appeared. Using the alternating POVs of Paige, Lanie, Nina, and Dayna, we discover that few things (and people) are what they seem.

I really enjoyed Regrets Only. I’m giving it 9 stars because the ending fell a bit flat, but it’s still worth reading. It’s an honest commentary on suburban society. The seriousness and intensity at which these women view something as basic as a parent organization is extreme, yes, but not entirely untrue. We women can get a lot of things done, but the backroom plotting and politics are as old as time itself.

9/10 Stars

Christian Fiction, Fiction, Romance, Series & Collections, Women's Fiction

Riverbend Series, by Denise Hunter

Meet the Robinsons, a blended family with adult children Avery, Cooper, and Gavin. They love each other to a fault, which is lucky because they have their flaws like everyone else. But that love, and the compassion and generosity that go with it, is enough to extend to others who need their help.

Riverbend Gap is Cooper’s story. As a sheriff’s deputy in their small town, he’s always on the alert, but nothing could have prepared him for the situation he finds himself in one day. A car that recently skidded off the road now balances on the edge of a cliff. A terrified young woman sits inside, praying for a miracle. While waiting for emergency services, Cooper talks to her, calms her, and tries to keep the car from falling. This unusual meeting sets off a series of events that involve the entire Robinson family and a new arrival to their town.

Mulberry Hollow is Avery’s story. A young doctor, the only one in their small town, she works her fingers to the bone on a daily basis, tending to the needs of friends, neighbors, and hikers attempting the nearby trail. Her clinic is the only medical facility for miles. So, when she arrives at the clinic one night to find an injured hiker passed out on the doorstep, she must think fast. Who is he? Her protective family is skeptical, but Avery decides to let the stranger stay on while he mends.

Harvest Moon is Gavin’s story. Still nursing his wounds from the death of his child and a painful divorce, Gavin must now face the terrible news that his best friend has been killed in an airplane crash. His wife too. They left behind a little girl who must now deal with the loss of her parents. What will become of her? Surely her mother and father had guardians in mind should such a tragedy befall them. Fortunately, they did. Gavin and his ex-wife.

While all three of the Riverbend books have Christian aspects and happy endings, it’s the journey to those endings that make them worth reading. I have really enjoyed Denise Hunter’s books lately and have quickly added her as a go-to author. Without being too saccharine, the stories are uplifting and hopeful, with realistic characters. I’ve also read her book called The Wishing Season and am currently listening to Falling Like Snowflakes. They all deal with found family, new beginnings, and a community rallying together. If you like books with heart, you’ll want to read these.

9/10 Stars for the series

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Memoir

December Reading Wrap Up, Monthly Favorites, 2023 Recommendations

OK! The new year is upon us! Time for some wrap ups, favorites, and recommendations for the new year!

Let’s start off with the books I read in December. It was fun to read winter and holiday-themed books. I’ve never done that before. But I’m open to anything that gets me out of my comfort zone a bit. It seems like that is when I discover authors who become favorites. Melanie Jacobson and Jane Porter were two great author discoveries in December. Jennifer Peel and Becky Monson continued their streak of fun books. Denise Hunter is quickly rising to the top of my list of authors whose works I want to revisit. And Brigid Kemmerer…I could read her books over and over again. They are that good. Ratings are based on the Goodreads 5-Star rating system.

Next, I’m posting my 2022 favorites by month. This was a tough one! There were many months when I read several that stayed with me. In the end, though, I thought about which ones really got under my skin. They are the ones I find myself constantly recommending. They made me laugh or cry. They opened up a whole new arena of thought. They are, in my opinion, extra special. These are the final 12. The Ogress and the Orphans is middle grade (ages 8-12.) What I Carry, Letters to the Lost, and Call It What You Want are considered Young Adult. (16+)

Lastly, I’m posting fifteen recommendations. I’ve seen lots of people in my online book groups asking for book recommendations for the new year. Believe me, I have MANY more than just fifteen that are worth suggesting, but in the interest of time, space, and not picking the same ones as everyone else, here they are. All of them are stand-alones (not part of a series.) All of them are fiction or historical fiction with the exception of Deaf Utopia, which everyone should read. Everyone.

I hope to post some more favorites by topic and genre in the near future. I’ve discovered some incredible books and amazingly talented authors in 2022, many of whom I’ve had the honor of communicating with through different means. One who even recruited me to join his beta reading team. (More on that in the future.) 😉

As always, these are my recommendations based on my taste, experience, filters, and tolerances. Be sure to do your own research about adult scenes, language, and age-appropriate content.

Fiction, Romance, Young Adult

Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer

Another fantastic read by Brigid Kemmerer. My goodness, I love how this woman writes!

No one wants to be defined by their mistakes. Especially as a teenager. Especially when the mistakes aren’t even his. But that is exactly what happened to Rob Lachlan, Jr. Why? Because after swindling half the townspeople (teachers, the librarian, and parents of Rob Jr.’s friends,) Robert Lachlan Sr. put a gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and failed his objective. Now he is a mumbling, drooling shell of a man who takes his meals through a tube. Meanwhile, Rob Jr.–once a high school alpha male and lacrosse champion–is the new face of a crime that left families in ruins. A crime he didn’t commit. A crime that, by proxy, took away his social status and made him an outcast. Life is pretty much in the toilet right now.

No one wants to be defined by their choices either. Unfortunately, overachiever Maegan made a bad one. Really, really bad. Tired of playing second fiddle to her golden older sister, Maegan cheated on her SATs, which caused a ripple effect to all the other test takers that day. Thank you for playing, Maegan. Here’s your new outcast badge.

But what makes these teens stand out? They are smart. Very, very smart. Not always socially smart, but definitely book smart, which is the hallmark of Brigid Kemmerer’s Young Adult characters. So when two very smart (and lonely) outcasts are rejected by everyone else to partner up for an Honors Calculus project, they have no choice but to work together.

And thus begins the story of two basically good teenagers who just want to reclaim some normality in their lives. But it’s a journey, one that involves testing boundaries of friendship, rules, and one’s own morals.

I’m leaving out a lot, but I will say that the one word that comes to mind when I read a book by Kemmerer is “brave.” This is brave writing. It’s layered. It alternates points of view, showing us the emotions and motives of both main characters. And what characters they are–brave writing calls for brave characters. Rob and Maegan have rock solid cores, refusing to let circumstances and choices beat them down, despite the detours along the way.

This is a terrific book. I highly recommend it. It’s marketed as a Young Adult novel, but I would say it is more for mature and older teens.

9.5/10 Stars

FYI: This is a book with multiple cover designs.
Fiction, Romance, Women's Fiction

Scrooge and the Girls Next Door, by Melanie Jacobson

I’ve discovered a handful of new authors lately whose books I really enjoy. You’re going to start seeing more of them on this blog. One of them is Melanie Jacobson, known for her clean romances that mix humor and heart.

Scrooge and the Girls Next Door is a book I expected to read and forget–yes, I judged a book by its cover, don’t repeat my mistake–and instead, I was treated to a book that made me both laugh out loud and clutch my chest with emotion. Any book that has me feeling all the feels deserves a shout-out on this blog.

While using the “enemies to friends” plot line, this delightful story explores how the Christmas season can be difficult for some people, the importance of community, and how a generous spirit can melt a frosty attitude. It all begins when single mom, Paige Redmond, buys her first home–a raggedy fixer upper–and moves in with her daughter, Evie, next door to stodgy college professor, Henry Hill. While they navigate their differences and often disagree, there is a lot of self-exploration and reevaluation. Sometimes it takes the right person or people to motivate change. There is also a secondary “found family” story line that is very sweet. A reminder that the word “family” can have many interpretations.

I’ve read several Christmas-themed books this month and I have to say that this is my favorite. The characters have depth and feel realistic. The romance is slow and not corny or forced. Both main characters take turns sharing their points of view, which gives a fun and interesting perspective.

This book is available for free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription and is a great way to relax during the busy holiday season. I recommend it!

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction

So Long, Chester Wheeler, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Available tomorrow! December 6, 2022

Author Catherine Ryan Hyde continues to impress me with her unique pairing of old and young characters! This time, however, the younger of the two is also the wiser. A lot wiser.

If you’ve seen the film As Good As it Gets, with Jack Nicholson and Greg Kinnear, you have the ideal casting for the cantankerous Chester Wheeler and his gay neighbor/caretaker, Lewis Madigan.

Chester Wheeler has no social filter and he’s dying. He’s managed to run off every possible person to attend to his needs. Lewis is a twenty-four year old software developer who just lost everything stable in his life. He needs a job and he’s desperate. (It would take someone desperate to put up with Chester.) Fortunately for Lewis, he’s employed by Chester’s daughter, Ellie, who is supportive of any means Lewis uses to get Chester to cooperate. Or yield. Or surrender. Semantics.

As we get to know Chester–despite his terrible moods, passive aggression, and name calling–a profound truth surfaces: Hurt people…hurt people. Does that make his behavior OK? Absolutely not. But knowing the why helps, just as it does in any difficult relationship. And Lewis is great with Chester–he’s patient without allowing himself to be victimized.

When Chester presents Lewis with a dying wish, the real adventure begins. It’s one that brings self-discovery, closure, and hope. This book is the definition of character-driven and you really do care for both of these men, one at the end of his life and one whose life is just beginning. It’s a grand story from start to finish.

9/10 Stars

Christian Fiction, Fiction

The Extraordinary Deaths of Mrs. Kip, by Sara Brunsvold

Clara Kip, a 79 year old widow with a recent cancer diagnosis, is going into hospice. Aidyn Kelley, a 24 year old journalist doomed to work on minor stories, is hoping to have her dreams and potential realized. Two women in different stages of life. Two women with different kinds of journeys ahead whose lives will briefly intersect, affecting them both.

In the oddest of ways, Aidyn’s editor reprimands her for a mishap by assigning her to write Clara Kip’s obituary. An obituary for a woman who hasn’t died, but has certainly lived, although not at all like she initially planned. Over just a few meetings, the women come to mean a great deal to each other. Questions are answered, lessons are learned, heartfelt philosophies are shared. Most importantly–just love and be kind.

Never let it be said that anyone leads a boring life. That is the crux of this book: everyone has a story. Everyone also has gifts to share with others, whether it be finding the right words, companionship, or thinking outside the box.

Also never let it be said that one must be a certain age to have wisdom. Aidyn, although young, has plenty. She and Mrs. Kip make a terrific team, despite their brief time together.

I happened upon this book by accident yesterday (available to borrow on Hoopla) and flew through it, continually uplifted with every visit. Though not a Christmas story, it has a Christian aspect, with themes that feel very appropriate this time of year. I recommend reading it during the holiday rush when you need a quiet moment of heartfelt refreshment.

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Autobiography, Christian Fiction, Fiction, Magical Realism, Series & Collections

November Reads 2022

I read ten books in November. Not bad! I did reviews on the ones that had the most impact on me, but here’s a quick summary.

Best Memoir (which is also nominated for a Goodreads award): Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry. Both fascinating and heart-breaking. Just be prepared for a lot of F-bombs.

Best Romantic Comedy: Hello Stranger, by Katherine Center. This comes out in July 2023, but keep it on your TBR (to be read) list. It’s a winner! A journey of self-discovery and growth while facing challenges and falling in love.

Best Magical Realism: The Magic of Lemon Drop Pie, by Rachel Linden. Word is out on this wonderful story of second chances and glimpses into the future. Everyone I’ve recommended this book to who has read it, has loved it!

Best Book Duo: All That Really Matters and All That It Takes by Nicole Deese. Even though I rated them differently, they’re both excellent and worth your time. Clean, Christian fiction, full of flawed but decent people who learn the value of faith, embracing differences, and serving others.

In my opinion, these are the best of the bunch. Rachel Linden and Nicole Deese are new authors for me, but I definitely want to read more of their books. Hopefully something catches your eye!

Christian Fiction, Fiction, Romance, Series & Collections, Women's Fiction

All That Really Matters, by Nicole Deese

Social media influencer, Molly McKenzie, is on top of the world. Her channel has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, she lives a fairy-tale lifestyle, and her talent manager boyfriend has just lined up a new opportunity to expand her reach even further. It’s truly the chance of a lifetime.

There’s just one thing she has to do. Since the makeover show she’s auditioning for is going to nominate underprivileged youth, the producers want her to have some real-life experience working with them. When Molly’s minister brother, Miles, connects her with The Bridge youth program, designed to help kids transition out of foster care, everything seems to be clicking into place.

Of course, Life is full of variables and unknowns, which grow exponentially when we allow more people into our circle. Those unknowns also happen when we allow someone in who is different. No one knows this better than Silas Whittaker, the youth program’s director. He and Molly appear to be opposites in every way. Add twenty two young people who have experienced more than their fair share of physical and emotional trauma and the unknowns multiply.

The good thing is that everyone, including those twenty two residents, has an end goal. The goals vary, as do their range in selflessness, but they keep everyone motivated. And, as time goes by, and Molly and Silas find some common ground and work to set aside their prejudices, they find that faith in God and in each other can go a long way.

This is a story about growth. Growth, change, and, especially grace–the grace we hope to receive and the grace we need to extend. If you can look past Molly’s initial superficial exterior, you will be happily surprised at the miracles–big and small–that happen in everyone’s lives.

9/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Women's Fiction

Hello Stranger, by Katherine Center

Available July 11, 2023!

I had a nice surprise a couple of days ago! I’m still expecting a hardback copy of Hello Stranger to arrive in the mail next month, but I didn’t expect to be gifted an advanced digital copy too!

I stayed up half the night finishing this book. I think it’s Katherine Center’s most brilliant novel yet. It’s also super frustrating. Why? Because (1) it deals with the condition called “face blindness,” which is extremely hard to understand, and (2) it addresses the consequences of face blindness, mainly “confirmation bias,” which means that if you think something is true, you are selective about the available facts to convince yourself of that truth. (Think of those perpetual hot button topics like politics and religion, the ultimate examples.)

A teeny tiny percentage of people will ever experience face blindness. BUT 100% of us yield to confirmation bias. We do it constantly. And THIS is the brilliant part. Katherine Center does to the reader what face blindness does to her main character, Sadie—essentially creating a puzzle, purposefully leaving out information, forcing us to use our confirmation bias crutch (without realizing we’re doing it,) then offering those missing puzzle pieces we didn’t know we needed in her best ending EVER of any of her books. (I’m playing my CB card here and calling it a fact.) 😁

I’ve done so much thinking about HELLO STRANGER since finishing it early this morning. It is a book you really have to read twice—once without all the puzzle pieces and then again with the complete picture. And yes, I’m leaving out a plot summary on purpose because making these discoveries is part of the experience. Just know that if you still want to punch the wall after reading half of it, keep going! It’s SO worth it.

And don’t worry! Along the way you’re still wittily treated to Sadie’s journey of self-discovery, an annoyingly cute neighbor, a dashing vet, an adorable dog, a looming work deadline, an evil stepsister, and the karmic satisfaction of being helpful and compassionate despite immense challenges.

9/10 Stars

***I felt a little lost when I began this book because the concept of face blindness is so foreign to me. So I did some research and came across this article by Sadie Dingfelder called My Life With Face Blindness. Sadie and Sadie. Coincidence? Nope. It turns out that journalist Sadie was an information source and the inspiration for the name of Katherine Center’s character. Isn’t life funny that way?