Saturday, January 26, 2013

Firefly Island

Firefly Island by Lisa Wingate (publication date February 1, 2013)

I received a review copy from Bethany House via NetGalley.

My review:

Firefly Island is the story of a single thirty-something congressional staffer, Mallory Hale, who in the space of a few short months finds herself married, a stepmother, and living in a rundown ranch house in rural Texas.That alone would be plenty of book fodder, but Mallory soon develops some uneasy suspicions about some of the characters in her new hometown of Moses Lake, and things start to get really interesting.

The book is well-written; I've read one of Lisa Wingate's other books (The Talk of the Town) and I enjoyed it, so I knew going in that she is a talented writer. I tend to be suspicious of Christian books because I've encountered so many painful reads that only got published because somebody assumed that "inspirational" readers aren't too picky about quality. This is not one of those books.

That said, it is pretty didactic when it comes to social-justice issues. I think Wingate was writing with the idea that her readers might be suburban and sheltered like the heroine, so the passages about valuing the poor folk in the hills and letting your kids play with theirs were kind of eye-rolly to me. The Christian message isn't painted too thickly, though I think that there is probably still too much of it to suit most non-Christian readers.

This book could easily have focused on the adjustments Mallory had to make as a new wife and stepmother, and there was a lot of that woven throughout the story, but it wasn't the emphasis of the book. If it had been, I think it would have been a much heavier read. There are definitely some creepy spots and a lot of niggling questions that you want to get answered, so I guess you could call this an "ultra-lite" thriller. It was a quick, enjoyable, engaging read.

Stars: 4

Friday, January 25, 2013

Running update

I've been trying to be consistent with my workout routine lately. It's hard because I deal with (self-diagnosed) Seasonal Affective Disorder. Exercise is actually one of the best ways to keep my endorphins up, but this winter my SAD symptoms have been more physical than emotional. I've been sleeping a ton, and my workout regimen takes way more recovery time than it should. I'm trying to find the balance of energizing exercise without pushing so hard that it leaves me feeling drained and wrung out.

DailyMile says that I've been averaging about 9 miles a week. I try to do a 5k three times a week as a minimum, and I also do a Blogilates workout video before each run. Good audiobooks have been helping with my running, and I've also discovered a bunch of cycling videos on YouTube that have been a godsend. I set an hour-long scenery route going on my iPad, pop in my earbuds, and it's been a little easier thanks to those.

I've had some success with phototherapy in the past and I just ordered my own light therapy device yesterday; hopefully it will get here soon and give me an extra boost.

I've also been thinking about the idea of a spring race or two. I don't enter many races; I can go run without paying money for the privilege, after all. And most of the "local" races are over an hour away, meaning that my husband and I would have to get up really early to get there for registration. There are a couple of 10ks in late April that I'm considering, though. One is really close to home, and the other is cheap and has pizza and beer at the end! Having a race to train for keeps me honest about fitting my workouts in, and I like working towards a goal. So we'll see.

Blue Dahlia

Blue Dahlia by Nora Roberts

I downloaded the audiobook through the public library's OverDrive service.

My review:

I am a big fan of Nora Roberts. Before I ever read anything by her, I had this impression that she wrote hot 'n heavy cheesefests. She doesn't. She's a really good writer and she excels at giving her books a "sense of place." I especially enjoy her books on audio; Brilliance Audio does a great job with them and they are my fix of choice when I need an escape to somewhere lovely but am too broke for a plane ticket.

Blue Dahlia is the first book in the In the Garden trilogy. The "place" is western Tennessee, a garden and landscaping business located on the grounds of a gorgeous old family estate. Most of the book takes place in early spring creeping into summer, which suits me perfectly as I battle through a dreary Yankee January. Three women at different life stages find their lives converging and intertwining with each others'-- and with the house ghost.

This trilogy shares a lot of characteristics with my other favorite Nora Roberts series, the Bride Quartet. There's a sigh-worthy grand old estate, a big "family" that is formed by choice and circumstance, and the business about which they are all passionate underlying everything. A lot of Goodreads commenters seem to feel that there are too many "gardening tips," but I disagree. Nora Roberts sets her scenes so well precisely because she includes little details about the characters' lives, interests, and activities. I didn't find it at all overbearing, and I'm no gardening junkie.

Stars: 4

Runability: 5

My treadmill sessions while listening to this book were a breeze! Running is so much easier for me when I listen to something interesting but comfortably happy. The narrator, Susie Breck, manages to give each character a distinct voice, which helps me follow the action with a minimum of brain power and a maximum of enjoyment.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I borrowed an ebook copy through the public library's OverDrive service.

My review:

This is the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire (better known as The Game of Thrones) series and is my favorite of them thus far. It reminds me in the best possible way of the characteristics that made me fall in love with The Lord of the Rings books when I was a teenager; there is a huge cast of characters, a setting that spans multiple kingdoms, and storylines woven in and around each other.

I particularly love that in this book so many characters are being fleshed out beyond the roles they played in the first two. Lady Catelyn, Jon Snow, and Jaime and Tyrion Lannister, in particular, have become far more interesting and complex than I ever anticipated. Well, actually, I always knew that Tyrion was interesting and complex, but he becomes ever more so throughout this installment. In this respect, at least, I find that the Song of Ice and Fire series is even more fascinating than The Lord of the Rings.

A lot of readers are intimidated by epic sagas with confusing storylines and dozens of disappearing and reappearing characters, all related to each other through blood and old alliances kept or broken. I find that the key is to just go with it. Hold on to the main characters and their primary objectives and trust that you'll either remember or be reminded of whatever else you need to know. A nation that has been able to follow Lost or Desperate Housewives should not be intimidated by the complicated stories woven throughout an amazing book series.

Stars: 5

Monday, January 14, 2013

Coal: A Human History

Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese

I downloaded the audiobook from the public library's OverDrive service.

My review:

This book attracted me because I grew up and still live in coal country. My parents worked at a coal mine on their college breaks (Mom in the office and surveying departments; Dad was down in the mines), my grandfather had a coal furnace in the basement, and strip mines are a significant feature of the landscape in certain areas. So, bias alert: I'm a friend of coal.

Barbara Freese presents an engaging look at the social and economic impact of coal throughout the thousands of years that humanity has been using it. Coal has often been closely linked to extremes of our human experience-- to brutal exploitation, danger, and suffering, as well as to staggering achievement and progress. While it definitely has an Anglo-Saxon focus, it does eventually get around to China and mentions (in passing) the coal resources of Europe.

So the social history interested me and I felt that those passages of the book were well-done. That heart of the book was unfortunately sandwiched between Freese's political agenda. She makes no secret from the very beginning of the fact that she is an environmental attorney. I do think that she tries to be unbiased in the historical sections of the book, and she does a decent job of that there.

But... (like I said, I have my own bias here!):

Freese spends a lot of time speculating about the vast death toll, innumerable illnesses, and untold environmental impact. She was fond of pulling out terrifying figures and catastrophic statistics, but they were usually preceded by phrases like "some suggest..." "it may even..." or "perhaps as high as..." She paints an extreme picture, but a close reading/listening reveals that the scientific data is not really conclusive on any of those factors. Her take on the situation is one take among the many, many possibilities left open by the available data.

Similarly, at the close of the book she sketches for us a new glory age of hydrogen energy, which will have been ushered in by a transitional era of reliance on natural gas in lieu of coal. Aside from the fact that I don't think this could be as great or attainable solution as she makes it out to be, Freese wants to achieve this through increasing environmental restrictions with the stated purpose of running the coal operations out of business. She grudgingly admits that this will be hard on the miners who lose their livelihoods, but hastens to add that the number of lives saved through lower pollution will outweigh that cost many times over. First, nobody even knows how many deaths have even actually been caused by coal, so it's equally impossible to know how many lives will be saved. Second, she's quick to select the sacrificial lambs that she thinks deserve to bear the burdens of the transition away from coal power. The entities to make the sacrifices are the already-developed nations-- specifically the United States, with the regions that depend largely or in whole on coal paying the bulk of the cost. We are supposed to take the hit so that developing nations can continue to pollute as we did in the past.

Just read Atlas Shrugged for an approximate idea of what I think of that.

Anyway... rant over.

Stars: 2.5

Runability: 2.5

Friday, January 11, 2013

Summerset Abbey

Summerset Abbey by T. J. Brown (publication date January 15, 2013)

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

From the Goodreads description:

"Sir Philip Buxton raised three girls into beautiful and capable young women in a bohemian household that defied Edwardian tradition.... But everything [they believe] will be tested when Sir Philip dies, and the girls must live under their uncle’s guardianship at the vast family estate, Summerset Abbey."

My review, originally shared December 23, 2012:

I suspect that this book was written at least in part to appeal to the fans of Downton Abbey, as it takes place in a very similar time and setting. I have only seen a couple of episodes of the show and so can't say how they compare. I enjoyed the book and found it a light, pleasant read with enough questions and revelations paced throughout to keep me interested. I did notice a few phrases and observations that seemed out of place for the time period, but nothing jarring. As with much historical fiction, contemporary sensibilities are frequently projected onto the historical backdrop and into the mouths of characters.The writing style itself was workmanlike but not bad, though Brown does "tell" in many places where she could simply "show."

Most of the characters were flawed but sympathetic and I was interested to see how they dealt with and adapted to the challenges they faced; I particularly liked how each girl had her own unique struggles and coping mechanisms in her new environment. All three of the main characters frustrated me with their lipservice to independence, however. The girls all talk about women's rights and abilities but spend most of the book sitting around waiting for fate to solve their problems for them.

Not all of the various story lines were tied up at the end, and the last section as a whole felt a little rushed. The main characters were almost willfully dense about not suspecting the "big surprise" until they finally did; readers will see it coming long before anyone in the story does. Apparently a series is planned to follow, so I expect that some of the unresolved threads will be revisited in their own books. Even with the unsurprising surprises and the hasty wrap-up, Summerset Abbey will entertain readers looking for a light period novel.

Stars: 3 

Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I downloaded the audiobook from the public library's OverDrive service.

The Goodreads description:

"'I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve...I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened.' In Donald Miller's early years, he was vaguely familiar with a distant God. But when he came to know Jesus Christ, he pursued the Christian life with great zeal. Within a few years he had a successful ministry that ultimately left him feeling empty, burned out, and, once again, far away from God. In this intimate, soul-searching account, Miller describes his remarkable journey back to a culturally relevant, infinitely loving God."

My review, originally shared May 23, 2012:

I really liked the first half or so and quite a bit of the end, but when Miller veered off in the middle and began talking about politics and why all churches should be full of artist-types like his church is, he lost me for a while.

Basically this is hipster Christology with quite a bit of social-justice-minded Democrat thrown in. I think Miller does a really good job of showing how Christianity can seem to self-described "cool" young people outside the church and of talking about how we can connect with them better. For a cool young person outside the church with a mind open to learning more about Christianity and Jesus, I think this book could be really helpful. And Miller does address a lot of very real and very valid concerns about the modern Church, and for the most part he does it in a thoughtful and transparent way.

For a lifelong Christian Republican who's never been "cool" and finds the whole hipster thing rather fake and wearying, though, it was a little alienating. At two points in the book Miller does acknowledge that it is possible to be a red-state fundamentalist and still be sincere and still be going to Heaven, but most of the time I felt like he was judging all Christians outside of Portland for not being as awesome and liberal as he and his church are. I could have done without the politics and the complaining about pretty much all other Christians, though some of his points (e.g., talking about how our "unconditional love" is all too often quite conditional) are well-taken.

Stars: 3

Runability: 2 

Yeah. Basically I'm not retracting any of that. I know that many, many other people feel quite differently and that friends I highly respect give this book 5 stars. As I said, there was a lot in the book that was good food for thought and there were a few particularly convicting sections, but overall, I felt like Miller was trying way too hard.

Maybe it's because I'm from Pittsburgh.  

The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

My review, originally shared November 30, 2012:

Kate Morton is a beautiful writer. That is what stands out to me the most about this book, which also has so many other strengths on which to recommend it.

The Secret Keeper flips back and forth between mother Dorothy as a young woman in 1941 London and her daughter, Laurel, a moderately famous character actress in 2011. Present-day Dorothy is in the hospital near the end, and Laurel is forced to remember a horrific incident she witnessed as a teenager. As Dorothy struggles in and out of consciousness and lucidity, Laurel determines to solve the mystery of what she saw her mother do one summer day in the sixties.

Every significant character in this book was fascinating, and the interactions between them were equally so. Morton's grasp of psychology and her realistic portrayal of how different people perceive and grapple with their worlds are phenomenal. Scenes are often viewed through the perspectives of multiple characters, allowing the reader to guess and understand in pace with the people in the story.

One character in particular comes to light gradually as the book unfolds, and I felt that the way the others (and the reader) begin to piece the inconsistencies together was particularly well-done. I have a person with a similar personality in my life, and the guessing and realizing process in The Secret Keeper rang completely true against my own experience. This aspect of the book was masterfully done.

I had only two real complaints about the book: First, Laurel's sisters were sketched-in compared to the supporting WWII characters. They flitted in and out of the 2011 scenes and each was given a trait by which to "identify" her, but they felt very dim compared to the rest of the cast. Second, the constant jumping around between perspectives and time period was frustrating at times. There were multitudes of mini-cliffhangers. They kept me guessing and rushing on through the book, but they also got a tad tiresome after a couple of hundred pages.

Those two minor criticisms do not diminish my overall impression of the book, however. I enjoyed this work thoroughly and highly recommend it to readers who enjoy thoughtful character studies. Observers of human nature who like a puzzle and have the patience to work it out through several hundred pages of beautifully-written prose will find another winner here from Kate Morton.

Stars: 5

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline

I borrowed a hardcover copy from the public library, but I intend to purchase my own at some point.

My review, originally shared August, 2012:

It's an easy and entertaining read that has made me rethink the way I view the stuff cramming my closet and dresser. I've already been beginning to sew my own clothes because I have a hard time finding affordable, adult clothes in my size, and reading Overdressed has only strengthened my determination to invest in quality materials and to learn to dress myself. It's also a great reminder that trends /= style and encouragement to break away from what's cool this week and to think about what you yourself actually like.

I disagree with the commenters who complained that Cline didn't "give us the answer" at the end of the book. If you are hoping that she'll provide a list of retailers whose merchandise is all high-quality, eco-friendly, and ethically sourced so you can switch your brain off and pick anything from the menu, then you'll be disappointed. But I think she gives many realistic suggestions for people looking to rethink their cheap clothing consumption. Care for what you have. Think about what you buy. Go for the highest quality that you can afford, which means buying less stuff but stuff that you truly love and use. Read clothing labels. Shop used/vintage when possible. Consider repairing, mending, and altering, either by doing the job yourself or finding a professional who can handle it. These are all practical ideas that anyone can take away from this book. 

Stars: 4.5

I think Cline may have exhibited a touch of confirmation bias when it came to noting the degree of catastrophic environmental destruction, etc., but I don't doubt that any exaggeration was slight. 

This was far and away one of the books I read in 2012 that had the greatest impact on me. I've never been a fast fashion junkie at the level of many recreational shoppers, but I know all too well the experience of buying a piece of clothing just because it's there and it's cheap. In my case, most of those impulse buys came from thrift stores and I felt virtuous about using secondhand shops as my "cycling closet." Overdressed explains why buying from Goodwill is a start but isn't enough. The life cycle of fashion and textiles in our economy is complex and scary and we need to change our relationship with "fashion."

In my own life, this has resulted in fewer "why not?" purchases. I'm making a real effort to look for higher-quality pieces, whether that means being more selective at the Salvation Army or plunking down a nauseating sum on a pair of new Frye boots that I know will last a couple of decades. I am filled with determination to hem those jeans that are dragging on the floor. I'm trying to edit my closet and drawer down to fewer pieces that are versatile, flattering, and high in quality. It's a process.

One huge change this book has prompted me to make is to start looking for merchandise that was crafted in America. I believe that our country is never going to make a true recovery if we don't start creating more of what we endlessly consume. Those Frye boots that I mentioned were one of the models still created domestically. It's good to know that my money went to something beautiful that will last me a long time and will also help to support wage-earning craftspeople and, in a small way, our own precarious economy. I believe strongly in helping others, but in order to help others, we ourselves first have to be strong.

On the Road

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I downloaded the audiobook from the public library's OverDrive service.

My review, originally shared June 13, 2012:

Kerouac was a genius. Especially if it's true that he banged this book out in three manic, smoke-filled weeks at his typewriter. He took a bunch of people I despise, doing things that I find abhorrent, and kept me riveted the entire way through the book. This one was phenomenal on audio. 

Stars: 5

Runability: 3

This book actually has wildly divergent ratings on Goodreads; it's one of those titles that you adore or despise. I adored it. I'm giving it only a 3 for runability because I know I would have missed most of the beauty in the language if I had been listening to the machine-gun-fire dialogue while also trying to stay on my feet, keep breathing, and not get hit by cars. It was perfect for driving and doing chores.

Casting Spells

Casting Spells by Barbara Bretton

I purchased a paperback copy from Better World Books.

The Goodreads description:

"Sugar Maple looks like any Vermont town, but it's inhabited with warlocks, sprites, vampires, witches and an ancient secret. And Chloe Hobbs, owner of Sticks & String, a popular knitting shop, has a big secret too. She's a sorcerer's daughter in search of Mr. Right and she's found him in Luke MacKenzie, a cop investigating Sugar Maple's very first murder. Bad news is he's 100% human, which could spell disaster for a normal future with a paranormal woman like her."

My review, originally shared September, 2012:

If you like light romance-mysteries, supernatural creatures, and knitting, then you'll probably like this book. If you don't like all of those things, then you probably won't. I do like them, so I thought this book was delightful. It's a quick, easy read, but it was well-written. I laughed out loud a few times. It's like knitting shop plus fairy tale plus Stars Hollow. I'll be reading the next in the series.  

Stars: 4

I did, in fact, go on to read the other books in the Sugar Maple series and I had a wonderful time with all of them, though this one was probably my favorite by a smidge. I think there's a fifth book in the works and I plan to read it. 


Feed by Mira Grant

I downloaded the audiobook through the public library's OverDrive service.

My review, originally shared May 21, 2012:

There was a lot that I did like about this book-- I think Grant has imagined a very plausible post-zombie-Apocalypse world. The descriptions were thorough. Most of the characters were well-developed. The plot was pretty good and had a couple of twists that I didn't see coming.

My biggest problem with the book was the writing style. Grant relied on a lot of cliches, especially when writing in George's voice (Shaun's voice wasn't as grating to me, but he narrated far less of the book). There was a ton of needless repetition; we're reminded probably more than a dozen times that animals less than 40lbs couldn't turn into zombies. I felt similarly about the endless descriptions of security blood-testing. I understand that it was intended to reinforce how seriously security had to be taken and how dangerous the whole world had become, but the detailed description of every single door's "pinpricks," etc., became tedious.

I think readers who care primarily about the story and secondarily about the writing style would enjoy this book far more than I did.

Stars: 2

Runability: 2.5

The readers' voices probably did not help with my enjoyment of this book. The female reader sounded like she was trying really, really hard to add tons of inflection to everything she said. The male reader was much less annoying to me, but as I said, he was far less of the book.

Making Waves

Making Waves by Lorna Seilstad

This was a freebie for Nook earlier this year.

From the Goodreads description:

"It's 1895, and spunky Marguerite Westing is thrilled to discover that her family will summer at Lake Manawa! Escaping her boring suitor, Roger, Marguerite stumbles upon two new loves---sailing and her instructor, Trip. But when her father's gambling threatens to ruin them all, will she marry Roger to save her family's name and fortune?"

My review, originally shared June 4, 2012:

Very fun! I wasn't sure that I would like this one, but I really did. The setting, a lake resort at the turn of the century, is perfect for a summer read. The heroine was spunky and believably flawed, and the other characters also had strengths and weaknesses and developed throughout the story. While it's a Christian book with a strong message, it doesn't drive it home with a sledgehammer like some Christian fiction. The characters were actually fun people who didn't make me want to gag, and the love story was the same way. I'll be reading the other Lake Manawa Summers books, too.

Stars: 4

I did end up purchasing the next two books in the series. They were perfect easy summer reads; I enjoyed these on my back deck at at the beach by the lake on my staycation. I'm looking forward to the May 1st release of Seilstad's next book, When Love Calls.

The Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

I borrowed this WMA audiobook through the public library's OverDrive download service.

My review, originally shared April 2, 2012:

While the beginning of the book dragged a bit, as McCullough was introducing the setting and major players before the flood, I still enjoyed this book a lot and learned a great deal about the 1889 flood (Note: This book does not cover the flood in the 1970's and in fact doesn't mention it at all). As someone who grew up in southwest/central PA, I was familiar with most of the places that came up in the telling and found this book especially interesting from the regional standpoint. The stories of the survivors and especially of the relief efforts made me tear up more than once.

Edward Herrmann does a fantastic job reading the audio version. 

Stars: 4

Runability: 3 

Edward Herrmann is one of my favorite audiobook readers. Fans of the Gilmore Girls TV show will know him as Grandpa Gilmore. I kind of felt like Rory, hanging out with him in his study and talking books. I was glad that I made the choice to listen to this book on audio instead of "actually" reading it. 

I find that nonfiction books in general are more difficult for me to run to, perhaps because there's not usually as strong of a narrative thread holding it together in my brain. There were lots of mini-narratives throughout, but the overarching story was more difficult for me to follow and care about while huffing and puffing along the pavement.

Suck Your Stomach in and Put Some Color On!

Suck Your Stomach in and Put Some Color On!: What Southern Mamas Tell Their Daughters that the Rest of Y'all Should Know Too by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson

I purchased a paperback copy from Better World Books.

My review, originally shared July 29, 2012:

Fun read... though this Yankee girl grew up hearing 2/3 of this "southern wisdom" and observing half of these "southern traditions". ;) I think Southerners find us Northerners so prickly half the time because they act like they have a monopoly on all of the good stuff and then blame us for resenting the assumption!

Stars: 3


This was cute and humorous. I don't remember how I first learned of this book, but it led me to Shellie's All Things Southern radio program and website. Podcasts of her radio talk show make good running listens, so this one gets an honorary Runability rating of 4 stars! 

The book is not particularly Christian in nature, but Shellie does address matters of faith lightly in the ATS program and in her collaborative work with the other lady writers at Southern Belle View. As a Christian from a similar cultural background, I appreciate the encouragement and down-home perspective.

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination

 Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding

I borrowed the audiobook on CD from my local public library.

The Goodreads description:

"Move over, 007: a stunning, sexy - and decidedly female - new player has entered the world of international espionage armed with her own pocket survival kit, her Rules for Living, her infamous overactive imagination, and a very special underwire bra. How could a girl not be drawn to the alluring, powerful Pierre Ferramo - he of the hooded eyes, impeccable taste, unimaginable wealth, exotic international homes, and dubious French accent? Could Ferramo really be a major terrorist bent on the Western world's destruction, hiding behind a smoke screen of fine wines, yachts, and actresses slash models? Or is it all just a product of Olivia Joules's overactive imagination?"

My review, originally shared April 28th, 2012:

Cute book! I really loved this one on audio-- the reader was fantastic. It's not masterful literature and it's not as relate-able as Bridget Jones, but Fielding's "chin up, girls" voice comes through loud and clear. If you were intrigued by Bridget's adventures in Thailand and thought it would have been better if it hadn't been shoehorned awkwardly into a subplot, this would be a good book for you. 

Stars: 4

Runability rating: 4


There were a few sections where Fielding lost me for a bit and I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on; the action jumps around the globe and players emerge and disappear. For the most part, though, this was a light, fun listen, and, bonus, the protagonist runs to stay fit!

Hello World :)

I think that's how blog templates used to kick things off back in the day, right?

I'm going to kick off 2013 and this blog by sharing a selection of the reviews I posted to Goodreads in 2012. I won't be including every review I wrote, but I'm going to post my perspective on several of my favorites and not-so-favorites, with an attempt to focus specifically on audiobooks that I listened to last year.