February Minireviews

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

I must be getting super lazy about reviews, because I am actually giving minireviews of entire series this month… those are like mini mini reviews!

Anyone But You series by Jennifer Shirk

  • Fiance by Fate – 3*
  • Wedding Date for Hire – 3.5*
  • Wrong Brother, Right Match – 3.5*

This was my first foray into Shirk’s writing, but I don’t think it will be my last.  While ultimately forgettable, these books were lighthearted, funny, happy, and clean.  They were the perfect fluff bits for a stressful week.  Shirk does a good job of writing tropes in a way that makes them easy and fun to read.  I really appreciated that Shirk wrote happy, believable romances without having to insert a bunch of sexy-times.  There was tension between her characters that worked, but she didn’t have explicit sex, she didn’t have her characters spending absurd amounts of time sexually fantasizing about the other character (tip for writers: there’s a big difference between having someone be interested in someone/find them attractive and having someone go on and on and ON about how they would like to bang someone), she didn’t even leave me with a bunch of cut scenes implying that these characters were having loads of sex off-screen.  Instead, the story was about the romance between the characters.  Consequently, even though these stories were a bit silly and slightly absurd, I really did enjoy them and found myself rooting for the romances even if they were a little on the insta-side.

All in all, these were really fun little stories.  If you’re just looking for something low-stress, I totally recommend these.  Personally, I’ll definitely be checking out more of Shirk’s writing in the future.

Fields of Wrath by Mark Wheaton – 3.5*

This was another free Kindle book I’ve had forever.  There were a lot of things I liked about this story.  The main character is a Catholic priest named Luis Chavez living in a city in California (can’t remember which one).  Through a series of events, he’s drawn into a situation where he believes people are being trafficked from Mexico, so he goes undercover to see what he can find.  Although Luis is a rogue in the sense that he isn’t any kind of official law-enforcement, it never really felt like he was taking the law into his own hands.  Instead, he believes in the importance of justice and protecting the innocent, and is determined to make sure these things happen.  I really liked the way that Luis’s faith was central to his actions.  He actually reminded me a lot of another Catholic character I love – Brother Cadfael.  He had that same sort of earthy wisdom tempered with a strong faith.

However, the story was a bit disjointed.  There were several other (third person) perspectives going on, which made it difficult to remember which characters already knew what.  The body count was extremely high, yet I had a lot of trouble connecting emotionally with this story, so even when people I liked got knocked off, it didn’t really stir me to the depths.  Honestly, Wheaton killed off so many people that it almost felt more emotional when someone lived!

In the end, it was a book that I wanted to like more than I actually did.  Although there are two more books with Luis as their central character, I just wasn’t interested enough to read them.

A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse – 4.5*

When in doubt, turn to Wodehouse.  He never fails to bring me joy.  Even when I feel like I’m not in the mood for a Wodehouse book, within a page or two, it’s the only thing I want to read.  This one was full of his usual capers and coincidences, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.

Alaskan Bride Rush series by various authors (Love Inspired)

  • Klondike Hero by Jillian Hart – 3*
  • Treasure Creek Dad by Terri Reed – 3*
  • Doctor Right by Janet Tronstad – 3*
  • Yukon Cowboy by Debra Clopton – 3.5*
  • Thanksgiving Groom by Brenda Minton – 3*
  • The Lawman’s Christmas Gift by Linda Goodnight – 3.5*

Those of you who have been with me for a while may remember that quite a while back I inherited roughly half a billion romance paperbacks from my great-aunt, the overwhelming majority of which were “Love Inspired,” a Christian romance series that used to be a thing where you signed up and the mailed you a book every month, which is obviously what my great-aunt did for YEARS.  Originally I wanted to try to read them all, but the overwhelming mediocrity of the first few batches I plowed through made me realize that this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life.  Instead, I packed them off to various book donation locations, except for a few where I actually had an entire series of them.

As you can tell from the series title, these weren’t exactly intensely serious, deep stories.  Instead, they’re just Hallmark movies in book form.  Honestly, they’re probably more like knock-off Hallmark movies in book form if I’m honest.  :-D  Like most of the Love Inspired books I’ve read, these were super relaxing, incredibly forgettable, very quick reads.  I always enjoy series like this where you get to know a place and background characters, and I was impressed at how well the different authors were able to build off of one another’s stories and characters.  Set in a remote Alaskan town, the stories begin because of an article in a woman’s magazine touting all the hunky single guys to be found in Treasure Creek.  The whole thing is a misunderstanding because the journalist who wrote the article was supposed to be from an outdoors magazine and was supposed to write about the wilderness tours in the area, but apparently she was more into the tour guides.  So women start trucking to Treasure Creek to see what they can find, and there you have one of the goofiest settings for a series of romance stories that you can imagine, yet it somehow mostly worked.

Sometimes you just want to read some stories that follow simple, predictable lines.  They’re the comfort food of books.  While I don’t ever see myself returning to Treasure Creek, they weren’t bad for a one-time read.  So if someone else wants these, you should let me know before I drop them off at Salvation Army next time I’m in town…

Famous in a Small Town // by Emma Mills

//published 2019//

In an attempt to keep the TBR from growing even more voraciously, I’m trying to read new books by authors I like as the books are published, instead of just adding them to the TBR to be read at some vague, future, maybe-will-never-happen date.  Consequently, I read Spinning Silver and The Other Wife when they appeared last year, The Suspect last month, and Famous in a Small Town just a couple of weeks ago.

Before this book, my only foray into Mills’ writing was This Adventure Endswhich I read last spring.  I absolutely loved that book (with, of course, a few caveats), and have been meaning to get my hands on another of her books ever since.  While I didn’t enjoy Famous in a Small Town quite as much, there was still a great deal to enjoy.

Sophie is the main character.  Just finishing her junior year in high school, she’s looking forward to a summer of band camp, hanging out with her friends, and enjoying life.  When a new guy moves into town, it’s pretty obvious what direction the story is going to go.  Nonetheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable journey, mainly because Mills has a brilliant talent for writing friends/banter/down time.  I’ve realized that the reason a lot of authors’ characters come through as stiff or inaccessible is because those characters are only doing the things that forward the plot.  But it’s a tricky thing to write, because I also don’t need to hear all the details of every mundane moment in the character’s life, either.  Mills has struck that perfect balance of including just enough regular, everyday conversation and activity to make her characters feel personable and real.  In fact, the banter between this group of friends is really what kept me reading.

The actual story is not one of big thrills and adrenaline-laced twists.  It’s really just some small town life with small town drama, although that being said there was one twist that I did not know was coming and that I thought was done quite well.

Negatives for this one mostly come under the heading of “unnecessary crudity.”  Supposedly these kids were 15, 16, 17 years old, yet they were getting drunk constantly and literally no one acted like this was a big deal.  This honestly bothered me a lot, just because the attitude towards it was so casual.  I understand that there is a fine line in YA between writing “realistically” and writing “edgy.”  But I am a firm believer that fiction should, at some level, be written the way we wish things were.  Constantly reassuring young people that getting trashed, having casual sex, constantly swearing, etc. is normal by portraying it as normal doesn’t seem healthy to me and never will.    While this book wasn’t big on the sex angle, there was a lot of joking around about sex and comments made that seemed unnecessarily crude.  There was also more swearing than I like to see, especially in YA.

However, I do give Mills some credit for portraying at least a couple of happily married couples.  There is a younger couple that Sophie babysits for that I especially loved.  I loved that they had fallen in love in high school, had gotten married, and were raising a family and making adjustments for unexpected changes in their lives – together.  That was so nice to see.

I also really liked the way that Mills portrayed small town life in general.  Usually, fiction either shows it as the most desperately narrow-minded, racist, horrific, backwards way of life possible OR a beautiful utopia comprised of warm, loving people and open doors.  The truth, as most are, is somewhere in the middle – mainly because small towns are generally made up of really regular people.  So yes, you know a lot of people and can find connections immediately, there isn’t a lot to do if you’re big into the theater and fancy restaurants (although if you prefer parks and a fabulous burger you’re all good), you know everyone in your graduating class, and you’re always within a moment’s drive of a cornfield.  But here is what Mills did so well – that life can be both amazingly satisfying and also horribly restrictive.  It depends on who you are.  Not everyone in a small town loves living there, but some people do.  And I felt like Mills captured the fact that not everyone is counting down the days until they can shake the dust off their feet and leave home.  Some of us actually enjoy our roots.

All in all, Famous in a Small Town was worth the read, but it isn’t one I would read again.  It’s on that line between 3.5 and 4*.  I still want to get through any other books Mills has written, and while I’m at it, I really need to read This Adventure Ends again as well.

The Suspect // by Fiona Barton

//published 2019//

Last year I read and quite enjoyed The Widowwhich centered around a (no surprise) widow, a reporter, and a detective.  Later in the year Barton’s second book appeared, The Child, wherein the reporter (Kate) and the detective (Bob) show up again.  While I didn’t enjoy The Child as much as The Widow, it was still a very readable story and I was excited to learn that Kate and Bob would be back for a third installment.

The Suspect felt like a more personal story.  At Bob’s end, his wife is suffering from Stage IV cancer with a very poor prognosis.  Kate’s oldest son, Jake, left the country at the end of the last book (two years prior), dropping out of college and heading off to Thailand to work with sea turtles and “find himself.”  Since then, contact with him has been sporadic at best, and Kate worries that she’s pushed him away or put too much pressure on him in the past.

A call comes into Bob’s station reporting two girls missing.  The problem is that they were in Thailand when they went missing, visiting for their gap year.  They haven’t been missing long, so there isn’t much the police can do at this point.  However, Bob gives Kate a head’s up, and since it’s a slow time in the news, she eagerly jumps on board the story, visiting the anxious parents and learning how the girls ended up in Thailand to begin with.  She’s especially drawn to their story because of Jake being gone.

Once the stage is set, the story really begins to roll.  Kate’s portions are told in first person, with third person sections from the perspectives of Bob and Alex’s mother in between.  We also get short chapters that are comprised mostly of emails Alex is sending home to her best friend. In this way, we see both the outcome and the build-up, even while the reader isn’t completely sure what actually happened.

All in all, The Suspect was an easy 4* read.  The pacing was excellent and the story engaging.  However, my residual feeling when I finished the book was just one of sadness.  I felt really bad the entire book because Alex was SO excited about her trip and had made all kinds of plans and then it ended up being absolutely miserable.  It seemed so unfair and depressing.  It also felt weird to have Kate so involved in the investigation when things got more personal.  Still, I really like Kate a lot, and I also love Bob, and in this book it was really fun to see Kate’s reporter-in-training, Joe, become more of an individual – he’s also quite likable.

Each of Barton’s books can be comfortably read as stand-alones, but it’s enjoyable to see the growth/relationships between the main players by reading all three.  While I’ve found these books rather sad and don’t see myself rereading them, I’m still quite interested to see what Barton produces next.

NB: All book title links go to my own reviews of those books.

Judy Bolton Mysteries // Books 16-20 // by Margaret Sutton

16.  The Secret of the Barred Window (1943)
17.  The Rainbow Riddle (1946)
18.  The Living Portrait (1947)
19.  The Secret of the Musical Tree (1948)
20.  The Warning on the Window (1949)

My journey through the Judy Bolton series continues.  I can’t remember how many of these books there are altogether – 30-odd, I do believe – but I only have about a half dozen more.  I’m undecided as to whether or not I should try and purchase the ones I’m missing, as the later ones aren’t as common and tend to be a little more expensive.  However, I have been enjoying Judy’s adventures, and actually thought these five were pretty solid reads.

At first, I just assumed that these books were set more or less at the time they were written, but as you can see, this batch was published during and after the war (I find it interesting that Sutton was publishing these regularly one or more a year, but missed 1944 and 1945) yet no mention of it is made by her characters.  It’s possible that these are actually happening somewhat earlier in time – there are cars and such, so maybe the 1930’s?

Anyway, this batch was particularly fun because Judy and Peter get married in The Rainbow Riddle, so the next few books are their early days of marriage, living in Judy’s grandparents old farmhouse.

I felt that The Secret of the Barred Window was the weakest of the bunch, but it’s also critical because this is where Judy meets Roberta, a precocious child around the age of 10 or 12.  Roberta reappears at Judy’s wedding in the next book, and at the end of that story Judy and Peter end up taking Roberta in as a sort of foster child.  This all works out for Sutton’s storytelling as Peter has joined the FBI and goes off for training and then is busy traveling in and out with his new job throughout The Living Portrait, but thanks to Roberta’s presence, Judy still has someone with whom to chat and work through mysteries.

All in all there is nothing that makes these books particularly outstanding, but they are enjoyable stories with a lot of high drama and adventure.  Judy and Peter are just too adorable as newlyweds, and while I haven’t read any synopses for the later books, I’m holding out hope that a baby will soon appear!!

Rearview Mirror // January 2019

It’s FEBRUARY!??!?  That’s crazy talk!

As I am writing this, there is about 5″ of snow on the ground (maybe more, I’m bad at measuring by eye, I just know it’s a LOT) which is more than “they” said we were going to get.  The birds are very busy around the birdfeeder, and the dogs and I took a lovely snow walk around the village this morning, despite the fact that it was only 11*.  Actually, 11* feels like a heat wave after the truly frigid temperatures we had earlier this week.  And now it’s supposed to be 50* by the end of the weekend!

Anyway, January has been a pleasantly busy month.  I’m off work for now, so I have been working on several projects around the house.  The big one is trying to finish our NEVERENDING project of turning our back porch into a sun room.  This month finally saw some big leaps in the process – there is paint on the walls and a new floor and things are being stored in the storage loft and it’s fantastic!  There are still a few details to wrap up, but that project is finally very, very close to the finish line.

Of course, that means we’re on to new and exciting projects, most of which involve creating storage of some kind.  So I’ve also been cleaning things out, hauling things away, and scrubbing things down.  How, how, I ask you, does one accumulate so much stuff?!  I cleaned out just the area around my craft desk and got rid of – either giveaway or just plain trash – and entire garbage bag of stuff.  Where did it come from?!  Why did I think it was a good idea just to stuff it on a shelf instead of getting rid of it at the time??  For the first five years of our marriage we moved annually, so this wasn’t as much of a problem.  Now that we’ve been here for over four years, I have to actually focus on decluttering, especially since this house is on the cozy side.  I’ve really been working a lot on sight lines, because our house has a fairly open floor plan.  I just stand or sit somewhere and look around to see what horizontal surface is getting on my nerves, and then attack it!  Progress is being made.

ANYWAY apparently I need to write a post just focusing on my organizational adventures!  On to the books!

Books have been good this month!  I read 27 books this month and reviewed 21 of them, although three of the 27 were novellas and a big chunk of the 21 were part of my review of the Kate Burkholder series.  Still, short days and long evenings make for lots of reading, especially when you’re like me and read every time you’re folding laundry or working on other projects where your eyes aren’t COMPLETELY necessary.

Favorite January Read:

Although I really enjoyed Linda Castillo’s mystery series, I think this slot has to go to Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell.  There was just so much depth to that book, and I still find myself thinking about the characters.

Most Disappointing January Read:

I didn’t have any horrific duds this month, but Peter Swanson’s All the Beautiful Lies was probably my least favorite, despite the fact that I raced through it.  I just wasn’t comfortable with some of the subject material, and I was frustrated by an ending that didn’t really make any logistical (yes, logistical, not logical) sense.  Still, it hasn’t put me off his books as the writing itself was still fantastic.

By the Numbers:

In January:

  • I read 7174 pages – an average of 231 pages per day.  Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m proud or embarrassed haha
  • My average star rating was 3.54.
  • Eleven books were from my personal library.  The rest were either from the library or via Kindle Unlimited.
  • I read five Kindle books and 22 physical books – 18 of which were hardcovers.  Book muscles!!!
  • The oldest book I read was The Secret of the Barred Window by Margaret Sutton – published in 1943 with a great little note stating that despite the fact that a war is on and paper conservation is in affect, this book is complete and unabridged!
  • I read three books published in 2018, so I’m doing better at reading books closer to their release dates!
  • Eagle & Crane was my longest book at 434 pages, while a short story by Linda Castillo (Long Lost) was the shortest at 52 pages.

TBR Update:

For those of you who don’t know, I’m weirdly obsessive with organizing the TBR, and have it on a spreadsheet divided into five different tabs:

  • Standalones:  887 (holding steady!)
  • Nonfiction:  84 (up 1)
  • Personal (which includes all books I own (fiction and nonfiction), but lists any series I own as only one entry…):  667 (down eight!  I discovered some Kindle books that I had read but hadn’t marked off the list!)
  • Series (each series counted separately, not each book within a series):  238 (holding steady)
  • Mystery Series (each series counted separately, not each book within a series): 107 (down one!)

Awaiting Review:

I read the next five books in the Judy Bolton series, and also a ridiculous P&P variation that will probably get reviewed on my other blog at some point.  Otherwise I’m all caught up!!

Currently Reading:

I just started Fiona Barton’s The Suspect this morning.  I enjoyed her first two books (The Widow more than The Child) so we will see where this one goes.

The Probably Next Five Reads…

I’ve tried to get more organized at sketching out my future reads, but it’s still a work in process.  All part of the Year of the Spreadsheet!!  :-D  But here’s my best guess:

  • Fields of Wrath by Mark Wheaton – I got this as a free Kindle book a long time ago, so this is part of my ongoing (and neverending) project of sifting through all the Kindle books I’ve collected.  If it’s any good, it’s actually the first in a trilogy.
  • Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills – this one came in at the library, so it got bumped up the list (as did The Suspect, actually).  I really, really enjoyed This Adventure Ends when I read it last year.  I still have Mills’s other books on my TBR, but a new thing I’m doing this year is trying to read author’s new books as they come out instead of just throwing them on the TBR for the next six years.  So here we are!
  • Another set of Love Inspired books – I actually got rid of most of these without reading them, but there were a few where I had the full series, so I hung on to them, figuring that I could read the first book and see if they were any good, and then go from there lol
  • Enchanted Sonata by Heather Dixon – Emily over at When Life Reminds You of a Book recommended this one after reading my review of Illusionarium by the same author.  It’s free on Kindle Unlimited right now, so I thought I would give it a go!
  • A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse – still working my way through all of Wodehouse’s books.  I actually just got them moved out to a new bookshelf where they are more visible and accessible, so I’m stoked!

Happy February, everyone!  Keep an eye out for the groundhog’s shadow tomorrow!!

NB: All links go to my old reviews (unless specifically noted).