Last year I had the opportunity to read and review The Mountains Bow Down by Sibella Giorello. I enjoyed it and was excited when the next installment in the series, The Stars Shine Bright, came out.

While I still think Giorello is a very talented writer, and I did enjoy the novel, I honestly don’t think it lived up to my expectations. I think this one would be more difficult to understand without some of the back story, as previous events are frequently referenced. I also found the Christian/faith aspect to be a little more heavy-handed in this installment, and sometimes it feels a little forced – like out of nowhere Raleigh (the main character) is praying or something.

The two main problems I had with The Stars Shine Bright are that 1. Raleigh is extremely angst-y about lying…but she’s an undercover FBI agent. I personally don’t regard an undercover op as lying; it’s more like acting. I guess if being an actor automatically makes one a liar then I could see why she would feel so guilty, but you would think the FBI would include training on this subject before they send an agent out into the field. 2. There are some “political” messages tucked in there, also feeling kind of forced. One regards creation vs. evolution and the other is about abortion. Personally I do not turn to a work of fiction to learn a moral lesson or re-consider my political views so I find it really annoying to run across this sort of thing in a novel.

However, I found the premise of the story interesting: Raleigh is undercover at a horse track, so it was interesting to learn more about that world. And the backstory was progressed in some interesting (although not unexpected) ways. This book actually reminded me very strongly of the Temperance Brennan novels, except Raleigh is a forensic geologist instead of a forensic anthropologist so there’s way less blood. But if you enjoy the Kathy Reichs/Temperance Brennan series, you would likely enjoy this series as well. Unless you just really like reading about decayed tissue.

Here are the other blogs on the tour, and here is a Kindle Fire giveaway hosted by the author, Sibella Giorello.

This book was provided for review by the LitFuse Publicity Group.


I recently had the opportunity to read Passages by Brian Hardin. The subtitle is “How reading the Bible in a year will change everything for you” and that pretty much sums it up. Hardin is the creator of the Daily Audio Bible podcast, wherein he reads a few passages every day so that if you listen every day you will have heard the whole Bible in one year.

If you have ever gone to church, you know that Christians are very into reading the Bible, or at least talking about reading the Bible. (And, possibly, feeling guilty for not doing so.) Passages explains why this is an important practice and gives a lot of examples from the lives of Daily Audio Bible people of how making Bible-reading part of their everyday lives changed their spiritual lives.

But, honestly, I have a few problems with this book. The first – and this is nitpicky – is that I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where it specifically says that it is important to read through the whole Bible in one year. I am not arguing that making the Bible a part of every day will benefit your spiritual life, I think that is very Biblical. I just think the important part is the “every day” bit, not the “whole Bible” bit. I mean, you could just sit down and read through the whole thing in one go and not touch it again for a year and technically you would have read through the whole Bible in a year but the results will not be the same. If you have never read the Bible before I think it’s more important to start, and stick with it, even if you’re only doing a little at a time, than to feel it’s necessary to keep up with an in-a-year plan. The second problem that I have (possibly even more nitpicky) is that Hardin does talk about keeping Scripture in context – which is very important to me – but if that’s the case it seems that he would favor a chronological reading rather than the one he uses (a little Old Testament, a little New Testament, and a little bit o’ Psalms and Proverbs). A chronological reading provides the historical context for why God said what He did when He said it. Which should, in turn, lead to a better understanding.

The third and biggest problem that I have with Passages is the emphasis on community (there is a forum on the Daily Audio Bible site). Now, don’t get me wrong, I think community is very, very important. And I agree that it’s very, very important to read the Bible in community. But in my opinion a huge failing of the modern church is the idea that “virtual community” is the same thing as community. It is not. I say that as someone who has lived overseas and has been/am very, very grateful for podcasts and webcasts of sermons and Skype and Facebook (well, I’m not grateful for that one anymore, that’s a different topic) and email and blogs. All those things are wonderful for providing a sense of community for people who feel isolated in real life…and they are also wonderful crutches for those people. (I say this with experience.) Without exception, all of the examples of community in the early church are very physical – they were eating together, going to each other’s houses, meeting each other’s physical needs for clothing, etc. I know the internet wasn’t around then but my point is that very few of those things can be accomplished in a forum. And participating in a forum where everyone else listened to the same podcast is not the same as reading the Bible in community. Reading the Bible in community is reading the Bible with other real live people. If you do not know real live people nearby, STOP LISTENING TO YOUR IPOD AND GO MEET SOME. Invite your neighbors over. Join a club. Say hi to the other mom with a little kid going crazy in the grocery store. The friends you make in a forum cannot come sit with you in the waiting room of a hospital when you are both desperate for and dreading news. They cannot bring you dinner after you have a new baby. They cannot take your kid to the park so you can have a break for an hour. They can’t give you a ride to work when your car breaks down. And you can’t do those things for them. Physical presence is, I believe, a deeply important part of community and it is a grave mistake to believe anything that happens on the internet is a satisfactory substitute. One of the personal stories in the book says of moving, “Rather than being terrified about having to find a whole new support system, I am now excited to move, knowing that there is still a community with me” and when I read that I felt really sorry for the girl who wrote it. Sure, you will still have online friends but that’s just not the same as meeting up with a real-life friend after a crappy day at work. And yes, finding/building community is a long and difficult and sometimes lonely process…but God is putting you in that place for a reason, get off your computer and go find it.

Those things aside, Passages is good motivation to do something you know you ought to be doing or inspiration to start if you’ve never thought about it.

Read the other reviews on the blog tour here.

This book was provided for review by the LitFuse Publicity Group.

Even more than reading about marriage, I enjoy reading about money.* Actually, if I were to take a census of my personal library, financial books would likely outnumber the marriage ones. I also peruse financial blogs, and I have been reading Crystal Paine’s blog for a long, long time. Since before it was famous. She recently released a book called The Money-Saving Mom’s Budget: Slash Your Spending, Pay Down Your Debt, Streamline Your Life, and Save Thousands a Year, which is a pretty long title. Or at least, a long subtitle. I dithered about whether or not to buy it; I wasn’t sure if it would have information that wasn’t already on the blog. Some of the Amazon reviewers said things like “I’ve been extreme couponing for 13 years and I STILL learned new things!” and others said they felt like it was a compilation of stuff from the blog. I decided to delay buying it in hopes my local library would carry it…and then, a day or two later, I got the chance to review the audiobook. Good choice, Suzanne!

*Maybe in this case, it’s more like, “Those who don’t have, read.”

The Good: First, Crystal is a complete rockstar at couponing and living on a teeny tiny income. Seriously. At some point in the book she says what their monthly income was while her husband was in law school and I quickly did the math – which may be a bit off, math is not my forte, especially the mental kind, plus I was driving – and I think we could pay our rent and utilities on that (except maybe in the summer with the air conditioning), but our ability to eat would be severely compromised. I mean, if we were playing Oregon Trail, we would be on the Bare Bones setting. (P.S. – Everyone dies on that setting.) So when she talks about cutting spending, she knows what she’s talking about. And a lot of what’s in the book can be used even if you don’t coupon, which is nice if you don’t have the time or live in a coupon-less area. She stresses making concrete goals and then breaking those down into doable steps, as well as clearing clutter (so, you know, you don’t lose bills…or forget to use coupons for freebies, like I did this week, oops) so obviously you can do those things anywhere. A lot of her tips are more far-reaching than just groceries, like how to save on eyeglasses and other things you wouldn’t normally find in a budgeting book. Another point for Crystal is that she admits it is nearly impossible to get far in life without some kind of credit score and gives tips on how to make that happen without allowing credit spending to get out of control. Dave Ramsey (and thus many of his followers) claim you don’t need a credit score unless you intend to go further into debt; I see that point, but the odds of me ever buying a house with cash are slim to none. So even if I never accrue another debt in my life, I will need a mortgage if I ever want to live in a house. It’s fine for Dave to have no credit score, he can buy a whole neighborhood with cash if he wants. (For the record, we eschew credit cards; but we have good credit scores from before, or so our apartment complex tells us. Someone just leaving home, without the “boon” of having previously been in debt, would not have the luxury of a leftover credit score.) And the last chapter is about contentment, which is a critical part in money management (or mismanagement, as the case may be). I have actually been working on a post of my own about this topic – or rather, the lack of contentment – so that was timely. Basically Crystal talks about a budget in the context of life, or how your budget affects your whole life – not just your money.

The Caveats: First – and this is a very personal one – I am not an auditory learner. At all. I already knew this but listening to this book reinforced to me that I basically need to read something to learn it. At first I tried to do it while tending to “mindless” tasks, like clearing out our pre-France files, but then I discovered that going over 4-year-old papers isn’t really mindless and I was having a hard time absorbing everything Crystal said. So I switched to listening while I drive – NOT that driving is mindless, I just already have something to occupy my eyes so I could listen to her instead of music. It worked better…but I have to say, I’m not sure audio is a good format for non-fiction. (Now, Jim Dale reading Harry Potter…ahhh, beautiful audiobook masterpieces. I digress.) My sister, on the other hand, is an auditory learner – the kind with a membership to – and she thinks audio for non-fiction is perfectly fine, so others may not have this problem. But for me, there were so many times that Crystal would mention a helpful website but I couldn’t write it down because, you know, I was DRIVING (or cooking, or something else, the whole point of an audiobook is to multitask) and it’s a lot harder to find a reference in an audiobook than a physical one. I really wish they made a list of all the referenced websites for audiobook listeners. And I have to say that I am wildly jealous that she and her husband were able to save and buy a house with cash. I mean, I think it’s awesome that they were able to do that and wish fervently I could do the same, but the fact of the matter is that lawyering typically pays more than a local non-profit. I found myself at times feeling that the author may have a hard time relating with many in her audience who haven’t made super-wise choices with their money from the cradle and didn’t have the same favorable circumstances (you can read about that here) to make it possible. Granted, they did have some very lean years in the beginning…but knew at the time it would be temporary. It’s a lot easier to get discouraged when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Verdict: This is a great place to start if you are new to budgeting and want to get control of your finances. Crystal has a lot of great tips, ideas, and techniques to get you started with managing money and clearly explains everything (including how to tell if a strategy isn’t working for you or not worth your time). On the other hand, if you have spent some time perusing the theories of various financial gurus or reading personal finance blogs, you may not run across new material in this one. Still, it’s a good reminder/encouragement to stay on track…and dream big dreams even without a light at the end of the tunnel, because you never know what God will do.

Find links to other reviews here…where you can also enter to win a new iPad! Crystal will be announcing the winner (and giving away more stuff) at her live webcast event on April 5.

This audiobook was provided for review by the LitFuse Publicity Group.

My sister just sent me a link to Half Price Book’s Tournament of Villains. So fun! (Is basketball this much fun for people? I just don’t get it. I even like football, I’m not opposed to organized and/or professional sports or even college sports, basketball is just totally lost on me.)

I think it will come down to Vader vs. Voldemort. What say you?

I am pretty much always up for reading about marriage. I think it’s a fascinating topic, which is why I chose the degree plan that I did and why I continue to read about it. (You’d think, what with a degree in family studies and all the marriage books scattered around my home, that I would be the most fan-freaking-tastic wife on the planet, but alas. You know that saying “Those who can’t do, teach”? Well, those who are too lazy to do or teach, sit at home and read.) Anyway. I was excited to get the opportunity to read and review The Beautiful Wife by Sandy Ralya, who has started a marriage mentoring ministry for women called Beautiful Womanhood.

The short version is that I really liked this book – which (in all honesty) kinda surprised me because, like I said, I’ve read a few books on the topic and at SOME point you’re going to run across repeat material. The best feature of this book, in my opinion, is that it is actually addressed specifically to wives. Many marriage books are (let’s face it) only going to be read by women but sort of assume both partners are reading or are at least on board with whatever program the book is talking about. This book really focuses on you, the wife, in your marriage. So Ralya only addresses the stuff you can change, which is yourself. (And the truth is that when you change yourself, it necessarily changes your relationship, because you are different, but that can’t be your motivation.) She covers the topics of self-care, being genuine, mystique, romance, sex, communication, how to speak the truth in love, money management, creating beauty, and being a professional wife and mom. Even with the wide-ranging topics, the book is short and accessible; each chapter has a short resource list at the back if you feel you could use some growth in that area.

Ralya also touches on some topics that could use touching, like using shopping as a drug or distraction, and refraining from “ministry” when one has small children in order to focus one’s energies and attentions on one’s family. She also mentions that Christians need to more strongly consider the procreation purpose of sex – just one brief paragraph, but I have read some alarming statistics and predictions recently about the dwindling birth rate in Western civilization. I won’t get on my soapbox about it here, because it’s a bit off topic, but I was glad that she didn’t shy away from this important consideration.

The book also has a prayer journal so you can really work through the topics she discusses, and there is also a mentor’s guide available for use in a small group setting.

I did find a few spelling errors, which was mildly annoying, and with a few of the topics I thought, “Oh! I hope she put such-and-such in the resource list” and was disappointed not to see those resources listed. It’s a solid list as it is, and I know you can’t have an exhaustive resource list, but I can think of 3-5 things that, if added, would have made it truly outstanding.

Overall I thought this was a very good read – comprehensive enough to get you thinking but quick enough to not be overwhelming, with additional guidance available for those areas you need to dig into a little more deeply. I also enjoyed some of Sandy’s personal stories, particularly her example of how indirect communication didn’t work for her (perhaps because that may be an issue in my marriage…). I think there is good material here both for the marriage book junkie as well as those who abstain.

Sandy’s doing a Kindle Touch giveaway here! The winner will be announced at her Facebook party on 3/8.

See the other reviews on the blog tour here.

This book was provided for review by the LitFuse Publicity Group.

Just before we left France, I ran across The Lacuna in the English bookstore in Aix. I was excited to find it because The Bean Trees is one of my favorite novels and I had been wanting to read more of Barbara Kingsolver. I bought it to read on the plane on the way back but overestimated the amount of reading time I would have on our long travel day, what with having an infant and all. Because of all the moving and stuff I have done over the past year, I never made much progress in it until recently. I finally settled into it and didn’t even bother to start over, just picked up where I had an envelope shoved in, and was completely engrossed. Kingsolver just has a way with words that is truly artistic and I thoroughly enjoy reading her.

I will say that she does deal with political issues in her works, which normally I find very annoying. If I want to be preached at I go to church. (The Temperance Brennan novels by Kathy Reichs, for example, always deal with some “issue” and I always skip the part at the end where she summarizes the issue and does the preachy thing.) Somehow, though, Kingsolver does it subtly and it’s not offensive at all (to me, anyway) and really makes you think about whatever it is the characters are dealing with. Anyway if you find politics and literature a truly abhorrent mixture then I guess stay away.

But I thought it was fantastic and mesmerizing.

Zombie Church by Tyler Edwards is basically about those people in church – or an entire church – who just go through the motions of a relationship with God, without their heart. It is a slim book so I thought it would be a quick read but it took a lot longer than I thought it would. Maybe the pages are super thin or something. There are a lot of churchy words and cliches in there, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t spent a few years abroad. Trying to explain spiritual concepts with an infant’s vocabulary forces one to ponder one’s spiritual script in order to cull the meaning (which sometimes leads to questions regarading dearly-held doctrinal beliefs…but that’s a different post).

I will say this: the past year has really sucked for my family. But we kept going to church, and our motive was that if we gave up, we would never have gone back. That is a less-than-stellar motive, I know. We went because my mouth needed to sing that God was faithful, even if my heart didn’t believe it. We went to hear the Word, even if our hearts didn’t want it. We went because sometimes you need to do the right thing, even if you don’t feel like it, because that is how you train your heart to respond as it ought. We would absolutely have qualified as Edwards’s zombies – smiling, shaking hands, saying everything was fine even though it wasn’t (I mean, really. It’s not appropriate to inform a total stranger during the “welcome time” that you’re unemployed and homeless and not totally sure you’re going to be able to eat that week). Truth be told, we haven’t fully recovered from that time yet. It’s just that most Sundays it was literally all we could do to just to be there, at least without screaming that everything was sort of falling apart and didn’t anyone care? Just sitting all the way through was the two mites my heart had to offer. It may have looked zombie-like but it’s all I had.

(I don’t mean to imply that our church is awful or one of these zombie churches. Our small group imploded at a critical time and we just fell through the cracks.)

I know this isn’t what Edwards is talking about, or who he’s writing to. But you read a book through the filter of your own background and that’s mine. I just kept thinking that maybe all these people are sitting woodenly in a service because they don’t believe the person next to them genuinely cares, and instead of calling them zombies we should go be their friends. Real friends, the kind who invite you over and feed you and just listen to you and don’t think you’re a heretic because you have some big questions about God.

If you are concerned about the lack of life in your church, the church at large, or in your own life, then this book will have some good stuff for you. Read the other reviews on the blog tour here. There’s also an Amazon giftcard giveaway!

This book was provided for review by the LitFuse Publicity Group.

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