Fiction I Read in 2017

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Last year I read some real duds when it came to fiction. I'm realizing my taste in fiction most often runs counter to "popular" in a lot of cases. Not always, but you won't find me loving Me Before You or The NightingaleBut this year there were a lot of hits! I'm glad to share them with you.

You already know of my love for Inspector Gamache. We'll start with him:

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny****
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny*****
The Long Way Home by Louise Penny***
The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny*****
The Great Reckoning by Louise Penny*****
Glass Houses by Louise Penny*****

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry****
Poignant is what comes to mind. I wrote more than one quote from this book. A fast read but thought-provokingly beautiful.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly****
You know I loved this one. Check it out on audio if you like to listen to your books.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah**1/2
I barely made it through until the end. It was just blah. Reading it right after Lilac Girls highlighted it's flaws. I felt like modern women were superimposed back into the W.W. II era. I had a hard time caring about the characters because they just didn't feel real. Lilac Girls was like a fine crafted award winning movie and this felt like a Hallmark version.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood****
This book got a lot of love and I wasn't so sure about it . . . until the end. Oh, the end! It was superb!

The Dry by Jane Harper****
A gritty Aussie murder mystery.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan****
Delightful on audio! Such a fun romp!

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh****
Kept me guessing right until the end!

The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay***
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I loved the literary references. But, it just didn't grab me. The dialogue wasn't very natural and I thought the characters made really big deals about small things which struck me as a plot device to keep it moving.

As a side note, I did love that the character worked for a design firm. It's been a long time since I've heard a reference to "Scalamandre." I used to work in a museum and we used their fabrics all the time. So there were some fun side aspects to the book.

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon****
It was more the history than the book that I enjoyed about this. It was slow to start but it did grab me in the end. I was captivated by the real people who were on the airship and watched the footage that was captured of it's destruction. It is truly amazing so many people actually survived.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson*****
Favorite stand-alone novel of the year! The audio version really was excellent!

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson****
Quirky, funny, and delightful. I'll read any thing Simonson writes!

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen*****
I listened to this like I'd never heard it before. Rosamund Pike was just a terrific narrator bringing out all the drama and comedy. A fun "reread."

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart***
This was an interesting book, mainly due to the true events described. I looked up with interest the real Constance Kopp, who became the first female deputy sheriff. She defended her home against a man--a wealthy factory owner and his gang--who begins maliciously threatening her sisters by throwing rocks and shooting through their windows. The writing was a bit witty and the history was interesting. 

But something about it didn't quite do it for me. I'm not sure what, but I didn't LOVE it. I probably won't be reading the rest of the series.

What about you? What fiction did you enjoy last year? I'd love to add your recommendation to my ever-growing TBR list.

Reading Highlights from 2017

For years now I've been sharing what I've read at the beginning of each year. This year I'm changing it up a bit by sharing a highlights post. I will still share my complete list from 2017 over the next few posts, but this was such a great year of reading for me, and I wanted to especially take a minute to share the stories that make me want to rave about them.

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Favorite Cookbook:

Honey and Jam: Seasonal Baking from My Kitchen in the Mountains by Hannah Queen
While I got this at the end of the year, it had been on my to-buy list for a long time. I love the flavor combinations, the rustic photos, and inspiration to bake seasonally. Follow Hannah on Instagram for more inspiration. This cookbook just feels so cozy! I love just flipping through it.

Best Series:

Chief Inspector Gamache Series by Louise Penny
I finally caught up to the author's publishing schedule by reading six of the books in this series this year. The final one, Glass Houses, was fantastic! Few modern writers, in my opinion, capture the depths of human motive--the evil and the goodness--as well as Penny. The community she creates in Three Pines is something I think we all long for and Gamache represents someone, we all aspire to be. She manages to create a true hero that stands for justice and yet also seems very real and human. 

Most Delightful:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
This books was just. so. fun! It put a smile on my face the whole time I listened to it. Yes, this was an audio choice and I think listening to it added to the pleasure. Perfect for bibliophiles and museum lovers who want a dash of an adventurous quest. A wonderful mix of National Treasure meets Harry Potter.

Favorite Historial Fiction:

That would be a tie between Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. 

I think the cover does Lilac Girls an injustice and portrays it as a sweet book about some friends. Not so. This was a hard book about W. W. II that felt very relevant to today. It follows three women, an American, a Polish girl, and a German doctor, and how their lives all touch each other. It covers some grotesque atrocities. I can't imagine all the research that went into this story, especially considering two of the main characters were real women. But the writing was great--especially the attention to historic detail and creating a sense of place. I loved how the book didn't end with the end of the war, but went much further, showing how difficult life could still be. It was particularly good as an audiobook, as each main character was played by a different reader.

The Summer Before the War is the novel I'm always looking for that is so darn hard to find! It hit all my sweet spots when it comes to reading. It made me laugh and cry and I have missed the wonderful characters since it has ended. Agatha, Beatrice, Hugh, and Daniel found their way into my heart like few characters do. The dialogue reminded me of Jane Austen: sharp-witted repartee with perceptive one-liners into human nature. Her descriptions were perfect to pull you back in time to the W.W. I era and the small social dramas within the town of Rye. It is a comedy of manners with a more serious undertone of war that never gets too overwhelmingly dark due to the humor.

This book has a decidedly English flavor and feels old-fashioned, just what I like. If you like the sharp wit of Lady Violet of Downton Abbey and the banter in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society then I think this book will delight you.

Most Important:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
It's hard to know what to say about this book except--read it! I knew this would be a perspective changer and probably challenge preconceived ideas I had. It is an incredibly thought-provoking book written by the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, which does amazing work. The best "synopsis" would be to read the following NPR piece on the book and to get it right away. It offers historical context to many issues relevant to today. Although this book is filled with very hard stories, ultimately, it has a hope-filled message. 

What were your highlight reads of 2017?

Library Love

The flurry of Christmas activity is slowing down. The new year has dawned. I always look forward to January as a wonderful month of recovery. Time to cozy up in the dead of winter with hot chocolate and a good book.

In anticipation to my annual "what I read last year" post, I've been dreaming of the perfect library.

I have been imagining new book shelves. I'm currently cramming my books in sideways into my shelves, and when we get around to renovating our living room (this year--I hope!) bookshelves will be top priority. And I've always wanted one with a ladder, haven't you? Then there's the cozy chair, perfect lighting, a pretty pillow, and a warm rug. I love neutral shades with a bit of soothing blue. Arhaus has a variety of living room options to add to this kind of space.

To make it perfection I'd also have my favorite monogramed mug and a snuggly throw.

What do you think? What would you include in your perfect library?

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What I'm Into Right Now (October 2017)

Danielle Ayers Jones, freelance writer

It's really too bad that I've missed two whole months of sharing what I've been into. But I had some due dates for other writing projects and with the beginning of a new school year, I've just not had time to share!

But now as it's finally starting to turn cold here it's time to cozy up with some new reads and good listens.

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Listening:
I often long for some sort of old favorite in the fall. Something that's cozy and comforting, which for me usually means L. M. Montgomery or Jane Austen. I had Pride and Prejudice that I'd gotten for free on Audible and so I decided to listen to it, because I'd heard such good things about it being read by Rosamund Pike. Wow, she did SUCH a fabulous job narrating it, it was a delight and just hit my sweet spot for something familiar and comforting.

Reading:
I'm in the middle of Louise Penny's most recent Inspector Gamache novel (yes, I've finally caught up to her publishing schedule). So far it's a bit different in the way the timeline is set up between past and present compared to her other novels but I'm enjoying it. Also, the kids and I are listening to Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon for co-op Literature and they are loving it!

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Watching:
Season 3 of Poldark is out, hands down one of my favorite historical dramas. You just never know what is going to happen next. And it's set in Cornwall, which has inspired my imagination since I read about the area the first time in Rebecca and other Daphne du Maurier books like Jamaica Inn. If you love historical drama, intrigue, and a sweeping generational saga, this is for you.

Eating:
It's finally soup season and so I've made my favorite easy Kale and White Bean Soup which I like to pair with grilled cheese. This was also a big hit with the kids.

What are you into right now?

Me Too

I've known Ashleigh for a long time. She was one of my first "blog friends" back when I got started in this thing called blogging, and we've been able to meet in person twice. She was my editor when I contributed regularly for her website, Ungrind and now she's just published her second book, Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life is Hard.

To go along with this new release (and it's so good--I'm still in the middle of reading it) Ashleigh is giving away a copy of her Ebook, Me Too: More Stories of Faith, Community, and Braving Sorrow Together to those who subscribe to her mailing list for weekly encouragement.

I was privileged to contribute my own story to this free download. In this companion publication to Ashleigh's new book, you'll discover the power of hope and community in the lives of those of us who've experienced divorce, infertility, caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's, and cancer, among other struggles and difficulties. 

If you or someone who know is experiencing sorrow in their life, I highly recommend Ashleigh's book and this companion Ebook.

As C. S. Lewis wrote, when "grief is great. Let us be good to one another."

Get your copy of Me Too here.

Toddler Activity Boxes

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In preparation for this school year I knew I needed a constructive plan to keep Ava, my toddler, creatively engaged. Since we homeschool, it would be important to the flow of our learning that she have her own "work" of play to do. But whether you homeschool or not, keeping a toddler busy can be a challenge while to try to accomplish other tasks.

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In anticipation for the fall I created four "activity boxes" just for Ava. Call them what you want: sensory boxes, busy bins, they all are meant to engage her imagination and give her something tactile to do. I created one for each morning we are home. 

And look at that goofy face! She loves her boxes!

If you are interested in creating your own boxes, I will link to what resources I can here to help you get started. I created loose "themes" to get me organized.

Animal Box 1 (top left photo)
Felt map with animals from Target's Dollar Bin
Melissa and Doug Habitats Reusable Sticker Pad
Melissa and Doug Water Wow
Number cards with sticky foam to form the letters from Target's Dollar Bin

Craft Box 2 (top right photo)
Dot Markers (not shown--but Ava LOVES them)
Mr. Potato Head (similar)
Construction paper and scissors from the Dollar Store
Wikki Stix Adventures Across America book and Alphabet Cards

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Sand Box 3 (Bottom left photo)
Sensory Sand with real shells from the beach and sand toys I dug out of the shed and washed up and added to the box.

Play-Doh Box 4 (Bottom right photo)
We've had this box for years, but I recently freshened it up by buying a bag of Mad Matter. All the kids love this and want me to buy their own bag in the color of their choice. It is very cool stuff! Similar to sensory sand--but less sandy and just more fun, in my opinion! So obviously Mad Matter is a great choice for older kids too. My older kids like to steal it out of her bin to play with it when I read to them.

You could also use these bins for "quiet play" when naptimes cease or only pull them down on rainy days. Check out my Sensory Play Pinterest boards for more inspiration. If you end up making your own boxes, or already have, I'd love to know what you filled them with!

Gracelaced: A Review

Gracelaced Ruth Chou Simons

I was excited to receive an advanced copy of Ruth Chou Simons' book, Gracelaced: Discovering Timeless Truths Through Seasons of the Heart. I eagerly sat down to read the first chapter, "Dwell" and it hit me right where I needed encouragement.

The scripture was from Psalm 91:1-2: 

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

In that chapter Ruth asks, "What are the false shelters in your life?"

I immediately knew the one I was struggling with the most.

Over this past summer two of our children were diagnosed with learning disabilities. My emotions have been a mix of grief, relief, disappointment, as well as seeing a new path forward.

But what was also revealed to my heart was that I have a false shelter of education. 

Don't get me wrong, education is important. And I already knew I struggled with this in my own life. I'm aware I have a driving desire for productivity and accomplishment. This propelled me to be on the Dean's List every semester in college, to graduate magna cum laude, to enjoy a job in an academic institution, and to continue my creative pursuits after having children. Nothing is wrong with any of that! But my default is to feel "less than" when I'm not being productive.

I didn't think I'd put this on my kids. But I had. Even if only in my own mind. And this summer definitely revealed that I'd made a false shelter out of academic accomplishment. And it's been a good journey to let that go.

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I interviewed Ruth back in 2015 for my Women Who Create series. You can read that interview here. I have long been a fan of her writing and beautiful art work. So I was super excited to get ahold of an advanced copy to review. 

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from the book. I knew it would be beautiful, but what would the content hold? I more than pleased to discover it is an exquisite book with 32 short devotional readings arranged by season.

Ruth encourages readers to become deeply rooted in God's faithful promises by:

resting in who He is
rehearsing the truth He says about you
responding in faith to those truths
remembering His provision to sustain you, time and time again

It's definitely a book I'm going to come back to again and again. Because I know my journey in getting rid of false shelters isn't over yet.

Gracedlaced Ruth Chou Simons

BOOK DETAILS

Ruth's book releases September 1, 2017 (this Friday!).

If you are interested, pre-order today and you can register to receive some wonderful pre-order goodies right here.

You can get your copy by going to gracelaced.com/gracelacedbook
Amazon book link http://amzn.to/2mWkp8N
Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/2u25odf
ChristianBook.com: http://bit.ly/2v5kH1F
Target: http://bit.ly/2u6wMpW

Ruth Chou Simons is an artist, writer, entrepreneur, and speaker. As creator of the popular GraceLaced online shoppe, blog and Instagram community, she shares scriptural truths daily through her hand painted artwork and words. Ruth and her husband, Troy, live in New Mexico and are grateful parents to six sons- their greatest adventure.

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What I'm Into Right Now (July 2017)

Bruschetta Chicken

Summer is slipping away but I've been listening, reading, and watching such great content I'm really excited to share with you last month's What I'm Into post! A favorite podcast is back, I've read my favorite novel of the year, and found a new-to-me show on Netflix.

Listening:
Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell is back for season two! This is one of my favorite podcasts, winning for thought-provoking content, stellar production, and length (hour long weekly podcasts are just too much, people!). 

So far my favorite episodes have been The Road to Damascus (explores the tensions between the press and the CIA), Miss Buchanan's Period Of Adjustment (a civil rights victory has an unintended fallout and legacy), and The Foot Soldier of Birmingham (how a famous photo is more complicated than it looks).

Reading:
Technically I listened to The Summer Before the War, but I'm sticking it into the reading category (but let me just say the reader was excellent on audiobook!). I've already gushed about this book on Facebook, but seriously, this was my favorite novel of the year thus far.

I've not been so captivated by an array of characters in a long time and was hooked from the first chapter. If you like witty banter and loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this book might be for you. Check out my full review over on Goodreads.

Watching:
We were looking for a new show that contains our favorite elements (mystery, stunning views of the UK, and fabulous storytelling) and we stumbled upon Shetland. Josh and I immediately fell in love. Set on the Shetland Island the actors have fabulous Scottish accents and there's stunning scenery. Series 3 was especially good and I'm excited they are planning to make a Series 4!

I just love DI Perez. Unlike most detectives who have such disastrous personal lives, Perez has a loving relationship with his daughter and is a stable person. He does have his share of heartbreak, but he is overall a kind man who is a great boss to his team.

Eating:
We've been eating some summertime favorites. Grilled Bruschetta Chicken (pictured above) and and cold Asian Chicken and Noodle Salad are two meals I always look forward to. 

What are you into right now?

Finding Our Place | Grace Table

Have you heard of Grace Table? It's a beautiful website that focuses on food, faith and community. I'm privileged to be sharing there this week and I hope you will check it out.

Image Credit: Grace Table

Image Credit: Grace Table

It was just a few weeks before Thanksgiving and we didn’t have a table.

Well, technically we did have table. An old one we had bought through Craig’s List that fit the small space in our old house perfectly. It was distressed cream and snuggly seated six.

But we’d moved into a blessing: a spacious house that boasted a huge dining room. We were hosting our first Thanksgiving and were expecting eight guests to add to our family of five. We didn’t have enough room around the table for everyone to have a seat.

We wanted our first official holiday hosting experience in our new home to be welcoming. I don’t think we were motivated to impress, but instead to nourish. We wanted everyone to have space, to find their place.

Continue reading over at Grace Table.

Seen and Heard

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

There was the sound of rushing feet in the hallway. A few minutes later, a messenger burst into the room.

“A message, Sir, from the Assyrians,” he panted slightly and handed the sealed letter to Hezekiah, King of Israel.

Hezekiah waited for the messenger to withdraw before opening the letter and reading it.

The words shook Hezekiah to the core. He quickly left for the temple of the Lord, letter in hand.

Once inside, Hezekiah spread out the letter before him, smoothing the wrinkled creases with shaking hands. The dreaded Assyrians were on their way. There was no earthly help that could save Israel now. The letter from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, was meant to intimidate him, and that it did. But it did something else too.

It drove Hezekiah in desperation to the house of the Lord.

And just as he literally presented the physical letter of his enemy before the Lord, Hezekiah also presented his worries before the God of Israel. Hezekiah acknowledged the bleak reality before him, but reminds the Lord of his own character:

“Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God,” pleads Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:20).

And the Lord responds to Hezekiah with a plan to strike down Sennacherib and defend Israel, “Because you have prayed to me” (verse 21).

Because you have prayed to me.

How many times do I not pray because I don’t think it will make a difference? I’m sure my prayers won’t move God to action. Instead of presenting my worries and concerns to God like Hezekiah did, I let them fester in my heart. But God, in his dealings with Hezekiah—not once but twice—seems to change his plans after Hezekiah prays to the Lord.

“I have heard your prayers,” God says in the very next chapter when Hezekiah pleads for his life in the face of illness. “I have seen your tears.”

God constantly reveals himself as a God who sees us. Hagar called him, El roi, Hebrew for God of seeing (Genesis 16:13). Or as David put it, a God who bottles our tears (Ps. 56:8). He sees us right where we are, is with us in our hardships, and hears our concerns.

So instead of being standoffish or thinking my prayers don't matter or won't change anything, today, I'm reminded to go to him. And by that I don’t mean to imply that my faithfulness in prayer will equal me getting answers the way I want. It won’t necessarily. Nor will my faithlessness suspend his faithfulness to me. It won’t.

But he does want to hear from me. To be in relationship with me. To like Hezekiah spread my worries before him, because he hears. He sees.