Top Ten Tuesday: Top Reads from 2020

It’s time for another Top Ten list from That Artsy Reader Girl, which I haven’t done in a while now. The topic today is a look back at our favorite books from the past year. After a full year of reading, this was a little more difficult than it was last year, when I’d only been reading for half the year. Last year I had to include some 4-star books too, but this year, I had plenty of 5-star reads to choose from!

After narrowing it down to 10, these are in no particular order. I did clump similar genres together, though. Also, I did not include any re-reads, and I’m lumping series into 1 entry, even if the entire series wasn’t 5 stars.

1. Unoffendable by Brant Hansen
I love all of Brant Hansen’s books, and I did give 5 stars to his newest book this year too. However, this one took the edge over The Truth About Us just a bit. Brant has a way of cutting to the heart of the matter. He speaks simply and honestly, makes some really good points, and is funny to boot. (See my full review here.)

2. I Want to Punch You in the Face But I Love Jesus by Sherri Lynn
Continuing in a similar vein to the previous book, considering that Brant and Sherri are radio co-hosts, Sherri’s book is a hilarious take on PMS, the difficulties women face, and how they don’t have to be alone in their misery. (See my full review here.)

3. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson
This series of books has dominated my year. I read the entire series of 4 books between January and June, and then listened to the first three again as the author read them live online to beat the quarantine blues. He just started reading book #4, The Warden and the Wolf King, 3 nights ago. My 10-year-old daughter read the series upon my suggestion, watched the live readings with me, and has basically become obsessed. And my husband bought me the entire re-released series, with beautiful new covers and new illustrations inside, for my birthday back in May. It’s been a Wingfeather-heavy year. (See my full review for the first book in the series here.)

4. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
My daughter returned the favor of my recommendation on the previous series with this series. I’ve only read the first one so far, though she’s read all but the newest, and it was so much fun! It’s basically an escape room in a 3-story library with Willy Wonka as the game master. I mean, what can be better than that? (See my full review here.)

5. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
I love a well-done time travel story, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s written for a younger audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway (I’ve always been a little childish). (See my full review here.)

6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I’d never read any Tolkien before this. I have seen all of the movies, though. I love the LoTR movies, though I had only watched the Hobbit movies once (I watched them again after reading the book). I decided to start with The Hobbit, because it’s written for a younger audience, and after enjoying it, I went on to listen to the audiobooks of the LoTR trilogy (on the third one now). It has been very interesting seeing the differences between the books and the movies, and I know I’ll need to read it all again multiple times to really get a decent understanding of the depth. (See my full review here.)

7. The Shepherd’s Wife by Angela Hunt
This is the second book in a series of Biblical fiction set during and after the time Jesus was an adult on earth, from the perspectives of people on the peripheral of his ministry. I liked book #2, Daughter of Cana, but I loved this one. The book is character-driven, inspirational, and so engaging. I’m waiting anxiously for the 3rd book in the series to come out! (See my full review here.)

8. The Librarian of Boone’s Hollow by Kim Vogel Sawyer
I so loved the combination of characters and their arcs in this book, and how they brought out the themes of looking for blessings during difficulties and using love and kindness to drive away hatred. A plot that seems complicated was very well written by Sawyer, and I’m now looking into her other works. (See my full review here.)

9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
My sister highly recommended this book written entirely in epistolary form, and I wasn’t sure how I’d like it. But I loved it, unsurprisingly mostly due to the characters. But I found that the format of the story being told through letters made it a particularly quick and easy read, because there’s not a lot of description. I know that might bother some people, but I really liked it. (See my full review here.)

10. Sunrise at Normandy trilogy by Sarah Sundin
I read all of this trilogy this year, starting with #3, The Land Beneath Us (shown above), because I got it as an ARC. The third one was my favorite of the trilogy, but only by a little bit. The entire trilogy tells the story of three brothers who were separated by a very unfortunate series of events that led to three years of estrangement. During that time, each of the brothers trained in different branches of the military and became part of the invasion of Normandy. I love the way these books tell each of the brothers’ individual stories during WWII, but also tells the complete story of the broken relationship between the brothers and their family. I can’t wait until I read these books again, in order this time, of course. (See my review of the book shown above, which is third, but I read first, here.)

Have you read any of these? What were some of your favorite reads this year?

Book Review: All Through the Night

All Through the Night
by Tara Johnson

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When war between the states breaks out, Cadence Piper wants to help in some way, thereby also helping her family regain some of the honor brought on by her brother who ran away after their mother died. But she’s not allowed to be a nurse, because she’s young, pretty, and unmarried. Her beautiful voice, though, opens doors when the wounded soldiers begin to ask for her songs. In the hospital, she meets Dr. Joshua Ivy, a surgeon, who knows Cadence doesn’t belong there and kicks her out. But when Cadence stumbles onto his clandestine activities, the two eventually become linked in ways neither would have wanted or expected.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I had some ups and downs, especially as the story went on for a little while. But I did like the characters and several of the different plots presented. Both Cadence and Joshua were quite spirited, and it definitely caused some issues. But it also has a lot to do with how they got into the situations they got into. I liked the time period and the realism involved in Joshua’s work with the soldiers (heartbreaking, but real), as well as his “other” work.

Most of what bothered me about the book came in the second half or later. I think the story has a little too much packed into it, and that with some trimming, it might have been a 5-star read for me. Don’t get me wrong, 4 stars is still great! Still, there is one arc that never goes anywhere, and another arc that is resolved far too easily for my taste. Both of these probably could have been cut out. There are also a few things that happen that really bug me and make characters seem incompetent or insensitive, when they aren’t otherwise shown to be that way, but I can’t go into detail due to spoilers.

I did like the cameo by Fanny Crosby, which made this Psalty-loving girl really happy. In the end, I liked the book quite a bit, and I would recommend it to fans of Christian historical romance.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about All Through the Night
Publication date: January 5, 2020

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Book Review: Cupcakes for Christmas

Cupcakes for Christmas
Return to Willoughby Close #1
by Kate Hewitt

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christmas romance

Olivia has been living in the English village of Wychwood-on-Lea for a couple of years now, taking over her mom’s tea shop and bakery. She’s content in her single life, but with her friends all recently starting new families, when a friendly stranger begins to show up at the shop now and then, Olivia starts to wonder if she’s ready for a new chapter in her life. However, Simon is quite the enigma–buying cupcakes from her “12 Days of Cupcakes” promotion and not eating them, showing up places with a woman and child that may or may not be his wife and son, and simply disappearing for days at a time. He may be hiding some kind of secret, but he’s also funny, compassionate, and is there when she really needs someone, as her mom begins to show signs of health problems. What does Christmas have in store for Olivia?

As sweet, novella-length Christmas romances go, this one was decent. There were some things that happened that I found strange and weren’t really explained, and it was a little slow overall, but not in a way that bothered me. I began to suspect Simon’s big secret before it was revealed, but it turned out to be a lot worse and more involved than I thought.

There was a whole cast of side characters that I believe were all stars in their own romances in a series the author had previously written. I hadn’t read any of that, and I don’t think it’s necessary, though I’m sure readers of the Willoughby Close series will enjoy seeing these people. The big downside to me is that there are a lot of these ladies/families, and they basically all blended together without distinct personalities, at least in the space of this story. So it was a whole aspect to the story that fell flat.

If you’re looking for a light, fluffy Christmas story, this really isn’t it. There were some dark moments and difficult subjects, which the author did handle well. It was a bit heavy for the story length, but in the end, I appreciated what both Olivia and Simon were going through and the connection it helped forge between them. If you don’t mind some heaviness in your romance, whether at Christmas time or not, consider checking out this book.

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Book Review: Joy to the World

Joy to the World
by Carolyn Miller, Amanda Barratt, & Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas-themed short stories, Christian historical romance

Joy to the World contains three novellas from three different authors, each in the genre of Regency romance, perfect for the Christmas season. My overall rating for the book is an average of my ratings for each story, shown below. Below the ratings are brief (as much as possible) reviews for each story.

“Heaven and Nature Sing” by Carolyn Miller2 / 5
“Far as the Curse Is Found” by Amanda Barratt5 / 5
“Wonders of His Love” by Erica Vetsch5 / 5

“Heaven and Nature Sing” is the tale of 2 people who were close to engagement a year past, but are now estranged and are thrust together during the holidays, which certainly allows for a romance to develop in a short time period. There’s history there. But strangely, the only way the author seemed to be able to inject romance was related to kissing. Everything was about finding ways to put them under a kissing ball (mistletoe) or thrust them into some other awkward situation with physical closeness, before they’d even had a chance to try to work out their issues from the past.

Other things happened that made me dislike the characters or made me scratch my head, like Edith (female lead) allowing the other young adults to set George (male lead) up to mock propose to her, and then Edith actually blaming George for the situation! She also spends at least half of the story thinking about George and then mentally berating herself for doing that…and then she gets angry at him for saving her from a falling tree branch. I also noted a bit of dialog in which George asks Edith if she wants him to “kiss it better” in a story filled with flowery, old-fashioned language both in the dialog and surrounding it. Sadly, this story did not go over well with me. 

“Far as the Curse is Found” is the tale of two very broken people, albeit in different ways, who help each other out of the darkness. The connection between them is fast, but not in an unbelievable way. I think that Jenny’s background and brokenness are dealt with less than Dwight’s, and if the story had been longer, I would have liked to see more of how she had to overcome the trauma she’d gone through. It’s not treated frivolously, though, and she’s shown to be a strong character throughout.

Dwight undergoes the largest transformation, and I really like him every step of the way. Again, things may be a bit too quick, but it was explored well in the space the author had. The curse angle is a really nice glue for the story and ties into the story’s title and the book’s theme very well. Other reviewers have compared this story to Beauty and the Beast, which I can’t comment on, never having seen any version of it, but I can see some possible allusions. That aside, in case it’s not obvious, I loved this story! 

“Wonders of His Love” is the tale of a Scottish portrait painter trying to make a name for himself in England and the picture-perfect young widow that feels as displaced as he does. Cilla had married the future Duke of Haverly, who then died before he inherited the title. She’s left in limbo, having practically become a servant to her very demanding and prissy mother-in-law. She reminds me a lot of me–defaulting to a spot in the background, wondering if this will be her entire life. Even when she starts to make strides forward, she still falls back on old, “easy” habits. If the story had been novel-length, there would have been a lot more room to explore that, I think, but on the other hand, it might have started to get tiring, too.

Hamish is a different kind of character than I’ve read in this genre in the past (not that I have a very long history reading Regency romance), and I really liked that. I liked him in a lot of different ways, including the fact that the author didn’t dwell so much on him being tall and ridiculously handsome as every romantic hero seems to be. His talent and compulsion for sketching scenes, coupled with his ability to bring out the truth of  a subject, were all really interesting facets to his character. That’s a lot of why I would have loved to see a particular sketch Hamish had made come to fruition, and I’m not sure if the author simply ran out of space or forgot about it.

This third story was my favorite of the three by a very slim margin. I’ll admit right now, though, that what pushed it over the top was most likely the inclusion of characters from two of Erica Vetsch’s other novels. As soon as I realized who the female lead in this story was, I was so excited. And sure enough, both the Haverlys from The Gentleman Spy and the Whitelocks from The Lost Lieutenant were in the story (the Haverlys moreso, which makes sense, given that Cilla is the duke’s sister-in-law). Both of these books I read just recently and loved, but if you haven’t read them, don’t let that put you off from reading this story. You don’t need to know their stories to still follow and enjoy this novella.

Final thoughts on the whole book: Overall, it’s a wonderful collection of Christmas-related Regency romance stories. I do think plenty of others will like the first story, based on large differences in personal preferences, and I recommend the entire book to fans of the genres mentioned above, or even those looking for good Christian romance in general. I have a feeling I’ll re-read this during a future Christmas season and will even give the first story another chance.

Thank you to Netgalley and Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Weekly Writing Update: 12/20

I’m not even going to pretend that I did much work on book #3 in the series this last week. I put the new order of scenes that I came up with the week before into Scrivener, and then I started writing one of the new scenes I have planned. I didn’t even get that scene finished, as various things, mostly related to preparing for Christmas, took up much more of my time than I’d expected. Plus, I’ve been having headaches more often lately, which makes focusing on writing difficult.

This coming week, of course, will hold even more Christmas prep, plus the day itself. I will attempt to spend at least a little time in Pithea, even if it’s not official revision. I have a character interview in mind, so maybe I’ll do that in little snatches of time throughout the week.

While I work on continuing the series, if you’re interested in reading where it all starts, Pithea is available on Amazon as both an e-book and paperback (it’s also on Kindle Unlimited).


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Book Review: The Old Lace Shop

The Old Lace Shop
Once Upon a Dickens Christmas #3
by Michelle Griep
read by Nan McNamara

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance, Christmas fiction

Recently widowed Bella White spent almost a decade with a man who frightened and abused her. Now that he’s gone, she’s free to make her own path. Keeping one of the businesses her husband owned, Bella decides to help run the lace factory. Her business partner, though, who owns 49% of the business and is used to running it alone, is not so pleased. And since that partner is Edmund Archer, who was once Bella’s beau, things are quite awkward when Bella arrives to help run the factory. And the lace manufacturing business is a lot more cut-throat than Bella expected.

After the disappointment of book #2 in this series, I was glad to be able to enjoy this one more. I applauded Bella’s desire to earn her own money, rather than just live on what her husband left her. And her heart for local women who’d gone blind working in the lace factories was a really nice side plot. The overall story was decent, if not a little too cluttered for a short novel.

Right off the bat, it was strange going into this book after reading the first two in the series, because they were both told in 3rd person past tense, while this one is in 1st person present tense. This is an odd choice for a book with alternating POVs, and I’ll admit to being a little confused a few times when I’d forget whose perspective we were in at the time. Also, there’s more pressure to make sure both characters’ voices are unique, since they’re obviously not the exact same person, and that wasn’t necessarily done well enough here. It didn’t help that I listened to the audiobook though, which I’ve now decided to avoid for romances if at all possible. And that may have been why the romance in this story felt a little weak, or it may have been the story itself, but I don’t think I can say for sure.

The epilogue of this story was about the 2nd-chance coin that shows up in all 3 books. This is a shame, because I wasn’t as connected to that coin as I could have been, and so the epilogue mostly fell flat for me. Be that as it may, I still liked the story in general, and I do recommend this book for anyone looking for a quick Christmas read, or for a historical and/or Christian romance.

Find out more about The Old Lace Shop
**As far as I can tell, this story is not available in any format by itself. It is only available as the third story in the collection titled Once Upon a Dickens Christmas, which contains all three stories in this series.

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Book Review: The Gentleman Spy

The Gentleman Spy
Serendipity & Secrets #2
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain spoilers for the first book in the series, The Lost Lieutenant.

Marcus Haverly much preferred his life as a “spare,” the second son of the Duke of Haverly, which allowed him to stay in the background of society and do his work as a secret agent for the Crown without fear of discovery. But when his father and older brother both die, the mantle of duke is thrust upon him, bringing many duties that clash with his clandestine work. One of those duties is to marry an eligible young woman, and he’ll be under much scrutiny by the rest of society until he does so. When he meets Lady Charlotte, who has been chastised by her parents for not conforming to society standards, thus leaving her in danger of becoming a spinster, Marcus makes a snap decision to marry her, expecting to use her as a cover for his secret life. But Charlotte has other ideas of what she wants out of a marriage, throwing a wrench in his plans.

I enjoyed the 2nd book in this series as much as I enjoyed the first. I already liked Marcus going into this book, since he was my favorite side character in the previous book. And while I wanted to throttle him a few times during the story, I still loved the book. Charlotte was a much bigger part of the story than the synopsis–both the official one and the one I wrote above–make her seem. Her arc was definitely a captivating part of the story.

This series so far has been all about my favorite type of romance–a marriage thrown together hastily between two people who don’t really know each other, and the development of the relationship between husband and wife. The only thing that really bothered me in this story is that Marcus, an otherwise intelligent and capable man, was so stupid when it came to his marriage, even after getting brilliant advice from a very wise woman. I’m not saying it’s completely unrealistic, but he got right up to that point of starting to annoy me. Thankfully, the rest of the book was so good, my frustrations with Marcus were overall very minor.

Charlotte’s plight to help the working girls of London really endeared her to me. It was also reminiscent of the first book, and I love that connection between the two. I also loved seeing the Whitelocks so much, which makes even more sense than it might in other series of “stand-alones,” because Marcus and Evan were such close friends in the previous book. Reading the previous book isn’t really necessary before reading this one, but I’d still recommend starting there, because it will make the experience of the 2nd book richer. I’m also very excited about the next book in the series, which won’t release until next March, especially since one of the main characters is Marcus’s sister. We meet her in this book, and though her time in the story was brief, I really liked her!

As with the previous book (though for a different reason), I don’t think the official synopsis for this book is good, especially since it depicts Marcus as unhappy with some of Charlotte’s endeavors. So take it with a grain of salt. But the book itself is great, and I definitely recommend it to fans of Christian romance, historical or otherwise, and fans of Regency romance.

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Weekly Writing Update: 12/13

I worked on book #3 in the series this week, and I think I have figured out the best way forward. I’ve cut off the last 15k words from the previous draft to be part of book #4, which basically means I’m going to be making the main story goal for book #3 different than how it’s been for many years now. This means that I need to revise a lot to make sure the new story goal is coming out enough. It also means I can put back in some longer scenes that I’d removed to shorten the story and to allow the old story goal to come to the surface earlier in the book.

Actually, this book has been giving me trouble for quite a while. I always worried that the last 1/3 of the book was such a different plot from the rest, and that the plot that is set up in the first 2/3 sort of goes nowhere. But I kept moving forward, thinking I just had to live with it. Then when I had the sudden realization that those 15k words would be better off as part of book #4, it gave me the chance to fix all of that. It’ll be a lot of work to fix, though.

So I started by doing something that helped me a lot during revision of Outcast earlier this year–putting all of the existing scenes onto little slips of paper, color-coding them by story arc, and then filling out new slips for new scenes I think should be added.

This allowed me to play with the order of the scenes and move some forward when I realized a plot arc was getting started too late, and that starting it sooner could help avoid monotony in the earlier scenes. Now it’s pretty much time to get to revising, which I think will start with a read-through to refresh myself on the story, cutting down bloated scenes and writing the first draft of some new scenes along the way. I’ll also need to make the scenes flow in the order I’ve changed them to, but I’m not sure if I’ll do that now or later.

While I work on continuing the series, if you’re interested in reading where it all starts, Pithea is available on Amazon as both an e-book and paperback (it’s also on Kindle Unlimited).


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Book Review: A Christmas Star

A Christmas Star
Cape Light #9
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas drama, romance

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Cape Light.

Jack Sawyer, recent hermit after the loss of his wife 2 years past, awkwardly takes in a single mother and her young daughter when their car breaks down near his house in the country. Before long, he’s as much in need of Julie’s help as she is of his. At the same time, Sam & Jessica Morgan lose their beloved house to a devastating fire. Their marriage is tested in this difficult time, as rebuilding won’t be as easy as they hope.

Of the books in the Cape Light series I’ve read, this was my favorite. The story of Jack and Julie was much more interesting to me than the saga of Sam and Jessica Morgan’s tragedy. I don’t think that’s necessarily because I didn’t like the plot arc about the fire, but because I really liked the arc with Jack and Julie. Even moreso, I liked the arc with Jack and Julie’s daughter, Kate.

What I found most endearing was that this was not just the development of a relationship between a widower and a single mom, but also the development of a relationship between a father whose son has been estranged for two years and a little girl who steals the not-so-old man’s heart. Jack could get a second chance at being both a husband and a father, and it’s very sweet. The culmination of that storyline made the entire book worth it.

As for Sam and Jessica, they almost killed my interest in the series in the first book. Fortunately, we’re past most of the drama I disliked with them, but I will say some of their annoying quirks reared their heads again. Still, I found the difficulties they go through in this book sadly all too realistic. And while the end of their story might bother some, I think it makes sense within the context of this series.

After reading the first 4 books in the series and averaging 3.5 stars, I decided not to continue with it (which becomes a series of Christmas novels after the first 4 non-holiday books). But I already owned this one, so figured I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did, as I liked it more than the first 4. I’m not sure if I’ll read more or not, though. Maybe I’ll go back to book #5 if I have time left in the holiday season after I’ve read all of the Christmas-themed books I have planned. We’ll see.

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Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #1
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure, mystery

Game-lover Kyle Keeley is desperate to win a spot in the overnight sleepover at the new, state-of-the-art local library. The library was designed by his hero, Mr. Lemoncello, who created pretty much every board game and video game Kyle loves. When the overnighter turns into a lock-in (literally), Kyle and his fellow 12-year-olds have to figure out how to escape.

My 10-year-old daughter convinced me to read this book, and by convinced I mean pushed, cajoled, and pestered me until I got to it. She loved it and was sure I would too. She was right! It’s a quick, mostly simple read, and once the lock-in part started up, it was the most just pure fun I’ve ever had reading a book.

Once morning comes, the kids have to find clues and solve puzzles in order to try to escape and win the big prize. The story is basically Willy Wonka meets escape rooms, which is right up my alley. But even better, it’s an escape room played in the entire 3-story (plus the basement) library! I was seriously jealous. Mr. Lemoncello is a really entertaining character, and the kids have distinct personalities, for the most part. I will say that the knowledge base for some of these kids was pretty unrealistic, but it didn’t really bother me. It was just too fun!

I think something else that is important, since the book is written for kids, is that my daughter is a huge fan. She’s read the first 4 books in the series and was ridiculously excited to find out that a 5th one came out a few months ago. I’ll really enjoy continuing this series and being able to talk to her about the books as I go. I think this is a great book for kids around 8-12, and for parents too, especially those who like games.

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