All Fall Down, by Ally Carter

All Fall DownAll Fall Down
By Ally Carter
Pub. Date: January 20, 2015

After devouring the Gallagher Girls series, when I heard Ally Carter was coming out with a new book I knew I would have to read it. For those who haven’t read the Gallagher Girls series, I would highly recommend it. Picture this: a hidden all-girls school to train spies where hacking into government websites is homework, martial arts and combat training is p.e., and friendship means risking your life to save each other. These books dealt with some serious issues, but had enough comedic moments to keep it light.

All Fall Down, the first book in the Embassy Row series, has a lot of secrets and twists with another unreliable narrator like the Gallagher Girls series, but it is darker without as much humor. Grace is the daughter of a military man, the granddaughter of an ambassador, and the witness of her mother’s death. Three years later after her mother died, Grace still has daily flashbacks, only made worse by the knowledge that no one believes her when she says her mother was murdered. She is trying not to act too crazy, but she knows everyone is worried about her mental state. Now she is living in Europe at US embassy with her grandfather, where a wrong move could start a war and everyone wants her to act normal and go with her grandfather to state functions. Of course, things do not work out as planned and Grace finds herself getting into even more scrapes than usual with a new group of teens as she tries to figure out how to stop the man she believes murdered her mother.

I thought this novel was well done: it has a unique setting based on life in an embassy and it does a good job staying in a first person narrative with a complex story line. I often found myself annoyed with the protagonist, but I can see she is the way she is because Grace went through a traumatic experience. The Gallagher Girls series is still my favorite though, because I liked the humor and I enjoyed the characters and felt more invested in what they were doing. Altogether, I would recommend reading All Fall Down for those who want a good suspense where the teenage girl everyone thinks is crazy collaborates with her friends to save the world. It doesn’t have any romantic entanglements (although there is a hint of one), and it doesn’t have a lot of violence. I enjoyed reading it, although I kept myself distant from the protagonist.

Planted, by Patrick Q. Mason

Planted Patrick Q. MasonPlanted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt
by Patrick Q. Mason
Pub Date: December 28, 2015

Some books get just enough push and hype that you realize you really need to read it so you can be part of the discussion. Planted was definitely one of those books for me. Quite a few people in the Bloggernacle have praised it, and as soon as I read just a few pages out of it I knew I wanted to add my chorus to those praises.

“[…] God created us in all our sexual, racial, and cultural differences, precisely so that we could learn from the unique gifts of others and then glorify God for the gift of his diverse creation.”

Brother Mason is a scholar and active LDS member. He states in his introduction that he wrote this book after having many discussions with people at various levels of faith, and felt the need to address the feelings of doubt that get brought up. It’s a book not just for those who question and have doubts, but for those who feel more solid in their faith and testimony and want to know what they can do to help those who do experience doubt. As someone who has been on both sides of that fence, I felt Brother Mason did a good job of covering a lot of ground. It’s not comprehensive to be sure, but he does provide an excellent bibliography of other books and talks and articles to read tailored to more specific questions one may have. Having only read about 15 of the listed sources, I’m looking forward to adding more to my “church TBR” list.

“We must constantly remember, in [Eugene] England’s wise words, that ‘the Church is not a place to go for comfort, to get our own prejudices validated, but a place to comfort others, even to be afflicted by them.’ The path of ease, recognition, and casual sameness is not the way of the cross Christ calls us to bear.”

One of the things I really appreciate about this book is the frank and understanding tone Brother Mason uses. It’s like a good friend is offering useful advice and telling a few good stories, too. He uses clear language to explain a few troubling moments in LDS history, giving the reader an example of how they can not only frame the questions they may have, but also how to properly seek out answers (or at least reconciliations) for themselves. He constantly reminds the reader that this is a church of continuing revelation, that something that we find troubling now was viewed differently in the past (and led me to think of what “normal” things the Church does now that 50, 70, or 150 years from now will seem weird and troubling). I highly recommend this book as an exercise in thought, and a boost for discussion among friends and family. It’s a reassuring hug that though the people in this Church are not perfect, the gospel is, and you will find answers to the questions you have.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

boundlessBoundless
by Kenneth Oppel
Pub. Date: April 22, 2014

For a good time adventure without kissy romance scenes or descriptive violence, this is the book for you. It has everything from Sasquatch to circus performers to scam artists. With the story of the transcontinental railroad as a backdrop, Oppel has created a tale of mystery, suspense, and fun with some historical facts mixed with tall tales that become reality. It is quite a page turner that several of my teens in the book club described as “unable to put down,” and one teen I have never seen read a book was excited to tell me about what he was reading.

Will wants adventure. He has grown up hearing about all the adventures his father experienced while building the Canadian transcontinental railroad, and now he wants to experience his own adventures. Yet, his father has different plans for him that includes a position in the family business. Will has this one train trip on the Boundless left before he is expected to begin schooling in business. What could go wrong in a few days?

At their first stop, Will witnesses a murder. As he goes from train car to train car trying to avoid the men trying to kill him as the only witness to their crime, Will meets up with the circus performers travelling on the train and that’s when the fun begins.

Personally, I loved this story. I can recommend it to people who want a clean book with a lot of adventure and memorable, inspiring characters. I also appreciated that several of the characters are not perfect, but have difficult moral questions that they have to work out. Also, I love the circus characters.

So, if you want a fun, historical story without too much romance or violence (and a clown, strongman, and elephants) you now have what you are looking for: Boundless.

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, by Karen Abbott

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy Karen AbbottLiar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
by Karen Abbott
Pub Date: September 2, 2014

If you know me past a few superficial conversations, you learn pretty quickly that I’m a Civil War buff. I lived in Georgia at the end of high school and for college, but it wasn’t until I left the South for a few years that I developed a thirst for learning about the Civil War (I think this was how my homesickness manifested itself. I truly love it down here). In particular, I have an affinity for anything involving the women of the time period. So when this book came along, it was on my radar with a quickness.

The author Karen Abbott has made a name for herself writing popular history books on interesting women (previously she wrote about Gypsy Rose Lee and the infamous Everleigh Sisters – not to everyone’s taste, but well-written titles regardless), and continues the trend with this hefty but engaging history of the Civil War through the lives and adventures of four women, two Confederate and two Federal: Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, and Elizabeth Van Lew. You might have heard of at least one of these women in passing in a high school history class or college course, but getting them grouped together like this really gets you curious for all the other women’s stories that don’t get the same clout or attention as so many male personalities of the time.

The stories of these four women are told over the course of the conflict, and Abbott seems to have a lot of fun with the narrative, leaving you on a cliffhanger with one story and picking up with another, and before you know it you’re engrossed in the book and not realizing how long you’ve been reading. It’s like an adventure story where the four main characters don’t actually interact but have parallel story lines.

All of these women had at least some small brush with espionage, so if you’re into spy stories mixed with American history, this is one to try out. Emma Edmonds dressed as a man to fight in the war, and was one of at least 200 documented cases at the time of women doing so. (Honestly, the stories of Civil War era women impersonating men for a variety of reasons will never cease to amaze and impress me.) Rose Greenhow spent time in prison for her exploits, along with her young daughter, and still managed to get information out of the Yankees and to the Rebels. While one might be hesitant to herald these women as role models necessarily, there’s no denying they all showed a great deal of courage and can be admired for their stealth, wit, fierceness of beliefs, and mettle. Plus, as a woman, I like reading about other women. Women are pretty amazing.

There are a certain number of books on the Civil War that I think are necessary to read if you get into the subject, and this one was definitely added to that list. No dry history tome here – this fast-paced collection of stories will keep you invested until the end.

The Only Pirate at the Party, by Lindsey Stirling

Only Pirate at the Party Lindsey StirlingThe Only Pirate at the Party
by Lindsey Stirling and Brooke S. Passey
Pub Date: January 12, 2016

It’s always fun to learn that a celebrity is LDS, and is *practicing* LDS. Lindsey Stirling is so cute and adorable that learning she was a missionary in New York before her musical career took off makes me feel squishy. If you haven’t heard of Lindsey Stirling, you need to head over to YouTube and check out her videos. I’m a sucker for a violinist who has fun with their instrument. I’ll wait.

I was in a community theater production of The Passion of Dracula around the time the NBC series Dracula came out, and the cast got a little obsessed with Lindsey Stirling at the time, since she wrote the music used as the theme to the short-lived series. I find her adorable and a lot of fun in addition to being talented enough to dance while playing violin.

Her memoir is great. Her bubbly personality shines through with each chapter. Nothing of great depth for the most part, and no earth-shattering revelations (she’s too young for that, anyway), but delightful stories of her childhood with her family and neighbor friends, her musical journey, her mission, her fight with an eating disorder, and various adventures of being a famous musician. This could easily be a great gift for the music-loving teenager in your life.

Lindsey also has some great lines in the book that delighted me. My favorite being, “home is where the cereal is.” I love her sense of humor!

She’s isn’t heavy into bearing her testimony like some LDS members might, but she certainly acknowledges a Heavenly Father who always has an eye on her, and great parents who appear to have raised her right. She fully admits to struggles and foibles she brought on herself, and how her ED affected not just her health but the people around her, too. She also makes a point of talking about her standards and how hard it is to find modest costumes for herself and her dancers, and how much she loves her crew for respecting her standards and keeping an eye on her as well. It’s these little details that add up that make me respect her all the more.

Though I can’t profess to being a superfan of Lindsey Stirling, I sure do love her energy. And I LOVE celebrity memoirs by people who aren’t SUPER famous. They’re a little more grounded in reality. This ones holds that up. Even if you aren’t so much into her music, I think most LDS women will appreciate reading a book about another LDS woman whose life is a little more fantastical than normal, but still has normal, everyday troubles like the rest of us. It’s refreshing. And with a good mix of humor, heartbreak, and hard times, I think this is a memoir a lot of people could enjoy.