Recommendations

What I’ve Been Reading [Open Book December 2017]

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup!

an-open-book

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

The aforementioned Carolyn also joins me and Rebecca Willen every month for Sabbath Rest Book Talk, which will return Sunday, February 4, 2018!

Keep an eye out here for the reading selections for next year, and if you want quarterly reminders of what we’re reading, please subscribe to my newsletter.  That free book on Dominican prayer is coming.  I promise.  For notifications that each month’s SRBT is available for viewing/listening, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Plus, click here to check out our NEW GOODREADS FEATURE! It’s a list! On Goodreads! Vote for books we’ve already featured and add any books you think we should discuss in the future!

Okay, finally, all that’s done.  Here’s what I’ve been reading (or hearing).  It’s a lot, so don’t expect lengthy descriptions.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogThe Three Musketeers tells the story of the early adventures of the young Gascon gentleman, D’Artagnan and his three friends from the regiment of the King’s Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Under the watchful eye of their patron M. de Treville, the four defend the honour of the regiment against the guards of Cardinal Richelieu, and the honour of the queen against the machinations of the Cardinal himself as the power struggles of seventeenth century France are vividly played out in the background. But their most dangerous encounter is with the Cardinal’s spy, Milady, one of literature’s most memorable female villains, and Dumas employs all his fast-paced narrative skills to bring this enthralling novel to a breathtakingly gripping and dramatic conclusion.

Got this from the library as a summer road trip listen. Loved it.  Humor.  Adventure. Romance.  Tragedy.  Justice.  What’s not to love? Warning: our heroes are not exactly saints. Everybody’s got a mistress. Revenge sullies justice.  And so and so.  4.5/5

Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition, translated by Seamus Heaney

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogComposed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf ?is the elegiac narrative of the Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel’s mother. Drawn to what he has called the “four-squareness of the utterance” in ?Beowulf ?and its immense emotional credibility Seamus Heaney gives the great epic convincing reality

But how to visualize the poet’s story has always been a challenge for modern-day readers. In Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition, John D. Niles, a specialist in Old English literature, provides visual counterparts to Heaney’s remarkable translation. More than one hundred full-page illustrations―Viking warships, chain mail, lyres, spearheads, even a reconstruction of the Great Hall―make visible Beowulf’s world and the elemental themes of his story: death, divine power, horror, heroism, disgrace, devotion, and fame. This mysterious world is now transformed into one of material splendor as readers view its elegant goblets, dragon images, and finely crafted gold jewelry against the backdrop of the Danish landscape of its origins.

Our homeschool is doing Story of Civilization, Volume 2: The Medieval World this year, so for literary study, I’m keeping us in that era.  Because I was a lazy teen, I could have taken AP English but opted instead for Track 1, so I wouldn’t have to read stuff like Beowulf.  Well, Teen Erin, that was a stupid choice.  Middle Aged Erin is love, love, loving Beowulf.  This illustrated edition is especially delightful; it’s like an archaeology magazine with a freaky storybook inside. Let it be known, however, that I’m the weird sort who prefers the Silmarilion to The Lord of the Rings, so take my feedback in that context.

What’s more is my 7 year-old struggling reader is digging Beowulf, too.  We got the audiobook out of the library (a little gruesome, of course, but she survived), we did the Rosemary Sutcliff version for readaloud, and she took this graphic novel out of the library at least two times and read it independently.  5/5.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, narrated by Stephen Crossly

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogBy 1792, the idealism of the French Revolution has degenerated into a Reign of Terror. Ruthless mobs rule the streets of Paris, and each day, hundreds of royalists are sacrificed to the guillotine, with hundreds more condemned to follow. Their only hope lies in rescue by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the daring leader of an English faction that spirits aristocrats across the Channel to safety. This historical adventure tale first appeared in 1905, but its irresistible blend of romance, intrigue, and suspense renders it timeless. Readers thrill to the gallantry of the Pimpernel, whose nom de guerre derives from the wildflower he employs as a calling card. A scourge to the French authorities, the Pimpernel is the darling of the people — particularly Marguerite Blakeney, who scorns her foppish husband, Sir Percy, as ardently as she admires the Pimpernel. The basis of a classic film, this ever-popular story has recently been adapted as a musical, to the delight of Broadway audiences.

We’ll be reading this one for SRBT next year, so I wanted to get a jump on it.  I am so glad I did. Listen to November’s SRBT and you’ll find out why Marguerite SanJust and her adventure to save her beloved Scarlet Pimpernel were the reason we had to postpone that ‘cast for a week and why I had to spend 20 minutes pushing a grocery cart around a dark parking lot in the pouring rain.  If Amazon/Goodreads had a 6th star, TSP would get it.  6/5

Julia’s Gifts by Ellen Gable

Online Bookseller Blurb:

Julia's Gifts by Ellen Gable (WWI Clean Romance--Great War, Great Love)As a young girl, Julia began buying gifts for her future spouse, a man whose likeness and personality she has conjured up in her mind, a man she calls her “beloved.” Soon after the United States enters the Great War, Julia impulsively volunteers as a medical aid worker, with no experience or training. Disheartened by the realities of war, will Julia abandon the pursuit of her beloved? Will Julia’s naïve ‘gift scheme’ distract her from recognizing her true “Great Love?” From Philadelphia to war-torn France, follow Julia as she transitions from unworldly young woman to compassionate volunteer.

WWI has the best fashions.  Right, not the noblest though I could’ve voiced about The Great War.  Anyway, Ellen Gable has a new series of sweet romances set in this era, and Julia’s Gifts is the first.  If you’re looking for a clean read with a darling, heartlifting ending, this would be for you.  Look for more installments in this series coming through, each a standalone but of the same period and flavor of romance.  I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.  4/5

The Grace Crasher by Mara Faro

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogArmed with a floral-print Bible cover, Julia must pretend to be “born again” for her Christian housemates–cute EMT Mark and his church-lady mom. Their place is walking distance (cough, stalking distance) from Dylan, her latest musician crush.
Mark knows she’s faking her faith. But he needs someone like her to crash his dull routine. So he protects her secret and brings her to his Evangelical church. Hiding her Catholic past, she bumbles her way through hand-raising worship. Other times she sneaks into Mass. Meanwhile, Mark explains how to be “saved.” (Sure, she needs saving–from her alcoholic dad, her copier-jamming job, and Mark’s suspicious mom.) But does he just want to save her? Or date her?
Then Dylan sings her a song at open mic. Suddenly she’s torn between two guys, flubbing her way through three different churches, and completely confused about life. Will it all crash down around her, or will she crash straight into grace?

Would you like to pick up what looks like a big bag of pink cotton candy only to have that fluffy confection plunge a knife into your heart and twist it around multiple times, leaving you wrung out on all the best, deepest, most bittersweet emotions? If you’re anything like me, then your answer is, “Yes!” In that case, The Grace Crasher will be your kind of novel. In this debut, Faro delivers unexpected depth and heartrending drama. Julia’s path is a relatable one, and in her flaws and the flaws of the characters around her, we see ourselves and our own brokenness with delightful clarity. This is at its heart a story of the lies we tell ourselves and each other–and of the Truth that pursues us in spite of it all. I’m a believer in The Grace Crasher! 6/5

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogIt’s the year 2045, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

A rip-roaring adventure that reminded me of plowing through Snow Crash and Neuromancer while riding the train to work back-in-the-day and getting ticked off when the train had to pull into the station and I had to stop reading.  To call this one a page turner would be a gross understatement.  Be warned: this book is not for the reader without a well-formed conscience; there’s a bit too much secular preaching for my taste, not the least being the main character’s treatise on how much technological progress must needs rely on the rich value of masturbation.  But if you already know that our bodies mean something–which, funny enough, is what Ready Player One starts showing and proving on its very last page, for those who have eyes to see–you’ll be okay with this book.  I got my copy from the library (which made the world’s best librarian ask, “You haven’t read this yet?!?!”) 4.5/5

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogIn DEEP WORK, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.
A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, DEEP WORK takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories-from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air-and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. DEEP WORK is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world.

A convincing manual for why and how you should reduce distractions in your life (ahem, social media addiction) in order to pursue a more peaceful, fruitful, productive life.  I borrowed a copy from the library and then asked for (and received) a copy for my birthday, I loved it that much and know I’ll need to return to it regularly. 5/5

Caveats:

  • The testimonies and lives are overwhelmingly those of men or, infrequently, of women who are not working from home with the children (and their incessant interruptions) present, awake, and in need of tending through the majority of the day.  Those of us who are in the Deep [House]Work category will need to take his suggestions and modify them to be reasonable for our current state in life.
  • While Newport does bring in psychology and even some very even-handed, secular-friendly spirituality (including a mention of The Intellectual Life by Fr. Sertillanges, OP), the perspective is slanted towards making your life more productive in a secular sense.  Proceed accordingly.  Don’t turn this into a bible for the worship of Productivity.

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

From Online Bookseller’s Blurb:

Benedict Option…Rod Dreher argues that the way forward is actu­ally the way back—all the way to St. Benedict of Nur­sia. This sixth-century monk, horrified by the moral chaos following Rome’s fall, retreated to the forest and created a new way of life for Christians. He built enduring communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization.

Today, a new form of barbarism reigns. Many believers are blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist. Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis. What is needed is the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church. The goal: to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.

The Benedict Option is both manifesto and rallying cry for Christians who, if they are not to be conquered, must learn how to fight on culture war battlefields like none the West has seen for fifteen hundred years. It’s for all mere Chris­tians—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox—who can read the signs of the times. Neither false optimism nor fatalistic despair will do. Only faith, hope, and love, embodied in a renewed church, can sustain believers in the dark age that has overtaken us. These are the days for building strong arks for the long journey across a sea of night.

Yes, the widely celebrated instruction manual on how to build an ark for you and your children to face the coming tsunami that will wipe out Christian culture in the so-called West.  Yes, the tsunami is coming, but this manual will build you an ark full of holes.  What do you actually do with your children once you’ve holed them in up in your small, rural manufacturing community where prices are low and somehow magically going to stay that way?  Benedict Option claims to take the long view, but it rings more like a short-to-mid-range view that has called upon limited resources: can we learn nothing from our African and Asian siblings in the faith who’ve maintained their churches in the face of far deeper persecution than we’ve faced of late?  There’s gotta be a better way.  I borrowed this book from the library.  3/5

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Online Bookseller Blurb:

FunnyInFarsiFunny in Farsi chronicles the American journey of Dumas’s wonderfully engaging family: her engineer father, a sweetly quixotic dreamer who first sought riches on Bowling for Dollars and in Las Vegas, and later lost his job during the Iranian revolution; her elegant mother, who never fully mastered English (nor cared to); her uncle, who combated the effects of American fast food with an army of miraculous American weight-loss gadgets; and Firoozeh herself, who as a girl changed her name to Julie, and who encountered a second wave of culture shock when she met and married a Frenchman, becoming part of a one-couple melting pot.

In a series of deftly drawn scenes, we watch the family grapple with American English (hot dogs and hush puppies?—a complete mystery), American traditions (Thanksgiving turkey?—an even greater mystery, since it tastes like nothing), and American culture (Firoozeh’s parents laugh uproariously at Bob Hope on television, although they don’t get the jokes even when she translates them into Farsi).

Above all, this is an unforgettable story of identity, discovery, and the power of family love. It is a book that will leave us all laughing—without an accent.

A memoir made up of a series of essays on growing up in America as an Iranian immigrant.  Full of giggles and tender sentiment by turns.  Balances a wry eye with a compassionate view–always the best kind of balance, if you ask me.  I’d feel comfortable letting junior highers and up read this.  Borrowed from the library.  5/5

Finding Patience: The Adventures of Faith, Hope and Charity by Virginia Lieto

Online Bookseller Blurb:

An Open Book: Book Reviews through December 2017 at Erin McCole Cupp's blogFor children, waiting for anything seems endless! Faith Livingstone would agree, having just moved to a new town and about to enter a new school. Faith wants so badly to make new friends. She wants to feel like she belongs in her new surroundings. It all can’t happen fast enough for Faith! Journey with Faith as she struggles to make new friends; yet, learns the value of the virtue of patience in the process.

Sweet little story book for the child in your life who may be facing a new situation and having to make new friends…and learning patience in the process.  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  4/5

Cinder Alia by Karen Ullo

Online Bookseller Blurb:

CINDER ALLIA by Karen Ullo: Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle...Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division.

Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love?

Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

The fairy tale retold in a way you’ve never imagined, with more medieval zombies than fairy dust, more angst than froth. Nonstop action, rich detail, twists and turns to keep you guessing up until the very end.  Highly recommended.  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  5/5

 

What’s your #OpenBook?

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

 

 

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New Book Club! And deeeep discounts on Jane E!

Check out this article over at Sabbath Rest Book Talk‘s bestest buddy, VirtueWorks Media, Inc.

Introducing virtue mentoring for teen girls through the Totally Feminine Genius (TM) Generations Book Club!

Virtue Mentoring for Teen Girls through the Totally Feminine Genius(TM) Generations Book Club

I’m honored to see The Memoirs of Jane E, Friendless Orphan included alongside some amazing book suggestions in the 16 and up range.  If you’d like to get a group discount* on these ebooks for your book club, contact me at e mccole cupp at gee mail dot com (remove the spaces, use an @ symbol, etc.), or if you’re stumped by my super sophisticated spam deflector there, comment below, and I’ll be in touch.

Jane Eyre rebooted: THE MEMOIRS OF JANE E, FRIENDLESS ORPHAN by Erin McCole Cupp

*Group discount: each book at 99 cents for orders of 5 or more per book. Feel free to start with Unclaimed (Book 1), and I’ll keep the discount if you choose to continue with the other two books.  

 

An Open Book/Sabbath Rest Book Talk [October/November 2017]

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup!

an-open-book

The aforementioned Carolyn also joins me and Rebecca Willen every month for Sabbath Rest Book Talk.

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

Our selections for October were:

SpecterCoverAngelhoodCoverMummyCatCover

Adult Book: Specter by John DesJarlais

YA Book: Angelhood by Amy Cattapan

Children’s/Readaloud: Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert

And here’s what we had to say about them:

Plus, click here to check out our

NEW GOODREADS FEATURE!

It’s a list! On Goodreads! Vote for books we’ve already featured and add any books you think we should discuss in the future!

What’s going on for NovemberFirst, change in date: it’s Sunday, November 5 at 7pm Eastern. 

Second, ENTER TO WIN A COPY OF CHRISTMAS GRACE by SRBT favorite Leslie Lynch!

And now for your reading list:

Adult Book: Christmas Grace by Leslie Lynch

YA Book: Unearthing Christmas by Anthea Piscarik

Children’s/Readaloud: The Birds’ Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin

That’s it for September! While we’re here, gentle reminder: To keep on top of each month’s SRBT selections (and for an exclusive subscribers-only video update), do sign up for my monthly newsletter. For notifications that each month’s SRBT is available for viewing/listening, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

What’s your #OpenBook?

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: Where Fiction is Good for You! Join us for a monthly video exchange on how fiction makes us more human.

 

Open Book/Sabbath Rest Book Talk [Sep 2017]

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup!

an-open-book

The aforementioned Carolyn also joins me and Rebecca Willen every month for Sabbath Rest Book Talk.

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

Our selections for September were:

OpalsJubileeCover GoodMasterCover AnneGreenGablesCover

Adult Book: Opal’s Jubilee by Leslie Lynch

YA Book: The Good Master by Kate Seredy

Children’s/Readaloud: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

And here’s what we had to say about them:

And big congrats to Barb  S., who won the signed paperback copy of Opal’s Jubilee by Leslie Lynch!

Plus, click here to check out our

NEW GOODREADS FEATURE!

It’s a list! On Goodreads! Vote for books we’ve already featured and add any books you think we should discuss in the future!

Remember, all SRBTs here on out, I’ll continue announcing the book selections and focus ahead of time, so you can read along and join the discussion a little more easily and thoughtfully. Voila, for October:

SpecterCoverAngelhoodCoverMummyCatCover

 

Adult Book: Specter by John DesJarlais

YA Book: Angelhood by Amy Cattapan

Children’s/Readaloud: Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert

That’s it for September! While we’re here, gentle reminder: To keep on top of each month’s SRBT selections (and for an exclusive subscribers-only video update), do sign up for my monthly newsletter. For notifications that each month’s SRBT is available for viewing/listening, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

What’s your #OpenBook?

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: Where Fiction is Good for You! Join us for a monthly video exchange on how fiction makes us more human.

 

Sabbath Rest Book Talk/Open Book [August 2017]

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup!

an-open-book

The aforementioned Carolyn also joins me and Rebecca Willen every month for Sabbath Rest Book Talk.

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

Our selections for August were:

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: Where Fiction Is Good For You! Join us for August 2017, and we'll talk about how these books show us what we humans can learn about growing up.

Adult Book: Soulless Creatures by Katharine Grubb

YA Book: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

Children’s/Readaloud: Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

And here’s what we had to say about them:

And big congrats to Lisa Hendey, who won the signed paperback copy of Soulless Creatures by Katharine Grubb!

Plus, click here to check out our

NEW GOODREADS FEATURE!

It’s a list! On Goodreads! Vote for books we’ve already featured and add any books you think we should discuss in the future!

Remember, all SRBTs here on out, I’ll continue announcing the book selections and focus ahead of time, so you can read along and join the discussion a little more easily and thoughtfully. Voila, for September:

OpalsJubileeCover GoodMasterCover AnneGreenGablesCover

Adult Book: Opal’s Jubilee by Leslie Lynch

YA Book: The Good Master by Kate Seredy

Children’s/Readaloud: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED FOR AN OPAL’S JUBILEE GIVEAWAY:

deets on the way.  

That’s it for August! While we’re here, gentle reminder: To keep on top of each month’s SRBT selections, do sign up for my monthly newsletter. For notifications that each month’s SRBT is available for viewing/listening, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

What’s your #OpenBook?

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: Where Fiction is Good for You! Join us for a monthly video exchange on how fiction makes us more human.

An Open Book (February 2017)

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup!

an-open-book

 Sabbath Rest Book Talk will return in March!

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

There will be a few changes–good ones! First of all, I’ll be adding a few co-hosts.  Both Carolyn Astfalk and Rebecca Willen will be joining me for March 5th’s SRBT.  Also, we’ll be hosting the event over on my YouTube Channel as a YouTube Live Event.  You can still comment and play along, of course.  Lastly, I’ll be announcing the book selections and focus ahead of time, so you can read along and join the discussion a little more easily and thoughtfully.  To keep on top of each month’s SRBT selections, do sign up for my monthly newsletter.

While we’re here, here are the selections for SRBT for March, focusing on JUSTICE:

An Open Book Linkup: Dying for Revenge (murder mystery)

mikemulligancover Sabbath Rest Book Talk: Where Fiction Is Good For You! March 2017 will focus on JUSTICE

 

Meanwhile, I’m still reading.

HER ROYAL SPYNESS SOLVES HER FIRST CASE, Review by Erin McCole Cupp for #OpenBook Wednesday

Her Royal Spyness Solves Her First Case by Rhys Bowen.  

Oh, this was a rip-roaring fun thing to read. I initially picked it up because it’s been on my mind for a while to start this series, and Bowen’s latest (I think the latest?) was mentioned the 2016 list of Agatha Award nominees. The Agatha Awards are, “Loosely defined as ‘mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence,’ the Agatha Award salutes the books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie.” There’s a little too much racy talk in there for me to feel comfortable sharing this with my tween-readers. There are not, however, any actual sex scenes or horrifically detailed murders, etc. It was adult-funny, cleverly plotted, and peopled with fully-fleshed characters in spite of the fact that there were so many. I’ll be looking for more Royal Spyness.

Review of IN THE PLEASURE GROOVE by John Taylor (yes, that John Taylor) by Erin McCole Cupp for #OpenBook WednesdayIn the Pleasure Groove by (Nigel, ahem) John Taylor

In the Pleasure Groove was everything you’d expect from JT. It was compelling, entertaining, slick, sexy, jet-setty… and flavored with a sad undercurrent of, well, narcissism. Still. Even in his chapters on facing down his drug and alcohol addictions. Don’t get me wrong: I am super glad the guy is working so hard health in all its dimensions, so invested in being a good father and husband. I’m concerned, though, that as long as he stays his own Higher Power, it might not last. In the end, that made the book unsatisfying. Still, if you’re recovering from or still a hardcore Duran Duran addict, I can’t not recommend In the Pleasure Groove. There’s a bit of depth for the reader in it, even if the author himself may have missed it.

An Open Book book review linkup hosted by Carolyn Astfalk: get your recs here!Nutureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

One of the most influential books about children ever published, Nurture Shock offers a revolutionary new perspective on children that upends a library’s worth of conventional wisdom. With impeccable storytelling and razor-sharp analysis, the authors demonstrate that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring–because key twists in the science have been overlooked. Nothing like a parenting manual, NurtureShock gets to the core of how we grow, learn and live.

It’s amazing how actual science works and how easy it is for us to turn our backs on factual reality when it doesn’t fit what makes us feel good about ourselves, isn’t it?  Long story short: NurtureShock confirms the value of common sense parenting in the face of everything from participation awards to gifted class placement tests to fat shaming and schedule-cramming.  I got a lot of validation out of this book and some ideas for modifying my own parenting choices as well.

Get your recs here: An Open Book monthly book review linkup hosted by Carolyn Astfalk Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Yeah, totally embarrassing that this is the first Agatha Christie novel I’ve ever read in my whole life.  To my credit, I was in And Then There Were None in freshman year of high school (Ethel the maid–first one offed, but I got to scream really loud, so that was cool).

Anyway, quick read, clean enough, tight plotting, and even I forgot about one of the big clues at the beginning so that the end was a well-timed surprise.  That said, the end was a bit… unsatisfying in a moral sense, if you get what I mean.  As an investigator, Poirot was warmer than Sherlock Holmes and in that sense more enjoyable from a human perspective; Holmes quirks my eyebrows at both his brilliance and his awkwardness, but Poirot brings me along for the ride.

You Carried Me: A Daughter’s Memoir by Melissa Ohden

You Carried Me : A Daughter's Memoir is an experience of tragedy, pain, hope, healing and triumph, told by an abortion survivor. Don't miss this book!What do you do when you find out you were not supposed to live?  Would you want the find the birthmother who, according to all medical records, wanted you dead? And how do you hold onto a voice in a culture that calls you a liar and silences you at any available opportunity… because your very existence challenges the culture’s most cherished ideas?  This is the story of a woman who survived an abortion in 1977 then went on to search for her birthparents.  The pain, healing and triumph of her experience is one that every human should read.  I give You Carried Me both five stars (would give a sixth if Amazon would let me) and a Four Kleenex Warning. I received a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.   I am honestly confident in giving this book the highest recommendation.  Look for an upcoming in-depth review and giveaway in the next few days.

That’s it for February!  While we’re here, gentle reminder: To keep on top of each month’s SRBT selections, do sign up for my monthly newsletter.

What’s your #OpenBook?

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

Open Book January (December’s Reads)

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup!

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Cured by Lol Tolhurst

CURED by Lol Tolhurst, reviewed at Erin McCole Cupp's #OPENBOOK review“On our first day of school, Robert and I stood at the designated stop at Hevers Avenue with our mothers, and that’s when we met for the very first time. We were five years old.” So began a lifelong friendship that fourteen years later would result in the formation of The Cure, a quintessential post-punk band whose albums-such as Three Imaginary Boys, Pornography, and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me-remain among the best-loved and most influential of all time….

Cured is not only the first insider account of the early days of the band, it is a revealing look at the artistic evolution of the enigmatic Robert Smith, the iconic lead singer, songwriter, and innovative guitarist at the heart of The Cure. A deeply rebellious, sensitive, tough, and often surprisingly “normal” young man, Smith was from the start destined for stardom, a fearless non-conformist and provocateur who soon found his own musical language through which to express his considerable and unique talent. But there was also a dark side to The Cure’s intense and bewildering success. Tolhurst, on drums and keyboards, was nursing a growing alcoholism that would destroy his place in The Cure and nearly end his life. Cured tells the harrowing and unforgettable story of his crash-and-burn, recovery, and rebirth.

Hooray! I’m so old that the bands I listened to as a teen have earned the cred to write their memoirs! Seriously, though, I saw this at the library and hesitated at the idea of picking it up.  The Cure was one of those bands I lurrrrved in high school but stopped following by young adulthood–frankly, once I’d achieved a certain measure of mental health (not saying that if you still like The Cure you’re bonkers; just that I liked them when I was not in a good place, so there are associations involved there).  I figured, though, it’s the library! It’s free! What do I have to lose, even if I don’t actually get around to reading it?

Needless to say, Cured didn’t go back into the book return unread.  In fact, I flipped open to the first page in the library parking lot while waiting for my brood to finish buckling up and was irritated that I had to, you know, STOP READING AND DRIVE THE CHILDREN HOME.  I finished Cured in the space of 72 hours.  I’m sure it helped that I had so many memories that connected to the author’s tale.  After all, Lol Tolhurst is the reason I had such a hard time in the 90s adjusting to the idea that LOL means “laughing out loud,” not a nickname for “Laurence.” It turns out Lol also is the name of a compelling memoirist.  Alcoholism doesn’t set many people free, especially those who descended so deeply into is as Tolhurst did.  He writes from a space of honesty, regret and hope all at once.  Cured is more than just a memoir of the post-punk age or even just an apology letter to a world wounded by alcohol addiction.  It’s the story of the pressures of creativity from within and without and of the power of a soul’s potential to break through even the heaviest bonds.  Even if you didn’t tease your hair into wild spikes, wear red lipstick and black eyeliner and powder your face white a decade before the word “goths” came into use as it is now (ahem, like I did, ahem), I still recommend Cured.

I’ve also picked up Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me for the first time in mumblemumble years….

The Secret of Glaston Tor (Book 1 of The Glaston Chronicles) by Donal Anthony Foley

The Secret of Glaston Tor, Book 1 onf The Glaston Chronicles by Donal Anthony Foley, reviewed at Erin McCole Cupp's #OPENBOOK reviewFifteen year old Matt Bergin is staying in Glastonbury for Christmas with his cousins, Luke and Annie Martin. Matt feels drawn to Glastonbury Tor, and St Michael’s Tower, which crowns its summit. The cousins learn the secret of Glaston Tor and find themselves propelled back in time to 1940s France and the Second World War.  They are given a mission by an enigmatic stranger, who asks them to help a young German couple and their son escape from wartime France. But the fearsome Gestapo are on their trail. Matt and his cousins will discover that their destinies are intimately linked to this family, and to a mysterious young stranger who will stop at nothing to learn their secret.

I was approached by the author with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.  It didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to accept. British time travel with a Catholic twist, geared towards teens (two of which I now parent)?

HairTrembles

I am relieved and delighted to say this was a rip-roaring good time of a read! Besides the fast-paced adventure, the story illustrates a number of big questions that the YA audience is just starting to tackle: Does God matter?  Does prayer actually make a difference?  Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers?  Highly recommended for the YA set… and maybe even for yourself!

Angelhood by A. J. Cattapan

Angelhood by A. J. Cattapan, reviewed at Erin McCole Cupp's #OPENBOOK reviewSeventeen-year-old theater geek Nanette believes her life is headed toward stardom on Broadway. But when her dream theater college rejects her and her best friend dies in a terrible accident, Nanette decides the world would be better off without her. Unfortunately, the afterlife offers something less than a heavenly situation. Trapped between alternating periods of utter darkness and light, Nanette is stuck following a high school freshman around. Soon, she learns she’s a guardian angel, and the only way she can earn her wings is to keep her young charge, Vera, from committing the same sin she did—taking her own life. Unfortunately, Nanette is missing more than just her wings. She has no tangible body or voice, either. Frustrated by her inability to reach out to Vera and haunted by memories of her old life, Nanette wants to give up, but then she sees what happens when another Guardian at the high school turns his back on his charge. The shock is enough to supercharge Nanette’s determination. She’s going to find peace in the afterlife…as soon as she can convince Vera that living is what life is all about.

I won a copy of this book from the author, no strings attached, and I’m also delighted and relieved to give it a hearty endorsement.  The pacing is spot-on, the characters are well-drawn and well-motivated, the parents are a living (is that a pun?) and breathing part of the plot rather than just add-ons.  One caveat emptor: I am concerned about how the resolution of the story might make light of the permanence of suicide, especially in the minds of young readers who are on the more impressionable side.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I did want to put that out there as something for parents to consider when thinking about sharing Angelhood with their young readers. That said, it’s well-written and well deserving of all the awards it has received!  I’m looking forward to my next Cattapan read.

8 Notes to a Nobody (Book 1 in Birdface series) by Cynthia Toney

8 Notes to a Nobody, Book 1 onf BIRDFACE by Cynthia Toney, reviewed at Erin McCole Cupp's #OPENBOOK review“Funny how you can live your days as a clueless little kid, believing you look just fine … until someone knocks you in the heart with it.”  Wendy Robichaud doesn’t care one bit about being popular like good-looking classmates Tookie and the Sticks–until Brainiac bully John-Monster schemes against her, and someone leaves anonymous sticky-note messages all over school. Even the best friend she always counted on, Jennifer, is hiding something and pulling away. But the spring program, abandoned puppies, and high school track team tryouts don’t leave much time to play detective. And the more Wendy discovers about the people around her, the more there is to learn.When secrets and failed dreams kick off the summer after eighth grade, who will be around to support her as high school starts in the fall?

8 Notes was a quick, engaging read that dealt with a number of heavy issues in a compact story. And isn’t adolescence like that, really? It’s such a short time when so much happens to the heart, mind and soul. 8 Notes tackles all those issues with courage and truth and not too heavy a hand.  Wendy’s characterization was honest, as was the depiction of life in late middle school and the landscape of all the changing relationships therein.  The pacing felt right, and the development between and within the characters was engaging.  After this first book I have the rest of the books in the Birdface series now on my TBR list!  [I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

Juuuust in case you’re wondering… what’s going on with Sabbath Rest Book Talk?

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

The first four months of SRBT were, frankly, far more successful than I anticipated they’d be.  Taking that experience, I’m hoping to expand on it and develop something that is more useful to you as a reader.  If you want updates on that, do subscribe to my EMC Reader Newsletter.

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

Promoting Global Perspective in the Homeschool: A Project Idea

Global Perspective in the Homeschool

[I know, I know.  I’m not keeping a consistent brand, veering off here into homeschooling when I’m supposed to stick with Faith, Fiction, and Love No Matter What.  World poverty is anything but fiction.  Still, as a lay Dominican, I’m called to contemplate and share the fruits of my contemplation.  Hence the breakdown in branding.  Anyway.  Read on, if you’d like.  Buy books or review them as I’d like.]

2017 is bearing down on us.  Christmas holidaying is once again threatening to turn my kids into self-centered brats (threatening;  they’re still pretty amazingly caring people, even after a lot of chocolate and no alarm clocks for a week])  We are so behind on school that I almost skipped our January Month of Service.  Almost.  I’m now scrambling to put it together.

The older kids during January month also get an assignment to research a country or region that has been scarred by poverty and stripped of opportunity.  In 2014, they had to pick one of the 50 poorest countries of the world and answer a series of questions about life there.  Last year, same thing but for a Native American reservation.  This year we’ve been going through the first volume of TAN’s amazing resource, The Story of Civilization. I highly recommend this history curriculum.  We just got to Greece after spending the first part of the year in the ancient Levant.  What better time to have the kids research one of the countries of said region?

Promoting Global Perspective in the Homeschool: A Project Idea

Modern child labor. [ By Яah33l – Flickr: Day 198/365, CC BY 2.0, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

I’m sharing this year’s research questions here in case you’re looking for something similar.  I took our questions from the 50 Poorest Countries project and made some minor modifications.  You can do the same.  Just keep in mind that the goal is to help kids learn to care about the suffering of others and see themselves connected to that suffering.

Get to Know Another Country

What country are you researching?

 

Where is this country located? [BONUS: Copy and paste an appropriate map of this country into this document, or include a link to a map.]

 

What’s the country’s official language?

 

What is the infant mortality rate?

What is the life expectancy?

 

What are the most common causes of death in this country? 

 

What are the most common diseases in this country?

 

What is the median annual income in this country? How does that compare to the median annual income in the United States?

 

How do people acquire food in this country? What is their diet like? How many times a day do they eat?

What are the country’s natural resources?

 

How would you describe this country’s current system of government?  Has there been a change in government in recent times? 

 

What does it mean for a country to be politically stable? 

 

Look up your country on the Global Economy ranking for political stability (make sure you’ve set the year to the most recent year available). What is this country’s ranking overall?  Has the ranking gone up or down over the past five years?  Compare this country’s ranking to the political stability ranking for the United States for the same year.

How has this country’s level of political stability affected its infrastructure: roads, hospitals, public transportation, cars, electricity, running water, radio, TV, internet access, etc.?

 

How are children educated in this country?

 

What are some reasons children in this country might not receive a good education?

 

Is this country at war?  Has it been at war in the past 100-200 years? What were the effects?

 

Was this country ever colonized by another country? By which, and for what years?  What mark has colonization left on this country? 

 

Would you want to be a child your age in this country today?  Why or why not? 

 

If you were in the government of this country, what changes would you make to help the people of your nation?

What other questions would you add, Dear Reader? Have you done something similar to this with your kids?  What was the result?

 

December’s SRBT & Open Book

Carolyn Astfalk has a first Wednesday of the month book review linkup! To which I’m arriving typically late, but what of that?

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In the interests of being as efficient with my time as I possibly can, I’m killing two birds with one stone, I link up my video Sabbath Rest Book Talk with Carolyn’s Open Book.

Sabbath Rest Book Talk: a monthly live interactive event where we talk about the value of fiction in developing compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships

This month’s focus was compassion, and our featured fiction is…

Ornamental Graces by Carolyn Astfalk

Inspirational Romance that brings the reader the joys of Christmas all year long: ORNAMENTAL GRACES by Carolyn Astfalk

Christmas Hope by Leslie Lynch

Sabbath Rest Book Talk for December 2017 with Erin McCole Cupp

The Strangers at the Manger (Chime Travelers #5) by Lisa Hendey

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and as-yet-unread shoutout to Unearthing Christmas by Anthea Piscarik

Sabbath Rest Book Talk for December 2017 with Erin McCole Cupp

See the video here or click on the thumbnail below.

Don’t forget to link up YOUR #OpenBook reviews over at Carolyn’s!

Ornamental Graces by Carolyn Astfalk

Hey, there.  Long time no proper blog! I’m hosting Carolyn Astfalk as she shares the news about her latest romance, Ornamental Graces, so please read on! I’ll be talking about Ornamental Graces at my December 4th Sabbath Rest Book Talk.


Inspirational Romance that brings the reader the joys of Christmas all year long: ORNAMENTAL GRACES by Carolyn AstfalkAfter his duplicitous girlfriend left, Dan Malone spent six months in a tailspin of despair and destruction: emotional, physical, and spiritual. Just when his life seems to be back on track, he meets Emily Kowalski, younger sister of his new best friend.

Emily’s the kind of girl he’d always dreamed of—sweet, smart, and sincere. But he’s made a mess of his life and ruined his chances for earning the love and trust of a woman like her.

Could Dan be the man Emily’s been waiting for? How could he be when every time they get close he pulls away? And will he ever be free from his shady past and the ex-girlfriend who refuses to stay there?

An inspirational Christmas romance that spans every season.



Ornamental Graces on Amazon

Ornamental Graces on Goodreads

Pinterest goodies, recipes, and other extras for Ornamental Graces


Read an excerpt from Chapter 1: Sortir du froid (Come in from the Cold)

It had come to this. Daniel Malone sold instruments of torture just to keep food on his crappy Formica table for one. Of course, that probably wasn’t how others saw it.

They were bringing home a piece of the outdoors, a symbol of the season, a reminder of Christ’s nativity and resurrection, the eternal—evergreen—promises of God. Dan had seen things that way too before the past year took everything he had and shredded it with a mulcher. Mustering his remaining whit of self-respect, he’d succumbed to desperation and now sat in a drafty shack waiting for the next giddy Christmas revelers to select a fresh-scented, needle-dropping nightmare.

Okay, so maybe the trees weren’t exactly torturous, but he’d had enough of rough bark, sticky sap, and sharp needles to last a lifetime. After this, he’d be an artificial tree enthusiast—if he bothered to put up a tree at all.

Inside his small, weather-beaten shack, the one he’d assembled mostly from leftover wooden pallets, Dan couldn’t smell the fresh, evergreen scent, the only trait of Christmas trees he still enjoyed. Instead, the odor of burnt coffee lingered though he hadn’t made a pot in days. He never cared for the taste, burnt or not, but he had needed something to keep him awake during the long, boring hours when no customers visited his lot.

The space heater at his feet gave a death rattle, and its electrical hum ceased. He kicked it with the tip of his boot. Nothing.

Great.

Dan folded his large frame under the wooden table that served as his desk and jiggled the wire where it entered the cheap heater. It knocked against the laminate floor remnants and hummed to life. A blast of warm air hit his face and then penetrated his boots. As he sat upright, he glanced out one of the two square windows and spotted a young couple beneath the lights in the rear of the lot.

The man had lifted a Douglas fir from where it leaned against the rope Dan strung across the lot. He stamped its trunk on the frozen, dry ground a couple times and then twirled it around so the woman could see every side. It was a woman, wasn’t it? No telltale pink gloves or hand-knit, sparkly scarf. No expensive boots designed for gawking rather than walking. Just a puffy, navy jacket and white tennis shoes. It could be a skinny dude.

The person spent less than three seconds observing it before planting hands on hips and signaling disapproval with a shake of the head. Yeah, definitely a woman.

Dan rolled his eyes. Another one. If nothing else, this job had given him an unforgettable real-life lesson in male-female dynamics—a lesson that would’ve been helpful a couple of years ago. The man would ferret out the best-looking tree, well-shaped and full, and the woman would turn up her nose, forcing them to cycle through four to seven more trees before one met her approval—sometimes the same tree the man had first shown her.

Poor sap. He had at least three more trees to go.

Dan grabbed his gloves from the table, pulled the lined hood of his jacket over his knit cap, and made for the door. He knew from experience that if he wasn’t standing at the ready the moment the woman found the one, he risked losing a sale.

Dan glanced down to kick aside the rags that kept the cold air from creeping beneath the entrance. He twisted the knob and used his hip to shove open the door. The wind nipped at his bare neck, so he zipped his jacket over his beard and past his chin. He strolled toward the couple, expecting to see them examining another tree. Instead, he witnessed a scene that could serve as a death knell for any romantic relationship.

The man leaned toward her, gesturing wildly with one hand while the other clasped the tree trunk. When his hand dropped to his side, the woman yelled something Dan couldn’t quite make out and kicked the guy in the shin. He hunched to rub his injured leg, and she swatted his back with her gloved hand. The tree careened forward, hit the ground, and sent out a small spray of dust and gravel.

The man regained his footing, gave the woman a light shove, and stomped down the row, out of Dan’s line of sight.

The shove hadn’t been forceful, but Dan decided he should probably check to see that she wasn’t hurt. And that his tree hadn’t been damaged.

A small, white puff of breath billowed in front of the woman and then dissipated. Unaware of Dan’s approach, she crouched down and seemed to search for the best place to get a hold of the trunk. She muttered something to herself, the words unintelligible.

Dan stood beneath one of the overhead lamps, casting a shadow on the tree.

She rocked back onto her heels. “I’m sorry.”

Light brown eyes with amber flecks peered out from under long lashes and a worn, gray knit hat. He expected a huffy, controlling glare, not that doe-eyed innocent look that reminded him of his oldest sister, especially with the twin rosy patches blooming on her fair, winter cheeks. She wore no trace of makeup, but by his estimation, she didn’t need any.

She moved to grab hold of the tree.

“I got it,” Dan said. From the kick and the whap she’d given her companion, Dan knew she didn’t need his help, but the scrap of chivalry he maintained required him to at least offer.

“I didn’t think he’d drop the tree. I make one little suggestion, and . . .” She growled. “I should’ve kicked both his shins, the big jerk.”

Dan raised his brows. No way would he interfere in their lovers’ spat. He’d right his tree and head back to his shack. She could stay out here and fume about her boyfriend or husband or whomever he was as long as she liked. He set the tree against the line and brushed the needles from his gloves.

“Did you see which way he went?” She stood and squinted towards the parking lot.

“Uh—” He jerked a thumb in the opposite direction. “Walked off that way.”

Her gaze followed the path he’d indicated. Beyond the tops of the Christmas trees, a neon sign glowed in the narrow window of an aluminum-sided building. The front door swung open and shut as a couple of rotund men in flannel jerseys exited and thumped down the five wooden steps to the sidewalk. The unlit sign affixed to the second floor read: The Watering Hole. Beneath it, a smaller, vinyl sign read: Voted Pittsburgh’s Favorite Hometown Hangout.

The woman huffed again. “I should’ve known. He only told me three times I was keeping him from relaxing with a beer.”

Dan knew it was none of his business, but in an effort to wrap up the uncomfortable conversation and retreat to the relative warmth of his shack, he asked, “You going to join him?”

She let out a scoffing laugh. “I’d sooner army crawl naked over broken glass and a swarm of scorpions than sit in that stinky rat hole with him. I’ll wait.”

Dan suppressed a smile and shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

He retreated to the shack, closing the door behind him, and toed the rags back toward the base. He dropped onto a folding chair and rubbed his gloved hands together. Not feeling any warmth coming from the heater, he nudged it with his boot until warm air circulated at his feet.

He gazed out the window, expecting the young woman to have gone back to her vehicle, but instead she stood beneath the light where thick snowflakes landed on her hat and jacket. She rubbed her hands together and jumped up and down, presumably trying to warm herself. Maybe the guy had taken the car keys with him.

The snow came down harder, sticking to the cold ground. The wind gusted, blowing the flakes against the side of the shack. The woman clapped and did some kind of awkward hip-wriggling, bouncing jig to keep warm.

He didn’t want company, especially female company, but his heart would have to be colder than his toes to let her stay out there when he had four walls and a roof, paltry though they were. He cracked the door and called to her.

“You can wait in here if you want.”

She jogged toward him, her heel sliding on a patch of black ice partially covered with snow. Her arms flailed as if she were making a snow angel in mid-air before she caught her balance and stumbled forward, her cheeks redder than before.

He pushed the door open wider, and she slipped in. A blast of cold air followed.

“Thank you.” Her teeth chattered, and she hugged her arms close to her body.

“You want some hot cider?” He motioned to a miniature slow cooker on the battered table in the corner. The pot and its contents came courtesy of his sister Colleen. The strangely odorless, brown liquid didn’t tempt him, but maybe it would help warm her.

“I’d love some, thank you.”

He stirred the cider, ladled it into two mugs, and handed one to her. Now the spicy, warm scent of cinnamon wafted through the cool air.

She slipped off her gloves and wrapped her hands around the steaming mug. After blowing on the hot liquid a couple of times, she raised it to her lips. “Mmmm. That helps.”

Dan opened a metal folding chair and dusted the cushioned seat with his glove. He set it on the side of the table opposite him. “You can sit.”

“Thank you.” Her pink lips turned up in a small smile. She sipped her cider, draining the mug in no time. It must have worked in warming her because she unzipped her jacket and slipped the hat from her head.

Luxurious auburn-brown tresses spilled onto her shoulders, dark and luminous. His gaze traveled her back as her hair cascaded down. How could he have mistaken her for a man?

Her magnificent hair mesmerized him, but otherwise her features were pretty but not glamorous or beautiful like—

No. He would not allow her to invade his thoughts.

He turned his attention back to the cider and took a sip. Not bad. “I’ll, uh, keep an eye out for your . . . your boyfriend? Husband?”

She sputtered and covered her mouth with the back of her hand.

“You okay?”  He didn’t need some stranger choking in his ramshackle workplace.

She nodded and cleared her throat. “He’s not my husband or boyfriend. Robert is my stupid, know-it-all brother.”

“Oh.” Dan lifted his chin in acknowledgment. “Whoever he is, I’ll keep a lookout.” It explained their unnecessary roughness. He had four older sisters, and he’d admit to having shoved them a time or two. Not that he’d treat another woman that way.

“My name’s Emily.” She extended her right hand. “Thanks for letting me come in out of the cold.”

“You’re welcome.” He took her small hand in his and gave it a firm shake. “Dan Malone.”

She withdrew her hand and laid it inside her jacket, over her heart, her expression pinched.

“Are you okay?”

“Uh, yeah. Just . . . that was weird.”

He had no clue what she was talking about, nor did he want to know. She wouldn’t be hanging around much longer. He hoped. He’d give the guy another five, ten minutes before he went over there and dragged him out himself. Apparently they were no longer in the market for a tree. Another lost sale, and only one day left before Christmas Eve.

“I don’t know how Elizabeth puts up with him.”

Dan raised his brows. Should he have known who Elizabeth was?

“His wife. He can be such a blockhead. Insists it’s ridiculous for me to get a real tree when I’ll hardly be at my apartment for Christmas. But he can’t let it go at that. He’s got to lay into all the old spinster jokes.”

“Spinster?” Dan peered at her through squinted eyes. She couldn’t be more than twenty-three.

“I know, right? I’m not even twenty-five.”  She flung her hair back and pouted.

Dan shrugged. “I’m twenty-eight. Guess that makes me an old bachelor.”

She smiled, and it lit her face. It was a reserved smile intended to be polite and nothing more, but it made him wonder. When would a woman smile for him again? Not at him, at something funny he said or did, but because the joy he brought her couldn’t be contained.

He hoped never.

Dan switched on the radio, wanting to fill the dead air with something other than silence, and dialed through four stations before he found one that wasn’t playing Christmas songs.

The woman’s eyes, Emily’s eyes, glimmered, and her lips turned up as if she were suppressing a laugh.

“What?” It was his shack; he could listen to whatever he pleased.

She shrugged. “For someone selling Christmas trees, you seem intent on avoiding the sounds of the season. I understand passing over ‘Santa Baby,’ and ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,’ but ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘O Tannenbaum’?”

“It’s not Christmas yet. When it’s Christmas, I’ll listen to Christmas carols.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but Dan pointed toward the window to cut her off. “Your brother?”

Robert stood in the center aisle of the lot, snow swirling around him. He called Emily’s name as he turned in each direction.

“I should make him sweat,” Emily said, her eyes narrowed at her brother. She stood, zipped her jacket, tugged on her gloves, and grabbed her hat. “Thank you for the heat and the cider.”

Dan nodded.

“Oh, and I’ll take the tree. The one we were looking at.”

Dan rubbed his hand over his beard. Her brother may be a know-it-all, but she was one headstrong lady.

Chapter 2

L’un est le nombre solitaire

(One is the loneliest number)

Emily rubbed her boot over the blue ice-melting pellets on the sidewalk, crushing the beads beneath her toes. She scanned the end unit apartment building with its nondescript red brick, darkened windows, and green shutters. With her arms folded over her chest, she huffed and waited as her brother untied the twine holding the tree to the roof rack of his minivan. He’d spent the first ten minutes of their ride badgering her about her stubborn streak and her foolishness for—how did he put it?—“getting cozy in some love shack” with a strange man.

“All I’m saying, Emily,” he said as he stepped off the van’s running board, “is you can’t be too careful. You went behind a closed door with a guy you don’t know. He’s bigger, and he’s stronger. He’s got that Grizzly Adams thing goin’ on with the beard. Who would’ve heard you if you screamed?”

“Certainly not you, since your butt was glued to a bar stool in that dive.” Emily clenched her fists at her side. Robert had been smothering her with his overprotectiveness since their parents died seven years ago. If she didn’t know his concern was born of love, she may well have strangled him by now. “If you hadn’t stomped off to the bar, leaving me stranded in a blizzard, I wouldn’t have been forced to sit in that rickety shanty with Scrooge, the tree salesman.” A closed-off Scrooge, who obviously didn’t want her there.

A twinge of guilt stung her conscience. Maybe she wasn’t being fair to Dan. He had been kind enough to welcome her in out of the cold, but even a wallflower like her could tell his invitation was grudging. Sitting uncomfortably in his folding chair, he’d only contributed curt responses to the conversation. He was a man well-practiced in avoidance.

Had Dan not told her his age, she would have guessed older—maybe late thirties? With a hat pulled low over his forehead and a scruffy beard and mustache bristling the lower half of his face, the only clues to his age had been his eyes. Those hazel irises guarded more pain and weariness than a man in his twenties should harbor.

“Earth to Emily. You gonna get the door for me?” Robert stood at the edge of her walk, the tree hoisted over his shoulder.

“Oh. Sorry.” Emily jogged to the door of the three-story building and opened it.

Robert stomped the snow from his boots, dragged the tree inside, and balanced it against the wall.

Emily, fiddling with her keys, rushed past him to get to her apartment door. Jostling the key in the lock, she turned it and held open the door.

Robert trudged by with the tree, trailing green and brown needles. “Where do you want it?”

“In front of the sliding glass door.” Emily walked to the far side of her living area, which extended via the doors to a concrete slab patio outside.

The small apartment, nondescript in its pale walls and beige carpet, had been home for almost four years. Robert and her sister-in-law Elizabeth had protested when she announced she’d be moving out of their house, but she suspected they were secretly relieved. At the time, there had been three adults and three children under the roof of their 1,600-square-foot house. Since she’d moved out, they’d added two more children. While Emily appreciated their generosity, it had been well past time to strike out on her own. She’d moved less than two miles away, but it managed to give her and them some much-needed privacy.

“Okay,” Robert said as he adjusted the tree in the stand. “Hold on and let me tighten it.”

Emily steadied the tree as Robert lowered himself to the floor and slid beneath the lowest limbs. In several minutes, he secured the tree.

“Thanks, Robert. You’d better get home.” Emily glanced at the wall clock. If he didn’t leave soon, Elizabeth would be drowning in bedtime madness getting all the kids bathed and ready for sleep.

Robert groaned. “Yeah, don’t want to miss an opportunity to chase a wet, naked toddler down the hall, strain a turd from the tub, or read How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? for the thousandth time.”

Emily smiled. She knew from experience that his kids were exhausting, but his small home nearly burst with love and life. Will I ever have that kind of life, or am I doomed to always be alone?

She ushered Robert to the door with a kiss to the cheek despite his infuriating behavior at the tree lot. Before she bolted the door behind him, she remembered she hadn’t gotten the mail and padded out to the group of mailboxes in the entryway.

Robert called from the open door beneath the exit sign. “You’re coming for dinner on Christmas Eve, right?”

“Yep. And we’re still doing that seven o’clock children’s Mass, aren’t we?”

“Yeah. Hopefully they all fall asleep on the way home.” The door swung shut behind him.

Emily hugged an arm across her midsection to fend off the cold air and gathered her mail from the metal box with her free hand. As she shuffled back to her apartment, she sifted through the mixture of catalogs, bills, and junk mail, finding two Christmas cards.

She closed and locked the door behind her, then plopped onto the couch. Sliding a finger under the seal of the first card, she pried it open. The photo card showed the smiling faces of her cousin, his wife, and their children in matching red and green scarves, relaxing in front of a fireplace. Twice she turned the envelope of the second card over in her hands, looking for a return address. Nothing. The postmark only said “Pittsburgh.”

Emily opened the envelope and pulled out a card decorated with glittering poinsettias. A three-by-five-inch photo slipped out and landed in her lap. A blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned man in his late twenties stared up at her. The most handsome face she’d ever laid eyes on. The face of the only boy she’d ever loved. His arm wrapped snugly around an olive-skinned woman whose exotic dark hair, dark eyes, and flawless skin made her a natural candidate for Miss Universe. She possessed the kind of looks that made men—and women—stop in the street and take another look.

A text banner at the bottom read, “We’re Engaged! Save the Date: August 3.” Emily scooped up the card and photo along with the other mail and flung them onto her end table. She kicked off her boots and shuffled to the kitchen. Her stomach rumbled, and she realized she hadn’t planned anything for dinner. Scanning the refrigerator, she found only yogurt, fruit, and lettuce. Nothing appealed to her. Celebrating Bryce’s engagement to Miss Universe required carbs, specifically sugar and chocolate. She yanked open the freezer door. Pushing aside a bag of frozen baby peas and a container of leftover soup, she reached for the quart of Moose Tracks ice cream in the back.

Retail therapy befitted the rich or perpetually in-debt. Ice cream therapy? Now, that even an average-looking girl overlooked by men and boys of every age and race could afford to indulge.

“So, you’ve decided to take the plunge, eh, Bryce?” She lifted her spoon and gazed up, as if he stood before her. “You could’ve had the plain but virtuous Emily Kowalski, beloved by small children and dowagers. I see instead you’ve chosen beauty, which I’m sorry to say is shallow and fleeting.” She jabbed the spoon into the ice cream, digging for a hunk of chocolate. “So, boo for you.” She slid a heaping spoonful of ice cream over her tongue, slowly scraping the metal spoon between her teeth. Tears welled in her eyes, and she sniffed. “In your defense, Bryce, I don’t think you knew I could make pierogies from scratch.”

As her spoon hit the bottom of the paperboard container, Emily’s stomach revolted. When would she learn? She pressed her hand to her belly and moaned. This wasn’t the first time she’d drowned her disappointment and envy in empty calories.

After tossing the nearly-empty carton into the trash and the spoon into the sink, Emily plodded to the bathroom, uncertain whether or not her chocolaty meal was going to stay down. She stared in the mirror at her plain, ordinary face. Brownish hair, brown eyes. But her nose was cute, right? She bared her teeth. Perfectly straight (after thousands of dollars of orthodontic work). She wasn’t ugly. She wasn’t!

With a hard swallow to force back the rising tide of Moose Tracks, she breathed deeply and resolved to change. Lord, I’m tired of waiting for life to happen to me. You have a plan for my life, and I’m fairly certain it’s not written at the bottom of an ice cream container.

The nausea settled. She filled a Dixie cup with water and held it up. “Here’s to the new Emily.” She sipped and tossed back her long, thick hair, easily her best feature. She lifted her chin and, for good measure, added, “Amen.”

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Carolyn Astfalk, author of spicy clean romanceAbout Carolyn Astfalk

Carolyn Astfalk lives with her husband and four children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the wind carries either the scent of chocolate or cow manure. She is a CatholicMom.com contributor and author of the contemporary inspirational romances Stay With Me (Full Quiver Publishing) and Ornamental Graces.