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Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

 First Note: In my opinion, this was an incredible novel and an important one, too. But this is not a novel that I think would be as appreciated by younger audiences. I first tried to read this at probably 16 and I really didn’t like it, nor did I “get” it. However, now, being 20, this read was really good. So for heavy themes, I would recommend it only to more mature readers.

 Content (some spoilers): I was pleasantly surprised by how clean this novel was—save some disturbing scenes having to do with unwinding, but even those were not graphic or gory, and in fact they were worse because of how much was left unsaid, for I was forced to come up with my own rendering which horrified me. Generally, the author has mastered the art of saying less to say more. There were maybe a few instances of d**n but nothing more. Risa and Connor fall in love, but nothing happens beyond kissing and even that is described little. There are a few references to sex—for example, a guide in Risa and Connor’s lives assumes them to be a couple and encourages them to get pregnant to give Risa nine months without worrying about Unwinding, and Roland, the bully (*who we actually come to care about), threatens Risa in a bathroom.

Review: This book disturbed me. It horrified me. But in the same way, it stuck with me, its questions turning in my head. Though I will add a disclaimer that I already had a firm grasp on where I stood regarding the issues this book brought up—I am a follower of Jesus, and I firmly believe that we are all handcrafted in His image, carefully created, beautifully made, from the moment we come into existence, and thereof there is no point where we ‘gain’ a soul; that would make us animals at one point in our life, and I believe we are created higher than animals.

What I think I loved most about this book is its lack of agenda. This book deals with hard issues. Complex issues. Deep, messy issues. But instead of telling the reader what to believe, the author beautifully disappears, and all you are left with is the opportunity to watch some very real, very broken, very authentic humans live their way of life. So while I do disagree with some of the characters’ viewpoints on things, that cannot solely be a reason to dislike a book, for the same reason that disagreeing with a friend does not mean it is necessary to leave that friendship. This book showed us a tale of just humans being humans, our brokenness, and our innate longing for something more, our desire for hope. And that is enough to make a book worth reading.

As for the plot line itself, I didn’t find it incredibly compelling, but it was enough to keep me reading. I feel a few sections could have been shorter, but overall, not many complaints in that area. The third-person present did get confusing to read at times, but again, nothing too difficult.

There were quite a cast of characters, and it was pretty easy keeping them straight. I really liked Connor and his character arc. Risa was also cool. And Lev, too. I loved what the author did with each character’s individual growth and impact on the rest of the story. They are strong but also broken, but what inspires you is their ability to keep walking, to look forward, to challenge the status quo, to go against expectations. (Lev in the end—phenomenal.) Seeing these characters rise to the occasion and find their passions, and then go after them with everything in them, was so inspiring.

But my ultimate favorite scene—sorry, new readers, you don’t get to read it because it’s so spoilery—is in the end,

(Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!)

when Lev is imprisoned and chained up after deciding not to blow up the harvest camp. (I squirm even writing those words.) Pastor Dan comes to talk to him—the guy who formerly was a pinnacle in his faith journey and who talked him up on how being a tithe was so wonderful. Lev is startled that his pastor is acting different and not dressed up. I’m quoting the rest:

” [Pastor Dan] takes a moment before he answers. ‘I resigned my position. I left the church.’

The thought of Pastor Dan being anything but Pastor Dan throws Lev for a loop. ‘You…you lost your faith?’

’No,’ he says, ‘just my convictions. I still very much believe in God—just not a god who condones human tithing.’

Lev begins to feel himself choking up with an unexpected flood of feeling, all the emotions that had been building up throughout their talk—throughout the weeks—arriving all at once, like a sonic boom. ‘I never knew that was a choice.’

All his life there was only one thing Lev was allowed to believe. It had surrounded him, cocooned him, constricted him with the same stifling softness as the layers of insulation around him now. For the first time in life, Lev feels those bonds around his soul begin to loosen.

‘You think maybe I can believe in a God like that, too?’ ” 

WHOA. I think I audibly said, “Wow!” Our manmade religions, flawed and broken, do not equal a flawed and broken God. Our God is the God who hears our cry and comforts the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:17-18). Our God is a comforter, healer, redeemer, and protector. (Zephaniah 3:17, Psalm 18:1-2). Our God is not like the one portrayed in the religion in Unwind – He is not a cruel, harsh, legalistic god who will turn his face if we disobey.

No, Our God is the God Lev sees in this moment, a God who is grieved by evil (1 John 4:8, Proverbs 6:16-19) and promises to one day end all suffering (Revelation 21:4). Our God does not turn his face from us when we do not meet standards; on the opposite hand, He pursues us in the midst of our brokenness (Luke 19:10). He is the God who wants to heal us and be near to us. He wants to give us His hope, which cannot fade with season or change with time. THIS is the God we serve. Lev has been brought up under a legalistic god, but the truth this passage reveals the longing in his soul. The longing in  all of our souls. And  this is why I loved this book.

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

The Things We Cannot Say

by Kelly Rimmer

In 1942, Europe remains in the relentless grip of war. Just beyond the tents of the Russian refugee camp she calls home, a young woman speaks her wedding vows. It’s a decision that will alter her destiny…and it’s a lie that will remain buried until the next century.

Since she was nine years old, Alina Dziak knew she would marry her best friend, Tomasz. Now fifteen and engaged, Alina is unconcerned by reports of Nazi soldiers at the Polish border, believing her neighbors that they pose no real threat, and dreams instead of the day Tomasz returns from college in Warsaw so they can be married. But little by little, injustice by brutal injustice, the Nazi occupation takes hold, and Alina’s tiny rural village, its families, are divided by fear and hate. Then, as the fabric of their lives is slowly picked apart, Tomasz disappears. Where Alina used to measure time between visits from her beloved, now she measures the spaces between hope and despair, waiting for word from Tomasz and avoiding the attentions of the soldiers who patrol her parents’ farm. But for now, even deafening silence is preferable to grief.

Slipping between Nazi-occupied Poland and the frenetic pace of modern life, Kelly Rimmer creates an emotional and finely wrought narrative that weaves together two women’s stories into a tapestry of perseverance, loyalty, love and honor. The Things We Cannot Say is an unshakable reminder of the devastation when truth is silenced…and how it can take a lifetime to find our voice before we learn to trust it. (Synopsis taken from Goodreads)

Review 4/5 ★★★★★

Wow, I loved this novel! I was drawn in from page one and couldn’t read it fast enough. I LOVE when books parallel two stories from different eras, and this book nailed it. What I loved about this book most, though, was the authentic relationships full of hope and determination. Nothing comes easy for these characters, but in the face of all opposition, they strive. They continue. They drive forward, despite their failings, their worries, their fears, their weaknesses. They embody inspiration. You look into their lives and can simultaneously think, wow, that sounds like me, and wow, maybe I could do that, too.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Quite a bit of mild profanity, with one instance of the f-word. This would be the only thing about this book that I did not like.

Alice mentions a “blame game” she and her husband play on who’s to blame genetically for Eddie’s autism, where she mentions her husband’s sperm.

A few references to sex or having sex.

Outside of these few issues, I absolutely loved this novel.

I would like to take a minute to talk about each character.

Alina: Such a naive, immature, childish one, that Alina. How we love her. How we root for her when she rises above. How we laugh at the unreliability of her narration, her immature view on life. The compassion we have for her lofty dreams and aspirations, and how we admire her tenacity to hold onto them in the face of an opposite reality. Alina is in no way a wise counsel, but she is full of unknown courage, and when push comes to shove, she rises. She grows. She stretches, for the good of another. And we love her for it. She was so real. 

Alice: Wow. I loved reading about Alice and her relationship with her husband. It is clouded with doubt, punctuated by bitterness and frustration, surrounded by unspoken words, and yet, they fight on—they fight for each other.  They fight for their marriage. They fight to understand. Alice is far from perfect, and so is Wade. But what you see here is a picture of two imperfect people putting themselves and their desires aside for the needs of another. This book may not be Christian, but this is the message of Jesus. This is the hope he brings us. Alice, in her imperfection, anger, and unjust frustration at her husband, decides to not give in, but to fight, out of love for Wade. Wade has to do the same. This type of selfless love is what we all long for—these are the characters we long to be—this is the message of my Jesus. In our messiness, He loved us anyway, and He calls us to love each other likewise. Alice and Wade may be one of my favorite couples in fiction, ever. I was inspired by the message of hope and love.

Side characters:

Eddie: I loved that the author decided to narrate in a character with autism and thought she did so well with Eddie. I loved getting a glimpse in his mind. She made him so relatable, so sweet, so…wonderful. And his relationship with Babcia was precious!

Julita: A side character who had yet such a strong arc. And she’s not even on page for very long. I was very impressed!

Tomasz: Oh Tomasz! Another young lover whose immaturity in some areas we can plainly see, yet, who also has profound maturity in other areas. We see his unrelenting love for Alina; we see his conviction, passion, determination. Tomasz was an absolutely incredible character. <Spoiler> I also loved the scene where he shares his past with Alina and how she responds, first inwardly horrified, but then realizing she has to love him anyway. <spoiler> I’m going to say this again: this is the message of Jesus, sprinkled everywhere in this beautifully told novel. In the face of utmost evil, in the face of anger and hurt, we have a choice—to give in to our desires and our passions and do what “feels” best for us–or to stand up, put ourselves aside, and love. This book did such a great job allowing such imperfect characters the ability to make the right choice and the result was a novel that inspired, uplifted, and encouraged.

Saul: Oh how I felt for Saul. What a great man. Saul deserves no critique.

Setting: I’ve recently developed a fascination with Poland (my ancestors are from there), so I loved all the setting we got in this book! Reading about the Nazi occupation wasn’t easy, but it was important, and it was fascinating to read about it from the Polish perspective. Early on in the book, I was chilled by how all the townspeople had heard rumors of Nazis but were convinced it would never come to them. It just reminds me again that we as people are so good at reasoning away what we don’t want to see.

The book moved fast, but not too fast. At first, I found the notion Alice would just up and go to Poland a little far-fetched, but it was drawn out and developed appropriately, so I concede to a job well done. I loved watching how everything tied together. The ending was definitely sappy and some may say overdone, but I thought it was very sweet.

All in all, an inspiring read about very real humans facing very real issues, and their choices to rise above.

Right after Tomasz reveals the terrible part of his past—terrible things he had done—I absolutely love how Alina responds:

“ ‘Eventually, I shifted onto the ground beside him, and wrapped my arms around his waist, then rested my head against his chest. I let my mind conjure images of all he’d told me—even the parts I didn’t want to imagine, because they were a part of Tomasz now, and I wanted to know and understand all of him.’ ” (Emphasis mine)

Sincerely, Jem by Kate Willis

Sincerely, Jem

by Kate Willis

Dear Reader,
My name is Jessie. I’m an expert at introversion and cheesecake eating. (#skillz) I’m trying to become a writer, but gathering inspiration = social interaction, so… no.

The world’s best mail carrier suggested I get a pen pal, so this is the story of that pen pal experiment and the beautiful way it opened my eyes.

Merry Christmas and much cheesecake to you!
Jem (Synopsis taken from Goodreads)

Review: 4/5 ★★★★☆

Sincerely, Jem by Kate Willis was a sweet and heartfelt snapshot into the life of one socially-awkward, imaginative, goofy character. Willis’ writing style captured me from the first page, and the story and characters came alive through the gentle painting of the scenery. I found each character to be lovable and well-rounded, full of personality even in their small roles.

I enjoyed following “Jem” through her pen-pal journey (and also loved Longfellow!) and thought the story was told concisely and thoughtfully. I laughed out loud in several places! I loved reading Jem’s letters and all the wonderful text-talk. Jessie is hilarious and that is all. 😉 As a whole, I found this story well executed. <Spoiler, highlight to read> I really liked the message on understanding there is more to someone than meets the eye and not judging others at face value. <Spoiler>

However, while this story was a happy, lighthearted tale, it was little more than that. The characters face little difficulty, struggle, or conflict; there is little to overcome. <Spoiler> Jessie becomes less shy and more outgoing; but it being I found her perfectly lovable to begin with—awkward and all—it was a hard change to resonate with. <Spoiler> I understand that this is supposed to be a lighthearted story, but I think it would have benefited from a little more depth. All considered, it was a sweet read that made me smile and one I’m glad I had the opportunity to read!

Favorite quote: “So many people with so many different stories filled the world God had made. It wasn’t right for her to write off any of them, because she could read only a few lines.”

Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu


by Corey Ann Haydu

The world tilted for Elodee this year, and now it’s impossible for her to be the same as she was before. Not when her feelings have such a strong grip on her heart. Not when she and her twin sister, Naomi, seem to be drifting apart. So when Elodee’s mom gets a new job in Eventown, moving seems like it might just fix everything.
Indeed, life in Eventown is comforting and exciting all at once. Their kitchen comes with a box of recipes for Elodee to try. Everyone takes the scenic way to school or work—past rows of rosebushes and unexpected waterfalls. On blueberry-picking field trips, every berry is perfectly ripe.

Sure, there are a few odd rules, and the houses all look exactly alike, but it’s easy enough to explain—until Elodee realizes that there are only three ice cream flavors in Eventown. Ever. And they play only one song in music class.

Everything may be “even” in Eventown, but is there a price to pay for perfection—and pretending? (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Review… 5/5 ★★★★★

I absolutely loved this sweet middle grade novel. This book boasted incredible imagination and creativity in communicating a message about not forgetting the past but letting it guide you. I was in love with the message of being able to own your own stories and not ignoring them, even when they’re hard or ugly. I loved the redemptive message of finding what was lost. 

I thought how we slowly learned about Elodee’s past and what brought her to Eventown to begin with was so creatively written. It was dystopian without being dystopian; rather, the author used a creative setting to communicate her message.  I loved Elodee and Naomi and found them both relatable, and appreciated the discussion on their differences as they grew. I really liked how the author did not skirt away from the hard topic of depression, but instead addressed what it might feel like for the children. In today’s world, kids are faced with all sorts of troubles, and ignoring these troubles does them no good. Instead we ought to be offering a good example on how to handle these troubles, as well as hope, which I thought Eventown did a great job of. A creative, intriguing, and inspiring novel that I can’t wait to add to my collection!

Content issues: One side character has two moms and it is implied they came to Eventwon because they were not accepted where they had been.

Book Review: To Dwell Among Cedars by Connilyn Cossette

To Dwell Among Cedars by Connilyn Cossette

Eight years ago, when the Philistines stole and then surrendered the ark of the covenant back to the Israelites, Eliora left her Philistine homeland to follow the ark to the community of Kiryat Yearim. There, the family she was adopted into has guarded the ark at the top of a mountain in seclusion.

Ronen is a Levite musician determined to secret away the ark to a more fitting resting place, watched over by priests who would restore the Holy of Holies. He never expected that the Philistine girl he rescued years ago would now be part of the very family he’s tasked to deceive.

As Ronen’s attempts to charm Eliora lead them in unexpected directions, betrayal leaves Eliora with strained family ties and Ronen questioning his own loyalties. Ultimately, Eliora and Ronen are caught up in the battle for the soul of Israel and its future under the leadership of Samuel, the last judge before the era of the kings begins. (Summary taken off Goodreads)

Review …. 5/5 ★★★★★ 

As always, Cossette never disappoints! I was in love with the characters from the first page. I love how she makes Biblical settings so tangible to the reader, and the artistic liberties she takes in creating her characters make it all the more compelling.

I love how so often she uses foreigners to lead her stories about Israel, and the consequent messages about God’s love and mercy. In To Dwell Among Cedars,  I was fascinated reading about Philistine culture and life, especially in contrast to the customs of Israel. I loved watching Eliora grow and transform, and the complex relationship she holds with her brother, Natan, was just so well done. I felt Eliora’s pain in his distance, and yet was still able to empathize with him (Natan) as well. 

On the downside, I felt this novel was very predictable, and the plot very similar to Cossette’s other books. A foreigner adopted into Israel; a loyal Israelite; their eventual romance. Not that there is anything wrong with this—and this is coming from someone who inhales her books the second they release, so she’s doing something right with this storyline. But there were very few surprises.

I love the emphasis on relationships, primarily between Eliora and Natan. Of course Eliora and Ronen’s relationship was sweet too, but that was expected. Not that I didn’t like reading about the complexities of their relationship; the betrayal and secrets and mysteries—I thought it was very well executed. However, Eliora and Natan drove this story.

Ultimately, another great read from Cossette, and I can’t wait for her next one!

Smoke Screen by Terri Blackstock

Title: Smoke Screen

Author: Terri Blackstock

Published By: Thomas Nelson (2019)

Synopsis: One father was murdered. Another was convicted of his death. All because their children fell in love.

Nate Beckett has spent his life fighting wildfires instead of the lies and rumors that drove him from his Colorado hometown. His mother begs him to come back now that his father has been released from prison, but it isn’t until he’s sidelined by an injury that he’s forced to return and face his past. But that means facing Brenna too.

Fourteen years ago, Nate was in love with the preacher’s daughter. When Pastor Strickland discovered Brenna defied him to sneak out with Nate, the fight between Strickland and Nate’s drunken dad was loud—and very public. Strickland was found murdered later that night, and everyone accused Roy Beckett. When the church burned down not long after, people assumed Nate set the fire to get even for his father’s conviction. He let the rumors fly and left town without looking back.

Brenna is stunned to learn that the man convicted of murdering her father has been pardoned. The events of that night set her life on a bad course, and now she’s fighting a brutal custody battle with her ex and his new wife where he’s using lies and his family’s money to sway the judge. Brenna is barely hanging on, and she’s turned to alcohol to cope. Shame and fear consume her.

As Nate and Brenna deal with the present—including new information about that fateful night and a wildfire that’s threatening their town—the past keeps igniting. Nate is the steady force Brenna has so desperately needed. But she’ll have to learn to trust him again first. (Taken from Goodreads)


Terri Blackstock delivers again! Smoke Screen was a carefully crafted novel with a very original feel. I adored the characters and the storyline had me hooked.

I cringed a lot reading this novel purely due to how awful Brenna’s life is, but that also meant I couldn’t put the book down. I was very skeptical of Nate when he entered her life, mostly with the timing, and I still feel like their relationship moved way too fast for someone who’d just gotten divorced, but, I was also simultaneously cheering them on. 🙂 The double POV was done very well, with Nate and Brenna having very distinct voices.

I thought Brenna’s addiction was portrayed excellently, as well as her struggle in overcoming it and her desire to make things right. It sometimes feels like everything that can go wrong does for poor Brenna, and while it made for a difficult read, it also made for an incredible payoff. Brenna and Nate both were easy to emphathize with.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book (though, what Terri Blackstock book do I not enjoy?). It was an original, creative, pull-at-your-heartstrings story full of real struggle and an even more real God. 4.5 stars.