Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson


"Sometimes fantasies are paths to realities."

Walter Isaacson is no stranger to telling the stories of genius. Through his writing about such great minds as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, Isaacson has gained an understanding of the qualities that these men have mastered. In particular, he notes that the merging of arts and science seem to hold the key in these peoples' success. In his latest book, Isaacson details the life and accomplishments of a man of unparalleled genius, Leonardo da Vinci.

Because da Vinci kept meticulous notes in his notebooks, Isaacson had a wealth of first-hand information about him. As such, the book is a dense portrait of the life of of Leonardo. At around 600 pages and full of illustrations and photographs, the book is quite the undertaking for both the author and the reader. For those willing to spend the time reading it, however, the book is an extremely insightful and rewarding experience. I came away from it with a much greater understanding and respect for the variety of crafts and disciplines that Leonardo mastered.

Isaacson gives Leonardo's masterpieces plenty of page time, but focuses more on the works that we often don't know about. Perfectionism combined with an unyielding curiosity caused many of Leonardo's projects to either remain unfinished or be completely abandoned in favor of something different. Beyond his art of paintings, sculptures and theatrical productions, Leonardo spent considerable time studying engineering, anatomy, and other sciences. This wide variety of disciplines caused his art to inform his science and his science to inform his art, a combination that only further cements his genius. In the end, Isaacson argues that the unfinished ventures of Leonardo provide a clearer picture to the magnitude of his genius.

While I certainly was curious about all of Leonardo's creative endeavors, it was his personal life that kept me invested into this book. Isaacson writes of Leonardo's outsider status and mentality. As an illegitimate child and unabashed homosexual, he never really escaped this perception of himself. Even when his acclaim as an artist placed him in the company of royalty and affluence, Leonardo couldn't shake this mentality. Frankly, he was more interested in investing time in his studies than gaining the approval of others.

As I've already mentioned, Leonardo da Vinci is a thick book that will require a good investment of time to properly read it. Fortunately Walter Isaacson presents the story more as a narrative than a textbook. This was a wonderful change of pace from my normal reading habits. If you are looking for non-fiction that doesn't feel like the typical history book, Leonardo da Vinci is a perfect start. I came away fascinated by the achievements and riveted by Leonardo's humanity.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 3)

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor


"Look out for the chalk men."

I've seen The Chalk Man featured on several "most anticipated" lists, and every blogger who has reviewed the novel has been enthusiastic in their praise of it. When the publisher provided me a copy of the novel to read and review, I was eager to see what all of the hype was about. I wasn't prepared for the story that I was about to read. I wasn't prepared for the sleepless nights and unproductive days I would spend glued to the pages of the novel. This will, no doubt, be one of the must read thrillers of the year. Just know, you'll have no power in putting it down until you finish. Consider yourself warned.

In 1986, twelve-year-old Eddie and his gang of friends are at the local fair. The waltzer ride malfunctions, sending a car with two girls flying into the pathway. Eddie is one of the first people on the scene along with an odd looking man dressed in all black with white skin and extremely light hair. At the time, both males are hailed as heroes. The man, it turns out, has just moved to town to be a teacher at the school. As time progresses, Eddie and his friends develop a secret code to communicate with each other. They leave little stick figures drawn in chalk for the others to find. The codes start innocent enough, but the kids could never have imagined what would happen if their secret messages could be used by someone else...someone with intentions that are purely evil.

The year is 2016, and Eddie finds himself living in the same house and same town that he grew up in. He watched as his father battled and ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer's. His mother, finally free from the burden of caring for her ill husband, remarried and began traveling. Eddie stayed behind. One day, he receives a letter containing a stick figure drawn in chalk, a haunting relic from his childhood. Eddie thought the tragedies associated with the chalk figures were long behind him. When he learns that each of his former friends received similar letters, he knows those days are back. He must face the realities of secrets he tried to bury years ago.

The Chalk Man is a novel that instantly drew me in and kept be enthralled until the very last page. C.J. Tudor writes chapters that alternate between past and present. I'm not normally a fan of this narrative device, but Tudor uses it to maximum effect here. The juxtaposition between the child and adult versions of the characters brings a greater depth to them, allowing the reader to experience their growth over a longer period of time. Switching between time periods also allows Tudor to end each chapter on a mini-cliffhanger. She deftly pulls the reader deeper and deeper into her eerie story, winding the tension and expectation a bit tighter with each page. Beyond the thriller beats, Tudor weaves in larger themes of love, friendship, and a tense debate of science vs. religion. The Chalk Man concludes with revelations that are sensational, tragic, and completely satisfying to the marvelous story that precedes it. We may only be two weeks in, but The Chalk Man may be one of the best thrillers of the year!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 2)

Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison


One of the best and worst parts about writing a weekly book blog is the amount of books that I own. Each year, I get countless requests from authors and publishers asking me to read and review their books. Being the bibliophile that I am, I also can't help but enter into book giveaways. Who doesn't like a free book!? The only problem is that several of the books I win or receive for potential review end up lingering on my ever-growing "to be read"(TBR) list. There's simply not enough time to get to every book! One of those unlucky books happens to be Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison. I won a copy last fall from one of my must-read book blogs, A Bookworm's World. In an attempt to put a larger dent in my TBR list, I decided to begin my year by reading it.

Publishers love to proclaim that their book is "The next Gone Girl." Usually this ends up being nothing more than a cheap marketing ploy. I've yet to read one of these novels that has even the slightest similarity to Gone Girl. A thriller by a female author is not enough basis for an adequate comparison. When I saw the blurb at the top of the cover from author Lisa Scottoline declaring, "Fans of GONE GIRL will gobble up this thriller about a marriage from hell," I feared the worst.

To my surprise, Lie to Me truly does warrant comparisons to Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel. Ethan and Sutton Montclair are a married pair of authors living in Tennessee. Ethan writes critically and commercially acclaimed literary fiction while Sutton focuses more on historical romances. Like Gone Girl, the novel opens with the wife missing. Sutton has left a note telling Ethan that she has left and that he shouldn't try to find her. Oddly, she has left her wallet, phone, and computer behind. Ethan knows their marriage has been on the rocks since the unexpected death of their infant son, but he still fears for Sutton's safety. He also knows that in the case of a missing wife, the husband is also the number one suspect.

The first half of Lie to Me is told entirely from Ethan's perspective. Flashbacks of his marriage as well as present day dealings with Sutton's disappearance give the novel an ever-building suspense. My only problem is that neither Sutton or Ethan is particularly likable. They are equally complicit in their toxic relationship. Even when the novel shifts to Sutton's perspective in the second half and we gain a clearer idea of how the events have unfolded, I still didn't care for them.

Thankfully, author J.T. Ellison includes Holly, the lead investigator on the case. Holly is a young officer who has her eyes set on advancing through the field to get a government office job. The next step on that journey would be getting the title of detective. If she can complete the Montclair investigation without any hiccups, she just might receive that title. Holly gives the story a character that readers can latch onto and root for. Without her, the novel would simply be too dark and distant.

Lie to Me works quite well as a domestic drama. Ellison relishes in her deliciously deceitful characters and allows their drama to unfold at the perfect pace. The first half of the book maintains wonderful suspense and keeps the pages turning. When the novel shifts to Sutton's point of view, the book loses a bit of the tension that made the first half so enthralling. By that point, however, I was already invested enough in the story that I had to see it through. While I was a bit disappointed in the ending (the story just ballooned too far out of plausibility for me), I was happy to have made Lie to Me my first read of 2018. It is the first book I've read that justifies any comparison to Gone Girl, so I have no qualm in saying that fans of that book will enjoy this one. Go ahead and add it to your 2018 TBR list. You'll race through it in no time!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 1)

5 Favorite Books of 2017


With the start of a new year comes the annual barrage of best and worst lists. I'm happy to add mine into the ring. Out of the 52 books that I read in 2017, I've chosen 5 as my favorite books of the year. Here they are, listed in no particular order.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This was one of my most anticipated novels on my TBR list, and it did not disappoint. Through the profound story of an escaped slave, Whitehead crafts a metaphor for the treatment of African American people throughout history. It is a literary masterclass that kept me riveted from start to finish. 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Equally effective as a psychological thriller and character study, Chaon's novel tells the story of one man's decent into madness. The subject matter is dark. The novel is full of sexual and emotional abuse, drug addiction, and mental degradation, but those who can stomach the darkness are in for a real treat. 

The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan 

A lot of fiction has been written about World War II, but Keirnan's latest novel offers one that is poignant and deeply moving. The story follows Emma, a young baker who has become a beacon of hope for a war-ridden town. Throughout the book, she struggles to surmount her own personal doubts to live up to the expectations of those she loves. It is a story that has haunted me since finishing the last page. 

The Force by Don Winslow

In my review, I called The Force "the best thriller of the year". I've read countless other thrillers during 2017, but none came close to topping this one. Winslow writes of Denny Malone, a good cop turned bad. His attempt to maintain justice and keep his power within the hierarchy of the NYPD is one that you can't look away from. 

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This is a book that almost defies description. It tells the story of a young girl grappling with the loss of her uncle to AIDs. It is a coming of age story that touches upon love, loss, and acceptance of others. Beautifully written and emotionally captivating, Tell the Wolves I'm Home will leave you contemplating the multitude of layers it holds long after you complete it. 

And just like that, one year ends and another begins. As always, I'm grateful for everyone who has been a part of my Book A Week challenge. Last year was one of best years yet, and I can't wait to share a whole new crop of books with you as this new year begins!

The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines


"Are you ready to see your fixer upper?"

The husband and wife duo of Chip and Joanna Gaines have captured the imagination of DIY enthusiasts with their hit HGTV show Fixer Upper. Faithful followers of the program will know that the couple's reach extends way beyond the TV screen. Chip and Joanna are the owners of Magnolia, a multifaceted company that focuses on real estate, renovation, and design. In their first book together, The Magnolia Story, Chip and Joanna give readers some insight into their life together and how their booming business came to be.

At the heart of the Gaines's story lies Waco, Texas. The small town that rests about halfway between Austin and Dallas serves not only as a backdrop to their story, but an integral part of their lives. The couple met in Waco, raised their kids there, and station all of their business dealings there. If you ever get a chance to visit the city, you'll find it hard not to notice the impact they have had on it. At the center of town is the Magnolia Silos, a large shopping complex that mixes home design with family fun. There's shopping, food trucks, a bakery, and a large lawn with games and gardens. The couple have found a way to permanently and positively highlight the beautiful town that they love.

By the time Joanna met Chip from behind the counter of her father's local Firestone shop, the two could not have been on more different paths. Joanna was back home from a once in a lifetime internship in New York with Dan Rather. After realizing the news business may not actually be for her, she was contemplating her place in the world. Chip, on the other hand, was out to make his next big business deal. Ever the entrepreneur, he was busy running his own lawn care service, selling fireworks, and flipping and renting out homes surrounding Baylor University. They may have been polar opposites, but the two were immediately drawn to each other. The rest, as they say, is history. The couple dated, married, and started a family.

While Chip managed his multiple business dealings, Joanna had a business idea of her own. Even though they had little money, Chip encouraged her to follow her dream of opening a small shop of home decor. Devoutly religious, the couple writes about how their faith helped them through the numerous tough spots on their way to success. The most fascinating fact from the book is that their hit show almost never came to be. In the end, personality and staying true to their values seems to have been the true secret to getting to where they are today.

I really enjoyed reading about this couple. Granted, fans of the show are likely the ones to get the most out of the book, but I think their message of perseverance, learning from mistakes, and supporting each other no matter what the situation is universal to all readers. The Gaines's have announced that this current season will mark the end of their show. Whatever path they choose to embark on next, I'm certain it will be another great chapter in The Magnolia Story.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 52)

Noelle by Greg Kincaid


"Dogs aren't takers, they're givers."

The last couple weeks have been a real whirlwind. I took a vacation the week before Christmas, and the holiday seemed to just blow right by. In the rush, I missed out on my usual traditions of holiday baking, Christmas movies, and parties. This week, I was so desperate to hang onto every last thread of Christmas, that I decided to read a Christmas themed book. I usually shy away from holiday novels, but it turned out that a book filled with Christmas cheer was just what I needed.

Mary Ann McCray is facing some drama at the local library. As a member of its board, she is arguing against replacing their longtime Santa that appears each year. The elderly man who normally plays Santa has simply gotten too old to fulfill the role. After all, no one wants to see their Santa attached to an oxygen tank. The board members insist the decision is not about how Santa appears, so Mary Ann suggests that perhaps Santa doesn't need to be a man at all. To her surprise, the board calls her bluff. Now Mary Ann must find a way to bring Santa's wife, Anna Claus, to life.

Just in time for the holiday, Abby and Link's marriage is falling apart. They recently put all of their savings into taking their two kids on a dream vacation to Disney World. Then Link lost his job and stared drinking. The last straw for Abbey came when Link got a DUI while the kids were in the car with him. She filed for divorce soon after. The family is thrust into complete turmoil. Their son wants nothing to do with Link, Link wants to escape the town and leave his family behind, and Abbey is trying to hold everything together for the sake of her children.

Todd McCray has just moved back home. The town has opened a new no kill shelter, and he's been tasked with running it. His intuitive connection with dogs and placing them with the perfect owners makes him a perfect candidate for the job. But his latest charge has left him befuddled. Elle, as he's come to call the dog, is an odd little creature. A strange mix of retriever and dachshund, she doesn't have the pure bred look most prospective owners long for. Despite his best efforts to train her as a service dog, Elle just doesn't take well to her training. She lacks even the most basic obedience behaviors. With a new job that leaves little time to baby her, Todd fears he may never find the perfect home for Elle.

In Noelle, Greg Kincaid captures the true spirit of the season in a simple story that is both emotionally engaging and easy to read. I was reminded of those holiday movies that play on the Hallmark Channel. You can see where the story is moving from a mile away, but you can't help but enjoy the journey it takes to get there. Noelle is the second book to follow the characters that were introduced in Kincaid's A Dog Called Christmas. Having never read the previous two novels, I can't say that my enjoyment of this one was diminished in any way. Kincaid provides enough backstory and introduction to avoid readers being lost at any point. Overall, Noelle was the perfect novel for me to hang onto the holiday season a bit longer. I'd argue that we need more books like it to help remind us what this time of the year is all about.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

(2017, 51)

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