Archive for December 2017

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)

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

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Regardless of which side of the aisle you tend to support, there is no denying that the 2016 presidential election was one for the history books. Up until the moment the results were tallied, Hillary Clinton was the odds on favorite to defeat Donald Trump for the presidency. As we are all aware, things did not turn out as planned for Clinton. The shock of the loss had her and her supporters wondering, "What happened?!" In this tell all book, Clinton attempts to answer just that.

I was immediately taken by how candid Clinton is. Several times during the book I found myself thinking that if she had been this open during the campaign, things might have ended differently. Say what you will about Trump, but he definitely has no reservations about saying exactly what is on his mind. Clinton admits to taking a more traditional approach to the process, playing politics by the rules. By her own accounts, she played that game quite well. The only problem is that Trump was playing a radically different game.

Beyond President Trump's unorthodox and often ethically questionable political tactics, Clinton spends a good portion of the book commenting on the uphill battle she had as the country's first female presidential candidate.  She writes, "In my experience, the balancing act women in politics have to master is challenging at every level, but it gets worse the higher you rise." Clinton considers herself to be highly qualified for the job of being the president. She served successful terms as both a senator and secretary of state. But she couldn't shake the criticisms of her clothing, speaking voice, and overall demeanor. While she may not have broken the glass ceiling, she writes of her hope that the cracks she made into it will make the task of breaking it a bit easier for future women.

I found myself completely engrossed throughout the entire book. Clinton manages to mingle her political observations with deeply personal reflections about her journey. She writes with candor about the shock of losing a race everyone thought she would win. Despite her disagreements with the man currently occupying the White House, she seems hopeful about the future of the country. Whatever your political affiliations, What Happened is one of the most revealing books that was written this year. Clinton's firsthand accounts perfectly capture the events that helped shape the moment in history that we are currently in.

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

(2017, 50)

Friday Flicks: Murder on the Orient Express


Earlier this year, I read Agatha Christie's famed Murder on the Orient Express. It was easy to see why Christie's novel has been a mainstay among mystery fans since it was published. Essentially a locked room mystery, the novel follows investigator Hercule Poirot's inquiry into the death of a man on the train. When I heard that Kenneth Branagh would both direct a film adaptation and portray the famed detective, I was eager to see this modern telling of the classic tale.

The film opens with Poirot (Branagh) finishing an investigation at a church in Jerusalem. These early scenes introduce both the character's deductive prowess and obsessive compulsive tendencies. Branagh gives the character an air of both humor and wisdom with a charismatic charm that is instantly captivating. Poirot plans to take some time off after his case, but is urgently called to London to take on another. As fate would have it, this sudden change of plans lands him on the Orient Express.

On the train, Poirot encounters the assortment of characters who will shortly become suspects in the murder of one of the other passengers. The film assembles a who's who of Hollywood actors to fill out the cast. Johnny Depp, arguably the most widely known member of Branagh's troop, plays the victim Samuel Ratchett. Ratchett's unsavory business dealings leave a plethora of people who could have potentially killed him. Poirot swiftly begins a methodical investigation of the only people who had access to Ratchett, the other passengers.

Like the book it is based upon, Murder on the Orient Express is a slow building mystery that offers a nice change of pace for a trip to the movies. My only complaint is that the film is so filled to the brim with talented actors that they don't all get the equal opportunity to showcase their skills. Screen time aside, Branagh manages to honor the history of the story while making it relevant to modern audiences. Even knowing how the narrative would end, I still found myself on edge of my seat. Branagh makes ample use of the sweeping landscapes outside of the train and finds several inventive ways to vary the evenness of the interior. The filmmakers have already announced plans to adapt Death on the Nile. I can't wait to see more of Christie's classic novels brought to life.

Artemis by Andy Weir


Confession: I have yet to read Andy Weir's The Martian. I know what you're thinking, "How could he have missed reading that one?!" I honestly don't know. I loved the film adaptation of the book, and the kindle version has languished on my kindle for over a year. For some reason I just never got around to reading it. My negligence aside, The Martian became such a critical and commercial success that author Andy Weir has released a sophomore novel Artemis. I'm pleased to report that this novel hasn't sat dormant on my kindle. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I doubt you'll be able to ignore it either.

Artemis sees Weir tackling a story that takes place a little bit closer to home than his previous novel, closer to home than Mars at least. In this novel, man has conquered space and made their home on the Moon. Artemis, as the lunar colony has been named, plays host to a variety of tourists, wealthy industrialists, and the people who work for them. Jasmine Bashara, Jazz has lived most of her 20+ years on the moon. Her father is a well-regarded welder who longs for Jazz to follow in his professional footsteps, but Jazz has other plans. Her job as a porter who ships the various goods that make the city run pays only a meager salary. To earn more slugs (the currency of the moon), Jazz has turned to smuggling in contraband for some of Artemis's wealthier citizens.

A local businessman who regularly uses Jazz's smuggling services has called her in for a chat. He has a grand scheme to take over the monopolized aluminum smelting industry on the moon. The plan hinges upon someone sabotaging automated harvesters that scour the moon's surface. Jazz has the capability to both space walk and weld, skills that are paramount in successfully completing the job. In exchange for her services, Jazz would receive one million slugs, enough money to live comfortably and realize her dreams of her own business. But things will not be easy, especially in space!

I thoroughly enjoyed Artemis. The Martian was essentially an escape thriller that happened to take place on Mars. In Artemis, Andy Weir sets a fast-paced heist thriller on the moon. I'm no scientist, so I can't speak to the scientific plausibility of Weir's imagined colony. Still, Weir's consistency in quasi-scientific logic goes a long way in making this out-of-this-world fiction set in an authentic reality. Jazz is unapologetically crass at times, but operates with an unflinching moral compass that makes her instantly engaging. The supporting cast of space-dwelling misfits are equally attractive. I still haven't read The Martian, but if Artemis is any indication of the quality of entertainment that Andy Weir can concoct, I certainly won't put off reading it much longer.

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

(2017, 49)

Broken Harbor by Tana French


"If you're any good at this job, and I am, then every step in a murder case moves you in one direction: towards order."

Scorcher Kennedy is at the top of his game. As a member of the elite Dublin murder squad, he is known for his by-the-book approach to solving tough murder cases. His meticulous process of making sense out of the chaotic may rub some of his peers the wrong way, but Scorcher always gets the job done.  His unflinching trust in the process has garnered him the highest solve rate of the squad, a distinction that inspires his superiors to assign the squad's rookie as his partner. Kennedy is tasked with showing the rookie Richie the ropes, and their first case together turns out to be a real tough one.

A small housing development named Brianstown features the few suburban homes that were built before the economic crash brought all construction to a halt. The broken potential of that development spreads into one of the homes where a gruesome crime scene awaits. The father and two children lay dead in the home, brutally murdered. The mother lies in a hospital bed battered and barely clinging to life. With all the misfortune that has befallen the area, perhaps it is better to be called by the name it previously held. . . Broken Harbor.

Kennedy certainly has his work cut out for him. The scene seems to be an apparent murder-suicide where the father who lost his job killed his family. But there is more here than meets the eye. Mysterious happenings in the home may lead to completely unexpected results. Kennedy is as focused as he can be, but memories of this particular place keep invading his consciousness. Now more than ever, he must face his tragic past head on for the good of the case.

After being a tad underwhelmed by her previous effort, I'm happy to report that Tana French achieves a near perfect novel with Broken Harbor. Her penchant for slow building mysteries scattered with well-drawn characters is on full display here. I'd even go as far as arguing that the family drama and reconciliation with the past is more important than the actual mystery. There is a sense of suspense and impending revelation that grows with the turn of each page. The plot moves slowly, but I was completely engrossed in every detail. Each novel in the series focuses on a different character, so this is one of the few series that I don't find it necessary to have read the previous novel. Still, readers of French's other works will find an added depth from their knowledge of these characters' past appearances. Broken Harbor has reignited my enthusiasm for French's writing and inspired me to continue reading her remarkable series.

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

(2017, 48)

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