30 September 2011

Review: Shadows on the Sand by Gayle Roper

I loved the first four books in Gayle Roper’s Seaside series – Spring Rain: 1, Summer Shadows: 2, Autumn Dreams: 3, and Winter Winds.  Although all five books are based in Seaside, New Jersey, they can be read in any order or as stand-alones, as the main characters in each book are different, with only a few references to recurring minor characters.  If you want to know my absolute favourite, it’s always the one I read last – whichever one that was.  Each has its own appeal.  So when I found out that Roper had written another book in the series, I was keen to read it.  So, does Shadows on the Sand: A Seaside Mystery (Seaside Mysteries) measure up?  Certainly.  It is now my favourite – at least, until I re-read one of the other books (or the entire series). 

Carrie Carter runs Carrie’s Café, helped by her sister, Lindsay, Ricky (their cook, who is in love with Lindsay), Adie, a teenage waitress, and Jace, her part-time dishwasher.  Adie is madly in love with Bill, who apparently knocked Jace out at a party for spending too much time talking to Adie - but now Jace is missing again, having only recently returned to Seaside after several years with The Pathway, a cult in Arizona.  Carrie is concerned for Adie and her relationship with Bill, as Adie reminds her of the motherless teenage runaway she once was.

Greg Barnes (the Police Chief in previous books) lost his wife and children three years ago in a car bomb attack.  Having resigned from the police force, Greg now works as a property manager for some of the summer rentals around Seaside, eating at Carrie’s every day as he slowly recovers from his losses.  Carrie has been secretly in love with Greg for ages, but he never notices her. 

Meanwhile, Seaside has discovered Twitter, with all the happenings of the town promptly tweeted by an elderly café customer who manages to be wherever something of interest is happening.  This provides both a unique plot device and some amusing moments. 

Shadows on the Sand: A Seaside Mystery (Seaside Mysteries) follows the same successful romantic suspense formula as the previous Seaside novels.  The main story is told in the first person from Carrie’s point of view, and in the third person (which allows us to see the situation from the point of view of Greg and Adie), with both interspersed with brief insights into the mind of the (unnamed) villain.  Underneath, Roper explores recovery from grief, cults and forgiveness in a novel that is amusing, suspenseful and romantic in turns.

By the way, WaterbrookMultnomah give away free books at random to those readers who rank reviews of their books.  You can rank my review using the buttons below, or read and rank more reviews on their website, http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/bloggingforbooks/book-lovers.  This will also help me - the more people rate my reviews, the bigger the selection of books I get to choose from.

27 September 2011

Review: 'Belieber! Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber' by Cathleen Falsani

I don’t usually read non-fiction, but Belieber: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Biebercaught my eye because it is a biography and assessment of Justin Bieber, teenage superstar.  It will probably not cover a lot of information that fans of Justin Bieber don’t already know, as much of it is sourced from Justin’s own autobiography (Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever (100% Official)), the movie (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never), other interviews, his Facebook posts and his Tweets.  However, for those of us who don’t know every minute detail of the background and superstar life of this teen singing wonder, this book provides an interesting read with the added benefit of placing Justin’s upbringing and actions in a clear Christian context.  It also answers one of my questions – is this guy really a Christian?  (He is.  Bieber is quoted as saying “I’m a Christian.  I believe in God.  I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins… I have a relationship with him… and really, he’s the reason I’m here”.)

Although Falsani was not able to interview Justin Bieber personally, nor any member of his close team of supporters, she has researched him thoroughly, including reading each of his thousands of Twitter and Facebook posts.  Bieber is a true child of the age of social networking, and tweets several times a day, unless his mother has confiscated his phone and laptop for bad behaviour!.  Twitter and Facebook make it possible for his many fans to ‘know’ Justin in a way that was inconceivable a few short years ago. (It is testament to the power of social marketing that this book doesn’t solicit Amazon reviews or star ratings.  Instead, it asks you to ‘like’ the book so it is shared with all your Facebook friends.)

Belieber: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Bieberis written in a conversational style, making it an easy-to-read short book (which includes dozens of quotes from fans about why they like Justin, and a comprehensive bibliography).  A true Belieber will no doubt need a copy in order to complete their collection of Bieber-nalia.  Reading Belieber: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Biebermight start a non-Christian thinking about the ‘secret’ behind Bieber’s success (or they might just find it too preachy, with a whole chapter about how Justin’s mother gives God all the credit).  Falsani herself says that her hope is that the book with act as “a catalyst for conversations among adults and young people, pastors and their flocks, teachers and students, parents and children… about the things that matter most in life”.  

However, I think the book is really intended for the rest of us – parents and friends of Beliebers, in order to help us understand what all the fuss is about, and to find out whether Bieber is worthy of the adoration our tweens and teens give him.  Falsani portrays Justin Bieber as a Christian with a strong support network, but points out, “the only celebrity whose way of life we should worry about comparing ourselves to is Jesus”.  Reading Belieber: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Bieberhasn’t turned me into a Belieber, but I have a better understanding of the singer and his influence on our young people.

Thanks to Worthy Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

23 September 2011

Review: A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas by Erica Vetsch

Addie was forced to move states after a relationship with the wrong man cost Addie her reputation, which impacted on her uncle’s photography business where she worked as a photographer. In Dodge City, the shock death of her uncle leaves her alone and with just ninety days to pay back the mortgage on their new photography business. But when a new businessman arrives in town, Addie fears her past might be catching up with her. Her secrets will affect her friendship with Fran, who works at the local mercantile, and her might-be-more friendship with Miles Carr, the new Sherrif’s Deputy.

Miles has problems of his own. He is a new Christian who is afraid to speak openly about his faith, and he too has secrets from his past, secrets that might affect his ability to do his job here in Dodge. These fears are confirmed when old acquaintance Vin Rutter arrives in town. Meanwhile, Fran is dreaming of the handsome adventurer who will marry her and take her away from her mundane life – if he can get past her older brothers and Jonas, a childhood friend who has ruined that friendship by announcing that he is in love with her. Fran meets Vin Rutter in the mercantile, and thinks her prayers might just have been answered…

Now, A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas is another one of those books where I am not sure about the title. Sure, it is about a portrait photographer in Dodge City, Kansas, but there is no bride in the story. Hmm… Ignore the title, and enjoy the book. I did. It was a fun read, and although a couple of the misunderstandings could have been sorted out much earlier if the characters just spoke to each other, it all ended happily ever after. I particularly liked the originality of the heroine’s occupation – the author had obviously researched early photography, which added to the interest of what could otherwise have been just another historical western romance.

20 September 2011

Review: Attracted to Fire by Diann Mills

Meghan Connors has been assigned to the Secret Service detail of Lindsey Hall, the alcoholic and drug-addicted daughter of the Vice President of the United States.  As the only female on the team, she has to battle the prejudices of Ash Zinders, the Special Agent In Charge, who is famous both for his attention to detail (his nickname is ‘A2Z’), and for his belief that women do not belong in the Secret Service.  However, death threats and a series of inexplicable incidents at their supposedly confidential location mean they have to work together to protect Lindsay from an unknown fear that is bigger than her addiction problems.

I really enjoyed Attracted to Fire. I would have read it all in one sitting, except that actually had some paid work to do, so I managed to put that first – then raced home and cooked dinner so I could read more.  Attracted to Fire had excellent characters, good pace, and some real suspense, particularly around the nature of Lindsay’s fear, and (once this was disclosed) how the characters were going to overcome the person who was conspiring to bring down the presidency by manipulating Lindsey.  There was also the growing romantic relationship between Meghan and Ash - despite their efforts to the contrary. The story had an underlying Christian tone, but this formed a backdrop to the main plot rather than being the central theme.

I have read several previous books by Diann Mills, including Breach of Trust (my personal favourite), which won the 2010 Christy Award for Romantic Suspense.  Attracted to Fire is not quite as good as Breach of Trust – but it is close, and it is probably the best romantic suspense novel I have read this year (which is a lot more of a big deal in September than it would have been in March, for example!)  Although I received a free ebook version of Attracted to Fire (courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers and NetGalley), I have also ordered it in hard copy – to reread my favourite parts, and for my friends to borrow…

17 September 2011

Review: A Wedding Blunder in the Black Hills by Kim O'Brien

A good romance novel is a delicate balance between the predictable happy-ever-after, with a few surprises thrown in to keep us guessing, and enough humour to keep it moving without making me cringe.  This novel had all three.  But it did have its faults.

Millie is a 31-year-old waitress who works in her mothers' diner in Deer Park, South Dakota.  She wants to leave town, go to LA and get in a commercial, a reality show, a daytime soap, so that one day her father (who left when she was a child) will see her and regret leaving.  She has dated most of the men in town, but has a deep-seated belief that they will leave just like her father did, so she always breaks up with them first.  Unfortunately, her mother had just arranged a blind date for her with the new dentist in town...

David grew up in Deer Park, and has recently returned from California to take over his fathers' dental practice.  He has an 11-year-old son, Bart, and their housekeeper/nanny, Aris.  His wife, Lisa, also a dentist, died five years ago, leaving David to rely on God and his church family.  But now his mother - who is also his dental practice receptionist - is trying to get him together with Cynthia.  David is not interested, partly because Cynthia is practically stalking him. 

When a caramel toffee and a loose filling bring David and Millie together, they agree to 'faux date', to get their mothers' away from them, and hopefully to get Cynthia to back off.  But there are unintended consequences as Millie gets to know David better and discovers she actually likes him and his son.  Yet her insecurities won't let her actually believe or trust David, despite their growing attraction...

It all sounds great, so what were the faults in A Wedding Blunder in the Black Hills?  Firstly, the title.  There is no wedding until the epilogue, so this title acts like a great big spoiler.  Secondly, Millie is 31 and has never left her home town, despite claiming she wants to be a famous actress or reality show participant or something.  Grow up, girl.  If you want to act, join the local drama society, take drama lessons, get an agent, do something more than apply to go on reality shows.  Thirdly, David was one year ahead of Millie in school, implying that he is 32.  Yet he has an 11-year-old son, supposedly born when he and wife Lisa were setting up their dental practice in California, so they hired a nanny/housekeeper to look after their baby.  Seriously?  He left high school at 18, is married with a baby at 21, and has somehow managed to graduate from dental college and has enough money to hire a full-time nanny?  And finally, the final chapter and the epilogue.  I don't want to add a spoiler, but in my opinion the final chapter and epilogue were just too perfect, to the point where it actually took away from where the story had finished. 
Overall, this was a fun read, and by half-way through I was really wanting Millie and David to get over the fake dating idea and go for it, although the other part of me could see that David's faith meant that was never really going to let that happen unless Millie was a Christian too. 

A Wedding Blunder in the Black Hills was provided by NetGalley and Barbour Publishing for review. 

14 September 2011

Review: A Gentleman's Homecoming by Ruth Axtell Morren

Roberta (Bobbie) Gardner is a 28-year-old spinster, the daughter of one of London's most respected engineers. She is also the 'mother' of her nephew, 13-year-old Sam Travis, as his mother (her sister) is dead and his father is working in America as an engineer. The story opens just after the death of Roberta's father and the arrival back in England of Luke Travis, Bobbie's brother-in-law, who she has secretly been in love with since she was 14. While Bobbie is pleased to see Luke, Sam is not, as he considers the late Mr Gardener to be the only father he has ever known, and he is resentful towards Luke. Luke faces the challenge of developing a relationship with an intelligent and gifted teenager - and with Bobbie, who has raised his son since toddlerhood.

I really enjoyed this book. As a Love Inspired Historical, it follows the standard romance formula which can easily get predictable. Equally, people read Love Inspired and other Harlequin novels because they want a happy ending without too much angst, so predictability can be a positive. What can get tiring is when a predictable plot is combined with an unoriginal setting, resulting in a feeling of de ja vu. These novels slip easily from the mind.

What raised A Gentleman's Homecoming (Love Inspired Historical) above average, for me, was the original setting, being 1888 London and the building of one of the first Underground train lines. Ruth Axtell Morren has combined an obvious interest in the subject of civil engineering with a great deal of research to produce an excellent novel, with the original setting being the icing on the cake, especially as I used to live in London and recognised many of the places she mentioned. It is so nice to see a book not set in the US or in Regency London! I also liked the Christian aspect (Love Inspired is one of Harlequin's Christian lines). The Christian element was present but not overpowering, with no preachiness.

A Gentleman's Homecoming (Love Inspired Historical) is available from http://www.koorong.com/, http://www.christianbok.com/, or Amazon (follow the links above).

11 September 2011

Review: Southern Fried Sushi by Jennifer Rogers Spinola

Southern Fried Sushi: A Novel is written in the first person, which may put some readers off.  However, I would encourage those people to give it a try – they will be pleasantly surprised.  Shiloh, the narrator, is an award-winning journalist who grew up in New York and who is now working for Associated Press in Tokyo and engaged to Carlos, an Argentinean expatriate also based in Tokyo.  She is hardworking, ambitious, loves all things Japanese (particularly the food), and never wants to leave, particularly as she is estranged from her flaky mother and the father who abandoned them both.

The sudden death of her mother forces Shiloh to return to the States to attend the funeral and deal with the estate.  Here, she meets a number of Christians in the very best sense. These are not just characters who say grace before meals and attend church on Sunday.  These are the Christians we should all aspire to be – people who praise God, who trust in Him in all circumstances, who reach out and befriend others, and who actively talk about their faith in a natural way because God is such an important part of their lives.  Shiloh discovers that her mother had changed dramatically from the flaky woman she remembered, and as she begins to understand what caused those changes, Shiloh, too, begins to change.

I really enjoyed Southern Fried Sushi: A Novel.  It is a well-written novel with a cast of likable characters, and some very funny scenes around Southern cuisine – as a New Zealander, I could certainly understand the culture shock Shiloh felt in moving from Tokyo to small-town Virginia.  While it is not a traditional genre romance (with the boy-meets-girl, fall-in-love, live-happily-ever-after formula), it is a romance in the sense that it describes a series of relationships built on love - relationships between friends, between husband and wife, between us and God.  It preaches a clear gospel message without falling into a trap of saccharine sermonising.  This is what Christian fiction should be.  Best of all, the sequel is due to be published in March 2012, so readers won’t have to wait long to find out what happens next!

Southern Fried Sushi: A Novel will be released on 1 October 2011, and will be available from Amazon,  http://www.koorong.com.au/, or http://www.christianbook.com/.

9 September 2011

Review: Best Forgotten by Paula Vince

A young man wakes up in hospital remembering nothing about who he is or how he came to be running through the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, into the path of an oncoming car. The police soon identify him as Courtney Lockwood, return him home and reunite him with his family, but there Courtney finds that the person he feels he is inside doesn't have anything in common with the person he appears to have forgotten, and whose bedroom and life he is now inhabiting. As Courtney begins to explore his life with the help of his girlfriend, Jasmine, he uncovers old issues about his relationship with his father and raises more questions when the police find his best friend has disappeared. Where is Joel? Who is after Courtney, and why?

Best Forgotten explores the question of how much our backgrounds have made us who we are. If you could remember nothing about your past, if you could start afresh, would you be the same person? Vince shows us convincingly how our past is a vital component of the people we have become - but that we do have the ability to change if change is what we want. (And you don't have to have a near-death experience and a case of amnesia.)

I have always enjoyed amnesia stories - the idea is one that captures my imagination, and this is one of the most thought-provoking I have read. It also has an intriguing plot with elements of suspense and romance, strong characters and an underlying Christian theme (without being at all 'preachy').
Best Forgotten is  a book I will enjoy reading again (as I have enjoyed all the Paula Vince books I have read), and a book I can certainly recommend.

Paula Vince lives with her husband and three children in the Adelaide Hills, the setting for her four adult novels.  She has also written the Quenarden trilogy for younger readers.