30 January 2012

Review: First Responders by Loree Lough

This is actually a combined review of the first two books in the First Responders series by Loree Leigh. The first, From Ashes to Honor, is the story of Austin, a New York cop who lost his twin brother on 9/11, and Mercy, the police psychologist who declared him unfit for police work.  They accidentally meet in Baltimore a few years later, having both changed careers, and find that despite their history, there is a mutual attraction. But Austin is a committed Christian, and Mercy is an unbeliever. It's not that the book is bad - it just didn't grab me. I saw why Mercy was interested in Austin, but I never really understood why Austin was attracted to Mercy, nor why he was developing a romantic relationship with her knowing that she did not share his faith and knowing how important that should be.

It irritates me when a novel gives us a 'conversion of convenience' a few short pages before the end, with no real progression from non-belief to faith. In real life, very few people become Christians as adults without a period of thought and reflection, so it annoys me when fictional characters have the literary equivalent of a death-bed conversion. However, this novel gave me something I like even less – no conversion at all.

So, on to Honor Redeemed, the second book in the series.  This follows Honor Mackenzie, who trains search and rescue dogs, and Matt Phillips, a widower with two small children, employed as a newspaper reporter. The two meet and a relationship develops, but there are dark secrets in Honor’s past which have not been dealt with that causes struggles for them both. Then (and this is a direct quote from the book blurb) “he’s told Honor has disappeared during a rescue effort”, so he races off to try and save her. 

But this happens in the last quarter of the book. One of my pet hates is when the book blurb or title talks about something that doesn't happen until well into the book. The worst example I can think of is Wedding Blunder in the Black Hills (where the wedding doesn't occur until the epilogue), but
Honor Redeemedcomes close. How is it that a book review should not contain plot 'spoilers', but the advertising copy can?  Again, this was a good story of a sweet relationship as it progressed, but parts of the story, especially towards the end, felt rushed, as though something was missing.  We do find out Honor's dark secret at the end, and we don't get to see what will overcome it - at least not in this book. Frankly, there had been hints about this early on but they were then ignored until the end, only to appear again out of nowhere and leave a sour taste in the mouth. This, in my opinion, was a sub-plot that could have been excluded with no loss.

There were also some issues of timing between the two books, which I probably noticed more than other readers because I read them back-to-back.  From Ashes to Honorsupposedly finished in January 2012 with Austin and Mercy breaking up over her lack of faith, yet at the beginning of Honor Redeemedthey are engaged and planning a 31 December wedding (year not stated). Say, what? We finally get a brief and unsatisfying explanation of how Mercy and Austin got back together about three quarters of the way through Honor Redeemed.

The essence of a romance novel is that a couple meet, a relationship develops, and there is a happy ending as the couple fall in love while they work together to overcome obstacles. A romance novel, according to the Romance Writers of America, must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (more commonly referred to as the ‘happy ever after’ or HEA). From Ashes to Honorand Honor Redeemed are therefore not romance novels. They are Christian fiction and clearly follows the development of a relationship, but they are not romance novels.

Loree Lough is an excellent writer with engaging plots and likeable characters, and From Ashes to Honorwas looking to be a solid four star plus read, until the end. It just finished. No happy ever after, no resolution of the main conflict, nothing. Honor Redeemedwas the same, and I didn’t like it. I admire Lough's desire to honour those who work in first response situations. But authors such as Dee Henderson, DiAnn Mills and Irene Hannon have written romantic suspense series covering similar professions, yet were much more satisfying.
Thanks to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for providing free ebooks for review.  For more information about Loree Lough, visit her website.

27 January 2012

Review: The Silent by Rebecca Kenney

“Someone has made threats against my school—against my teachers and my classmates. No one knows who it is, but we have to find out before it’s too late. Before the Silent comes out of hiding.”

The Silentis a short but compelling Young Adult read, centred around Mourning High School, in the small two of Mourning, Vermont, a ‘spiritual Dead Zone’. High school Senior Nikki Altemann is asked to keep her eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary after an email is sent to several teachers at her school, threatening to kill the sheeple – those people who act like sheep, with no will of their own. The police fear the threat is from a ‘Silent’, a person who escapes notice by acting normal, when inside they are far from it.

Most of the story is told in the first person, by Nikki, in the form of extracts from her diary. But there are also third person point of view, from characters like the school principal (Principal Rudie) and the detective in charge of the case (Kate Daulton). As the primary narrator, Nikki has plenty of teenage humour and flashes of wisdom beyond her years: “In that moment, I think I got a better picture of what it was like for Christ to live on earth before His death. I have always pictured Him as being sad and solemn most of the time, and now I understand why. It’s because He saw and heard and carried more of other people’s pain than anybody else ever could.” There were also a few examples of how life has changed since I was at High School – students with individual email accounts, and a suggestion that if you don’t have a Bible, you can read it online.

While Mourning is a town with a small population of Christians, those that exist are pleasingly well-adjusted. They don't have all the answers, but do their best to give Godly advice (although one of the minor Christian characters specialises in those Christian platitudes that teenagers and non-Christians loathe with good reason).

Although few teens will ever have to go through all the situations Nikki faced in The Silent, many of them will face some of those events, and even though Nikki's own life is far from perfect, she provides teens with a solid example of life in the real world. While not all will care to read a story of this intensity, many teens will find it relevant and illuminating. I enjoy suspense, and this novel had plenty of it, tightly packed into a well-written short novel. I really enjoyed it, and would like to see more of Nikki (there were several plot points that were not wrapped up, and could well lead into a series).

Now, it may be that The Silentis actually not this good. But bear in mind that the last YA books I read were the Twilight series, and I found Bella to be a most unappealing and self-centred heroine. If you loved Twilight, then I suggest this is not the book for you. But if you loathed the whining Bella as much as I did, then I think you will like and admire Nikki, who grows as a person and as a Christian as she undertakes her clandestine assignment.

Thanks to JourneyForth Books and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

25 January 2012

Review: Saving Savvy by Kelly Hancock

Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half and Raise Your Standard of Living...and Giving aims to help households reduce their spending on groceries and dining out by giving readers information on budgeting, food purchasing and coupon shopping. Saving Savvyis written from a Christian perspective, so it also emphasises seeking God’s assistance in being a good steward of what you have been given, and giving to others out of your excess. It is interspersed with relevant bible quotes, real life stories from savvy savers, and lots of useful tips to help homemakers gain control of their food budget and still be able to bless others through giving.

There is good advice but the tone is patronising on occasion ("you will now learn"), and a lot of the information is also available on the author's website. I have heard a lot of the advice before (although some of it bears repetition as I don't always follow it). There were also some interesting ideas that I had not heard before, like the idea of using the tinfoil cooking dishes you can buy at discount stores for either freezing extra portions of cooked food (like lasagne) or giving them away without having to worry about getting the container back. It was curious to note that there was only one passing comment on taking lunches to work – I imagine I am not alone in finding that bought lunches quickly add up to become a major expenditure.

Saving Savvy has some excellent content, but the best hints are around US stores and coupon programmes. Too much of the information is simply not relevant outside the USA – I live in New Zealand, and the entire discussion on coupon programmes is pretty much irrelevant, as it emphasises using more than one coupon on the same product, or using coupons on sale items. All coupons and discount programmes I see specifically state that they cannot be used with any other offers, and most can only be used on full-price merchandise. As much of the information is also available on the authors' website, my recommendation to non-US customers would be to save your money and buy a locally-written book, like Sylvia Bowden's New Zealand Household Budget Kit.

Thanks to Worthy Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

23 January 2012

Review: Shadow in Serenity by Terri Blackstock

Terri Blackstock is a bit of a hit-or-miss author for me. I really enjoyed her standalone romance novel, Emerald Windows, and her romantic suspense series, Suncoast Chronicles Seriesand Cape Refuge, but I loathed Last Light, the first in her futuristic Restoration series, so much that I didn’t read the sequels. I felt Last Light was marred by a TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) heroine who gave new meaning to the term 'shallow'. So what about Shadow in Serenity?

Con man Logan Brisco breezes into Serenity, Texas, with the aim of relieving it's good citizens of their cash. Carny Sullivan is a widowed single mom who grew up surrounded by con artists, and who is not about to let her friends get ripped off by Logan, despite his good looks and endless charm. Carny makes no secret of her desire to bring Logan down a peg or two, and her challenge both amuses and intrigues him, setting the scene for some colourful goings-on.

But trying to persuade a town full of honest people that Logan is running a con might be more than Carny can manage. Meanwhile, Logan is excited by the challenge Carny presents, and stays in town even though it is against the 'rules' of a good con. However, as Logan spends longer in Serenity, he develops relationships with more of the people, and his perceptions gradually begin to change. Meanwhile, Carny knows from her own life that God can change anyone, even a con artist, and begins to doubt her initial impressions of Logan.

Basically, this was a hoot. The scenes between Carny and Logan were consistently underpinned by an amusing combination of mistrust and attraction, the story was fun, and the book had the desired ending without in any way appearing predictable. I really enjoyed Shadow in Serenity as a fun read underpinned by a sound Christian message.

Like Christian authors such as Francine Rivers and Robin Lee Hatcher, Terri Blackstock was published in the general market before she became a Christian. Shadow in Serenitywas previously published with another title and under a pseudonym. Now the copyright has reverted back to her, Terri has revised and updated it for the Christian market. I have no idea what the previous title was (if you know, leave a comment), but I would say that the new and revised passages are well integrated into the overall story, and there is no sign that you are actually reading an updated book.

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.  For more books by Terri Blackstock, visit her website.

20 January 2012

Review: Heart of Ice

Elizabeth is a sociopath who likes to lie, steal and manipulate others. It makes her feel strong and powerful, like she felt when she had Sara's house burnt down. Sara deserved to be punished. Joey Decicco loves lighting fires, so when Elizabeth pays him to light a fire at a house, he is happy to oblige. After all, he'd do it for free. Unfortunately, Joey isn’t as clever as Elizabeth, which means that Elizabeth has to do some of the hard work herself… and the body count begins.

Heart of Ice is the third Triple Threat novel, following Face of Betrayal and Hand of Fate. The Triple Threat Club consists of Cassidy Shaw, TV crime reporter; Allison Pierce, federal prosecutor; and Nicole Hedges, FBI agent; all now working in their hometown of Portland, Oregon, often on different sides of the same case.
The action shifts between Elizabeth and the three Triple Threat women, who are all convincingly portrayed with a refreshing realism – none are too perfect. All have their own personal issues that occasionally interfere with their personal lives, and with their ability to connect the dots regarding Cassidy’s new friend, Alison’s sister and the missing TV intern.

While certain plot elements make it clear that Heart of Iceis part of an ongoing series focussing on the three women, their cases and their personal lives, this is not intrusive nor does it assume any prior knowledge – I read the book without having read the first two, and didn’t feel I was missing any vital information. The plot is underpinned by the case of the so-called Want Ad Killer, but it is immediately apparent that this is the ongoing sub-plot, not the main focus of this novel.

Heart of Ice is an excellent read. Although published by a Christian publishing house, there is no overt preachiness (although as a Christian reader I did note some Christian themes at certain points), and I am sure anyone who likes their thriller or suspense novels without strong language or any gratuitous sex scenes will enjoy Heart of Ice. Liz Wiehl and the Triple Threat Club are a welcome new addition to my reading list. I’ve already bought Face of Betrayal, and will be looking out for the release of the next book.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and Booksneeze for providing a free ebook for review.

18 January 2012

Review: Mercy Come Morning

Krista Mueller's elderly mother is dying, so she returns home to Taos, New Mexico, at the request of Dane McDonnell, the director of the Cimarron Care Center where her elderly mother lives.  Dane is also Krista's first love, and although she initially suggests that she didn’t really know why the relationship never went anywhere, we do get hints as the story progresses.  Despite not having spoken for years, Krista's mother now sings Christmas carols no one even knew that she knew. Krista gradually finds out more about her mother from an old book of hymns that has diary entries and keepsakes interleaved between the pages.

Mercy Come Morning is a story of a not-so-young woman finding herself as she gets to know the mother who has been silent for so many years, and who was distant even before that.  Although I found the flashback scenes distracting (because of the constant references to exact years, which was particularly annoying when they didn’t always add up - for example, Mother was supposedly born in 1930, but she married in 1942 and turned 40 in 1962), overall I found the novel to be interesting and thought provoking.

The story is told in the first person, by Krista, interspersed with the diary entries, letters and flashbacks to Krista’s own childhood memories.  There is a skill to writing in the first person. A skilful author can make us see the narrator both as she sees herself, and as others see her. We need to be able to empathise with and like the narrator even while we see her faults. Lisa Tawn Bergren has this ability, which means we can empathise with Krista (and Dane) and engage ourselves in her situation.

Every year, Queen Elizabeth II delivers a televised Christmas message to the people of the Commonwealth. The theme of her 2011 Christmas Message was family and forgiveness, the same as the message of Mercy Come Morning.  Many of Krista’s issues stem from the fact that she never knew her father, she had a virtually non-existent relationship with her mother (who started showing signs of Alzheimer’s when Kristia was only a teen), and a relationship with God that has never filled the gap inside her.  I found this to be a slightly disturbing admission at first, because the churches I have attended preach that Jesus will fill the gap inside, yet here we have a Christian character revealing the opposite.  It struck me that this is perhaps a more realistic portrayal of life, in that we are often unable to understand and fully accept God’s love and peace (and fill the gap inside) until we have come to terms with the links between family, forgiveness and faith in our own lives.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing a free ebook for review. 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.

16 January 2012

Review: The Shadow of Your Smile by Susan May Warren

The marriage of Eli and Noelle Hueston has been going steadily downhill since the death of their teenage daughter in a store shooting.  Eli blames himself for her death, and has since retired from his job as Sheriff, and spends his time either fishing or helping out Lee Nelson, who lost her husband in the same shooting. Noelle is barely surviving, and spends her time volunteering, but has made the decision that she is going to live again. A twist of fate finds her caught up in another shore shooting, but while she does not die, she loses all memory of the last 25 years. As Noelle starts to get to know her husband and two sons again, Eli realises that he has to get to know Noelle again.

I really enjoyed The Shadow of Your Smile, more so than I expected based on the plot summary.  As well as the main plot, there is a very sweet romantic sub-plot involving Eli and Noelle’s oldest son, Kyle, now a deputy in Deep Haven.  As always, Susan May Warren has delivered a book that satisfies on many levels, with likeable characters, a nice romance, a bit of suspense, and some thought-provoking plot lines. 

While the Deep Haven novels are all happy-ever-after romances (well, what do you expect from a series where the first book is titled ‘Happily Ever After’?), above all, each book is a story of the power of God to heal our pain.  The Shadow of Your Smile is no exception.  This is the fifth Deep Haven book, and hopefully won’t be the last.  It features cameo appearances from many characters in the earlier books, including Liza Beaumont, the local potter.  I’m still anxiously waiting for Susan May Warren to tell us Liza’s story.  Perhaps she will meet a good-looking Nashville music producer?

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.