29 June 2012

Review - Finding Our Way Home by Charlene Baumbich

Sasha Davis was once the principal dancer for a famous Boston ballet company, but an injury has left her disabled and living in her old home in Wanonishaw, Minnesota, while she recovers. Evelyn Burt is the live-in carer. She is nineteen, and is working to gain some life experience before she marries her fiancé, has two babies and goes to college (in that order) before she is twenty-five. Evelyn was not a character I immediately feet I could relate to, but I really warmed to her as the story progressed, and that is real compliment to the author.

Donald Major is Sasha's dance partner and husband. They were dancing together when an undisclosed heart problem caused Sasha's fall. She has now left him, to his sorrow and frustration. But his efforts to reconnect with his wife are continually foiled by the ogre she has living with her, Ms. Burt, who screens all calls and manages all correspondence.

One of the things I admire about good writers is their ability to give their characters distinct yet believable voices. Charlene Baumbich is no exception. The character of Sasha is quiet and refined, with strong opinions and an underlying frustration. Sasha is slipping back into her memories, almost losing her grip on reality, and suffering from a depression that colours her view of the world.

Evelyn is young, brash and outspoken, and even though her actions do not always please Sasha, her motives are pure. She has a deep Christian faith which gradually affects Sasha, but the subject is very understated. I was especially impressed by the way there was almost a dual layer in the scenes written from Evelyn’s viewpoint – on one level, we could see the scene through Evelyn’s eyes, but on another level, we could also see some of the undertones to the scene that it was clear Evelyn didn’t see. This was very clever writing, and something few authors can achieve.

The writing wasn't all brilliant. There were a lot of flashbacks, and some of these passages were overlong (almost a page on the minor point of choosing a physical therapist). And the book was more ‘inspirational’ than ‘Christian’ fiction. But the good by far outweighed these minor points, leaving us a touching story of love, loss, searching and redemption. It was similar in tone to Five Miles South of Peculiar (which I reviewed last week). This is probably no accident – the two authors share the same literary agent. Finding Our Way Home is part of the Snowglobe Connections Series, but can easily be read as a stand-alone novel.

Thanks to Waterbrook Press and BloggingforBooks® for providing a free ebook for review.

27 June 2012

Review: Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury

Ashley is planning her father's seventieth birthday party, and has the idea of each child writing a letter to him and contributing towards a family scrapbook. (Nice idea. Wasn't that what her mother did for them all before she died? Moving right along… ) So, Ashley calls each of her siblings to invite their families to a surprise barbecue at the Baxter homestead (giving us a nice segue into the information dump of their personal histories). Dayne and Katy will be flying in from LA, and Erin and Sam are going to make the drive from Texas. Erin is pleased to be Coming Home, because the birth mother of three of her adoptive children is out of prison and wanting visitation rights, a touchy subject that she wants to discuss with brother Luke in person.

The first half of Coming Home: A Story of Unending Love and Eternal Promise is like a composite episode of TV series 'Lost' - 22 episodes condensed into one, a roller coaster of emotion, reliving the highlights and tragedies of the early Baxter stories. Although Kingsbury does a good job of reviewing the personal histories of each character, those stories are so extensive that I don't know how easy it would be to keep up with all the characters without having read a good number of the preceding books.

Anyone who has read all the Baxter books is going to find the first half of Coming Home very repetitive (although that does make it a quick read, for anyone who doesn’t want or need to relive the relationship problems of each of the Baxter siblings). I also found much of the backstory to be overly contrived: couples going for a walk and talking about how they got together, as though they didn’t know that.

But, of course, it wouldn't be a Kingsbury novel if everything went right. While the first half of Coming Home dragged with all the repetition, the second half contained the trademark Kingsbury emotion, as a tragedy pulls the Baxter family together and tests their faith as never before. It sounds corny, and it was, but it brought tears to my eyes even as I reminded myself that these are not real people (well, I hope they are not. After all, the last four books have been loosely based on Kingsbury’s daughter, so who knows).

With its themes of faith, life, death and heaven, I’m sure Coming Home will speak to many people. Kingsbury has the gift of being a word in season to many people through her writing, and I commend her for that. But personally, my Kingsbury season is over.

Overall, this was a good novella that was uncomfortably stretched to novel-length through the addition of a lot of repetitive and unnecessary backstory, and a cheesy ending that just made me thankful it was over.

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

25 June 2012

Review: A Plain Death by Amanda Flower

Chloe Humphrey is a twenty-four-year old Masters graduate, a computer geek with a pet cat called Gigabyte and counts two suitcases full of obsolete computer parts among her most precious possessions. She is moving from Cleveland to Appleseed Creek, Ohio, to take a two-year job as Director of Computer Services at the local college. As she is driving to her new home, she picks up an Amish woman who is being harassed by two men. Nineteen-year-old Becky has recently left home, following an argument over her artistic desires, and Chloe finds herself with an unexpected boarder who places her in the middle of a family argument.

Things get even more untidy when Becky borrows Chloe’s car without permission, and has an accident which kills the Amish Bishop. But what appears at first to be a simple car accident turns into a murder investigation, and Chloe works with Becky’s handsome older brother, Timothy, to determine who the likely victim was, investigate who could possibly want to kill them. Timothy has left the Amish faith, and is now working at the college as a carpenter. Meanwhile, Chloe has been asked to make budget cuts in her new role, which will mean making one of her staff redundant, which is not a decision she wants to make.

I really enjoyed A Plain Death. It is a cozy mystery set in an area with significant Amish and Mennonite populations, and involves both Plain and Englisher characters, which I find more interesting than a story centred around the Amish. It also has an intelligent and likeable heroine working closely with a strong, good-looking hero to solve a mystery, with a good level of suspense and a little romance thrown in. All that was missing was… um, no. That would be a spoiler. I look forward to reading more about Chloe, Timothy and Appleseed Creek in future books.

Thanks to B&H Books and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

22 June 2012

Review: Crazy Dangerous by Andrew Klavan

Crazy Dangerous first caught my attention as a review title because of the name – the juxtaposition of words reminded me of Hideous Kinky, the movie starring Kate Winslet, where the two girls combined words to come up with strange combinations. Crazy Dangerous fit the bill. The opening line also caught my eye: “You see that dead guy by the side of the road? ... That’s me”. So many books seem to have similar plots that I’m always looking for something original. A novel narrated by a dead guy? Yes, that’s a new one.

Well, it soon turns out that Sam Hopkins, the 16-year-old narrator, is not actually dead, although he was beaten up for defending weird classmate Jennifer, who speaks in rhyme and has hallucinations. Sam’s first-person narrative addresses the reader directly, and is interspersed with more distant third-person chapters from Jennifer’s view point. Jennifer’s passages gradually become less and less coherent, as though she is losing grip on reality.

Jennifer has recurring nightmares featuring creatures that want to kill her, and after Sam saves her, she becomes convinced that his name is a magic charm that will ward off the evil. (It isn’t.) But one of her visions seems to come true, and now she is convinced that something evil is going to happen on Sunday. Meanwhile, Sam has been challenged to ‘Do right. Fear nothing’ after finding a statue in his father’s study, and Sam is starting to wonder where this will lead...

Despite the gripping opening, the writing at the beginning of the book the style was lacking. Exclamation marks are overused, there is a lot of repetition (e.g. sentences beginning with the same word) and there are examples of odd word usage (at one point, "the car pulled a great big Huey, turning full around". A Huey is a helicopter, so I can only assume the author was trying to say ‘pulled a u-turn’).

However, the writing improves as the story progresses, and the second half of the novel moves very quickly as Sam tries to work out what Jennifer’s visions mean. Overall, the beginning and ending of Crazy Dangerous more than made up for a shaky middle, providing an exciting Young Adult suspense with solid Christian themes.

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

20 June 2012

Review: Five Miles South of Peculiar by Angela Hunt

Magnolia Caldwell lives in the family estate of Sycamores, located five miles south of a small town called Peculiar, in Jackson County, Florida. Nolie lives with her sister, Darlene, and two large dogs, and is pretty satisfied with her life but there are changes on the way. The Sycamores estate will soon revert to town ownership, and the homeless and divorced Reverend Eric Payne is offered a room in exchange for maintenance services. More surprising, Darlene’s twin sister, Carlene, is about to return home after a throat surgery destroys her singing voice and Broadway career. The twins are about to turn fifty, and Nolie is working with the town mayor to plan the party.

As the story progresses, we find that each of the sisters is hiding a secret. Darlene is jealous of her successful twin, and the sacrifices she made for Carlene. Meanwhile, Carlene is jealous of Darlene's marriage to Griff, and can only bear visiting Sycamores now that Griff has been dead for five years. And Nolie has never quite recovered from being left at the altar many years ago, so spends her time walking her dogs and sewing aprons for all the women in town.

I was initially attracted to Five Miles South of Peculiar by the eccentric title, and because I have enjoyed many of Angela Hunt’s books in the past (some more than others). Five Miles South of Peculiar is clearly literary fiction, in that the focus is more on relationships, although the plot includes a little romance. For that reason, I found it quite hard to get in to, as it felt as though I was just waiting for something to happen. There were some issues with clumsy point of view changes, with one passage being clearly from Darlene’s viewpoint, then switching to Nolie or Carlene without the usual break to indicate a scene change (although that could have just been a result of the pdf to Kindle conversion).

Once I got into it, I found Five Miles South of Peculiar revealed itself to be an enjoyable and sometimes humorous novel, with twin themes of forgiveness and choices. Nolie shows us that a lot of our happiness in life is around the choices we make, particularly the way we choose to react to things that affect us. While those things can hurt, we have to make the decision to forgive and move on, to be happy.

Thanks to Howard Paperback and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

18 June 2012

Review: Love on Laird Avenue by Cindy A Christiansen

Tatum Stewart has just graduated from University and is looking to escape from the shadow of her over-protective (and rich) father. She plans to start her own computer programming business, seriously look for a boyfriend and renovate the dream house she has just purchased in lovely Laird Avenue. Unfortunately, the house has a secret hidden in the basement that is about to attract some unwanted attention.

Ryan Bulldarren is an expert at all things around home renovation, with all the skills of a builder, electrician, plumber and architect all rolled into one. Unfortunately, he also has a learning difficulty which means he lacks confidence in his professional abilities – and his ability to maintain a relationship. Ryan and Tatum are immediately attracted to each other, but the path of true love isn’t going to run smoothly, between Tatum’s blind dates and the intruders who keep trying to get into the house.

The prologue suggested that Love On Laird Ave was going to be a romantic suspense, but actually it was more romantic comedy with a bit of suspense thrown in. I enjoyed the plot, and Ryan is a really likeable character (although I’d normally be suspicious of any man who can recognise a pair of $500 mens shoes in the dark).

However, I found Tatum to be a little over-the-top for my taste, and found it difficult to believe that she had the intelligence to graduate college. I know she’s meant to be a poor little rich girl striking out to gain independence, but seriously? Buying new clothes every day because she doesn’t know how to turn on an electric washing machine? Wanting to be independent but allowing Daddy to underwrite the mortgage? (Daddy’s obviously underwriting the credit card and the $275 haircuts as well). Inviting blind dates off an internet matchmaking site home to dinner – without a chaperone?

Love On Laird Ave is a self-published novel, and while the proofreading was excellent, there were some editing issues, such as repetition (e.g. twenty sentences beginning with the word ‘she’ in two pages). There are also some issues with the narrative, with too much ‘tell’ and not enough ‘show’, but overall, this is an easy-to-read romance with some nice writing that would benefit from some editorial polish.

Thanks to Cindy A Christiansen and Secret Cravings Publishing for providing a free ebook for review.

P.S. Although most of my reviews are Christian fiction, this one is not. It is a 'clean' read, but none of the main characters have any religious conviction, Christian or otherwise, and it is written by a Mormon. It is set in Utah, so there are a handful of references to the Mormons (specifically, around Prohibition) but nothing particularly 'religious'. 

15 June 2012

Review: From Across the Ancient Waters by Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips is a prolific author of Christian fiction. He abridged and modernised the novels of 19th century Scottish author George MacDonald, and has authored dozens of his own novels, with settings as diverse as revolutionary Russia, World War II Poland and Germany, expansionist America and contemporary Israel. His novels are all meticulously researched and feature deep spiritual truths interwoven into an interesting and often complex plot.  One possible criticism of Phillips' work is that he has a tendency to model his fiction on MacDonald's works, so his books can appear overly descriptive and preachy.

From Across the Ancient Waters is set in the fictional village of Llanfryniog on the north coast of Wales, the country where I was born. However, I have to hope that Phillips' north Wales is more attractive than my memories, which are of a cold and windswept coastline dominated by a particularly ugly nuclear power station (admittedly with the beauty of Snowdonia in the background).

Although I really wanted to like From Across the Ancient Waters, I could barely read it, although I tried several times (Amazon reviewers have commented on the slow start). I gave up in Chapter Six, at this character description: “like many adolescents—ruled by a lust for autonomy, seduced by premature self-reliance, possessed of self-gratification, and eschewing common sense in the choosing of associations”. This reminded me of Dickens in the elevated vocabulary, the intruding omniscient point of view and the moralising interjections. I was just not sufficiently interested in any of the characters to keep reading. (Dickens was apparently paid by the word, which is why he never uses a brief sentence when a page or two will do).

I really liked Michael Phillips' books once, but his past successes cannot make up for the fact that writing styles have changed and his, if this book is anything to go by, has not. Perhaps my tastes have changed. Perhaps writing styles have only changed in popular fiction, not literary fiction. If that is the case, then this falls clearly in the literary fiction camp, while I am not.  Recommended for students of 19th Century literature and lovers of the King James Bible.

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

13 June 2012

Review: H2O by Austin W Boyd and Brannon Hollingsworth

My initial feeling about H2O was uncertainty - it is narrated by Kate Pepper, a 102-pound size 2 aerospace marketing executive and sushi chef who slices off part of her palm while catering a work-related dinner party hosted by her gorgeous but controlling boyfriend, Xavier. I'm not big on blood and I don't like controlling men in fiction or in real life, so this was not a promising start.

But underneath the doubtful beginning there is the start of a puzzle, a mystery, about Kate's reactions to the everyday miracle of water. Kate blacks out in the shower following her hand injury, and this turns out to be just one of many blackouts, always precipitated by water. It isn't long before she starts seeing things during her blackouts, and it becomes unclear what is real and what isn't. She starts searching for answers on the internet, and connects with someone with the known as WRKRJC, who attempts to help Kate make sense of her visions.

Some aspects of the novel felt little odd, like having WiFi explained. I thought that wireless internet technology was virtually omnipresent in the English-speaking world. Others (like the character names Thomas Cook and John Connor, better known respectively as a global travel company and the hero of the Terminator movies) made me wonder if there was something I was missing. And the special coffee roast from the mountains of New Zealand? I don’t think so. Most of our mountains are ski-fields, not exactly conducive to growing a warm-weather crop like coffee.

But despite this, I found the book intriguing, thought-provoking and well worth reading. H2O is rich in symbolism (to the point of almost being allegorical) with excellent use of language. It’s different to most of the Christian fiction on the market today and defies a straightforward genre description, being part literary, part speculative and part romance. I really enjoyed it, and am glad I persevered with it. Recommended.

Thanks to Living Ink Books (imprint of AMG Publishers) and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

11 June 2012

Review: Yesterday's Stardust by Becky Melby

In 1924, 15-year-old Francie Tillman of Osseo, Wisconsin, runs away from home to join her sister in Chicago and follow her dream of being a fashion designer. But life doesn’t always work out how you planned, and she finds herself living her sister and illegitimate nephew under the ‘protection’ of local bootleggers who control her every move with threats to her family.

In the present day, award-winning journalist and Christian Dani Gallagher is finding that it's harder to write the story when there is a personal connection. In following up a story about a gang suicide, she meets handsome chef Nicky Fiorini, and his sister, Renata. Dani finds a diary that seems to link to Nicky’s restaurant, so the two of them read together and discover Francie’s story. Meanwhile, Renata is facing problems with her gang boyfriend, but has no way to escape his influence, and Dani wants to help, to share God’s love with Renata and the other gang ‘sisters’.

Yesterday's Stardust alternates back and forward between the past and the present, with gradual clues showing the physical links between the past and the present, and the underlying theme of change: the more things change, the more they stay the same, as Francie and Renata face similar problems decades apart. There is also the hint of a romance between Dani and Nicky, if he will allow himself to trust God again.

The past-and-present is an interesting plot device, and Melby works it to her advantage. I was also impressed by her use of language (I particularly like Roman Catholic Nicky’s thought that “he knew the exact moment he’d stopped praying to the figure on the cross and started talking to the living God. He also knew the exact moment he’d stopped”) and the sense of mystery.

Recommended, perhaps not so much because of the story but because of the way Becky Melby uses Yesterday's Stardust to challenge us, as Christians, to step out of our comfort zone and see the downtrodden in society the way Jesus would - and to do something about it. Her reasoning as to why teens join gangs is chilling.

Yesterday's Stardust is the second book in Becky Melby’s Lost Sanctuary series, and it is much better than the first (Tomorrow's Sun), in that the characters are much more human and therefore likeable. The stories are designed to be read as stand-alone novels, as they are related only in theme: a contemporary romance playing against the historical suspense.

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

8 June 2012

Review: Threat of Darkness by Valerie Hansen

Nurse Samantha has an unexpected run-in with criminals just when John, her ex, returns to her small town as the new Police detective. He is assigned to her case, and they are forced to re-evaluate their relationship as they try and solve the crime.

If you want me to believe your heroine is clever enough to be a qualified nurse, then make her act like it. Don’t have her continually doing things that put her in the TSTL (too stupid to live) category. For example, she lives in an isolated house, but doesn’t have a home telephone line (just a mobile phone, in an area where you apparently can’t always get a signal), she doesn’t have car insurance, she doesn’t bother to tell the police that she was accosted in the parking lot even though it’s obviously related to the case… need I go on? It makes her unlikeable, and it means that we find it difficult to have any liking or respect for the hero, because he is obviously lacking in judgement to find this woman so attractive (not to mention that he was a dimwit for leaving her in the first place).

As you can no doubt tell, I was disappointed by Threat of Darkness. I usually really enjoy romantic suspense novels, so I was looking forward to reading this. Unfortunately, it didn’t measure up to expectations. In fairness to Love Inspired authors, they are hampered by low word count limits (not more than 60,000 words where a regular novel is 90,000 plus) and indifferent editing (exemplified by the overuse of exclamation marks). But I have read and enjoyed other Love Inspired novels – just not this one.

Thanks to Love Inspired Suspense (an imprint of Harlequin) and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

7 June 2012

Review: Love on the Range by Jessica Nelson

“A man’s treatment of a woman’s basic rights says much of his character.”

Gracelynn Riley has travelled from Boston to the wilds of Harney County, Oregon, in search of the mysterious and misunderstood Striker, lawman and protector of defenceless women. She hopes that finding and interviewing him will provide her with the opportunity to earn a job as a journalist at the Woman’s Liberator, as an alternative to the society marriage her parents have planned for her. Not to mention the fact that she is half in love with the unknown stranger...

It is 1918, and the country is in the midst of a influenza pandemic, and her parents have sent to Oregon to stay with her Uncle Lou, to reduce her risk of catching the deadly disease (this does seem a little odd – Gracie’s parents dislike Lou, and I would have thought she was more at risk of catching the disease from all the strangers on the long train journey than she would have been in Boston). Anyway, Gracie meets Trevor Cruz on the train, and then finds out that he works for her Uncle Lou. She also finds out that Mary, Lou’s housekeeper, was once rescued by Striker himself.

It soon becomes apparent (to the reader, if not to Gracie) that while no one in town claims to know anything about the mysterious lawman, someone knows something. In fact, it is entirely possible that a lot of ‘someones’ know something, and that there is a conspiracy to hide the information from outsiders like Gracie. I think my main frustration was that the identity of Striker is heavily hinted at, then confirmed to the reader, but Gracie was rather slow to catch on.

Overall, Love on the Rangeis a solid debut novel, nicely-written, with are shades of Lori Wick in the use of language. The historical setting of the end of the Great War and the 1918 Influenza pandemic has been nicely integrated into the overall storyline to provide a pleasant, if lightweight, read.

Thanks to Love Inspired Historical (an imprint of Harlequin) and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

6 June 2012

Review: Her Lone Star Cowboy by Debra Clopton

This week I am looking at three Love Inspired novels. These are published by Harlequin in three Christian fiction lines: Love Inspired, for contemporary romance, Love Inspired Historical, for historical romance, and Love Inspired Suspense, for romantic suspense. As with all Harlequin novels, the Love Inspired stories follow a pretty strict formula and a shorter length than most novels. These factors can impact on their ability to tell a good story.

First up is Her Lone Star Cowboy by Debra Clopton. As with any Love Inspired story, the heroine (vet assistant Gabi Newberry) meets the hero (in this case, cowboy Jess Holden) pretty early on in the story when he helps rescue Gabi and two calves from the path of a tornado. Gabi is back in Mule Hollow, Texas, having returned to her childhood home after she becomes a Christian and her fiancĂ©, Phillip, broke up with her because of her new faith. She and Jess become close after cattle is found mysteriously dead on his family ranch and the two must work together to find what is poisoning the stock.

Her Lone Star Cowboy is the twentieth Mule Hollow book, and continues the matchmaking theme of the rest of the series. Fans will no doubt want to read this to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. However, it works equally well as a stand-alone novel. It’s not great literature, but it is an enjoyable way to relax for a couple of hours.

Thanks to Love Inspired (an imprint of Harlequin) and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.