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River’s Song

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Melody Carlson. 288 p. Published August 2011 by Abingdon Press.  Advanced review copy provided courtesy of the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Inspirational Fiction

Short Bio: Anna Larson journeys through a mid-life crisis of sorts when she returns to her hometown for her mother’s funeral and takes care of her late parents’ estate.  She finds that living by the river helps her to deal with the disappointment of wanting a deeper relationship with an uninterested teenager daughter and the trauma of living under a manipulative mother-in-law.  In her old hometown, she rediscovers her Native American heritage through the research of a doctoral student, Hazel, and gains the help of Hazel’s contractor son to transform her parents’ local mom-and-pop store into a riverside inn.

Eyewitness Account: Although I have been a Melody Carlson fan in the past, this book was a bit of a disappointment.  It just might not have been my particular brand of tea, but I thought that the plot moved very slowly, the main character seemed oblivious and wimpy, and the relationships rather stereotyped (teenage daughter who is bratty and disinterested, overbearing and manipulative mother-in-law, etc.).  Anna’s relationship with her mother-in-law is complicated by her dependence on the woman, and that situation is resolved much too quickly and easily.  Similarly, for such a shy mouse of a person, her new romance blooms into marriage far too quickly.  However, I did like a few things – at the top of the list, I really enjoyed the emphasis on Anna’s Native American heritage and exploring the idea that we often come to value later in life what we despised when we are younger.  Anna’s mom and grandmother were the most interesting characters in my opinion, but got much less development than the other living characters.  If the book had been centered around them, I probably would have liked it more.  Anna was just a hard person for me to like since she just came across as a naive doormat to me.  I thought this series would have the same warmth and charm that Carlson’s older Whispering Pines series, but it didn’t have the same feel to me.

Other Books Read by This Author:  These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking, Whispering Pines Series

What are other people saying? A Mom with a BlogEmmegail’s Bookshelf, Book Nook Club,

Rating:

★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★☆☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★ Original Idea

★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆

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Sweet Sanctuary

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen-Coloma. 352 p. Published August 2011 by Thomas Nelson.  Advanced review copy provided by the publisher in electronic format through their BookSneeze program in return for my honest review.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Contemporary Fiction

Short Bio (from the publisher):

“Without the storm, how would we know the sweetness of shelter?” -Ruth

Out of the clear blue, Wren’s Grandma Ruth arrives on her doorstep, dreaming of a grand party to celebrate her 95th birthday. Wren and her young son Charlie love the idea, but it quickly gets complicated: Ruth wants Wren’s estranged siblings to attend and she wants Wren to sing her all-time favorite song: “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” It’s the very song Wren sang one fateful day during her childhood . . . and Wren hasn’t sung a note since.

Though she’s glad to have Grandma back in her life, Wren’s sleeping on the couch in her own house now . . . and worried about the expenses piling up. After all, her job at the community library is in jeopardy after budget cuts, and the fancy music program she wants for her son is getting farther and farther out of reach. What’s more, Paul—the guy she’s drawn to yet avoids—ends up being a major part of an important library project.

With family arriving and old wounds resurfacing, Wren’s about to fly when she discovers something special—a gift of grace beyond her wildest dreams.

Eyewitness Account:

Sweet Sanctuary is the story of a single-mom who fights all the usual battles – bringing home the bacon for her little family of two, delving into the ultra-emotional question of what role her ex-husband should have in their lives, moving beyond the relational failures of the past for new dating opportunities, and carrying the great burdens of parenthood alone.   Because no (wo)man is an island, Wren faces all of this on top of the emotional scars of her childhood.  The family tragedy of long ago not only created deep psychological wounds, but has left Wren without the support and presence of her mother and siblings.

Wren’s story is engaging and real, relatable even to those who aren’t in her particular situation.  She’s easy to empathize with, partly because she makes the same mistakes that we probably would.  I liked that her struggles were the usual daily life ones of figuring out how to help her son when he has trouble with his friends, how to handle the difficult family relationships in her life, and how to make life-changing decisions like where to live and what job to take.  I also liked that her journey of faith was authentic – there were times when she remembered to turn to God in faith and times when she didn’t.  Wren’s story emphasized the importance of having faithful friends to remind us to look toward God in all things instead of worrying.

I really loved the writing style throughout (see the excerpt below!) but the plot development at the end felt a little heavy-handed and was followed by a tidy wrap-up.  However, the characters and topics covered made it a worthwhile book to read.  This book had the definite plus of not being a solely “romance” novel – although Wren has a love interest, her potential relationship with a guy is not the crux of the story and blends in much more realistically than many contemporary fiction novels.  I’d recommend this anyone who likes contemporary Christian fiction.   

Sweet Sanctuary was not an incredibly original, fantastic, or mind-bending book – but it was definitely an enjoyable escape and a good reminder that God is into the fixing-up-our-messed-up-lives business. 

Notable Quotes:

(Excerpt)

Working in a library was similar to bartending or sitting in the confessional box. She’d see library patrons at the Friday film nights or around town and many treated her as if she knew all their secrets, based on the books they read, the ones they hated and the ones they loved.

Wren especially enjoyed when a child carried off a new library card, holding his or her head high as if some rite of passage had just occurred, which was exactly how she saw it. The books the patrons borrowed told their stories for them. Wren wondered how the changing of the library would change the people who came searching for books.

In one year at the Cottage Cove Public Library, she had fallen in love with the community like they were the family she longed for.

There were layers here, stories alive in the patrons who visited the library and stories through the characters of the books. The books breathed love, places, stories, cultures, mysteries, evils, beauty, the divine, the humble . . . everything of life was found here.

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? Small Kucing, Christian Fiction Addiction, Maria’s Handmade Love,

Rating:

★★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★★★ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★


The Spoils of Eden / Hawaiian Crosswinds

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Linda Lee Chaikin. 341/350 p.  Published 2010/2011 by Moody Publishers.  Advanced review copy provided to me courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆ (Really, I’d give it 3 1/2)

Who Cares?  Adult Christian Historical Fiction

Short Bio: Chaikin’s newest saga, “The Dawn of Hawaii Series”, debuted The Spoils of Eden in 2010, and was just recently followed by the second, Hawaiian Crosswinds, in June 2011.  The series follows the third generation decendants of the first Hawaiian missionaries, families who by now have vast land holdings as well as great political influence.  Although the plot centers around Eden Derrington’s struggle to fulfil a long-held dream to work with her much-absent father on the leper colony Molokai, finally meet her leprous mother, and hang on to her hunky and hardworking fiancée (Rafe Easton), the saga involves all of the Derrington clan and most especially Eden’s cousins – Candace, Zachary, and Silas. 

Eden’s personal quest to build relationships with her absent parents, as well as with Rafe, is set in the middle of high political tension in Hawaii.  Her grandfather and fiancée both support the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in order to have the protection of both U.S. Navy and U.S. laws at a time when Queen Liliuokalani is pushing for restoration of an absolute monarchy.  The increasing need for manual labor on large fruit and coffee plantations has brought an influx of Chinese and Japanese families who not only threaten the demographic balance of Hawaii, but also bring the corrupting influence of drug and gambling cartels from the Orient.  Eden and her cousins set about the difficult task of following God’s path for their future amidst these warring influences, family pressure to make strategic marriages, and internal doubts and fleshly weaknesses.

Eyewitness Account: First, I must say that Moody Publishers has a great Public Relations department – I had originally requested the Hawaiian Crosswinds galley on NetGalley, and when I received it, the formatting was illegible.  Moody promptly responded to my email by sending me hard copies of BOTH books in the mail (which was great, I hadn’t realized it was the second book in a series!).

I’ve long been a fan of Chaikin’s because of her Heart of India trilogy, which I read several times as a kid (it was published about 20 years ago), so I was super excited to read this series.  Chaikin did not disappoint – this new Hawaiian series has all the same strengths that her Indian series has: interesting and well researched historical period, full cast of diverse characters, interesting and complex plot, and strong undercurrent of spiritual truths.

I was a little taken aback throughout the first book because it felt like Chaikin was info-dumping a whole lot of backstory about the characters – and then I remembered that she had published a Hawaiian book a few years back, and sure enough For Whom The Stars Shine was supposed to be the first book in this series (perhaps you could consider it a prequel)?  I’d read it long enough ago that I didn’t remember any of it, so the backstory helped and I was less annoyed knowing that she was actually referring to a previous novel.  Unfortunately, Shine was published by Bethany House and the Dawn of Hawaii series is under Moody Publishers, so they don’t connect the two at all (leaving me rather confused and put out for most of the first book about the backstory dump).  You might want to pick up Shine first if you’re interested, but it isn’t necessary.

The first two books in the Dawn of Hawaii series are full of complex characters and plot development that take patience to get through, but are worth the effort – most of the advancement takes place through dialogue, which can drive action-lovers bonkers.  It’s a technique, though, that allows Chaikin to focus on the characters and their relationships to one another and provides the medium through which she develops many of her themes, such as Eden and Rafe learning to trust each other enough to confront each other about secrets and concerns.  Chaikin also explores the idea that faith is not something you can inherit like you can a sugarcane plantation, but that you must claim as your own.  Her characters struggle with personal sin and weakness in very human ways, like jealousy of step-siblings or anger towards abusive parents.  They also battle to determine what God’s path for their future is – Candace trying to decide whether she is free to marry for love or obliged to accept her grandfather’s choice of husband, and Eden’s dilemma of putting off her fiancée in order to work with her father and meet her mother.

Another major theme of the book is the plight of the lepers, personified in Eden’s mother and in Kip.  Kip is a young, orphaned boy who is rescued from Molokai by Rafe.  He himself does not have leprosy, but would be banished to a life on the leper colony under the current Hawaiian rules.  Eden and Rafe clash over the question of obeying the local law that Kip must be isolated and perhaps returned to the leper colony, even though he shows no signs of the disease.  Rafe reluctantly allows his own appointment to the legislature on behalf of an absent assemblymen with the sole intent to change such laws that persecute those who are merely associated with, but do not have, leprosy.  Eden’s father, Dr. Jerome, had dedicated his whole life to finding a “cure” for leprosy after his wife contracted the disease and was exiled to Molokai.  Chaikin shows that at this time in Hawaii’s past, leprosy was greatly feared and its victims severely stigmatized.  Several of the characters (including Eden, Dr. Jerome, and the local lay pastor, Ambrose), display compassion for those with the outcast disease and work to give the victims hope and give the fearful peace. 

My only real quibble was that this series was eerily similar to The Heart of India trilogy – large dynastic non-native family, central conflict over an orphaned boy of questionable origin, tyrannical and manipulative uncle, mysterious fires, etc.  There are no characters that are “exactly” the same, but there are enough plot devices in common to make the work feel not entirely original. 

If you like well-researched historical fiction in the tradition of Alex Haley, James Michener, and Herman Wouk, then you’d probably enjoy this series. I’m eager for the third one, hopefully coming out soon!

Try it for free – grab the first chapter of The Spoils of Eden here and Hawaiian Crosswinds here, or just head over to Amazon.com to pick it up!

Notable Quotes:

Two men, two legacies, Rafe mused.  “My father knew how to multiply the land’s produce.  My grandfather knew how to look up at the stars and see the Lord’s footsteps moving silently through eternity.  I am the restless heir of both men, and God will hold me responsible for the pathway I’ve taken.  I can’t live any way I choose, then expect special treatment to be handed to me from God just because [my grandfather] lived a godly life.” 

Other Books Read by This Author: The Heart of India Trilogy, The Everlasting Flame, A Day to Remember Series, Endangered, For Whom the Stars Shine, Desert Rose

What are other people saying?

 Spoils of Eden: Just One More Paragraph, Christian Daily Blog, Once Upon A Romance

Hawaiian Winds: Read Great FictionR Bartel,

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆

Disclosure of Material Connection:
I received this book free from Moody Publishers as part of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


The City in the Lake

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Rachel Neumeier.  294 p.Published 2008 by Alfred A. Knopf. 

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? YA Fantasy

Short Bio (from Booklist):  The City in the Lake is a robust, prosperous kingdom until Prince Cassiel vanishes. Beloved by all, the prince represents the kingdom’s heart, and after his disappearance, life withers throughout the land. In a remote village, 17-year-old Timou’s father, a mage, departs for the city to search for the source of the kingdom’s malaise, and when he doesn’t return, Timou sets off after him. Her journey requires her, for the first time, to draw heavily on her own mage training, and as she circles closer to the kingdom’s mysteries, she finds shocking personal connections and, ultimately, love. 

Eyewitness Account: I picked this up because The Book Smugglers both rated this a “9 – Damn near perfection.” Its got a great title (the City IN the Lake?), beautiful cover, and intriguing plot summary.  Maybe my expectations were a little too high – I thought it was good, but would have given it a 7 or 8 on the Book Smuggler’s rating scale.  Neumeier’s writing is purely beautiful; I had written down 5 different quotes before I even got to chapter 3!  The story is engaging, full of interesting characters and a plot that isn’t wholly predictable.  However, I finished it with a slight sense of disappointment – the story didn’t feel fully developed.  The idea of a single City “anchoring” a multitude of other Cities was a brilliant idea that wasn’t fully fleshed out.  Neumeier had some AMAZING content that I think could have been more perfectly and satisfactorily relayed in a longer book (or perhaps expanded into a series).  Overall, worth reading for her writing style alone!  As this was Neumeier’s first book, I’d imagine her later writings are definitely worth picking up.

Notable Quotes:

“So Timou learned how to catch fire and the memory of fire in glass, how to contain the quick fire in a coal and how to let it loose again, how to find the fire that waited to spring eagerly forth from the heart of dry wood.  And how to try again and again to find such fire when at first she could see nothing but wood, trusting that, because her father said it was there, eventually she would find the heart of it that wanted to burn.”

“She loved these books … she loved their heft in the hand, which so contrasted with the brittle fragility of their pages. She loved the graceful or angled or tightly looping scripts that filled those pages.”

“I am not afraid to have this darkness lie before every step I take, because once I saw into darkness and it was glorious.  Grieve for your father because you lost him, it’s right we should grieve for those we lose, but don’t grieve for him because he’s here, Timou!”

Other Books Read by This Author: None!  Will definitely try “The Floating Islands” next, though.

What are other people saying? The Book Smugglers, Wands and Worlds, The Well-Read Child

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★


The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts:  by Sonya Sones. 432 p.  To be published by Harper Paperbacks in April 2011.  ARC provided courtesy of NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares?  Poetry / Adult Contemporary

Short Bio:  Holly feels caught in “the sandwich generation” – sending her daughter off to college while simultaneously dealing with her mother’s ill health, not to mention the other sundry effects of being a 50-year old woman (dealing with menopause, re-negotiating marriage relationship as kid leaves, etc.).

Eyewitness Account:  Being, myself, a young newlywed with no kids makes the setting of this story something that I can’t easily relate to – and yet, the poems that fill this book are so exquisitely written and full of the just the right balance of information to progress the plot and emotional expression to pull me in, that I found myself incredibly sympathetic to Holly and fully enjoying her journey.

I loved the narrator’s voice and style of expression, often alternating among wit, nostalgia, and raw emotion with ease. I loved the characterization, which gave each person in the story a personality without overly stereotyping. And I liked the plot, which had just enough tension and conflict to stay interesting without being so overblown that it felt artificially constructed. Most of all, I really enjoyed the last few poems at the end that set the whole story in context and provided a very positive and hopeful response to what could be seen as a depressing set of circumstances.

Note: Even though this book is technically a composite of “poems”, it reads more like lyrical prose.  I may not have picked the book up if I had known it was a series of poems, so I’m glad that I didn’t know that to begin with.  If that genre makes you wary – read the first couple poems before making up your mind.

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? Esmerelda’s Book Thing, Holly Weiss, Lets Eat Grandpa 

Rating:

★★★★★ Plot Development

★★★★ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★> Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★


The Inheritance of Beauty

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Nicole Seitz. 320 p. Published Feb 2011 by Thomas Nelson.  Read as an advanced review copy, courtesy of NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Contemporary / Historical Fiction

Short Bio: “The Inheritance of Beauty” is an engaging story told from the perspective of a couple, George and Magnolia, who are aging in a retirement home somewhere in the South.  As Magnolia’s present-day mind withers from dementia/Alzheimer’s, her memories of her childhood tell the story of scarring childhood events that were shared by her brother and her, now husband, friend George.  A series of “providential” occurrences bring closure on the past, not only for them, but also for the gentle caretaker who looks after them at the nursing home.

Eyewitness Account: The plot summary hardly does justice to the deep themes that run through this book – themes of childhood, aging, guilt, blessing, curses, and forgiveness. I’ve never read such an interesting tale of how our actions affect the generations after us – the biblical idea of our sins cursing our children and grandchildren. Yet, the author deftly weaves in the parallel biblical truth: that it takes only one person to redeem the generational line back for blessing.

The author absolutely excelled at telling the story through the eyes of different characters – through the insecure and frail George, the mute and sheltered Magnolia, the faithful caretaker, Annie, and the lonely prodigy, Joe. Each voice was distinctly different, and contributed well to the development of both the characters and the plot.

I also loved the element of magic/the supernatural that Seitz brought into the story – like all of the other plot elements, I found it interesting while still being believable (something difficult to pull off!). My only critique is that it was a book that read slowly – probably due to the constant switching between the present and the past. It worked exceptionally well for the characterization, but bogged down the flow of the plot a bit.

I would definitely recommend this for those who like their literary meals with substance and leftovers to think about later!

Other Books Read by This Author:  none

What are other people saying? Thoughts From a Princess, Faithful Reader, Musings by Lynn

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★★★ Characterization

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★