Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Justified (Mended Hearts #2) - Varina Denman

Justified (Mended Hearts, #2)
Publisher:        David C. Cook

Market:            Christian

Genre:             Contemporary Fiction

Series:              Mended Hearts #2

Length:            416 pages

Pub. Date:       June 1, 2015

Description (from Amazon):

In a small Texas town ruled by gossip, Fawn Blaylock believes others are justified in condemning her untimely pregnancy. Stifled by guilt, she yearns for grace while the local football coach treats her with gentle respect.

Justified perfectly captures the rhythm and romance of life in a small town, telling the unforgettable story of a woman searching for renewal, a man looking beyond what others see, and a community torn between judgment and love. It is the unforgettable story of broken dreams, second chances, and relentless hope.


My Review:

I received this book as an Advanced Reader Copy via the publisher at NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I really didn’t know what to expect from this book.  I received an email from the editor at The Christian Manifesto asking for a reviewer.  After looking at the description, it sounded like a book that would interest me; so I took on the assignment.  In hindsight, the description is deeper than the book itself.

I had a lot of issues with this book.

The book was written in first person from Fawn’s perspective alternating with third person somewhat omniscient from Tyler and JohnScott’s perspectives.

Can we just pause here for a moment and say how much I hated pretty much every character’s name?  Okay, small nitpick done.

Fawn is spoiled and whiney.  One of her main focuses being to get back into her pre-pregnancy designer clothes.  Tyler and JohnScott are both more caricatures than realistic characters.  The rest of the supporting characters really don’t seem to have much to them.  They are really more plot devices, coming in to play their part and then stepping out, than a part of the ongoing story.  I didn’t feel that any of the characters were more than one-dimensional or grew as the story progressed. 

The dialogue was hard to follow and jumped around from topic to topic before circling back around.  The characters also belabored their introspection. 

I really didn’t get a grasp of the small town feel that is mentioned in the description.  The characters are going back and forth between bigger Texas cities a lot.  There really is not a lot of gossip or condemnation (other than self) for Fawn to deal with.  A lot of it seems to be in her head. 

The romantic relating…wasn’t.  I felt like a lot of the interactions were cheesy or over the top.  I didn’t really care if anyone got together or had a happily ever after.

As far as spiritual elements to the story, it seems like Fawn tries to have some sort of spiritual revelation of her worth and her forgiveness.  However, it just missed the mark for me.  There was not a lot about redemption or justification aside from a few conversations Fawn and JohnScott have.  The majority of the people who are nice to Fawn are non-Christians.  The church people who are supposedly condemning her just simply aren’t mentioned much (other than throwing her a baby shower.

Aside from those overarching issues, there were so many minor things that just didn’t make sense.  For instance, when a character drank some water and its wetness “washed the soot of bitterness from her lungs.”  What?!?  Hopefully the water she drank didn’t get into her lungs.  That can be deadly.  Then you have Tyler being able to observe nuances of actions and facial expressions from Fawn’s parents across the street in their car from where he was sitting in his truck (although the text had previously said he’d driven off).  Fawn states that JohnScott was at fault along with her for an altercation she has with Tyler at a football game.  Nowhere does the text support that JohnScott has any guilt to hold in that. 

There were also smaller inconsistencies.  The pastor walking to the front of the church then all of a sudden in the back with other characters.  Fawn thinking about the football game and then the text saying by the time she got home she had already pushed the game far from her mind.  Later she goes to one of JohnScott’s football games with the rationalization that going will put him out of her mind.  Other inconsistencies or head scratching incidents would include spoilers but suffice it to say there were plenty.

Then there was just wrong information like when Fawn’s doctor said the lotion she used interfered with hearing her baby’s heartbeat on the Doppler.  To my knowledge (and Google research), there is no lotion that interferes in that way.  Also, Fawn was pregnant for longer than the normal 9 months, clearly had no idea she was in labor, and was able to birth her baby in two pushes.

I’m a detailed person and so while I can handle an inconsistency or two with grace, a book full of them can send me over the edge – as this one did. 

There are some edgier topics covered – premarital sex, physical abuse, drinking, etc.  None are really written about in an offensive way though.  It is a pretty safe book for all audiences.

In conclusion, had this not been a review book I would have quit reading long before the predictable, anticlimactic end.

***This review also appears on The Christian Manifesto and Goodreads


Cons:  full of inconsistencies; stereotypical characters;

My Rating:  0.5 out of 5 (waste of time)


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Valiant - Sarah McGuire

Publisher:        Egmont USA

Market:            General

Genre:             Juvenile; Fantasy

Length:            384 pages

Pub. Date:       April 28, 2015


Description (from Amazon):

Saville despises the bolts of velvet and silk that her father loves- he's always prized them more than he's ever loved her. Yet when he's struck ill, she'll do anything to survive, even donning boys' clothes and begging a commission to sew for the king.

Piecing together a fine coat is far simpler than unknotting court gossip about an army of giants led by a man who cannot be defeated. And they're marching toward Reggen to seize the throne. But Saville knows giants are just stories, and no man is immortal.

Then she meets them, two scouts as tall as trees. She tricks them into leaving, but tales of the daring tailor's triumph quickly spin into impossible feats of giant-slaying. And mere stories won't deter the Duke and his larger-than-life army.

Now only a courageous and clever tailor girl can see beyond the rumors to save the kingdom again.

My Review:

This book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Apparently this book is a modern retelling of The Valiant Tailor by the Grimm Brothers.  I had no idea about that until I looked at Goodreads after reading.  And I’ve never read the original story.  So I will be making no comparisons between the two. 

I requested the book based solely on the cover and a recommendation from NetGalley (since I had just joined).  So I really had no expectations going into it other than it was a fantasy story aimed at young adult readers.

The book got off to a slow start for me.  I was not very interested for at least the first quarter of the book, but it picked up some from there.  So I was glad to have stuck with it.  I really enjoyed the last quarter plus of the book when the action started moving along.
Saville is a girl wise beyond her years.  Her mother has passed away, and she is being “raised” by her father, the Tailor.  The Tailor receives no sympathy from me because as clearly stated numerous times, he loves his fabric far more than his daughter.  Yet she is still faithful and true to him.

When push comes to shove and things both at home and for the city of Regen get dicey, Saville shines.  She has both wit and wisdom.  She had compassion and is able to connect with those around her.  And she had no problem putting the pieces together to figure out what is really going on.  Kudos to her as there were things that I didn’t see or put together until they were revealed in the text. 

Even the supporting characters – while initially seeming more caricatures – are fleshed out by the end of the story.  They all develop and change throughout the telling. 

This is clearly a fantasy story complete with evil duke and human eating giants.  There is even a love story that slowly unfolds.  It stays chaste with just a few embraces and kisses. 

The few supernatural or spiritual elements present in the story are really more make believe than realistic.  Which I think is perfectly understandable for this genre.  They are also very secondary to the rest of the story.

As far as questionable content goes, well, the giants eat humans and wreak havoc.  While unappealing it is to be expected of giants and the eating is not ever described in detail, just mentioned as fact.  There is also legend of a man who cannot be killed.  The super conservative reader might take issues with these items, but they are all far tamer than anything Disney offers (and I’m sure more so than the Grimm’s original).

I would put the target audience for this novel at upper elementary/young middle school readers.  My 6th grader would like this story about a girl who has adventures.  It would mainly appeal to tweens more than older teens who have cut their teeth on the edgier Hunger Games and similar fare.  While the main character is an older teen, the story itself is appropriate for younger kids, and there is nothing objectionable to label it otherwise.

At its heart, it is a simple story of a girl with great courage, wit, and wisdom.

Pros:  inspiring young female character; character growth all around

Cons:  story drags at the start

My Rating:  3.5 out of 5 (good)

***This review will also post on The Christian Manifesto

Monday, April 20, 2015

Taken - Dee Henderson

Publisher:        Bethany House Publishers

Market:            Christian

Genre:             Fiction; Suspense

Length:            432 pages

Pub. Date:       April 28, 2015


Description (from Amazon):

Abducted at the age of sixteen and coerced into assisting the Jacoby crime family, Shannon Bliss has finally found a way out. She desperately wants to resume some semblance of normal life, but she also knows she has some unfinished business to attend to. She has enough evidence to put her captors behind bars for a very long time.

When Shannon contacts private investigator and former cop Matthew Dane to help her navigate her reentry into society, she quickly discovers that gaining her freedom doesn’t mean her troubles are over. For one thing, her brother is the leading candidate in the race for Illinois governor, and news of her escape will create a media frenzy. For another, the ransom her family reportedly paid years earlier appears to have been a scam; no one knows what happened to the money. And then there’s the fact that Shannon’s escape involved faking her own death. If the Jacoby family learns she is still alive, they’ll stop at nothing to silence her.

If justice is to be done, and if Shannon’s life is ever to get on track again, Matthew will need to discover exactly what happened to her–even if it means stirring up a hornet’s nest of secrets.


My Review:

I received an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I fell in love with Dee Henderson’s storytelling through reading her O’Malley series.  I’ve read most of her other books as well.  They have been more hit-and-miss for me.  So I was anxious to read her latest book and see where on the spectrum it fell. 

The Dee Henderson books I gravitate towards enjoying the most are the ones filled with suspense and action.  Taken missed the mark on that for me.  It was definitely more of an emotionally based book with most of the action being a discussion on past events.  There was also a lot of strategy to work towards justice.  However, there was no suspense in the present day of the book’s setting.  So that was a disappointment to me. 

The book does flow smoothly with the exception of a huge time jump between chapters 34 & 35.  I did lose track of the story time at other parts as sometimes it was delineated out and at other times the story just moved along without time markers.  To me, that wasn’t a big deal.  The balance of dialogue and prose was right on, and the conversations were realistic and helped to move the story line further.

I liked getting to know both Shannon and Matthew.  I also enjoy how Henderson weaves in characters from her other books.  Although I can see that being a bit confusing for a reader who hasn’t read her other books.  

Shannon and Matthew were both realistic – although I think Matthew was more human than Shannon at times.  Their relationship, while predictable, was also sweet. 

Henderson has shown in all of her books that she does know the world of police detective work, the FBI, and that arena.  Every scenario came across with believability. 

I did really like how Henderson handled spirituality in this book.  Shannon never lost her faith in God despite what happened to her and what she witnessed.  But this wasn’t just a given expectation or a rote response.  In a conversation with Matthew, she discussed how God could let something like her kidnapping happen.  They dive into the ideas of free will and good versus evil.  Concepts that I think many people struggle with.  It was all addressed in a way that was thought provoking and not at all preachy. 

There really was not any questionable content in this book.  Despite being more in the suspense genre, there were no graphic descriptions of any of the crimes discussed.

I believe this book would appeal to primarily female readers as there is a strong female lead.  It could cross the boundaries between ABA and CBA to be enjoyed by non-Christians as well.  However, if you are looking for hardcore suspense, this is not the book for you.  It is much more subdued and focused much more on healing and relationship building between characters. 

A worthy read despite not fully meeting my expectations.

Pros:  well-rounded main characters; visiting old character friends; excellent handling of free will and how bad things can happen to good people

Cons:  not as much suspense and action as I like from Henderson

My Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)

**This review will also post on The Christian Manifesto website on 4.24.15.

City of Thieves - David Benioff

City of ThievesTitle:                City of Thieve
Publisher:        Plume

Market:            General

Genre:             Historical Fiction, WWII

Length:            319 pages

Pub. Date:       March 31, 2009


Description (from Amazon):

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, the New York Times bestseller City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.

My Review:

While I’ve read many a World War II book, I had yet to read any set in Russia.  So I was interested in reading this book when it came up in my book club roster for April. 

The story was fascinating even though it covered just a scant few days of time.  The pace kept me interested and turning pages to see what Lev and Kolya would encounter next. 

And then there were Lev and Kolya themselves.  They are such well-developed characters.  Fully fleshed out.  I felt like I could picture them, be walking next to them, know them.  Benioff did a great job creating dynamic characters the reader can feel something for.

I will not be giving this book a rating.  I’m just torn on what it should be.  Based on the story itself and the character dynamics, It’s probably a 4.5 (or even a 5) out of 5.  But the language and crude sexual discussions lean me towards giving it only 1.  I just don’t think I could set my personal biases aside to recommend the book because of those (I felt) unnecessary elements.

Pros:  amazing character development; engaging action

Cons:  a lot of vulgar language; almost constant crude, sexual references and discussion

Friday, April 10, 2015

The First Principle - Marissa Shrock

The First Principle

Publisher:        Kregel Publications

Market:            Christian

Genre:             YA; dystopian

Length:            240 pages

Pub. Date:       December 20, 2014

Description (from Amazon):

In the not-too-distant future, the United Regions of America has formed. Governors hold territories instead of states, and while Washington, DC, is gone, the government has more control than ever before. For fifteen-year-old Vivica Wilkins, the daughter of a governor, this is life as usual. High school seems pretty much the same--until one day, that controlling power steps right through the door during study hall.

When Vivica speaks out to defend her pregnant friend against the harsh treatment of Population Management Officer Marina Ward, she has no idea she's sowing the seeds of a revolution in her own life. But it isn't long before she discovers her own illegal pregnancy. Now she has to decide whether to get the mandatory abortion--or follow her heart, try to keep the baby, and possibly ruin her mother's chances at becoming president.

A rebel group called the Emancipation Warriors, who are fighting to restore freedoms once held unalienable, offer her asylum. Can Vivica trust these rebels to help her or will they bring everything crashing down around her? Accepting their help may come with consequences she isn't ready to face.

Marissa Shrock's debut novel crafts a chilling story of what may be to come if we allow the economic and moral crises currently facing our country to change the foundations on which we built our independence--and of the difference one person can make when they choose to trust God's lead.

My Review:

I received this book as a review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.  I requested the book for two reasons.  The first being that futuristic dystopian literature is still such a hot area for young adult fiction.  I like to explore authors’ different takes on the prevalent theme.  However, the bigger draw for me was the author herself, Marissa Shrock.  She is a middle school language arts teacher, as I was once, publishing her first novel.  So my assumption was that she would have a good handle on what appeals to teen readers.  I was not disappointed.

Fifteen-year-old Vivica Wilkins is the daughter of a governor in the not too distant future United Regions of North America.  She has been indoctrinated that government knows best and to toe the line.  Vivica doesn’t question her life until she discovers her illegal pregnancy and begins to wonder about the sanctity of life and if the government is really looking out for the best interest of those it’s meant to serve. 

Vivica is driven by both internal conflict and external events.  She is surrounded by characters who are each true to their own natures and have their own agendas.  This at times creates support for Vivica and her journey and at other times creates a lot of the plot tension that kept me turning pages.

While the idea of a United Regions of North America and the government structures was confusing at times, I think both were adequately explained throughout the story.  It was just such an unfamiliar (yet recognizable) “country” and government system that at times I had to pause in the story and think.  Never a bad thing.  Shrock creates a very believable option of a future society full of government control and the acceptance of any beliefs but those founded on Biblical principles. 

My qualms with the story came in two linked areas.  The first being the relationship between Vivica and the father of her child.  It just seemed a bit too dramatic and forced to me.  It also seemed in place for the sole purpose of pushing Vivica to accept Christ and the Emancipation Warriors beliefs.  The beliefs the Emancipation Warriors are fighting for in the book are unashamedly Christian and biblically based.  Both good things to expose young readers of today too.  However, many times it seemed nothing more than a plot device and will perhaps turn some readers off the book as a whole.

As far as questionable content for the conservative reader, there is both violence (although not graphic) and, as mentioned, teen pregnancy.  However, I believe it is perfectly acceptable for young adult readers.  The book brings a perspective not really found in current YA dystopian novels.  Most are based on the achievement of the individual protagonist.  While Vivica is strong and certainly does her part, it is clear that there is a bigger work at play and that God ultimately helps people succeed.  Additionally, the story world created by Shrock is not as fantastical and fictional as most dystopian worlds tend to be.  She took trends we already see in our current culture and simply magnifies them in her future story world.

Overall, I think this is a worthwhile book for both teens and adults alike.  It made me ponder some of the things I see around me in society and government.  I was rooting for Vivica, which kept me turning pages.  And the book ended in such a way that I wonder if this is the first in a series – an idea that I would fully support as a reader.

Pros:  fast-paced; dynamic protagonist with antagonists I loved to dislike; realistic future worldview

Cons:  some plot jumps; spirituality as plot device

My Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars (Good)

*This review is also posted on The Christian Manifesto website

Come Winter - Clare Gutierrez

Come Winter      

Publisher:        River Grove Books

Market:            General

Genre:             Historical Fiction

Length:            408 pages

Pub. Date:       February 19, 2015


Description (from Amazon):

Lady Caterina Tabor, an extraordinary young girl who, en route to England, finds herself captured and at the mercy of a stern and powerful lord. Forced to work as a common kitchen maid in the dank halls of Dermoth Castle, Caty dreams of her past as a free and autonomous maiden with a bright future in the English courts—did fate have other plans?

This early trial is but the first in a litany of shocking tribulations; imprisoned, abused, accused of sorcery, and kidnapped, Caty’s life is for so long anything but charmed—but you can’t keep a soaring heart shackled. As we follow this misunderstood maiden’s journey through both the unexpected, electrifying joys of new love and the pain of mind-boggling adversity, we become eyewitnesses to the astonishing way she not only transforms herself but also enchants, inspires, and invigorates those around her.

Spanning decades of castle life, treacherous journeys, bloody battles, and heartache, Come Winter is a sweeping yet personal tale of a brave woman who at once embodies and transcends the prescribed, and oftentimes oppressive, roles her society demands. Let Clare Gutierrez (author of Dancing with the Boss) curate your voyage back to the Scottish highlands of ages past—a time and place in which simply staying alive constituted a noble adventure, and becoming a patron of the oppressed and the impoverished could make you a hallowed queen.


My Review:

I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Coming into this book, I didn’t really know what to expect; the write up on NetGalley just seemed interesting. 

I turned the final page pleasantly satisfied.

I was immediately drawn into the story of Caty and her life.  Why was she being sent to court?  Where does she get her strength?  How is she going to deal with each new obstacle?  It was a book I didn’t want to put down.  Caty is strong but not harsh.  She is compassionate and innovative, not to mention intriguing. 

My one complaint would be at times the narrative was confusing as I was unclear how much time, if any had passed.  It seems as the book progressed, the author got better at dileneating that.  But for at least the first half, the timeline seemed sketchy.  Thankfully, for the most part that didn’t hinder the story itself.

I will caution conservative readers that there are moments of passion sprinkled throughout – no more than a handful.  They are always between married individuals and not described in great detail.  Still, they were more than I generally like in my reading.

Pros:  appealing characters; engaging plot; fascinating book

Cons:  uncertain timeline in portions; some passion

My Rating:  4.5 out of 5 (excellent)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Chasing Sunsets - Karen Kingsbury

Chasing Sunsets (Angels Walking #2)Title:                Chasing Sunsets

Author:            Karen Kingsbury

Publisher:        Howard Books

Market:            Christian

Genre:             Fiction

Series:              Angels Walking #2

Length:            336 pages

Pub. Date:       April 7, 2015


Description (from Amazon):

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Karen Kingsbury comes the second novel in a brand-new series about divine intervention and the trials and triumphs of life; the dramatic story of a woman desperate to find deeper meaning in her life.

Growing up in a comfortable home, Mary Catherine wanted for nothing. Though she loves her wealthy parents, their lifestyle never appealed to her. Instead, Mary Catherine pursues meaning through charity work, giving away a part of herself but never giving away her heart.

Mary Catherine lives in Los Angeles with her roommate, Sami, and volunteers at a local youth center with coach Tyler Ames and LA Dodger Marcus Dillinger. Despite Mary Catherine’s intention to stay single, she finds herself drawing close to Marcus, and their budding romance offers an exciting life she never dreamed of. That is, until she receives devastating news from her doctor. News that alters her future and forces her to make a rash decision.

Inspirational and moving, Chasing Sunsets is the story of one woman’s deep longings of the soul, and the sacrifices she’s willing to make in search of healing.

My Review:

As an avid Karen Kingsbury fan from the start, I thought I had read every book she’s written.  However, I somehow missed book 1 in the Angels Walking series.  Perhaps because of that, Chasing Sunsets seems to jump right into the middle of an in progress story.  While that was disconcerting for the first few chapters, Kingsbury does a great job filling in any gaps for readers like me who didn’t read the first book. 

I do believe the description of the book is a bit misleading.  This book is as much about Marcus as it is about Mary Catherine.  It is the story of their individual journeys in relationship with Christ and to find purpose as well as the story of where their journeys intersect with one another.  It is also a story of reaching out to help those in need of hope.  Intermingled is a look at the story from a spiritual perspective – what is going on behind the scenes that the human characters are unaware of. 

There is a good balance of dialogue between characters as well as introspection of the characters themselves.  There is not a lot of description of setting or appearance, but I didn’t feel anything was missing as a result.  As usual with Kingsbury’s books, there was a long list of characters involved in the story telling.  While that can be overwhelming initially, she does such a great job fleshing out each character, it doesn’t stay confusing for long.

As mentioned earlier, this is as much Marcus’s story as Mary Catherine’s.  And I found myself rooting for him more.  While Mary Catherine seemed a bit more self-focused, Marcus was just an all-around likeable guy.  I found Mary Catherine’s quick emotional changes and waffling a bit indulgent.  One moment she’s secure in truly living her life and giddy with love.  Then a few paragraphs later she’s forgotten all of that and is scared and lonely.

The budding romance between the two seemed to blossom quickly.  I’m not a very sentimental person, so at times their interactions seemed over the top.  But overall I think that most readers will enjoy that aspect of the story. 

The parallel stories of what was happening with the people alongside what was happening in the spiritual realm with the angels were fascinating to me.  While I have not ever thought much about angels among us or what they are like personality-wise, I think the picture that Kingsbury painted could be an accurate one.  Jag and Aspen, the two angels assigned to the mission, were both believable.  In the days since I finished reading, I have found myself pondering the spiritual realm occurring in conjunction with my own life. 

The book does deal with gangs, gang violence, and prison.  However, none of these topics are handled lightly or offensively in any way.  They give dimension and movement to other aspects of the story. 

The ending left me with my mouth hanging open.  I couldn’t believe it was the end.  There was so much still to be resolved.  How could it be the last page?!  I guess that means I’ll be anxiously awaiting the third installment…and going back to read the first book while I wait.

My major complaint about the book is that the text is full of little inconsistencies (i.e. for Jag’s past failed mission is it Tom or Terrance Williams?).  They don’t disrupt the overall flow for the story but could be annoying to a discerning reader.

This book would appeal to teen girls and women who like sweet romances, character growth, and pondering the spiritual warfare going on around us.  I think the spiritual realm would be off-putting to some secular readers.  If you are a fan of Karen Kingsbury’s other works, this latest novel will be right up your alley.

Pros:  fast-paced story; likeable characters; leaves the reader wanting more

Cons:  inconsistencies

My Rating:  4 out of 5 (very good)
*This review will also appear on The Christian Manifesto website 4.13.15