Reviewed for THC Reviews The Notebook is a poignant story of true and unending love in its purest form, and the power and magic of love to defy all oddReviewed for THC Reviews The Notebook is a poignant story of true and unending love in its purest form, and the power and magic of love to defy all odds. It begins with an elderly man, sitting by his wife's bedside, reading her a story. From there, we travel back in time to when star-crossed lovers Noah and Allie met as teenagers in 1932 and spent one magical summer together. They were from opposite sides of the tracks. Allie was from a well-to-do family with political connections, and Noah was more or less a nobody. An aristocratic type system still prevailed in the South, so Allie's family didn't approve of a match with Noah and the two were separated for fourteen years. Noah moved to New Jersey where he worked for several years before joining the Army and heading for Europe to fight in WWII. Allie went to college, abandoned her artwork of which her parents did not approve, and eventually became engaged to an attorney of whom they did approve. Over the years, neither was able to forget the other. Noah has had no successful relationships since, because the ghost of the time he spent with Allie still haunts him, and deep down, Allie knows there is something missing in her relationship with her fiancé.
Neither really knows what became of the other until Allie sees a picture of Noah in a local newspaper just three weeks before her wedding. Seeing him again, stirs memories and emotions, and even though she doesn't really know why at the time, she is compelled to go see him in person one last time before getting married. She tells her family and fiancé that she needs to get away from the stress of wedding planning and heads for New Bern alone. Noah can hardly believe his eyes when the woman of his dreams pulls up in front of his house one day out of the blue. The longing and desire between Noah and Allie is extremely moving and palpable and hasn't dimmed one bit in fourteen long years. I love how they slip right back into a comfortable relationship as though they've never been apart. It's obvious that they're soul mates and perfect for each other, and in their heart of hearts, they know it too. After only one evening with Noah, Allie knows that what they share is something she's never had with her fiancé and never will.
At the point when Allie must make her fateful decision about which man she is going to choose, the story cuts back to the elderly man and his wife who we discover has Alzheimer's. This part of the book is so powerful and affecting, I read parts of it through a blur of tears. The lengths to which this man goes to help his wife remember the love they share is moving beyond words, an expression of a true and pure love. The way he romances her and gets her to fall in love with him over and over again and persists in doing it day after day, never giving up even when it doesn't always turn out the way he hopes is potent stuff, so much so that I'm sitting here crying my eyes out while writing this. It's the kind of love I think we all hope for, but so few seem to actually achieve.
Many readers seem to categorize The Notebook as romance, but I don't see it as such. For me, romance as a genre, usually only follows the couple through the falling in love stages of the relationship with the happily ever after implied. It taps into the fantasy of what we want love to be, while The Notebook takes that one step further. Not only do we get to see the beginnings of a relationship, we also get to see one very advanced in years, but no less passionate for the passage of time. It also takes a more realistic look at what it truly means to love someone. It's not just the gooey feeling we get when first falling in love or the sexual desire that soon follows. It's something that can last a lifetime when nurtured and a couple is fully committed to one another. Make no mistake, The Notebook is very romantic, but to me it is not merely a romance, but a love story.
The Notebook was my first read by Nicholas Sparks and certainly won't be my last. It was also his debut novel and very impressive for a first effort. The opening chapter and the latter part of the book with the elderly couple is written in first person, present tense which was beautifully rendered, giving these parts a deep sense of immediacy. Noah and Allie's story in the past is written in third person, past tense. This part was wonderful too, but I did have a small problem with the second chapter. When the author goes back to Noah and Allie's first meeting that summer, he tells it more like a narrator relating a story which made it a little difficult to get into at first. Because of the passive nature of this passage, I wasn't able to fully immerse myself on an emotional level like I wanted to and couldn't help wondering if it might have been better if written in a more active voice. Once the narrative got to Noah and Allie's reunion it was much better and only improved with every page I read. The ending was so utterly beautiful, I couldn't help giving the book the full five stars despite the early misstep.
Mr. Sparks definitely has a way with words, turning prose into pure poetry. There are so many quotable passages in this book, I almost feel like putting the whole thing in my memorable quotes file. For some reason, I was under the impression that Nicholas Sparks' books didn't have any love scenes in them, but apparently I was mistaken. I was very pleasantly surprised to find one, as well as other expressions of sexual desire, and even though that one love scene is only moderately descriptive, it was very sensual and emotional, unexpectedly well done for a male author. The Notebook is the first story in a duet about members of the Calhoun family, and I very much look forward to reading its sequel, The Wedding. This book has certainly found a spot on my keeper shelf. Reading it was a touching and emotional experience that has left a huge impression on me. It was an inspiring, thought-provoking, powerful and passionate love story that was absolutely unforgettable....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews Salem Falls was my first read by Jodi Picoult, and I have to say, it did not disappoint. It was an intriguing, multi-layered,Reviewed for THC Reviews Salem Falls was my first read by Jodi Picoult, and I have to say, it did not disappoint. It was an intriguing, multi-layered, dramatic story steeped in small-town secrets and lies. Salem Falls was inspired by Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a story which I haven't read, but about which I'm now curious. In her interview at the end of the book, Ms. Picoult talks about how she wanted to update The Crucible, but also wanted to tell a story about how lies often spread faster than the truth and how it can be easier to believe those lies. I think the author succeeded beautifully in her mission. I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded person and would like to believe that I would be more like Addie, but if I were in the shoes of the townspeople or jurors in the story, I'm not entirely sure I would have believed Jack's story either. Even Addie and the few other people who ended up on Jack's side had their doubts about his innocence initially. I also felt that Ms. Picoult applied a very gentle hand and a fair approach when tackling the potentially controversial topics of witchcraft and rape. Somehow the author drew all the pieces and players together to craft an ingenious story that kept me engrossed throughout.
Salem Falls very much has an ensemble cast, but the story really centers around Jack St. Bride. He was a respected teacher at a girls' prep school, until a fateful event changed his life forever. A student allowed her father and other authority figures to believe she'd had a sexual relationship with Jack, which eventually led to him being charged with statutory rape. Thinking they had no chance of winning if the case went to trial, Jack's attorney advised him to accept a plea bargain in which he would plead guilty to a lesser charge. Although Jack hated doing it, he decided it was better than the alternative if they were to lose. The story begins with Jack being released from prison after spending eight months there, and now he's trying to begin a new life while working as a dishwasher in a small-town diner. From the beginning, I found Jack to be a very sympathetic character who definitely got a raw deal. I think an unjust charge of sexual assault can ruin a man more thoroughly then perhaps any other crime, and we see all the ways in which it affects his life, chief among them that nearly an entire town turns against him. Jack is described as physically attractive with a charming personality, but what made him most appealing to me was his intelligence. He has a PhD in history, and he's a major trivia buff who can answer nearly every Jeopardy question correctly. While Jack initially tried to keep to himself, his caring side showed through in his observance and intuitiveness of the people around him. The author adds layers to Jack's character by telling his life story backwards in flashbacks all the way back until the day he was born. Each little snippet added something to his character to help the reader see what made him the man he was in the present.
Another way that the author fleshes out Jack's character is through his romantic relationship with his boss and diner owner, Addie Peabody. Addie has suffered through multiple tragic events in her life, one of which could have given her every reason in the world not to trust Jack, but she does anyway, even after she finds out about his stint in prison. When the worst happens and Jack is accused of rape a second time, Addie initially has some doubts, wondering if she could have been wrong about him. She embarks on a fact-finding mission of her own, which eventually convinces her of Jack's innocence on all counts. From there, she becomes his steadfast rock throughout all the turmoil of the trial. I think a large part of her loyalty lies in her gratefulness to Jack for changing her life. When she and Jack first met, Addie seemed perfectly sane and normal on the outside, but inside, she's still buried in the pain of the past and having a hard time letting go. This grief manifests itself in an unusual way which leaves many of the townspeople thinking of her as crazy Addie. Jack sees beneath all that and gets to the heart of the matter, helping Addie to finally put her demons to rest, and in the process, he also helps her father who has a rather sordid history with alcohol.
As I mentioned before, Salem Falls has an extremely varied character palette and the reader gets to experience the story from many different angles. Next most important after Jack and Addie are the four girls who bring the second rape allegation against Jack. The de facto leader of the group, Gillian, is the instigator of pretty much all of their exploits and the one who suggested that they form their own coven. Some of the things they do as a group are relatively benign, while others, namely Gillian accusing Jack of raping her, have far-reaching effects. Gillian is almost as layered of a character as Jack and Addie. Most of the time, I wanted to dislike her, because I was fairly certain Jack didn't do what she was accusing him of. At the same time, when everything comes full-circle at the end, I felt sorry for her and wished there could have been a different ending for her. There were definitely more secrets that needed to come out. Another stand-out character is Jack's defense attorney, Jordan. I think he's going through a bit of a mid-life crisis when he's asked to step in as the court-appointed council. I know some people think of criminal lawyers as evil, because of how they sometimes are able to persuade a jury to acquit someone who is as guilty as sin, but I thought Jordan put a pretty good face on his profession. Readers get to see that he does it because he feels that everyone deserves their day in court and as good of a defense as he can muster. Most of the time he doesn't really care whether his client is guilty or innocent, but with Jack, this changes somewhat. Once Jordan really started buying Jack's innocence, I think he worked that much harder to make sure Jack wasn't sent to prison again. Jordan also gets to rekindle a romance with Selena, his top investigator and former lover. We also get a balanced view by seeing the other side of the courtroom through the eyes of Matt, the prosecutor, who is equally determined not to allow what he perceives as an injustice to occur. There are lots of other secondary characters who build a vibrant cast and bring the town of Salem Falls to life. In fact, the POV changes approx. every one to three pages, which at first, was a little hard to follow. I kept forgetting who certain characters were. With a little extra focus, I was finally able to keep everyone straight, and in the end, it was definitely worth the effort. The way all their lives slowly intertwined into a complex web was thoroughly intriguing.
In some ways, I think Jodi Picoult took a big risk by setting up a man who was accused of rape, not just once, but twice, as the actual victim, but I think it paid off in spades. I would never in a million years minimize the trauma experienced by actual rape victims, and I know that there are many who have never gotten justice for the crimes committed against them. However, we mustn't forget that there is a flip side to the coin in which some alleged perpetrators did not commit the crime of which they're accused and some have even done jail time for it. In my opinion, Jack's case followed a very believable chain of events that easily could have happened to a man in real life under similar circumstances. Much like the townspeople and even his lover, Addie, I occasionally doubted Jack's innocence. More than once, I asked myself, “Did he finally become the monster they made him out to be?” I think this was all part of the beauty of the storytelling, because we, as the readers, get to experience both sides of what was happening. I found my first foray into Jodi Picoult's work to be a highly satisfying feast for the intellect. It was an intense, thought-provoking drama which I'm still mulling over hours after turning the final page. Salem Falls isn't even one of Ms. Picoult's highest rated books overall, so I can only assume that some of her other books are even better than this one, although that's difficult to imagine after such an amazing read....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I had recently been lamenting the fact that I hadn't read a true tear-jerker yet this year. I have been know to get a bit mistReviewed for THC Reviews I had recently been lamenting the fact that I hadn't read a true tear-jerker yet this year. I have been know to get a bit misty-eyed at certain scenes, but it is a rare book that makes me actually shed tears. The Christmas Shoes did exactly that and more. It made me cry buckets both while reading it and afterwards while merely thinking about it, and again while trying to write this review. There is a profound and beautiful message packed into this simple short story. It may have been difficult to read at times, evoking many deep and heartfelt emotions, but it was worth every moment. I have been left thinking about it long after turning the last page, which is what I hope for every time I pick up a book to read.
My favorite movie at Christmastime is It's a Wonderful Life, and The Christmas Shoes reminded me of it in some ways. Both stories are about the serendipitous nature of life and how each of our lives are important, intertwined with the lives of others, and can affect anyone with whom we come in contact in unexpected ways. It may not seem like some small thing we've done even mattered, but it's possible that it was the thing that utterly changed another person's life, all by us merely being in the right place at the right time. The meeting between Robert and Nathan in The Christmas Shoes was very brief, but during that short encounter, Nathan gave Robert a much-needed wake-up call, while Robert opened his heart enough to fulfill Nathan's Christmas wish for his dying mother. It all makes me wonder in what mysterious and unknown ways I might have affected the life of someone with whom I've come in contact, over the forty years of my own life.
I believe that The Christmas Shoes is the first book I've read that alternates between first and third person perspective. Robert's scenes are written in his first-person voice, while the rest of the book is written from the third-person point of view of various other characters. I didn't really have any difficulty following it, but it did take a little getting used to. Overall, I think this style worked well. Robert was the character whose life seemed to be the most affected, so it made sense to have his part be in first person. No matter what voice they were speaking in, all the characters were vividly brought to life in a touching and realistic way.
In the beginning, Robert is difficult to like. He is a rather selfish workaholic attorney who has become very materialistic and cynical (think shades of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol). His life is about to fall apart with his wife asking for a divorce after Christmas, but he still can't seem to figure out what he truly wants in life or how to make it happen. He also isn't very nice to some of the other characters in the story, and never really spends any time with his family. Once I came to the realization that Robert is a man who has lost his way and doesn't comprehend what is truly important in life, I was able to feel more sympathetic toward him, but real change doesn't come for him until he meets up with an eight-year-old little boy while doing last minute Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.
While Robert's lifestyle is one of wealth bereft of human connections, Nathan's family has lived very simply, barely making ends meet on his father's salary as a mechanic, yet they have a home that is brimming full of love. His mother, Maggie made it that way, but now she is dying of cancer. I thoroughly admired Maggie's strength and dignity in the face of death. She didn't complain or ask “Why me?”. She chose to live her final days giving as much as she was physically able to her family. Maggie and Jack had a tragic romance to be sure, but one that was filled with more love in the seemingly short time they had together than some couples experience in a lifetime. That love was obviously passed on to their children, especially Nathan who was thoughtful enough to want to give his mother a very special present for her last Christmas with them and in doing so opened the eyes of a man who was lost to help him rediscover his way in life.
Death can be a very difficult topic for some people, and even I have to admit to being a former death phobic. I have slowly been challenged in my thinking on the subject, first by the death of both my parents more than ten years ago, and more recently by the death of two beloved pets who, through their final moments, taught me some very important lessons. It may seem strange to some, but I found a certain peace and beauty in these creature's passings and know that I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else but helping them to make that transition. I mention these things, because I absolutely loved the way Donna VanLiere handles death in The Christmas Shoes. She treats it not as something to be feared, but as something that can be very beautiful, a mere step into the afterlife. I also greatly admired the way that Maggie and Jack handled the subject of her impending death with Nathan. It is my fervent opinion that in cases like this, kids should be treated intelligently and allowed to make their own decisions, which can lead to a better sense of peace and closure for them.
Even though The Christmas Shoes was printed by a mainstream publisher, I have seen the book categorized as Christian fiction, and I suppose in some ways it is. The author is a Christian, and the characters talk about God, heaven, and how Christmas is the celebration of the Christ child's birth. Still, I think that the messages about love, life, death and how the choices we make can affect others, are universal ones that can be appreciated by anyone. In my opinion, the story is never preachy, nor does it seek to advance any sort of religious agenda. It merely tells an inspiring tale, leaving it up to the individual reader to discern the deeper meaning contained within its pages, which to me is the best kind of story, Christian or otherwise. In fact, I lost count of all the characters who were behaving in, what to my way of thinking, was a truly “Christ-like” manner which was very impressive to me. Although several main characters were shining beacons of light too, I was particularly taken by the kindness of some of the secondary characters like Nathan's teacher, Mrs. Patterson, the hospice nurse, Sylvia, and the anonymous lady who merely washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen the day after Maggie's death. They became a humble and sometimes silent expression of the real spirit of Christmas by showing God's love in service to those in need.
The Christmas Shoes is the first book in the Christmas Hope series. There are currently five books in the series, and the next one, The Christmas Blessing, follows Nathan as a young man dealing with new challenges in his grown-up life. I may not get a chance to read The Christmas Blessing this holiday season, but I will definitely be reading it at some point in the future. For anyone who isn't aware, The Christmas Shoes is based on the song of the same name recorded by the group NewSong. I've heard it on the radio at Christmastime a few times, and it always makes me cry just like the book did. There was also a made-for-TV movie adapted from the book which aired on television a few years ago and is now available on DVD. While recently shopping, I chanced to find a copy at Target even though I wasn't specifically searching for it, and I am now looking forward to watching it soon. Overall, The Christmas Shoes is an amazing book that made me cry like I don't think any other story ever has, but also left me with some very profound food for thought. Enjoy isn't quite the right word for such a heart-wrenching read, but it was a beautiful and utterly moving experience that has touched my heart and mind in inexplicable ways with its pure and simple expression of the true meaning of the holiday season. I highly recommend this book to all readers. Just be sure to have a box of tissues handy for the inevitable flood of tears.
Note: This book has no objectionable content, so in my opinion, would be suitable for teen readers and possibly even pre-teens as long as they wouldn't be bothered by the highly emotional nature of the subject matter....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews Sometimes it's nice to just kick back with an easy, uncomplicated story that doesn't have any major emotional turmoil, seriousReviewed for THC Reviews Sometimes it's nice to just kick back with an easy, uncomplicated story that doesn't have any major emotional turmoil, serious conflicts or evil villains to vanquish. In fact, the main purpose of A Dog Named Christmas seems to be that of providing the reader with a feel-good story that is sure to put one in the holiday spirit. A Dog Named Christmas is a simple, straightforward tale of looking for joy in the little things in life and about being of service to others (even if it's a dog) not just at Christmastime, but all year long. It is also a heartwarming story of the bond between a father and son and how they both grow and change through their shared experience of fostering a dog over the Christmas holiday.
Although there are several secondary characters who appear in the story, this book is really about the McCray family, the dad, George, the mother, Mary Ann, and Todd, their developmentally challenged adult son who still lives with them. I really like that the McCray family is a loving and close-knit one who get along well and don't have any major family conflicts. Mary Ann is a feisty but fair woman who is the rock that keeps both George and Todd grounded. Todd is a sweet and endearing young man who reminds me a lot of Forrest Gump. He may be slow on the uptake about some things, but he also has a very perceptive nature and is high-functioning, making him able to do a lot of things that “normal” people can do. He also has an amazing talent with handling and caring for animals. It is Todd's plea to his parents that initially sets things in motion for them to offer a temporary foster home to Christmas, the dog, and it is also Todd's determination to see every dog have a place to spend the holidays which empties out the shelter in time for Christmas.
Although he doesn't really seek to be the “star” of the story, in my opinion, the main character (besides Christmas of course) is really George McCray. A Dog Named Christmas is told in first-person from his perspective, and even though he plays a pivotal role in the adoption of all the dogs and is proud of the accomplishment, he tries to keep the spotlight on Todd. What ends up happening though, is that George has a transformative experience himself. After two “bad” (read heartbreaking) dog experiences as a young man, both of which occurred during his time in the Vietnam war, George is reluctant to ever have a dog in his life again. He has always used the excuse that he's a farmer who has plenty of animals to care for and doesn't need another. Todd can be very persuasive though, and eventually talks George into the temporary adoption. The two of them go to the shelter together to pick out Christmas, and bring him home to discover that he's the best dog ever. Throughout this whole process, George is seeking to teach his son a valuable life lesson about the importance of keeping his word. When all is said and done, Todd has surprised his father with a maturity that George didn't think he possessed, and George is the one who has learned a lesson about dealing with the past and moving forward to the future.
I really enjoyed the way that the author painted Christmas as an independent dog who picked the McCray family every bit as much as they picked him. I strongly believe that animals can be quite perceptive and have always thought that our pets “chose” us too. When adopting them, I always looked for that special connection, and was blessed to find it, so I can really relate to the relationship between Christmas and the McCray's. There were several fun, light-hearted moments in the book that had me smiling, and overall, I found A Dog Named Christmas to be a pleasant, uplifting and heartwarming read, that has found a spot on my keeper shelf to be enjoyed again during future holidays seasons. A Dog Named Christmas is a very gentle story with no objectionable content which would make it a great book to share with the entire family as a holiday reading tradition. I highly recommend this book to all animal lovers or anyone looking for a short, relaxing read during this busy time of year, and it would make a wonderful holiday gift too. A Dog Named Christmas was also made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that aired on television a few weeks ago. I recorded the program and am really looking forward to watching it....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I usually prefer to enjoy my reading material rather than having to parse it's deeper meaning, so I can sometimes be rather reReviewed for THC Reviews I usually prefer to enjoy my reading material rather than having to parse it's deeper meaning, so I can sometimes be rather reluctant to read books that are critically acclaimed and/or considered classics, since they are often difficult to understand. I'd heard so many wonderful things about To Kill a Mockingbird that I finally decided to take a chance on it when it was chosen as a book club read for the GoodReads Readers Against Prejudice and Racism group of which I am a part. I was very pleasantly surprised at what an easy read it was, while at the same time conveying a deep and layered message, not only about prejudice but also about standing up for what's right, that I know will stay with me, probably for the rest of my life. Another astonishing thing about the book to me was the number of lighthearted if not downright funny moments it contained. This is something I never would have expected from a book that tackled such a serious and controversial issue for its time. In my opinion, Harper Lee is an amazing writer, and I was absolutely stunned to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird was the only novel she ever wrote. However, I suppose there's nowhere else to go once you've won the highest honor in the writing world, a Pulitzer Prize, and she certainly made her one shot count in a huge way.
Young Scout Finch is the first-person narrator of the story. She is only about six or seven when it opens, but more than two years pass by as Ms. Lee builds up to the penultimate events of the book, by which time Scout is nine years old. She is a tomboy who's as smart as a whip and a precocious reader. When her first grade teacher told her she had to stop reading because her daddy was teaching her all wrong and first-graders weren't supposed to read, I had to laugh. It was ludicrously funny but also a sad commentary on our educational system. I just loved Scout's enthusiasm for reading. She joked that her brother, Jem, said she was born reading and she couldn't remember a time when she couldn't read. In this way, Scout very much reminded me of myself. I thought it was fascinating how Scout, in her child's mind, thinks of her father as old, decrepit, and thoroughly boring. She doesn't think he has any real skills or has accomplished anything. It was an absolute joy to watch Scout's opinion of Atticus gradually grow and change as she matures and begins to see him in an entirely new light through, not only the big trial, but all the little things he does.
I loved Scout's relationship with her brother. She and Jem fight like siblings often do, but at the same time they were very close. I like how Jem is a little gentleman, always looking out for Scout. It was wonderful how closely he actually watches their father, and subtly emulates him. When their summertime friend and neighbor, Dill, gets in on the action, these three can get into lots of amusing mischief. Seeing the world through these kids eyes was a positively delightful experience. Dill is quite good at creating wild yarns. I just knew he was destined to be a writer someday;-) (for anyone who doesn't know Dill is patterned on Harper Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote). The lessons that the kids learn are deeply touching. Whether it's how they go from being scared of their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley to beginning to understand why he stays away from people; or learning from Mrs. Dubose, the cranky old lady who likes to hurl insults at them, that things aren't always as they seem; or the tough lessons they learned about injustice through Tom Robinson's trial, they are on a constant journey of discovery, both of the world around them and themselves that often brought tears to my eyes.
If I were Scout, I'd think that I had the best dad in the world, but since I'm much, much closer to Atticus's age than Scout's, I'd have to say that he has become my latest literary crush. He is just quite simply an amazing man. Some people think that he's a questionable father who lets his kids run wild, because he doesn't spank them and they have a tendency to speak their mind. To the contrary, I believe he was a man who led by quiet example, and showed his kids how to be good citizens by teaching them to think critically for themselves. I love how Atticus just naturally speaks with “bigger” words and doesn't dumb it down for his children, but instead allows them to ask for clarification if they don't understand something, always answering their questions with complete honesty. That's how I tend to be, and I think kids can learn more that way. Atticus is a very wise man who sees many facets to the world around him. He is a kind, loving, gentle soul who always seems to see the good in people. He's a true gentleman, a brilliant attorney, an honorable and humble man who fights for what's right no matter what. If more men were like Atticus Finch, the world, without a doubt, would be a much better place.
To Kill a Mockingbird is another of those books which sadly, over fifty years after its release, is still found at the top of the ALA's most banned/challenged books list. It does contain some profanities, mostly mild, but a couple of more moderate ones including taking the Lord's name in vain twice. There is also a number of instances where the derogatory “n” word is used for African Americans, but given the time and setting of the book, it never seemed overdone or out of place to me. There is also the mature subject matter of a black man being wrongly accused of raping a white girl, but since it is all told through the eyes of a nine year-old child, everything has a certain air of innocence to it, with nothing ever really being spelled out explicitly. In spite of this potentially objectionable content, I still feel that the book is fully appropriate for high school level students. In my opinion, the positive role model that Atticus presents and the positive messages contained within the book's pages, far outweigh any possible detractors. I personally think it would be an absolute travesty to ban a book as thought-provoking as this one, and in fact, would encourage everyone, teens and up, to read it at least once.
I'm so glad I finally picked up To Kill a Mockingbird. The courtroom scenes were extremely well-written and appear to reflect Ms. Lee's personal experience with the law. Some parts of the story were a little slow at times, but never boring and always worth the wait for something more exciting to happen. Every character and every little side story added flavor, color and depth to this wonderful tale. The message it conveys is a timeless one. It is one of the most, if not the most, affecting book I've ever read centering around the themes of prejudice and racism. To Kill a Mockingbird has without a doubt earned a spot on my keeper shelf and has become a new all-time favorite book for me....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews *=Newest review posted for this anthology.
The Princess by Gunnar Mattsson – I found the Reader's Digest anthology which conReviewed for THC Reviews *=Newest review posted for this anthology.
The Princess by Gunnar Mattsson – I found the Reader's Digest anthology which contains this story in a box of old books, and decided to read The Princess partly because it fit a reading challenge I was working on and partly because it sounded interesting. I usually like true stories about individuals who overcome challenges in their lives and being a romance novel addict, I'm particularly fond of true love stories too. This condensed version of The Princess partially fit the bill on both counts. It is a memoir of the author's relationship with his wife who he refers to as “The Princess” and her battle with and miraculous recovery from Hodgkin's disease. It is indeed a story about the indomitability of the human spirit and how love really can overcome all. It appears that the author credits their love for one another and his wife's adoration of the child she gave birth to in the midst of her health crisis as the driving factors in her recovery.
I really liked the story, but my main problem with this shortened version is that the editors seemed to pare it down to bare-bones facts. I just couldn't seem to help wanting to know more, most importantly, what would compel a man to propose marriage to a woman who had been told she was going to die in a matter of a few short months and also what would make her accept and then be eager to have a child. It seemed from the cover blurb that this would be a fascinating love story, but I suspect it may have lost some of it's poignancy in the editing process. I guess this isn't too surprising considering that this story is only ¼ the size of the original book. I'd never read a Reader's Digest condensed version before, but this one left me with several unanswered questions and simply wanting a bit more. I can say that it at least peaked my interest in trying to find the original version of The Princess, and I will certainly complete the remaining stories in the anthology just to see if they all feel like something is missing. I also discovered that a movie was made based on the book, which might be interesting to search out as well. Star Rating: ***1/2
At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends by Dwight D. Eisenhower – I believe I read a short biography of Dwight Eisenhower when I was a kid, but my memories of it are pretty fuzzy, and beyond that, I can't say that I knew a great deal about our 34th president. Reading this book certainly helped add to my knowledge, and I really liked getting a first-hand account. To my recollection, the most famous Eisenhower campaign slogan was, “I like Ike,” and after reading At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, I am prepared to echo that sentiment. Mr. Eisenhower came across as a very down-to-earth, congenial and genuinely likable guy. As the title might suggest, the book is written in a very conversational style which felt like sitting down with an old friend who was relating various stories from his life. I most enjoyed the tales about his childhood, family history, and time at West Point, as well as some of the things he did after World War II.
Not surprisingly, the largest part of the narrative was about Mr. Eisenhower's military service, which was still interesting, but in general, military stuff isn't my favorite thing to read about, not to mention, a big swath of his time in the Army was spent in administration and overseeing of training exercises which isn't terribly exciting. It seemed like every time he requested a more interesting position, the powers-that-be turned him down, until he finally received command of the American forces in Europe during World War II. These parts were still as well written as the rest of the book, and would probably be of great interest to those who like military history. There were some intriguing tidbits about the famous American Generals MacArthur, Pershing, Marshall, Patton, and Bradley, but overall, my main interests simply lie elsewhere. The one thing about these parts though that really struck me was the harsh reality of long separations for couples/families who are in the armed forces. I really admire Mamie (and all military wives) for her patience in being apart from her husband for such lengthy periods of time and the frequent moves. It took well over 35 years of marriage before she even had a house she could truly call her own (now that's patient ;-)).
There were some laugh-out-loud funny anecdotes about a couple of incidents of mischievous behavior at West Point which earned Mr. Eisenhower disciplinary action. In fact, he seemed to be pretty contrary overall, ending up with lots of demerits. I enjoyed the fun tales of his boyhood, and was interested to discover that he was a lover of history from an early age just like myself. His romance with Mamie and the relating of how his family shaped his life were touching. I was also amused to find out that Mr. Eisenhower was a consummate gambler who would bet on just about anything and rarely lost. I liked that he didn't push his son to follow his footsteps into the military, but instead talked to him about the advantages of both military and civilian careers and then let him make his own decision. I was most impressed though that Mr. Eisenhower didn't seem to be influenced by money or promotions. He simply tried to enjoy life as it was handed to him and do the right thing. He didn't even really seem to want to run for President, but after several years, was persuaded into it by persistent friends. I was also interested to learn that Mr. Eisenhower was the president of Columbia University, and played a major role in the formation of NATO. The book stops right before his presidency though, so there isn't really any details of his time in the White House. This condensed version appears to be less than half the size of the original tome, but in my opinion, the editing wasn't as glaring as it was in the first story of this anthology. I'm not sure if I would seek out the full-length version of At Ease because of the large amount of narrative on military life, but overall, this abridged version was enjoyable and has definitely stirred my interest in finding out more about Dwight D. Eisenhower. Star Rating: ****
The Least One by Borden Deal – The Least One is a heartwarming family drama and coming of age story that takes place in a tiny farming community with the inauspicious name of Bugscuffle Bottoms in the post-Depression era American South. It paints a vivid portrait of the hardscrabble life of sharecroppers during that time, and is told from the first-person perspective of a twelve-year-old boy who doesn't have a name other than Boy. I don't know that I've ever read a historical story that takes place in the 1930's, so that alone was pretty interesting. As I read the book, I was struck by how realistic everything seemed, almost as though it was a memoir instead of fiction. I was quite surprised to discover in the author's bio at the end that, while he categorized the story as fictional, it was based in part on real events in his life.
I really liked all the Swords. They were a loving family who looked out for each other with the parents being stern but knowing how to teach difficult life lessons in a gentler way. They were also hard-working with each member of the family pulling their own weight and doing what needed to be done in order to survive. Boy's father, Lee, was a good man who had fallen on hard times, but was determined to pull himself up by his bootstraps and provide for his family. Boy's mother, Jimmie, could be rather difficult and never truly liked Bugscuffle Bottoms, but it was obvious that she cared deeply for her family and would do whatever it took to ensure their wellbeing. I also admired her pluckiness especially when she went to their landlord with a business proposition, when that was normally a man's place, and was determined not to leave without cutting a deal. Boy's older brother, John, was a taciturn young man with an underlying warmth about him. He really stepped up to the plate to be the man of the house when their father was injured and unable to work.
Boy is pretty much like most twelve-year-old boys. He's very curious, intelligent, playful and talkative. He also has a deep love of books and a tendency to be a bit of dreamer. Sometimes, he makes careless decisions without thinking, which lead to disastrous consequences, but I found it easy to forgive him because he always seemed to glean some very important lessons from his actions. He also learns many things from simply living life. I enjoyed following along on his journey to finding a name for himself. His father had refused to name his sons when they were born, because he himself had been saddled with a name he hated and went by his middle name. Instead he was waiting for his sons to pick their own names. A stubborn battle of wills ensues between Boy and his father over the naming issue. I could definitely relate to Boy's frustration over his father not giving him a name like other kids, and although I haven't run across anyone in real-life who has refused to name their kids, at least Lee's reasons made some sense to me. The whole wanting of a name is the running theme throughout the book, so I was a little disappointed by how that wrapped up. Still, once I read the author's note at the end, I understood why he wrote it the way he did even if I might have wished for it to end otherwise.
Overall, The Least One was a surprisingly enjoyable read that embodied the warmth of a family unit and the wry humor that sometimes ensues from that closeness. In addition to giving the impression of a memoir it also had the feel of a young adult novel, because of being told by a boy. It would definitely be appropriate for teens as there is little objectionable material in it other than a few mild profanities and a couple of minor, veiled sexual references. It might appeal to fans of books such as Tom Sawyer, the Little House on the Prairie series, or Bridge to Terabithia. I could see some similarities between these stories and The Least One, but at its heart this novel is just a nice, feel-good, coming-of-age story that was a very pleasant read. I have to say that the editors did a good job with this abridged version, as it flowed quite well and I never really felt like anything was missing. Star Rating: ****
Currahee! by Donald R. Burgett - Not being a huge fan of wartime and military history, I don't know if I would have picked up a book like Currahee! independently, but with this abridged version being found in this anthology, I couldn't resist reading it for the sake of completing the book. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging it was. Donald R. Burgett definitely seems to have a talent for story-telling, as many times, I felt like I was right there with him in the heat of battle. Although the wartime events certainly weren't easy to read about, they were still very interesting, and I feel like I learned some things not only about WWII paratroopers, but also about the Battle of Normandy.
It seems that paratrooper training was pretty brutal and the job itself was incredibly dangerous, so much so that that one of the author's training officers told all the recruits that they probably wouldn't live through the war. As it turns out several never even made it into combat, but were killed during training. The war itself was a horrific thing, and even though the narrative doesn't go into great detail, there were times that my stomach was churning at the mere thought of human beings inflicting that sort of violence and pain on one another. It almost seems that the author and his comrades had to virtually dehumanize the enemy in order to fight them, and cut off their emotions in order to leave their fallen brothers behind. I can't imagine having to do that, so I greatly respect the men and women who have fought for our freedom down through the ages. When Civil War General William T. Sherman said, “War is hell.” he certainly had the right of it.
After reading this account, I have to say that Mr. Burgett was certainly an incredibly lucky man. So many times he was nearly killed, not the least of which was when a grenade exploded right next to him, yet somehow he managed to live to tell his amazing tales. I found it extremely ironic that he and all the men from his small barracks room #13 in England actually survived Normandy. Currahee! is a story that I would definitely recommend to anyone who is interested in military history, particularly involving WWII and paratroopers. I generally enjoyed it in spite of this not being a favorite topic. This abridged version appears to be a little less than half the length of the original book, but it was edited fairly well, as there were only a few times that I felt like the narrative jumped forward a bit too quickly. Star Rating: ****
*The Walking Stick by Winston Graham - The Walking Stick was a distinctly different story than any I've read before. It has elements of romance and suspense, both of which can be palpably felt, but I would definitely not categorize it as genre fiction. Instead, it seemed to have a more literary leaning both in its plot and writing style. The book started out a little slow for me with it having a rather passive, impersonal feel in spite of its first-person narration. The author seemed to have a “just the facts” approach with a rather clipped writing style, but what I initially saw as a weakness eventually grew on me. His abbreviated sentences which weren't really even sentences at all, but merely words and phrases, soon flowed into an odd sort of haiku which ended up having a very poetic feel. I also couldn't help but sense that the walking stick itself was a metaphor for something bigger that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Overall, The Walking Stick was an unusual and interesting story.
I thought it rather uncommon to have a male author writing in the first-person female perspective, but having everything coming from Deborah's point of view was a pretty ingenious way to write this novel. The main protagonist, Deborah Dainton is a unique character as well. She is a young woman who is fair of face, but as a polio survivor she is lame in one leg. Her looks can raise the interest of young men, but when they see her limping along, leaning on her walking stick, they usually end up turning away. At twenty-six, she is quite innocent and has never been in a real relationship. She was also raised in a comfortable, and one could possibly even say privileged, environment. All of this plays into her fascination with lowly artist, Leigh Hartley, when she meets him at a party thrown by her sister. At first, Deborah keeps herself at a distance from Leigh which I think was a sub-conscious way of protecting herself, as she's very self-conscious about her disability. Initially, it is so pronounced that she doesn't even seem to like Leigh which made me wonder why she was even going out with him. She does slowly warm up to him though, and eventually, I was able to sense that she had truly fallen in love with this man. I believe it was her love and perhaps gratitude for Leigh helping her to feel alive again which fueled her being willing to do things she otherwise might not have. However, there were still times when I wasn't 100% certain of how an upstanding young woman like Deborah could allow herself to become involved in such questionable dealings. Her willingly living with a married man was eyebrow raising enough for the time in which it was written (1960s), but then she agreed to an illegal venture which started out as something simple (or so she thought) and ended with her being fully involved in the scheme. Still, it was a fascinating character study which did, on some level, draw me in. I think perhaps some of the weaknesses in the character development might have been a result of the editing for this abridged edition.
Deborah's love interest, Leigh Hartley, is a very earthy and direct kind of guy. He definitely doesn't mince words and is quite persistent and charming in his attempts to get Deborah to go out with him and eventually become his lover. On the surface, he certainly seems to care about Deborah and pushes her to expand her boundaries and not allow her disability to define her capabilities. I could relate to Leigh's sense of inadequacy over having the ability to paint, but apparently not having a true talent for expressing himself through his art. At first glance, he appears to be the perfect boyfriend for Deborah, but it quickly come to light that he hasn't been entirely straightforward about his marital status which almost immediately puts into question what other things he might not have been honest about. In spite of me questioning his veracity early on, I still didn't anticipate just how dishonest he'd been which led to some plot surprises for me.
There were a few other places in the narrative besides Deborah's character development where I had the distinct feeling that something was missing, which again, I think was a result of the editing. Overall though, The Walking Stick was an interesting departure from my usual reading tastes while still embodying some of the elements that I enjoy in genre fiction. I enjoyed a lot of the little details about safe-cracking and the clever bypassing of the security system during the jewelry heist. All in all, once the pace picked up, it was a fun little read that I probably wouldn't have picked up without it being part of this anthology. Interestingly enough, The Walking Stick was made into a movie way back in 1970, but sadly, it doesn't appear to be available for home viewing which is too bad. I think it might be enjoyable to watch this story brought to life on the screen. Star Rating: ****...more
Reviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Blessing is a lovely follow-up to the first book of the Christmas Hope series, The Christmas Shoes. Nathan AndreReviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Blessing is a lovely follow-up to the first book of the Christmas Hope series, The Christmas Shoes. Nathan Andrews, the little boy from that story who had been so desperate to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother, is all grown up and studying to be a doctor, but is doubting whether that is the right course for his life. Every time he looses a patient, it's like reliving his mother's death, and he isn't getting along very well with the doctor in charge of his rotation either. Then he meets a young woman whose zest for life, in spite of being born with a hole in her heart, is absolutely infectious, and his whole life changes.
I really liked the grown-up Nathan. His doubts and fears were very relatable. He is such a sensitive young man, and I have to agree with everyone who kept telling him he'd make a great doctor. Caring so much about his patients was really hard on him, but it made him so much more genuine. Doctors who truly care seem to be few and far between, so I really liked this aspect of his character. His struggle with his belief in whether miracles can really happen was very understandable too. I could also relate to his quiet, unassuming nature, and his difficulty talking with some people which made his immediate connection to Meghan all the more special. Their love was so sweet and their relationship reminded me of the beginnings of my own romance with my husband. I also loved the closeness he shared with his father, sister and grandmother which was just a more mature version of their family ties in The Christmas Shoes.
I couldn't help but admire Meghan for her indomitable spirit. She never let her medical condition get in the way of following her dreams, and her determination led her to be a first-class runner. It was really hard to read about such a vibrant young woman becoming so sick almost instantly, but her illness was the catalyst which helped Nathan finally realize his own destiny. Meghan's young friend, Charlie, a fellow heart patient who acted as her unofficial coach was a big inspiration to her and others. I loved how Meghan and Charlie's families were always there supporting them unconditionally. They, along with Nathan's family, gave the story a great deal of warmth. The spirit of Nathan's mother lived on in the beautiful letters she wrote to her son before she died which was another lovely aspect to the story, as were the sweet little letters that Nathan's grandmother encouraged him to write to his mother over the years.
What I think I liked most about The Christmas Blessing and Donna VanLiere's writing in general is that she has a way with imparting a wonderful message of Christian faith without being too trite or preachy. It's done in a gentle, almost philosophical way through an object lesson that I think readers from many walks of life and faiths could relate to. I have to admit to being on pins and needles wondering how the story would turn out, and although there was definitely some sadness, there was also great joy in the end too. Overall, The Christmas Blessing was a great companion novel to The Christmas Shoes that has also earned a spot on my keeper shelf. There is television movie of the same name based on the book which I look forward to checking out, and although I'm not sure if the remaining books in the Christmas Hope series are related to these two books by characters or plot, I'm eager to read them during future holiday seasons....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Reindeer Keeper is a short novel about love, life, family and loss with a dash of magical realism on the side.Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Reindeer Keeper is a short novel about love, life, family and loss with a dash of magical realism on the side. It is by turns both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Abbey and Steve, the main protagonists are a more mature couple (around 60-ish), but their love and passion for one another hasn't dimmed one bit in the 30+ years they've been married. Their love was a palpable thing throughout the entire story. Their life together hasn't always been easy, but they've been each other's rock through the bad times, and taken great joy in the good times.
Abbey and Steve begin the book preparing to spend Christmas with their two sons, a daughter-in-law and the other son's girlfriend in a new house that was bequeathed to Abbey's father by a mysterious, reclusive stranger and then passed to her when her father died. It is the first time they've all been together in a while and it turns out to be a beautiful and joyous occasion. The magic of Christmas works through Abbey to finally help her make peace with her mother's death when she was a teenager. She in turn is able to see and understand the same feelings of loss in her daughter-in-law, who up to this point, has been rather difficult to like. Abbey is also able to help rekindle her son's dream/talent for cooking, and assist both him and his wife in understanding that they do have choices in life. It's just sometimes hard to make them when it means changing everything to which you've become accustomed. After the holidays and throughout the coming year, Abbey and Steve face the biggest challenge of their lives, as everyone deals with a devastating loss, but the spirit of Christmas continues to sustain them.
I liked how the author used a bit of magical realism in the form of Santa Claus. In the midst of an incredibly serious story, there were moments of surreal escape, but it wasn't just for fun and games. Santa became a universal, non-religious illustration of faith and how it sometimes takes going back to that pure faith of childhood in order to believe in something greater than ourselves. I liked how Santa took the characters back to that place in the past to help them understand the present and future. There is also a lovely message about how each person can touch other people's lives and even after death, they live on in the small things. Life still goes on for the living, and we just have to open our hearts to look for our loved ones who have passed on in the spirit they left behind.
The Reindeer Keeper was a much sadder book than I was expecting, so readers should definitely keep a box of tissues handy for this one. I'm tearing up just writing this review. It's difficult to use the word enjoy to describe a book that is this melancholy, but I did like it very much. This is one of those books that has a lovely message to impart rather than a feel-good story to tell. It has no objectionable elements which should make it appropriate for readers of all ages from teen and up, although the older protagonists and the mature subject matter may not resonate as well with younger people. The only thing that kept me from giving it a perfect five stars is that I thought the writing itself could have used a bit more polish. It was just little things like the dialog not flowing as naturally as it could have in places or needing a few more details here and there. Overall though, The Reindeer Keeper was a book filled with heart and soul from beginning to end that has found a spot on my keeper shelf. I definitely recommend that readers who liked The Christmas Shoes by Donna VanLiere, or similar books, give this one a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author via the publicist, Bostick Communications, in exchange for my review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews Across Eternity is a bittersweet love story about star-crossed soul mates who have spent many lifetimes together. After our inReviewed for THC Reviews Across Eternity is a bittersweet love story about star-crossed soul mates who have spent many lifetimes together. After our intrepid hero spends his entire thirty-seven years searching the globe for his one true love, they finally reunite only to have this lifetime cut short. I've never read a love story centering around the idea of reincarnation, and I found it to be a unique and interesting premise. I really enjoyed the deep connection that Logan and Amber share, and can very much relate to a relationship which transcends the physical, crossing over into the intellectual and spiritual. I feel that I have that in my own marriage, and believe those relationships are the best and most fulfilling that life has to offer. I couldn't help but love all the deeply romantic moments that the author created between this couple: Their first night together on the beach, their first kiss, lunch at the English Tea Room, watching the sunset at Logan's quiet spot, and Logan's proposal, to name a few. They were all brimming with sweetness and intimacy. I also love how Logan and Amber's conversations take on a teasing tone as they get to know each other. Everything simply came together to create a truly romantic atmosphere and give the sense that this couple was definitely connected in a way that cannot be explained through the natural world.
Logan is an absolute charmer and a persistent one at that. Without the reincarnation element, his initial pursuit of Amber might have seemed a bit stalkerish, and her willingness to go to his house after only knowing him for one day would have been weird too. However, Logan never behaved as anything other than a perfect and chivalrous gentleman. In fact, he held back his desires for a long time, out of consideration for her feelings and wanting her to remember their past lives together, even when Amber was making it abundantly clear that she wanted to take their relationship to the next level. I loved that Logan was an absolute genius, yet was extremely humble about his intelligence and accomplishments. I also adored that he was an avid reader, and the man's library was positively to die for. Logan was a great family man too. The scenes with him, his mother, sister and nephew were just brimming with love and humor. Logan was quite simply a sweet, gentle, loving, giving and all-around amazing man which is part of why this story broke my heart into a million pieces.
Amber is a waitress who is struggling both financially and with the meaning of life itself when Logan “rides to her rescue.” The only real family she had was her sister, Heather, who taught her a lot about both living and dying. I could really relate to Amber's fears and her admiration for Heather for her lack of it, as well as Amber's feelings of not quite knowing where she belongs in the world. I liked that Amber was open-minded enough to believe Logan when he told her that they had spent past lives together, even though she couldn't remember the way he did and initially only had a gut feeling that she'd met him before. She does go back and forth quite a bit between getting upset and getting over it. At first, this was a little troubling and I wished that the author had explained her feelings a bit more in depth. Later though, I fully understood that she was wrestling with a sense of denial and not wanting to let go of the love she had just found. Ultimately, Amber was every bit as loving and generous as Logan even though it tore her heart out to give him that part of herself.
Across Eternity was certainly a poignant love story, but as with many self-published works I've read, it tended to get bogged down by editing and technical issues. I found numerous small errors such as typos, misspelled/incorrect/missing words, run-on sentences, etc. In some places, the dialog was just about perfect for conveying the emotions and atmosphere of the scene, but in others, it seemed to drag, with a lot of words being spoken but not a lot being said. I also felt that the narrative in general could have benefited from a bit more detail, and the prose could have been much richer and more varied. As is, the composition had a rather amateurish feel to it, in my opinion. However, I have to give the author extra points for drawing me into this couple's journey and really taking me through all the emotional highs and lows that they experienced throughout the story. In the end, even knowing that they will eventually find each other again, I was still torn up inside, and although it didn't exactly feel good, it was still quite beautiful. I have to give Ms. Whittier credit for making me feel that way and for making me care so much about her characters. As long as the reader isn't bothered by a lot of composition errors, I would recommend Across Eternity to anyone who enjoys a good tear-jerker. Now, I have to go find an HEA romance to heal my poor, wounded heart.:-)
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I loved the first two books in Donna VanLiere's Christmas Hope series, and now I can add The Christmas Hope to my list of all-Reviewed for THC Reviews I loved the first two books in Donna VanLiere's Christmas Hope series, and now I can add The Christmas Hope to my list of all-time favorite holiday-themed stories. In spite of my Christian background, I often find it difficult to read inspirational fiction, because it too frequently seems trite, vapid and/or preachy to me. Not so with Donna VanLiere's books. She somehow manages to impart an inspiring message full of depth and meaning that utterly warms my heart without making me feel like I'm being beaten over the head with it. In my opinion, she doesn't water down the faith aspect of her stories, but neither is it exactly overt which I think makes the books accessible to people of many different faiths and backgrounds. Ms. VanLiere just has a very gentle way about her writing that really speaks to me.
The Christmas Hope is told primarily in first-person from the main protagonist, Patricia's point of view. Patricia is a dedicated social worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty in loving and caring for the kids she helps. She had a rather rough life growing up. When her father left them, it was only through the kindness of strangers that her mother, brother and she survived. Now she seems to be paying it forward to other people through her work, but when the story opens, she has no Christmas spirit left and hasn't celebrated the holiday in four years. Patricia is a little on the OCD side, but I later came to understand that her obsession with tidiness was her way of trying to feel in control after the chaos that has been wreaked on her life by the death of her son. Her marriage is failing, with she and her husband acting like little more than polite strangers which I found quite sad especially after learning about their closeness and the very romantic start to their relationship. Everyone grieves in their own way, but I occasionally had a hard time relating to Patricia's way of dealing (or not, as the case may be). On the surface, she seems to have it all together, but inside she had buried herself so deeply in her grief that she wouldn't let anyone in to share it, not even her husband. Patricia frustrated me a little when she kept saying that she didn't know what to do to stop her marriage from crumbling and her husband from leaving, but her friend and co-worker, Roy, had it right when he said that she did know. It was at those moments that I kept wanting to jump into the story and tell her, "Just do it! Just hug him or do something, anything, to show him you still care." Luckily, a sweet little girl named Emily came along to gently wiggle her way into Patricia's closed-off heart when she least expected it, and a Christmas “miracle” finally brought closure to her deep-seated grief.
Patricia's husband, Mark, seemed like a really great guy who was very kind and loving. Since we don't get any scenes from his point of view, I can't be absolutely certain what he was thinking, but I always got the feeling that he didn't really want his marriage to be over. He was just at the end of his rope and didn't know what to do to reach his wife and couldn't stand living in the same house like strangers anymore. Emily inspires Mark every bit as much as she inspires Patricia, and he seemed a little quicker to respond. He saw what Emily needed and was ready to give her that long before Patricia was willing to admit it. He really got into the holiday spirit, buying the perfect gifts for Emily like a regular Santa's helper and excitedly putting up decorations. I just love how when the door opened a crack he eagerly walked through it, more than happy to soak up the love Emily gave and give it in return, as well as being there for Patricia when she was finally ready.
Emily was an absolutely adorable little girl who was a ray of sunshine in Patricia and Mark's lives. Even though she's been through a lot, she has a generosity of spirit and a peace about her that is like a gentle rain on this couple's parched souls. In fact, she touches the lives of so many people just by being herself. Emily's youthful wisdom reminds me of the Bible verse, “...and a little child shall lead them,” because she certainly did lead Patricia and Mark out of a very dark time in their lives and into a brighter future.
Since the main characters weren't familiar to me when I started The Christmas Hope, I wasn't sure if it had a direct connection to the first two books of the series or not. I was very pleasantly surprised when Nathan and Megan Andrews (The Christmas Blessing) showed up, eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. Nathan also has another unexpected connection to Patricia which he slowly figures out when she brings another of her “kids” to him for treatment of a heart condition. Nathan is a wonderful doctor who is amazing with children. It's obvious that he's finally found his true calling in life. Another former protagonist, Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes), also shows up in a brief cameo role.
It almost seems like Donna VanLiere has a preoccupation with death especially around Christmastime, but I have to admit that I really like the way she handles this ofttimes difficult topic. As someone who has had trouble with this issue, I can say that she really imparts an inspiring message about death being another step in life. It also wasn't quite as sad for me in The Christmas Hope, because no major characters were dying. In fact, I was surprised to find that this book actually had some lighthearted moments too, with characters gently teasing each other which made me smile. Overall, The Christmas Hope was a heartwarming story that was an inspiration to read, and I'm proud to put it on my keeper shelf to be enjoyed again and again during future holiday seasons. I love Donna VanLiere's way with creating stories in which the characters lives intricately intertwine in wonderful, miraculous and unexpected ways. I can't wait to see what's in store for the next book of the Christmas Hope series....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Shack is one of those books that ended up being far more than what I was expecting, although I have to admit tReviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Shack is one of those books that ended up being far more than what I was expecting, although I have to admit that precisely what I was expecting, I'm not sure. I knew that this book was billed as Christian literature, but I also knew that it was highly controversial. However, I wasn't entirely certain whether it had caused upheaval in non-Christian or Christian circles. Turns out it's apparently both, which in my estimation means that it has done a good job of hitting its mark. If both sides are simultaneously criticizing and loving it, then the book has struck a good balance in my opinion.
I've mentioned several times in my reviews of other “Christian” books that in spite of being a Christian myself, nothing will turn me off faster than a book that is preachy, which is why I approached The Shack with a certain degree of caution. What I found in it was something that I never would have imagined. It is a deeply moving, spiritual story of a man seeking answers to some very tough questions. I wouldn't call it a religious book, because it doesn't seek to moralize. It is more of a journey in faith to a richer understanding of who and what God is and is not, and how God relates to the human race as a whole. I know that it has challenged me to think of God in a new way which is something that I've been trying to do for a while now, but I often find myself being held back by the strictures of religion. The story in The Shack succeeds in breaking down those barriers to give a look at a God who many people, Christian or not, may never have encountered or even considered. The message here is one of a God of love, gentleness, patience, and goodness, rather than one who is angry, wrathful and ready to smite us at the slightest provocation.
As I read The Shack, I sometimes found myself trying to label it, but it doesn't fit neatly into any one category. It contained elements of apologetics and elements of allegory, but it is difficult to stamp it as having been born out of any one literary device. Instead it is very much rooted in the author's own faith journey. The beginning and ending chapters, as well as the foreword and after words give the uncanny feel of a non-fiction story. It is definitely written in a more factual tone and style. I'm apparently not the only reader who wondered if Mack was a real person who actually had experienced the events detailed in the book. The author states elsewhere that The Shack is a work of fiction, but rightly implies that there is a little bit of Mack in all of us. Pretty much anyone who has experienced difficult or life-changing circumstances or have struggled with their faith could be a Mack.
The Shack definitely left me with a great deal of food for thought. I'm not sure that I'm even doing it justice in my review, because there are so many wonderful messages to be gleaned from its pages that I have a feeling I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come. I loved the imagery in the story. It spoke volumes to me, as did Mack's struggles with understanding God and His mysterious ways. I, without a doubt, related to him in a very profound way. The only reason I didn't give this book the full five stars is because I felt like it was a bit slow in places and the philosophy, no matter how hard I tried to understand, occasionally eluded me. However, I'm willing to admit that when this happened perhaps my spirit just wasn't ready for that particular message yet. The rest of it though made absolute perfect sense. The Shack is definitely a book that will be worth coming back to over and over, and I'm sure each time I'll find something new and exciting within its pages. There are many spiritual truths housed in this simple yet elegant story that I know I will need to be reminded of time and time again which is why it is going on my keeper shelf. I highly recommend The Shack to anyone who wants to be challenged in their faith and understanding of God or anyone who might be looking for a different interpretation of God than what many churches are offering today....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I agreed to review P. O. Box Love because it was billed as a romance and the theme of reunited loves is a favorite of mine. ItReviewed for THC Reviews I agreed to review P. O. Box Love because it was billed as a romance and the theme of reunited loves is a favorite of mine. It definitely is a love story, however, I will caution my fellow romance readers that this is a literary romance rather than a genre romance. When I first started reading the book and realized this, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it or not, but in the end was very pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it was. P. O. Box Love is the story of two high-school sweethearts who serendipitously find one another again after thirty years apart. They then rekindle their relationship through writing letters to one another over a period of four years, punctuated by once a year romantic interludes in France. P. O. Box Love is primarily an epistolary novel comprised of the letters exchanged by the two main characters, but these missives are interspersed with the heroine's first-person narratives. This is another way in which the story is much different than most romances I read in that Emma and Frederico spend most of the novel apart. Their romance also takes on a somewhat melancholy tone, because it is a rather impossible one due to Frederico already being married and very reluctant to leave his wife. Normally, this thread of infidelity would be quite troublesome to me, but for some reason it didn't bother nearly as much as I thought it would. I think this was mainly owing to the fact that, much like Emma, the reader gets to know very little about Frederico's wife, and as a result, it almost seems like she doesn't exist.
Being every bit as passionate about books as Emma is, it would have been impossible for me not to like her. She is the owner of a bookstore in Milan called Dreams & Desires which specializes in books relating to love and romance. I think that Emma's store shows that she is something of a hopeless romantic, which is probably why her heart was open to the possibility of reigniting a long lost love when Frederico reappears in her life, and also why she continued the relationship in spite of several times being tempted to end it. Emma is rather old-fashioned as well. She refuses to use a computer or a cell phone, and has a general aversion to most forms of technology which is how she ended up writing letters to Frederico rather than e-mailing, texting or phoning. On some level, I agree with Emma's views, because technology has created a certain loss in the art of communication. Hardly anyone ever sits down to write a letter anymore, so this aspect gave the story a very quaint feeling that I adored. I also thought it was rather sweet and funny that Emma's friends and family seemed to subconsciously view her as some sort of expert on love and romance because her store was focused on those subjects, as they all bring their relationship woes to her.
Frederico is an architect who is working in New York City on the reconstruction of the Morgan Library. We really only get to know him through his letters to Emma and the tidbits of dialog they share when they are together. He is definitely a man who is conflicted. Emma had always thought that Frederico broke up with her due to a youthful indiscretion that led her to kiss another man, but in reality, he had given in to pressure from his family who didn't feel Emma was good enough for him. In the end, he married a woman befitting his station and who was good at being a wife, but whom he never loved in the same way as Emma. He didn't deliberately seek Emma out, but when he found her again, he couldn't resist starting over with her in spite of his marriage. I believe a part of him wanted to leave his wife and be fully with Emma, but his sense of responsibility toward her and their daughter wouldn't allow him to. While I don't condone his infidelity, I did understand it on some level. It was never just about the sex, but about the fact that he enjoyed a deep friendship and an intimacy with Emma that I don't believe he ever had with his wife.
I really enjoyed the progression of Emma and Frederico's relationship and the way that they communicate their emotions through the language of books and architecture. Throughout the story they influence each other a great deal. Through Frederico's passion for architecture, Emma learns to appreciate buildings and their design more, and through Emma's passion for books, Frederico learns to appreciate them more. Suddenly, his work on the Morgan library is much more than just building something as he begins to think more about the things that will be housed there. The language of books was such a lovely way for Emma and Frederico to express their emotions. Even though I have to admit that I've read virtually none of the books mentioned, I couldn't help but feel connected to them anyway, especially Emma. The titles of the books may have been different than the ones that I usually read, but I believe wholeheartedly that the language of books is a universal one to anyone who is passionate about them.
Paola Calvetti does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of time and place too. Emma's bookstore is almost a character unto itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it grow and change. It was kind of like watching a butterfly emerge from it's cocoon, as was Frederico's work on the Morgan. I loved all of Emma's window displays and shelf themes. Organizing by themes is something I can definitely relate to as I do that a lot myself. All the “peaceful oases” that Frederico finds within the bustling metropolis of New York City made it seems like a much more tranquil place than I'm sure it is. The Strand bookstore and the Morgan Library itself both sound like little slices of heaven on earth to a book lover like myself. Emma and Frederico's romantic hideaway in Brittany sounded absolutely wonderful as well, a secluded place that is almost outside of time and space.
The decidedly literary quality of P. O. Box Love in many ways puts me outside its target audience. This style made for a bit more dense reading than I'm used to, but I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to read it and take a step outside my comfort zone. The prose had a beautifully lyrical, almost poetic feel to it that I appreciated for its ability to draw me into the story and make me feel like I was there with the protagonists. There were only a couple of small trouble spots that I found. One was that there were occasional major jumps in time and/or thought processes with no warning such as a page break which could be a little jarring. The other is that sometimes in the dialog it was hard to figure out who was speaking, at least when those passages first begin. Otherwise, P. O. Box Love was a well-written story. Considering that it was originally penned in Italian and translated to English, I'd say that the translation process was handled very well too. The only reason I didn't mark it higher is that in spite of enjoying the story, I can't honestly say that it was difficult to put down which is the true mark of a keeper for me. However, it was a very pleasant read that was a solid four stars and a surprising winner which has left me open to reading more from Paola Calvetti if any of her other novels are translated to English.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publicist via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Promise was another great Christmas story from Donna VanLiere. The first three books in the Christmas Hope serieReviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Promise was another great Christmas story from Donna VanLiere. The first three books in the Christmas Hope series embodied a sense of sadness with death taking center stage in each of them. While I loved all those books, it was nice to have one with a more whimsical tone where no one dies or is struggling mightily with someone else's death. There are some heavy themes, such as loneliness, alcoholism, domestic abuse and a missing child, but there was enough humor and lighter moments to keep those things from becoming depressing. This book also had more of an ensemble cast than the first three with several characters playing significant roles. Overall, The Christmas Promise was a heartwarming Christmas story that I would recommend to anyone needing to lift their spirits this holiday season.
As with the other books in this series, The Christmas Promise is written in alternating first and third person POV. The first person narrator this time is Gloria aka Miss Glory. She is a retired widow whose adult son has been missing for seven years. He left home just before Gloria's husband, his father, died, and she hasn't seen or heard from him since. She somewhat recently moved to the unnamed small town that has been the setting for all the Christmas Hope books. In an effort to keep busy and to help others in lieu of helping her son, she collects and sorts donations of food, clothing, household items, and even the occasional car, which she them redistributes to the needy in the community. I have to say that Gloria has my dream job. Being a philanthropist is something I've always longed to do. Gloria is a very kind-hearted and loving woman who cares about everyone she meets and helps, maybe a little too much, as it takes her a while to figure out that she can't always help everyone in the way she would like to. Still she is generous to a fault with the only possible exception being her next-door neighbor Miriam. The woman is something of a snob, who always threatens to call the city on Gloria each time someone leaves donations in her driveway. Even Miriam has her own story though. Gloria just hasn't heard it yet. They've spent so long as rivals, she hasn't really taken the time to get to know the other woman, but that all changes when an unfortunate incident leaves the two of them living together temporarily. It was really fun to see these two develop an appreciation for one another and a deep friendship after feuding for so long.
Then there is Chaz who just moved to town and got a job as a security guard at Wilson's Department Store. At first, he's very much a loner and a drifter, who only intends to stay long enough to earn a little money. He obviously harbors some secrets he doesn't want anyone else to know and on top of it all, is a functioning alcoholic who spends all his free time at the bottom of a bottle. He isn't exactly the most likable character initially, but things begin to slowly change for him as he discovers a caring side to himself he didn't realize existed. He works the night shift, and the turnaround starts with him caring for the little boy of a cleaning lady, who had nowhere else to take him and so brought him with her to work. Chaz develops a strong friendship with the little boy, Donovan, and to the extent she will let him into her life, the boy's mother, Carla, who is being abused by her boyfriend. Chaz also begins to feel a connection to Mike, the homeless man who sometimes stands outside Wilson's, and worries when Mike is hit by a car. Last but not least, Chaz falls in love at first sight with Erin, a pretty but very pregnant young woman who Gloria is helping.
What impressed me most about The Christmas Promise is how the author manged to seamlessly weave together all the lives of these characters until it was like they became one family unit. She even brought back a few favorites from past books like Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes) and Jack and Nathan Andrews (The Christmas Hope). The Christmas Promise was very much a story of new beginnings. Each one of the characters in the book received some sort of second chance after life had thrown them a curveball. This time they chose the right path, but it wasn't without the help of strangers. The one thing I loved most about this book is the serendipitous nature of the characters' meetings which underscores the It's a Wonderful Life principle that each person's life touches so many others in ways that we often don't even know. The Christmas Promise is simply a warm, feel-good story that was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "3.5 stars" Hmmm... where to begin? I guess I'll start my review of Hot Coco by saying that I'm not really sure what genre it'Reviewed for THC Reviews "3.5 stars" Hmmm... where to begin? I guess I'll start my review of Hot Coco by saying that I'm not really sure what genre it's supposed to be. Some readers and book websites seem to have it categorized as Contemporary Romance, but it really isn't. While there's lots of lusting and relationship turmoils, the story doesn't focus on one main couple, following them through to their HEA. In fact, none of the characters who are pursuing relationships even get an HEA. By the end, the few couples who do end up together have more of an HFN vibe. Even though this book is definitely targeted more to a female audience, there's too much comedy for it to be a true women's fiction book, and yet it also isn't really chick lit either because of the lack of a single female character's perspective. So, what is Hot Coco? Well, to me it contained enough lust and drama to rival any soap opera, but at the same time, it has enough over-the-top slapstick moments to rival any romantic comedy. In the end, I decided it reminded me of Desperate Housewives in book form, except that instead of being set in American suburbia, it all takes place in the wonderful world of horse racing.
Based on the cover blurb, I got the mistaken impression that the story was going to be primarily about horse trainer, Mike West, and horse owner, Coco Beardmore, but these two characters ended up being just two players in a huge ensemble cast. To start, there is the West family: dad, Eric, sons, Mike and Shane, and daughter, Kate, who are owners of Westwood Farms, a horse training operation. Eric is a widower. He and Mike, who was the oldest and already grown when his mom died, raised the two younger sibling alone. Eric is thinking about getting back into the dating pool and is interested in Jen Fleming, the pretty nurse who runs medical services at the racetrack, Keystone Downs. Jen is equally interested in him if not more so. Eric was one of my favorite characters. I viewed him as an attractive middle-aged man who was very much a gentleman with a caring side. I loved how he patiently taught Margie how to read and write. Oldest son, Mike, divorced his ex-wife after she cheated on him, but he hasn't entirely gotten her out of his system. Still, that doesn't stop him from going after the sexy Coco when she brings her horses to his stable. Shane, the youngest, is a bit of a youthful player, while middle child and vet assistant, Kate, appears to be a good girl with a crush on local police detective, Carl Lugowski. I believe these two met in the first book of the series, Deadly.com (I don't know much about that though, since I haven't read it yet.), and will become more involved in the next book of the series, Dangerous Deception.
On the opposite side of the tracks, there are the O'Conners, who are essentially classic caricatures of hillbillies. Dad, Doug, is a crusty old codger, who views Eric as something of an enemy, although why that is, I'm not entirely sure. Doug's wife left him years ago, so he raised his daughter, Margie, alone. In a subconscious effort to keep Margie with him, he keeps a pretty tight reign on her life. As a result, she's illiterate and still unattached at 33. She spends her days taking care of their rundown shack of a house, and mucking out stalls at the stables. She's an excellent cook though, and a bit of a dreamer, who loves looking at her mom's old romance novels even if she can't read them. Margie was my other favorite character, probably because she's the underdog and because she grows and changes the most throughout the story. The only thing I didn't really like much was the way many of the other characters treated her because of her looks. I fully understood the first time the author described Margie that she wasn't particularly attractive, but to have several other characters, including Mike, Shane, Mike's ex, Ava, and others continually going on about how ugly Margie was seemed a little mean-spirited and over the top. The one person who truly seems to appreciate Margie is the O'Conner's stable hand, Scott, but then he went and did something outrageously stupid in an attempt to keep her. For a guy who was supposedly quite intelligent and simply stuck in his job due to generational poverty, his actions made no sense whatsoever and turned a nice, sweet character into a bit of a jerk, which was somewhat disappointing.
Last, but certainly not least, is Coco Beardmore, who epitomizes the phrase, “ditzy blonde.” She's rather short on brains and her father is a wealthy tycoon, which makes her something of a Paris Hilton wannabe. Coco appears to have a thing for older men, having already been married to one who was old enough to be her father. She's also accident prone in the extreme. She should have a hazard sign tied around her neck, because everywhere she goes and everything she does, she leaves complete disaster in her wake. However, we do eventually find out that perhaps some of her klutziness is tied to self-esteem issues, because when she finds the right man, who adores her crazy antics, she seems to calm down. Coco's horses are every bit as wacky as she is. One is a peppermint addict and mischievous escape artist who unlatches his stall every night and releases his buddies too. Then they proceed to “party” by trashing the barn and grounds. Another one sits down in the starting gate and refuses to race. All these guys were definitely good for some laughs.
There are several other characters too, but in general, we don't get to know any of the characters, main or otherwise, particularly well due to there not being any deep POV. The book is written in rapid-fire POV changes that were sometime difficult to follow. Occasionally, I couldn't figure out who was thinking or saying certain things, even after re-reading the passage. Every single character gets their own perspective, so it typically shifts every few paragraphs. I was also somewhat disappointed with the lust-crazed nature of several characters. Even when they were dating one person, they usually couldn't get another one out of their mind, so during the brief moments of introspection, it often seemed like the only thing they thought about was sex. Although I should point out that it was all thinking and no doing, as there were no explicit love scenes to speak of. The technical aspects of the writing could have been a bit better too. I found several typos and incorrect or awkward word choices, just enough to be a bit distracting.
On the upside, the author definitely knows the horse world, and really brought this aspect of the story to life. While I don't know much about horse racing, it has always seemed to me that there are some rather eccentric people in that world, so the bizarre, quirky characters of Hot Coco seemed tailor made for the setting. I also can't deny that this was a fast-paced, entertaining story, which aside from the POV issues, was an easy read. Anyone who has a taste for outlandish soap operas in book form should enjoy this one.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author's publicist in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" A Christmas Home is another heartwarming holiday read from Greg Kincaid in his untitled series about the McCray faReviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" A Christmas Home is another heartwarming holiday read from Greg Kincaid in his untitled series about the McCray family. This one takes place several years after the end of A Dog Named Christmas. Todd McCray is now a young man in his early twenties. He lives on his own in a cabin on his parent's property, far enough away to be mostly independent, but still close enough for his parents to keep watch on their developmentally disabled son. Todd loves his job as Assistant Manager at the local animal shelter, but reduced revenues and governmental budgetary cutbacks have led to the shelter being shut down by the end of the year. Todd finds himself in the precarious position of not only dealing with the loss of his job, but also once again, needing to help find homes for all the dogs and cats in the shelter before the holidays.
Todd is a wonderful young man who is kind and caring toward everyone, both humans and animals alike. He may be a little mentally slow in some ways, but he has an amazing natural talent for working with the animals at the shelter, especially the dogs. He's incredibly patient with training the dogs and positively loves his work. Todd also has an idealistic streak, so when the news comes down that the shelter is closing, he's determined to find homes for all the animals and does a pretty impressive job of it. At the same time, he grows beyond his position as Assistant Shelter Manager and proves himself in other ways by taking control of his life and moving forward, showing he has the ability for independent decision-making when life hands him a lemon.
Todd also gets a light romance with Laura, a young woman with rheumatoid arthritis with whom he has been friends for quite a while. He was at the shelter when she brought in a stray dog she had accidentally hit with her car. Todd cared for the dog until she recovered from her injuries and then trained her to be a service dog to help Laura both at home and in her job as a nurse. These two share a sweet, slowly blossoming love that I enjoyed reading. Laura is very gentle and kindhearted to see past Todd's disability to the wonderful man he is. She appreciates his talents not just because he helped her and her dog, Gracie, but because she truly believes in him and his abilities.
Todd's parents, George and Mary Ann, are still a strong influence in his life, but they must come to terms with their “baby,” whom they've always given special attention to, finally becoming a man with a mind and a life of his own. Of course, their faithful and now aged dog, Christmas, is still a part of the story too. Both George and Todd have come to rely on Christmas for comfort and solace. They share “custody,” with Christmas going back and forth between their houses at will.
I love both holiday stories and animal stories, so having the two combined into one, made A Christmas Home a very enjoyable read for me. The only reason I knocked off a half star was because it was a tad slow paced early on, but it definitely picked up as the story progressed. Otherwise, A Christmas Home was a sweet, holiday story that warmed me through and through, like curling up with a hot cup of cocoa on a cold winter's day. Since it has no objectionable content, it is a book that could even be enjoyed by the whole family as a Christmas tradition. It will definitely be going on my keeper shelf to be read again and again during holiday seasons to come. I have no idea if Greg Kincaid has any more stories planned for the McCray family. It certainly seemed like there could be more to tell, and if he does, I'll be eagerly picking up any future books he writes....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I can always count on Donna VanLiere to give me a heartwarming holiday read, and The Christmas Secret is no exception. I've abReviewed for THC Reviews I can always count on Donna VanLiere to give me a heartwarming holiday read, and The Christmas Secret is no exception. I've absolutely fallen in love with the nameless small town where all her Christmas Hope books take place and would love to live there. The residents of the town really bring it to life, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere. They're always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need, and I love how all their lives intertwine into a beautiful, intricate web. Every time I read one of Ms. VanLiere's books, I'm reminded of the It's a Wonderful Life principle that each of our lives touch so many others, we are simply part of a much larger picture and not an island unto ourselves. I also enjoyed the fact that The Christmas Secret is a little more upbeat than some of the earlier books in the series that dealt with heavier topics. This one even has a wonderfully serendipitous little romance, which as a romance lover, I thoroughly appreciated. All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better book to put me in the holiday spirit.
The author continues her tradition of alternating first and third person POVs. In this book, the first person narrator is Christine, a struggling single mother of two young children. As the story opens, Christine loses her job as a waitress due to circumstances outside her control. She's been late to work several times due to unreliable babysitters and is given one last warning. The next day, her car is trapped in her driveway by the car of a older woman who has had a heart attack at the wheel. Fortunately, Christine is able to save the woman's life, but her heroic effort is lost on her boss. Luckily, she manages to find employment at another restaurant, but her life has otherwise become one huge instance of the old adage “when it rains, it pours.” She's constantly threatened by an ex-husband who isn't paying child support, but who dares to call social services on her. She's being evicted for not keeping up with her rent, and then, all the Christmas gifts she buys for her children are stolen from her car, not to mention, the car breaks down. Poor Christine just can't seem to catch a break, but in spite of being desperately in need herself, she generously takes time to talk with and monetarily help another woman who is a regular customer at the restaurant.
The primary third person narrator is Jason, who is the grandson of Marshall Wilson, owner of the iconic Wilson's department store that has become the centerpiece of the town in these books. While in between jobs, Marshall invites Jason to come work for him in his store. In Jason's mind, it isn't the ideal job, but having nothing better to do while waiting for his headhunter to call, he agrees. Jason is a young accounting major who has a slightly overinflated sense of self-importance. He comes from the city and doesn't really pay much attention to the people around him. I love the lesson his grandfather teaches him with his repeated quizzes that business is not just about the numbers but the people. By the time Jason is finally able to answer the questions correctly, I think he's learned his lesson well. Marshall also encourages Jason to volunteer at Glory's Place, a program that assists single mothers and their children. I think Jason was a bit surprised to find how good he is with the kids. The thing I liked most about Jason though, was the gentle way he flirted with Christine every time he came into the restaurant. Initially, she gives him the cold shoulder, because she thinks he's there playing spy for her ex-husband. In spite of her stand-offish-ness, Jason never gives up on trying to get her to go out with him, until slowly but surely these two start to fall for one another even though neither knows the other's real name. Through all of his experiences with the store, the kids, and Christine, Jason gradually comes to realize that he wants more out of life than what he's been pursuing up to that point. He wants a forever kind of love like his grandparents shared.
A few of the secondary characters get their own POV scenes. Marshall is struggling with a life-changing decision. Gloria (The Christmas Promise) returns along with her best friend, Miriam. The two of them become a support system for Christine. Patricia Addison (The Christmas Hope) is the social worker who looks into the allegations of child neglect brought by Christine's ex-husband. Many other characters from past novels in the series have briefer supporting roles, or at the very least, are seen in the background. I've always loved how Donna VanLiere can pull together multiple story lines into one big whole. There are certain subplots that the reader is kept in the dark about throughout the entire book, but when all is said and done, they all converge into a perfect ending that could easily be tied up with a bow. I think it's this cohesive sense of oneness that makes this little town feel so warm and close-knit. The Christmas Secret was another great read in this already wonderful series. I'll certainly be looking forward to continuing with the series and eventually re-reading it for many Christmases to come....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews The View from a Rusty Train Car is a very moving and emotional story of two young boys who became inseparable best friends, anReviewed for THC Reviews The View from a Rusty Train Car is a very moving and emotional story of two young boys who became inseparable best friends, and in doing so, discovered a love for one another of which their families and society did not approve. It ended up being a heart-wrenching, tearjerker of a read that I was not expecting when I started it. Perhaps because a few GoodReads users had this book shelved as M/M romance, I began reading it under the mistaken impression that it was a romance, but it really isn't. It's a coming of age story. It's a dramatic story about friendship and family connections. It's a story about why it's so important to be true to ourselves. Most of all, I saw it as a story about how the choices we make in life can adversely affect not only ourselves, but also everyone we care about and sometimes even those we love the most. It does have a romantic element to it, and it is a story about undying love, but at its heart, this is definitely not a romance. Why, you may ask? Well, simply because it doesn't follow the typical romance formula of readers getting to know the two main characters as they are getting to know each other, watching them as they go through the stages of courtship and falling in love, and eventually ending with marriage or a permanent commitment that leads to an HEA ending. The View from a Rusty Train Car follows the two main protagonists through more than a decade of their lives from childhood well into adulthood. It follows them through the ups and downs of their relationship and the choices they make that ultimately keep them apart for several years. And while it has an optimistic ending for one of them, there was no future for them together, which left me feeling depressed and heartbroken.
Jared moved into Luke's neighborhood when they were only eleven years old. They became fast friends who were inseparable and did nearly everything together. They built a tree fort, but their special, secret hideout was inside the old rusty train car behind the junkyard. There, they spent hours playing, and it became a place where they could escape the world around them and just be with each other. Having this secret spot became increasingly important as they grew older and realized they were falling in love. From a very early age, Jared knew what he wanted and that was to marry Luke, although of course, in his young innocence, he didn't understand that his dream would be impossible in the era in which they lived (the late 1980's and 1990's). As his understanding increased with age, Jared kept his sexual identity to himself, but he pretty much always accepted the fact that he was gay. Luke, on the other hand, knew he loved Jared and a part of him wanted the same thing Jared did, but he struggled more with his sexuality and with feelings that his desires weren't right. This only got worse when his strict mother discovered Luke's love for Jared and forced him into a boy's camp that was designed to “fix” him. He was in the camp for a year, during which Jared believed Luke had abandoned him and their love. After that, they saw each other in person only once within the next five years, and it was a disastrous meeting that ended in heartbreak for both of them. By then, Jared had moved to Seattle to attend college and had begun a relationship with another man, while Luke had returned from the camp, believing that the only right thing for him to do was to enter into a traditional marriage with a woman. The next few years were difficult ones for both of them, especially Luke, whose health went into a steep decline. His ailment is never named, but given that his heart is failing, I think the author was using it as a metaphor for a broken heart. Reading about Luke in that state, broke my own heart into a million pieces, and while I understood Jared's anger, I felt like he held a grudge for too long. That ends up being one of those many choices I mentioned that he has to learn to live with.
I was very moved by Jared and Luke's story, and I liked them both very much. However, I still couldn't help feeling like the author could have deepened their characterizations a little more. We know that they love with their whole being, which is something I can admire. We also understand how much of a strain their relationship and Luke's inability to embrace it affects them, on both a physical and emotional level, but we learn precious little about each of them as individuals outside of their relationship to one another. We learn a little about their outside interests as the story progresses, but what I really wanted to know was what their temperaments were like and what their hopes and dreams for the future were. Their individual personalities didn't quite come to life for me in the way the characters in some other stories have. In fact, I don't even recall the author giving any physical description of either young man at any point in the story, so I had to envision them in my own way. Then toward the very end, he finally mentions that Luke is blonde when I'd been imagining him as having dark hair.
The main reason, however, that I gave this book four stars instead of the full five is that I thought the writing itself could have been stronger in places. First, the blocking (showing where a character is and what they're doing) during dialog often felt choppy and inconsistent. One minute the character might be standing in one place and the next they're clear across the room, or in one paragraph, they're sitting down and two paragraphs later, they're sitting down again. More action details and more attention to continuity were sorely needed to clearly envision these scenes. My next issue is that the author frequently has the characters talking out loud to themselves. In these instances, I think it would have been more beneficial to deepen their internal introspection instead, which probably would have also taken care of my earlier problem with feeling like I didn't get to know the characters as well as I would have liked. Another small problem is some repetition in the form of pretty much all the characters who have any significant page time crying a lot, and everyone doing way too much “sneering.” My final minor complaint is that Jared is basically telling his and Luke's story before a Senate hearing, so there are a few passages throughout written in first person POV to denote the present day. However, there is virtually nothing to indicate exactly what he's doing until the final chapter. If I hadn't read the cover blurb before reading the book, I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on in those scenes, so actually stating what he was doing earlier would have been helpful. Better editing overall would have cleared up most of these problems and shaped the book into one that I easily could have said was a perfect read.
Otherwise, as I've already mentioned, The View from a Rusty Train Car is a poignant story that makes some very powerful statements about society's views of GLBT people. Even though we've come a long way since the time in which this story was set, there is still much progress yet to be made. One can't help wondering if the climate for gay men had been more friendly, whether Jared and Luke's story would have turned out much differently. As I read this book, I couldn't help feeling like these two men and what they went through was quite real, like this same story of “forbidden love” had probably played out in some form or another all down through the ages. It's also a potent reminder that we must always be vigilant in our choices, because they can affect so many different people in our lives. It also reminds us of the need for forgiveness and not holding grudges, because someday we may find it's too late to make things right. As an aside, I need to mention that I really love the title of this book. It's very creative and fitting, as that old rusty train car became an iconic symbol of Jared and Luke's love for each other. I'm not entirely sure if I would read The View from a Rusty Train Car again, because of how sad it made me feel. However, for all the reasons I mentioned, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind more realistic, tearjerker stories, as well as anyone who might be interested in GLBT issues or who might be willing to challenge themselves to view GLBT people in a different way. It is my fervent belief that everyone should be treated equally and given the same rights, that they should be allowed to be who they are and love who they love, and this book makes a very strong case for that.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author via Book Review Buzz in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews When blindly accepting books for review, I'm never quite sure what I'm going to find when I open the cover. It could be an incReviewed for THC Reviews When blindly accepting books for review, I'm never quite sure what I'm going to find when I open the cover. It could be an incredible story that expands my mind, takes me on a thrill ride or makes me feel something very deeply. It could also be a dull story that I have to slog through and can barely wait to finish, not because I want to see how it ends, but because I'm more than ready to move on to something else. A World Named Utopia falls about halfway between these two extremes. My time spent reading it consisted of a lot of ups and downs. I think the story would probably appeal most to idealistic adventurers. I do consider myself to be an idealist, and therefore, I could understand and get on board with many of the philosophies espoused by Hubi. However, I must admit that I'm not particularly adventurous, so the idea of a man basically abandoning the life he knew to simply wander around the country was a difficult one to relate to. The use of a fair bit of passive voice and omniscient narration made parts of the story hard to get into. Also, there's a tendency for things to simply occur with little explanation as to why. For example, Hubi and Runi fall in love with no build-up of any kind, then by the end of the chapter have just as suddenly fallen out of love, again with no explanation. Another example is that the people of Utopia simply start following Hubi and viewing him as their hero, because he's supposedly this inspiring figure, but we see very little of him in action. There are lots of other similar examples too. Ultimately, Hubi was likable enough and there was enough going on in the story to partially engage my attention, but the weaknesses in plot, characterizations, and composition kept this book far outside the realm of a great read.
Despite my lack of adventurousness, I probably could have bought into Hubi's quest if his reasons for embarking on it were clearer and more deeply explored. Basically, he just wakes up one morning and decides that his parents are dead, his job sucks, and he wants to simply do what feels right at any given moment in his life. This particular day, what feels right is to pack up and go on a journey, and it's an escapade that ends up lasting for eight years, taking him all over his country of Utopia and into neighboring lands that used to be part of Utopia. A part of me admired Hubi's free-spiritedness, and I definitely like how he seemed to prefer associating with common folk. It made him very much a man of the people, and as a result he met a number of interesting individuals along the way. I also liked that he was a peace-loving man of principles and convictions who stood strong for the things he believed in and wouldn't give in to political pressure. However, it was still difficult for me to reconcile the simple man at the beginning of the story who just seemed to be searching for himself and trying to do the right thing with the massively popular, inspirational leader and military strategist he was by the end. I suppose it could simply be chalked up to personal growth, but for an individual to grow that much in the span of only eight years, stretched the bounds of credibility a bit. We also don't really get to see that growth as it's happening. Instead, we jump from one chapter of Hubi's life to the next, and must simply take it for granted. I think digging a little deeper into his characterization and showing more of who he is as a person instead of telling about these changes in his life would have really made Hubi a standout hero.
Another issue I had was with the general flow of the story. As I mentioned it jumps from one chapter of Hubi's life to the next. This made it feel more like a series of vignettes that didn't seem to bear a great deal of relevance to one another. Each mini-story was interesting in and of itself, but it would have been nice if they had all flowed together better into one coherent story. Instead, the narrative kind of meanders much like Hubi's journeys, which on the one hand, might seem like pure genius, but on the other hand, left me feeling like I never really had any idea where it was all going or why. There are some good ingredients here, but IMHO, it would have been a better story if the individual pieces had been more cohesive as a whole.
I also felt that the setting was underdeveloped. It seemed that the fictional land of Utopia was a country rich in history, yet we only see a snapshot of that. It's not until the fifth chapter (keeping in mind that the chapters are very long, so that was approximately halfway through the book) that we find out Utopia was broken up into five sections after a series of wars that took place 75 years earlier. At this point though, the geography was rather muddled. I didn't understand until later that each of these five pieces were basically self-governing countries. Hubi's quest then becomes the reunification of all five pieces which was a struggle that was difficult for me to become invested in, because I didn't fully understand what tore the country apart in the first place and why this reunification was so important to Hubi and the others. In this respect, I felt that the world-building could have been a lot stronger, and it could have been a fascinating exploration to delve into the political history of Utopia.
In spite of the perceived weaknesses in the storytelling, I would have actually enjoyed this book better if it had been properly edited. I always hate to be overly negative in my reviews, but I can't really express how rough of a read this book was without saying that it was one of the worst, if not the worst, book I've ever read with regards to editing issues. There were a plethora of typos, tons of missing or incorrect words (eg. the wrong pronouns and prepositions were frequently used, as well as innumerable incorrect verb tenses), and generally incorrect grammar. The overall wording of many sentences was awkward and repetitious. In most cases, too many words were used to say what needed to be said, and occasionally, too few were used to be clear. Basically, the only way I was able to get through the story and derive some measure of enjoyment from it was by turning on my internal editor and fixing all the errors as I was reading, because it was oftentimes the only way to make sense of what was being said.
Overall, I would say that A World Named Utopia is a worthwhile read, particularly for anyone who espouses non-violence, or who is an idealist or an adventurer. The philosophies presented would probably appeal most to these groups, and Hubi's journey is one that will probably give these types of readers some food for thought. I can't say that I was particularly impressed with the ending though. It was not what I would call optimistic in the least, and after going on this wild ride with Hubi, I really wanted something more satisfying. Perhaps there was some deeper meaning in the way things turned out, but if there was, it was lost on me. Still, I might be open to recommending the book, at least to the types of people I mentioned, but only if the author was to put it through a rigorous editing process. I think there are some good messages to be gleaned from the pages of A World Named Utopia, but they're, unfortunately, buried under a mountain of frustrating composition errors that made for a very difficult read.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Christmas Light is another heartwarming, holiday read from Donna VanLiere in her Christmas Hope series. Once aReviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Christmas Light is another heartwarming, holiday read from Donna VanLiere in her Christmas Hope series. Once again, we get to visit with some of the residents of the little town of Grandon, where everyone pulls together to help their neighbors and where the residents know how to spread the spirit of Christmas. While most of the previous books in the series followed perhaps two or three major characters with the other townspeople in supporting roles, this book has more of an ensemble cast. The stories of several characters are interwoven together, surrounding preparations for the upcoming Nativity pageant put on by a local church. Because there are so many characters, we don’t get to know them on quite as deep of a level as some of the past characters in the series, but they’re all still likable people who I’d love to have as neighbors.
First, we have Jennifer and her daughter, Avery. Jen is still working through the loss of her husband three and a half years earlier, while Avery has never truly made peace with her father’s death. These two seem to be walking through life in a blur, putting one foot in front of the other, but not really living until they finally find that “magical” breakthrough each of them needs to put the past to rest. Enter Ryan and his daughter, Sophia, who is the same age as Avery. Ryan is the nephew of Gloria Wilson, and he went through a painful divorce after his wife left him. He and Sophia are getting along fine now, and he comes to town, checking into a new job opportunity. However, he’s trying to choose between the job that is close to his aunt and another one that is four hours away. There’s a touch of romance between Ryan and Jen and a serendipitous connection that helps Jen in her quest for peace.
Then, there’s Kaylee, a pregnant, unwed teen, whose parent’s are planning on moving soon. She worries about what the future holds for her and her child. She meets Lily, a social worker, who’s the now-grown daughter of Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes), and her husband, Stephen. They’re a sweet couple who desperately want a child of their own, but haven’t been able to have one. A little divine nudge and a Christmas Eve surprise brings them all the peace they’ve been searching for.
Finally, the glue that holds this bunch together are best friends, Gloria and Miriam (The Christmas Promise). After the director of the upcoming Nativity pageant unexpectedly steps down, they’re tasked with putting on the play. It’s a humorous, raucous affair that nearly gives perfectionist Miriam an aneurysm. But in the end, it’s a blessing to all.
One reason I knocked off the half-star was because The Christmas Light was more predictable than some of the others in the series, so perhaps not quite as engaging to me. The other is that the author wrote the entire book in third-person, present-tense, which is a very unusual style choice. I believe this is the first book I’ve read that was written in this style, which made it a little more difficult for me to get into. I checked and it appears that all the previous books were written in either first-person or third-person, past-tense. Either these, or first-person, present-tense, are much more common writing styles, so it makes me wonder why the author chose to write it this way, when it’s inconsistent with her other books. Overall, it wasn’t too bad, though, and as usual, the story was sweet and heartfelt, with a little inspiration on the side. The Christmas Light was the perfect compliment to this holiday season. I always enjoy my imaginary trips to Grandon and look forward to going back with the next book of the series, The Christmas Town....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Note is another gentle, heartwarming Christmas story from the pen of Donna VanLiere. This one has a little moreReviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Note is another gentle, heartwarming Christmas story from the pen of Donna VanLiere. This one has a little more of a women's fiction vibe, as it primarily follows the growing friendship of two very different women who are next-door neighbors. It is written in first-person POV, alternating between the two main female protagonists. As with all of Ms. VanLiere's books, this one has a touch of serendipity in the form of unexpected – perhaps even miraculous – connections being made. The only reason I gave this one four stars instead of the usual five that this author's books typically receive from me is that for some reason, it didn't speak to me in as deep of a way as her other books I've read to date have. It still has a nice message and was enjoyable to read, but at the same time, it wasn't quite as engaging. I also thought that occasionally the author's word choices were a little too simplistic. Stronger, more interesting words, might have helped draw me in a little better. But overall, it was another nice Christmas story from this beloved author.
Gretchen is the daughter of Miriam (The Christmas Promise). She has just moved to the little town of Grandon with her two young children. At the outset of the story, it's unclear where her husband is. We know that he was in the military and there was an explosion, but we don't know whether he's dead or alive. Gretchen is simply trying to get moved into her new home and gets drawn into her mother's best friend, Gloria's plans for a “bake a difference” fund-raiser for Glory's Place, her charity for women and children in need in the community. Initially Gretchen is off-put by her new next-door neighbor, Melissa. The woman is extremely quiet, almost to the point of being rude, even when Gretchen is trying to be friendly. When Melissa's mother's landlord stops by, insisting Gretchen give Melissa the message that her mother has died, Gretchen doesn't want to get involved. Not only does she not like Melissa much, but she barely knows her. Informing her of her mother's death would be incredibly awkward. Gretchen thinks of what her husband, Kyle, would do in this circumstance and knows she has to “man up.” Not only does she finally tell Melissa about her mom, but she also offers to help her clean out the woman's apartment, which leads to some very unexpected information being discovered.
Melissa is a loner. She had a rough life as a child, growing up with a mom who was an abusive alcoholic and who didn't have any trouble finding a man but couldn't keep one around for more than a week. Melissa doesn't even know who her father is. She has low self-esteem and no real friends. She merely goes to work at her two jobs every day, in the morning at Wilson's department store and in the afternoons at Layton & Associates law office, but doesn't really know any of the people she works with. Melissa basically wanders through life, never experiencing any joy or happiness until Gretchen moves in next-door. At first, Melissa doesn't like Gretchen much. She views her as the type of woman who unlike her, has the perfect life and has everything together. Gretchen's small acts of kindness eventually get Melissa to let her guard down and allow someone to share her life. Eventually she meets Miriam and Gloria too and begins to feel like she's found the family she always wanted but never had. I enjoyed watching Melissa grow throughout the story. Keeping to herself like she's done in the past, Melissa never really did anything for anyone else, but Gretchen begins to inspire her to do more and helps her see how good it feels to do something nice for someone else.
Some of the characters from the previous books of the series pop up again. Gloria and Miriam whose equally unlikely friendship began in The Christmas Promise are front and center, baking up a storm and helping Gretchen and the kids get settled. Marshall Wilson isn't actually seen, but he is mentioned a few times. It seems the lonely widowed department store owner married Gloria somewhere in between books. Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes) is Melissa's other boss, and he also helps her search for her missing and previously unknown siblings.
As I mentioned, The Christmas Note is a nice, touching Christmas story. I liked the building of the friendship between Gretchen and Melissa. They may not have liked each other at first, but they do give each other a chance and are surprised by what they find. I think more people need to have open minds and hearts like these two ladies did. I also really enjoyed seeing how the little town bands together at the end for a welcome home celebration. The way they help Gretchen and her family was extremely heartwarming. The Christmas Note may not have been quite as compelling as some of Donna VanLiere's other stories, but it was still an enjoyable read that brightened my holiday season....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews For some reason, of late, I seem to have developed an interest in Indian culture. I’m not entirely sure why as India isn’t a pReviewed for THC Reviews For some reason, of late, I seem to have developed an interest in Indian culture. I’m not entirely sure why as India isn’t a place I’ve ever aspired to go in person, but I’ve discovered that I do enjoy being transported there within the pages of a good story. Since romance is my favorite fiction genre, I’m always on the lookout for a romance set in India or with Indian characters. Shobhan Bantwal came to my attention for two reasons: First she’s a local author in my area, and second, we both attended the same writer’s conference a few years back. While I don’t recall “officially” meeting her, I did take notice of her when she talked a little about her books in one of the classes I took. Consequently, when I got home, I immediately looked her up and decided to put The Dowry Bride on my TBR list, because it sounded quite fascinating. I’ve always been interested in the practices of other cultures as well as the darker side of life, and those are exactly the topics around which this book is centered. I have to commend the author for taking a hard look inside the persistence of the dowry system in India, despite it being outlawed, and the despicable practice of bride burning. These things alone made for an intriguing and suspenseful read that was only made all the more appealing by the inclusion of a sweet romantic element.
Megha is a typical young Indian wife who entered into an arranged marriage. She didn’t really want to marry her husband, but she was left with little other choice. After making good matches for their two older daughters and paying their dowries, her parents could ill-afford to do the same for her, so she ended up getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. They settled for the first young man to come along who was willing to take a beautiful bride in exchange for a much smaller than average dowry. Unfortunately, Megha is now stuck with the mother-in-law from hell, a dominating shrew who abuses her and treats her like nothing more than a servant. Her husband is a spineless momma’s boy who harbors no affection for Megha at all and barely touches her except to treat her like a sex slave. When her parents are unable to produce the dowry after one year of marriage and Megha hasn’t produced a child either, her MIL and husband conspire to do her in via bride burning. Fortunately Megha overhears their heinous plotting just in time and runs for her life.
I really felt deeply for Megha in her circumstances. Because of her culture and religion, she has few options for escape. She fears her parents would just send her back to her husband and to go to her sisters or best friend would bring shame and potential danger upon their households. Life for a woman on her own in India is a dangerous prospect at best, especially for one like Megha who hasn’t yet finished her higher education and has few marketable job skills. In this way, the story is reminiscent of historical romances, because of how repressed and backward the culture in India can be. It’s a very paternalistic society in which women are often oppressed. I had to give Megha mad props for at least trying to be a good wife and daughter-in-law. Even though she received nothing but scorn and abuse from her family by marriage, she did her work without complaint, maintained a good attitude, and even developed a little affection for her husband. I did wish sometimes that she would be a little more open and stop heaping so much guilt on her own head for things that weren’t her fault, but I realized I was applying a little too much of my Western sensibilities to her. She was merely a product of her culture and upbringing, and by the end, she’s beginning to blossom and come into her own. What she had to go through to get there made me very angry for her, and IMHO just went to show that fundamentalism in all it’s forms (religious or secular) is a dangerous thing to the well-being of people and the progress of society.
Luckily, Megha has a wonderful protector and ally in her husband’s cousin, Kiran. I love the fairy tale knight in shining armor, and Kiran is definitely that. Far from being blinded by familial connections, he already sees his cousin and aunt for what they are. He’s also been in love with Megha from afar since the day he met her, so he’s more than happy to hide her and protect her from a deadly threat when she comes seeking his help. Kiran was perfect in every way, and everything I love in a romantic hero: kind, caring, compassionate, patient, loving, understanding, supportive, passionate. I could go on extolling his virtues, but I’ll stop there. I adored him not only for giving Megha a much-needed safe refuge, but most of all for wanting to marry her as soon as she was free of her husband and not caring what society might think of him for marrying a divorcée, and not just any divorced woman, but his own cousin-in-law. Kiran gave Megha more love and acceptance than she’d ever experienced in her life, while also giving her the space and freedom to spread her wings and fly, which in my view, is exactly how a man should treat a woman.
I’ve noticed this book has rather mediocre ratings at online book sites. Not having read any of the reviews yet, I’m not sure why, but IMHO, it deserves better. It admittedly wasn’t perfect for me. It did take a little while for me to become accustomed to the author’s writing style, but once I did, it was an easy read. Ms. Bantwal has a rather narrative heavy style, with a tendency to perhaps go a little overboard with the rhetorical questions in the characters’ introspections. Occasionally she also treads a little more into telling rather than showing territory, and she also explores other character perspectives that made me a little anxious to get back to the romance. However, this was the author’s first novel, so I felt it was a great initial effort. The only other thing that could have been a little better for me was the ending. I’m not sure how the book was originally marketed, but I came to learn of it through romance channels. Therefore, I was expecting a traditional HEA, which isn’t quite what happens. Instead, it has a strong HFN ending, with things gradually falling into place for our happy couple to get that HEA down the road in the somewhat near future. We just don’t see it happen in the book. It’s more about Megha coming into her own and finding herself, with the romance playing a part in that. So as a romance fan, I would have preferred for them to have a more solid HEA, but I still turned the final page confident that it will happen for them someday because they’re still so much in love and committed to one another in spite of the roadblocks they’ve had to overcome.
Otherwise, The Dowry Bride was a lovely story that I enjoyed reading. Although Megha has a tendency to beat herself up a little too much, she’s still a very sympathetic and relatable character. Kiran is the proverbial fairy tale prince, who I fell madly in love with. Their romance is sweet and tender with a strong emotional connection, just the way I like it. I came away from reading it, feeling like I learned something about Indian culture and social issues, which is always a plus. So for anyone who enjoys other cultures and is looking for a romantic story that’s a little outside the norm, I would definitely recommend The Dowry Bride. It may have been my first read by Shobhan Bantwal, but I’ll certainly be looking into reading more of her work.
Note: For sensitive readers, there is one scene in which Kiran and Megha are technically cheating on her husband. In my view, though, the husband gave up all rights to Megha the minute he started plotting her demise, but for those who are sticklers and can’t stand cheating of any kind, I thought it worth mentioning....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I hardly know where to begin with this review, because The Poisonwood Bible is a book that’s so full of depth and complexity tReviewed for THC Reviews I hardly know where to begin with this review, because The Poisonwood Bible is a book that’s so full of depth and complexity that I feel anything I write about it will be paltry in comparison. In it, Barbara Kingsolver explores the intricate themes of politics, European colonialism in Africa, religion, and culture, deftly drawing parallels between these themes and the lives of the Price family who go to the Congo in 1959 as missionaries. There’s also a running theme that juxtaposes captivity and freedom, and how sometimes, the captivity is of our own making. The author herself calls this book an allegory, “in which the small incidents of characters’ lives shed light on larger events in our world.” There is so much metaphor to be found in this book, I’m sure I missed a lot of it. I read this book for my church book club and there were several things that came up during our discussion that I hadn’t even thought about while reading it. The Poisonwood Bible was a very meaty book that readers can really sink their teeth into, but at the same time, it’s infinitely readable and extremely engaging, feeling like you’ve just sat down to tea with these women as they tell you their stories.
The Price family, dad, Nathan, mom, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, all go to the Congo in 1959, because Nathan wants to save Congolese souls for Christ. The majority of the book is told by the four daughters in their alternating first-person POVs as events are occurring, but at the beginning of the first five sections of the book, Orleanna gets her say in what we assume to be the present-day, as an old woman looking back on the past. The first two-thirds or so of the book covers the seventeen months the Prices spent in the Congo as missionaries, while approximately the last third jumps ahead through their lives by a year, two years, or maybe even more, showing what happens to them over the next three decades. During that time, we see how their time in Africa changed them all in unexpected ways but how this foreign land also got into their blood, tying them down. And of course, all the while that the Price family are working through their difficulties in the little village of Kilanga where they’ve gone to minister, the entire Congo is in political upheaval around them and on the brink of civil war. However, despite being in the thick of it all, there are many things they don’t know about what’s going on until much later.
Nathan Price never gets his own POV, and IMHO he didn’t need one. As Ms. Kingsolver says on her website, this isn’t Nathan’s story. However, his decisions and actions have far-reaching consequences. In any case, she painted a vivid picture of this man through the eyes of his wife and daughters, and despite being a minister, he was not a good man. He may have been a decent man during his early years, but he returned from WWII forever changed. An overblown sense of survivor’s guilt that he couldn’t put to rest drives him to go save as many souls as he can, because he wasn’t able to save the other men in his unit from a hideous death. His religious zealotry grows into an obsession that gradually distances him from his own family until they can’t stand to be around him. In trying to save other souls, he also drives them away from the God and the faith he professes. He’s also an abusive and unforgiving man. It would be easy to hate Nathan, but in the author’s talented hands, I may not have exactly felt sympathy for him, but I did understand on some level what makes him tick. He’s a man who can’t forgive himself and in his warped mind believes that God won’t forgive him either, so he sets out looking for an absolution that I’m not sure he ever found, without ever realizing or perhaps not caring that he’s losing everything he should have held dear in the process. I think he also may have been suffering from some kind of untreated mental illness that only makes his actions seem more desperate and bizarre over time.
I got the sense that Orleanna was a vibrant woman in her youth, and that she was happy in her marriage to Nathan at first. But when he returns from the war, he’s a completely different man and no longer the one she married. Soon, though, she was saddled with three children in diapers, so her life was consumed with caring for them and little else. I think she was always a woman with her own thoughts and opinions, but she was rarely ever allowed to voice them. Nathan beat her into submission both literally and metaphorically, while she was also a product of the era in which she lived, where women were expected to be more compliant with their husband's wishes. It takes a long time and much hardship, but eventually Orleanna finds her inner strength again and draws on that to make a stand.
The most memorable voices, though, belong to Nathan and Orleanna’s daughters. I’ll begin with the oldest, Rachel. When they leave for the Congo, she’s a teenager who’s obsessed with the types of things that most girls her age are: friends, fashions, hairstyles, entertainers (though she must sneak around to go to the movies), and boys (though she’s never really dated). She’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I think, on some level, she knows it and doesn’t care. She does sometimes complain about her younger sisters being smarter, but she doesn’t really show much interest in improving herself either. I actually enjoyed how the author deliberately uses incorrect words in her dialogue and thought processes. Rachel is very self-absorbed, rarely stepping outside her own little bubble to care about what’s going on in the world around her. Even as the reality of their situation in Africa settles in, she still seems to think the world does and should revolve around her. Rachel has her prejudices and a great deal of shortcoming that could make her easy to dislike, but much like with her father, I understood how her upbringing and her personality plays into where her life takes her. She uses her strong personality to forge a not wholly unexpected path for herself in a man’s world even though she has to do some manipulative things to get there.
Next oldest are identical twins Leah and Adah, who are also teenagers but with much more depth than their older sister. They may look alike, but they couldn’t be more different if they tried. Leah is a tomboy who craves adventure and anything to do with the great outdoors. She desperately wants her father’s approval and in some ways, I think she tries to be the son he never had. As such, she’s the closest to him, but as she soon learns that bond is pretty much one-sided. She’s also extremely smart, having been in gifted classes in school before going to Africa. I think Leah is the daughter to whom I related the most, and in some ways, she seemed the most normal. While I don’t have it in me to do many of the things Leah does, I admired her greatly for her strength and fortitude in the face of so much adversity. She, out of all the sisters, is the one who is able to form a loving, healthy, and lasting relationship, which kind of satisfied the romance reader in me. Leah may have struggled throughout the rest of her life with some of the things that happened to her family, but I think she was able to process it all a little better than the others.
Adah was born with brain damage and as such, one whole side of her body is weak and difficult for her to use. Also because of the way her brain formed, she has a very unique way of thinking in palindromes and reading backwards. She’s equally as smart as Leah, but she refuses to talk, which I think made many view her as mentally slow. Because of her disability, Adah views the world from a very unusual perspective. She’s always the physically slow one, so she tends to see things others miss. She also has a scientific mind that views things in a logical way. Out of all the girls, she’s initially the only one who doesn’t really subscribe to her parents’ Christian beliefs. I think she struggles sometimes with feelings of inadequacy, because she thinks her family and those around her see her as less than, although she oddly feels rather welcome around the people of Kilanga, because there are many in the village who bear their own disabilities in a matter of fact way. I think what she struggled with the most, though, is feeling like her mother didn’t love her as much as her “perfect” little sister.
Last but not least is little Ruth May, who’s the youngest and only five when they go to Africa. For her this is something of an adventure. She loves Jesus with the abandon that only a little child can, and sees the things around her through eyes of wonder. She easily makes friends with the other little kids in the village, teaching them how to play “Mother, May I?” and other games. She’s imaginative and full of life, a sweet little girl, who hasn’t quite become jaded yet by her father’s abuse and religious zealotry, because she sees things in shades of simplicity. She likes everyone and everyone seems to like her. It’s just that easy for her.
There are numerous secondary characters, but a few stood out to me a little more than others. Anatole is the village school teacher, who also acts as a translator to the Prices who don’t know the language. He translates Nathan’s sermons to the people who come to church each week, and eventually tries to translate the Congolese culture to Nathan who isn’t particularly receptive. He does, however, make an impression on Leah, and I like how he treated her as his intellectual equal. Anatole is a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent man, an idealist who was easy for me to love. Nelson, an orphaned student of Anatole’s who he sets up as the Price’s houseboy, can at times be good for a few laughs and others can be quite serious for such a young lad. He becomes friends with the girls and teaches them a lot about the Congo. Mama Mwanza was the villager who stood out to me the most, because she lost both her legs and walks on her hands, has so little when it comes to material wealth, lost a couple of her children, and yet, she shows great compassion and seems to be happier than the Prices are. Eeben Axleroot is a mysterious man who flies his own airplane, which is pretty much the only way in and out of Kilanga. He’s very mercenary, though, and has his hands in a lot of different pots, seeming to work for whoever can pay him the best. He cleans up his act just a little when Rachel finds herself in need of a savior, but not enough to truly be likable. Then there’s Brother Fowles and his family. He preceded the Prices as missionary to Kilanga, but many thought he got too involved with the natives and became too much like them. I, on the other hand, felt like he was a more loving and Christlike figure than any other character in the book.
Overall, The Poisonwood Bible was an incredible read filled with haunting beauty that has left an indelible impression on me. Each of the girl’s voices are so distinct, I would have known who was speaking even without their names as headers to each chapter. The Congo became a character unto itself, making me feel like I’d been transported to another time and place. I’ve only read a handful of stories that take place in Africa and all were in the northern area of the continent. This is the first story I’ve read that takes place in the African interior, and I feel like I learned a great deal about the land, the people, and the culture there. Being more of a genre fiction reader, I can’t say I’ve ever really explored literary fiction much. While I don’t disdain it, I have perhaps avoided it, because I felt like it might be too heavy or difficult to understand. The Poisonwood Bible is definitely making me rethink that. It’s a work of pure genius incorporating political, social, and religious themes as well as a deep exploration of the human condition, while also being very accessible. I love books that make me think and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time to come. It was an elegant, lyrical, intricately layered story with some of the most complex characterizations I’ve ever read. It might have been my first read by Barbara Kingsolver, but it most certainly won’t be my last. I very much look forward to seeing what else she has to offer and hope that I get as much of a feast for the senses and intellect as I did with this book....more