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 odd...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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 mist...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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, serious...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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 re...moreReviewed 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.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews *=Newest review posted for this anthology.
The Princess by Gunnar Mattsson – I found the Reader's Digest anthology which cont...moreReviewed 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: ****(less)
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 Andre...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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....moreReviewed 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.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews Across Eternity is a bittersweet love story about star-crossed soul mates who have spent many lifetimes together. After our in...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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-...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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 t...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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. It...moreReviewed 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.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Promise was another great Christmas story from Donna VanLiere. The first three books in the Christmas Hope serie...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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'...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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 fa...moreReviewed 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.(less)
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 ab...moreReviewed 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.(less)