Sunday, July 29, 2012

Belonging - Robin Lee Hatcher

Felicia Kristofferson has been looking for a family to belong to for most of her life.  Shipped west on an orphan train after the death of her mother, her siblings and she were given to separate families.  Upon the death of the parents who raised her, she finds that she was never truly adopted and has no inheritance, to claim.  Rather than accept the marriage proposal of her "cousin," she strikes out on her own, vowing to live as an independent woman and hoping to continue the search for her siblings.  She takes a job as a schoolteacher in a small town, determined to make a difference in the lives of her students.  Unbeknownst to her, her acceptance to the job was opposed by both her landlord, who fears that every woman is out to get a husband and so will not last long as a teacher for his daughter, and Helen, the rich woman on the school board, who is the mother-in-law of the woman who could become Felicia's good friend.

I enjoyed this book as a light read.  I admired Felicia's independent spirit, and her refusal to take the "easy" way out by marriage.  The search for her siblings seems like a storyline that will continue on, as this is the first book in a series.  Although the love story between Felicia and Colin was a given, I enjoyed the secondary story of Kathleen as she realized that she "should" love Colin, but also found her independence and courage to stand up to her mother-in-law and found love of her own.  Helen, the mother-in-law, was almost too overbearing for me to enjoy as a character.  There was no real growth or resolution on her meanness; even Kathleen's rebellion and the town's refusal to bow to her wishes didn't seem to change her or give her a wake-up call to the reality that she couldn't control people.  I know that in real life people don't always, or even often, change, but in my books, I like to think that they should.

I give this book 3 stars.  It was an enjoyable read, and I would like to follow the characters through another book or two.  I hope that we will continue to see growth in their relationships and personal lives through the extended story.

You can find the author's website HERE.
You can read an excerpt or purchase the book HERE.

I received this book for free from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Coming Home - the Baxter Family Story Ends

Written as a conclusion to the tale of the Baxter family, Coming Home brings the Baxter clan back to Bloomington to celebrate John Baxter's 70th birthday.  Every son and every daughter has made plans to be there; they've all thought through what their father has meant to them over the years and written heartfelt letters to express their love to the leader of this family.  The family has dealt with their share of struggles and loss over the years, and have always managed to cling to God and to each other to get through.  Will another heartbreaking tragedy be enough to break them, or will they continue to rely on God's great faithfulness?

There was a time where I made a vow to myself to never pick up another Karen Kingsbury book again.  But the first series about the Baxter family - the Redemption Series still ranks as some of my favorite stories I've read.  I am a sucker for the Baxter family, and when I saw that this was to be either a "conclusion" or an "introduction" to their story, I couldn't resist.  I really wanted to see how their saga played out, but I wasn't sure that a book could serve as both an introduction and a conclusion.  I was right to wonder - it really can't.  The first 30% of the book was spent on catching the reader up on the Baxters' past, all six siblings' defining moments.  At first, I thought it was a nice refresher - after all, it has been several years since I read the original series.  I also knew that there had been several spin-off sets to the story that I had never read, so it was nice to catch up on who had how many kids and to find that Ashley and Landon were living in "the Baxter House" now.  But 30% is a large section of a book to be retelling events that have already been written about, yet one hundred pages (give or take, I was reading the e-version) is not really enough to tell a new reader all of the heartache, struggle, and victory that Kari, Ashley, Brooke, Erin, Luke, and Dayne have been through.  If a new reader picked up Coming Home, though, they would already know that Kari's husband dies, Hayley survivves, Luke marries Reagan, and other major plot points of the earlier series.

Once the book gets past the introductions though, the tears and grief hit hard and fast, and just keep on coming.  I will not pretend that I did not cry through a very large portion of this book.  I will absolutely not spoil the story for you, though, so I can't tell you anything about the tragedy.  You'll need to be like me, and with every point-of-view switch wonder: is this the person who won't make it to the next chapter?  I did hate that - I hated, from the perspective of feeling like I love this family, knowing that something major was going to strike one of them and not knowing who it would be.

Overall, I am glad I read this book.  I was glad to "hang out" with the Baxters just a little bit longer.  While I am very, very sad at the turn this book took, unlike some of the earlier books, I felt like there wasn't a moment where everything worked out just peachy for everybody.  My only wish was that less time had been spent rehashing the past and more time was spent on the present and future of the family.

I have a hard time rating this book, but I'll give it 4 stars, just because I love the Baxter family so darn much. And isn't a character, or twenty, that stays with you the mark of a good book?

Karen Kingsbury's site can be found HERE.
I don't know if I recommend the entire 22 books of this loose series, but I do highly recommend the first five books, starting with Redemption.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Widow of Saunders Creek - by Tracey Bateman

Corrie Saunders is The Widow of Saunders Creek.  Her husband Jarrod lost is his life protecting Iraqui villagers from a 12-year-old strapped with a bomb.  To Corrie, and to almost everyone who knew him, he was a hero.  His cousin, Eli, however, remembers him differently.  Eli remembers Jarrod as competitive and selfish, and most importantly, as the man responsible for his leg injury that kept Eli himself from serving his country.  Corrie has inherited property in Saunders Creek that has belonged to the Saunders family for generations.  She moves there to see if she can find Jarrod's memory, but she seems to find his presence itself in the house.  Eli warns her that humans cannot return to the earth, and that she needs to be careful of letting this spirit into her life.  Will she believe Eli, who is becoming a dear friend and possibly more, or will it be too hard to finally let go of Jarrod?

This book was so much  more than I expected.  I hesitated to request it, because I don't typically like books that deal with demons and spirits.  However, the balance in this book made it such a great story.  Eli believes definitively that there should be no contact with the spirit world, that the Bible condemns witches and mediums.  Even so, there are self-confessed witches within his own family who consider their gift to be from God.  He manages to love them without condoning their beliefs.  Corrie, understandably, is somewhere in the middle.  She believes that Eli is honest and caring and that his beliefs seem sound.  But she is still grieving intensely, and would like nothing more than proof that Jarrod is still with her.  The demonstration of how easy it is to let demons prey on our fears and hopes is very realistic and timely.  Yet the author clearly shows that Jesus is the only spiritual Power and being that we should trust, and that His Name is the Name above all.

In addition to the supernatural aspects of the book, the characters within story made it so much richer and fuller than just a ghost story.  The book alternates points of view between Corrie and Eli, giving us both sides of the story, and allowing each of them to interact with minor characters that serve to enrich their personalities even further.  Even though some characters appear for only short scenes, they demonstrate the town's love for Eli, who has always felt inferior to Jarrod, and they give pictures of loving relationships and committed marriages.

I give this book 4 stars.  I really enjoyed all of the characters, and felt that there was such a good balance of love and struggles that the book felt neither sappy nor depressing.  The relationship between Corrie and Eli develops so slowly and naturally, that even though you know from the early pages that that's where it's going, you're happy when it gets there.  I would definitely look to read more works from this author.

The author's website is HERE.
You can read an excerpt from Chapter 1 HERE.

Please consider ranking my review!

I received a copy of this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah as part of their Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Upgrades and Expansions

I am excited that I am in the process of expanding my review options!  I had previously just been reviewing for Thomas Nelson and Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers directly.  I recently received several approvals for reviews from Zondervan via Edelweiss, and just today got approval for 2 books through NetGalley.  This brings me to five  books that I currently have in my "to be read and reviewed" list.  Guess I won't be watching TV for awhile!  I am also awaiting a decision from Tyndale to see if I've been accepted as a reviewer for them.

In other expansion news, I just created a Twitter account for book stuff; I would love it if you could follow me!  We can talk book stuff, you can give me recommendations, we can complain about movies that don't follow the book, whatever strikes us as interesting!

Thanks so much for reading along with me!

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Guest Book - by Marybeth Whalen

In The Guest Book by Marybeth Whalen, Macy Dillon has had some family issues in her life.  Her father died 10 years ago, but her mother still celebrates his birthday, and still has a "shrine" dedicateed to him in her house.  They talk about him to Macy's daughter, Emma, whose father has been out of the picture since she was born.  Until recently, when everything begins to change.  The pictures in the shrine start coming down, and Emma's father, Chase, starts coming around.  Then, Macy's mother, Brenda, announces that she would like to take the whole family on vacation at the beach house they haven't been to since the year after her husband died.  The beach house with the guest book where Macy carried on a pictorial correspondence with an anonymous "artist" boy every year.  A boy she never met, but could never stop thinking about.  Will this trip finally solve the mystery of his identity?  Will Macy find both the answer and love in the same place?

I liked the plot idea of this book; 5-year-old Macy was too young to write an entry in the guest book, so her father encouraged her to draw a picture instead.  She never dreamed that someone would respond to it.  The idea of budding artists teaching each other about themselves through nothing but drawings, and developing a friendship through them was such a fun, intriguing concept that fit in perfectly with the setting of a beach and once-a-year vacations.

However, I did not find Macy to be a particularly likable character.  She can't kick her ex out of her life, even though she knows she doesn't want to be with him.  This hesitation is partly because of her obligation to keep him in their daughter's life, but others around her fear that he's her fall-back plan, which he does seem to be.  Then, when she is strong enough to leave him behind and go on vacation, she finds not one interesting man to date, but three.  She says that she wants only to find out who "the artist" is, but she can't bring herself to ask the question immediately.  Instead, she strings each of them on, until she does get up the nerve to ask and decides to walk away from anyone who isn't the one she's looking for.

I don't want to spoil the ending, and it is hard to give an honest opinion of how I felt about it without doing so, but I will say that the way the book turned out was dissatisfying for me.

There were good moments along the way that made this book better than I may have made it sound above.  Macy does discover that God is the true Artist, and that she shouldn't waste the talents He has given her.  Although the ending belied her discovery, she does recognize that "whoever the artist was suddenly didn't matter so much anymore.  She wasn't sure she was ever supposed to find him.  And that was okay.  She'd found Someone much better instead.  Someone she could count on no matter what."  Between her reconnection to God, and the healing she found in her relationship with her brother, the book added some depth to what could have been a shallow story.  The mystery of the artist's identity certainly kept me up too late, trying to reach the conclusion, and a book that keeps me intrigued is one I don't regret reading.

So, I give this book 3 stars.  I wish that Macy had followed through on her discoveries, and had been or become somewhat stronger than the book left her, and I didn't like the conclusion of who she ended up with, but those are both personal preference issues that didn't really affect the quality of the book.

The author has a blog HERE, and she's even running a contest based on this book - you could win a copy or a trip to North Carolina!

I received a copy of this e-book for free from Zondervan, via Edelweiss, in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus - by Joyce Magnin

Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus, by Joyce Magnin, tells the story of Harriet Beamer, a woman who is known for making random bets, collecting salt and pepper shakers, and baking cookies.  Not a woman known for taking risks and setting off on adventures.  Until, one of those random bets sees her giving up her house and moving across the country to live with her son and daughter-in-law.  Rather than do it the quick and easy way, Harriet decides to take the opportunity to do something she has never done.  She sets off on her trip, not by plane, but by public transportation, vowing to use as many local forms of transportation that she can, and collecting as many salt and pepper shakers as she can to add to her collection.

I wanted to like this book.  I loved the idea of Harriet's adventure, and I loved the picture of her in her bright red sneakers.  However, the story itself just didn't ring true, and was not well-written.  There was no real mention of Harriet having money, yet she never balked at expenditures like buying a brand new Droid phone, or buying clothing in a train station, or staying at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.  Eventually, she told a pair of strangers that she was a "wealthy widow," which also seemed odd - would a 72-year old advertise to people she doesn't know that she is rich?  Of course, it was just fodder for the storyline for those same strangers to try to rob her.

Details in a book are important to me.  Not that I like long descriptions of things, but I do like consistency in the details.  So it bothers me when a character takes note of seatmate's "Hershey bar-colored eyes," and then turns to said seatmate and tells her that she has the "bluest, sweetest, eyes" she's ever seen.  I don't know about you, but where I come from (only 30 minutes from the actual aforementioned Hershey), their chocolate bars don't tend to be blue.  There are several other instances of text that escaped an editor's notice, or perhaps suffered from a re-write that didn't get checked - saying "good afternoon," when it's after midnight, or talking about the time differences across the country incorrectly.

Although the story really is a cute one, the inconsistent details and the pacing of the travel really detracted from the enjoyment of the book.  It looks like it is book one in a series, and I have to say that I probably won't be watching for book number two.

I received a digital version of this book for free from Zondervan in exchange for my honest review.

Where Lilacs Still Bloom - by Jane Kirkpatrick

Where Lilacs Still Bloom, by Jane Kirkpatrick, is based on the true story of Hulda Klager, a German immigrant with a passion and God-given talent for hybridizing lilacs to form new varieties.  Although her father doubted that a husband would support such a departure from the expected role of a housewife, Frank Klager and Hulda's entire family lent not only their support, but their physical labor to assist Hulda in her dream.  While Hulda's life was not easy, facing regular flooding that threatened to destroy what she had invested so much of her life into, and outliving her family members, she took joy in the flowers and the skills God had given her and strove to use those talents and beauty to enrich the lives of everyone she came in contact with.  Her generosity with her time, her talent, and her treasure touched thousands of lives, and in time, came back to her full-circle as others returned the love she had so generously dispensed.

I have read several of Jane Kirkpatrick's novels, and I have enjoyed them all.  This one was no exception, although it did take me several tries to get invested in the story.  The book employs several different viewpoints to complete the story, and I had trouble keeping them straight until I had read enough to become invested in the individual characters.  Especially, because it isn't until late in the book that the stories begin to weave together.  Having read the Author's Notes at the end of the book, I understand the purpose for including these additional fictional characters to enhance Hulda Klager's story, but it did take longer for me to understand where the story was going with them added in so early on in the book.

Once I got past the initial confusion, however, I really came to love Hulda.  She was so driven and had so much passion for her flowers, yet was self-aware enough to see that her family needed her too.  So many of us struggle with the balance of family versus work or hobbies, and Hulda recognized that her priorities may not have always been straight, and she worried that she was neglecting her family for the sake of her flowers.  Yet, that very family worked hard to ensure that she could continue her work: weeding, planting, taking over house chores, rescuing the flowers from the floods,  encouraging her to continue to stretch and grow, and celebrating her successes with her.

The love story of Frank and Hulda was so sweet.  Hulda's father had told her not to share her passion with her husband, because he felt Frank would discourage her.  Frank was honest in that he didn't want the flowers to take her away from him, yet did everything he could to aid her work.  The simple things he did for her, (with no spoilers, for it was mostly the surprise of them that made them so sweet), demonstrated a pure, sweet love for his wife, and the partnership was a subtle yet enriching focus point for the story.

There is a lot of sadness in this book, and knowing that it's a true story makes it that much sadder.  If you are a reader who doesn't like to cry with a story, then you probably don't want to try this one.  But, even with the sadness, life goes on, and Hulda finds a way to continue living, and continues to find people and work worth living for.

I give this book 4 stars; once I got into the story, I couldn't stop thinking about it.  I am certainly  not a horticulturist, yet I found the story engaging.

You can read an excerpt from Chapter 1 HERE.
Find out more about the author HERE.

Please consider rating my review; you could win a free copy of the book!

I received this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah as part of their Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review.