Book Review: Roots of Wood & Stone by Amanda Wen

This is a simply stunning time slip story with a wonderful sense of God’s grace and love threading through it.

Sloane Kelley was abandoned by her mom three days after she was born. She’s now 30 and has no clue who her birth mom is. Sloane has been lovingly raised by her adopted parents, however, continues to struggle with a sense of abandonment which continues to raise its ugly head in many of her relationships.

Annabelle Collins, half a century earlier in the 1860s, lost her parents when she was very young and joined her aunt and uncle on settling in the prairies in Sedgwick County, Kansas. Annabelle marries soon after to a local, Jack Brennan, who builds her a dream home where they raise their seven children. Annabelle is a mad diary writer and she documents all of her life in these diaries.

Sloane is an historian by profession and she inadvertently finds one of Annabelle’s diaries. This starts Sloane on her own adventure of discovering the history behind Annabelle’s life. To do this she needs to spend time in Garrett and Lauren Anderson’s grandma’s house and she becomes firm friends with the brother and sister as she heads deeper into the story of Annabelle.

Wen writes a beautiful story of love and loss, abandonment and reclamation, creating a wonderful assemble of characters whom its’ easy to fall in love with. It’s a really clever time slip story in how Wen brings the two life stories together without it being forced or unnatural.

It staggers me that this is a debut novel. There are so many wonderful descriptions of the county, the grand Brennan household that serves as the backdrop for much of the story, and the little tidbits like Sloane and Garrett’s passion for jazz. I frequently found myself with a contented smile on my face as I turned the pages.

If you’re looking for a delightful surprise, then Roots of Wood and Stone will certainly do that for you.

I received an early ebook copy via NetGalley as part of Audra Jennings PR Blog Tour with no expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: All That We Carried by Erin Bartels

This is a beautifully written story about two estranged sisters who meet for the first time in ten years to go on a hike together in the Porcupine Mountains. Olivia and Melanie are both carrying so much stuff (hence the title) besides their backpacks and they slowly release/share much of it over the course of the hike and the journey home.

Olivia and Melanie are fabulous characters because they could be any of us. There were times I struggled with both of them and by the end I’m really not that fond of either of them but I think that’s the mastery of Bartels writing. We don’t need to especially like them to be able to have empathy for their stories and the losses and grief they’ve experienced in the years they’ve been estranged.

Bartels does a brilliant job taking the reader hiking. I always felt I was along for the hike, bruises, blisters and bears and all, just from my comfy chair. Bartels presents the picturesque surrounds of forest, trails, waterfalls and the magnificence of Lake Superior in all their glory. I was excited to return to the story each day.

There’s some intriguing messages about God, destiny, fairness, life being more than just ourselves and life after death. Bartels didn’t wrap it up nicely by giving us any answers rather prompts us to think for ourselves how we’d respond with the questions the sisters contemplated. Further, the story didn’t end with everything resolved. Yes, both women appeared to have made positive steps in the right direction for themselves and their relationship but for one in particular, there’s definitely hope for the future but no clear path to what that might look like.

And that’s life, isn’t it? Lots of questions, lots of mystery and opportunity to explore beyond our own little worlds to discover the natural beauty of the world but also the hope and joy that comes with choosing to believe there is something more than what each of us carries.

I received an early ebook copy of the story via NetGalley as part of the Revell Reads Blogging team without any expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: Ottoman Dominion by Terry Brennan

I will say from the outset this is my sort of read! Full of intrigue, action, edge of your seat suspense, political conspiracies, historical theories and fiction, the tinderbox of the Middle East and the active involvement of angels and demons. This has it all.

Written in very short, sharp scenes I actually struggled at first to catch up, to understand what was going on. This surprised me having read the first two in the series relatively recently but there seemed to be too many players and too many separate plot points that had me rolling my eyes a little. But after about 50 pages, everything fell back into place and I settled in for the ride. The pages began turning very quickly.

There are so many elements to like in this story, yes, Brennan uses fictional licence which may bother some readers when it comes to the supernatural but I like how he used the ‘thin veil’ and the roles both Bayard (the angelic warrior) and the Turk (the Man of Violence) played. His cast of characters were all developed across the three stories with particular emphasis in the final instalment on Brian Mullaney and Atticus Cleveland. Some of the supporting cast were tremendously depicted: Father Poppy and Rabbi Herzeg being two very engaging characters.

Brennan wraps the series up well bringing all the moving pieces together like a master story conductor. I’m wondering if he’s left a few crumbs that may form the basis of a spin-off but that’s for us all to ponder.

Congratulations, Terry Brennan. May I encourage any new readers to start with Book 1 in the series, as the backstories and action builds from it. And now the 3 are available, may I also encourage you to read all three with minimal breaks between them so you don’t spent too much time in ‘catch up mode’ at the beginning of the next one.

I received a complimentary copy from Kregel as a result of being a member of the Audra Reads program via NetGalley with no expectation of a positive review.

Book Review: The Key to Love by Betsy St.Amant

There is a lot to like about this story but it wasn’t what one might expect to find in a sweet romance. Bri Duval is in her late twenties, resides in a small Kansas town named Story, is a superb pastry chef and lives in a romantic fantasy bubble. The latter has been derived by the seemingly romantic marriage her parents lived who were tragically killed in a traffic accident a decade ago. Perhaps it was the trauma of losing her parents so suddenly but Bri is convinced that her parents lived the ultimate romantic story.

Gerard Fortier, is a travel writer, hoping to crack the big time. He’s naturally ruggedly handsome, rides a motorbike and on the surface appears everything alpha-male. He’s running from love, a broken heart from a hastily ended engagement and some unusual advice from a mentor who encouraged him to believe that true love is unattainable.

I grappled for the first half of the book because not a lot happened and Bri and Gerard seemed to keep going over the same ground, misunderstandings, Bri over-thinking everything, inadvertently running into each other all the time and on it goes. Until they began to question everything they had relied upon for so long. That had in fact kept them trapped in their own worlds: Bri’s a very small one in Story, his a globe trotting one where he never stayed long enough to establish any kind of roots. And this was when the story began to get interesting and the layers of the onion, so to speak, began to be pulled back.

Love is messy and hard work. It requires commitment and communication and forgiveness and vulnerability. It sometimes requires letting go of perceptions we’ve held onto for too long that have actually led us astray and limited our ability to say yes to the love that is staring us in the face.

I noticed a number of elements of romance movies: “You’ve Got Mail” – the mother/daughter running a business with elderly family members acting as guardians of sorts, mom even ‘twirled’ in the kitchen plus the incorrigible male lead who antagonises the female lead; Sweet Home Alabama’s ‘so I can kiss you whenever I want’ (great line BTW).

Both Bri and Gerard grew through this story which made the second half a delight to read. I kinda think this would be a story that would work better a hundred pages shorter so we can cut all the going over old ground but be encouraged that the reward is worth it in the end as the lessons on the key to love are good ones.

I received a complimentary ebook copy as a member of the Revell Reads Reading program via NetGalley without any expectation of a positive review.

Book Review: “The Gospel-Centered Life in the Bible” Series – Ephesians by Scotty Smith

I read this study along with Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection Book and Study Guide as I worked through Ephesians. Ephesians is the book that helps guide us in maturing in Christ as evidenced by a church that began with 12 people.

Smith’s study is 12 lessons (nee chapters) long, 2 lessons per chapter of the epistle. There is no requirement for pre-work, nor really any homework which limits the study a little. There are a series of questions to reflect on as one reads through the verses, Smith provides a 1-2 page commentary of sorts and then another set of more in-depth exercises to work through as a group or individual.

It was good, just fairly basic and so long as one knows this from the outset then it meets expectations. Smith is a learned Biblical teacher and so there is plenty here really for everyone, more for those starting out in studying this magnificent Epistle.

I received a complimentary ebook copy from Audra Jennings as part of her association with the publisher. This has no bearing on my review.

Book Review: ‘Nine’ by Rachelle Dekker

Dekker knows how to write a page-turner that keeps the reader on their seats. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy her stories. In this story, we have 3 combatants who are all in various stages of dealing with their pasts. 

Zoe Johnson, comes from a traumatic family situation and has spent many a day in front of psychologists and other people who apparently seek to help her and her brother. She meets Lucy, a lost runaway, who happens to wander into Zoe’s cafe where she works as a waitress. Zoe soon discovers Lucy is on the run and trying to get somewhere 700-odd miles away in Corpus Christi. And there are some serious people who want to find her and won’t stop until they do.

Enter Agent Seeley, the lead pursuer. He too has a past that has led him to surrender to the darkness in himself which makes him a perfect agent: uncaring, unflinching in his duty.

It’s exciting and Dekker keeps up the pace so those pages keep on turning. We discover Lucy is part of a human experiment (she’s Number Nine), commissioned and approved by the President. She reminded me a bit of an American equivalent of Angelina Jolie’s Russian ‘Salt’ – Lucy is a trained mercenary with very special skills.

It’s hard saying much more without giving spoilers. It’s thoroughly entertaining but I will warn you there is a lot of close hand killing which some readers may not appreciate.

But it’s the struggle the 3 of them have with their own identities that takes the story to another level. Are we resigned to be who someone else wants us to be or defined by what happened in our past? Can we chose to be someone else? Fascinating themes. But this is where I struggled a little with the story. If it was a secular novel then all is good – some of the conclusions and discussions wouldn’t have fazed me. However, who we are and who we were made to be are pivotal aspects of our stories and a relationship with God helps us to unravel it. I feel the novel missed an opportunity to present a powerful picture of how a relationship with God does this.

I’m hoping there’s more to come in these three characters stories as Dekker has really only touched the surface and be fun to explore both their backstories and their futures.

I received an early ebook copy of the novel being a member of the Revell Reads program via NetGalley but with no expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: Persian Betrayal by Terry Brennan

This is a thrilling continuation of The Ishmael Covenant. I’d encourage any readers to read that one first before diving into the second. This story builds upon the first one and is a tremendous mix of fulfilment of Biblical prophecy, Middle Eastern political tensions, America’s role in global affairs and supernatural intervention.

Brennan gets the chance to further develop his main characters. Brian Mullaney and Atticus Cleveland are excellent characters; men conflicted in their roles both because of their family situations and their Christian belief in the Word of God. It’s inspiring and convicting. How would I response if placed in a similar conflict?

The story moves fast. Brennan uses short scenes to keep us engaged with all the various players in Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Washington DC. It can be confusing at first but all the moving pieces soon begin to gel in one’s mind the longer the story goes.

I particularly enjoyed the stronger supernatural aspect of this story. We met the Turk in book one and what an evil creature he is. He continues to wreak havoc in order to wrest control of the Vilna Gaon box and prophesy away from the good guys. And then we’re introduced to Bayard, an equally imposing knight in shimmering armour. I’m looking forward to what these two bring in Book three.

I also appreciated how Brennan developed Mullaney’s faith in this story. He handled this very well and I hope we see more of this in the next edition with his relationship with God playing an even more influential role.

The story ends on a cliffhanger and so I trust Mr Brennan will get book 3 out soon so we can all discover how this riveting drama ends.

I received a PDF copy of the story from Kregel working alongside ‘I Read with Audra’ blog tour with no expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: These Nameless Things by Shawn Smucker

I loved Smucker’s previous novel and was looking forward to this one. However, this was a real struggle for me as I didn’t really understand what it was about for much of it. Smucker explains in his note at the end that it’s a mirror to Dante’s Inferno and not having read that I didn’t get the connection.

Smucker’s writing is excellent in his ability to draw the reader into his scenes. I felt part of the story throughout it and I expect it was this quality that kept me turning the pages. We see the story through Dan’s eyes as he and his forsaken community of nine attempt to start again having escaped some nightmare which no one can apparently remember. Until a strange young lady arrives and then everyone starts to dream. About Dan and his brother, Adam, who is lost in the place they left.

Ever so slowly the group is challenged to deal with their dreams while Dan sets off in search of Adam. Meanwhile, this strange young lady continues to play a pivotal role far beyond this group. But who is she?

I struggled because so little is said and I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters which made it a battle to continue.

Clearly, from some of the other reviews there are plenty of readers who ‘got it’ and enjoyed the story. I think it’s likely to one of those ‘you either love it or don’t’, they’ll be little in between. The themes of forgiveness and hope are present plus dealing with one’s past and being able to move on. Forgiveness and unforgiveness are such strong ‘soul ties’ that they play an incredibly important role in one’s ability to lead lives of wholeness. I appreciate that Smucker wrote a story of redemption but wish I enjoyed the story more.

As another reviewer stated I wonder if this would work better as a short story, say 150 pages, so liking the characters is less important in making a statement about redemption and forgiveness.

However, I’m not discouraged from reading Smucker’s next story simply because of the quality of his writing and the issues he grapples with.

I received an early release ebook version from Revell Reads via NetGalley with no expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: Cross Shadow by Andrew Huff

I really enjoyed the first in the Shepherd Suspense series and was eagerly awaiting to read the second one. However, I found it didn’t really meet my expectation. It’s interesting how many second novels in a series can seem a bit flat but interestingly, more often than not I find the third one wraps up the series in a similar manner to how it started.

What I found most disappointing about this story was that I didn’t feel there was anything new. Sure, we’re thrown into a new plot scenario but the action scenes were similar and I didn’t feel there was any real chemistry between John Cross and Christine Lewis and wondered why there was a seemingly romantic connection between them. At times, Christine barely appeared to like John.

The story begins with Christine. Her step-brother, Philip, has been arrested for the murder of a work colleague. Christine heads to Dallas to help her brother, and John pursues her fearful she will get into some danger. Well, he was right about that. The baddies soon get involved and for much of the second half of the book we see John, in particular, get himself out of some precarious situations as the aforementioned seek to kill him.

The story around the bad guys takes over, and the original matter of Philip’s role in the murder gets lost, even though the two are linked. Huff loves car chases and used them extravagantly in book one. This time they play an even bigger part. There are two chase scenes that probably take up about 20% of the novel. To his credit, Huff makes them incredibly visual but sometimes one loses track of the detail. I skimmed over much of the second one because I got bored. I hope Huff leaves the car chase behind for book 3 as I feel they’ve lost their impact and would encourage him to find an alternative device to ramp up the visual action.

Yes, there is a Mission Impossible feel about the story and it’s easy to turn the pages as the pace is always fast and exciting. The most fascinating aspect to the series is John Cross and his faith and his vocation. Can he be an effective pastor when his heart longs for the thrill and chaos of the CIA life? We see the grapple and Huff uses Cross’s head church elder, Gary, to serve as a form of intercessor which is done well, but the overall struggle is mostly sidelined by the action.

I liked how Huff brings together a couple who are trying to develop a relationship and clearly following traditional conservative practices. However, the long distance aspect of their relationship inhibits it plus Cross’s uncertainty about his vocation and Christine’s young faith. But as I mentioned I struggled to see any real chemistry between the two nor any real deep connection that gave me hope there is a future for them.

I do look forward to the next in the series simply because I believe John Cross has the potential to be developed into a really fascinating character.

I received a marked up copy of an early PDF version of the story from Kregel via ‘I Read with Audra’ launch services without any expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: Ishmael Covenant by Terry Brennan

I loved this first instalment of the 3-part series. It’s a fantastic combination of thriller, historical conspiracy, Biblical prophecy, Middle Eastern complexity and one’s never sure where the line is drawn between fact and fiction.

There are a lot of players but Brennan supplies a ready-reckoner at the beginning. And there are a few plot lines thrown at us early in the story which takes a little working through but by around 40% of the way through it I was getting the hang of it.

This is a very plot driven story but Brennan gives us sufficient insights into some of the key players like Brian Mullaney, the DSS Head responsible for guarding the US Ambassador to Israel, Atticus Cleveland and his daughter, Palmyra Parker. There are a bunch of bad guys, one in particular, a mysterious ‘otherworldly’ type dubbed The Turk, who takes the story into a different realm for parts of it. I particularly appreciated how Cleveland had a strong faith, even when confronted with some hairy situations, that Mullaney was struggling in his faith and Palmyra had many questions about hers. I’m excited as to how these three navigate the rest of the story as regards their faith.

I found it enthralling and even though this story wraps up one of the key plot points there’s still much to resolve when it ends leaving us enthusiastically waiting for Book Two.

I received an ebook copy of the novel from the publisher via NetGalley being a member of Audra Jennings PR blog tour with no expectation of a favourable review.