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: ‘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: Stories that Bind Us by Susie Finkbeiner

This is my first Susie Finkbeiner story and gosh, what a delightful surprise it was. It starts slowly and never really increases in pace which is unusual for the stories I mostly read. But it wasn;’t long before I was captivated by this story of family.

We meet Betty Sweet, recently turned 40, in the early 60s. Her husband, Norman, dies suddenly and there is a void in her life. Small town LaFontaine, not too far from Detroit, is the setting featuring a Main Street with the family-owned and run bakery: The Sweet Bakery, Betty’s in-laws where Norman also worked.

Norman’s family comes around Betty in her grieving and we get to meet Albert, his brother and Marvel, his sister plus Pop, the patriarch of the family. We could meet these characters on the street, there’s no frills, simply true to life people. Marvel has twin ten year old boys: Nick and Dick, who are full of energy and mischief as one expects of twins at that age.

Finkbeiner writes short chapters which typically are split between Betty telling us a story of the past: her mom, her childhood with sister Clara, meeting Norman and their courtship and then the current time. They’re usually linked in some manner and so what gradually builds is a family portrait, one full of the love, loss, struggles with mental health and the everyday meanderings of life. Nothing much happens but it’s engrossing.

And then there’s Hugo. He shines a light into Betty’s world. He’s a special little boy, and Finkbeiner ever so gracefully deals with issues of race and prejudice with this innocent child. It’s beautiful to read.

I was sad the book ended even though not much happened but Finkbeiner’s soft touches with the character’s faith, familial love and gentle portrayal of mental health are captivating. I feel privileged to have read this beautiful story.

Now to locate Susie’s earlier ones.

I received an early release ebook copy from the Revell Reads programs enabled by NetGalley with no expectation of a positive 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.

“Deadly Proof” by Rachel Dylan

Kate Sullivan is a 30-something lawyer who is given the biggest case in her relatively short career: lead counsel on a very big Pharma case involving a class action of families who have lost a member as a result of using a new drug from a global Pharma giant, MPC. Kate’s the plaintiff bringing the case against MPC and a college buddy, Ethan, is leading the defence.

We’re quickly thrown into the action as an insider (an MPC employee) having conferred with Kate is mysteriously murdered. Kate employs a PI to help her get to the bottom of that case to see if it has anything to do with her much bigger case. Of course it has a whole lot to do with it. Landon, an ex-Army Ranger, is the PI and there are immediate sparks between him and Kate and it’s clear their relationship will create fodder for the story’s romance angle.

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Book Review: ‘Rule of Law,’ by Randy Singer

This is the first Randy Singer novel I’ve read and I’m certain it won’t be the last. The combination of the legal, military, political and intrigue is compelling. Yes, some of the legal mumbo-jumbo and Supreme Court protocols were at times a bit tiresome but it wasn’t long before Singer brought us back to the human element. Special forces soldiers who were fighting for their country were killed in a bungled raid in Yemen. And now their loved ones had no father, no husband, no son, no brother and no explanation as to what really happened to their men.

Paige Chambers and Wyatt Jackson are two excellent creations. So different in style, mannerism and attitude but a terrific combination of youthful innocence and seasoned cynicism. And Amanda Hamilton, the President, was a leader with heart and courage to do what is best for the people of the nation not just make the right political move.

I suspect the story line borders on the truth – are the CIA effectively a rogue unit when operating outside the US without appropriate Congressional authority to act? When acts of war occur without appropriate authority are the executive branch protected by the “state secrets” provisions allowing such acts to not be properly brought to account and the perpetrators brought to trial?

Like many novels the novel is set up well and the first 200 pages are compelling. The story sagged a little in the middle as our lawyers went through their processes to testify in multiple court situations. But the last 50 pages or so are brilliant. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and I was kinda sad when it all came to an end.

I do hope Randy Singer has found himself a new hero that he can use in a series of JAG-style novels: Paige Chambers. I know I’ll certainly be reading that series.

If you enjoy watching TV shows like JAG and Madam Secretary you going to enjoy Rule of Law (without the soap opera that sometimes comes with TV shows).

I received a Net Galley copy of Rule of Law as part of the Litfuse Blog Tour with no expectations of a favourable review.

Book Review: “The Dog who was There” by Ron Marasco

As a dog lover, I was intrigued to read a story about a dog who experienced first hand the life of Jesus. I didn’t really know what to expect and now having read it I have a mix of thoughts as regards reviewing it.

I appreciated the grittiness of the story. We see the times of Jesus from the ground level so we get a taste of the dirt and squalor of certain areas of Jerusalem and other nearby locales. We get a view of the violence of the period, in particular, the ruthless and callous disregard the Romans had for life, both human and canine. For some readers this may be a bit confronting.

Barley is a rescue dog in the true sense of the description (we have 2 at home) and has a delightful spirit even though for much of his life he is poorly treated. But we do get to see him being loved by a married couple and later by a petty criminal, Samid, which Barley responds well too.

Jesus, or the Kind Man as Barley describes Him, doesn’t really enter the story until about halfway and then it’s not until the last 30% of the book when Barley gets up close to Him in His last days. And the crucifixion scene is tremendously portrayed from the eyes of Barley.

What I found challenging about the novel is that not a lot happens in the first half and I struggled to get through to it. I kept wondering when Jesus was going to become more prominent as that’s what the title alluded to. I was confused by the POV quite a lot. The author jumped between Barley and 3rd person narrator frequently to the extent they almost meshed. I felt Barley often saw things through a human and not, a dog perspective.

The last third of the novel was very good to read with a couple of very clever twists which amped up the emotional connection I had to the story. However, there is so much quality reading material available I’m not sure I’m able to recommend this one.

Note: A special thank you to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

You can discover more about “The Dog who was There” on the Litfuse Blog Tour site.

“A.D.30,” Ted Dekker

934503This is the first novel of Ted Dekker’s that could be classified as Biblical fiction. It is breathtaking in its portrayal of the times, the brutality of humans and in Maviah, the central character, someone all readers can relate to. And then we meet Yeshua, the Hebrew for Jesus. It’s hard to put into words the experience the reader has seeing Jesus through Maviah’s eyes. Sitting near Him as he shares many of the parables we’ve come to know through the Bible. I didn’t want Him to leave. I expect that was how the disciples felt as they journeyed with Him.

Maviah is a Bedouin slave who at the request of her dethroned father to seek out King Herod and secure his assistance to free her people from the Thamud. This takes her on a wild journey through the desert with her valiant aids Saba and Judah. Their journey will take them past Jerusalem. Judah who knows of Jesus, being a descendant of the kings who visited Jesus at his birth, and is desperate to meet him. Circumstances outside their control unexpectedly lead them to the house of Nicodemus where Jesus is happening to supper.

Maviah is a wonderful character. We see her courage in undertaking the journey and the many fears she will fail. It is in meeting Jesus she is able to begin to realise her destiny as Queen of the desert. The final scenes are simply extraordinary storytelling as Dekker demonstrates the power of faith when the odds appear insurmountable.

There are many other notable well developed characters; Judah and Saba in particular. It was fascinating to see Dekker present his interpretations of such people as Herod, Herodias, Aretas as well as Stephen and some of the disciples.

This is Dekker at his absolute best. In fact, he’s stepped up a level as he combines the truth and power of the gospel with a breathtaking tale of good and evil that makes me want more and more.