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Book Review: “Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery” by Amanda Cox

Oh my! What a beautiful story Amanda Cox has written for her sophomore novel. It’s quite remarkable. Set over two different time periods: the present day and the years from 1965 into the 1980s, we meet three generations of Clearwater ladies: Glory Ann (or Nan), her daughter Rosemary and the latter’s daughter, Sarah. Cox weaves a compelling small town story of kept secrets, parental expectations, familial loss and forgiveness through the lives of these strong women. All so alike in many respects but also unique I warmed to each of the three for different reasons.

The three ladies lives pivot around the Old Depot Grocery which Glory Ann ran with her husband and both Rosemary and Sarah grew up working in from an early age. It serves as a physical statement of so much life shared between the three but it also served as a mechanism for the three to ‘hide’ their secrets and ‘hide away’ from the possibilities of doing something different with their lives.

It was powerful reminder of the importance of truth but also unconditional familial love that allows forgiveness and redemption. There’s also a strong side note regarding the difficulty of war vets adjusting back to normal life which I enjoyed reading too.

I appreciated how we saw quiet strength in some of the male characters too. Clarence Clearwater was a superb character demonstrating unconditional love not just to his wife and daughters but the community as well. Clay Ashby also was a beautiful illustration of a man of quiet strength, who didn’t push himself onto Sarah, giving her the time and space she needed to grieve her loss and reconcile her past and future aspirations.

Cox managed the different POVS well and I always felt confident in who’s voice I was reading and the time period each scene/chapter was set.

I’m so looking forward to Cox’s next story. She might have become a ‘must read’ author for me.

I received an early ebook copy as part of Revell Reads blogger program via NetGalley with no expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: ‘Under the Bayou Moon’ by Valerie Fraser Luesse

This was a charming story of Ellie Fields who leaves her Alabama home to take up a solo teaching position in Bernadette, a small town situated on one of many bayous of the Atchafalaya Delta Basin in Louisiana. Ellie is a fish out of water and perhaps settles in a little too easily for someone who is new to the mixed culture of the area.

I delighted in reading the Cajun history and sampling a small element of its unique and varied culture through Ellie’s eyes. And the bayou, its sounds, smells and sights were a joy to behold. At times, Luesse took my breath away. And then there was the white alligator – the piece de resistance. Oh what a gorgeous creature and what a beautiful connection it had with Raphe who seemed to be the only human it dared to be seen by.

There is so much to like about this story and it was such an easy read even though Luesse often led us in the Cajun dialect and French as well. The plot was quite simple and as another reviewer stated, there were a number of threads that just fizzled out. The romance between Ellie and Raphe was a little unrealistic – full of sweetness but for two who came from such diverse backgrounds didn’t seem to struggle as a couple.

There were some good themes explored: racism, the clashing of multiple cultures, the hardship of poverty but the trauma both Ellie and Raphe experienced either before this story or during it were superficially handled when there was a lot more that could have been explored.

It was a good read and I’m thoroughly pleased to have spent some time Under the Bayou Moon.

I received an early ebook copy from Revell as part of their Revell Reads Program via NetGalley with no expectation of a favourable review.

Book Review: The Nature of Small Birds by Susie Finkbeiner

This is a hard one for me to comment on mainly because not a lot happens in this story of a family told over four decades. We have three separate POVs, all first person, told over three distinct years: 1975, 1988 and 2013. Bruce and Linda, Dad and Mom, and first born, Sonny, short for Sondra.

It’s a story of family, of adoption, of the fallout of Vietnam, of growing old and coming of age. It’s about a mom’s love for her girls, a dad’s love for his girls, a husband and wife growing old together and falling more in love with each other, of grappling with parents and an adopted child’s impressions as a kid, a teen and as as an adult.

It’s quite ordinary. Every day stuff as we go to the mall, go on first dates, family vacations, fishing trips, visiting grammy and grumpy and caring for sick parents.

And it’s surprisingly captivating. Most of the time. It’s more literary than I expect from Christian fiction which was a nice change. An author is allowed to write about the ordinary in literary fiction. It’s almost essential. Finkbeiner keeps swapping POVs and years with ease and after a few chapters it’s easy to get in the groove, even though we’re unsure of what the next year and/or POV will feature next.

But it’s Minh’s story, the adopted Vietnamese girl from Operation Babylift, that I find most compelling. So much so I wish I had her POV. She arrives in a new country to new parents as a four year old and there’s always a sense of displacement whenever Minh or Mindy, as she becomes known, enters the story irrespective of whether she’s 4, 17 or 42. It adds a sense of discomfort to a very happy family story. Mindy is greatly loved and accepted and she knows this but it’s that sense of loss of not knowing her birth parents, of birth siblings, of birthplace. Finkbeiner does a great job managing this dichotomy.

I liked how the three POVs were very distinctive and their three characters were extremely likeable. I particularly appreciated how Bruce and Linda had found such contentment in the choices they’ve made and the life they’ve engineered together. And their love for each other is very believable and admirable. They’ve learnt how to love by championing the other and making the other each other’s focus and priority. I especially liked Bruce, a wonderfully gentle, kind man who adored his wife and daughters and grappled with the notion of letting his daughters fly the coup.

There really is a lot to like in this story and I recommend it heartily.

I received an early ebook copy as part of Revell Reads Blogger program via NetGalley with no expectation of a positive review.

Book Review: The Chase by Lisa Harris

We catch up with Madison James and Jonas Quinn three months after the end of The Escape. Madison has recovered physically from her wounds but it’s clear she is still struggling emotionally with not knowing who shot her and how they’re linked to her late husband’s killer.

She isn’t given any time to quietly settle back into the job as the partners are immediately called into a bank robbery that is going down. These robbers serve to form the backbone of the plot for the story. On escaping capture, the foursome thrill seekers separate and send Madison and Jonas on a series of illusive chases as they endeavour to avoid jail time.

Like all her stories, Harris keeps the pace fast as we move from scene to scene on the hunt for these wily robbers. Meanwhile, the connection between our two US Marshalls continues to develop and grow and for one of them in particular, taking their friendship to something more becomes increasingly desirable. I like how Harris is developing this relationship. It’s a bit like those classic old detective TV shows where the romantic tension between the two leads is ever present and you wonder that it’s just a matter of time before they get together.

I loved racing all around Seattle and exploring its sights as well as some pretty islands further north close to the Canadian border.

We’re left hanging at the end of the story on all levels which makes me want the third and final instalment to arrive quickly so I can see how everything gets wrapped up.

I received an early ebook copy of the book from the publisher as part of their Revell Reads Program via NetGalley with not expectation of a positive review.

Book Review: Come Back to Me by Jody Hedlund

This is my first Hedlund novel and judging by other reviewers this is a bit of a step away from her usual stories. Well, I certainly enjoyed this one and am looking forward to the sequel.

Time travel is always fun to read and Hedlund did a good job outlining how one travels from one era to another: modern England back to 1381 England. Hedlund gives us a fabulous view of the 1300s and the Peasant Revolt which Marian Creighton arrived in the middle of. As Marian, like us, is familiar with the current times, we’re all given a great education into the vast differences of medieval Canterbury. It was captivating to read.

The story actually has a great deal of suspense too which kept me turning pages. Will Marian find the source of the holy water and sufficient ampullae so she can both return to current times and heal her sister? The Peasant Revolt adds another layer of suspense plus a good dollop of fear with the cruelty of the leaders being ever present.

But perhaps what I reflect most on is the romance between Marian and Will Burnham. It’s really delightful to read. His chivalry, her strength of character and his willingness to allow Marian to be herself was good to read. The sensuality between the two is well written too. I suspect there’ll be some readers who’ll think it too much but I actually thought it added to the realism of the story and to its suspense. Will Marian and Will’s love be allowed to flourish or will Marian return to the future and be forever wondering what if?

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m keen to read the followup to see what happens next.

I received an early complimentary ebook copy as part of the Revell Reads blogger program via NetGalley with no expectation of a positive review.

Book Review: The Paris Betrayal by James R. Hannibal

This novel started with a bang just like you want a spy thriller to start. Bullets flying, bad guys fleeing, good guys mission isn’t as successful as planned and the fate of the world is in Ben Calix’s hands. Plus, we get some inside tips from the ‘How to be a Successful Spy Training Manual’ (in italics) which I really enjoyed.

We’re soon taken on a series of fast chases throughout Europe and Hannibal’s descriptions of the various settings were tremendous in helping us feel we were in the scene. Having travelled a few times to Paris I particularly loved ‘going back’ especially to my favourite cathedral, Notre Dame, and to be taken inside while it’s being repaired was a special treat.

The pace is relentless as Ben’s mission keeps being thwarted by both the bad guys but also apparently by his employer who has ‘set him afloat without a paddle’. The obstacles he confronts become increasingly dire especially as his support crew seem to have abandoned him or get seemingly eliminated.

In the background, we get a very cagey sense of the bad guys, a nefarious organisation dubbed Leviathan led by someone that goes by the moniker, Jupiter.

Surprisingly, I found after the first 100 or so pages I was struggling to stay interested. And this stayed with me for most of the novel which bothered me. As I would usually love this kind of story. By the end of the story I realised why I had this strange experience. Three reasons:

  • I really wasn’t that invested in Ben and his mission. I think all the action and obstacles denied Ben and the reader sufficient time to breathe so we could get to know the guy.
  • the bad guys were too nebulous for me. They only appeared a handful of times in discreet conversations between Jupiter and his side kick, Terrance, so we really didn’t get to know why they were doing what they planned.
  • the supporting cast were many and only flitted in and out of the story for a short period so again we never invested in them. Ben has a love interest in Giselle and then Clara, and perhaps did a few years back for Tess, but we really never learn much about any of them. I really wanted to like Clara, in particular, and we get some insight into her when she gets to tell the story for a chapter or two, but it didn’t continue to maintain my interest.

I thought the ending was clever as it surprised me. The author’s note at the back gives some insight into the background behind Ben’s development but it didn’t quite gel for me.

Overall, this is a quality spy story and judging by the many other positive reviews is one that appeals to many people.

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

Book Review: Present Danger by Elizabeth Goddard

This is a quality romantic suspense story with lots of moving parts that at times were a little hard to keep track of. With multiple investigative agencies involved, a fascinating story involving trafficked historical artifacts plus involved character backstories, there is a lot for the reader to juggle. Oh, and then there’s some romance.

I enjoy learning as I read and I appreciated the trafficked artifacts storyline as it was one I didn’t realise was still hot property (excuse the pun) in FBI circles.

The pace is good from page one and doesn’t really let up. There were a lot of ‘near misses’ that can become a little repetitive and loosen the suspense a little but it was a fun story that kept me guessing. I had no idea how it all connected and was pleasantly surprised when all was revealed.

I really enjoyed Terra and Jack’s characters. I liked their personal struggles and how they’d dealt with them in the years they were apart. I wasn’t convinced of their romance though but I’ll allow the fact they had previously been romantically involved to be the reason for that. Terra’s initial lack of trust was very understandable and Jack had to earn that back.

The story wrapped up a little too quickly but overall it was very easy to turn the pages as new information kept being revealed.

I’ll certainly keep reading Goddard’s stories.

I received a complimentary early ebook version from Revell via NetGalley 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: 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.