Monday, October 28, 2019

Shivery Sophomore Novel A Liked-It-Didn't-Love-It Halloween Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

A year after his wife died in childbirth, Gabriel Stone is still wracked with grief.  Desperate to make a new start away from the memories that haunt his every step in Massachusetts, he accepts a position as a minister in the small town of Pale Harbor, Maine.  Hiding his own secrets, Gabriel soon becomes acquainted with the village's biggest mystery—Sophronia Carver.  The young widow, who's rumored to be everything from a witch to a heartless murderer, hides away in creepy Castle Carver, with only a gruff spinster housekeeper for company.  Intrigued by the sinister stories surrounding her, Gabriel seeks out Sophronia, who surprises him with her kindness, beauty, and intelligence.

When strange things start happening in Pale Harbor, the townspeople know immediately who's at fault—Widow Carver.  Gabriel doesn't believe it for a second.  Someone else is scaring people with Edgar Allen Poe-ish tricks.  Gabriel must find out who before all of Pale Harbor comes for Sophronia with pitchforks and torches.  They don't know her like he does, or do they?  What is the widow hiding?  And who is really behind the macabre doings in town?  Gabriel won't stop digging until he finds the truth.

I loved Hester Fox's debut novel, The Witch of Willow Hall, so when I was offered an early copy of her sophomore book to review, I accepted eagerly.  While The Widow of Pale Harbor shares many elements with its predecessor—a shivery, atmospheric setting; strong, creepy Gothic vibes; and a cast of interesting, sympathetic characters—I didn't enjoy it nearly as much.  I'm not sure why, but Fox's second effort just didn't impress me like her first did.  I still liked The Widow of Pale Harbor, I just didn't love it.  


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Widow of Pale Harbor from the generous folks at HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Halloween Horror Novel a Shivery, Spine-Tingling Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After a traumatic childhood under the chaotic care of his flighty, hippie-dippy mother, Will Conner flees his hometown with no intention of ever returning.  When she falls down a flight of stairs, however, he's forced to take a leave of absence from his job as an English professor in New York City to care for her.  As soon as Will arrives in Cape Ann—a small village north of Boston—the inherent strangeness of the place overwhelms him, flooding him with memories of the night one of his mother's spirit circle rituals went horribly wrong, leaving one man dead.  At five years old, Will didn't understand what was happening.  He still doesn't.  All he knows is something sinister was released that night almost thirty years ago, a malevolent presence that still has Will in its clutches.  If anyone can help him get rid of it, it's the witchy women of Cape Ann.

Despite constant warnings from the townspeople to go back to the city, Will can't leave his childhood home without getting some answers.  He's desperate to know what really happened the night the ritual went wrong, frantic to free himself from the presence that haunts him.  Answers lie with the original members of his mother's spirit circle, many of whom have died mysterious deaths over the ensuing decades, but no one's willing to talk.  With the help of Samantha "Sam" Hall, his odd childhood pal, Will is determined to get the answers he seeks.  He's been warned that digging into old secrets could cause even more danger and pain, but he will not stop, no matter what new horrors he unleashes in the tiny, cursed town of Cape Ann, Massachusetts ... 

There's nothing super original about Before the Devil Fell by Neil Olson, but it's a solid horror novel that would make for a shivery, spine-tingling Halloween read.  The atmospheric setting gives the book an appropriately spooky backdrop.  The tale also features interesting characters, a compelling plotline, and capable prose.  While I can't think of any real stand-out elements that make Before the Devil Fell unique or really memorable, it definitely kept me turning pages.  In the end, I liked it well enough, but I didn't love it.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Before the Devil Fell from the generous folks at Hanover Square Press (a division of Harlequin) in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Historical Romance Engrossing and Faith-Promoting

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When Ingrid Chastain decides to accompany her physician father on a mission to deliver smallpox vaccinations to a suffering village in Montana Territory, she has no idea the journey will change her life completely.  After their wagon crashes on an icy hill, Ingrid is left injured and alone in the middle of nowhere.  Her remote location plus the frigid winter weather makes rescue unlikely.  Not only is Ingrid in danger of dying herself, but without a miracle, the vials of precious medicine with which she's traveling will never make it to the town that needs it so desperately.
Ingrid's miracle comes in the form of a gruff mountain man named Micah Bradley.  Still grieving the loss of the wife and daughter he couldn't save from smallpox, he left his medical career five years ago.  When Micah comes across Ingrid's broken body, he's forced to call on his long-dormant doctoring skills to save her life.  

Despite her own precarious condition, Ingrid is frantic to get the vaccine to the people who need it.  When she finally convinces Micah to set out on their own mad mission, the pair embark on a journey that will test them both physically and spiritually.  Can they make it across the treacherous mountains in weather that worsens by the day?  Will they get the vaccine vials where they need to go?  Most importantly, will Micah re-discover the faith he lost five years ago or will God let him fail once again?

Christian fiction can be a hard sell for me, but I ended up quite enjoying Hope's Highest Mountain, the first book in a new series by Misty M. Beller.  The novel starts with a bang and keeps the action going at a steady pace.  While that kept me turning pages, the story really isn't about the characters' physical journeys, but about their spiritual ones.  Faith—both firm and fledgling—is at the heart of this uplifting tale.  That comes across loud and clear, but not in an irritating or preachy way.  My only real complaint about Hope's Highest Mountain has to do with character development.  Ingrid and Micah are both nice, likable characters but they're a little too nice, a little too perfect.  I would have liked more personality from both of them as well as some imperfections to help them feel more authentic.  In addition, I really wanted Ingrid to act like a heroine.  She had good intentions, but she never really did anything.  I would have liked to see more backbone and more risk-taking from her.  Overall, though, I enjoyed this clean, faith-promoting romance.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next installment in the series.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Hope's Highest Mountain from the generous folks at Bethany House via those at Celebrate Lit in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Despite Unique Format, Lippman's Newest Just an Average Read

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After separating from her husband of almost 20 years, Madeline "Maddie" Schwartz longs to live the exciting, meaningful existence she's been missing out on for two decades.  When she hears about a body found in a park fountain, she knows she's stumbled upon a story that could be her ticket to being taken seriously in the world of investigative journalism.  No one but Maddie seems to care about the dead woman; the more she digs for answers, the more obsessed she becomes with finding the truth.

The dead woman's ghost (who is observing Maddie's investigation) just wants to be left alone.  But why?  What happened to her?  Who stole her life and set her restless spirit wandering?

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman uses a unique, interesting format to tell an otherwise ordinary story.  It works, making the tale more compelling than it would have been.  In fact, it may be the saving grace for this novel, which features two unlikeable "heroines" who are both selfish and manipulative.  It's tough to care too much about either one of them.  In addition, Lady in the Lake is grim and depressing.  All in all, then, it was another average read for me.  I definitely didn't love it, but I liked it well enough to finish the book.

(Readalikes:  I'm tired and nothing is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder expletives), violence, and some sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Lady in the Lake from the generous folks at William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins) in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Book Spotlight: Hope's Highest Mountain (with a Giveaway!)

When Ingrid Chastain agreed to accompany her father to deliver vaccines to a mining town in the Montana Territory, she never could have anticipated a terrible accident would leave her alone and badly injured in the wilderness. Rescue comes in the form of a mysterious mountain man who tends her injuries, but she’s hesitant to put her trust in this man who seems to have wounds of his own.
After tragedy struck his family, Micah Bradley left his work as a doctor and escaped to the wilds of Montana. But his self-imposed solitude is broken when he finds Ingrid in desperate need of medical attention, and he’s forced to call on his doctoring skills once again.
Micah can’t help but admire Ingrid’s tenacity despite the severity of her injuries, until he learns the crate she brought contains smallpox vaccines to help quell a nearby outbreak. With Ingrid dead set on delivering the medicine–with or without his help–he has no choice but to accompany her. As they set off through the treacherous, snow-covered Rocky Mountains against all odds, the journey ahead will change their lives more than they could have known.
I love a good historical action/adventure romance novel, so I'm excited to read Hope's Highest Mountain, the first book in a new series by Misty M. Beller.  Although I ran out of time to read it before my assigned blog stop date, it's next on my list.  Look for a review this week.
In the meantime, be sure to follow along on the book's blog tour (hosted by Celebrate Lit) by clicking the links below.  You can also snag a copy of Hope's Highest Mountain for yourself by entering a giveaway hosted by the author (see widget below) or purchasing it here. 
Blog Stops
Sara Jane Jacobs, October 12
Betti Mace, October 13
Blessed & Bookish, October 14
Texas Book-aholic, October 14
Genesis 5020, October 14
janicesbookreviews, October 16
Mary Hake, October 16
Batya’s Bits, October 17
Connect in Fiction, October 17
Older & Smarter?, October 18
Life of Literature, October 18
A Reader’s Brain, October 18
The Becca Files, October 19
Splashes of Joy , October 19
Moments, October 20
Daysong Reflections, October 21
Wishful Endings, October 21
Joy of Reading , October 21
Pause for Tales, October 22
Britt Reads Fiction, October 22
Lis Loves Reading, October 23
Bigreadersite , October 23
Live. Love. Read. , October 24
Hallie Reads, October 24
Remembrancy, October 25
Mia Reads Blog, October 25
To Everything There is A Season( www.ihopeyoudanceinlife.com),  October 25
Giveaway

Monday, October 14, 2019

Educated a Fascinating, Compelling Memoir

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Born to survivalist parents, Tara Westover became the seventh child in a very unconventional family.  Although her parents were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they embraced their own extreme, fanatical version of the religion.  Living in a remote corner of Idaho, she and her siblings ran wild, helping their father sort scrap metal and prepare the family for the imminent end of the world.  Because the Westovers did not believe in modern medicine or the need for schooling, their brood received neither.  Even life-threatening wounds were treated only with natural remedies and prayer.  Mind-boggling ignorance about world history, current affairs, literature, science, and mathematics?  Ignored altogether.  Possessing a keen mind and a curiosity that wouldn't quit, Tara made the courageous decision to leave home in order to pursue an education.  She entered her first classroom ever as a 17-year-old college freshman.  Although at that point she knew little about even basic academic concepts, she went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University as well as an MPhil and PhD from Cambridge.

How Westover evolved from a feral, resourceless child to an ambitious, devoted scholar at prestigious universities is the subject of her first book, a memoir entitled Educated.  Her story is a testament to the power of education and the ability of an eager mind to triumph in even the grimmest situations.  It's also a coming-of-age tale about stepping out of a sheltered childhood into the alarming world of adulthood and subsequently trying to determine who you really are, what you actually believe, and where you truly belong.  The exploration of these intriguing themes make Educated a fascinating book and yet, it didn't blow me away like I expected it to due to all the accolades it has received.  It's raw and powerful for sure, but for me, at least, it ended up being a good read, not a great one.  

Why didn't Educated resonate with me as much as it has with so many other readers?  I think because (1) I found it more depressing than empowering, (2) it made me feel defensive of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (even though Westover insists this is not a book about Mormonism, it kinda is), and (3) Westover seemed to suggest that a person could not be both religious and educated, a stance with which I vehemently disagree.  Despite these hang-ups, though, I did find Educated interesting.  It brings up a lot of thought-provoking questions that would make for a lively book club discussion.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I purchased a copy of Educated from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Dust Bowl Novel Grim But Hopeful (With a Giveaway!)


As the daughter of a wealthy banker, Sybil Trimble is expected to act like a lady, do what she's told, and take her place in society by marrying a man worthy of her social status.  Despite a penchant for sneaking out to the local speakeasy to dance off her excess energy, the 21-year-old is ready to do her part.  She's especially mindful of the promise she made to her father to use her smarts to exact change in the world around her.  When she's pressured into marrying a rich man she doesn't love, however, Sybil stands up to her family for the first time.  Refusing to be bullied into a marriage that sounds more like a business proposal, she instead falls for a handsome hobo who's full of faith but empty of cash.  The Trimbles will never accept Fremont Pope as a suitable husband.  Worse, as long as Sibyl is tied to him she won't have the funds she needs to make a real change for the Oklahoma farmers whose hope is shriveling along with their crops.  What's a girl in love to do?

While her hometown continues to suffer the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, Sibyl finds herself in trouble of her own.  Fremont assures her that God will provide, no matter what, but she isn't so sure.  What will become of her promise to her father?  What of all her big dreams?  In a time when help is needed for so many, how can Sibyl rise above her own crises to come to the aid of others, as God—and her father—clearly expect her to?  Who is Sibyl supposed to be and how, with all the challenges of life, will she become that person?

Books set in the tumultuous 1930s aren't generally warm and uplifting.  A Promise to Break by Kathryn Spurgeon is no exception, although the author's goal is clearly to show that relying on God can get people through even the toughest times.  While it might be a tad more hopeful than other novels set in this time period, it's still pretty depressing.  It doesn't help that the characters, including our heroine, are not a very likable bunch.  Sibyl is selfish, whiny, and immature.  Although she says continually that she wants to help people, she rarely actually acts on that desire.  In fact, action (or lack thereof) is probably this novel's biggest problem—nothing really happens until the end of the book when a subplot flares up to cause some drama.  Without a central conflict or a concrete story goal for Sibyl, the plot flounders, making A Promise to Break feel long and dull.  A note at the end of the book states that the novel is based on the life of the author's grandparents, which explains some of its issues.  Had it been written as a memoir, I think it would have worked a lot better for me.  So, while I appreciate the book's themes of faith, resilience, and helping the poor, on the whole I found A Promise to Break a disappointing read.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for subject matter most suitable for adult readers

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of A Promise to Break from the generous folks at Memory House Publishing via those at Celebrate Lit in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

--


Interested in more opinions of A Promise to Break?  Follow along on the book's blog tour by clicking the links below:

Betti Mace, October 4
Older & Smarter?, October 5
Hallie Reads, October 6
Life of Literature, October 6
Genesis 5020, October 7
Moments, October 8
Emily Yager, October 8
She Lives to Read, October 9
Pause for Tales , October 11
Connect in Fiction, October 11
Texas Book-aholic, October 12
Bigreadersite, October 12
janicesbookreviews, October 13
A Reader’s Brain, October 14
Batya’s Bits, October 14
  As part of the blog tour, Kathryn Spurgeon is hosting a giveaway:


Friday, October 04, 2019

In a Word: Meh

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When a body is found in the small town of Portland, Pennsylvania, it's obvious the dead man has been the victim of a brutal murder.  The crime bears an eerie resemblance to a 20-year-old killing, a cold case that has never been solved.  Since the locals are notoriously unwilling to talk to outsiders, Portland native Parker Reed is assigned as lead detective on the case.  

Becca Kingsley, another native, returns to her hometown around the same time to care for her estranged father, who is now dying of cancer.  As she rekindles her friendship with Parker, her best friend and unrequited high school crush, old feelings quickly surface.  But with the murder investigation turning up old rumors and long-buried secrets, Becca begins to question everything and everyone she's ever known.  The killer is likely someone local.  But, who?  The more Parker and Becca uncover, the more dangerous life in Portland becomes for them ...

I usually love thrillers like River Bodies, the first in a new series by Karen Katchur, but sadly, this one left much to be desired.  The characters are mostly unlikeable, which makes them difficult to connect and empathize with.  I found the motorcycle gang, both its members and its activities, especially cliché and far-fetched.  In addition, since we know from the outset who the murderer is, the book lacks suspense—a key element in a compelling thriller.  The novel's overall vibe is sad, depressing, and overall, kind of pointless.  That being said, I did find myself invested enough in the story to finish the book, but I can't say it was a satisfying read because it just ... wasn't.  Needless to say, I won't be moving on with the series.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other small-town mystery/thriller series, although no specific titles are coming to mind)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Historical Gentrification Novel Intimate and Poignant

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

To outsiders, it may look like a grungy, aging slum.  To others, Brooklyn—a mostly Black community in Charlotte, North Carolina—is a vibrant, colorful neighborhood full of good folks, long-time residents whose families have lived, loved and died in the close-knit area.  When the city decides to raze Brooklyn, the community erupts.  Despite promises of new housing and the relocation of businesses, local families know nothing will ever be the same for them.  It may have its problems, but Brooklyn is their home.  Losing it will change their lives irrevocably.

Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew is told from three viewpoints—that of Loraylee Hawkins, a single mom who must keep her relationship with her child's white father a secret; Ebenezer Polk, the aging reverend of Brooklyn's St. Timothy's Second Presbyterian Church; and Persy Marshall, the sympathetic wife of one of the white men in charge of "redeveloping" the community.  Through their eyes, the reader comes to know Brooklyn in all its variety and its people in all their complexity.  With this intimate knowledge, the reader really feels the tragedy of the neighborhood's demise.  Based on real events, the story brings the conflicts and controversy surrounding gentrification to life.  That's the beauty of Tomorrow's Bread.  The novel doesn't have much of a plot and the storyline it does have is at times disjointed, confusing, and slow, making the read a bit of a slog.  In the end, then, I liked this one but didn't love it.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:



If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, mild sexual content, and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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