Thursday, November 30, 2006

Roxanne Henke's The Secret of Us ~ Reviewed

The Secret of Us
By Roxanne Henke
Published by Harvest House, January 2007
ISBN 978-0-7369-1701-8

Housewife Laura Dunn and her workaholic husband, advertising executive Donnie Dunn, have been married for 23 years. As Donnie's business thrives and their daughter, Stasha, plans her wedding, Laura longs for new possibilities. Could the dreams God planted in her heart years ago—like to become an artist—still be part of her purpose? Is there a new life of faith on the other side of this struggle?

The Secret of Us is a story of longing—a story of life. Laura had learned not to voice her longings but hid them behind childrearing and her husband's efforts to build a business. Over the years, she and Donnie had stopped communicating their dreams. Written from each perspective, Henke presents the struggles of more than just Laura. Donnie can't understand why he's feeling guilty. He has no reason to. Yet … it's so much easier to leave things be—don't "open Pandora's Box."

Henke draws her reader into the Dunn's lives from page one. Henke breaks all the rules and does it with a distinctive flair. Deep characterization, rich descriptions and a storyline that resonates all add up to a sterling read—one you'll be sorry to see end.

I won't spoil The Secret of Us by revealing the ending, but it's a poignant reminder to keep our dreams and love alive. The Secret of Us receives Novel Reviews' highest recommendation.

Reviewed by Ane Mulligan

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ray Blackston ~ A Pagan's Nightmare

A Pagan's Nightmare
Ray Blackston
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: FaithWords
Language: English
ISBN: 0446579599

Book Description:

"A tongue-in-cheek look at contemporary culture through the eyes of a screenwriter who pens a hit about the last unbeliever on Earth navigating a thoroughly Christian world.
An unwary "pagan" discovers he's one of the last remaining unbelievers in a world populated by Christians. Or so imagines Larry Hutch, a screenwriter with hopes of writing a hit movie. While struggling in his faith and dealing with personal crises, he imagines a strange new world where song lyrics are altered to conform to "Christian" standards (the Beatles belt out "I Wanna Hold Your Tithe") and French fries, newly labeled "McScriptures," are tools for evangelism. Larry's screenplay is a big hit with his agent, Ned, but Ned's Southern Baptist wife is less than amused. Both men's futures will be on the line when the world witnesses A PAGAN'S NIGHTMARE."

Reviewed by Gina Holmes

Ray Blackston takes on legalism in this light but satirical, novel within a novel. It's a difficult thing to set out to write something funny that will poke fun at your own social group and I give Ray a huge amount of credit for his moxie on taking this on.

Though at times the humor fell flat in my opinion, I did find myself chuckling on occasion at paradoxical references to pop-culture, ie: instead of e-harmony, it's e-marviny (Marvin is the incarnation of legalism), and the discount a landlady offers for the now premium cable channel, TBN.

Ray did a good job on finding a way to expose cult-like thinking masking Christianity, without being offensive. I think, however, that he may have missed an opportunity to really dig deep and make fellow Christians examine our non-biblical rituals, motivations and assumptions and really get to the heart of the matter. Though it would have been a much darker & more sarcastic book had he--which may not be who this author is.

I did walk away from A Pagan's Nightmare encouraged that others are smiling to themselves about some of our modern-day Christian rituals that can be downright silly at times.

BTW, Kudos on the cover. It's clever and suits the book well.

Though this isn't my favorite Blackston novel, he's a talented writer and I look forward to his next.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tim Downs ~ Head Game

Head Game
Tim Downs
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: WestBow Press: January '07

ISBN: 1595540237

Book Description:

"Three men--served together in Desert Storm. Their job was to create propaganda leaflets that stripped the enemy of his will to resist. Now, fifteen years later, the enemy is out to return the favor. He's playing head games with them...and won't stop until their worlds are turned completely upside down."

Reviewed by Gina Holmes

Head Game is a psychological thriller told by the talented Tim Downs of Plague Maker fame. The story begins with an impressive author-illustrated suicide note which immediately evokes interest.

Though not told at typical thriller warped-speed, this novel had the perfect blend of humor, pace and amazing character development.

Each intertwining storyline was well thought out and satisfying. We follow the lives of half a dozen characters, each unique, multi-faceted and engaging. The "head game" aspect builds slowly, as a good psychological thriller should, until the last few chapters which had me ripping back the pages in hungry anticipation.

Tim tells a compelling story full of three-dimensional characters and beautifully executed plot twists.

There was one minor disappointment for me: A section of the story where the antagonist explains in detail his motivations. Downs did such a great job at showing this that it became a case of show AND tell. I already got it and didn't care for the neon-sign.

Other than that one minor & subjective infraction, Head Game is one of the best written books I've read this year and I can't wait to get my hands on his next project. I enthusiastically recommend this book!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Annette Smith's A Bigger Life ~ Reviewed

A Bigger Life
By Annette Smith
Published by NavPress, Jan 2007
ISBN 1-5768-3995-8

Joel Carpenter's life was never supposed to turn out this way. But after making a careless choice seven years ago, his marriage was permanently shattered. Living in a small town in the heart of Texas, he now finds himself estranged from his ex-wife, Kari, and sharing custody of their son.

And just when Joel thinks the worst is behind him, Kari receives tragic news that threatens to forever alter their lives. Now as he faces his greatest challenge yet, he experiences hope and encouragement in unexpected places. And in the midst of deep tragedy, Joel finds forgiveness and learns to love in a way he never knew possible.

A Bigger Life is one of the best books I've read this year. Smith has nailed a man's POV so well, twice I flipped back to the cover to be sure I'd read her name right. I was sure this was written by a man. While Joel shows a depth of emotion, it was flawlessly presented. I was captivated by the story from page one. And I found their occupation completely believable, having worked in the same profession with two men much like Joel and Abe—with wives and families.

Spoiler to follow: Only one thing bothered me. I wished it hadn't ended quite like it did. I thought it would have been better if at that backyard barbeque, Joel was merely dating Amy in the end, with the promise of things to come.

But even that didn't really detract from this great read. Novel Reviews gives A Bigger Life a top recommendation.

Reviewed by Ane Mulligan

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Rene Gutteridge's Scoop ~ Reviewed

By Rene Gutteridge
Published by WaterBrook Press
ISBN: 1400071577

The Occupational Hazards Books are a series of books about seven homeschooled siblings whose last name is Hazard. The parents died in a freak accident leaving the kids ages 16-26 with a lucrative clown business but the kids realize that God has other plans which doesn't include being a family of clowns for the rest of their lives.

Scoop is a creative novel with a well-done plot, fantastic dialogue, and great characterization. The setting is superb and I truly felt like I worked in a television news station throughout the story. Scoop is highly entertaining with a strong theme tucked within it's pages regarding the power of a true Christian witness to nonbelievers we work with.

Scoop also contained several points of view. On the one hand, I enjoyed getting to know the cast, but as a result, I didn't feel like I had much time to get to know Hayden Hazard--the main character. I think that was the downside to this otherwise riveting novel. I suppose seeing Hayden through others' eyes did work for the book, but by story's end I wished I'd had a chance to know Hayden more, to discover the way her mind worked. I really enjoyed her philosophy of life and how well the author portrayed it through her actions. Sometimes her naive perspective was downright funny. I also thought the author did an amazing job showing the various character arcs. Well done!

Overall I'd say I enjoyed Scoop enough to recommend it. Though not "hilarious", in my opinion, it did bring me indescribable satisfaction as I perused its pages. Most importantly, I didn't experience a dull moment in this novel. Not once did Scoop feel like a chore to read. I'm looking forward to reading more about the Hazard family though future books in the Occupational Hazards series.

Scoop is published by Waterbrook Press and was released on October 10, 2006.

Michelle Sutton (pen name)
"Writing truth into fiction"

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Barbara Warren's The Gathering Storm ~ Reviewed

The Gathering Storm
Barbara Warren
Publisher: Jireh
ISBN: 1893995275

When Stephanie Walker’s estranged father shows up asking for her help, she knows she’s in for trouble. She just doesn’t figure she’ll end up suspected of murder.

Marty Walker has always been a charming trouble-maker, from the time he left Stephanie and her mother for a famous country music singer and life on the road. He’s had little to do with Stephanie since she was a child. But now he says he’s in danger from a member of his new family. He doesn’t explain further, just says he needs her to come stay at his Ozark lodge and help “watch his back.”

That’s the last thing Stephanie intends to do. She’s never forgiven her father for his desertion, and she has refused to get to know his new wife and family. However, when Marty leaves, she discovers he’s stolen a valuable necklace from her and left a note saying she’ll have to come to the lodge to retrieve it. Furious, Stephanie storms up to the lodge—and naturally finds Marty dead in his room, murdered. I say “naturally,” because this scene seemed a little too familiar. The heroine just happens to find the corpse, is found standing over him, covered with blood, and becomes the chief suspect. Even though I liked the characters, I was afraid the story might be a little too predictable.

Fortunately, from that point the story develops a number of ingenious twists and turns. The setting provides an interesting world for the mystery to play out in—a rustic lodge in the scenic Ozarks. Monica Harrington, the country music singer who lured Marty away from Stephanie’s mother, owns the estate, and a number of her family live there, as well, including her son and grandchild. Her daughter-in-law has been missing for some time, which of course figures prominently into the current murder mystery—although not in the way I originally expected.

Even more interesting than the murder mystery are the relationships in The Gathering Storm. The interactions between Stephanie and Monica are highly charged and believable. Monica is a complex character—a professing Christian, and a woman who wants to receive Stephanie’s forgiveness and build a relationship with her. But Monica is also strong-willed, easily angered, and a little uncomfortable with taking the blame for Stephanie’s growing up without her father. Because of this early abandonment, Stephanie has tremendous difficulty trusting others, especially men—and God. This proves a double problem for her when she finds herself falling for the Lodge’s attractive groundskeeper, a strong Christian who wants her to love him and the Lord.

With its lodge full of sinister family members, any one of whom may have “done the deed,” The Gathering Storm is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. It should provide a satisfying read for cozy mystery fans, especially those who like a little romance mixed in.

Reviewed by Robin Johns Grant

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bonnie Leon's When the Storm Breaks ~ Reviewed

When the Storm Breaks
By Bonnie Leon
Published by Revell
ISBN: 0800758986

A terrible drought has settled on Thornton Creek and has parched both the land and the strength of all who live there. After a devastating fire eats up most of Douloo and leaves them with barely enough to survive, Daniel and Rebecca Thornton are forced to go to extremes to provide for their growing family.

I've always enjoyed historical fiction, and especially Bonnie Leon's WWII stories, though I admit I haven't read anything written by her in about six years. For some reason When the Storm Breaks didn't excite me very much.
Maybe because it was the third book in a series and I hadn't read the first two? I liked the characters, the setting, the culture in Australia (then called Queensland because it was the 1870s) and the Aboriginal peoples.

However, the conflict wasn't very unique. It was another "western-type"
story where someone was going to lose their land due to harsh conditions.
Then when the bank wouldn't loan the rancher the money, the man went to a loan shark--something like a 19th Century mobster who charged ridiculously high interest and extracted their payment in flesh if it didn't mean their requirements. Then, of course, the cattle must be nearly wiped out so the rancher's means of payment is trashed. Normally that would be a reasonable amount of tension for me, but I've read several stories like that lately, so maybe that's what bugged me.

I did like the spiritual theme in regards to the heroine's witness to the native woman whom she called "friend", though in Queensland that was frowned upon just like whites associating with slaves in the south. Overall it was a good story. I just didn't hold my breath. Ironically, I read the story straight through. I think it's because I kept hoping I would really care about what happened in the story. Yeah, there was a ranch hand who was unjustly hanged. That did get to me a bit. But otherwise the story failed to jerk my heart-chain. At the end of the novel I was disappointed because I wanted to feel more, but then the story was over. So for fans who enjoy historical fiction you may like this one. I thought it was good, just not great.

Michelle Sutton (pen name)
"Writing truth into fiction"

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Nancy Toback's Anna's Journey ~ Reviewed

Anna's Journey
by Nancy Toback
Published by Barbour Publishing
ISBN: 1597891304

Anna McCort always wanted to serve the Lord in a third-world orphanage, but she ignored His leading to focus on romance. When her ex-boyfriend threatens violence, the emotionally devastated Anna knows she made the right decision to break up with him. This time around, she won't let anything--or anyone--deter her from her God-given mission. Then, a very handsome stranger from church takes notice of Anna. Can she trust herself to do what's right?

Daniel Boccini never had to work hard for a woman's attention--until he met Anna. No matter how hard he tries, he finds he has to manipulate the situation just to be with her. At least he doesn't have to worry that she will ever want him just for his money. If only he could figure out why she keeps him at arms' length... Will Daniel ever be able to give lower priority to his worldly possessions? Can Anna catch a glimpse of just how much the Lord loves her and wants her to be happy?

Up until I read Anna's Journey, my favorite Heartsong title had always been Love Online (also authored by Nancy Toback) because she has a fabulous gift for drawing the reader in. Many times I find category romances boring, but this story had incredible pull and I devoured it. I loved the believable conflict, the feelings of longing, the tension with the violent ex, the honorable qualities of the hero (and his foreign accent), the innocence of the heroine and her struggle to trust, the character growth, etc. Even the secondary characters like Jane had depth. Nothing cardboard in this story.

Just about everything in Anna's Journey plucked my heartstrings. Especially the epilogue. I actually cried real tears of joy. That's a rarity for me. I loved the "edgy" content, especially for a Heartsong, and the kisses were delectable. If Heartsong Presents continues to print novels of this quality I may just have to join their club!

Michelle Sutton (pen name)
"Writing truth into fiction"

Monday, November 13, 2006

Kathy Herman's Not By Chance ~ Reviewed

Not By Chance
By Kathy Herman
Publisher: Multnomah Fiction (August 2006)
ISBN: 159052490X
Book Four in the Seaport Suspense Series

Brandon Jones' life has tumbled off the corporate ladder. When he turns down a regional vice president's job at Mavis and Stein, he's left without a job, a fiancée, or a secure future. He finds himself in Seaport, Florida, at his parents' home.

He has a sympathetic listener in his mother, Ellen, a former journalist turned unpublished novelist. As she battles her way through her latest book, she has doubts about her second career choice.

Brandon's father is the exact opposite. A successful lawyer, he's beside himself at the opportunity his son has thrown away. He can't understand Brandon's need to find a job that gives purpose to his life.

His first friend in Seaport is also a sympathetic listener. Weezie Taylor is the assistant manager at Cody's Crab Shack. Brandon is drawn to her active faith, her good advice, and her outgoing personality.

But everyone is not happy with Brandon's platonic relationship with Weezie. A menace from the past raises it's racist head and makes Brandon, who is white, and Weezie, who is black the first targets of the summer. As the heat builds in the Florida panhandle, so do the racial tensions.

Not By Chance is a good read for those who like their suspense on the lighter side. Kathy Herman tackles the sensitive subject of racism, raising questions we would all do well to ponder.

Review by Cheryl Russell

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Christine Lynxwiler's Promise Me Always ~ Reviewed

Promise Me Always
By Christine Lynxwiler
Published by Barbour Dec. 2006
ISBN 1597893552

Thirty-five-year-old widow Allie Richards has always dreamed of having her own landscaping business. After losing her job, Allie's Pinky Promise girlfriends convince her to enter Shady Grove's Beautiful Town Landscaping Competition. The prize? The town's landscaping and maintenance contract. But there's a hitch. Every move Allie's ragtag crew makes will be featured in the reality segment of a local TV show. Armed with only a green thumb and a motley crew of helpers, does Allie have any chance of surviving the hype and making her dream a reality? Daniel Montgomery, the man behind the camera, is after more than just a story. Will he be satisfied with anything less than Allie's heart?

Haven't we all, men excepted, made promises with childhood friends—the kind where you link pinkie fingers and promise to die before you reveal the secrets about to be shared? Reminiscent of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Lynxwiler captured my interest from the first line and held it till the last. Lighthearted humor and believable characters draw you through situations that without this author's strong writing, could easily become formula and predicable. But Lynxwiler pulls it off with panache.

Novel Reviews gives Promise Me Always a definite recommendation for a great read.

Reviewed by Ane Mulligan

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

L. Frank James' An Opened Grave ~ Reviewed

An Opened Grave
By L. Frank James
Publisher: The Salt Works
ISBN: 193408000

When Sherlock Holmes comes out of retirement to solve a missing person case, the logical Holmes is unprepared for the mystery that finds him. The power of prayer leaves the detective unable to rest until he discovers the truth for himself. Soon, Dr. Watson joins Holmes in what proves to be the most difficult, dangerous and inspiring of cases: a journey to the heart of Christianity itself.

James has captured the classical writing style of the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and An Opened Grave is certain to touch the hearts of his Christian audience in a very special way.

Die-hard mystery fans may be initially disappointed when the famous duo finds a time-machine which enables them to experience the time of Christ firsthand. However, James has used the unlikely scenario as an artful vehicle and unique platform on which to base the logical debates between Watson and Holmes as they experience beliefs and miracles in modern England and the ancient Middle East. James’ ability to present both sides of each debate is admirable.

While An Opened Grave is entertaining, the book’s debates are what will stay with his readers long after they have put the book down.

Reviewed by Marjorie Smith

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Brandt Dodson's The Root of All Evil ~ Reviewed

The Root of All Evil
by Brandt Dodson
Published by Harvest House Publishers
ISBN #978-0-7369-1811-4

Wealthy businessman Berger Hume is dying. And the one thing he wants most is the one thing his millions cannot buy--a relationship with the son he has never met. As Colton Parker, private investigator, searches to locate the son, he finds himself the target of threats from a powerful gang with ties that extend to high-level government. Will this race against time become a race for his own life?

Following the success of Brandt's first two books in the Colton Parker Mystery series—Original Sin and Seventy Times Seven—this third installment offered high energy and lots of gunshots, a few dead bodies, and the hint of romance. The short chapters helped grind the edge of the action to a sharp point. Though the plot offered few surprises for this well-read suspense/mystery reader, the dialogue is sharp and plentiful, with a good mix of narrative to ground each scene and further develop Colton's character. A strange mix of gang members add to the interest of the story, as does his relationship with Mary; Colton is clueless and hesitant to assert himself when she admits to dating someone else, but the writing is on the wall, so to speak. All in all, a great read, with enough excitement for anyone who enjoys a good mystery/suspense.

S. Dionne Moore
Murder on the Ol' Bunions
Barbour Heartsong Mysteries, 2007

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Angela Hunt's The Novelist ~ Reviewed

The Novelist
By Angela Hunt
Published by Thomas Nelson/Westbow
ISBN: 1595541586

From the author who taught you to expect the intriguing tale about families, fiction, and what to do when life veers wildly off script.

It begins...when a smug college student challenges a best-selling novelist to write something "more personal." It begins...when a mother finds her troubled son slumped unconscious outside her house. It begins...when fiction and reality blur, and the novelist finds herself caught somewhere in the middle of it all. Where does it end? That all depends on who is telling the story...

This is the first book authored by Angela Hunt that I've read, though I own many. Now, I'm wondering why I waited so long to discover this talented author's work. I've read many stories with parallel times or situations, usually with the present reverting to a historical setting, and often I prefer one story over the author. I want to flip past the present story to read the good stuff...the story within the story.

But The Novelist isn't like that. It's the only book I've ever read where I can stay that both stories equally stimulated me. They both held my attention. Both stories contained "the good stuff" I crave in a book. I love emotion, believable conflict, and a story that sucks me in so much that I can't stop reading it. And the allegory was so incredibly well done and ingenious that it literally blew my mind. I now see Christ's redemption even more powerfully because of the allegorical tale in this book.

The Novelist is one of the best books I've read in regards to tying things together in a convincing and satisfying conclusion. I loved how Angela Hunt showed the author in the story growing more than the person she hoped to influence with her story, and after fighting the Lord, she ended up being okay with that.

Aren't most of us like this? We elbow the person next to us when the pastor is preaching a convicting message, but we should be looking at our own hearts first. The Novelist had me looking at my own heart and I'm better for the experience. Few stories impact me so much that I want to grab people off the street to tell them they MUST read this book, but The Novelist is one of them. It's got a powerful message that is seamlessly woven in, dynamic characters who will grip your heart, and it deals with sensitive subjects in an incredibly sensitive and well-informed manner.

I loved this story because it has impacted my life--and not just because I am also a novelist--but because it's so rich and satisfying. I highly recommend it.

Michelle Sutton (pen name)
"Writing truth into fiction"
Great Beginnings finalist 2005
writer/book reviewer

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rachel Hauck's Lost in NashVegas ! Reviewed

Lost in NashVegas
By Rachel Hauck
Published by WestBow
ISBN 10: 1-59554-190-X

Last week, I stocked groceries in Freedom, Alabama. This week, I live in Nashville, Tennessee, about to take the stage at the famous Bluebird Café.

Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Only one problem. I've got stage fright. But after years of being ruled by fear and hiding from my dream, I confronted my limited reality and left home. Forget the hometown hunk who wants to make me queen of his doublewide. Forget Momma's doubt-inspiring tirade. I can make it in Music City … can't I?

So I took a leap of faith, gathered my old guitar, my notebook of songs, and packed up my '69 Chevy pickup. Look out NashVegas!

With the help of some new friends, especially handsome Lee Rivers, my dream is about to find the light of day, But as I face my first night at the Bluebird Café, I realize … I might just do what comes naturally. Look for the nearest exit, and run!

I read a lot of books as a reviewer, and once in a while one comes along that teaches me something. Lost in NashVegas is one of those books. Hauck employs some of the richest characterizations I've read. From the first paragraph, I was mesmerized by her artistry and story. Her characters two-step right off the pages and into your heart.

I was transported to the tiny town of Freedom, Alabama with its doublewide down-home traditions—big on hospitality but a place where dreams die. When Robin escapes to Music City USA—Nashville, the book takes on a new spirit. of expectancy and excitement. NashVegas—where dreams come true. And expect the unexpected in Lost in NashVegas.

A highlight of my reading year, Lost in NashVegas receives Novel Reviews, and my highest recommendation.

Reviewed by Ane Mulligan