Book Reviews

Promise to Cherish

Promise to Cherish coverIn Promise to Cherish, Elizabeth Byler Younts has written a thoroughly readable, highly enjoyable, heart-warming and culturally enlightening novel of America at the end of World War II.

Christine Freeman is a nurse in a mental hospital. Eli Brenneman is Amish serving his Civilian Public Service in the same hospital. A reluctant friendship develops. When Christine is raped and then learns she is pregnant as a result, Eli comes to her side to help her deal with the ostracism unwed pregnancy brings during that time. Fired from her job, shunned by society and pressured by her family to go to an unwed mothers’ home, Christine accepts Eli’s offer for her to stay with his Amish family while she faces momentous decisions about her baby and her future.

But Eli has his own issues. His past as a rogue causes his family and community to question his motives and keep him at arm’s length. His brother, Mark, bears the largest grudge. Civilian Service changed Eli. He has grown and matured. The rejection by his family hurts, but he determines to work through it and show he has changed for the better.

In the meantime, Christine becomes accepted in the Amish community and soon forms deep friendships. One with Eli’s Aunt Annie and another with his sister-in-law, Sylvia. Her nursing skills gain her acceptance when she comes to the aid of Eli’s brother after a bull injures him. But her ostracism raises its ugly head when the local doctor refuses to hire her because of her unwed pregnancy.

The man who raped Christine discovers she is pregnant and where she is living. He insists they marry so he can have a son. His violence soon reveals itself as the Amish community stands in defense of Christine and he attacks Eli.

Christine attempts to leave for an unwed mother’s home but the baby comes early.

Through all the adventures of Christine and Eli, their love grows and flourishes until the end when Christine must make the decision to leave or stay with Eli.

One of the strengths of this novel is how Ms. Younts shows the cultural clashes on so many levels during this mid-1940s time period. There is the clash of the mental hospital and the society that put the patients there. There is the clash of Amish with the non-Amish, or English as they are called. There is the clash of Christine’s pregnancy with the prevailing attitudes toward unwed motherhood and rape. Ms. Younts depicts these tenderly through the lives of the characters. We are able to see both sides because she humanizes them so well.

The story world rings true because the author does not dump information on the reader and does not preach an agenda. She presents the world as her characters experience it.

Christine’s rape scene is presented with sensitivity. It is not physically graphic but we experience it through Christine’s mind and emotions.

In my humble opinion, Ms. Younts’ strong characters push this story to a higher level in the romance genre. She uses the technique of misunderstanding to add touches of humor and also to increase tension and conflict right through to the climax.

The changes that both Christine and Eli experience are believable and engaging. The reader is connected and urging them onward, feeling their hurt and anguish at each setback.

The secondary characters are strong with vital roles to play in the story. Aunt Annie’s love is an inspiration and a vehicle for Christine to change. Everybody wants an aunt like Annie. I found myself wishing to know her whole story. Maybe there’s a future novel there.

The growth in faith for both Eli and Christine feels very natural, not forced or manipulated or contrived. The same goes for their attraction to each other.

An excellent second novel I recommend most heartily.

A copy of this novel was provided to me for an honest review.

 

 

The Care and Management of Lies

It was with some trepidation that I opened Jacqueline Winspear’s newest novel, The Care and Management of Lies.

care-management-lies-150I am a fan of Ms. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels. A big fan. Have been since the first novel.

This new novel is entirely different. It’s not a mystery. It’s not set in England in the years between the world wars. There’s a whole new cast of characters to get to know.

Approaching this new novel was like going to my favorite restaurant after it has completely revamped its entire menu. The colors may be the same but I had the feeling of entering a new world where no one has gone before and I didn’t feel all that bold about it.

And this book delightfully surprised me. Winspear’s writing, as always, pulled me into her story world of France, London and the English countryside of Kent. I was in the trenches with the mud and the muck and the blood and the stench. I was on the farm with the crops and the animals.

In June 1914, Kezia Marchant and Tom Brissenden marry. Shortly afterward, war breaks out and Tom enlists. The novel focuses on Kezia and Tom and on how the war tests them, their beliefs and their love.

Kezia is a young woman, a preacher’s daughter and schoolteacher, who becomes a farmer’s wife. Immediately, we are in a tense situation. Will she make it as a farmer’s wife? Can she overcome her background and make the drastic changes to succeed? When Tom leaves for war, these questions magnify as she must manage the farm and get the help to trust her.

Kezia is a very interesting character as she matures into a competent and capable farmer. Her growth is compelling. The reader is rooting for her right away.

Cooking is one of the issues facing Kezia, one she challenges with varying degrees of success. Cooking and meals also become a symbol of her love for her husband. In her letters to the front, she describes meals she has cooked, different experiments she has tried. In his responses, Tom tells how her delicious her cooking is. The other soldiers in Tom’s unit look forward to her letters as much as Tom does. They beg him to read them aloud. They become a means for the men to feel connected to their own homes.

Tom’s quiet strength as a man who won’t break is inspiring.

One of the entertaining subplots is the suspense between Tom and his commanding officer, Edmund Hawkes, a neighbor at home. There is a definite undercurrent that Hawkes may be setting Tom up to be killed so Hawkes can pursue Kezia. Is Edmund Hawkes setting Tom up to be killed so he can have Kezia—echoes of David, Uriah and Bathsheba?

Hawkes’ growth into a commander who cares for his men and who seeks to protect Tom is very subtle and believable. He’s really creepy when we first meet him. He becomes heroically brave and self-sacrificing.

Tom’s conflict with his immediate superior, Sgt. Knowles, is on-the-edge-of-your-seat nail biting. How long will Tom take the bullying and animosity of Sgt. Knowles? How long before Knowles sends Tom to his death.

Thea, Tom’s best sister, and Kezia’s best friend is the most interesting character. From pacifist suffragette to ambulance driver risking her life for the troops. This character could have been an over-the-top caricature. Winspear’s talent makes sure she isn’t.

Winspear captures the mental, spiritual and emotional anguish of the war. Through her writing we war, as one of the winspear-275characters describes it, as a living thing.

This novel makes the setting of the Maisie Dobbs novels even more real and alive. The portrayal of pre-war London and the run-up into the war is in sharp contrast to the horror evidenced in the Maisie Dobbs novels. The attitude before the war almost saw it as a lark that would be over in a few months. The post-war reality in the Dobbs novels shows the long-lasting physical and psychological damage of the years of brutal fighting and slaughter. This novel bridges that gap by putting us in the trenches and on the battlefields.

There is a poignant seen early in the book where Kezia has a conversation with the mailman who is burdened with having to deliver a death notification to a family. In their conversation, the postman shares his personal knowledge of the boy killed and all in the town who knew and liked him. Winspear masterfully weaves in the inter-connectedness of the times. When someone died, everyone in the town was affected. Similar to how it seemed like every American was affected by every soldier fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the story, people talk of returning to the normal before the war. Winspear brings out they will never see that normal again.

The ending is moving and poignant. But I will not spoil it for you.

Reviewed 7/30/14

 

Story Trumps Structure

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books on the writing craft I’ve ever read.

Story Trumps StructureStory Trumps Structure is an insightful, quick-moving discussion of writing from the perspective of an organic writer, Steven James http://www.stevenjames.net.

This is a great book for people who don’t like to outline, who may find that process confining, and their stories not ringing true. Mr. James’ book provides a solid framework to hang the writing process on.

He presents three key questions every writer should apply throughout every story.

What would this character naturally do in this situation?

How can I make things worse?

How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Readers of this book will receive an excellent overview of story progression, including twists, promises, causality, believability, and expectations. In addition, there is a deep exploration of storytelling areas such as continuity, fluidity, creating moral quandaries, and meaning, or the truth about the world.

It also includes a thorough discussion of the subtleties of characterization as well as tools for identifying plot flaws and fixing them.

Dedicated outliners will benefit from this book, even if they remain committed to outlining. It provides insights, exercises and storytelling techniques that will enhance their craft.

This book opens new ways of looking at our characters and our stories, and also presents ways to make our stories more Steven Jamesvibrant. It delivers on all the promises it makes:

• Ditch your outline and learn to write organically.

• Set up promises for readers—and deliver on them.

• Discover how to craft a satisfying climax.

• Master the subtleties of characterization.

• Add mind-blowing twists to your fiction.

This is a must for every writer’s toolbox.

What are your favorite writing books?

Reviewed 7/23/14

 

Firewall

Taryn Young is super-computer geek, writing programs to strengthen the US economy. As she is about to leave on her

Firewall Coverhoneymoon after a whirlwind courtship of three months, a bomb destroys the airport terminal, and her husband a few hours is missing.

When she is targeted as a suspect in the bombing, she must put all her skill into proving her innocence as the evidence mounts that the man she married deceived her. She must convince FBI Agent Grayson Hall to trust her.

Grayson’s focus is to find those responsible for the terrorist act. As the case unfolds, suspicions grow that there is a mole in the FBI who is letting the bad guys know every step of the investigation, including Taryn’s whereabouts and her efforts to assist.

Those closest to Taryn are murdered or die under mysterious circumstances. Taryn’s three-year-old godchild, Zoey, is kidnapped. Taryn redoubles her efforts to find who is behind the plot and to save Zoey.

With more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, Ms. Mills takes the reader on an exciting adventure of suspense and danger. Surprises come one after the other, keeping readers on their toes as new details are revealed and people are not who we thought they were. Along the way, Mills weaves in a believable romantic subplot between Taryn and Grayson, full of tension and tentative yearning.

Taryn is strong, capable, determined, yet vulnerable as she copes with physical pain from her injuries and the emotional loss of the man she thought loved her, coupled with her fears for the safety of her beloved Zoey. She is driven to save the child, prove her own innocence, and thwart the plots of those who would destroy her country.

Grayson struggles with his growing attraction to Taryn while trying to find the culprits. How he deals with learning the identity of the traitor within the FBI is subtly done, showing him dealing with his anger at the betrayal, protecting Taryn, and finding those responsible.

The villains are drawn very well. Their humanity and their motivations are clear. Even the rogue FBI agent is believable. Why they do what they do makes sense. Excellent writing here.

DiAnn MillsThe details of FBI procedures ring true. They show Mills did extensive research and is a skilled storyteller, capable of weaving this background seamlessly into her story. Not once did I feel lectured to and pulled out of the story by unnecessary detail.

The final twist is surprising but makes perfect sense. This is something I look for in stories. Ms. Mills does an excellent job of planting the seeds for the ultimate revelation without telling you they’re seeds.

This book will keep you awake, turning pages to see what happens next.

Definitely, five gold stars.

An advanced copy of this book was provided by the publisher for purposes of an open and honest review.

Reviewed 7-16-14

 

 

The Canary List

Jaimie Piper is a twelve-year-old girl with a powerful gift that is driving her crazy. She can detect evil in other people. This dark, overwhelming force has tormented her for years. When its latest manifestation threatens, she turns to her favorite teacher, Crocket Grey, for help.

Canary List CoverHis efforts to help Jaimie soon land Grey in the hottest water possible. He is accused of possessing child pornography and of molesting students. He is soon the target of a kidnapping and murder investigation. All this threatens not only his freedom, but his relationship with the son he loves.

Quickly, Crocket and Jaimie are swept into a cauldron of intrigue and death that reaches to the highest levels of the Vatican.

I have long been a fan of Sigmund Brouwer. His novels, The Weeping Chamber, and Wings of Dawn, are among my favorites. I looked forward to reconnecting with him in The Canary List.

I give this novel 3.5 stars. Brouwer’s style remains strong but the novel has the feel of being agenda-driven. He explores the role of demons in our world and especially within religious institutions and organizations. Through the experiences of his characters, we see how insidious the work of evil can be.

The story is well-written, the pace keeps moving, and Brouwer fills it with amazing twists and turns. The final twist is both a surprise yet inevitable in the context of the story.

There are many things to like in this book. Jaimie is a very believable twelve-year-old. One of Brouwer’s writing strengths is his ability to realistically portray children and teens. He rivals Orson Scott Card in this area.

Jaimie’s psychiatrist, Dr. MacKenzie, is another well-developed character. The influence of her own history on her actions is well-played with subtle hints so that the ultimate reveal catches the reader off guard yet makes sense.

Also well-done are the hints of potential romance between MacKenzie and Crocket.

While the story has the feel of being agenda-driven, Brouwer gives an honest portrayal of the Catholic Church. As a former Catholic, I don’t sense any overt church-bashing or condemnation.

There are some areas that make it difficult to give the novel more than 3.5 stars. One is the story bogs down on occasion with long expositional dialogue on the theology and history of demons, on the political machinations within the Vatican, and on the sexual abuse scandals within the Church.

Even though Crocket Grey is presented as the protagonist, he does not come across very strong in the role of hero. There are occasional flashes where he is determined to fight for his freedom and for his relationship with his son. These help the reader develop empathy for the man. But, except for these flashes, Grey seems to be carried along by the events in the story, rather than assuming a more active hero role. He does take bold action at times, but always gets caught and ends up in lower status positions with the rest of the characters. At the end, he is given a moral choice to make. The decision is clear, but the process he went through to make it is not.

To me, the real hero is Jaimie. But she is made almost a side note to Grey’s struggles and is off stage for long periods of time.

Overall, this is a good read that could have been better.

Reviewed 6-25-14

 

The Book Thief

Usually, I read books quickly. Rare is the one that makes me slow down and savor the story. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, is one of those rarities.

Book Thief - Book CoverThis story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, in Nazi Germany during the Second World War is composed of compelling characters the reader lingers over and strong writing.

Liesel steals books. The first is at her brother’s funeral when she steals a gravedigger’s handbook. Later she steals from the bonfires used by the Nazis to burn books. She also steals from the personal library of the mayor and his wife. The author provides a delightful twist to this last plot line which I won’t spoil here. Her foster father uses these treasured books to teach her to read.

Liesel grows up physically, psychologically, and emotionally as she experiences courage, friendship, love, survival, death, and grief. And we follow her from her brother’s death and her placement in a foster home through fearing and then loving her foster parents.

Through her eyes we see the brutal horror of Nazism.

And we see tender humanness as well. Her foster parents hide a Jew, and Liesel becomes a willing participant in keeping the secret, even from her best friend, Rudy.

We experience Liesel’s foster father, Hans, a gentle, mild-mannered, almost timid man, exhibit true courage and bravery.Book Thief - Movie Cover Not only does he hide a Jew, Max, but he intervenes to help one of the Jews who are periodically marched through the town at their way to the Dachau death camp. Hans is whipped for his efforts. Liesel later follows his example by giving bread to another group being force-marched through town.

When the danger gets too close, Max leaves. Throughout the remainder of the book, Liesel is searching for him in the groups of Jews paraded through the town. Searching for the man who, from his basement-hiding place, wrote and illustrated stories about her. Stories that will touch the reader as they touched her.

The magnificent story of Liesel is made even stronger by Zusak’s writing. The story is told by Death as a first person narrator. This allows great insight into all the characters, and pulls us into their hearts. Zusak spins words to create descriptions and images that stay with you and reveal the people and the world of Nazi Germany. He gives that world a life that’s missing from the history books.

19 Jan 2005 --- Row of Old Books --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisI found myself re-reading passages. Not because I was lost or confused. But to cherish and enjoy the writing and to relive the moment of reading it.

A rare book indeed—one that will pierce the heart and stay with the reader long after other stories have faded away.

Reviewed 6-11-14

Misery Loves Company

Misery coverJules Belleno is a reclusive young widow who communicates with the world through her blog, primarily crafting book reviews. Occasionally, she walks to a grocery store. On one of these excursions, she disappears, kidnapped by her favorite author, Patrick Reagan. Apparently, Patrick hasn’t been pleased with recent reviews of his books.

Police Officer Chris Downey was the best friend of Jules husband, a fellow officer murdered in the line of duty. Chris’s efforts to help Jules are rebuffed as she draws deeper into her shell.

Egged on by Jules’ alcoholic father, Chris begins searching for her after her disappearance. Slowly, he uncovers clues she may have been taken and by equally reclusive author, Patrick Reagan.

During Chris’ investigation, he uncovers information that there is corruption in his department. Corruption that may have directly contributed to the death of Jules’ husband.

While Chris continues his search, putting his own career at risk to save the wife of his best friend, Jules is also on a journey and what she discovers about her abductor will change everything she believed about her husband’s death, her life, and her faith.

This is one of the most exciting, keep-turning-pages books I’ve read in a long time. Rene Gutteridge has written a mystery thriller that sucks you in on page one and doesn’t let you go until the last sentence.

The twist on Stephen King’s Misery is very clever and maintained throughout the story.Rene Gutteridge

Ms. Gutteridge does an awesome job of making Patrick Reagan just nice enough for the Stockholm Syndrome to be believable yet creepy enough that we never quite trust him. As the story unfolds, we do develop empathy for him and what drove him to such drastic action.

Beneath Jules Belleno’s vulnerability is a strength of character I don’t think she knew she had. It is revealed as she battles with her abductor psychologically and emotionally. She grows throughout the story, overcoming the demons that have tormented her since her husband’s death.

By the end of the story, all the clues the author has so cleverly planted come together in a very satisfactory ending, including final twists that are surprising but believable in the context of the story.

A definite 5 star read.

Reviewed 2-12-14.

 

 

The Likeness

The Likeness is the second book in Tana French’s series set in the Dublin Murder Squad.

The story has a fascinating premise. The protagonist, Detective Cassie Maddox is summoned to a crime scene. The victim is Cassie’s almost exact look alike and carries an ID identifying her as Alexandra Madison. Not only could the victim be Cassie’s twin, she’s using the name Cassie used when she worked undercover.

Cassie agrees to assume the mysterious girl’s name and identity, and go undercover to find the killer while at the same time trying to discover who this girl really is.

Cassie Maddox is a fascinating character. We first met her in Ms. French’s first book, In the Woods, where she was  intriguing and complex as the partner of the main character.

In The Likeness, she blossoms even more into a full-blown person, dealing with her own past and moving with tentative steps into her future. Cassie Maddox is as complex, as vulnerable, and as strong as Maisie Dobbs of Jacqueline Winspear’s novels. Cassie’s relationship with her new lover is well done. The external and internal conflicts over her going undercover into a houseful of murder suspects is psychologically revealing.

The Likeness CoverThis is a well-written psychological mystery with a literary style reminiscent of Elizabeth George and P.D. James. I really enjoyed the psychological aspects of the story. Ms. French pulls us into Cassie’s mind as the character explores the world she finds herself in and finds herself liking the victim and the suspects she is living with.

There are a couple of areas I think the story could be improved. All the characters are interesting but the story feels like it goes on too long and at times feels a little repetitious. It seems to sag in the middle, feeling like it is going over the same ground.

The other disappointment, the main character in the first book, Rob Ryan, is only mentioned in passing in this one. He and Cassie were lovers, and broke up at the end of In the Woods. I would have liked more exploration of the break (only six months have passed) and more effort to find out where Ryan is now. Just to wrap up the loose end.

In her series, Ms. French uses a technique I find very intriguing. Each book has a different first person narrator. The story world shifts with each narrator’s perspective. I’ve read the first chapter of her third book in the series. In it, she takes a significant character from The Likeness and makes him the first person narrator.

The red herrings planted along the way that are very plausible and keep the reader hooked throughout, thinking each one could be the killer.

In this book, Ms. French maintains the suspense until the final revelation and the last twist is extremely well done, giving the book a very satisfying and believable ending.

I rate the book 4 out a possible 5 stars.

Caveat: This is a general market book. The language is strong in some places and there are references to alcohol abuse and some sexuality.

This is an independent review. Neither the publisher nor the author provided a copy of the book or requested a review.

Reviewed 1-22-14.

 

Always Remembered

 Always Remembered CoverAlways Remembered by Janelle Mowery is a fascinating love story set against the backdrop of the Battle of the Alamo. Rosa Carter is a young woman forced to spy on the Alamo by her stepfather under threat of never seeing her mother again. Miles Fitch is an Alamo defender who first meets Rosa when he rescues her from another defender who is accosting her.

Awkward around a beautiful woman, Miles is hesitant in his initial efforts to get to know her better. Meanwhile, she seems intent on charming another defender. Over time, Miles and Rosa grow closer. Yet, as they do, Miles suspicions grow she may be one of the spies Davey Crockett and Jim Travis have asked him to ferret out.

Their romance begins a whirlwind ride full of tension as he struggles to trust her and Rosa struggles to trust anyone after she learns her mother is in agreement with her stepfather’s plans.

Because of the cruelty in their lives—Miles family was killed by Mexicans, as was Rosa’s father—they both struggle in their relationships with God, angry and not understanding why.

Miles is sent to seek reinforcements. By the time he returns empty-handed, the battle is over and all his comrades and friends slaughtered. He blames himself for not staying to help.

Rosa, seeking information on Miles, disguises herself as a Mexican soldier and enters the Alamo. Convinced he is dead, she runs to his house seeking solace. Miles finds her, sees only the uniform, and fires at her, missing. Feeling betrayed yet again, he leaves her without explanation and joins General Sam Houston in time for the Battle of San Jacinto.

While they are separated, they each draw closer to God. Miles journey of self-forgiveness is arduous while he questions if he can ever trust Rosa and she ponders how to regain that trust.

Ms. Mowery’s story is well written. Even though the outcome of the Alamo is known, she maintains the tension very well by showing the events unfold through the characters’ eyes. The book is well researched and shows her attention to detail.

She does and excellent job of fleshing out the historical characters like Travis, Crockett, Houston, and Fanin. She makes their humanity believable without resorting to stereotypes.

Her fictional characters are also well drawn. Rosa and Miles are deeply complex and their struggles for love, trust, and forgveness resonate. They are two people we are excited to meet and to get to know.

The tension in their lives and in their relationship make the story a genuine page-turner. The reader is caught up in their adventures and their seeking love and peace in the turbulent times of the story.

My only disappoint in the story is the dialogue. The characters tend to sound the same, using similar word choices and patterns. They sound like they speaking above the education level and dialect patterns you would expect during the time period.

From reading this novel, it is easy to see why Ms. Mowery is an award-winning novelist. She weaves a rich tapestry of people and events that gives a very satisfying read.

I highly recommend to any who are interested in a good romance story during a fascinating time in our history.

I give it four stars.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, but I was under no obligation to read the book or post a positive review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

Reviewed 3-27-13

 

At Every Turn

Anne Mateer’s newest release, At Every Turn, is a whirlwind story of intrigue and love set against the background of the early stages of automobile racing in the United States.

Alyce Benson is a young woman whose heart is on fire for God. She also loves automobiles and speed. The author combines these two elements to create a fascinating story world peopled with compelling characters, exciting plot twists and surprises until the very end.

When African missionaries visit her church, Alyce is so moved by their story and their photos of African children, she pledges $3,000 to the missionaries and challenges the church to match her.

There’s only one problem: she doesn’t have the money.

Her wealthy father refuses to give it to her because he is not Christian. She tries to raise the money through selling some of her jewelry and offering a taxi service in her small town. No one wants to ride with her. The money she does raise, she quickly gives away to hurting and needy people in her town.

Alyce learns her father is building a race car and she persuades the mechanic, Webster, to let her drive it in the race. She combines her love of speed with a chance to earn the money she pledged. Things start out well. She doesn’t win but she is paid just for driving. She entrusts the money to Webster for safekeeping.

Things begin to turn when one of her father’s most trusted employees, Lawrence, begins to show interest in her and she learns that Webster has dark secrets in the past he won’t talk about.

Disasters strike on multiple levels when Alyce’s money is stolen (she thinks by Webster), Lawrence’s true colors are revealed and Webster is accused of attacking Alyce. As she learns more about Lawrence, her trust in Webster is renewed.

She drives in one more race with Webster. A horrible accident means the loss of any opportunity she has to raise the money in time and Webster is severely injured. She recognizes her feelings for Webster.

She faces public humiliation when she must admit to the church that she failed to fulfill her pledge.

I will avoid any spoiler alerts from here on. It is well worth getting the book to read how masterfully the author weaves all her plot threads into a highly satisfactory ending.

Anne Mateer’s story is well-researched. She brings the American Midwest of 1919 to life with accurate and detailed settings from small town to big city and the growth of the automobile and the changes it was making. Her descriptions of the racing are spot on. She captures the people and the mores of the time, making them real.

Alyce Benson is an intriguing character, enthusiastic for God and for racing. Her naiveté is soon tempered by the hardships and challenges she faces. Her story arc is that of a young woman coming to spiritual and emotional maturity.

Webster grows on the reader as his personality is revealed through other characters. His secret past, his self-sacrifice and future dreams make him a captivating character.

Minor characters are also wonderfully drawn, especially Alyce’s grandmother who is her spiritual rock and mentor. Alyce’s new-found friend, Lucinda, is vital in helping Alyce to grow and mature, to see people around her.

I give this novel five stars.

A copy of the novel was provided by the publisher for this review.

Reviewed 10-17-12.

 

 

Cowgirl Trail

Cowgirl Trail is the fifth book in Texas Trails: A Morgan Family Series. The connection to the rest of the series is subtle so this book works very well as a standalone yet still holds its place with the other stories.

Maggie Porter has been away from the Rocking P Ranch, helping to care for her mother in a sanatorium. After her mother passes away, Maggie returns to find her home in turmoil.

The cowboys threaten to strike after some harsh and arbitrary decisions by her father. Alex Bright, the foreman, tries to mediate the dispute but can’t understand Mr. Porter’s obstinate attitude. The men walk off and, conflicted by divided loyalties, Alex reluctantly joins them.

Maggie and Alex have been sweet on each other and, in the beginning, both look forward to Maggie’s return. This relationship is strained to the breaking point when Maggie holds Alex responsible for not keeping the men on the job at a crucial time.

Maggie learns that her father is facing huge bills from the sanatorium and may lose the ranch. This is why he could not negotiate with the cowboys. He is also dying of cancer and the pain has affected his judgment.

To pay the bills, the cattle need to be rounded up and driven to market. With her own cowboys gone and none available from other ranches, Maggie recruits women from the nearby town and surrounding ranches to get the cattle to market.

Alex and some of the other cowboys follow. Alex wants to keep an eye on Maggie. Some of the others, however, look for opportunities to harass the women and show the need for Porter to meet their demands. One prank ends up costing Maggie more money than she can spare. When she learns who pulled the prank, she accuses Alex of being part of it, severing their relationship.

Other cowboys have more sinister plans to disrupt the drive and steal the cattle. They start a stampede. When Maggie sees Alex riding among the herd, she believes he is part of the group looking to take her property away.

Maggie eventually learns Alex was trying to stop the stampede at the risk of his own life and he had nothing to do with the expensive prank. She realizes he was doing his best for her, her father, and the ranch.

As always, Susan Page Davis presents an exciting and tense story with enough twists and intriguing characters to keep you turning pages. She provides the right amount of detail to give authenticity but doesn’t overwhelm you with myriad facts just to show off her research.

You are with the women on the cattle drive, sleeping on the hard ground, enduring the boredom and routine, burning the hide of a calf with a hot iron, and enduring the danger and excitement of a stampede.

The women are believable in their roles. The minor characters add just the right amount of humor, insight into the major characters, and tension.

Maggie and Alex are two people in love but struggling with inner conflicts and loyalties that present major stumbling blocks to the relationship. You are wondering until the very end if they will make it.

If you enjoy historical romance, this will be a most satisfying read.

Reviewed 8-1-12.

 

End of the Trail

End of the Trail by Vickie McDonough is a fascinating tale of love, restoration, trust, and reconciliation set against a plot of life-threatening greed.

Brooks Morgan, a drifter, stumbles into Shoofly, Texas, in 1896 to get out of storm. He befriends a man, Will Langston, who sets him on a life-changing course. Brooks wins Will’s ranch in a poker game. Brooks sees it as an opportunity to finally settle down and prove, at least to himself, he’s not the lazy, good-for-nothing who ran away from home ten years earlier.

What Books didn’t count on was Will’s niece, Keri. Back from what she saw as a two year exile to finishing school, she is anxious to change her dresses for pants and resume the life she loves, riding horses and tending cattle.

They meet when Keri saves Brooks from being hung by men who want to take over the ranch. Fireworks explode when she learns Brooks now owns the ranch, a ranch she dreamed of owning.

This is a most enjoyable read, especially for those who like historical romance. For me, it is a well written Western which captures the full flavor of the times as it tells the story of Brooks and Keri fighting to keep the ranch while also struggling in their own relationship.

Danger and excitement will keep you turning pages as the two battle an evil land baron and a crooked banker who demands that Keri marry him.

Ms. McDonough does an excellent job of allowing the relationship between Brooks and Keri to develop in a way that is believable. The two move from adversaries to reluctant allies against a common foe to struggles with growing affection for each other. She adroitly uses humor to both build tension between the two and then to soften each of them.

The book never slows down as the author ratchets up the stakes and adds unexpected, yet believable, plot twists that keep the reader engaged to the very satisfying ending.

Reviewed 7-11-12.

 

Conflict and Suspense

Every time I hear of a new book on the craft of writing, I scope it out on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and check out what Writer’s Digest and the Writer have to say about it. Endorsement, reviews, and sneak peeks of the content either wet my whistle or leave me dry.

There are rare occasions where I will buy a book on the craft simply because of the author. I don’t need to scope it out, reviews and endorsements aren’t crucial.

James Scott Bell is one of those authors. I have been a fan of his fiction since the old days—those days before I became a writer. His books on the craft showed me he could not only write fiction, he could teach it so even I could understand it.

His book, Conflict & Suspense, carries on his tradition of writing about the craft comprehensively and revealing new nuggets of insight to improve my own writing.

For a novel to be satisfying, the reader must connect emotionally with the characters and with their story. Adding conflict and suspense increase the emotions, and raising the stakes over the course of the novel keeps the reader engaged.

And it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing, the concept works. Mister Bell shows this through examples from books and movies.

The key concept for me in this book is “the stakes in an emotionally satisfying novel have to be death.” There are physical, professional, and psychological deaths. One or more need to be present.

Applying this concept took my understanding of my lead characters in my current work to deeper levels. My leads are now more complex because I learned what professional and psychological death meant to them, how it would manifest in their lives if they failed to achieve their story goals. The plot of the story became richer as I used this information to introduce elements and twists that forced my characters to face all three types of death.

Mister Bell takes us deep into the craft as he demonstrates how to believably introduce conflict and suspense in the beginning of your story, and how to develop them through such areas as inner conflict, dialogue, and setting. He provides tools and insights into putting it all together.

This is one of those books that needs to be on every writer’s books shelf.

Reviewed 6-20-12.

 

Wings of a Dream

Looking for a good book to curl up with on a cold December night? I highly recommend Wings of a Dream by Anne Mateer.

In 1918, Rebekah Hendricks has dreams. Big dreams. Dreams to fly beyond the confines of the family farm and small town Oklahoma. Dreams of big cities, of a life of excitement and adventure.

When a visiting aviator, Arthur Samson, comes calling, she believes he’s the man she is meant to marry, the man to carry her to the fulfillment of her dreams. But he is called to serve in the Great War.

An urgent message is received that her mother’s sister, Ada, is very sick. Rebekah leaves small town Oklahoma for small town Texas where she finds the Spanish flu epidemic has claimed her aunt. Rebekah is faced with caring for four children who have no one else and Arthur’s wishy-washiness about their relationship. The children win her heart and Rebekah faces a decision between her dreams of escape and adventure and the unexpected love that might change her heart.

Author Anne Mateer paints a vivid picture of life on the farms and in the small towns of Oklahoma and Texas while a violent war overseas calls on all to sacrifice and a devastating illness attacks seemingly without limit. She populates her story world with characters who are complex and flawed just like real people, characters with dreams of their own, dreams to fly on their own adventures, dreams of love and family.

In a compelling story, Rebekah faces one challenge after another from her aunt dying to the children getting sick and other childhood misadventures to the love of her life walking away. As I read the story, I asked myself, “What other problems can the author throw at this girl? Can she make it worse?” Yes, she does, piling on tension and difficulties that keep you turning pages to see what happens next and how will Rebekah handle it.
With each challenge, we see Rebekah grow and mature. Each crisis teaches Rebekah more about herself, about people and relationships, and about the God who loves her. In Rebekah, the author shows a person deal with crises beyond anything she’s ever experienced. From death through being a single parent of four, from running a farm through a broken heart, Ms. Mateer takes us on Rebekah’s journey to a life with more excitement and adventure than she ever dreamed possible.

Reviewed 12-6-11.