Sunday, January 14, 2018

How to Fix a Broken Record Thoughts on Vinyl Records, Awkward Relationships, and Learning to Be Myself by Amena Brown

How to Fix a Broken Record has the unique feeling of being both familiar and brand new at the same time. 
Amena comes along side her readers much like a big sister or an older best friend, walking her readers  through the lessons she's learned as she reflects back on the  lessons life and music have brought her way.

To be fair, there are a lot of life lesson/reflections based books on the market these days and Amena's book hits on many of the same topics that have already been discussed. However, there were a few areas that helped How to Fix a Broken Record  stand out from the crowd.

First, Amena brings balance into her discussion looking at lesson from throughout the different stages of her life. While others do this to different degrees the honesty with which Amena looks at singleness, dating, marriage, and infertility is  a scope and breadth not often seen in this type of book. I love how she allows readers to see the beauty and pain of each stage rather than chasing after a single chapter. I appreciated the honesty with which these struggles were presented.

I also appreciated the fact that Amena brings her whole self forward into her lessons:  her life, her experiences, and her culture. I confess, in many ways I am very naive about American culture in general living north of the border and to see Amena paint her life as a minority within the United States was helpful.

Overall, this was a solid book and a great option for readers looking for a read focusing on life experiences.  Those who read extensively within the genre may find their attention wavering at times as the uniqueness is centered mainly upon the fact that it is Amena's story rather than broader concepts or aproaches.
4 out  of 5 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Where We Belong by Lynn Austin

Where We Belong

In the city of Chicago in 1892, the rules and expectations for Victorian women are strict, their roles in life limited. But sisters Rebecca and Flora Hawes are not typical Victorian ladies. Their love of adventure and their desire to use their God-given talents have taken them out of society ballrooms and delivered them to the Sinai Desert–and into the teeth of a sandstorm.
Accompanied by Soren Petersen, their somber young butler, and Kate Rafferty, a plucky street urchin learning to be their ladies’ maid, the two women are on a quest across the desert chasing rumors of an important biblical manuscript.

This was my second foray into Lynn Austin's writing and I feel like it takes a solid two books to really get a handle on how she writes. Austin's ability to take solid research and weave in fictional adventure stands out in her newest novel following the Hawes sisters as the adventure around the globe seeking how  to responsible use their God-given resources and follow his plan.

As seems to be the case with Austin's style this means lots of switching back and forth between time periods in order to flesh out her characters stories. I was relieved and impressed at how smoothly her transitions flowed in this book compared to the last I had read by her. As a result, this story is far more immersive, the plot lines are much clearer, and readers are treated with a much more easily navigated plot. As the time travelling confusion was one of my biggest concerns with my last Austin novel it was good to see  the author had refined her skill.

However, she certainly didn't lose any of her ability to produce characters during that refinement. Where We Belong is filled with strong, intriguing characters that eagerly draw you into their hurts and dreams. I loved how successfully Austin uses the sisters diverging skills to develop interest and spur character growth. Both Flora and Becky held their own as primary narrators for their portion of the story and engage readers in different  ways.  Not to mention how blindsided I was  by the final third's focus on Kate and Soren! It takes a good writer to take a fiery maid and a solemn butler and make me ache for their story but the servants backstories had a surprising amount of depth for secondary characters that helped bring the book to it's well traveled conclusion.

Travelling, oh the travel. Austin's characters wrack up a lot of miles and you can tell she's researched the details of their locales. Considering we are in the  middle of a nasty cold snap it was wonderful to open up the book and feel like you're peering off at an approaching sandstorm or wandering around Paris. Austin has a knack for bringing her settings to life.

That said, I did have a few complaints that took away from the overall story. 
As much as I love the Hawes sisters, at times, in Austin's attempt to convey a deeper spiritual truth the conversation lost its natural flow and began to feel very scripted. I wouldn't say the characters were  out of the personalities they had been built with but the material felt very stilted and predictable  - particularly in key scenes like on the Nile.  For those that like to be immersed in their novels  this may be a draw back as it certainly brought me out of the narrative.

The other area I struggled with is the ending. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a happy ending,  in fact I find open-ended or depressing ending very dissatisfying. Yet, this conclusion felt both rushed and too perfectly wrapped up given the drama and adventure  the characters had faced.  The ending was  what I look for and yet still sat somewhere left of where it  felt it should for reality's sake.

4 out of 5 stars

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc."

Friday, December 29, 2017

Grace For Amateurs by Lilly Burana

I was so excited to read this book. It honestly checked a lot of my  interests: mental health, people in fringe communities, faith. . . this should have been a no-brainer must read for me. That said, Grace for Amateurs holds  the  place as the only book in 2017 I did not finish despite my best efforts and I do not see that changing in the near future.

Let me say, I love memoirs. I love the strength people show in allowing us to come alongside and peek into their stories. I also  enjoy books that make me think and grow by presenting information to be processed and tested. Grace for Amateurs, though a memoir by genre, felt more like an agenda wrapped in a story. Rather than entering into a dialogue of sorts with the author, as I plowed  through the pages I felt sure I'd be reprimanded for having a question or ideal  that is more in line with my more cautious fact gathering over the author's seemingly passionate left leaning ideology.

Now admittedly this may change in the second half of the book but I had hit the point where I dreaded picking up this book.
 I am, most likely, not the author's target audience. Again, while this  is a personal memoir the material came across as attempting to be informative but  without the non-bias or at least bias aware tone I prefer in my reading. Because of this lack of tone awareness the material felt confrontational at times,  angry at others. The material is definitely more focused on Burana's emotional skepticism in the sections I read than on her experiences,  which helped support her  position  without  needing to acknowledge her personal biases

I know others have enjoyed Burana's work and this was my first introduction to her  writing, that said I doubt I'll be back again.

2 out of 5 stars

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright

The House on Foster Hill

Kaine Prescott is no stranger to death. When her husband died two years ago, her pleas for further investigation into his suspicious death fell on deaf ears. In desperate need of a fresh start, Kaine purchases an old house sight unseen in her grandfather's Wisconsin hometown. But one look at the eerie, abandoned house immediately leaves her questioning her rash decision. And when the house's dark history comes back with a vengeance, Kaine is forced to face the terrifying realization she has nowhere left to hide. 

A century earlier, the house on Foster Hill holds nothing but painful memories for Ivy Thorpe. When an unidentified woman is found dead on the property, Ivy is compelled to discover her identity. Ivy's search leads her into dangerous waters and, even as she works together with a man from her past, can she unravel the mystery before any other lives--
including her own--are lost?

Wow, Wow, Wow! 
Considering this is Jaime Wright's first foray into the world of solo novels (she has published before in romance collections)  she has quickly shot her way into one of my favourite books of the year.
This woman is a skilled storyteller. First off, the plot. I  was on the edge of my seat (okay technically pillow but still) the whole time. Wright masterfully brings readers back and forth in  time between Ivy and Joel's turn of the century mystery and Kaine and Grant's modern day suspense. Honestly, most dual timeline stories leave me dazed and confused with  transitions that seem jarring. Wright manages to make her transitions feel natural and free flowing allowing the story to maintain its flow throughout.

This was absolutely necessary to maintain the suspense and drama of her plot and she packs in a lot of both. 
Wright is not one to shy away from serious topics.
 I was impressed with the honest approach she took in weaving in topics such  as human trafficking, abuse, death, grief.  I love novels that take the time to shine light on topics that can be uncomfortable but necessary. Given the sensitivity with which Wright explores such big topics I was curious to see how she would incorporate a faith element into her plot and was pleased to see that she maintains the same quality and realism that she brings to her other subjects. Kaine and Ivy's individual struggles with faith given their losses as well as Gabriella's steadfast faith in light of her trials were believable and thought provoking without coming across as a sermon surrounded by a novel.

Of course, the bulk of the story relies on it's characters and Wright has given some amazing characters. Ivy was an early favourite of mine but Grant and Joy soon became favourites as well.
Wright doesn't give picture perfect characters, they come scarred and with walls and I appreciate how Wright  allows readers to discover their secrets over time rather than reading right through them.

4.5 stars out of 5

Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden

A Dangerous Legacy

Oh the feelings.
 Elizabeth Camden is one of those writers that keeps me coming back time and time again. Her historical research is always in depth and adds  a dimension and life to her books that cannot be improvised and her plots always leave this reader feeling satisfied (if not a little exhausted from reading all night).

A Dangerous Legacy is no exception in this regard. Camden plunges readers into a decades old family battle that draws it's inspiration from Jacob and Esau. While solidly a historical fiction, deftly exploring New York in the early 1900s Camden build her layers of interest and intrigue by wrapping  her characters  in undercover work, assassination plots, and unsavoury doctors.

Lucy was a heroine that was easy to root for. Her plucky spirit didn't seem forced as Camden allowed Lucy to ebb and flow as the situation needed. Her romantic element had a great sarcastic  edge and humour that just seemed appropriate to both parties and added another layer to two already delightful  characters.

As someone who's taken counselling classes it was also interesting and painful to peek into the  more corrupt corners of early psychiatric care. Again, this element picks up on Camden's ready skills with research and her ability to add elements that feel organic and not mere plot devices.

In case you can't tell I loved this book but I hesitate to classify it as Christian fiction which is worth noting for fans of the genre. While the family patriarchs draw inspiration from Jacob and Esau there is not a strong Christian message within the plot. The characters do mention faith (they go to church, pray on occasion,treat their plumbing skill as a God given gift ) but it feel more culturally appropriate given their time and social situation than a nod to the genre. For purists of the genre or those looking for a strongly influenced Christian book the lack of these elements could detract from the overall appeal of the book.

4 out of 5 stars

Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Blessed are the Misfits by Brant Hansen

Blessed are the Misfits is one of those books that has two clear audiences: anyone who has ever felt like a misfit in the church and anyone who has ever known someone who has felt like a misfit in the church. 

While Brant may be known to some thanks to his radio work, Misfits  was my introduction and what an introduction. Brant brings a straightforward, dry humour to his material that is both engaging and readable. He doesn't dumb down his material but chooses to lose pretense for the sake of openness and vulnerability. While I suspect this is more an authenticity of the author rather than a crafted stance it lends gravity to a topic that is so overlooked.

Let's face it, admitting the church is full of misfits, and boy is it ever, is  generally something the church doesn't like to regularly  take a look at. So, the misfits continue on not realizing that they  aren't alone and believe me, by the time you're done this book the fact that no one is alone should be abundantly clear.

Brant explores a variety of topics and personalities from within the church: skeptics, doubters, the lonely, the  mentally ill, the wounded. Everyone's invited to this party and Brant strikes a careful  balance between exploring the issue while constantly reminding readers of the  hope  there  is in Christ and the necessity of welcoming all these parts of the church into the body. At times, the book almost feels as though it could be too heavy if not for the wise use of reinforcing personal stories, external quotes, and Brant's trademark humour.

That said, there were some things I felt the need to push back on. In the chapters regarding woundedness and mental illness, I felt that Brant may have glossed  over the need and acceptability for some people to seek psychological and medical intervention when dealing with the  ramifications of trauma and mental illness.Considering this can be  a sticking point in  the  church community I was sad to see this didn't get the same attention as some of the other chapters in the book.

Overall, this is  a book I highly recommend.
4.4 out of 5 stars

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Proving by Beverly Lewis

Cover Art

After five years as an Englisher, Amanda Dienner is shocked to learn her mother has passed away and left her Lancaster County’s most popular Amish bed-and-breakfast. What’s more, the inn will only truly be hers if Mandy can successfully run it for twelve months. Reluctantly, Mandy accepts the challenge, no matter that it means facing the family she left behind–or that the inn’s clientele expect an Amish hostess! Can Mandy fulfill the terms of her inheritance? Or will this prove a dreadful mistake?
(excerpt from back of book)

I'm always a  little confused after reading a  Beverly Lewis novel and this one is no  exception. Although Lewis, undeniably, has talent as a writer crafting beautiful landscapes tapping  into simpler lives and the Amish way, I find many of her story lines predictable to the point that pacing  feels unbalanced and  the characters seem underutilized.

Case in point, Trina and Arie Mae had the potential for  wonderful counterbalances to  Mandy's wrestling with both past, present, and future. Given the backstory I was eager  to see how the sister's relationship would play out  amid the  larger family and community. However, Lewis rarely brought  in the family as more than plot opportunities and sisters interactions didn't seem to  have the emotional impact their history would imply.

The Proving  had  many characters that just seemed underutilized and therefore less than satisfying, perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with aspects of Amish culture? However, even that felt like a bit of  a missed opportunity as Trina's obvious lack of familiarity with the Amish could have served as an easy inroad for reader instruction and was rarely seen either.

For  fans of Lewis The Proving  should prove to be a pleasant  enough read, for those unfamiliar with the genre, there are too many unexplained nuances and missed developments for this to be  a satisfying introduction into the genre.

3 out of 5 stars

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc."