March 4, 2014

The Balance by Neal Wooten

Canus is a land in which three races of man live in precarious balance with one another. The Fathers of the city in the sky, the Scavs (who call themselves The Spirit People), and the Children all rely upon one another for certain resources, a reliance kept in careful check by a system of rules and perpetuated by fear and ignorance.

Piri is a young man of The Fathers who has no idea that the Scavs and The Children exist until the day his transport falls from the sky, leaving him stranded on The Surface. He is rescued by Niko, one of the Children, who takes Piri to stay with his family until they can find a way to return him to the City.

Once Piri recovers from his ordeal he has to come to terms with a drastically different way of life. The sterile, dispassionate life he's always known is very different from the lives of the Children, who work hard, play hard, and form close relationships. They are strictly governed by a tome known as The Book, which promises swift and terrible punishment if the rules imposed upon them by the Fathers are not carefully observed. Most concerning of all is the Children's practice of sending away hundreds of their young people every seventh day, supposedly to live in the City; but Piri has never seen any of the Children in the city. He knows something is terribly wrong, but can't figure out what it is.

As time passes, Piri begins to accept that he will never go home and becomes an integral part of the Children's society. He finds himself making friends and falling in love with Niko, his rescuer. He finds ways to improve the Children's lives, some of which are rejected out of fear of The Book. But there's trouble too; the fearsome Scavs' raids have become more frequent and invasive.

When Piri's rescue finally arrives, he has to decide if he can put his exciting new life behind him and return to a passionless existence in the City, thereby restoring the balance, or if he can find a way to solve the mystery surrounding The Book and help the Children escape from their oppression.

The story is filled with subtle innuendos. Judging by the language on The Surface, which is a hybrid of English, Spanish, and Canadian words and phrases, I assume the land "Canus" is derived from Canada and the US. The three subspecies: the Fathers, the Children, and the Spirit People are a jab at the Holy Trinity. The Children even live in an area called the "Garden" where it is forbidden to eat the fruit. These are just a few of many ambiguous references hidden in the writing.  

The Balance is an exciting new take on HG Wells' The Time Machine, and like The Time Machine it causes the reader to consider the machinations of our own modern societies and the choices we make within -or without- those systems. It also explores new ways of looking at friendship, compassion, and love. Piri's adventure is one that will stay with the reader for a long time.

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October 14, 2013

The Preservationist, by Justin Kramon

A few years back, I had the pleasure of reviewing Finny, Justin’s debut novel. So, while I was happy to hear he had a second book coming, I was particularly thrilled when he asked me to review The Preservationist.

Julia Stilwell is a college freshman grieving the loss of her brother, the fallout from which her family is still struggling to overcome. She’s also acclimating to a new school, lifestyle, and two mysterious suitors.

Sam Blount works in the snack bar of a small college in Pennsylvania. He’s much older than the students, but still relates to them, trading barbs and attending campus parties. Aside from being a bit socially awkward, he seems like a nice guy.

Marcus Broley is in one of Julia’s classes and takes an immediate interest in her. They go on a couple dates, but Julia quickly gets a taste of his overprotective side.

The novel alternates between these three narrators. It moves at a quick clip, from Julia and Marcus’ first date, to Sam’s pursuit and Julia’s wavering interest between the two men, and ultimately to a heated ending that you'd expect from any good thriller. 

It’s the usual thriller in its pace and plot arc, both of which I appreciated. I finished the book in a day while on vacation. For me, the difference between this and other thrillers is that the reader isn’t quite sure who the bad guy is until you're well into the story. 

There were times I wanted to smack Julia for her naivet̩ and poor decision-making skills. But then I remembered I had an equally hard time fully discerning the truth behind these men Рand I had the benefit of knowing what each one was thinking. I appreciated the little flecks of doubt Justin inserted into his story to keep me guessing until the moment I realized exactly what was happening and it was too late for Julia to do anything but succumb to her fate.

While Finny was a coming of age saga, this is more of a quick frolic. If we’re being honest, I would’ve preferred a little more depth to these characters, and a few more twists and turns (frankly, I'll say this about any thriller because I love a good twisty plot). However, there were enough twists to keep the predictability at bay. The alternating narration kept the plot moving and kept me turning the pages. 4 stars. 

**I received a free advanced copy of this book for review purposes, but my opinion is all my own!**

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March 1, 2013

The Tutor's Daughter

I recieved The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen from Bethany House Pulishers for review through their blogger review program

This book takes place in a seaside manor in England during the 1800's.  The manor is owned by the Weston family.  The father has four sons:  two elder brothers from a first marriage and two younger ones with the current Mrs. Weston.  The story revolves around Emma Smallwood whose father has been hired to be the live-in tutor of the two younger Weston brothers.  She has grown up in a boys' academy and is used to pranks, but life in the Westons' manor is getting out of hand.  Pranks, secrets, and betrayal all come into play with Emma growing and learning through it all.  I am sure this book was marketed as a Christian historical romance, but I found it a very refreshing mystery.  I enjoyed the fact that the mystery does not revolve around a murder. Instead the family's secret is the main plot path.  Julie Klassen adds plenty of twists and suspense to keep you guessing. 

There is, of course, a romance in the book as well.  The two elder Weston brothers are well know to Emma from their days at the academy.  She admires one and is wary of the other.  Throughout the book, Emma must learn to deal with the men they have become and leave behind the boys they were. 

One of the morals of this story is to live life to the fullest today and not wait for "someday".  Another moral is to be willing to take a risk to achieve your goals.  Both of these concepts change Emma's life and it was very fun to see her change into a better person because of them.
I would really recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery and/or historical fiction.
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February 27, 2013

Book Review of The Russian Hill Murders by Shirley Tallman

Part of the fun of reading books is discovering midlist authors who have published good books but are still relatively unknown to the general public. Even with good editorial reviews, their titles languish in the Amazon ranking abyss.
Such is the case with Oregon author Shirley Tallman, who has published a stable of highly-entertaining books from Minotaur/St. Martin's Press. When I recently read one of her cozies, The Russian Hill Murders, I wondered why I haven't heard of her or any of her work. Is it because she's not a name brand author and had been passed over by the press? The book was incredibly well-written and so engrossing I finished it in two days.
The novel features a tough-minded socialite, Sarah Woolson, a female attorney in late 19th-century San Francisco working for the largest law firm in the city. Being a woman, and despite her success in solving a Nob Hill murder, she is treated as the company go-fer, asked to perform mundane tasks such as typing correspondence and making coffee for the stodgy partners who are of the opinion that law practice has no place for a woman.
This second-class treatment galls Woolson. When a socialite chairing a hospital's charity event dies in the middle of a sit-down dinner, Woolson's catlike curiosity for sniffing out crimes where none seemingly exists goes into overdrive. Her suspicion is further validated after the accountant managing the charity's finances mysteriously dies of food poisoning.

When the hospital's Chinese chef is conveniently arrested, Woolson's instinct tells her the perpetrator is someone else. This sends her on an investigative path to find the truth against the wishes of her bosses.

The novel takes the reader to the belly of San Francisco's 1890s underworld, from the rough-and-tumble streets of the Barbary Coast, to the city's powerful tong gangs, to Chinatown's filthy sweatshops, contrasting it with the city's socialite world of which Sarah Woolson is a part.
Good books such as this are getting harder and harder to come by. The narrative is evocative and funny, the voice, impeccably unique. The reader can't help but root for Woolson and follow her journey to the satisfying conclusion. This is a highly enjoyable novel, one that takes the reader to unusual time and places.

Its sequel, The Cliff House Strangler is already in my Kindle bookshelf, glowing like a smoldering coal, waiting to be read.

Article first published as <a href=''>Book Review: <i>The Russian Hill Murders</i> by Shirley Tallman</a> on Blogcritics.
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February 9, 2013

Book Review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett

As a practice, I don't usually review well-known books or those that had become bestsellers since I focus more on good books that are unknown or have been published way in the past that younger folks may not have had the opportunity to read. But I would be remiss if I didn't review The Help, for this novel touched me straight in the heart.

The novel is set in 1960s Mississippi, a time when racism is still a way of life in some towns, but is being confronted by rapidly developing civil rights changes. The story is told from three point-of-views: that of two black maids and a young white woman who is the daughter of a big cotton farmer and raised by a black maid. The three-tiered POV works well in that it allows readers to absorb the story from different perspectives, each one powerful in its own way. The novel took me into the kitchens of white families and allowed me to experience in a vicarious way how black maids are treated, mostly despicably bad, though at times with certain characters, the relationship (even friendship) between maid and master turns into something beautiful and touching like that of white aspiring writer Skeeter and maid Aibileen who helps Skeeter write her inflammatory book; Aibeleen and her four-year-old ward Mae Mobley (who sees Aibeleen as her true mother); and feisty maid Mindy and her white trash and sensitive master Cecelia Foote. The Help is a book that is hard to put down and makes the reader feel completely satisfied, yet sorry that the experience is over.
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February 7, 2013

Book Review of The Safe Man: A Ghost Story by Michael Connelly

I like to follow certain authors with track records of publishing good books. One of these authors is Michael Connelly whose Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch series take up a good portion of my eBook library. His latest work, an Amazon single called The Safe Man: A Ghost Story, takes him out of the mystery-thriller genre into the supernatural. The story does not disappoint.

When locksmith Brian Holloway is called upon by a famous writer to open a safe in the writer's newly-acquired home, he sees it as just another job. Though he thinks it odd that the owner wants him to haul the safe away after he opens it, a request that sounds strangely suspicious, Holloway ignores his early warning radar and proceeds with the job. He soon realizes that the work is not going to be an easy one as the lock mechanism is so rare no information about it could be found. Not a man to give up on a challenge, he doggedly works on the overly stubborn safe, eventually managing to drill a hole through the steel membrane and slip an eye scope through. He sees a spectral image inside the cavity, which startles him, a feeling compounded when he senses a female presence next to him.
Chalking it up to a momentary bout of paranoia, Holloway diligently works on the safe, feeling validated when he successfully jimmies it open and encounters a vacant space. Still, the strange and ghostly events in the library give him the creeps, so much so that it begins to occupy his mind. He does his own research on the safe's history and what he discovers instills fear in him, a fear exacerbated when the daughter of the man who hired him is found missing.

The delivery of the narrative is vintage Michael Connelly with the use of mystery/thriller devices giving it a quick pace. In certain scenes, one can't help but break out in goose pimples as Holloway unravels the mystery surrounding the safe and the man who hired him.

I enjoyed the piece very much. At just over eleven thousand words, there may not be enough meat to the bone for those with appetite for long fiction. But if you like short stories, this may be the book for you.

Article first published as Book Review: The Safe Man: A Ghost Story by Michael Connelly on Blogcritics
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December 31, 2012

Mended by Angie Smith

As the familiar saying goes, “Nobody’s perfect.”  While this is certainly true, it can be easy to misinterpret this to mean that I am hopeless, a lost cause.  If I’m already a failure and nothing I do can help me, what use is there in trying?  Of course not one of us walking on the earth today is perfect and we are all, in fact, broken.  We struggle with shame, shortcomings, vices, and a pile of other sins that leave us feeling like a shattered vessel.  It is this image that Angie Smith uses in her devotional book Mended to represent the life of the believer who comes to Jesus feeling destroyed, useless, and disappointing. 
Smith begins her book by describing a bit about her experience of smashing a pitcher and then painstakingly reconstructing it piece by piece.  When the glue had dried and its previous form achieved, Smith realized that each of us is like the broken pitcher, imperfect and flawed but re-created in Christ into something new.  He doesn’t magically morph us into an earthly version of perfection, but instead meets us when the pieces are scattered and helps us rebuild a life where his grace can be seen through our weakness.  The image of the shattered pitcher becomes a metaphor that Smith returns to again and again through the chapters of her book.
Each chapter is derived from Smith’s writings on her blog, Bring the Rain.  She revises the entries into a more devotional-friendly style so the reader isn’t left feeling like they are just scrolling through a website.  Her writing is detailed and personal, frequently challenging the reader to thinking critically about their heart, their struggles, their fears, and their questions.  She doesn’t pull any punches, to be sure.
Smith clearly experiences her Savior and her faith in a very physical way.  In the chapter entitled The Scarlet Cord, the author describes how she refocuses on Christ by imagining him right in front of her and in her mind’s eye she reaches out and touches his face, the thorns on his head, the terrible wounds that cover his body that he endured for our sake.  Moments like this were very powerful for me to read, but difficult for me to relate to, not because it was written poorly (quite the opposite!), but because I just don’t experience my faith in that way.  On the other hand, I love the way that Smith pulls out events from the Bible such as Rahab in Jericho, Lot’s wife, and Peter stepping out of the boat to help the reader identify with the people who appear in God’s Word.  Smith also uses several anecdotes from her own journey, from her painful experience of losing her infant daughter to her ability to learn a truth about God from pulling weeds in her lawn.
Angie Smith truly has a gift for writing to women.  She connects with them with Jesus in a way that not many can.  I underlined a lot of passages and made several notes in the margin to re-read when I’m feeling insufficient, undeserving, and too broken for God to fix.  I enjoyed this book very much and I definitely recommend reading it slowly and purposefully, with a journal and a Bible at the ready because Smith provides several opportunities for deeper study and meditation.  
 As a devotional book that helps encourage a deeper, more personal relationship with Jesus, I 

would give this book 3 stars.  I like it a lot, but I think it was more a stylistic disconnect that keeps me from giving it 4 stars.  My learning personality just didn't jive perfectly with the way Smith teaches, but her principles are sound and her personal approach is nothing short of endearing. 
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October 7, 2012

Unleash! by Perry Noble

Perry Noble, senior pastor of NewSpring Church in South Carolina, challenges readers to Unleash! the life that God has in store for them and to put their past to rest. 

Within his book, he explains how God's desire is to have us live our best life now by walking in His path and by letting go of a past that enslaves us.  He compares all of our challenges with the story of David from the Bible.  Now, most of us would dare say we have absolutely nothing in common with the same David that found favor with God.  The same David that was anointed as a child, brought down a giant and became one of the most revered kings in history.  But Perry specifically outlines how his struggles and ours are not so different. 

Just as God chose David to be anointed, God chooses us to be His children.  Just as David had to fight Goliath, the giant, so we have to fight metaphorical "giants" in our lives.  God is not looking for someone who is perfect… David was far from perfect.  David was a poor shepherd boy who no one ever suspected would become king.  And then once king, he became an adulterer and a murderer.  And yet… God found favor with him.  

In his book, Perry offers hilarious and gritty stories about his life and how he's learned these lessons.  He speaks about how coming to know the Lord and Jesus has changed him and in doing so he offers hope to everyone who reads his book.  Perry does not beat around the bush… he is dead set on Biblical teachings and does not care if he makes people uncomfortable about it.  He wants everyone to know that the ONLY truth is Jesus.  But he also wants everyone to know that God is not sitting on His throne in Heaven waiting to smite all of the sinners… He wants people to know that God is loving, compassionate and fatherly.  "God is not after or begrudging submission.  He is after our joy" (pg.9)  

I highly recommend this book for anyone who just can't seem to let go of their past.  To anyone who thinks that God can't possibly forgive them for what they've done.  To anyone who thinks that their problems are too big.  To anyone who feels hopeless.  Within these pages you'll learn about a Savior who's love knows no limits and who can't wait to call you His own.  

I had the privilege of being a member of NewSpring church for the 3 years that I lived in South Carolina and I have never seen a pastor more captivatingly true, real and passionate about his call to ministry and Jesus.  He is doing some truly incredible things across the state of South Carolina and reaching throughout the world to impact churches and people in need.  You can listen to his sermons by downloading the FREE NewSpring App or by visiting

And don't forget to pick up a copy of his book.  You'll be so glad you did!

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July 25, 2012

Gone Girl, By Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl seems to be a hot read this summer, as I've seen it all over the place. It's a thriller with the unusual twist that you actually know whodunnit almost from the beginning.

Nick Dunne comes home on his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife Amy missing and their house in disarray. The cops quickly turn their attention to Nick as the prime suspect. After all, in cases like these, how often is the criminal NOT the husband?

Told in alternating viewpoints between Nick and Amy, the reader immediately knows that Amy is still safe -- somewhere. But where she is is a much deeper story. Over the course of the book, we learn about Nick and Amy's idyllic marriage that has somehow derailed into a terrifying game of manipulation. Why has Amy gone missing? And what punishment awaits Nick?

I had high hopes for this book. A thriller that isn't your typical thriller? A twist that you know up front, but that could still lead in any number of directions? Sounds good to me. But, I finished the book feeling disappointed.

The book is divided into three parts (really more like 2.5, the last part is a quick conclusion). The first part dragged for me. I'll admit, it served to throw me off the trail because it lead me away from what I thought was happening. And it did set up the rest of the story so it was a valuable part, but could have been shortened in favor of digging into the real suspense.

The second and third parts lived up to the hype, but I felt like there could have been even more thrills and twists. These parts flew very quickly, without the oh so good "slow burn" before uncovering the truth. And the end? Well, I'm still not sure how I feel about the end. I have the same complaint -- it just ended. Not an inordinate amount of suspense, and thus not a gratifying conclusion.

One of the final lines is: "We (Nick & Amy) are one long frightening climax." And I suppose that's true for the book. It's all about the climax, but it's a climax that could certainly have a bit more excitement injected into it.

However, the premise alone makes the book worth a read. It's hard to find a thriller with a plot that breaks the mold, and I think this one fits that bill.

3.5 stars.

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July 4, 2012

Echoes From the Academy by Jeffrey Mann

Sid is sitting in his car with a bottle of vodka between his thighs and a pistol in his hand.  As he looks back at the last year of his life, he can't believe how he had gotten there.  How had he strayed so far?  His life was alright... but now, it was a complete disaster.  There's only one way out.

Sid is a good kid.  He's sometimes misunderstood and misrepresented but all in all, he's a decent teenaged boy.  He comes from a great family... a father that's a provider and loves his family, a mother who loves God and always listens to her children and a sister who is wicked cool and even hooks him up with her pretty friends.  Life was good.  But his life takes a turn when he gets kicked out of school for allegedly selling drugs... a complete misunderstanding.  With few options remaining, he decided he wanted to try military school.  He was ready and eager to become a man.

His father reluctantly agreed, under the condition that he would attend for an entire year, no matter what.  Even if it got hard, he would have to stay for a full school year.  Sid accepted under those turns and was ready to start a new chapter.  But when Sid got to military school, it wasn't quite what he expected.  And it wasn't the strict discipline that brought him down, but he was actually fearful for his life!  The events that took place within those walls were more frightening than his worse nightmares.  The only thing that brought him through that tortuous year were two best friends that he made there.  But even they could only help so much...

As he finds himself in that car, sorting through the details of the life he once had and the life he now had, he thinks there's only one choice now.  As he remembers the pain and abuse from the past year, he thinks there's a sure way to forever forget.  What will Sid choose?  How will he ever get out of this mess?

Surprisingly, this is a 100% true story... not "based on a true story", but actually true.  Some of the events seem so extraordinary or extreme and that's why it's so surprising and exciting to hear that it's all true!  The book offers a great deal of hope for any young person coping with depression or struggling with their identity.  The writing is easy flowing and fast moving... great for a YA crowd.  Beware of some violent content, so lean towards the more mature side of YA.

4 Stars

Now available on Amazon!

I received a complementary copy of this book for the purpose of this review.  This is my honest opinion.

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June 9, 2012

Glamorous Illusions by Lisa T. Bergren

Cora arrives home from Normal School in the summer of 1913 expecting her parents to be waiting at the train station to pick her up. What is actually waiting for her is family, but not the family she was expecting. After learning about a dark family secret, Cora is given the chance of a lifetime if she's willing to leave the life she currently knows behind - the chance to be a part of a Grand Tour through Europe where she will be introduced to incredible fashions, food, culture, and people. Can she find her place in this new world without losing herself completely?

I loved this book. I read it while I was sitting by the pool and stayed by the pool long after the sun went down just so I could finish it. Cora is a great main character with a realistic mixture of humility, awe, and spunk. And with a great cast of supporting characters, especially her friend Will, the author really brings this story to life through their individual personalities. I also love the plot and the whole idea of doing a Grand Tour through Europe so maybe I just liked this book so much because I'm jealous of their opportunities. Or it's just a good book.

I really can only think of one thing that I didn't like about Glamorous Illusions, the fact that I didn't know it was the first in a series until the last page of the book. I was expecting the author to wrap the book up in a nice pretty package and instead, she expertly set the stage for a great series. And you better believe I will be ordering the next book in the series as soon as it's available. 5 stars

Want to know more? Check out more information and additional reviews for Glamorous Illusions. Did I convince you that it's worth reading? Lisa is doing a promotion during the blog tour and selling the ebook version for cheap through June - $2.99 from 6/9-6/15 and $4.99 from 6/16-6/22. And if you'd rather not buy it, Lisa is giving readers a chance to not only win her book but also to win a $350 Visa gift card.

One "glamorous" winner will receive a "Glam Prize Pack":

  • A $350 Visa Cash Card (Oh ... think of what you could do: treat yourself to a mani/pedi, a fabulous new dress, dinner for two, or even a two-night escape in a lovely hotel - you're only limited by your imagination!)
  • Glamorous Illusions (by Lisa Tawn Begren)

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends 6/26/12. Winner will be announced at Lisa's "Glamorous Illusions" Facebook Party on  6/27 {Fun begins at 5pm PDT / 8pm EDT}. Lisa will be hosting an evening of meaningful chat, fun trivia, laughter, and encouragement - bring your friends! She'll also be giving away some GREAT prizes: gift certificates, books, and a Book Club Prize Pack! (Ten copies of the book for your small group or book club and a live chat with Lisa via video or phone.)

So grab a few of your friends and your copy of Glamorous Illusions and join Lisa on the evening of June 27th for an evening of fun.

Enter via E-mail Enter via FacebookEnter via Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the fun. RSVP TODAY and tell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 27th!

**I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion of the book. 
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May 29, 2012

+One, by Brian Baleno

In + One, Brian Baleno takes the reader through a modern-day love story where Jake and Kara must decide if their love can withstand the external pressures of Jake's high-powered career.

I was initially drawn to the book because I lived/am living the plot. Nearly five years ago, I met a "Jake". In my case, he was an accountant instead of an investment banker, but he also dealt with the pressure-filled world of corporate mergers. One of the biggest issues in our relationship was his crazy schedule and lack of time to spend with me.

Plot: Since the story hit close to home, I certainly felt the plot was believable. I also appreciated its progression, and that it wasn't a predictable story that wraps things up in a nice bow.

Characters: Jake was likeable enough, and the reader could really feel the internal conflict between his career and his personal life. Kara, on the other hand, drove me pretty nuts. I saw a lot of myself in her (I know I whined a TON in the early stages of my relationship), but man was all her whining annoying. I felt that the true conflict in the book was less about Jake's life and his career decisions and more about how much Kara cared -- or didn't care -- about Jake. Then again, maybe that's my personal bias taking over because I know that a man can have a high-powered career and the love of his life. Kara couldn't seem to see that possibility.

My biggest issue with this book was the editing. While the writing was easy to follow and dig into, there were many passages of Jake's internal monologue that felt tangential and not important. But overall, it was an interesting take on the standard love story. 3 stars.

**While I received a free copy of this book for review purposes, the opinions shared here are all mine!**

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