False River

False River

False River by H.G. Reed (Fantasy/Paranormal)

Joe Lawson has sold his soul to the devil, who takes on human form as a seductive young woman known as Ellie May. Joe did so out of love ten years ago, to save the life of his wife-to-be, Catherine, and now Ellie May is back. She has a new, terrible demand he dare not refuse if he hopes to protect Catherine and their young daughter, Madeline.

What Joe doesn’t know is that his town is full of Others — angels and archangels who are aware of his predicament and there to help, if only he will ask. Once he does, angels and demons take up sides to do battle in his front yard, with the fate of Joe’s family riding on the outcome.

Having read the excellent archangel novel Fall From Grace by J. Edward Ritchie, I was intrigued with the premise. The execution, however, was a disappointment.

Joe Lawson is a pretty tedious guy. He can’t really feel love without a soul, and so he hasn’t been a great husband or dad. The family farm — an apple orchard, of course — is dying in the throes of a drought, and he has given up hope of holding on much longer. He mulls over his desperate situation again and again, paralyzed by his lousy luck, making no progress whatsoever. Meanwhile, Catherine is not a sympathetic character; we never see her as anything other than angry at Joe. The archangels have their moments, but overall — with the exception of Gabriel and a brief cameo by an unlikeable Michael — they are pretty flat. The one lively, well-rounded character is the devil, Ellie May. She’s witty and unerringly evil. She knows why she hates mankind, and she is the one character we truly understand.

There’s inference that Madeline’s existence holds something akin to messianic importance for the future, but that is never explained. A sequel in the making, perhaps? Overall, with more inspired writing and the injection of a personality for Joe, this could have been a fun read, but mostly I was counting the pages until it ended.

Grandma gives False River three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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We Own the Sky

We own the Sky

We Own the Sky by Sara Crawford (Fantasy/Paranormal)

Although this isn’t classified as Young Adult, the 16-year-old protagonist, Sylvia, her personal demons, and her knowledge of contemporary music make this an interesting, although sometimes dark, read for fans of Young Adult fiction.

Sylvia comes from a dysfunctional family, suffers from depression, and has been institutionalized for attempted suicide — facts that estrange her from most of the kids in her Marietta, Georgia, high school. She questions her own sanity because of the “flickering people” only she can see, including a handsome guy who keeps showing up whenever she is singing or playing an instrument. In time, she comes to realize that all of the flickering people hover around artists and that they are Muses — not the classic Greek ones, but Earthly Muses, deceased human artists given the opportunity to inspire others.

It’s a fun concept, and for a while it’s a pleasure to watch Sylvia’s life improve as she and her Muse, Vincent, interact, giving Sylvia a new lease on life and a chance to excel at what she loves — writing and performing music. However, some of the classic Greek Muses don’t agree with the concept of Earthly Muses and plot to put an end to their existence.

This is Book One in The Muse Chronicles, and as such it ends with a major cliffhanger that leaves one feeling abandoned. I also found her father’s ultimate reaction to her behavior hard to accept as reasonable, but to say more would give away too much. Overall, however, it’s a worthwhile read, as long as you’re ready for some dark moments without resolution until Book Two.

Bella gives We Own the Sky four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke (Young Adult)

I’m going to come right to the point on this one: it was a big disappointment.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is an obscenity-filled book about a nasty teen with a filthy mouth and a rotten attitude. That she finally decided to do something decent for someone else at the end of the book did not make for a satisfying character arc nor did it turn this into a worthwhile tale. It simply made me wonder why I kept reading in the hope that there might be a point to this book.

I understand using language that a teen reader might use in order to make a book feel relevant, but it was not necessary to give Jane Sinner such a foul mouth. Unlike Jessie in This is Not a Love Letter, Jane is not a girl I would want for a friend. The constant vulgar language did not make her endearing or funny. In fact, her stabs at irony fell flat more often than not. That a nice guy like Robbie would find Jane Sinner attractive was hard to believe.

The blurb: “The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

“Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.”

So much of the story required suspension of disbelief. Did her highly religious, highly responsible parents really not insist on knowing where their previously suicidal seventeen-year-old was living? Was the teacher/advisor who hung out with students, encouraging them to gorge themselves on Chicken McNuggets until they threw up, supposed to be for real? The whole “she-becomes-a-reality-TV-star” felt like a fantasy written by a wannabee YouTuber.

The writing itself was fine, and the formatting used for the various journal entries was interesting.

Bella gives Nice Try, Jane Sinner two stars. 2-stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (Paranormal, Mystery)

The girls referred to in the title of this book have been sent to Idlewild Hall, a creepy, second-rate boarding school in a small Vermont town. They are the girls no one knows what to do with – hard to handle, illegitimate, or simply unwanted. Built in 1919, the school is rumored to be haunted, and the girls who live in this dreadful place over the years pass along stories of Mary Hand, the resident ghost. Even after the school is closed in the 1970s, the abandoned buildings continue to throw a chilling pall over the town and its inhabitants.

In 2014 Fiona Sheridan, a local journalist, has her own reasons for hating Idlewild Hall. Twenty years ago, her older sister was murdered and her body was dumped in the abandoned school’s playing field. Now the place has been purchased and is about to be restored, and Fiona uses the potential story as cover to feed her obsession with the property and its history. She is on the grounds the day a shocking discovery is made, and soon she is delving into more than she bargained for.

The novel follows two different timelines – Fiona in 2014 and four Idlewild Hall girls in 1950. We get the points of view of all five characters in alternating chapters, and before long their stories begin to intertwine. Each 1950s Idlewild girl has a unique backstory, and when one of them goes missing, her friends must fight to have authorities take her disappearance seriously. That disappearance, along with sightings of Mary Hand, will affect Fiona, as well.

The author has created an eerie setting populated with characters we come to care about. I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style and found her dialogue to be exceptionally true to how people speak. The story itself is a gentle inclusion of paranormal with mystery, suspense, and historical fiction, and the ending satisfyingly answers the questions raised throughout the book.

Grandma gives The Broken Girls 4.5 stars. 4.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Broken Girls will be released by the publisher on March 20, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

This is Not a Love Letter

This is Not a Love Letter

This is Not a Love Letter by Kim Purcell (Young Adult)

Jessie’s boyfriend, Chris, has gone missing shortly before high school graduation, and now she is documenting everything that is happening as she waits to find out where he is. The book is written as though she is speaking to him the entire time, so she is always saying things like “you would have liked …” or “your mom said …” or “it reminded me of when we …”. As a result, it wasn’t long before I felt like I knew both of them really well. The author did  an excellent job of describing Chris’s personality and attitudes through Jessie’s eyes and her anecdotes about their relationship.

Jessie herself is somewhat crude and tough. Her dad is out of the picture and her mom is a hoarder, making Jessie ashamed of her home and frustrated with her life. She shoots from the hip and doesn’t mince words. Chris is a gentle soul who recently moved into town – a straight-A student, a gifted baseball player, and a pacifist. He’s a good influence on Jessie, giving her a sense of worth and direction that she didn’t have before he came into her life. But he’s also a black kid from Brooklyn who doesn’t really fit into this all-white paper mill town in the Pacific Northwest, and he has already dealt with bullying from some of the locals. Many possibilities exist for why he has gone missing.

The book also has several strong peripheral characters who are well drawn and add to the story – both his friends and hers. I never knew for sure what was going to happen, and I really came to care about both Chris and Jessie. Being the same age as they are, I found myself thinking I would like to know them personally, which only happens when a writer does a great job of bringing characters alive. While the plot did not wow me as much, I really enjoyed the characters and the interesting way in which the story was told.

Bella gives This is Not a Love Letter four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth Index: Moderate use of the “f” word; realistic for the character depicted

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is Not a Love Letter will be released on January 30, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

A Boy Made of Blocks

A Boy Made of Blocks

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart (General Fiction)

Alex Rowe, the thirty-something narrator of this story, cannot stop dwelling on a tragedy that occurred during his childhood. As a result, his marriage is falling apart, he cannot relate to his autistic young son, and he barely communicates with his sister and widowed mom. When his frustrated wife kicks him out of the house and he loses his job, he realizes he needs to change his ways. In an effort to connect with his little boy, he learns to play Minecraft, a video game the boy loves, and little by little they literally build their own world together. In the process Alex comes to understand both himself and his child better and finally comes to terms with his past.

Although this may sound like a dire scenario, Alex is funny and likeable, and we grow to love his son, Sam. The book is populated with interesting characters who round out his life, and the entire story is uplifting and poignant. In real life, the author is the father of an autistic child, and while this is not his son’s story, his first-hand knowledge of autism and its challenges is apparent.

Unfortunately, the extensive descriptions of their Minecraft world were often too much for me, and I found myself skimming those passages. While it’s important to understand the game and how one creates with it, the details made my eyes glaze over. In general, however, I found the story and its characters enjoyable and the narrator a delight.

Grandma gives A Boy Made of Blocks four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

As Bright as Heaven

As Bright As Heaven

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Susan Meissner is an accomplished writer of historical fiction (see A Bridge Across the Ocean). As Bright as Heaven, spanning the years 1918 to 1926, follows a Philadelphia family as it experiences the final months of World War I, the ravages of the wide-spread Spanish flu epidemic, and the long-lasting effects of both events.

We become a close observer of three teen-aged sisters – Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa – each of whom has a distinct personality and voice. Evie, the oldest, is the scholar, practical and level-headed. Maggie, in the middle, is caring and passionate. Willa is willful and possesses a temper; she is no stranger to smashing delicate objects when she doesn’t like the way things are going. Their mother, Pauline, is a quiet woman mourning the recent loss of her infant son from a defective heart, and their father, Thomas, is a hard-working man who is learning his uncle’s trade as a mortician. The unexpected flu deaths of family and friends and the aftermath of war touch them all, and each sister copes in her own way.

The story is narrated in alternating chapters by one of the girls or their mother. The chapters are fairly short, and I found the continuous change in point of view disconcerting at times. While first-person narration seems to be the thing nowadays, this story could easily have been told by an omniscient author in the third person, allowing the reader to feel less thrashed about.

The book starts out slow; nothing significant seems to happen for the first twenty-five percent. Once the flu hits, the pace picks up, and one gets a real sense of what life was like in that dreadful era. The ending is almost too tidy, but the story has enough tragedy that one can simply accept and appreciate the good.

Grandma gives As Bright as Heaven four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

As Bright as Heaven will be released on February 6, 2018 and is available for pre-order.