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.

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The Wife Between Us

The Wife Between Us

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (Thriller)

The write-up for this psychological thriller warns that even when you think you have things all figured out, you’ll be wrong. This is true.

Lots of twists and unexpected turns make this a book that will keep you off-balance. What seems to be a somewhat unlikeable protagonist/narrator morphs into someone you begin to understand. Not everything she has said and done was reckless after all. She’s not as unreliable as she seems. There are good reasons why things happened the way they did. Things you don’t see coming suddenly make sense when you think back on how it all played out.

Hendricks and Pekkanen combine their respective careers as book editor and best-selling novelist to produce a work meant to make the most of what’s popular in today’s fiction. It’s full of familiar tropes: the rich, handsome, doting husband who’s too good to be true; the awestruck young wife blinded by her fairy-tale life; the vindictive former wife stalking the new wife. The authors cleverly tweak the familiar to keep it unpredictable and introduce new “aha!” moments that won’t let you put the book down until it’s finished.

A good read when you’re looking for something that holds your interest but then lets you move on without too much introspection… unless, of course, you’re married to someone who seems too good to be true.

Grandma gives The Wife Between Us four stars. 4 stars

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

The Wife Between Us will be released on January 9, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree

In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree

In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree by Michael A. McLellan (Historical Fiction)

This engrossing novel immerses the reader in the reality of post-Civil War America, following the intertwining stories of a freed slave, a high-minded West Point cadet, and a strong-willed young woman struggling to live their lives in an era of brutality and greed.

Nothing here is sugar-coated. We experience the terror of newly freed slaves pursued by angry white men filled with hatred. We see the power wielded by wealthy men intent on controlling everyone around them. We witness the mindless slaughter of indigenous people as mercenaries and military seek to incite Indian uprisings in order to justify taking their land. At the same time, we know what a band of renegade Indians has done to white settlers and how their leader treats a female captive. We see the good, the bad, and everything in between as we travel with these multi-sided characters on their quests for freedom from personal oppression.

The result is a book full of believable people who take you along on a journey with no guarantees that things will go well. As in real life, predictability is not an aspect here, and the outcome will keep you thinking about their stories long after the closing has been read.

Grandma gives In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree five stars. 5 stars

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

The Murder of Manny Grimes

The Murder of Manny Grimes

The Murder of Manny Grimes by Angela Kay (Mystery/Thriller)

This book was a mixed bag for me. I was interested in the basic story: who killed Manny Grimes and why? The story bogged down once in a while, but it had its share of worthwhile developments and complex details. The characters were all a little too prickly for me; I didn’t find any that I truly cared about as individuals, which makes it harder to be invested in the outcome. Still, I wanted to know what happened and found the plot interesting.

Unfortunately, this book needs a good copy editing. Most annoying is improperly punctuated dialogue with random paragraph breaks that make it hard to know who is saying what. Odd phrasing (Claire unleashed her arms with a sighCalhoun took her lips to his) and misused words (…Walker replied, becoming irritant …a completely separate incidence to Grimes’ murderHis questionable eyes turned to shockThe furniture and decorum sent out an unwelcome sensation…) are distracting. Mixing of tenses in a single sentence and sloppy grammar occur too many times to be ignored.

The structure could also use some tightening, and the author gives away too much when she suddenly puts us inside the perpetrator’s head about two-thirds of the way through the novel. Until then, we know what the investigators know, which makes sense. Suddenly giving us the perp’s point of view doesn’t add anything that won’t come out eventually, and while it may be meant to add tension, it simply feels out of place and awkward. I believe the author has promise, but she needs guidance in order to do her best work and would benefit from working with a good editor.

Grandma gives The Murder of Manny Grimes three stars. 3 stars

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

The Spider and the Stone

The Spider and the Stone

The Spider and the Stone by Glen Craney (Historical Fiction)

Lovers of castles and keeps, knights, and the lore of Scottish clans will thoroughly enjoy this well-written novel. Covering the years 1296 to 1330, the book brings to life the struggles of disparate and often warring Scottish clans to name a king they can all support while striving to rid Scotland of rule by the English kings Edward I, II, and III. Robert the Bruce, James Douglas (also known as The Black Douglas), and William Wallace (Braveheart) are among the familiar Scots portrayed here. We also meet Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II and sometimes known as the She-Wolf of France, plus a myriad of other characters including Edward II’s male lovers, some interesting clerics, a group of Knights Templar, and Isabelle MacDuff, a Scotswoman who played an important role in the crowning of Robert Bruce and is depicted here as James Douglas’s lover.

Glen Craney makes it clear that he has fictionalized the details and stories of historic characters about whose personal lives little is known. He has done extensive research, nicely displayed in his use of the vernacular and in his descriptions of countryside, castles, and towers. As one does from any good work of historical fiction, I came away with a desire to learn more about the time period – in this case, the wars for Scottish independence, the Plantagenet kings, the Knights Templar, and the Culdees. The book, although long, moves steadily and kept my unflagging interest, much of that driven by Craney’s writing style which fits the era in its elegance. The book includes intricate battle scenes based on real events, minor love scenes, and some gore.

Grandma gives The Spider and the Stone five stars.  5 stars

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

Revenants: The Odyssey Home

Revenants

Revenants: The Odyssey Home by Scott Kauffman (Historical Fiction)

A revenant is a person who returns after a long absence. In this book, more than one revenant is making the long trip back.

In an Ohio hospital in 1973, an unknown veteran of World War I is secreted away in a hidden room. Meanwhile, a teen-aged candy striper working in that hospital has recently lost her brother in Viet Nam and is now making bad decisions that threaten to derail her future. When she accidentally discovers the hideously injured old soldier, she decides she will get him home to his family before he dies. But no one seems to know who he is or where he comes from, except for one person who has good reason to keep him hidden. In the process of unearthing the soldier’s life story, the girl comes to realize the significance of honoring her brother’s memory by living her own life to the fullest.

This absorbing book takes the reader into the trenches of WWI as well as into the hearts and minds of characters who have lost loved ones in Vietnam or WWI. We witness the pain experienced by siblings, the despair and heartbreak of parents, and the anguish of girlfriends and fiancés who still suffer decades later. We feel the meaningless waste of young people with everything to live for, and we can only try to imagine the hell of being trapped in what remains of a body after horrifying injuries that render one unable to hear, see, walk, or communicate. At the same time, we watch the human spirit fight back, overcome, and go on.

This is not a light or happy book, but it is a book worth reading. While generally well-written, it does have some dialogue without sufficient dialogue tags so that at times it is hard to know who’s speaking. There are several noticeable spots where the final period is missing, and occasionally, a wrong word is used, my favorite being copula (a real word) when the author meant cupola.

Grandma gives Revenants: The Odyssey Home four stars. 4 stars

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

How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive

How Speleology

How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive by Michael Bernhart (Action/Adventure)

Don’t judge this book by its title – it is a witty adventure story involving some hefty topics, including racism, kidnapping, and the aftereffects of serving in Vietnam, yet it kept me chuckling from beginning to end. The year is 1993, and the narrator, Max Brown, is the 52-year-old father of mischievous nine-year-old twins, Mary and Margaret (M&M), and husband to their “scrumptious” mom, Sally, who is much younger than he. As the title suggests, he worries about sexual performance, but that’s nowhere near what this novel is all about.

His precocious daughters disappear into the wilds of northern Georgia while visiting Sally’s crazy backwoods uncle, Skeeter. They and Skeeter hope to find Confederate gold rumored to be hidden in abandoned mines. Local Klan members don’t take well to outsiders messing around in their territory, but decide to see what the treasure hunters might discover before getting rid of them. Max and Sally don’t know which of the locals they can trust as too many negative things occur after they confide in seemingly friendly folks. They must rely on their own wiles and wits if they’re going to find their girls before it’s too late.

What makes this such an enjoyable read is the voice of Max Brown as he relates what’s going on with his kids, his wife, her wacky uncle, and the various people they run into on their quest. Max’s self-deprecating humor and his wry observations keep the narration light and funny even when the stakes are high and things are going poorly. None of it makes light of what the KKK stands for, however, nor are Klansmen portrayed as buffoons. The book depicts racism in all its ugliness and introduces us to people who must face it every day. As for the title and what it implies, think PG-13 when it comes to sex. Max is honest and funny but too much of a gentleman to go into detail.

Grandma gives How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive four stars. 4 stars

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