The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Historical Fiction)

Northern Italy in 1923 is the setting for this story of Maria Vittoria, a young woman about to begin an arranged marriage. We travel with her through the next two decades as Fascism and Mussolini take over the country and “Trust no one” becomes her mantra. World War II brings cruel Nazis and marauding Partisans, hunger, deprivation, and fear. Meanwhile, she is raising five children, enduring an abusive marriage, and doing what she believes she must to feed her family and keep them safe.

In addition to painting a picture of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, this is a tale of a loveless marriage, misplaced pride, religious dominance, and the devaluing of women, not only by their fathers and brothers, but also by their husbands and sons. Maria endures not only political tyranny but also that imposed by the men in her life. Yet, she is a traditionalist willing to impose the same fate on her daughters.

As with any story spanning several decades, children grow up before you have a sense of who they are, things happen in the background, the main characters age, and, unless it’s a three-volume saga, you begin to feel like you’ve missed a lot. I care about Maria’s children because they’re Maria’s children, not because I know them as individuals. In fact, mostly, I don’t like them, based on the little I’ve seen. I dislike her husband, and because I’m judging from a blurry snapshot, it’s hard to tell if he has changed much after all these years.

Still, this is the story of a survivor, a woman who perseveres. It is a tale of the sort of hardships that drove many of our own ancestors to seek a better life in a different country. It is well-written and kept me engaged enough to finish it in two days.

Grandma gives The Madonna of the Mountains four stars. 4 stars

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

The Madonna of the Mountains will be released on June 12, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

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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 of this one. 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.

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.

An Unexpected Afterlife

An Unexpected Afterlife

An Unexpected Afterlife by Dan Sofer (Religious Fantasy)

Complex, interesting characters in a most unusual situation. Moshe Karlin wakes up lying on the dirt in a cemetery, naked and alone, with no recollection of how he came to be there. Before long he learns the alarming truth: he died two years before.

Without going into the plot or the outcome, let me simply say that this novel grabbed my attention from the get-go with all its possibilities, and it was a great read. In addition to being highly creative in his premise, Sofer gives us humor and adventure as well as raising a number of questions. Among them: Would it really be so great to come back from the dead? If a deceased loved one suddenly came back into my life years later, would I believe it? How might it complicate my life and what would I do? Will true believers recognize and be ready to accept the End of Days when it begins? Are there people already among us who are more than they appear to be?

Throughout the action, the author brings modern-day Israel to life for those of us who have never been there, as well as providing interesting details about Jewish tradition, Judaism’s belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, and its anticipation of the End of Days. As one who enjoys novels that teach me something, as well as being well-written, well-edited, and well-proofread, I found this book to be pure joy and very satisfying entertainment.

This is Book One in a series called The Dry Bones Society. As such, it left a number of questions open in preparation for Book Two. With that in mind, I’m able to accept the fact that one character – who may or may not be the prophet Elijah – remained a mystery to me at the end. Moshe’s story – at least for the moment —  was resolved well enough, and I hope that future books will tell us more about the fates of his fellow resurrectees.

Grandma gives An Unexpected Afterlife five stars. 5 stars

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

Forbidden

Forbidden

Forbidden by F. Stone (Suspense/Thriller)

This is a complex and fast-paced thriller with strong main characters — a female Canadian paramedic with a tragic past who suffers from severe bouts of PTSD and a devout Muslim police captain working in a Middle Eastern city where corruption makes it hard to know whom to trust. The massacre of fifteen American aid workers brings the paramedic and the captain together as reluctant allies when both become targets of a local governmental cover-up of the massacre. The arrival of an American CIA Agent bent on finding out who killed the American volunteers adds another layer of risk, as he believes the captain may have masterminded the whole thing. Despite their differences in background and outlook on life, the paramedic and the captain must work together to find the true perpetrator. Along the way they also (no surprise) find each other.

The author did a lot of research to ensure authenticity in her portrayal of the region and Islam, and her respect for her subject matter is evident. She also consulted with weapons experts, police officers, and cultural experts, and uses her own experience as a paramedic to bring authenticity to her characters’ actions. She does a good job of getting inside the heads of both a woman with heavy emotional issues and a disillusioned and unhappy man struggling with violating Sharia law while protecting that woman.

The story is set in the year 2047 — most likely to allow for creation of a new Middle Eastern entity known as the Republic of Islamic Provinces and Territories — but this is not a futuristic tale. Transportation, technology, medicine, etc. remain unchanged from 2017. Also somewhat incongruous is the fact that the paramedic is a “seer,” which pops up now and then, but has very little bearing on the story and, for me at least, compromised a character to whom I could otherwise easily relate.

My major complaint, however, is the book’s need for a good proofreader. While it did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, I did find many sentences that were missing articles (the, a, an) or prepositions. Punctuation was funky in places. More distracting were the occasional inappropriate or misused words, including “shoulder” where it should have said “soldier.” I had to read that one sentence more than once to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.

Normally, the issues named above would take an average story down to three stars, but I enjoyed the story itself a great deal and appreciate the author’s careful and extensive preparation to tell it.

Grandma gives Forbidden four stars. 4 stars

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

Fifteen Words

fifteen-words-cover

Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas

At a time when World War II-era novels abound, this one is unusual in that it is set in Nazi Germany and follows the lives of a young German couple —Max and Erika – who fall in love, marry, and are then separated by war and its aftermath. Max is a religious man who hates Hitler and his regime, while Erika is a Nazi supporter, having grown up as an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. They attend medical school together and after graduation, Max joins the army as a medic for the purpose of helping the soldiers, not furthering the Nazi cause. He is stationed in the city of Breslau, running a field hospital set up in a former monastery, when the Soviet army takes control of the city and sends him to a labor camp in Siberia.

Erika, meanwhile, is six months pregnant and is traveling with her father-in-law to the home of Max’s parents where she plans to live and give birth to their baby. She has no idea what has become of Max, but assumes he will be coming home soon, since the war is ending. Neither of them realizes that they will not see each other for four more years.

The title refers to the fact that letters sent home by Soviet prisoners were not allowed to contain more than fifteen words, thereby limiting their ability to tell their loved ones about their living conditions. As readers, however, we are privy to all of the deprivation, horrors, and mistreatment that Max and his fellow prisoners must endure at the hands of the Soviets. In alternate chapters, we observe Erika as she makes a life for herself and her daughter in occupied Germany while Max is gone.

After following their individual lives during four years of separation, it was clear that their reunion as a couple would not be an easy one, and I was particularly interested in how that reunion would ultimately play out. How long would it take them to get used to one another again? Was it even possible? Max isn’t the person he once was and no longer feels a bond with “home.” Erika has her misgivings and her secrets, and their daughter is less than welcoming to her father. Does he ever connect with his daughter, recapture a loving relationship with his wife, and at least come close to feeling as though he might fit in again? Unfortunately, the book stops abruptly upon his return home and leaves all of those questions unanswered.

Overall, this book is well written and well researched. While the story is fiction, the book is inspired by actual events in the lives of the author and her family (see our guest post from author Monika Jephcott Thomas). I just wish I knew more about Max’s fate, as I had become invested in his welfare (Erika’s not so much).

Grandma gives Fifteen Words four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books was given a free copy of the book by the author in return for an honest review and participation in the blog tour accompanying its release.

History of Wolves

history-of-wolves

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Literary Fiction)

History of Wolves is a beautifully written coming-of-age story that grabs hold of the reader on many levels and does not let go. Emily Fridlund’s descriptive prose carries one into the wooded reaches of northern Minnesota to experience first-hand the isolation and loneliness, not only of this remote area but also of fifteen-year-old Linda who lives there with her aging hippie parents. Born into a now-defunct commune and raised in a cabin in the woods, Linda is an outsider in her school and pretty much of a loner. When a married couple with a small boy moves into a summer home across the lake, she befriends the young wife and agrees to babysit their four-year-old. But something’s not quite right, and Linda, in her naïveté, doesn’t know how to respond.

The story is narrated by Linda as a twenty-six-year-old, and as she includes more details about her dysfunctional family and a questionable teacher-student relationship in her school, she also makes occasional reference to “the trial” and questions “they” would later ask her. Something bad is going to happen, and we are skillfully taken there while learning to care more and more about Linda and those around her. A sense of foreboding grows until we realize what’s going to happen, and then we wait anxiously to learn how the trial will play out.

The author poses questions that remain with the reader: What’s the difference between what we consider doing and what we end up doing? At what point, if any, are we obligated to take responsibility for the well-being of someone else? What do we owe our friends in terms of loyalty? Linda’s need for connection and acknowledgement from others colors her view of what’s happening around her, and her inexperience with life and desire to please leave her without the wherewithal to act appropriately. But what would we have done under the same circumstances?

Grandma gives History of Wolves five stars. 5 stars

History of Wolves is scheduled for release on January 3, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

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