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.

Advertisements

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.

The Sacred Flame

the-sacred-flame

The Sacred Flame by Nanette Littlestone (Historical Fiction)

This well-written love story takes place in ancient Rome during the days of Vestal Virgins. Livia has given thirty years in service to the goddess Vesta, living only with her fellow Vestals, and her commitment is almost up. Now she’s looking forward to marrying her childhood friend, Kaeso, with whom she sees herself having a chance at happiness, even though she doesn’t love him as anything more than a friend.

But the Fates intervene, and suddenly Livia’s life becomes complicated in ways that not only threaten her ability to leave the Vestals, but also put her life in danger. She incurs the wrath of a fellow Vestal, as well as that of a woman of social prominence, and defies Roman society when she falls in love with a married man. Throughout, we watch her struggle with duty, passion, commitment, fidelity, love, friendship, and the terrible weight of responsibility and expectations thrust upon her by others against her will.

We see the action through the eyes of several different characters, in addition to Livia herself, a technique that limits how deeply we can get to know her as a person. We’re often observing her from the outside, which builds tension as we become privy to the motives and plans of others, but also keeps her at a distance. Still it is a rich story with interesting characters in a fascinating time and place. The writing style fits the period, and it’s clear that the author has researched the subject well and writes with confidence. The ending took me completely by surprise, adding to the pleasure of reading this ambitious novel. Anyone who enjoys stories set in ancient Rome will be completely satisfied with The Sacred Flame.

Grandma gives The Sacred Flame five stars. 5 stars

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

Between Dreams

between-dreams

Between Dreams by Cynthia Austin (Paranormal fantasy)

We do not normally publish a review that is less than three stars. Instead, we connect with the author and let him or her know why we cannot give the book a better review. However, this book is getting some high star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, meaning that it appeals to a certain group of readers, if not to us. Because our two stars mean “We are not enthusiastic, but you may be,” we are taking this opportunity to explain our rating and to let readers decide for themselves if they find our concerns relevant to them.

The description was promising: Sidney Sinclair was living the dream of any eighteen year-old girl… A handsome rock star boyfriend, a closet full of designer clothes, a limousine service at her beck and call, and a mansion in the hills of Los Angeles. Even with all that glamour and excitement at her fingertips, she still feels as if she’s been missing something in her life so she decides to leave. While trying her best to put her dysfunctional romantic relationship aside and tend to her beloved Granny, Sidney unexpectedly stumbles upon an intriguing emerald pendant boxed away in her grandmother’s closet. Soon she learns it once belonged to her long-lost mother who committed suicide when she was just a baby. Suddenly feeling emotionally connected to the woman who had birthed her, Sidney begins to wear the necklace. This sends her on a whirlwind journey that alternates between fantasy and reality… Almost immediately, she starts having dreams linked to the mysterious pendant. As danger begins to seep into her life, Sidney refuses to remove the necklace and instead documents each dream to help her further understand them. However, she soon begins to wonder if they are dreams meant to bond her to a mother whom she never knew? Or a subconscious warning that threatens her very life?

Unfortunately, we found the story itself to lack the promised intrigue. Instead, we found ourselves skimming the last half, hoping something would happen. The rock star boyfriend (Ray) is a cliche, and the “beloved Granny” is a device to give Sidney a reason to leave Ray, go home, and find the pendant. Granny is in a coma, and Sidney doesn’t “tend to” her at all; she hires a nurse and goes back to her old grocery clerk job and her friends. Perhaps Granny is being kept alive in the book so she can come out of her coma for a happy ending in a future installment, but so far, she has no presence whatsoever.

Ray floats in and out of Sid’s life, claiming he cares but apparently bedding other women, and she keeps taking him back because he’s her true love, for whatever reason. At the same time, she’s having dreams about a green-eyed man and then meets him at the grocery store and again at a bar, and of course, he’s unbelievably handsome and sexy and she’s torn between him and Ray. Still nothing happens, but we know she’s conflicted. She also rants about religion and the Catholic church, which does nothing to move the story along, and just feels like venting by the author.

What cinches the two-star rating for us are two things: dreams related in detail and an out-of-the-blue cliffhanger ending dropped like a bomb.

Dreams are dreams, not reality; if they are not what’s actually happening to the main characters, they can feel superfluous, even when they’re meant to  portend doom. They’re still only imagination until something actually happens, and too many of them, related in detail, hold back the action and become ho-hum reading at best, boring at worst.

Cliffhanger endings work for a TV series; in fact, they have become obligatory. They should not happen in a novel, however, as an abrupt ending that just comes out of nowhere and stops the action (or lack thereof) cold. Yes, the ending is a jaw-dropper, but that’s not a good thing when it makes you think, “Where did that come from?  Are you serious?”

If we are expected to pick up Book Two in the Pendant series, it’s going to take some build-up to a new crisis in the making, not something that blindsides us. Think of a series like The Hunger Games or Divergent or Twilight. Each book in the series stands alone, with a story arc that is complete and satisfying and makes you want to stick with the characters because you’ve seen them grow and change, and their welfare has become important to you. You care about them as people, and you want to know what comes next. That’s not happening here. At least not for us.

We give Between Dreams two stars. 2-stars

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

 

 

 

The Guineveres

the-guineveres

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet (Contemporary Women’s Literature)

Four teenagers, each named Guinevere, end up together in a home for girls run by Catholic nuns. Abandoned by their families for various reasons, Gwen, Ginny, Win, and Vere bond as a result of their common name and do their best to cover each others’ backs as they struggle with the austere convent life. Vere narrates their story in first person, telling it as an adult twenty years later. The main theme is their united attempt to escape the convent early, rather than wait until they are released at the age of eighteen.

My experience with this book was a mixed bag. Each girl’s character was fairly well-developed, and they acted in ways consistent with their personalities. The nuns were better than the usual caricatures of nuns, and the priest was believably flawed without being criminal. At the same time, the setting itself – time and place – was never clearly defined, except for “the War” and “the War Effort” and the nuns taking in wounded, comatose soldiers, which left me guessing it was World War II era, since no war since has involved everyday citizens that way, and references to the Veterans Administration put it after 1930.

Every now and then the story stopped for a chapter told by one of the Guineveres, in the first person, about how she ended up at the convent. This format was confusing, since Vere was the only one narrating the rest of the story; if felt like those backstories should have been third person to help the reader keep it all straight and be true to the rest of the narrative. There were also random super-cheerful chapters about various female saints who joyfully endured terrible degradation and pain, usually to save their virtue. As one who grew up Catholic and read all about the saints as a kid, I found these to be highly exaggerated in their joyfulness, but wasn’t sure if that was meant to be humor or to imply that the nuns enhanced the stories for effect. I also wasn’t sure why they were there, except, perhaps, to fill out a novella into novel length.

While the book felt disjointed to me, it was still worth the read, and I believe others may find it more to their liking.

Grandma gives The Guineveres three stars. 3 stars

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