The Edge of Belonging by Amanda Cox

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Edge of Belonging, by Amanda Cox, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 2/5

I hovered between giving this book a 2 or a 3-star rating while thinking about what I liked and didn’t like. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the 1994 story of a lonely young man starving for love and generosity who stumbles upon a baby abandoned by the side of the road, which in turn leads him to understand the meaning of family. It was a great little story about love and how it can transform people’s lives.

On the other hand, I didn’t at all enjoy the present-day story of Ivy (the little baby all grown up) who is on a mission to find out who her birth mother is. It seemed amazingly pointless, since we were getting Ivy’s backstory through the 1994 chapters, and even what little is revealed in the present-day doesn’t really contribute anything except more of the same theme Cox emphasizes over and over throughout the book. In addition, the annoying, cliché romance between Ivy and Reese, created seemingly solely to fill out Ivy’s chapters and, again, to emphasize the same theme developed much better with Harvey’s story in 1994, is unoriginal and stale, filled with the same tired old tropes that have littered these sorts of books for years.

In addition, I wasn’t overly fond of Cox’s writing style. Too much telling, not enough showing, and occasionally her descriptions verged on the weird side of detailed.

So, even though I enjoyed Harvey’s story, it became weighted down simply by being attached to Ivy’s story, which was just echoes of the same message but done in a more cliché and weaker fashion. Hence, the lower rating in the end. If Ivy’s story had had more purpose, more originality, and more interesting characters, I think this book could have been something completely different—and better.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

Nine by Rachelle Dekker

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of Nine, by Rachelle Dekker, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

Nine is a science fiction suspense story that, while never really making much sense in the realism department, still manages to be interesting and compelling. It’s a companion, or perhaps a sequel, to The Girl Behind the Red Rope, though reading the latter is unnecessary to understanding Nine, though if you have, Zoe’s backstory will make much more sense.

The science fiction part of the story isn’t anything memorable or unique (in fact, I was greatly reminded of Stranger Things or similar shows that have delved into child experimentation and superhuman development), and Dekker’s action scenes sound like a play-by-play, but Dekker does start this story out right: hook the reader with a mysterious past and lots of secrets, then gradually reveal the whole story over time. By the time the whole story is revealed, a lot of the flaws no longer matter as much because the reader is too invested.

My favorite part of the book was actually something I started out really hating, which was the romance/redemption arc. I hate “good girl brings bad boy out of the darkness,” but at the same time, I also love that trope because I think it’s a good example of how love truly can change people for the better, and how forgiveness can dramatically affect someone’s life. I just wish its presence in this book wasn’t also so trope-y and cliché in so many ways (though if there’s one thing I can forgive a little cliché, it’s a sappy romance that sneaks its way in between Gruff Man and Any-Personality Woman).

I just wish that there had been more resolution with the backstories, practically Zoe’s. Maybe I just didn’t understand everything, but I felt as if there was still a large part missing that we never found out. I felt like it was never revealed what actually happened to her brother, and there were a lot of odd undercurrents with her memories about her past post-cult that seemed to never be explained.

Despite the bad action scenes that I ended up skimming over because they were so robotic, and some of the flaws regarding character backstory, realism, and overall writing mechanics, I enjoyed Nine, particularly the emphasis on love and forgiveness, and the slight romance that was both the best and worst thing about the book. The book was good enough that I’d be willing to read another Rachelle Dekker work, though science fiction/supernatural-leaning isn’t really my favorite genre. 

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic

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An Appalachian Summer by Ann H. Gabhart

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book, by Ann H. Gabhart, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 2/5

An Appalachian Summer’s historical setting is Kentucky during the Great Depression, and more specifically the Frontier Nursing Service in the Appalachian Mountains founded by Mary Breckinridge (who plays a small, but important role in the book). I found it very easy to forget the book takes place during the Great Depression since the setting and characters didn’t seem any different than other historical fiction I’ve read, aside from occasional mentions of banks failing and hard times. “Didn’t seem any different than…” is something I would say for everything in the book, honestly—this book is exactly the same as many other historical romances before it.

There’s usually two types of historical romances in the Christian book world: the one where two strangers meet and fall in love (either really quickly because of their mutual good looks or a little bit more slowly, helped along by mutual good looks) and the one where the couple already know each other and Something Is Getting In the Way, usually some sort of misunderstanding. An Appalachian Summer is the latter, which is really unfortunate because it means from the very beginning of the book you know what’s going to happen and then wonder how long it will take for the characters to get over whatever the misunderstanding will be. I hoped for the briefest moment at the beginning that Gabhart was trying to pull the wool over my eyes about who the love interest was—at last, something unique and interesting! I thought—but no, the book very quickly fell into predictable lines and disappointment.

Because the book really doesn’t even try to be anything new or unique, it meant that for most of the book I was bored silly. It didn’t help that none of the characters were interesting, save for maybe Truda Dawson, Dr. Jackson, and Braxton Crandall. And the plot was almost nonexistent—Piper goes to the mountains and learns about hard work, her love interest follows her, lots of people give them advice, they follow it, end of story. The one positive and slightly original note to the book was Braxton, who was not your typical jealous, blustering, failed-to-get-the-girl “rival.” In fact, I spent most of the book thinking about how Gabhart could have created a bait-and-switch love story where the Forever Friend and Inevitable Love Interest Jamie gets foiled by Surprise Newcomer with Hidden Depths Braxton. I mean, her message about not caring about material things and whatnot worked better the way the book is, but still, these types of books make me long for surprise and moxy on the part of the author.

An Appalachian Summer is predictable historical fiction with mostly uninteresting, predictable characters and a plot that completely lacks tension or suspense of any sort. For most of the book, I found myself thinking “But what if she had done this instead?” I long for even a breath of originality and cleverness in Christian historical romance.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

A Dream Within a Dream by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of A Dream within a Dream, by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5

I enjoyed the first two Coffey & Hill books (Annabel Lee and The Raven) by Mike Nappa, and the same holds true for A Dream within a Dream. There’s suspense, mystery, action, and even a fun puzzle to locate some stolen art. Though I couldn’t really remember much of what happened in the first two books, it’s not really necessary—enough is explained so that you can get the jist of previous events in order to understand why things are happening.

My same criticisms of the first two books stand, which is the overuse of specific car and gun brands. However, I didn’t really notice it much in this book, so I’ve either gotten used to it or it fit more naturally in the story this time around. I did notice, however, that Nappa (and Kosci—it’s interesting that this book has a co-author while the others don’t) really overused a certain kind of writing style, where something happened at the end of one chapter and the next starts after that event, with the character having a flashback to the resolution. That happened one too many times and it got annoying after a while.

Trudi and Samuel got some interesting character development in this book. I like them both when they’re doing things together, but separate, I found myself liking Trudi more than Samuel. Samuel was just a little too smooth and even cocky in areas. Trudi seemed much more realistic and relatable. Plus, Trudi had the bonus of having Eula and Dream with her, who were great side characters, Dream especially. Overall the characterization was really good and the ending made complete sense in the narrative, closing the book with a sense of finality, but also a sense of a thread that could potentially result in another sequel. 

I really struggled to connect all the plot threads together, but the characters (minus Samuel) were interesting enough that even though I finished the book a little bit confused as to the sequence of events and other plot-related things, I still enjoyed it. Like I said, Trudi, Eula, and Dream really made this book shine. Overall, A Dream Within a Dream was an enjoyable, suspenseful mystery/spy novel with some great characters, and though the plot was dense and some of the stylistic choices I didn’t particularly like, I still ended up barely able to put it down.

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Christian

Out of the Embers by Amanda Cabot

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Out of the Embers, by Amanda Cabot, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 3/5

Out of the Embers tells the story of Evelyn Radcliffe, who, after the orphanage she worked in burned down, flees to Mesquite Springs with a young orphan girl she has befriended. There, she is inspired to start a restaurant where she runs into a number of the local community, including the rancher Wyatt Clark. As expected, the story is a romance, but there’s also a surprising amount of suspense and mystery as Evelyn seeks to escape from the mysterious person who murdered her parents and who burned down the orphanage.

My favorite parts of the book were the ones dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind the Watcher (what Evelyn dubbed the person she felt was watching her throughout her life after her parents were killed), Evelyn’s parents’ deaths, and the orphanage fire. Cabot integrates scarce viewpoints and tantalizing suggestions into the main story—just enough to keep readers curious and the novel suspenseful, but not enough to deflate the tension and make everything obvious. And the end result is pretty interesting and wraps up all three storylines nicely.

The parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy as much unfortunately were what most of the rest was dedicated to. I wasn’t fond of the love square present in the novel, and I’m not fond of “every man falls in love with the new girl” tropes at all, so having both of those present here was a little annoying. In addition, a lot of the dialogue between Wyatt and Evelyn was pretty cheesy and sappy, at least when they’re talking about their feelings. It just didn’t feel natural to me at all; it didn’t feel like anything someone would actually say to someone else.

I also was a little disgruntled that after this huge, tense buildup with Sam, Cabot basically deflated it all with one stroke, making it anticlimactic and a bit cheap. I suppose how she resolved it shows a measure of nuance, but I think the execution could have been a bit less jarring.

Out of the Embers breaks no molds and shatters no expectations for me. If you like the multitude of other Christian historical fiction novels out there, then you’ll like this. There’s decent suspense and mystery in it, though I found the romance clichéd and cheesy. The other plot besides the romance, however, elevated the book in my estimation of it. I deem it better than average, but not fantastic.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

Laurel’s Dream by Pepper Basham

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Laurel’s Dream, by Pepper Basham, is a cute historical fiction novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Caroline in 1918. Jonathan Taylor comes to help his uncle with his work (and to get away from his domineering father) and is the controversial new teacher in the community; Laurel, who’s lived on the mountain her whole life, dreams of going to college.

Like I said, the novel is really cute. Both characters are so sugary sweet that it will keep you smiling the whole time—though neither of them have much in the way of flaws. I didn’t really notice because the book was genuinely interesting, but reflecting on it now, both characters, and Laurel especially, were practically perfect in every way. Also, I’m not sure how realistic I found it that Jonathan had both a background in teaching and a background in medicine, especially since the latter seemed to come out of nowhere (why did he drop out of medical school? Did he? Was his plan to go back all along?) and the former wasn’t really explained that I remember.

The plot is pretty predictable, though I admit I wouldn’t have been able to guess what happens at the end that throws a monkey wrench into the works. I think I would have liked a little more resolution in terms of Laurel’s dream (it’s the title of the book!) instead of just the “shrug, let me just move on” ending we did get. However, I thought Basham did a good job of weaving in the Christian elements without making it too preachy, and it was really interesting to see the way she decided to portray the McAdams family, especially the father and the others’ relationship with him.

Cute, sweet (though almost too sweet in spots), with two adorable, maybe-needed-more-flaws protagonists, and a fairly interesting plot that makes up in interest what it lacks in small bits of satisfying resolution (I don’t know if I really like how Laurel gets things taken away from her at the end), Laurel’s Dream is one of those self-indulgent reads that will take your mind off other things and give you some pretty deep things to think about in the meantime.  

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher as part of JustReadTours. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

No One Ever Asked, by Katie Ganshert, is inspired by a true story (described in the notes at the end). It revolves around 3 women and how their lives are affected by a poor school district losing accreditation and its students transferring to the richer, less diverse school district, and the backlash that comes with it. It’s a story about racism and segregation and adoption and marriage and, well, a lot of things.

Though there’s three female points of view, the one the story focuses on the most is Camille, whose cookie-cutter family is falling apart at the seams. It was interesting to get her perspective for the majority of the novel, since Ganshert writes in just such a way where you recognize all the things she’s doing wrong and yet still grow attached to her anyway (especially as she starts to realize what she’s doing). My favorite point of view was probably Anaya, though I’m not really sure I liked the things Ganshert decided to include in her arc. What I liked about the three characters was how different each perspective was: Camille, the affluent white woman; Jen, also affluent, but with an adopted daughter from Liberia; Anaya, the black woman who’s worked and clawed her way up to where she is now and dealt with more than the other two.

I do think Ganshert tried to tackle a little too much here; towards the end of the novel, it just feels like she’s piling on event after event, like an excited kid at a candy store: “Ooh! Some of this! And some of that! And let’s add this right at the end!” It starts to get a little exhausting, and the ending is maybe slightly more dramatic than I think it needed to be. I also think Ganshert’s subtlety leaves a little to be desired, especially with some of the ways she explores people’s preconceived notions.

However, No One Ever Asked is a great book that explores many difficult situations and forces the reader to think about their own actions and thoughts as they read about the actions and thoughts of others. Most powerful, I think, is the townhall scene, where Camille voices opinions that might be echoed by the reader—but then is forced to confront those opinions and determine if that’s how she really thinks and acts.

Warnings: Mentions of sexual assault, gun violence

Genre: Christian, Realistic

Jesus Skeptic by John Dickerson

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 5/5

I was excited to read Jesus Skeptic before I even opened it, and I was even more excited about it after reading the first ten pages. I’ve read books like it before, most recently Unimaginable by Jeremiah Johnston, but this is the first book I’ve read that dealt with so thoroughly and with such attention to primary evidence.
By primary evidence, Dickerson explains that he means things like firsthand accounts or historical documents of the time period being discussed, similar to the evidence a journalist (which Dickerson is) would use in writing a story. So, the book explores the primary evidence behind science, education, hospitals, and the abolition of slavery to explore the question of whether Jesus’s teachings have helped further justice and progress, or inhibited it. It’s the question of whether Christianity has been good for the world or not, and Dickerson explores it thoroughly, diving deep into statistics and the people behind many important movements.

I knew many things that this book talked about already, but some I did not, and I enjoyed learning more about how universities were established, the origins of hospitals, and what life was like for the majority of people until about two hundred years ago. And the best part of this book is that Dickerson uses only the words of the people who were involved and facts and statistics that can be obtained by anyone. There are pictures and documents and tons of detailed footnotes. There’s even a website, which I peeked at briefly to see if it would be useful for teaching.

This book was especially helpful for times when I forget what an impact Christianity can have on people. Dickerson shared personal stories of his own, as well as stories of people he knew—again, all primary evidence that can be independently verified. And it will be especially helpful for when my students broach the exact question Dickerson is exploring in this novel. Even if you know this information already, Jesus Skeptic is a worthwhile read—but it’s a vital one if you are not aware of the evidence that is out there for Christian involvement in education, medicine, science, and the abolition of slavery.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

I haven’t read a really academic book in a long time, so the plunge into Alister McGrath’s Narrative Apologetics was a rough one. However, the topic is one that I am deeply interested (and invested) in, as that was the basis of my graduate school studies and something I currently teach. McGrath puts forth his arguments for presenting the Gospel as and through narrative, rather than purely reason.

McGrath introduces the topic of narrative apologetics (basically, showing people God and the Gospel through story), offers practical application, and then uses various narratives, both Biblical and otherwise, to illustrate why and how narrative is so powerful. Using several powerful narratives from the Bible, as well as mentioning narratives from C. S. Lewis, Marilynne Robison, and Dorothy Sayers, McGrath lays forth his reasoning for leaning more on story to share “the relevance, joy, and wonder” of Christianity (to borrow the subtitle), as it reaches more people.

I will admit, the language of the book really did prevent me from delving into this perhaps as deeply as I should have. It is not written for the layperson at all, but rather for the expert in the field. McGrath expects you to know a lot of things already. This is not a criticism, as this is obviously the audience of the book—I’m just trying to explain why I struggled a bit with it (I’m technically an expert, but I’m too used to more casual books). The book is rich in research and footnotes, and McGrath methodically and expertly explains everything. What I liked most about the book was the last chapter where McGrath offers suggestions for how to use Biblical, personal, and cultural narratives in teaching and showing others the Gospel. As a teacher, my mind immediately started thinking of ways to incorporate those into my classroom.

The analytical language and the academic nature of the book did throw me for a loop, but Narrative Apologetics is a book that’s worth returning to in order to take it in more deeply. I feel like I only skimmed the surface and that lots more meaning and application will come out on another read.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

The Hidden Side by Heidi Chiavaroli

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Having read a book by Chiavaroli before (The Edge of Mercy), I went into The Hidden Side familiar with her style and curious to see if some of the things that fell a little flat for me in the previous book I read would do the same thing here.

The Hidden Side (and Chiavaroli’s style in general) is really two stories running concurrently—a contemporary one and a historical one. The contemporary one tells the story of the Abbott family and their struggles to hold on to their family and their faith after a devastating and terrible act is committed by the son. The historical one is about Mercy Howard, who becomes a Patriot spy (one of the Culper Ring, I believe) to ferret out British secrets during the Revolutionary War and discovers lots of things about love and faith along the way.

If you’re wondering how in the world Chiavaroli connects the two stories together, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Both stories would be fine on their own, but together, the relation between the two, the reason why Natalie Abbott is reading the journal of Mercy Howard and why the reader should care, is a little thin. It’s explained, and probably makes a lot of sense, but I never really thought about it because my interest was never in Mercy Howard’s story at all—in fact, I only skimmed her chapters. To me, it made no sense to have that story in this book because all it did was distract from the real shining star, which was the gut-wrenching, difficult story of a family struggling to make sense of why evil things happen. This was also my problem with The Edge of Mercy—the historical entry in that book also, I felt, took away from the much more powerful contemporary one.

I won’t go into the struggle the Abbott family faces in this novel, as I think it’s best to experience it as it’s presented in the novel, but it’s an issue that strikes terrifyingly close to society today. Chiavaroli pulls no punches, but also shows deep sympathy for the complicated tangle of knots that causes evil and that evil causes. It’s comprehensive and nuanced, and I applaud Chiavaroli for taking such a difficult subject head-on and showing the effects and consequences of evil, and how people can move past it without losing love, mercy, or justice.

Warnings: Violence, bullying, mentions of rape.

Genre: Realistic, Historical Fiction, Christian

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