Book Review: The Orchard House

The Orchard House
by Heidi Chiavaroli

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

After a difficult childhood, Taylor is adopted by her best friend’s parents. But sisterhood is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Taylor ends up leaving home at 21 with the determination to never see her family again. However, when informed 18 years later that her adopted mother is going through treatment for cancer, she returns home. But what starts as a brief visit turns into something more as old wounds are re-opened and this make-shift family struggles to make sense of present struggles. That’s when Taylor and her sister stumble across a story that captivates them and helps distract from real life. In the 1860s, the death of a soldier sparked a friendship between the soldier’s sister, Johanna, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. This friendship, and the life and marriage of Johanna, were hidden away for 150 years, to be discovered by Taylor and Victoria just when the story could most affect their lives.

I spent the first half of this book uncertain about a lot of it. Two different storylines had to be established–both the past and the present–and the present one covered several years in a few chapters. Even when the story slowed down and started unfolding in the present day, I struggled to get into it. Taylor’s adolescence had turned her into a confused, broken woman, and she essentially second-guessed her decisions, thoughts, emotions, and reactions every step of the way. And I questioned often what the past storyline had to do with the present one. It was a slow build, to be sure. It did pick up in the second half, but for a while, all I could think about was how terrible each of the characters seemed to be, in one way or the other.

The main thing that I really liked about the story was the way the Christian message was presented. While some reviewers found it “too religious,” I spent at least half the book wondering how on earth this had been labeled as Christian. But the slow build I mentioned earlier can also be applied to the way the main characters learned to first believe in and then trust in Someone bigger than themselves. Though in the end, I felt the “conversions” and overall Christian message were a little light, I still liked the way they shaped up.

There were some things in the book that confused me, and I re-read some passages more than once trying to understand. As an example, Louisa was said to have 2 sisters, but over the course of time 3 were mentioned–Anna, Nan, and Amy. However, Anna and Nan were the same person, and while the author did seem to realize we needed that explanation (I certainly did), it didn’t come until after the sister was referred to by both names at least once. There are other things that confused me too, but fortunately there was less of this in the second half too.

I think that people who love Louisa May Alcott’s books, or at least have read one or more of them, might enjoy this book. Though Louisa herself is only a small part of the story, her books and lasting effect on future fans are prevalent themes. I’ll admit to having a different view of a particular aspect of Little Women than the author (or at least than the main character), but as fiction, it’s certainly open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a light Christian read, this is not it. It’s full of drama and covers some dark topics such as abandonment, abuse (both physical and emotional), and betrayal. If you like time-split novels and stories about finding “home” or families trying to piece themselves back together, you might enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: A Christmas Star

A Christmas Star
Cape Light #9
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas drama, romance

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Cape Light.

Jack Sawyer, recent hermit after the loss of his wife 2 years past, awkwardly takes in a single mother and her young daughter when their car breaks down near his house in the country. Before long, he’s as much in need of Julie’s help as she is of his. At the same time, Sam & Jessica Morgan lose their beloved house to a devastating fire. Their marriage is tested in this difficult time, as rebuilding won’t be as easy as they hope.

Of the books in the Cape Light series I’ve read, this was my favorite. The story of Jack and Julie was much more interesting to me than the saga of Sam and Jessica Morgan’s tragedy. I don’t think that’s necessarily because I didn’t like the plot arc about the fire, but because I really liked the arc with Jack and Julie. Even moreso, I liked the arc with Jack and Julie’s daughter, Kate.

What I found most endearing was that this was not just the development of a relationship between a widower and a single mom, but also the development of a relationship between a father whose son has been estranged for two years and a little girl who steals the not-so-old man’s heart. Jack could get a second chance at being both a husband and a father, and it’s very sweet. The culmination of that storyline made the entire book worth it.

As for Sam and Jessica, they almost killed my interest in the series in the first book. Fortunately, we’re past most of the drama I disliked with them, but I will say some of their annoying quirks reared their heads again. Still, I found the difficulties they go through in this book sadly all too realistic. And while the end of their story might bother some, I think it makes sense within the context of this series.

After reading the first 4 books in the series and averaging 3.5 stars, I decided not to continue with it (which becomes a series of Christmas novels after the first 4 non-holiday books). But I already owned this one, so figured I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did, as I liked it more than the first 4. I’m not sure if I’ll read more or not, though. Maybe I’ll go back to book #5 if I have time left in the holiday season after I’ve read all of the Christmas-themed books I have planned. We’ll see.

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Book Review: A New Leaf

A New Leaf
Cape Light
#4
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

It’s near the end of winter in Cape Light and a time for new beginnings for many of its residents. This includes the newest resident, Dr. Matthew Harding, who has just moved to town with his teenage daughter, hoping to start a new life three years after his wife’s death. Molly Willoughby is toying with the idea of starting a new business, Sophie Potter has to figure out how to move on after her ailing husband is gone, and a controversy from many years past shakes things up for Tucker Tulley.

One of the best things about this book is that the story moved away from the Warwick family, after 3 books about them in some capacity. They were in the background, which was fine, but the main storyline in this book involved Dr. Harding and Molly Willoughby. Overall, it was a decent read. Parts of it were better than others, and some characters were better than others.

The romance thread in this story didn’t draw me in like it probably should have. I liked how both grew as individuals and how they had a hand in helping each other see what they needed to work on. But even by the end, I didn’t feel much chemistry between them. They seemed more like really good friends. And there was an obstacle in there that seemed completely pointless.

On another story front, I was appalled by Fran Tulley’s actions in the book, even if she did feel bad about it later. And Tucker began to wear on me after a while too, since most of his own thoughts were about how uncertain he was of his feelings and actions at pretty much every step of the way.

In the end, the book was decent, but I didn’t love it enough to continue this series that has been mostly just okay so far. It feels like a good stopping point anyway, though, because all of the books after this are Christmas-themed, and the final page of this book provided a nice wrap-up to the first 4 books. I don’t know if that was intentional or not–maybe the series wasn’t originally meant to continue? However, I do have a copy of book #9, and with Christmas coming up and feeling like I have a good enough introduction to the series and the town, I do still plan to read that book, most likely my final go at the Cape Light series.

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Book Review: The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club
by Craig Davidson

My rating: 1 / 5
Genre: Coming of age drama

The blurb for this book says that it’s about some kids who spend the summer investigating local urban legends and ghost stories. It mentions the MC’s uncle with whom the MC spends most of his time. And in some places online, the book is compared to Stranger Things. None of these things is accurate. Oh, and you may see the book listed as horror. It’s not.

What really happens is that the summer passes quickly and only 5 local legends are investigated, the MC (Jake) goes long stretches without seeing his Uncle Calvin, and the only comparison that can be made to Stranger Things is that the book is set in the 80s and there are kids who do things.

The very first legend this club investigated was nice and creepy, and I thought it would ramp up from there. Instead, it ramped down. And the characters were limp and/or cliched. The girl felt like such a stereotype, and from the moment she’s introduced, Jake sees her as a goddess…for what reason, I still can’t tell you. Because she’s older, I guess?

Each chapter begins with tales of adult Jake’s life, from stories about his neurosurgeon cases to an account of his son being born. The reception of these parts seems to vary widely from reviewer to reviewer. I could have done without them, especially the too-descriptive explanations about how a brain looks and feels, and what it’s like to do surgery on one.

The “reveal” wasn’t very exciting, and I found it strange that the previous events didn’t all tie together like it seemed like they should (hard to explain what I mean without spoiling). Also, the book is possibly meant to be YA–it depends on where you look, but the MC is 12, after all–but there is some language and references to adult situations.

So clearly this book was a miss for me. I’m not generally one for horror anyway (and the fact that I read it a few days before Halloween is completely coincidence, as I don’t really do Halloween), but I thought it’d be a fun, intriguing read. Instead, I found myself wondering what the point of it was. And though I generally rate lower than the average book reviewer, this is the first book I’ve ever rated 1 star (I gave 1.5 stars once last year). I hate writing a review like this, and I know that the author put a lot of work into the book (as every author does) and that other people really liked it.

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Book Review: before i knew you

before i knew you
Choices Matter #1
by Beth Steury

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian romantic drama

When high school juniors Preston and Maggie meet, they’re both planning for abstinence until marriage. But where Maggie has always had that plan, for Preston, it’s a result of a period of bad decisions with girls that he wants to come back from. Though he knows it’s a bad idea, he keeps his past a secret from his new girlfriend. Unfortunately, the truth has a way of coming out. Can their relationship survive when Preston’s past comes back to complicate his life?

For about the first half of this book, I felt like there wasn’t much of a story. It was a fairly standard building of a relationship between two high schoolers. But the second half of the book contained all of the story, and I found that it was interesting enough to redeem the first half.

During the first half of the book, I grew increasingly uncomfortable as the story only seemed to be a progression of Preston and Maggie going further and further in their physical relationship. Lots of kissing, touching, making out, etc. I was, quite frankly, relieved when things started to get awkward between them for various reasons. For a book that is meant to help teenagers make good choices in their relationships, it certainly is steamy, and it seems to me that it might just make hormonal young people more desirous. That is my biggest issue with the book.

Outside of that, and especially after that was over, the story had more plot. And I was able to answer the question I had during the first half, which was whether the characters were actually Christians or not, as it was only vaguely discussed during that part (seems to be a commentary on how God doesn’t really enter into the picture when one is giving in to desires of the flesh, but I don’t know if that was intentional or not). I also found it strange that Preston says his parents are involved, in regards to keeping their relationship in check, but I didn’t see that at all. As someone who had strict restrictions about how alone I could be with a guy in high school, the parents in this book were downright lax by comparison, especially for Christian parents.

The difficulties that come up due to Preston’s past experiences, as well as for other teens that the two MCs know, help to give an understanding about why saving yourself for a future spouse is the best way to go–not just as a Christian to avoid sinning, but because of so many undesirable consequences that can happen, even beyond the obvious like teen pregnancy.

Though I give the book 3.5 stars, I don’t know that I could recommend it for the audience it’s intended, due to what I said above about the intense way the ramping-up is described. But I don’t know that I’d recommend it to adults either, because they’re not necessarily the audience that really needs it. Maybe the best set of people to read this book is parents of teens, or future teens, to help them understand better the minefield that is teenage romance.

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Book Review: Sadie

Sadie
by Courtney Summers

read by Rebecca Soler, Fred Berman, & Dan Bittner

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA suspense, drama

Sadie’s life was already an unhappy one, her main bright spot being her little sister Mattie, whom she practically raised. But then Mattie dies, and some time later, Sadie decides to do what the police can’t–track down Mattie’s killer. This leads Sadie on a road trip to find the man she knows is responsible. Three months later, a radio personality is asked by Sadie’s surrogate grandmother to find the missing Sadie. He follows her trail and turns the investigation into a podcast.

It was really difficult to rate this book in the end, because it was dark and disturbing, but also unique and interesting. Sadie’s perspective is shown in first-person, present tense as she travels from town to town looking for her sister’s killer. The podcast is shown in a script format–West McCray (the radio personality) explaining to us what he finds, and also interviewing people along the way.

Before I get any further with my review, I feel a content warning is in order. There are certain things that are treated very carefully–pedophilia, drug abuse, and murder. There is also a lot of language. I started out listening to the audiobook, because it was highly recommended, given that the podcast sections are presented like a real podcast. However, I had to switch to a format where I read Sadie’s portions myself and listened to the “podcast” parts, because Sadie’s portions are so heavy with language, I couldn’t stand listening to it. I can handle it in text better, because apparently I tend to mentally bleep out those words. But I also didn’t care for the person who read Sadie’s part, because she sounded angry all the time, no matter what she said. Simply describing a room, she was angry. It was a bit much. So the joint format worked well for me.

One of my favorite things about the book, which I started out thinking would make it boring or repetitive, was McCray’s follow-up on things we’d already seen Sadie do. Because he trailed her 3 months later, we were able to see the aftermath of some of her actions. And the way McCray got caught up in her story added a comforting human element the rest of the story seemed to be lacking–not because other characters were heartless or didn’t care, but because the circumstances just didn’t lend to them being very kind, compassionate, etc.

The book being YA leads me to warn that if you’re thinking of allowing your teenager to read it, read it first. The language alone may put off a lot of people. However, I do think the book is worth reading–I just know I wouldn’t let my daughter read it as a teenager.

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Book Review: A Gathering Place

A Gathering Place
Cape Light
#3
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain spoilers for the previous books in the series, Cape Light & Home Song.

Leading up to and going through the Christmas season, mother and daughter Emily and Sara have to figure out how they fit into each others’ lives, while both also trying to work out a burgeoning relationship. Meanwhile, Reverend Ben and his family deal with some family crises, and local diner owner Charlie and his wife struggle to keep their marriage happy.

Continuing shortly after the previous book ended, book 3 continues the saga of the residents of Cape Light. The drama ramps up, and multiple characters attempt to define their romantic relationships. I found this third book to be somewhere in between the first and second, in terms of how much I enjoyed it. I was still interested in seeing where story threads that were set up in the first book would go, but less interested in some of the storylines that were focused on in this book.

One of my biggest issues is that the official blurb for this book focuses on Mayor Emily Warwick and her relationships with her newly found daughter and with newspaperman Dan Forbes. However, the book really focused a lot more on her daughter Sara and her new job at the newspaper, as well as her own romance. I found that storyline less interesting, which understandably detracted from the overall book for me. And there were 2 romantic culminations at the end of the book, which left me feeling less caught up in the one that came second.

The religion that many of the residents of Cape Light follow is more highlighted in this book, but frankly, it made me sad. It was very shallow and consisted more of passionate pleas that God would spare loved ones lives than any kind of understanding that as Christians, we shouldn’t cling so tightly to this life, because we have the hope of eternity. Don’t get me wrong–I am not against praying for healing in this life, not at all. However, if we let the idea that our Christian loved ones might die cripple us, we are not trusting God at all. And this is not a very good testimony to present to readers.

I did, however, like the way the reverend himself was presented in his personal life. He was shown in his humanness, not as some kind of saint, as he dealt with his family issues and regretted his actions and attitude after certain interactions.

From the very first book, unraveling the lives of the different people in this town was what made me want to continue the series. Some of those arcs have played out, but there are some others that are still ongoing, which is enough to make me want to read the next one. After that, the series becomes all specifically Christmas novels, but at this point, I don’t think I’ll want to stick with it if the 4th book is a less than 4-star read for me.

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Book Review: Final Chance

Final Chance
by E.B. Roshan

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Suspense, drama

Preen has just fully accepted that her husband, Rama, died at the hands of a rival militia, in the tumultuous city of Dor. But a late-night phone call with her husband’s voice on the other end prompts her to travel to the war-torn city, where she used to live with her husband and daughter. What follows is a dangerous journey that will force Preen to relive unpleasant memories and test old loyalties.

This is a difficult book to rate, and a difficult review to write. I didn’t really know what I thought of it as I was reading it, and I’m not sure how I feel about it now, over a week after finishing it. This is not to say that the story is bad, nor the writing. More that I didn’t feel much draw to the characters and had no real understanding of the theme or purpose of the story.

The biggest thing that I took away from it was a sadness for the Tur people who were being evacuated from Dor and forced to live in a refugee camp. The fact that they didn’t even seem to have a complaint about their living conditions seems to say that either they have already been living in terrible conditions so long that they’re used to it, or that their lives in Dor was so terrible that the camp was an upgrade. I’m not entirely sure which, but it still made me sad, considering that, though the setting was fictional, the situation is entirely too real.

The book is novella-length, so there is not a lot of depth in the world-building or characterization. On the former point, I wasn’t bothered at all. Once I got used to the melding of modern and primitive, I appreciated the way the author used it in the story. There were some allusions to culture and customs that made the setting feel real. For various reasons, I imagined the story to be taking place somewhere around the Middle East, but again, that is not specified. Regarding the characters, the history between Preen and Rama is basically empty. If I was meant to feel much at all about their relationship and whether or not Rama is alive, it’s very difficult when I know almost nothing about them.

I think the story is worthy of a good rating, but in the end, I think I am not quite the right audience for it. I’m not sorry I read it, however, and because my review may not be entirely helpful, I definitely suggest checking out what others have to say.

I received a copy of this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Home Song

Finished Reading: Home Song
Cape Light
#2
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

Home Song

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Cape Light.

Fall comes on strong in the quaint New England village, and relationships and dramas from the previous book are continued. The focus in this story is on 2 key people–Mayor Emily Warwick, who is busy with her re-election campaign, and Sara Franklin…the mayor’s long-lost daughter, who hasn’t actually told her birth mother that she’s the daughter she gave up 20+ years ago.

I gave Cape Light 3 stars, and was really happy to find this second book a huge improvement on the first. I liked the main characters so much more this time around, and the storylines were much more compelling. By the second half of the book, I was really caught up and highly anticipated seeing what would happen.

In the first book, the closest things to main characters were Jessica Warwick and Sam Morgan. Though many characters were introduced, and many story arcs were established, they were the driving force. Their romance was the story goal–the only thing that was tied up in that book. Their personalities suffered greatly because of the daunting task of setting out an entire town’s worth of characters and stories, so there wasn’t much time left to develop them or their relationship to my preference. Unfortunately, that made it all the worse that their relationship drama continued in this book. The fruition of it was good, but frankly, they both made me angry in this book. Fortunately, their parts were small.

In a similar vein, another romance that developed in this book was in some ways like a rehashing of the Jessica/Sam storyline of the previous book, wherein the woman didn’t want a relationship because she didn’t know how long she’d be in town. The big difference is that the two characters in this case had more depth. They had actual lives and their own stories to tell. I liked them so much more, and their story definitely took a different turn.

Other arcs that were set up in the first book were continued in this one in some way, or even came to fruition. Since unraveling the lives of the different people in this town was what made me care enough about the first book to want to continue the series, I was glad to see this happen. And there is still plenty more to carry my interest into the next book. I’m looking forward to the next much more than I was after finishing the first one, and now I feel safe recommending this book, and the one before it, to fans of Christian fiction, especially involving romance.

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Book Review: Cape Light

Cape Light
Book #1
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian romance, drama

Cape Light is a small, very connected, and generally religious New England village. In this first book of 20 (so far), we are introduced to some of the inhabitants of the village–the mayor and her family, who are still somewhat reeling from a scandal in the past; the local diner owner who is very set in his ways and has designs on unseating the mayor in the next election; the reverend and his wife, whose joyful news is overshadowed by a wayward family member. Characters are established and at least one romance blooms, in this book that covers a summer in Cape Light.

Though there are a lot of characters to keep straight, I found that it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I had a few moments that needed clarity, but I followed it well enough. And for the first half of the book, I was interested in the lives and backstories of these people. In fact, I never stopped being interested in that. But what seriously detracted from it was the plight of the main character and her romantic entanglement.

Jessica Warwick, the mayor’s sister, has recently moved back from not-too-far-away Boston, and she intends to return as soon as she can. She’s only in town to help her ailing mother, who is starting to recover well. She has a life back in Boston, and a sort-of boyfriend. Enter Sam Morgan, whom she is immediately taken by, though she refuses to acknowledge it for a long time. But when her boyfriend conveniently gets really busy, she starts dating Sam, even while making it clear that she’s moving back to Boston at the end of the summer. What follows is a ridiculously drama-filled mess that could have easily been solved in multiple ways. I don’t know which of these two irritated me more–the woman who dated a guy in town while knowing that she wasn’t done with the previous boyfriend yet and continued a relationship with a man who was clearly falling hard for her, despite her warning about there being no future, or the man who ignored her warning about there being no future because he held out hope that he could change her mind. Actually, I can safely say it was Jessica who irritated me more, because she was a pretty terrible person in general, and it was clear that her attraction to Sam was mostly physical for a while.

While romance novels are always pretty obvious, in that the two leads are going to end up together, I prefer those that are more in the backdrop to an interesting plot. There was little in the way of plot involving Jessica and Sam that wasn’t directly related to their relationship. The situations that occurred just to make them fall in love and/or add drama to their relationship were so much more obviously contrived than I prefer. By the end, I just wanted the book to be done already, which makes me sad, because I did enjoy unraveling the lives of the others in town.

The Christianity in the book was weirdly both shallow and heavily permeating. Apparently a large amount of the village’s inhabitants go to the same church, and many of them have a strong faith. Several others are seeking, and a lot of the same advice is given by different people. The series starts with 4 not-specifically-holiday books, but apparently by book 5, it continued as a Christmas series, which is what brought it to my attention at this time of year in the first place.

The writing was a bit pedestrian, but it only bothered me at times. I am going to give the series another chance, because just about every plot arc that was started in this book was left hanging, and I really do want to see what happens. Since the main thing that bothered me about this book should take a back seat in the future, I am hopeful about continuing. With proper planning, I can be ready for the first of the Christmas books by November or December.

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