The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

sam hellAuthor: Robert Dugoni

Publisher: Lake Union

Release Date: April 24, 2018

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

To call this book extraordinary won’t do it justice! Dugoni has written a coming of age story with some of the best character development I have ever read.

Sam Hill started life different than everyone else. He was born with red pupils and ended up with the nicknames, “Devil boy” or “Sam Hell”.  His mother didn’t want him to believe the derogatory things said about him. She told him that God had a plan for his life and to have faith in God’s will.  Nothing she said did any good to comfort Sam, but he kept his head high with the help of his mother’s faith, father’s guidance, and his two best friends.  Growing up in the time he did, it was hard to have red eyes, but it was even harder to have dark skin, which is what made Sam gravitate towards the new kid in school, Ernie Cantwell.  Ernie was the only African American kid in Sam’s class and needed a friend as bad as Sam did.  Mickie Kennedy rounded out their group and she was a force to be reckoned with.  As Sam grows into adulthood, he questions if everything is by a plan or not.  Sam looks back on the life he has lived and takes a journey through the past and around the world to figure his world out for himself.  By the time he finishes his journey, his eyes are truly open to what matters most.

Robert Dugoni is by far one of the best authors I know. His writing is one that will transport you into the story and have you walking hand in hand with the characters.  His Tracy Crosswhite series is one of my favorite series to date and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is going to be right up there with some of my all time favorites, but for very different reasons.  Usually my favorite reads are the suspense thrillers, page-turners that keep you guessing about what is going to happen until the very end.  With this book, it was more of an immersion into the characters unlike any other I have ever read. The character development throughout this story is better than any I have ever read.  Each character brings the story to life in their own special way.  Sam has so many challenges but it is nothing he can’t handle.  And having to face those challenges helps mold him into the kind of man he needs to be to help others, a lesson we can all learn from.  Dugoni is well known for his suspense thrillers and legal thrillers so I wasn’t sure how this new venture would turn out for him but am pleased to say this will easily make my list of best of the year reads.  I recommend this book to all readers, especially those looking for a story with heart and a lesson for all to learn.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Under a Cloudless Sky

Under a Cloudless SkyAuthor: Chris Fabry

Publisher: Tyndale

Release Date: January 9, 2018

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A remarkable story bringing past and present events that collide that can only be reconciled with forgiveness.

In 1933, the mining town of Beulah Mountain, West Virginia has it shares of ups and downs. The mine owners have the ups and the workers have the downs.  But not all owners are unfair.  Jacob Handley agreed to be a financial backer of the mine if he could put measures in place that would make it more fair for the workers, including housing, food and supplies from a company store, etc.  However, other members felt that increasing the bottom line was the primary goal by whatever means necessary.  Even so, a friendship between Handley’s daughter, Ruby, and one of the mine workers daughters named Bean struck up and became inseparable.  Through Bean’s mama and their church, Ruby became saved and was baptized.  They were inseparable, until an unfortunate series of events set a massacre in place that would change their lives forever.

Several decades later in 2004, Hollis Beasley is trying to prevent the land in Beulah Mountain from being bought out by Coalman Coal and Energy. Unfortunately, the company has deep pockets with roots in the tax appraisal office that is making it impossible for the land owners to pay taxes on their land, forcing many to sell.  Ruby Handley Freedman now lives in Kentucky and is fighting her children to keep her independence.  Having not been back to Beulah Mountain since the massacre, the town has changed and the historical society has refurbished her old childhood home above the company store as a museum.  Feeling the need to return for forgiveness as well as to prove to her children that she can still take care of herself, Ruby takes off with no notice to head to Beulah Mountain.  This decisions starts a series of events that will change everyone’s lives in Beulah Mountain just as the day she left.

I have never been disappointed in a book by Chris Fabry, so it comes as no surprise that I quickly devoured this one as well. With a resounding theme of forgiveness throughout the book, Fabry weaves a tragic story planted with a seed of hope.  I was so caught up in both stories that I couldn’t pick which one I wanted to follow more.  Fabry also did a great job taking me back to 2004 with the reference to Switchfoot as well as a few other tidbits such as internet browsers of the past.  You don’t realize how much your forget until you’re confronted with it again.  And yes, Meant to Live is still playing in my head now much like it did then.

Ruby’s story was humorous, suspenseful, and downright terrifying at times. To hear about the poor treatment of people at any time in history (or present) is never an enjoyable experience.  However, we must learn what happened or we are doomed to repeat it.  I also liked that he showed how people prefer to sugarcoat the bad and focus on the good.  By understanding this, we can look past the surface and see the hurt that people are facing.

I always enjoy books that allow me to have a bit of a prediction and this one was no exception. I’m happy to say that my prediction of the story came true.  However, there was a twist that also happened as part of the prediction, which made it even better.  Be sure to pick up a copy of this great new book for 2018.  You’ll be glad you did.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Bridges

BridgesAuthor: Maria Murnane

Series: Daphne White #2

Publisher: Wink’s Link

Release Date: April 4, 2017

Rating: 4 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

The three musketeers are back with some shocking surprises that may throw readers for a loop!

Daphne has taken control of her life and is using her journalism background to write a novel based on the trip she and her two friends took to the Caribbean. It’s a great book, but all the agents she has sent it off to don’t feel it is within their representation area.  Then on a surprise video chat, Skylar drops a bombshell, she is getting married!  The upcoming 4th or July weekend brings the three of them back together for a bachelorette party.  However, there are more surprises in the work from both KC and Skylar.  Just because they look like they’ve got it together, doesn’t mean they don’t have problems.

I’m so happy that I read the first book in this series because a lot of it builds off what happened there. And it’s always good to come back to loveable characters when you start a new book.  It’s like getting back together with old friends.  That was the case in this book, I was just one of the musketeers along for the ride.  Daphne is back in her insecure mode after she sees how Skylar actually lives.  And it gets the best of her a couple of times.  This book really goes deeper into the problems that Skylar and KC have and brings everyone to a common level more than the first book.  There were definitely a couple of shockers that the author dropped in, but that’s what makes it fun.  You will enjoy this one, I guarantee it.

There is some mild language and some implied sex, but nothing graphic. I recommend this book to those who love a good coming of older age story.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Wait for Rain

Wait for RainAuthor: Maria Murnane

Series: Daphne White #1

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

Release Date: February 24, 2015

Rating: 4 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A refreshing look at turning forty when life hasn’t gone as planned.

Daphne White has not lived the life she planned. She graduated with honors from Northwestern University in journalism and was ready to set the world on fire while winning a Pulitzer in the process.  Then she met Brian, slight sidetrack in plans but she was in love.  A few short months later brought a new daughter, Emma into her life.  Then she made the decision to be a stay at home mom and put her dreams on hold.  Fifteen years later, she and Brian grew apart and are divorced.  He is getting remarried, but she is stuck in a rut.   So when her two college friends suggest a girls getaway to the island of St. Mirika for Daphne’s fortieth birthday, she hopes the trip can help her put some perspective into her life.  But will being around old friends help her or make her feel worse compared to their accomplishments?

I wasn’t sure how this story was going to play out, but it is was really enjoyable. It centers around Daphne turning forty and feeling like a failure in her marriage and missing out professionally.  With the help of her workaholic friend Skylar and her super fit energetic friend KC, Daphne discovers how to move forward with her life.  She even manages to have her first date, maybe even a little more if you want to read to find out.  I’m sure many people feel the way that Daphne does and reading this book may help them put their life in perspective as well.

There is some mild language and some implied sex, but nothing graphic. I recommend this book to those who love a good coming of older age story.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Everything We Left Behind

everything we left behindAuthor: Kerry Lonsdale

Series: Everything We Keep #2

Publisher: Lake Union

Release Date: July 4, 2017

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

Filling in the gaps from Everything We Keep. This is a terrific series!

James Donato has just woken up to find himself in a strange room in Mexico with two young boys that speak only Spanish. When they realize that he is only speaking English and appears afraid and confused, they bring him a book full of journals and other information where he discovers that he has been living the last six years of his life as Carlos Dominguez, a talented artist who has two children and his wife died five years ago.  He also discovers that his fiancée Aimee has left him and is now married to someone else and they have a child together.  Crushed, he takes his sons back to California to see his brother Thomas and move into his childhood home when he learns that his other brother Phil is about to be released from prison after he attacked James in Mexico, which is believed to have caused the memory loss.  In an effort to keep his sons safe, James takes them to Hawaii to see his sister-in-law to try to understand what happened during the last five years.

This was a much needed book to finally understand what happened to James to make him Carlos and what happened to Carlos to switch him back to James. The epilogue of Everything We Keep matches the beginning of this book with James suddenly waking up to his alternate reality.  However, we as readers didn’t know what happened during that five-year period.  Now we do.  With an alternating story line between Carlos during the past and James in the present, the pieces begin to fit together and we find that James family is more screwed up than we thought possible.

James uses a lot of harsh language throughout this book, but he is very angry and confused and was believable. I felt that the romance in this book was a little more predictable.  During the previous, it was intense trying to figure out what Aimee was going to do.  However, this one played along really well.  The big question is would James and Raquel be able to find each other again after his switch.  However, I did not guess what was going to happen with Phil.  That was a surprise that I didn’t see coming.  I can’t wait for the next installment.

I received a complimentary copy of this book through the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

The Gypsy Moth Summer

Gypsy mothAuthor: Julia Fierro

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Release Date: June 6, 2017

Reviewer: Jennifer S. Roman

We all remember those summers of our youth, especially the ones in which we try to appear grown up while trying to fit in with the cool kids.  Maddie Pencott LaRosa tries to do just that the summer of ‘92 on a small island that is overwhelmingly white and divided by social class.  On the West side are the laborers of Grudder Aviation Factory, and on the East are the rich upper crust who run the factory.  Maddie’s mother comes from the East side, but after marrying Maddie’s abusive husband from the West side, they live in a small cottage off her grandparents’ estate with Maddie and her brother Dom.  Maddie wants more than anything to fit in with the rich girls at school, and she finally has an in.  When the prodigal daughter, Leslie Day Marshall moves back “home” after her parents’ deaths, she brings with her a black husband and mixed-race children.  Maddie immediately falls for Leslie’s son, Brooks, and invites him to hang out every night with her new friends.  Trouble starts happening for everyone involved as a historic gypsy moth “plague” invades the island and threatens to remove every bit of green within eyesight.

Told in six different perspectives, the story unfolds as each person brings secrets and revelations to the mix.  Maddie is hiding the fact that her mother is slowly killing herself with pills and alcohol, while her abusive father cheats on her mother.  Brooks, Leslie’s son, is not happy to be away from the city, where he is accepted and well-liked.  He feels uncomfortable around all the white people and is very careful.  Leslie has a mission of social justice now that she has her parents’ money and power.  Jules, Leslie’s black Ivy League-educated husband, is a botanist and works to revive the fabulous gardens at Leslie’s parents’ estate.  He doesn’t understand how Leslie can do the air-kiss socialite party thing when she is so quickly angered by these people’s actions towards the “help,” especially when they think Jules is the help.  Dom, Maddie’s brother, is a bit of an outcast and lives on the fringe of the island.  He drinks whenever he can and suspects he is gay, which makes him feel even worse about himself.  Veronica, Maddie’s grandmother, is hiding her terminal breast cancer diagnosis while keeping track of her dementia-riddled husband Bob, AKA the Colonel, as he wanders their property with a gun in tow.  Veronica has lived her life as a society woman and now realizes how fake her life is, so she vows to make some life-changing decisions that will hopefully benefit her grandchildren before it is too late.

There is so much going on in this 400-page book so I was glad I started it way before this review was due.  It brought back a lot of memories as I also was a teen (albeit a bit older) during the 90s and experienced many of the same world events as these people did.  The characters were appealing and interesting, and while not all were likeable, they were as the author intended.  It was easy to feel empathy for Dom and Maddie living the lives they did, and although at first Veronica was unbearable, she evolved into a person I was rooting for until the very end.  Brooks and Jules were quickly likeable, and one had to feel for them as they entered a very challenging world that would eventually make them miserable.  Each character had good traits and bad ones to make them interesting.

The story itself was interesting, but at times it either plodded along or had so much going on that it was difficult to follow.  For example, without giving away spoilers, first this would happen, then this happened, then something else happened, then another thing happened.  It was almost as if the author could not decide which challenge to throw at the characters, so she threw several of them at her.  Considering the book was long, there were plenty of opportunities to throw some wrenches into the system, yet they all seemed to happen at the end of the book and really didn’t do much for the story.  I did enjoy the overall premise of the book, but again, these wrenches thrown into the system detracted from how great it could have been.  I would have loved to have seen a little bit more focus on Leslie’s family and its story and how it related to her return to the island.  I would still recommend this book to friends, but would let them know my reservations about the second half.

This is a book that touches on a variety of hot topics and therefore contains violence, sex, and foul language.  For this reason, I recommend this book for mature readers.  Fans of coming of age stories, the 1990s, and family dysfunction will enjoy this book.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

The Runaway

The RunawayAuthor: Claire Wong

Publisher: Lion Fiction

Release Date: February 17, 2017

Rating: 4 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

One small move of defiance can send a full village out of control.

Seventeen-year-old Rhiannon Morgan has finally had her fill of her aunt. She’s tired of her small village’s hypocrisy, especially from her Aunt Diana.  So, she takes matters into her own hands and sets off to live in the woods a short distance from the village.  Once there, she begins to craft her own imaginary world full of stories of heroes that she learned from the village storyteller.  But back in the village, life begins to unravel for many of its occupants.   A dark secret from the past begins to reveal itself causing a chain reaction that could ensure that history repeats itself.

This was a fascinating debut novel. Wong really brought the character of Rhiannon to life in a relatable way.  Being essentially orphaned and having to live with her Aunt’s family and the uncle that she actually made a connection with died a few short years later.  Now she has developed a thick skin, she pushes people away rather than being accepted by them.  Diana too developed a habit of pushing people away, but also bullied others into getting her way as a leader.  The story is ultimately about forgiveness in many different fashions.

I liked that the stories that the children were told were actually based on fact rather than myth, but isn’t that always the case? Just because something seems farfetched or not attainable doesn’t mean that it is true.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.