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.

Freedom’s Price

FreedomAuthor: Christine Johnson

Series: Keys of Promise #3

Publisher: Revell

Release Date: June 6, 2017

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

Can Pirates of the Caribbean characters come to life in an alternate book?  

Catherine Haynes is facing a difficult situation. With both of her parents now deceased, her cousin has taking control of their estate, but must pay a stipend to Catherine until she is wed.  Now he is in a hurry to get her married and sell the estate.  Rather than succumb to his wishes, Catherine decides to take a severance from him and sail to her mother’s homeland of Louisiana to meet the family that doesn’t know she exists.  Along the way, she is shipwrecked on the island of Key West, where she meets dashing Captain Tom Worthington, who may be the only man she has met that can match her wit, which infuriates her more.  Even so, Catherine and Tom find themselves drawn to one another even though each has their own plans.  Would it be better to stay with Tom in Key West or venture to an uncertain future in New Orleans?

This was a fun historical fiction read that had me picturing Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann from Pirates of the Caribbean. Not because of their situation, but because of their personalities.  There was lots of fun, wit, and action throughout the book.  But there were also valuable lessons learned about trust and love.  Johnson did a great job of setting the scene in pre-Civil War New Orleans.  I hadn’t realized that England had already abolished slavery by that time period, so I was happy to get to do some research based on the book.  I also love the Key West area, so anytime I get to go there in my mind is well worth it.

Even though this was the third in the series, it is easily a standalone. I recommend reading it even without a copy of the first two.

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

Before We Were Yours

Before we were yoursAuthor: Lisa Wingate

Publisher: Ballantine

Release Date: June 6, 2017

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

Another fantastic past/present collision story produced by Wingate! This one will make you cry!

Set in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee, Rill Foss and her younger siblings all live with their parents on a riverboat. The great depression has hit several folks hard, but living on the river can get you by if you all love one another.  Their mother is now pregnant with twins and several complications have arisen, so much so that a local midwife won’t help her deliver the babies on the boat.  Forced with a tough decision, their father leaves twelve-year-old Rill in charge of the kids and takes their mother to a hospital.  But in the morning light, a police officer shows up to take the kids to their parents saying that the twins have died, but actually delivers them to the Tennessee Children’s Home.  Once there, Rill begins to realize that the orphanage intends to see all the children into adoption.  Can she keep her family together and get back to their parents?

Fast-forward to present day in Aiken, South Carolina, Avery Stafford is beginning the process she was groomed for, to take over her father’s senate seat. She achieved a law degree and was fast tracked with the US attorney’s office, but her father got cancer and is starting to have to slow down in order to keep his health.  Worse, they have recently had to put her grandmother in a nursing home for Alzheimer’s disease and this has become a hot button on the candidacy due to conditions of lower income nursing homes.  While visiting one of the nursing homes, one of the residents appears to recognize Avery as part of her past and steals her bracelet, which her grandmother gave her.  When she comes back to collect it, she sees a picture in the woman’s room with her grandmother in it.  What secrets was her grandmother involved in?

As expected, Lisa Wingate has written another phenomenal book combining connected lives of the past and present. I’ve enjoyed several of her previous series, which often make me emotional, but this one really struck a nerve.  The book is based on an actual organization that operated as a black-market adoption ring in Memphis called the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which was operated by Georgia Tann.  The last national interest in this organization was about 25 years ago and has been somewhat forgotten by today’s society, as have many other events that are worthy to note.  But Wingate has resurrected this with passion.  I hope that everyone who reads this book will go do some research on the organization and get an idea of what atrocities were committed.  With two young boys of my own, this really hit home for me.  I don’t know what I would have done had it happened.  I may have ended up just like Quennie.

Wingate’s writing and character developed are superb as usual. She manages to take the reader back in time to understand the scene as well as easily transition back to present day.  I have been looking forward to this book for a long time and I’m glad that I read it.  I hope you will read it too!

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

Naomi’s Hope

Naomi's HopeAuthor: Jan Drexler

Series: Journey to Pleasant Prairie #3

Publisher: Revell

Release Date: June 6, 2017

Reviewer: Jennifer S. Roman

The third and final installment in the Journey to Pleasant Prairie series finds a newcomer, Cap Stoltzfus, joining the two groups of Amish who have arrived in LaGrange County, Indiana, in the 1840s.  One group is from Ohio, and one group is from Pennsylvania.  Although one group is considered more progressive than the other, they live and work together across a wide area separated by marsh and forest.  They make miles-long treks on Sundays for church services and during the week to help their neighbors with chores.  Cap finds himself settling in nicely, and is especially happy when he meets Naomi Schrock, a single girl who lives with her family and son near Cap’s new cabin.  She has rescued a young boy whose family perished in a deadly storm, and even though her neighbors accept it, some people gossip that the boy, Davey, is the product of a sinful relationship.  Cap is determined to get to know Naomi while finding out the truth of Davey’s coming to live with Naomi.

Meanwhile, a new preacher has arrived in the settlement, and he brings back horrible memories for Cap.  Shem Fischer used to bully Cap when they were boys, and while Cap does his best to forgive Shem and put that experience in the past, he can’t help but feel that Shem is stirring up trouble throughout the settlement.  Rumors fly, people refuse to help one another, and there is talk of breaking the church into two different sects.  Shem seems to be behind all of it, but Cap has no proof.  It’s up to the other members of the church to see Shem for his bad behavior and keep him in check.

I have enjoyed the first two books in this series, so I was excited to read the final book, as well.  I have to admit that I had no idea there could be such Peyton Place-like drama playing out in an Amish settlement in the middle of Indiana, but after reading this book, it’s a whole new possibility.  People are quarreling over where to hold church, how to plant and harvest crops, and what to serve for Sunday dinner.  Married people have their eyes on someone other than their spouses, and rumors fly like birds.  This is probably not typical of the average Amish settlement, but in this book, it was quite common.  While the Amish are not immune to drama and conflicting personalities, it seems like this is an awful lot for a small new community.

I enjoyed the characters this book has, including the many newcomers.  Several main characters and side characters have personal conflicts that need to be addressed, and they realize that until they give them up to God, the issues won’t go away.  This causes stress in a few relationships, and the people involved learn how to work together instead of apart.  There are many lessons for the characters to earn, the biggest being to trust God above all others.  While some of the drama may be a bit over-the-top, the storylines and true commitment to living a simple life make the book a worthwhile read.

This is a charming book that does not contain violence, sex, or foul language.  For this reason, I recommend this book for young adult readers and up.  Fans of Amish fiction, Amish romance, or a good clean story about the settling of America will enjoy the story.

Riverbend Reunion

Riverbend ReunionAuthor: Henry McLaughlin

Series: Riverbend Saga #3

Publisher: CreateSpace

Release Date: December 14, 2016

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

The third book in the Riverbend Saga brings Michael Archer back to what he has been running from for years and is the best in the series!

Michael Archer feels like the luckiest man in the world. He has just married, Rachel, the woman he is madly in love with, and they have a bright future to look forward to.  He has finally decided to settle down after running from his past for years.  But when he receives a cryptic telegram from his sister Ellie telling him to come home, he feels led to go.  He is hesitant to go because the last time he was home he was saving his sister from their father, who he then stabbed with a pitchfork.  Thinking he had killed his father he runs and doesn’t look back.  Going back might just be the hardest thing he has ever had to do.

After reading all three books in the Riverbend Saga, I can easily say that Riverbend Reunion is the best.  The first two focus on Michael and all he goes through.  With the third, it starts with his sister Ellie and what led to Michael leaving home.  The story then continues for almost a third of the book with Ellie before switching back to Michael. I thought this was an interesting approach, keeping the main character from the first two books mostly absent till a third of the way through, but it worked.  I enjoyed getting the story of Ellie and how she handled all she went through before going back to Michael.  His story in Riverbend was fleshed out enough that it was easy for him to leave and go home to deal with the family issues he had been harboring for years.  I can tell that McLaughlin is growing and improving as a writer with each new book.  The characters are relatable and the story itself is much more tight with the suspense in just the right places.  I’m not sure if there is going to be another in the series, not only do I see potential with a few of the characters being delved into a little further, but also feel it has been wrapped up well if this is the end.  The nice thing about this book was there were no spots were the story came to a stop and I felt like I wanted to be done, I was invested and wanted to see what happened with the characters.  Overall it was very well written and I will be recommending this to readers that enjoy a good western tale with a lot of suspense and redemption throughout.

Riverbend Justice

Riverbend JusticeAuthor: Henry McLaughlin

Series: Riverbend Saga #2

Publisher: CreateSpace

Release Date: January 6, 2016

Rating: 4 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

With more action and suspense than the first, this new installment is sure to be a hit with readers.

Michael Archer is having a hard time getting over the guilt of having taken a life, even if it was to try and save another. Before dying, Sam Carstairs asked Michael to clear the name of his son Ben, the original reason for Michael coming to Riverbend.  After dealing with his demons, he and a few new friends head to try and clear Ben’s name.  It is going to be harder than they could have imagined, records are missing and more bodies keep turning up.  It takes Michael being shot and beaten up, a young girl kidnapped, and hurting the girl he is falling in love with to make him put aside all his pain and fears to get to the bottom of what is going on.

Henry McLaughlin has followed up his hit debut novel with an even better, more suspenseful sequel, Riverbend Justice.  At first, I got a little tired of Michael and his attitude of self-pity; luckily, it quickly changed and he became the man he should be.  The mystery of what Michael was trying to solve was even more interesting here than the first.  The characters flowed well with each other and the entire story.  There is a faith message throughout, but also a lot of action.  I do feel this book is more developed than the first in several ways.  Even though it is independently published instead of with a publishing house, the story touches a nerve and keeps you into the story because of the feelings and emotions it brings up.  McLaughlin does a great job bringing you back to the old west with the language he uses to set up the scenes and the characters.  Michael and Rachel are right for each other, that is obvious from the first book. In Riverbend Justice, I found myself connecting more and more with Rachel; she has had a hard past but has turned herself into a strong, independent woman that is not only capable of taking care of herself but also helping to take care of those around her, my kind of lady.  Overall this was a very enjoyable read that I will recommend to lovers of western romances with a nice dose of suspense thrown in for good measure.

Journey to Riverbend

Journey to RiverbendAuthor: Henry McLaughlin

Series: Riverbend Saga #1

Publisher: Tyndale

Release Date: January 24, 2011

Rating: 4 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A Christian western with a lot of gunslingers, kidnappings and much more to enjoy.

After unsuccessfully trying to stop the hanging of a man, Michael Archer has a mission. He promised Ben Carstairs that he would find his father for him and try to reconcile with him, even though he is being hung for a crime he didn’t commit.  Michael tried to stop it but couldn’t get the evidence he needed.  Now Michael must travel to the town of Riverbend to find Sam Carstairs, a ruthless business man that kicked his son Ben out and isn’t likely to give Michael the time of day.  As he arrives in Riverbend, Michael meets and quickly finds himself attracted to Rachel Stone who is running from her past and is hesitant to start any kind of relationship.  Sam Carstairs isn’t in town and Michael waits for him.  Soon word gets to town that Sam has been kidnapped on his way home and Michael feels led to join the search party to find Sam and bring the news of his son.  It is a dangerous road ahead and not everyone will make it home alive.

This was the winner of the Christian Writing Guild’s Operation First Novel contest. The writing is well done and the characters are very relatable.  I did feel that it had some unneeded content, especially in the last third where the action needed to pick up speed and instead stalled.  There were a lot of characters, that is a hard thing to pull off and I think it could have helped to cut out about half of them, especially with the search party scenes.  The overall concept of the novel was good, having the characters consider the actions they take and the consequences to their choices.  Even though this is a historical novel, these concepts can be applied to everyday life and we can all learn from the characters and how they deal with their actions and the consequences.  As a debut novel, this was very well done and I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction with a good message.