Just 18 Summers

Just 18 Summers by Michelle Cox and Rene Gutteridge is a novel that tells the story of four families.

Butch Browning’s wife, Jenny, has recently passed away, and Butch is in a fog. Jenny had taken care of so many things, especially their young daughter, Ava. Butch owns a construction company and feels the weight of responsibility much more than when he was just another worker. But at home, the most he can manage is pizza every night.

Beth is Butch’s sister, married with three children. Her oldest daughter is in college and her oldest son is heading there next fall. In the midst of distress over her emptying nest, her daughter throws the family a curve ball: she wants to quit college and get married . . . to the pizza delivery guy.

Tippy is Butch’s foreman, and he and his wife, Daphne, are expecting their first child. But Daphne has gone off the deep end in trying to do everything possible to protect their child: reading every book she can find, covering every corner with pool noodles, forbidding certain foods from their home, etc., etc. etc.Her obsession is affecting their marriage, and Tippy can’t fathom how they’ll cope when the baby actually comes.

Helen and Charles Buckley are Beth’s neighbors, and the wives of all these families attend the scrapbooking get-together that Jenny started and which currently meets at Helen’s home. Charles has an excellent job, and Helen is determined to provide their children the very best opportunities so they’ll never be deprived or embarrassed like she was growing up. But Charles’ business responsibilities keep him from being an active part of his children’s lives, and Helen’s driven and regimented schedule for her children misses their deepest needs.

One theme in this book is that parents have a relatively short time—just 18 summers–to form relationships with their children, make lasting memories, and be the primary influence to their children. It goes so fast. Though, of course, we still have a relationship and make memories even after our children leave home, we have the biggest hand in their training when they are young.

Another theme is that there is only so much parents can control. As children become old enough to make their own decisions, those decisions may not be in keeping with what the parents think best. As Daphne discovers, we can’t protect our children from every little thing. Though we seek God’s will and do our best, ultimately our children’s lives are in God’s hands.

The book illustrates both points with humor and poignancy.

Though Jenny seems to have been almost too good to be true, and though Ava seems more capable than a child her age would normally be, all the characters are realistic and enjoyable.

I don’t think I’ve ever read Rene before. And though this is my first book of Michelle’s as well, I enjoyed attending one of her workshops at a writer’s conference. That conference also held a “Lightning Learning” session–kind of like speed dating–where three or four attendees would go in groups to an author’s table, hear their words of wisdom for 5 minutes, then go on to another table when a bell rang. I remember Michelle’s table being particularly merry.

Michelle explains in notes at the back of the book that Just 18 Summers was originally a screen play written by herself, Marshall Younger, and Torry Martin, and they were seeking funding to make the movie. I don’t know if it was ever made—I couldn’t find any videos of it.

As I searched for Michelle’s web site, I discovered there is another Michelle Cox, also an author, who writes in a different genre. The Michelle Cox who co-wrote 18 Summers also writes devotional books based on the When Calls the Heart TV series.

Overall I thought this was a great, enjoyable book. Though it has a point to make, it’s not didactic or heavy-handed. Since my own children are “out of the nest,” I can “amen” the truths in this book.

Book Review: The Road Home

In Malissa Chapin’s debut novel, The Road Home, Cadence Audley has started a new life with a new name—for the second time. Her past has dogged her steps, but she’s determined to lead a quiet, peaceful life in Deercrest, Wisconsin. She’s found a good job as a barista with a great boss. Antique stores in the area fulfill her taste for vintage purchases.

On one such shopping trip, Cadence finds an old recipe box filled with hand-written recipes. Her coworker Googles the name written inside the box and found that the owner had lived in town. Thinking to return a valued heirloom, Cadence finds Fredonia, the middle-aged daughter of the recipe box owner. Fredonia had donated the recipe box in the first place and is not thrilled to see it again—or Cadence, for that matter. But, upon learning that Cadence likes antiques, Fredonia invites the younger woman to drive with her to Kentucky to help clean out her mother’s home.

Fredonia’s offer comes just in time, because Cadence’s past has caught up with her—again.

This is a split-time novel. The second timeline belongs to Ida Beale Evans, owner of the recipe box. She had been a banker’s daughter in Indiana when she married her sweetheart, Bud, and moved with him to his new pastorate in Kentucky. Though she enjoys life as a country preacher’s wife, she has one sorrow. Suddenly one night, her deepest desire is unexpectedly fulfilled—but to keep it will call for a lifetime of secrecy.

Though Ida is a Christian and Cadence is not, both women struggle with trusting that the truth will set them free. The truth seems like it will destroy them. But Cadence has come to the end of her road. Can she escape and start over yet again? Or must she face her past and its consequences, even though doing so means losing everything she holds dear? Can she trust the young preacher who tells her, “Your sin caused problems everywhere, but God is bigger than this. He’s big enough to help you live a new life” (Location 3415, Kindle version).

I enjoyed following the journey of both women and the truths they learned. I also enjoyed the sense of place in the book, especially the Kentucky sections. There was a nice mix of both funny and poignant moments in the story. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes from Ida Beale’s box. It was fun to learn on Malissa’s blog what inspired the pink Cadillac road trip in the book and to peruse her Pinterest board for the people and items that inspired or contributed to the story.

As of this writing, the Kindle edition is $2.99, but a paperback version is also available.

Book Review: Half-Finished

In Lauraine Snelling’s novel, Half Finished, two friends get fed up with all their half-done craft projects and decide to do something about it. One, Roxie, had heard about UFO clubs—not for discovering alien life, but for finishing UnFinished Objects, or projects in their case. They discuss the idea with a few other friends and decide on a time to meet together with each choosing one project to work on while they meet.

As word of the UFO club spreads, more people want in on it—because who doesn’t have unfinished projects of some kind. Soon there are morning and evening clubs at several different locations. Even some of the men get it on the meetings.

But the clubs grow beyond projects. Relationships form and people band together to help each other through the sorrows and joys they encounter.

Lauraine said in her afterword that the book was inspired by such a UFO club in her own town. And this story brought up fond memories of a group of women who did something similar in my early married days. We didn’t focus on unfinished projects—though that’s what they were. But it wasn’t a matter of projects that had been lying around for years. We were too young to have many like that. We just met to spend some time fellowshipping while working on our various projects. We’d rotate houses, and ladies would take turns bringing snacks. I always felt we were a little inspired by the sisters in the Little Women sequels, who would meet together and visit with each other while doing their mending. I was sorry to see our group disbanded after a while: I think some of the ladies felt guilty spending time working on crafts during the day.

The beginning of the book was hard to get into: it was very busy. There were so many characters, they and their families were hard to keep straight. Plus the pages seemed to be stuffed with unnecessary details. For instance, there was one paragraph all about one woman’s two credit cards and which she used for what and why she was using the one she did for a purchase that day. Unless something about the credit cards was going to come up later in the story, there was no need to know any of that, or even that she paid for the purchase with a credit card. I don’t remember seeing that kind of thing in any of Lauraine’s other books.

But once the narrative settled down into a few of the main characters’ stories, the book became more enjoyable. There’s Roxie, a widowed real estate agent and a founding member of the UFO club. She has a grown daughter, Loren, who lives with her. Fred and Ginny own a farm and share their bounty with others. Their son and his family live nearby, and they enjoy getting together often. Their granddaughter, Addy, is an expert cookie baker. Amalia is one of my favorite characters: she is widowed and sold her own farm to live in senior apartments. But, even though she couldn’t keep up with the farm alone, she’s still able-bodied and mentally sound. She spends her days helping out some of the other seniors with physical needs or her friends.

One of the themes of the book is that we’re all half-finished projects. We’re all in a state of growth. So we need to be patient with ourselves and each other, but we also need to keep growing and learning.

Book Review: The Nature of a Lady

In The Nature of a Lady by Roseanna M. White, Lady Elizabeth Sinclair prefers microscopes to ballrooms. She never feels she fits in with her peers. Her best friend is her maid, Mabena. Libby’s brother wants to marry her off to Lord Sheridan so she’s “taken care of.” Sheridan would at least tolerate her eccentricities. But is that she can expect out of life—toleration?

Libby decides to take Mabena on a summer holiday to the Isles of Scilly, where Mabena is from. While she’s away, Libby hopes Sheridan will see that they can’t possibly get married. She rents a cottage and discovers the previous occupant had also been named Elisabeth and had left suddenly with no explanation.

Then Libby begins receiving packages and notes that must be for the other Elizabeth. But one contains a cannonball, of all things.

Then a young man shows up at her doorstep demanding to know where his sister is. And this young man somehow knows Mabena.

Oliver Tremayne is a vicar and a gentleman, but most of the family’s wealth was spent on his brother’s illness. He’s exasperated with his sister, Beth. She was supposed to write him twice a week, but he hasn’t heard from her in two weeks. He’s afraid Beth’s absence is aggravating his grandmother’s dementia. He’d told Beth he’d stay away and giver her her freedom while on Holiday, but he has to make sure she is all right. Imagination his surprise, then, when someone other than his sister opens her door at his knock—someone he has met before, someone with Mabena.

Besides the mysteries of what happened to Beth and how everyone knows Mabena, other unexplained happenings include strange noises on one of the islands, a white figure, odd notations in an old book, pirate treasure, and past princes.

Meanwhile, Libby feels more at home in the isles than she has ever felt in her life. But can she ever convince her brother to let her stay?

One mystery to me: why the cover portrays Libby as dark-haired, when she’s repeatedly described as blonde and fair in the book.

I had never heard of the Isles of Scilly before listening to this book, and I enjoyed learning about them. The puzzles and mysteries in the book were intriguing, though I think I lost a couple of the threads before it was all over–probably a result of listening to the audiobook rather than reading the book, which made it harder to go back and trace some things. I liked the threads about being who God created you to be and the fact that science and faith aren’t enemies (though Libby seemed to accept evolution as fact, which I would disagree with).

I can’t say I enjoyed this story quite as much as Roseanna’s other books I’ve read, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. And I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

Book Review: Hidden Among the Stars

In Austria in 1938, Annika Knopf is the daughter of the caretaker of the Dornbach family’s castle in Hallstatt. She and the Dornbach’s only son, Max, have been friends since childhood. But now they are grown, and she has quietly loved him for a long time.

When Annika discovers Max is hiding treasures of their Jewish friends on the estate grounds, she wants to help. Max wants to protect her as much as possible, but the time comes when he must accept her offer.

Max has never seen Annika as anything but a good friend. He’s in love with Luzia Weiss, a beautiful and brilliant violinist with the local orchestra. The Dornbach and Weiss families have been friends for years. But as Hitler’s forces advance, it’s not healthy to associate with Jews like the Weiss family. Max loves Luzia still and looks for ways to avoid fighting for the Reich and to get Luzia and her family out of Austria before it’s too late. In the meantime, he brings Luzia to the family’s lake castle to hide and asks Annika to watch over Luzia.

In modern times, Callie Randall runs a book store with her sister. Her tumultuous early life, with rejection from both parents and and betrayal by her fiance, has turned her naturally introverted character into someone who enjoys hiding out and is afraid of . . . almost everything except her job and shop.

Callie’s sister gifts her an early edition copy of Bambi, and Callie finds within its pages a list of items in the same script as the book’s font. The name written in the front is Annika Knopf. Callie begins an Internet search, hoping to reunite the book with Annika or someone in her family. But Callie discovers Annika’s story may intersect with Charlotte, the woman who took Callie and her sister in and whom she loves like a mother. Callie yearns to find Annika and restore to Charlotte something of her lost history. But first she must find the courage to step outside her safe haven.

I had read several WWII-era books this year, and was determined to read something from a different time. I love stories from that era, but I was starting to get a little tired of it. However, when I read the description of Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson, I had to read it next. A main character with a personalty similar to mine, a bookstore owner, mention of several classic children’s books, a castle on a lake—all these drew me in. And I am glad. I think this might be my favorite of Melanie’s books so far—and that’s saying something, because I’ve enjoyed all I’ve read from her.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Nancy Peterson. Unfortunately, the audio version didn’t include any back matter that books sometimes have about the author’s inspiration for writing, historical research, etc. However, I did find that information on Melanie’s site here. There really is an abandoned castle in Hallstatt! I enjoyed hearing about Melanie’s trip there.

I’m pretty sure this will be one of my top ten books of the year. Highly recommended.

Unconditional

Unconditional by Eva Marie Everson is based on a movie by the same name, which in turn was based on true events.

Samantha Crawford loves her life, living on a ranch with her beloved husband, Billy, riding her horses, and writing and sketching children’s books.

Then tragedy strikes. Billy is gunned down in an alley in a poor part of town.

Samantha loses her belief in God’s love and goodness. She doesn’t write any more.

At her lowest point, Samantha encounters a child hurt by a hit-and-run driver. Taking the child and the child’s brother to the hospital, Samantha runs into one of the children’s neighbors—her best from from school, Joe Bradford.

As Samantha reconnects with Joe, she learns he has kidney disease. But he spends his time ministering to the children in his neighborhood. He and his girlfriend, Denise, provide after-school snacks, attention, affirmation, and encouragement. But Joe’s time is running out unless he can get a kidney transplant.

Observing Joe’s simple faith and ministry, Samantha’s heart starts to warm again. But she’s also driven to find her husband’s murderer, convinced that the police have given up on the case. And she thinks she just may have found him—in Joe’s neighborhood.

I had not heard of the movie, but picked up this book on a Kindle sale because I had enjoyed some of Eva Marie Everson’s books. I didn’t know when I started reading it that it was based on a true story. “Papa Joe” Bradford started Elijah’s Heart to aid at-risk children.

Finding out the story was true made it even more heart-warming and inspirational than it already was. In an interview, Joe Bradford says about 97% of film is true to his life and the Samantha character is a composite of different friends.

The movie used to be on Netflix, but isn’t any more. However, it’s online here and on YouTube here. I enjoyed watching it last night. The book uses scenes and dialogue from the movie, but includes more information. Here’s a trailer for the film:

Have you seen or read Unconditional? If not, I hope you do.

A Southern Season: Stories from a Front Porch Swing

I picked up A Southern Season: Stories from a Front Porch Swing because I liked the title and concept. Plus, I had read several books by one of the authors, Eva Marie Everson, and heard her speak at a writer’s conference I attended virtually.

The book contains four novellas written by different authors. Each story takes place in the South in different seasons.

the first is Ice Melts in Spring by Linda W. Yezak. Since her husband’s drowning, Kerry Graham had avoided the coast. But now she has been requested by a reclusive author to come and catalog the items the author is donating to the museum Kerry works for. As the author lets down her guard and shares from her life, Kerry finds they have more in common than she knew.

In Lillie Beth by Eva Marie Everson, Lillie Beth was overjoyed not only to fall in love, but to escape her abusive home life. After she married David, Lillie Beth lives with David’s Granny while he goes to Viet Nam. But David doesn’t come home: he is killed in action.

Meanwhile, a Dr. Gillespie comes to town to help and then replace the town doctor. Dr. Gillespie’s wife had died, and he feels God has abandoned him. As the doctor helps Lillie when Granny is dying, he sees Lillie Beth’s simple faith and strength of character.

In Through an Autumn Window by Claire Fullerton, Cate returns to her Memphis hometown after her mother passes away. Her brother perpetuates their sibling rivalry until the two of them face a common enemy.

In A Magnolia Blooms in Winter by Ane Mulligan, Morgan James is living her dream as a Broadway actress. It was harder to break in than she thought. While waiting to hear whether she got her first leading part, her mother calls her home. The man leading the Christmas play has been injured. Since Morgan wrote the play, and her mother is responsible for the man’s accident, her mother asks Morgan to come help out. Morgan finds unexpected joy in directing the play and helping other young actors. When she reconnects with an old flame, she struggles with the thought of giving up what she thought was a God-given dream to act on Broadway. But could God have given her that dream for a specific purpose and season?

I enjoyed all these stories. Some were sad, some were funny. All were poignant and hopeful. The title fit well: this was a good book for summer evenings.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

The Summer Kitchen

The Summer Kitchen by Lisa Wingate opens with SandraKaye Darden meeting a realtor at her Uncle Poppy’s house. Poppy had been tragically killed in a robbery just a few months before. The police had no new leads in his case. It was time to sell the house and move on.

The house was old and had not been well-kept due to Poppy’s advanced age. But SandraKaye can’t quite let it go yet. This house was a safe haven for her as a child when her mother’s mood swings and substance abuse were too much to bear. Though it doesn’t really make sense, Sandra decides to paint the kitchen cabinets. But she doesn’t tell her family or her pushy best friend.

Though outwardly Sandra looks affluent, she feels her world is crumbling. Her husband, a successful doctor, is rarely home. Neither is her youngest son, Christopher, who is struggling but won’t open up to her. And her oldest son, Jake, fled after Poppy’s funeral. Jake blamed himself: if Jake had been with Poppy, as he usually was that time of the week, perhaps Poppy would still be alive now. Jake’s car was found at the airport, and they suspect he went back to his native Guatemala, from which he had been adopted as a young boy.

As Sandra works in Poppy’s house, some of the neighborhood faces become familiar. The pre-teen wanna-be thugs who roam the streets. The disabled elderly lady. The kids who run around unsupervised. The family of Hispanic people across the street. And the teen girl who looks 13 going on 30.

The teen girl, Cass, lives with her brother, Rusty. Their mother died, and they didn’t want to live with “creepy Roger,” their mother’s boyfriend. So they ran away. Rusty, age 17, finds work to support them, and Cass tries to make ends meet in their cheap apartment. They lie about their ages so that social services won’t find and separate them.

One day when SandraKaye chases some young children from the dumpster, she realizes they were probably scavenging for food. She decides to bring peanut butter sandwiches the next day. That starts a regular routine. Cass begins helping, mainly in order to have access to those sandwiches. The two women form a relationship that changes both their lives.

I picked this book up on a two-for-one audiobook sale because I loved Wingate’s Carolina Chronicles series so much. This book, however, started extremely slowly. Then a crude reference and a bad word caused me to set it aside and listen to another book instead. I decided to come back to it later, and I am glad I did, because I enjoyed the latter half much more.

The slowness was not just the beginning plot. The narrators also seemed slow. The point of view goes back and forth between Sandra and Cass, and the story is set in Texas. I grew up in TX and don’t recall anyone there speaking as slowly as these narrators. It finally occurred to me to speed up the audiobook to 1.2. That helped a great deal without distorting the voices.

I was very disappointed to see the crude reference and bad word in one of Lisa’s books. I hope this doesn’t become a trend. Both were quite unnecessary. I got from the rest of Lisa’s description that the neighborhood Poppy and Cass lived in was seedy. There was no need to throw those elements in for realism or grit.

But I did appreciate SandraKaye’s realization that she didn’t have to retreat into a shell. It was good to see her world opening up to see the needs of others, not just as statistics, but as real people.

I especially liked how Sandra went from asking herself “Aren’t there programs to help these people?” to doing what she could personally.

I was also very satisfied with how the story ended. There were a couple of ways it might have that would have been nice but implausible. I think Lisa ended it the best way possible to be both realistic and gratifying.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Heaven Sent Rain

In the novel Heaven Sent Rain by Lauraine Snelling, Dinah Taylor is a scientist who started her own company of food supplements to improve health. Her job, her life, her all-white condo and wardrobe are perfectly ordered.

One day at her usual breakfast stop, she sees a small boy and his dog sitting out in front. They look shabby, but not dirty. Dinah offers to buy the boy, Jonah, breakfast, and he accepts. Then he’s at the same place the next day, and then every day thereafter. Dinah tries to find out his background, imagining everything from a drug-infested home to neglect. But Jonah evades her questions.

Then in the middle of one night, Dinah receives a frantic phone call. Jonah’s dog is badly injured. Can she help?

Dinah isn’t sure what she’s getting into, but she can’t refuse. Searching for an emergency vet clinic open that time of night, she takes Jonah and his dog in. They are met by veterinarian Garret Miller, who seems warm and kind toward Jonah and the dog, but icy toward Dinah.

As Dinah continues to help Jonah, she gets in over her head. As she, Jonah, and Garret interact, their lives change.

Most of the other books I’ve read by Lauraine were historical fiction about Norwegian immigrants. I didn’t think I had read any of her contemporary fiction, but then remembered I had read Someday Home a couple of years ago.

I loved the way Dinah’s story unfolded, with the author revealing just a bit at a time until the whole picture came into view. Garret is an enjoyable character, too, after getting past his initial standoffishness, which is explained later.

Dinah is not a Christian, having rejected her parents’ teaching and beliefs. The details of that situation are gradually revealed, too. Garret and Jonah are both believers, as is Dinah’s receptionist. But the faith element felt very natural and not forced.

I thought the ending wrapped up a bit too quickly, and I had a theological quibble with one sentence. But overall I really enjoyed the book.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Two Short Fiction Reviews

In The Sign Painter by Davis Bunn, Amy Dowell has fallen on hard times. Her husband died and she lost her home. Now she travels in a camper with her young daughter. After charges of vagrancy and the threat of having her daughter taken away, she has a lead on a job painting signs for a car dealership. She comes across a church with an extensive ministry to the homeless, including temporary housing.

Just as things are looking up, she faces a dilemma. While working after closing hours one night, she discovers a salesman has left a significant amount of cash on his desk. If she leaves it, someone could steal it. But if she takes it to keep it safe, would she be accused of stealing? Would her record make her seem all the more guilty?

Meanwhile, ex-policeman Paul Travers has been hired to help the church find the best way to deal with a nearby house overtaken by drug dealers. Some of the church folks are already wary of the kinds of people the homeless ministry brings in. Having drug dealers in the neighborhood might push them into closing down the whole ministry.

I’m used to a more exotic locale in Bunn’s books, so it was interesting to read a novel of his set in the US. I appreciated what he said in a interview at the end of the book. The story was inspired by a news item he saw about homelessness in Orlando. He wanted to show the hardships, but not stop there. “I wanted to focus on the rebuilding. To my mind, too much attention is given to the falling down, and not enough to the getting back up again. So The Sign Painter aims toward hope and healing—a new future for homeless families, but also a reminder about the help our communities may be able to offer.”

The story took a little different turn from what I expected. I enjoyed getting to know Amy and Paul. I appreciated the glimpse into the challenges of those who are homeless and those who want to help.

In Saving Alice by David Lewis, Stephen Whittaker had been in love with Alice in high school. When a car accident takes Alice’s life, Stephen and Alice’s best friend, Donna, comfort each other and eventually marry. They have a daughter named after Alice, Alycia, with whom Stephen has a special bond. But all these years later, Stephen still has nightmares about Alice’s accident.

Stephen is a stockbroker who nearly drove his company bankrupt with a bad deal. They avoided bankruptcy and are slowly making their way back.

But when Alycia turns twelve she wants to know more about her parents’ friend, Alice. When her relentless questions finally bring out the truth that her father loved Alice first, Alycia loses respect for him.

Stephen’s bad decisions and cluelessness lead to Donna’s leaving him. But just as things begin to look up in his job and his relationship with Alycia, everything comes crashing down.

I enjoyed the father-daughter banter, and some of the scenes were very well-done and drew out my emotions. However, a plot device in the latter part of the book fell flat to me. I can’t go into it without spoiling the story. But it didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the book and seemed too convenient. I liked the rest of David’s writing well enough that I’d try his other books.

David is the husband of Beverly Lewis, one of the first Amish fiction writers.

Though I reviewed these books together mainly because I read them one after the other, they do have similar themes getting back up and rebuilding after crises.