The First Gardener

In The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones, Tennessee governor Gray London and his wife, Mackenzie, struggled for ten years to have a child. Now little Maddie is about to start kindergarten and Gray will soon be seeking reelection.

Then tragedy strikes. The whole state mourns with the family. But Mackenzie doesn’t seem like she’ll ever emerge from her grief.

Jeremiah Williams has been the gardener of the governor’s mansion for over twenty-five years. Each governor’s family has become special to him. He’s not sure how yet, but perhaps God will use him to minister to Mackenzie’s heart.

The main plot of this book deals with grief: the family’s, plus those who try to help them bear it. You could say a secondary plot is finding and following God’s leading. A subplot centers Mackenzie’s eccentric mother and her group of friends, which lightens the heaviness of the story in places.

Overall, I thought the story was good. You can’t help but sympathize with Mackenzie and her tendency to withdraw into herself. I didn’t care as much for the antics of the grandmother and her friends. I really liked the character of Jeremiah. There’s a twist about him at the end that I wasn’t expecting, though a few clues were sprinkled about. I also enjoyed the Southern flavor of the story.

But the book was marred for me by several unnecessary references. For instance, early on, after the grandmother’s friends leave her house, she takes off her clothes “just because she can” and does whatever she does in the house in the nude. Secondly, one of the grandmother’s friends is well-endowed, and mention is made of her breasts a number of times. And then Gray and Mackenzie are trying undergoing fertility treatments to conceive another child, and when “baby-making time” is upon Mackenzie, she drops by her husband’s office to take advantage of it. None of these is explicit, but they are unnecessary and unwelcome. I don’t want to know when or how often a couple has sex, and I certainly don’t need pictures in my mind of a naked grandmother or her friend’s bustiness. I looked up my review of another of this author’s books from several years ago and noted mentions of nudity in it as well. Since this seems to be a penchant of hers, I’ll avoid her other books.

And that’s too bad, because otherwise she writes a good, heart-warming story.

Book Review: Jessie’s Hope

 In Jennifer Hallmark’s debut novel, Jessie’s Hope, Jessie is a young woman who lives with her grandparents. An accident that claimed her mother’s life left Jessie in a wheelchair since childhood. Jessie’s father abandoned the family.

Jessie is engaged to Matt and looks forward to their marriage. But she wrestles with several issues. Does Matt really love her, or does he just feel sorry for her? Though she longs to be independent, she worries that she won’t be able to be the wife Matt needs. And she wonders about her father and whether she should try to look him up.

Jessie’s grandfather, Homer, wants to provide Jessie with a beautiful wedding, but funds are limited. He goes to a ritzy wedding shop to see what can be done, but can feel their scorn towards a poor farmer in overalls who couldn’t possibly afford anything in their shop.

The course to a perfect wedding never did run smooth (apologies to Shakespeare), and a variety of problems crop up before the big day.

A secondary story line involves Angeline. She works at the ritzy wedding shop and had a crush on Matt, but he rebuffed her. She’s jealous of Jessie and feels Jessie views her as an enemy. But then they are thrown together in unexpected ways.

This is a sweet story with a number of underlying themes: the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness, the need to yield to God’s control instead of our own and to walk with Him by faith, the need to help others.

I love the strong sense of place Jennifer created. The contemporary Southern setting is distinct without being overly romanticized. The dialogue is just what I grew up with:

“What can I do you for?’

“If it tweren’t one thing, it was another.”

The cover is lovely and fits in well with the story.

My only quibble is that when Jessie us talking with another girl about becoming a Christian, the conversation revolves around accepting God as one’s Father. I think probably the author put it that way because both girls had father issues, and even though earthy fathers fail and forsake us, our heavenly Father never will. However, there are people who call on God as Father who do not trust Christ as Savior. Jesus and his death on the cross isn’t even mentioned in the conversation. Perhaps the author felt this character had been exposed to other aspects of the gospel in earlier encounters with Christianity. But I wish this had been a little more clear.

Otherwise, this is an excellent book. At the moment it’s on sale for the Kindle app for $3.99. You can learn more about Jennifer at Alabama Inspired Fiction.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Among the Fair Magnolias

magnolias Among the Fair Magnolias contains four different stories set in the Civil War-era South.

“A Heart So True” by Dorothy Love takes place in Pawley’s Island, SC. Abby Clayton’s father plans to run for governor and expects Abby to marry a distant cousin, Charles. But Abby’s previous encounters with Charles have turned her against him. Besides, she loves the country doctor. Will she end up marrying Charles out of duty, or will he show his true colors and convince her father Charles is not the man for her?

In “To Mend a Dream” by Tamera Alexander, Savannah Darby takes care of her sister and brother after the deaths of their parents and loss of their Nashville home. She works for a seamstress and suddenly finds herself tasked with sewing curtains for the new owners of her family’s home. This is an opportunity to find a box her father had told her he had hidden away on the property.  Bostonian Aidan Bedford had visited the area and bought the place after an unusual conversation with an enemy soldier whom he nicknamed Nashville. Aiden has brought his fiance to see the place and decorate it to her tastes, but the more time they spend together, the less sure he is of their engagement. But something about the seamstress working on their curtains intrigues him.

In “Love Beyond Limits” by Elizabeth Musser, the Civil War is over, the slaves are now working as freedmen and sharecroppers in Georgia, and Emily couldn’t be happier. She spends most of her time teaching former slaves how to read. Not everyone shares her joy, however: the Klan is dangerously active in the area. An old friend seeks Emily’s hand, but she can’t accept him because she loves another: one of the freedmen. But she can’t express her love because it would be dangerous for the man she loves. (This one had an unexpected double twist at the end!)

In “An Outlaw’s Heart” by Shelley Gray, Russell Stark has been on the run for years. He had defended his girlfriend, Nora, from an attack by his drunken father and killed him in the process. Both his mother and Nora told him to go, and he has spent most of his time with an outlaw gang. Now he’s come home to Fort Worth to find his mother seriously ill and his former girlfriend caring for her. Nora is still single but seeing another man, someone Russell thinks is hiding something. But will anybody believe an outlaw? And can he ever put his past behind him and move on?

Some of the characters in the stories were from other books by the authors, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything in the stories by not having read the previous books.

I got this book mainly because I love Elizabeth Musser’s writing. But I enjoyed all these stories, the lessons learned, and the journeys of faith for each one.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Promise of Jesse Woods

jesse-woodsThe Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry opens with Matt Plumley in Chicago receiving a phone call from a voice from his past in West Virginia, sending him straight back there.

Matt had arrived in Dogwood, West Virginia from Pittsburgh when he was near 14 in the 1970s. His dad had grown up in Dogwood and was coming back to pastor the church there. Matt was not only the new kid, the new preacher’s kid at that, but he was also overweight, all of which worked against his making friends. But he did become friends with a couple of fellow outcasts, a boy of mixed race, Dickie Darrel Lee Hancock, and a girl named Jesse Woods from the wrong side of the tracks who took care of her sister because her father had left and her mother was ill.

As the three traipse around the countryside on their bikes, they get into various adventures and misadventures, revealing and keeping each other’s secrets. Matt’s eyes are opened to prejudice and mistreatment, to disappointment in his father, who goes along with Basil Blackwood, who runs everything in town, including the church, and to his first crush in Jesse.

The narration goes back and forth between the events of Matt’s childhood in 1972 and the events of 1984, when he returned. There is indication of something major that happened that caused a fallout between himself and Jesse, and though tidbits are uncovered along the way, the whole truth doesn’t come out until a big climax near the end. Even then it takes Matt a while longer to piece together the ramifications of that event to the present and to learn what he needs to learn, not only about the one promise Jesse didn’t keep, but also about himself.

Chris is a natural storyteller and weaves everything together nicely, though there was a bit too much detail about baseball for my tastes. There were also several mentions about what someone’s breath smelled like, which I thought odd in all but one instance. I would have been just a year or so older than Matt, so the parts about growing up in a small Southern town brought back many memories. There are moments of aching for children in Jesse’s situation. In one sense it’s a coming of age story – at least the 1972 scenes are. But in a larger sense it’s about Matt finally coming to terms with issues in his own life. A few times it’s pointed out to him that he’s concerned about rescuing others when maybe he’s the one who needs rescuing.

I thought the book was a smidgen too long and dragged in a couple of places, but overall it was an enjoyable read.

Genre: Christian fiction
My rating: 8 out of 10
Potential objectionable elements: There are a few “adolescent boy noticing a girl’s body” moments, though not explicit, and an attempted assault.
Recommendation: Yes.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Mondays, and Carol‘s Books You Loved)

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