A Pleasure and a Calling

//by Phil Hogan//published 2014//

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So this decidedly creepy book made me glad that I didn’t go through a real estate agent to buy my house, and made me want to change all the locks in my house.  While Hogan did an excellent job weaving a narrative that was disturbingly believable, I found the ending to be extremely disappointing, which dropping my rating to a high 3/5.  While it isn’t a book I want to read again, I can’t deny that I had trouble putting it down.  If the conclusion had been more to my taste, this book probably would have been an easy 4/5.

Our narrator is Mr. Heming. A middle-aged real estate agent in a smallish town, Mr. Heming seems like a pretty uninteresting and unmemorable individual to everyone he meets.  But as the story unwinds, we find out more and more about Mr. Heming – his childhood, his current activities, his thought processes – and things get quite creepy fast.

Mr. Heming is 100% unlikable.  He is arrogant and psychotic and disturbing.  He views himself more or less as a god, as someone to whom the gifts of justice and retribution have been given.

The front jacket will tell you that Mr. Heming has kept a copy of every key for every house he has sold, and he uses them frequently.  The idea of someone being in your house when you’re gone (or when you’re there!) is just so eerie, and Hogan plays it out perfectly.

As the front door opened, I left noiselessly from the conservatory at the rear …  I am generally scrupulous in making a clean exit, though on this occasion it pleased me to think of Mrs Houth halting in her steps while her husband struggled with the suitcases.  ‘That’s odd,’ I imagined her saying.  ‘Can you smell coffee?’  A small aromatic mystery getting smaller with each sniff of the air.

The book switches back and forth between present day and Mr. Heming’s recollections of childhood.  His childhood memories are also disturbing, and his whole character becomes more and more frightening the more you learn about him.  It was funny, because I had just finished reading The Blackhousewhich, in some ways, followed a similar pattern of switching between past/childhood and present day.  But where The Blackhouse followed a logical structure, A Pleasure and a Calling sort of drifted along, snagging random thoughts and memories.  In a weird way, this actually worked.  The Blackhouse was told from the perspective/about a logical, straightforward individual, while A Pleasure and a Calling is told from the perspective a man who is, frankly, insane.  Thus, the rather disorienting order of events actually worked for this narrative.

Our story mainly follows Mr. Heming’s obsession with a young woman.  She is having an affair with a guy who is pretty sleezy.  Mr. Heming attempts to protect her through various methods, even though she doesn’t even know he exists. In the meantime, we learn more about how Mr. Heming got to where he is/became who he is through flashbacks.

This book kind of reminded me of a Hitchcock film.  Hitchcock once said that one of his tricks to was to have the camera tilted very slightly.  The angle was so minimal that the viewers minds didn’t consciously recognize it as such, but it was enough to make them feel that something was off – just enough to make them feel uneasy, adding to the overall feeling of tension Hitchcock was striving for.  Hogan did the same thing in his book.  Mr. Heming presents all of his own actions in a matter-of-fact tone, as though what he has done is the only thing any person would have done in the same situation.  He is supremely confident that what he has done is right and good, and that leaves the reader feeling disoriented, because that isn’t really what a normal person would do…  is it??

This book was first brought to my attention by some book newsletter or other, and then its position on the TBR was confirmed by the review over at Reading, Writing & Riesling.

For me, where this story failed was in an adequate conclusion for Mr. Heming.  I don’t want to give away the whole story, so if you want to read the book, you may wish to not read the spoiler below…

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A Dangerous Silence

by Catherine Palmer

published 2001

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From the back cover:

Successful pediatrician Marah Morgan returns home to help run the family farm after her father suffers a disabling injury.  Marah finds herself reluctant to help a man who has not shown her the love she longs for and who holds the key to a tragedy from her childhood.

When government archaeologists arrive to excavate Indian burial grounds on the Morgan farm, Marah becomes suspicious.  Then a mysterious farmhand arrives, a man who both fascinates and frightens her.  As events build to a deadly climax, Marah must rely on her faith for the strength she needs in a desperate fight for survival.

So Catherine Palmer is a mixed bag for me.  I’ve definitely read some of her books that I really enjoyed (her “Town Called Hope” series was surprisingly pleasant), others are more in the “meh” category.  While A Dangerous Silence had a lot of potential, the ending seemed abrupt and weak, leaving me with a 3/5 vibe for the book as a whole.

Marah is an engaging lead character.  She is intelligent and independent, a successful pediatrician in Saint Louis.  Although she’s a Christian, Marah has one area of her life she’s never really turned over to God – her relationship with her father.  A hard, proud man, Marah has never understood him, or why he was unable to ever show her the affection and love she craved as a child.  More or less forced by circumstances to return to her father’s farm in Kansas to help him while he recovers from a bad fall, Marah is also forced to face emotions and events she has kept buried for years.

To keep the story interesting, the other plot line involves government agent Judd, who is assigned to work at the Morgan farm in order to keep an eye on a man posing as an archaeologist from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Milton Gregory.  Gregory, we learn towards the beginning of the story, is on the hunt for a disease that he will use to exact his revenge on the government (BWAHAHA).

The Marah/Marah’s dad storyline is strong.  Our characters are forced to learn the importance of truth and honesty, and they both learn how to view things from the other’s perspective, all done well, without being overly sweet or dramatic.  Marah’s developing relationship with Judd is also good.  A weak point in this story, however, is that we find that Marah has three sisters who have also left the farm and moved on to lives of their owns, apparently with the same negative feelings towards their father as Marah has at the beginning of the story – and there is never really any resolution there.  Marah finds healing, but there is never a feeling that the entire family has been bonded back together.  This feels especially counter-intuitive because we are never told why Marah is the daughter who has to come back – if she has three sisters, why are none of them helping?

While the whole evil-terrorist-archaeologist story had its moments, overall it felt quite forced, especially when we finally learn Gregory’s backstory/motivation.  That he was busted out for doing back-alley abortions feels really weird for a story written/theoretically set in 2001, when abortions have been legal since 1973.  Has Gregory really been plotting revenge for almost thirty years??  The grand climax with a hostage situation at the farm was exciting, but ended very suddenly with an epilogue that wrapped everything up with a tidy bow, sweeping the odds and ends that felt like they wouldn’t fit under the rug.

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it (when I was able to suspend logic for several chapters at a time), but it’s not one I particularly can recommend or would want to read again.  A solid 3/5.

Dancing with Fireflies

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by Denise Hunter

published 2014

So I’ve read several of Denise Hunter’s books, and they’re usually decent fluff. The Convenient Groom is my favorite (because, as I’ve mentioned, I’m a sucker for a story where people are already married when they fall in love).  Dancing with Fireflies is her newest book.  It was a pretty comfortable 3/5, almost a 4.  While the story was plausible and the characters likable, there was a lot about the main character that confused me.

Jade grew up in a sleepy town on the Ohio River.  The story opens with a prologue – Jade is living in Chicago with a close friend, and getting ready to have a guy over for a first date.  However, the friend gets called into work.  Instead of postponing the date, Jade goes ahead and (not a spoiler because this all happens before the first chapter), he drugs her drink and rapes her (one of those cut-scene rapes where she’s sleepy and then it’s the next morning).

First chapter fast forwards – Jade moves back home because she’s pregnant and needs the support of her family (who doesn’t know any of this).  (As an aside, women in books always seem to be super fertile.  I’ve been married four years and don’t have a baby, but in books it only ever seems to take one chance!)  Enter our hero, tall, dark, and handsome (actually, I can’t remember if he’s dark so that part might be a lie), Jade’s almost-brother, Daniel, who also happens to be the mayor of said small town.  Guess who’s going to end up married??

Like I said, I actually enjoyed the story just fine.  I really liked Jade, Jade’s family, and Daniel.  I also enjoyed the references to the Midwest of which I am oh-so fond.  ;-)  But the reason that this story just didn’t quite do it for me was Jade’s motivation.  Throughout the story, Jade is emotionally withdrawn and interested in a relationship that will be comfortable and workable, but not passionate.  This seems understandable because, you know, she was raped.  But instead of that event being the primary motivator, her reasoning keeps going back to a relationship she had in high school/just after.  She was engaged, and her fiancee died in a car wreck.  Consequently, Jade is terrified of loving anyone ever again.  While this makes a perfectly fine motivator for her actions/emotions/fears, it just didn’t fit with the rest of the story.  We didn’t know Jade when she was engaged to this guy, so it lacks the emotional impact to really make her attitude make sense.  On the other hand, while she doesn’t really just completely brush aside the being raped thing, she does, in a weird way, act like it wasn’t a big deal in that it doesn’t really come up when she’s thinking about why she doesn’t want to be in a relationship with Daniel.  In the end, it feels like Hunter just used the rape as a convenient way to get Jade pregnant (as a victim of circumstances beyond her control), when it feels as though it should be a lot more of a big deal.

Still, the story was a lot of fun, and Hunter does a good job of manipulating circumstances so that Daniel and Jade keep ending up leaning on each other (and of course Daniel’s been in love with Jade for years, so there’s that).

If you’re looking for a relaxing read with happy endings all around, Dancing with Fireflies just may fit the bill.

Undetected

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by Dee Henderson

Published 2014

(Bethany House sent me this book for free, which has not in any way altered my review.)

So, for those of you who were following this blog last spring, you’ll recall that I read through Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series and really, really enjoyed it.  They were suspenseful, had great character development, and allowed the “religious” aspect to flow in a way that was natural, unintrusive, and thought-provoking.  This past winter, I read her Uncommon Heroes series.  While I didn’t enjoy those as much, they were still decent reads, if a little shorter on plot and depth than the O’Malleys.

All that to say, I was pretty stoked when I got a free copy of Undetected, because I’m always up for a new Henderson.  However, while this was a fine book, it was more in line with the Uncommon Heroes than the O’Malleys, leaving me feeling a bit meh about it overall.

Gina Gray, our heroine, is a genius – a legit, incredible, brilliantly intelligent genius.  She and her brother, who is in the navy, are alone in the world, and some of her past projects have dealt with ways to make her brother’s life, on board a submarine, safer.  At the beginning of this book, she’s off to her brother’s naval base to work on a new project, and recover from the sudden end of a two-year relationship.  There, she meets up with Commander Mark Bishop – or rather re-meets up with, as she’s known him for years as her brother’s friend.

And basically, this book is kind of a romantic story with that military background, incredibly similar to the Uncommon Heroes books.  I’m just not that into the military and I don’t tend to get all teary-eyed over it, so I think that this book, like the other series, loses some of its potential emotional impact for me.    Gina asks her brother to help her find a nice guy to marry, basically, and her brother asks Mark if he’s interested, and Mark says no because he’s like ten years older than Gina, and a widower.  (Gina’s almost 30, so it’s not like he’s some dude in his 30’s hitting on a girl just out of high school or something super creepy, just to clarify.)  So her brother introduces her to this other guy, Daniel, who’s really interested in Gina and super, super nice.  Meanwhile, Mark realizes that he actually IS interested in Gina, so he starts kinda making a move on her as well (but in a really gentlemanly kind of way).  So this book ends up being a slightly irritating love triangle story, except a love triangle where everyone is incredibly nice and thoughtful and good at communication so like Daniel knows that Mark’s also interested in Gina and they agree to this kind of “may the best man win even if it isn’t either of us” sort of attitude and………..

I don’t know.  I just couldn’t get into this story.  There wasn’t a lot happening, and while all of the characters were nice, that’s about all they were.  I didn’t feel this depth or character development coming from any of them, and in some ways I really felt like Mark was super pushy about wanting to marry Gina.  Basically, he was like, “Hey, no pressure, but I’m a super awesome dude and I was a rockin’ husband before and I’ll be an amazing husband to you and we will deal fabulously so you know no pressure but” and it kind of got on my nerves.  In the end, it felt like Gina made her own decision, but it all played out kind of weirdly to me.

In the end, this book was a solid 3/5.  It was a fine read with a decent story, but none of the characters really spoke to me, and I felt like there wasn’t enough story to keep things moving.  I read the book when I was reading it, but felt no yearning to return to it if I had to put it down.  While I’m still planning to read what was apparently a first book in this series (? There’s a book about one of Mark’s brothers, and he has another one, so I’m guessing there will be at least one more book??), this really wasn’t a classic I want to read time and again.

‘Dragonspell’ and ‘Dragonquest’

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by Donita K. Paul

Published 2004, 2005

(Sorry; appear to be lacking a picture of Dragonquest.)  

So, I don’t even remember why I picked up these books.  I’m constantly coming across books on various blogs and Goodreads recommendations and randomly all over the place, and somewhere along the line I apparently heard about Paul’s Dragon books.  There are five altogether, and so far they’ve been decent but not amazing reads.  I’m actually in the midst of Book 3 right now, and, thankfully, they seem to be improving with each one.

The books are set in the fictional country of Amara, which is full of creatures completely unknown in our world (like dorkers, drummerbugs, and kindias), and is populated by fourteen different races: seven ‘high’ and seven ‘low,’ which brings us to our first problem:  too many things.  Paul’s writing style is far more in line with high fantasy than young adult, with a complicated world building and a story so full of bizarre creatures and words that I found myself constantly flipping back to the glossary (especially since most of the time Paul writes as though you already know what a kindia, or whatever, is).  This wouldn’t be too bad if this was limited to the animals or plants that inhabit the world, but Paul has created lots of different races of people (for lack of better term), including o’rants, emerlindians, kimens, doneels, mariones, tumanhofers, and urohms (the seven high races) and bisonbecks, blimmets, druddums, grawligs, mordakleeps, quisses, ropmas, and schoergs (the seven low races, of which there appear to be eight).  To top it off, there aren’t just dragons – there are  fire dragons, greater dragons, major dragons, meech dragons, and minor dragons.  All of this  makes for extremely complicated reading, especially when Paul has the habit of referring to characters not only by name but also by race, e.g., something along the lines of “Kale smiled at her friend.  The o’rant couldn’t believe how happy she was.”  This leaves me trying to remember if Kale or her friend is the o’rant; it’s often frustrating to try and determine to whom I should apply a certain action, thought, or feeling, because I can’t remember which of this particular group happens to be a tumanhofer or a kimen.

I didn’t realize until after I started reading them that Paul has written these book with a sort of idea of relaying Christian principles through them.  Wulder is the god of Amara’s world, and Paladin, a definite Messiah figure, is the ruler of Amara under Wulder.  The first book was rather dreadful in that aspect – I really felt like Paul was just smacking me over the head with religious teaching – I could practically see the words between the lines saying, THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF HOW JEHOVAH GOD EXPECTS YOU TO BEHAVE IN THE REAL WORLD DO YOU SEE THAT DO YOU SEE THE WAY THIS PERSON IS REACTING TO PALADIN THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD RESPOND TO JESUS DO YOU SEE HOW THIS CHARACTER IS LEARNING TO TRUST WULDER YOU NEED TO TRUST GOD DO YOU GET IT DO YOU SEE WHAT I’M VERY SUBTLY DOING HERE!??!?!  Thankfully this got MUCH MUCH better in the second (and now the third) books.  Wulder and Paladin became what they should be – a comfortable background into which the characters fit – a framework that helps to explain their actions and motivations, leaving me, as the reader, free to draw my own lines (if I so desire) between Amara’s religious teachings and the ones of my world.

The narrative flows decently through these books, although she does have a habit of forcing her main character into a life-threatening situation in the first chapter that is extremely annoying to me, especially in the first book.  I’ve known Kale for about three pages and now her life is in danger??  I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this, because I know nothing about Kale as a person; I’ve had no time to get to know her or her motivations or why she’s in this situation to begin with, and it left me feeling very emotionally detached from the action.  It’s been a little better in the next two books because I at least know who Paul is talking about before she throws them into perilous predicaments.

The second book was much better than the first, mostly because, I think, I already knew the characters.  There was just SO MUCH to take in throughout the first book – by the second, things were starting to sort themselves out (and I was able to refer to glossary less), although I have to say that the meech dragons kind of give me the weirds – they’re almost like a human/dragon hybrid, and it was just really strange.

While the plot development is pretty good, I’ve found the endings to be rather abrupt and anticlimactic.  In Dragonquest, we spent the entire book tracking down this evil wizard and then he was defeated in about a page with apparently minimal effort and oh well everyone went home good times good times.  It was just a strange ending that technically resolved the problem by killing the wizard, but left a lot of things dangling.

Overall, I’d give Dragonspell and Dragonquest 3/5.  They’re decent books, but nothing that makes me exciting.  I’m finishing the series, but not with a lot of enthusiasm.

A Little Folly

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by Jude Morgan

Published 2010

This is my third Jude Morgan book this year; I enjoyed this one more than An Accomplished Woman but still not as well as Indiscretionwhich I think I’m going to purchase with my birthday money.  :-D  But this story has the same lighthearted and delightful dialogue and fun characters as the other of Morgan’s books I’ve read.  While I liked the heroine much better than the one in An Accomplished Woman, Louisa still aggravated me a great deal at times.

Louisa and her brother Valentine have grown up under the (very) heavy hand of their domineering father.  When he dies, at the beginning of the book, they are suddenly free to do as they like.  Comfortably off, upper-class adults, they can go to London, entertain visitors, or even just simply get rid of furniture they don’t like.  That’s how it begins – by removing a fire screen they’ve both hated for years but their father insisted remain in the drawing room.  As they pair of siblings begin to explore life and encounter adventures, they learn that making your own decisions isn’t always as much fun as it sounds.

For me, the main problem with this book was that it felt as though Morgan wasn’t sure what the ‘lesson’ should be.  Every good story has a lesson, even if it’s a trite, simplistic one like “love conquers all” or a completely wrong one like “being sneaky always pays off.”  This story waffled a good deal.  Was the lesson “growing up is tough”?  “It’s easier to have a domineering person make your decisions so you aren’t responsible for them”?  “Your parents always know what’s best even when they’re jerks”?  “Never listen to advice”?  “Follow your heart”?  I never could quite decide what point the author was making.

Another problem was that Louisa and Valentine supposedly had this super close relationship growing up, their difficult parent drawing them together.  But because part of the story was how they grew apart during the course of all these changes, it was hard to understand many of the decisions Louisa made to protect/defend her brother, because I didn’t really like him, and I didn’t have the solid background of knowing that Valentine really loved his sister.

Louisa spends much of the book dithering because she knows that Valentine is making some very stupid decisions, but she doesn’t want to interfere with him for fear of appearing to try and run his life as their father had done.  That was another one of the lessons that were never quite clear – are we supposed to walk away with the conviction that we should always, never, or sometimes interfere?  At the end of the story, I never felt that Louisa had learned any kind of balance in that area – that if Valentine did something else dumb, she would spend just as much time dithering as she had the first time.

And then their are Louisa’s love interests.  From the beginning, we learn of this one fellow (whose name I can’t remember) – he’s the fellow that Louisa’s father intended her to marry.  But Louisa doesn’t like this fellow because he’s just as bossy and domineering as her father.  So he shows up, and he is a bit of a jerk, but then suddenly in the middle of the book, he’s not a jerk any more – I never knew if I was supposed to like him or not.  There was no real revelation of whether something had happened to make the fellow be nicer, or if Louisa had always just perceived him as more of a jerk than he really was?  Or what?  His character development was haphazard and confusing.

So while this book was fun and enjoyable, it still had an undercurrent of randomness that subtly irritated me throughout.  Another 3/5 for a book with a lot of potential that it didn’t quite reach.

Ready, Set, Dogs!

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by Stephanie Calmenson and Joanna Cole

Published 2013 – This is an Advanced Reader’s Copy provided in exchange for an honest review, etc etc

So this is another book for younger readers, an early-reader chapter book about two best friends who LOVE DOGS but can’t own one because of their apartment restrictions.  When they find a pair of matching necklaces at a thrift store, they discover that the necklaces can turn them into dogs!  And adventures ensue.

This was a fairly simple book, but I think that it did a fine job of not falling into too many stereotypes – the girls are neither obsessed with girlishness or insistent on proving they are “as good as” the boys.  The boys in the story are not mean or bullies, but just boys.  While their moms are both single moms, we manage to get past that with just a couple of sentences:  “Their moms were best friends just like they were … They were single parents and helped each other out a lot.”

While the girls start out by using their dog-power to tease the boys, in the end they all become friends and work together for the common good – writing a new jingle for the Adopt-a-Dog Week at the local shelter.

Fairly inane, but a book I won’t be embarrassed to hand over to my little sister.  3/5.