Thursday, December 25, 2014

Book Review: Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund (3.5 stars, 2014)

Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story takes place in 1859, on Presque Isle, Michigan. With their steamboat under attack by fresh-water pirates, Emma Chamber and her brother Ryan jump overboard into the frigid waters of Lake Huron, praying for a miracle. Neither of them believe strongly in miracles anymore, ever since their mother died of starvation in Ireland and their father passed away after doing whatever was necessary for them to survive, including theft which then led him to drink. But lighthouse keeper Patrick Garraty spotted the sinking steamboat from his perch and rushes to save whoever he can, meaning Ryan and Emma. Befuddled by the loss of their passage, once again nearly penniless, Ryan must work locally in order to earn enough for their passage on a new ship, work which will take him at least a few months. Emma is left to her own devices, saddened that her brother is once again saddled with her as a burden, that is until Patrick Garraty and the local preacher, Holy Bill, approach her with a proposition. Patrick's wife just recently died and he is in desperate need of someone to watch his two-year-old son, Josiah, while he tends to the care and upkeep of the lighthouse. The only condition is that they must marry. After a moment of panic at the very notion, Emma agrees to Patrick's plan, having already taken a liking to the toddler and thrilled at being able to release her little brother from his responsibility in protecting and providing for her. Now Patrick and Emma must work together to form a new life for themselves and for little Josiah, but their fledgling relationship is tested by local gossips and the rumor mill, raising doubts in Emma's mind about the suitability and faithfulness of her new husband.

This is my third Jody Hedlund book, and the start to a brand new series by her, entitled Beacons of Hope. Ms. Hedlund enjoys writing about lighthouses, particularly those in the Michigan area run by female lighthouse keepers, and so she based Emma and Patrick off two real people, Patrick Garraty and his wife Mary Chambers. The historicity of the novel is fascianting. Even Holy Bill, an eccentric and amusing character, is based off a real individual. I always find that using historic people and places, doing your research as a writer, always enhances historic fiction, and Ms. Hedlund does one of the finest jobs out there when it comes to her research.

As to the characters themselves, I truly appreciated Patrick, both as a husband and as a father. He has a speckled past, full of mistakes and poor choices, but he turned his life around with God's help and refuses to return to his past sins. He is a gentle and loving father, an affectionate husband, and a dedicated lighthouse keeper, determined to keep the lighthouse going every night, even when he's so tired that he can barely stay awake. I struggle more with liking Emma, unfortunately. It's not that she's unlikeable, it's just that she makes errors in judgement. She chooses to befriend the nosiest, most mean-spirited woman in town, spilling her new husband's secrets in earnest to the woman, hoping for advice. Emma creates most of the problems in this book by her foolishness in trusting the wrong people who are obviously the wrong people from the start.

I deeply appreciate Ms. Hedlund's writing. She is skilled in her descriptions and her dialogue, painting very real and vivid pictures most of the time. I just wish, in this book, that Emma and Patrick had talked. A lot of the angst and turmoil could have been avoided with a few simple conversations. Emma constantly jumped to conclusions about Patrick: oh, he couldn't love her, she's plain, he's angry with her, he could never desire her, etc. All while it's obvious that Patrick adores her and is highly attracted to her. She even tries to leave because she assumes something she sees is true, that her opinion of it is right, and that a conversation with Patrick would be pointless. She's sure she's right, and so she runs away without talking to him. That's foolish and reckless. Communication is just as important in fiction as it is in real life, and I just wish that Patrick and Emma had communicated more.

On my rating scale, I would give Love Unexpected 3.5 stars. I'm rounding it up because the flaw is not in her writing, only in some of the character development and design. The book is a quick and simple read, enjoyable in many places, and one that most readers will love.

- I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review, which I have given.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book to Movie: Thoughts on "Stand by Me" (1986) and the original short story "The Body" by Stephen King

I know what you're thinking. What in the world is she doing reading a Stephen King story? Well, push your eyeballs back in your head and hear me out before you run shrieking from my blog. I have a very . . . liberal approach to literature. I have enjoyed many a story than most Christians make the sign of the cross over. That's just me, it's who I am, and while I'm not swayed by the stories, I do find them an intriguing psychological look at humanity. Know your enemy, so they say, not that I view Stephen King as my enemy, although I'm sure of my readers must disagree on that point.

No, what I'm saying is that I first encountered The Body not through King, but through the film Stand by Me that they based off his short story. I didn't even realize it was one of Stephen King's stories until I reached the end and did some online research. I had no clue. What you're probably wondering now is, what in the world is this story about other than a body? It's literally a coming-of-age story for 4 twelve-year-old boys in the 1960s who go on a trek over Labor Day Weekend to see a dead body. And not just any dead body, but the body of a kid their own age. It's the story of Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy in the prime of their stupendously idiotic youth as they try to figure out who the heck they're becoming when their futures are pretty much already decided for them.

Left to Right: Gordy (Wil Wheaton), Vern (Jerry O'Connell),
Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Chris (River Phoenix

Chris is going to follow in the footsteps of all the male Chambers's before him, leading a life of crime and being the proverbial blight on society. Vern will remain an idiot, probably pumping gas for the rest of his life, and Teddy, well, Teddy will be lucky if he lives to be 20 what with his reckless behavior, always mouthing off to adults twice his size. As for Gordy, he could be a nobody, or he could listen to Chris,his best friend, and actually pursue writing as a career. So why is this oddball assortment of friends heading out to see a dead body?

Search me.

I'm still not sure, other than it was the impetuous hunger of youth to try something new, see something different, be someone different, instead of the same old, same old. They wanted an adventure that summer, right before the new school year, and this poor dead kid provides the perfect opportunity for something outrageously different. As to how they even know about the body, Vern overheard his older brother and his buddy discussing it in harried whispers one day because they'd stumbled across it while fishing.

You're probably wondering what I find remotely redeeming in this story. Well, I admit that I watched the movie because of the actors. Even though it was rated R and I knew going in that I would be listening to 12-year-old kiddos swearing like sailors. Because this movie has Kiefer Sutherland, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, John Cusack, and Wil Wheaton in at, all actors that I happen to love, River especially. So I went in for purely fickle purposes in the beginning.

But despite the foul language, I was hooked within 20 minutes. These are kids who are just beginning to discover their identities. The choices they make at this point in their life is going to affect the men they become. You can already see that the friendships between these four boys are diverging. Gordy is loaded with potential, and so is Chris despite all the claims of the townsfolk to the contrary because of his family. But Teddy and Vern? They are content with who they are, with where they are, with their lives, and they have no desire, no ability to dream big, not like Chris forces Gordy to do, and Gordy reciprocates.

If these kids hadn't gone on their adventure, I don't know what would have come about for Gordy and Chris. Would Chris have met the expectations of others and become just another criminal? Would Gordy have ended up in some low-paying teacher's job somewhere? I don't know, but I do know that the conversations these boys have during their 3 days trek across Oregon to see a dead body affects them. I admit that there were moments when it felt like Chris and Gordy might have been developing "feelings" for one another, but I don't know if that's just because they cried together or if it was the director's intentions to give people a suspicious inkling. I have no idea, but I do know it's a lot less emotional between them in the book than in the movie. Chris is less touchy-feely and protective of Gordy in the book because Gordy is tougher than he is in the movie. Their characters were changed up a bit and I don't know what the motivations were behind the alterations.

As for the book, I listened to the audio version, and found to my horror that there was even more language in The Body than had been in Stand by Me. Oh, the movie kept some of the stuff, including some of the fairly bad stuff that I hated coming out of Wil Wheaton's mouth, but the book was far, far worse. It also, for a short story, really dragged in places. There were moments, especially the moment of realization that the kid they'd come to see was actually, positively dead, went on for far too long. I don't know if King was waxing melodramatic or what, but some of the scenes and thoughts felt like overkill. I also could have done without the one story of Gordy's that they don't have in the movie that he wrote as a teenager. It involves a sex scene and added literally nothing to the plot so it felt like a waste of space or just an excuse to get sex down on paper.

So, no, I won't recommend either King's The Body or Stand by Me to anyone. I will say that Stand by Me is one of the finest film adaptations of a book that I've ever seen. It managed to take a meandering short story and turn it into a concise movie that went from Point A to Point B without too much trouble. And it remained faithful to the original writer. Should you choose to read the book or watch the movie, you do so at your own risk.

All I know is that for me, the plight of these 4 boys spoke to me. I don't know how authentic the story is or to what extent little kids would swear in the 1960s. I have no idea. All I know is that the story pulled at my heartstrings. I'm a sucker for misunderstood kids, and you don't get more misunderstood than Chris, played by my beloved River Phoenix. All he needed was one adult in his life to care about him. Just one, someone who wasn't afraid of his bad habits or his perverse family, but who would see his potential and support him. This isn't a happy-go-lucky kind of story. And you find out at the end what happens to all four of the kids, although it is changed up a bit in the movie from the book. You also don't get a scene with Kiefer Sutherland beating up on Wil Wheaton like in the book, but that was a bit of a blessing. Kiefer's the villain, in case you didn't suspect that already.

On my personal rating scale, I give King's The Body 3 stars and Stand by Me 5 stars. Sometimes life isn't pretty. Sin is prevalent everywhere we turn, and if we pretend it doesn't exist, aren't we giving it more power? I'd much rather try to help and encourage the love the Chris's, Teddy's, and Vern's of the world before it's too late. When they're 12, there's still hope, and that's what I see in this story, two kids giving each other hope. It may not have a happy ending, but it certainly makes you think.

If you get a chance, watch this official music video for the theme song of the film, sung by Ben E. King.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review: Keepers of the Covenant by Lynn Austin (2014, 4 stars)

Keepers of the Covenant by Lynn Austin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People familiar with scripture are most likely also familiar with the story of Esther, how she saved the Jews from being slaughtered by approaching the king when he had not called for her. Keepers of the Covenant approach the story from a different angle, this time through the eyes and experiences of Ezra, a devout man of God from the same era. Ezra lives through the attack upon the Jews, because remember that while the king proclaimed the Jews could defend themselves, he could not undo the permission already given for them to be attacked. So there was an attack on the 13th day of the 12th month, and Ezra, usually a scholar, fought alongside his brothers, defending his people from their enemies. Fast-forward at least a dozen years and we have Ezra asking the new king's permission for the Jews to leave for Jerusalem, their promised land, so they may worship as instructed in the Torah. This story really is about Ezra and his spiritual journey and his putting away the seed of bitterness that has grown within him against any peoples other than Jews. But it also follows the stories of Amina, an Edomite, who was orphaned during the attack, and the story of Reuben, another child, this time Jewish, who for many years of his life loses his way.

All right, I did enjoy Keepers of the Covenant in that I wasn't familiar with the events following the life of Esther. I've never read the book of Ezra in The Bible, so had no knowledge of his story. That part of the novel was fascinating, all of the historic references, and watching Ezra draw his people back into a devotion to God. He truly is a keeper of the covenant with God, and whenever that covenant is broken, God returns the children of Israel into bondage until they repent again and turn from their wickedness. I think Ms. Austin did a superb job in capturing the authenticity of Jewish beliefs at the time, and I appreciated her efforts.

However, I never bought into her use of dialogue. A lot of the books I read are very strict in their use of language for dialogue, making sure the spoken word matches the era in which it is being spoken. I was constantly yanked out of my focus while reading this book because the spoken sentence structure for the characters was too modern. Words like "kids" or "weird" were used, along with more words than I can remember. It was very distracting, just when I started getting into the story, a conversation between characters, any characters, would snap me out of it. So I would like to see more effort put into making the dialogue authentic.

I would have also preferred it if the story had just been about Ezra. All right, yes, I liked Amina a lot. She's a very sweet girl, but the climax could have been achieved just as solidly without her and Reuben. In fact, the book would have been at last 100 pages shorter, and in my eyes, much more concise and effective a read. So yes, while I enjoyed Keepers of the Covenant it could have used a bit of tightening in places. I would, however, still recommend it to friends.

- I received this book for free from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review, which I have given.

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Book Review: Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart (Kopp Sisters #3, 2017)

Original Summary Deputy sheriff Constance Kopp is outraged to see young women brought into the Hackensack jail over dubious charges ...