The Key to Everything by Valerie Fraser Luesse (BTSNBM)

Alabama Bookshelf | Alabama Living Magazine

Author’s Note: We were provided with a free copy of this novel in exchange to a fair and honest review.

Plot & Storyline Quality (1.5 points)

Valerie Fraser Luesse’s latest work of fiction is a good coming of age concept that gets a bit lost along the way. Peyton Cabot, a Southern teenager, is currently experiencing the aftermath of his father’s stint in the military and his mother’s grief over these goings-on. His father, Marshall, tries to drown his war trauma in bottles of bourbon, but has so far been unsuccessful. One afternoon when Peyton and his family are at the annual Cabot family picnic at his paternal grandparent’s estate, Peyton’s father has a tragic accident involving a high-strung horse, a tree, a bottle of alcohol, and a dog chasing a squirrel. While the entire clan of Cabots are in the hospital waiting room arguing about what will happen to the inheritance if Marshall, the heir, dies, Peyton’s grandfather suddenly has a stroke and dies instantly. As time moves forward, Peyton will find himself evading his relatives, meeting a long-lost family friend, and embarking on a journey that will change his life forever. To find out how it ends, read the book! The plot and storyline in this novel are average, but not for the usual reasons. The fast-paced storyline gives the reader a lot of information that is delivered through backstories, historical facts, and fact-filled conversations. The major errors in this aspect of the novel include the abrupt shift from a family drama to a coming of age tale, and the way the book loses the reader’s interest as the story continues. Firstly, around a third of the way through the book it’s almost like it changes genres. (spoiler) One minute Peyton is sitting by his father’s deathbed, the next minute he’s in Florida on summer vacation with his Aunt Gert, then he’s embarking on a bicycle quest through the Florida Keys, and the next thing you know he’s taking in orphaned children and falling in love. This being said, it’s hard to understand which one of these four plots is supposed to be the main one. If they are intended to be subplots that tie together, then the author should have taken more time to develop her large cast of characters. Additionally, the dialogue in this novel is above average but doesn’t reach it’s full potential, and Peyton’s character arc falls flat when the author doesn’t state what he learned from the bike quest – especially after she made a big point to reference his search for meaning. Thus, on the whole the plot and storyline feel thrown together and needed closer attention.

Character Development (1.5 points)

The characters in this novel are mixed, with the protagonist being one of the weakest ones. It is hard to get to know Peyton on a personal level as he is thrown about by the confusing plot structure, and most of what we do know is told to us by the author. It would have been better to let readers discover who he is on their own, rather than stating personal traits and interests directly as though we are reading a biography. This being said, the heavy-handed narrative style of writing Luesse uses in this novel acts as clutter that crowds out opportunities for character depth to be developed. Peyton’s mother also feels partially developed as we hear a lot about her from others but don’t get to see her in action very often. Moreover, while the colorful Aunt Gert is a bright spot in the humdrum cast of minor characters, she gets lost in the sea of people in this novel who have only a few lines. In short, while there is some good in every character, it feels like they exist only to connect the dots of the storyline.

Creativity and Originality (.5 point)

Lastly, it was a creative idea to portray how multiple crises effect a teenager mentally and emotionally, but because this idea remains unfinished, Luesse earns only a half point in creativity. As such, we cannot recommend this novel as being good material for Christian film, but believe that Luesse can improve as time goes forward because of her ability to craft original ideas.

Wish List Rating: 3.5 out of 10 points


If I Were You by Lynn Austin (June 2, 2020)

If I Were You: A Novel  -     By: Lynn Austin

Release date: June 2, 2020

Author: Lynn Austin

Plot summary: In the wake of the war, Audrey Clarkson leaves her manor house in England for a fresh start in America with her young son. As a widowed war bride, Audrey needs the support of her American in-laws, whom she has never met. But she arrives to find that her longtime friend Eve Dawson has been impersonating her for the past four years. Unraveling this deception will force Audrey and Eve’s secrets―and the complicated history of their friendship―to the surface.

King’s Shadow by Angela Hunt

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Author’s Note: We were provided with a free copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Plot & Storyline Quality (2.5 points)

Angela Hunt’s latest novel, the last installment in The Silent Years series, has a pretty good storyline and average characters, but does not reflect the usual pathos demonstrated by this author. Hunt set a high bar for herself with novels like Uncharted and The Offering, a standard that has not been reached by this or her other most recent novels. The Silent Years series as a whole has been a mixed bag; some novels have been better than others, but none have demonstrated the author’s true potential. Egypt’s Sister was a very slow-paced novel, Judah’s Wife was the best of the series but had a predictable ending, Jerusalem’s Queen was wordy, and this novel is average. Salome is the sister of King Herod and the wife of her uncle, Joseph. She navigates tumultuous palace politics by knowing everything about everyone in order to ensure her own survival. Salome is a hard, selfish woman who rationalizes other’s deaths when her life is on the line. Her world is rocked when her longtime servant and friend dies suddenly, but she finds consolation in the young girl who takes her friend’s place. Zara is a young Jewess who has just been betrothed to a shoemaker in her village. She has suffered the loss of her father in the recent war, which also left her mother paralyzed. Though her aunt helps out here and there, Zara shoulders most of the responsibility around the house; however, when the opportunity to leave her mundane life presents itself, she takes it. Zara has always found solace in working with her hands, a talent that serves her well as Salome’s new hairdresser. Together these two women from completely opposite social spheres must carefully navigate the dangerous waters of Herod’s court if they expect to come out alive and sane on the other side. On the whole, this story holds the attention and contains only minor plot errors. Additionally, the unique depiction of Herod as a human, not a tyrant, is much appreciated. Similarly, Hunt makes an effort throughout the novel to portray people as neither all good or bad, a choice that demonstrates her grasp on crafting excellent characters. In comparison, the novel’s pace is inconsistent at times, likely due to the vast amount of time covered in the same. Moreover, there are no ‘wow’ moments here – just a good bordering on average story. Nothing that happens to the characters is unexpected, and nothing that occurs in the plot especially groundbreaking – there is no particular climax. Therefore, Hunt rounds out with just above an average score in this section.

Character Development (2 points)

In contrast, Salome is a very interesting character with a clearly defined personality and consistent tendencies. Zara is also a good character, but she seems a bit too good at times. It would have been nice if Hunt had made her a little more imperfect like she did with the other characters. Hunt’s portrayal of Herod is one of the best I have seen, but without a first-person perspective from him the novel feels unfinished. It is my opinion that the novel would have been great if it revolved around first-person perspectives from Herod and Salome. The main errors to point out here are few, but they do affect the quality in this section. First, Alexandra is a weak villian who needed further development, and Mariamne needed a bigger role in the story – she has little involvement in the plot overall. Lastly, these characters do not stand out from the others Hunt has crafted in their genre – they are good but not great. Thus, Hunt earns an average score here because we know she can do better.

Creativity & Originality (1 point)

Finally, Hunt earns a half point in creativity for her portrayal of little known pieces of Biblical history, and a half point in originality for her well-balanced characters. Despite the fact that this is not the best novel in the series, we still think The Silent Years book series would make a great Christian series or show. Some of the books would need to be heavily edited and all the characters given greater depth and emphasis. Additionally, the filmmaker would have to give Hunt a place on the screenwriting team to ensure quality is upheld, but such a project is possible. Even when Christian novels aren’t perfect, we continue to hope Christian filmmakers will realize the film potential in the same.

Wish List Rating: 5.5 out of 10 points

One More River to Cross by Jane Kirkpatrick (BTSNBM)

Author’s note: We were provided with a free copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

Jane Kirkpatrick’s latest novel, One More River to Cross, has an okay storyline, a very choppy plot and partially developed characters. It was a good idea to base a historical fiction novel off of real events and people, but this was not the way to do it. The Steven’s Murphy company had one goal – go down in history as the first wagon train to reach California via the Sierra Nevada mountains. The company contains people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds who all want the chance at a better life in California. The trip goes well at first, but weather conditions soon take a turn for the worse. When an unexpected snowstorm forces the party to make a desparate decision to split the larger party up into three smaller ones, it truly becomes every man for himself. Will the group of men and women on horseback, the men left behind to guard the wagons, and the women and children in a thrown-together shelter by the Yuba riverside live to tell their tales? To answer this question, read the book! While there are both positives and negatives in this novel, unfortunately the negatives are predominant. First, some parts of the novel hold the attention while others do not. Additionally, Kirkpatrick employs an inconsistent storytelling style in the form of randomly jumping between the stories of the three groups with no apparent pattern. Second, an attempt at identifying the negative effects of patriarchy is overshadowed by forced romances and overlong starvation sequences. Finally, the greatest weakness here is that the reader feels like they’re being told a story rather than being free to discover it as it comes and make their own decisions. This could have been remedied with first person storytelling from the perspective of the characters, not the author. In comparison, the historical aspects of the novel are intriguing and some of the character’s stories are engaging; however, these are swept away, so to speak, by the negative elements. Therefore, Kirkpatrick earns a below average score in this section.

Character Development (.5 point)

In contrast, One More River to Cross contains so many characters that their respective roles in the story are hard to decipher at times. Moreover, it could be argued that there is no discernible protagonist or antagonist as most characters seem to have equal page time. Additionally, the minor characters are barely in the novel, and on the whole, the characters are very simplistic because their actions and speech are heavily narrated by the author. Lastly, third person did not work here because it enhances the boredom of the story rather than engaging the reader in what’s going on. Overall, it was a good idea to bring real historical figures to life, but none of these characters are relatable or memorable. This being said, Kirkpatrick earns significantly less than an average score in this section.

Creativity and Originality (1 point)

Finally, it was a creative idea to make a historical fiction novel that is based on real events – a fact which earns Kirkpatrick a point in creativity. In fact, this is arguably Kirkpatrick’s strongest area. In spite of this, the novel should not become a film or series because the storyline is weak and the characters are one-dimensional. Weak characters are a critical error in any novel, but error is even more apparent in the historical genre because stories with a lot of information depend on strong characters for life and vitality. In conclusion, it would be an interesting idea for a Christian filmmaker to make a movie or series based on the real stories of American settlers, but we do not recommend that they use this novel.

Wish List Rating: 2.5 out of 10 points

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

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Plot & Storyline Quality (3 points)

Susan Meissner’s latest novel is perhaps her best and most creative work to date. The Last Year of the War has a strong storyline, realistic and relatable characters, and a poignant underlying message. Elise Sontag is your average American teenager in the 1940’s. She has a strong and supportive family, good friends, and a positive outlook on life. There’s just one problem – in 1940’s America it is not good to have German ancestry. Elise’s late paternal grandfather was a decorated hero of the first World War, and her paternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles still live in Germany. Her parents immigrated to Iowa before her birth and have only recently applied to become U.S. citizens – a fact they will later come to regret. When the American government comes to a hasty conclusion based on five instances involving Otto Sontag (Elise’s father), Elise’s world is torn apart. Otto is suddenly shipped off to an unknown location out west and the rest of the Sontag family – Elise, her mother, and younger brother Max – are left to fend for themselves. Eventually Elise, Max, and their mother join their father at an internment camp in Texas that is home to Japanese, German, and Irish Americans. Otto and his wife are assigned jobs, Elise and Max are enrolled in a federal school in the camp, and the family is given a small house to live in. In a way, the family’s new daily tasks are not all that different than their old ones, but they are doing them behind a barbed wire fence patrolled by guards and dogs. Elise begins to wonder if her life will ever be normal again – until she makes an unlikely friend named Mariko. Mariko is a second generation Japanese American whose story is similar to Elise’s. She makes a plan for how the two girls will live independent lives going forward and gives Elise hope for a better future. (spoiler) When the war comes to an end, Elise and her family and forced to go back to Germany and Mariko and her family to Japan. As a result, Elise decides that she can no longer rely on her family or Mariko. As one circumstance leads to another, Elise makes a rash decision that will change her life forever. What does Elise decide, and will the two friends ever meet again? To answer both of these questions, read the book! Meissner seems to have hit her stride with this biopic-style novel, a fact that is evident through her use of first-person and her excellent continuity. Likewise, she does a good job of balancing the backstories of multiple characters with the large amount of time covered in the novel. Meissner gives great attention to detail by leaving no plot holes along the way and holds the reader’s attention from cover to cover with her above average dialogue and unexpected twists in the storyline. In contrast, the weaknesses in the storyline are minor. First, the middle of the novel contains a bit too much information, which implies that it needed some more editing. Lastly, the brief language in the latter third of the novel, although realistic in the context it is used, is unnecessary. Thus, Meissner rounds out with slightly less than a perfect score in this section.

Character Development (3 points)

Meissner’s character development is also quite good. Elise is an excellent protagonist who displays realistic emotional responses to traumatic events and has above average dialogue for a female lead. Additionally, the hard lessons Elise learns from her mistakes are very realistic and relatable. (spoiler) Furthermore, Meissner’s creative personification of Elise’s illness gives her and the plot depth. Mariko adds a lot to the novel as well and just as good of a character as Elise – this is a rare sighting in this genre. (spoiler) For instance, when asked whether she is a tomboy, Mariko replies: “I am myself.” This response encompasses the whole of her character and demonstrates the author’s grasp on real, authentic people who do not conform to social norms. Much like the last section, the errors here are minor. First, some of the minor characters get lost in the vast amount of time covered in the storyline, thus making it difficult to keep up with roles of secondary characters. Lastly, characters like Pamela and Teddy are only partially developed and needed a bit more depth; however, as their role in the story is very small, the flaw does not have a grest effect on the plot. Therefore, Meissner earns just short of a perfect score in this area as well.

Creativity & Originality (1 point)

Finally, Meissner earns a half point in creativity for her unique use of plot devices and for the pleasantly unexpected twists in the plot, along with a half point in originality for her exceptional dialogue and outside-the-box characters. We here at BOR think this novel would make a great Christian biopic film or series that depicted the lives of Mariko and Elise. The film would need to pick up the deep yet dubtle themes Meissner weaves through the novel – this could be accomplished through a little editing of the storyline and a great cast. In spite of this, Meissner has set up a great framework for success, so it can be done.

Wish List Rating: 7 out of 10 points

Shadow Among Sheaves by Naomi Stephens

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Author’s Note: We were provided with a free copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Plot & Storyline Quality (2 points)

Naomi Stephens’ first novel is an allegory of the book of Ruth set during the long-standing conflict(s) between Britain and India. Stephens makes an effort to stand out in this novel by not adhering fully to either a typical period drama/romance or a standard Biblical fiction plot. In light of this, Shadow Among Sheaves has several good qualities, however, it also has room for improvement. Rena and her mother-in-law Nell have been left starving and destitute by their dead husbands. This fact has forced them to return to Nell’s homeland – England – in hopes of a better future. After surviving a harrowing journey across land and ocean, the two women finally arrive in Britain, and are immediately forced to face the bitter realities of their situation. Rena battles grief for her beloved Edric with fear for her mother-in-law’s life as they are forced to live like beggars. She is finally able to secure Nell a job washing floors and dishes, and shelter in a brothel storeroom. Her search for a job leads her to the fields of a local wealthy landowner – Lord Barric. Barric’s foreman takes pity on Rena and allows her to gather the excess grain from the harvest. When Rena and Lord Barric meet, he takes pity on her situation and allows her to stay. As time goes forward, she fights against pride and he against society’s expectations as they form a friendship. The paths of these two characters will intersect in ways they never imagined. Stephens presents an intriguing take on the story of Ruth, and brings many parts of the story into a more modern light. While the storyline is interesting for the most part, it doesn’t always hold the attention and is meandering at times. Furthermore, there are an equal amount of average and interesting scenes – some of which are left unfinished. On the whole, Rena and Barric’s relationship is a bit rushed, and I found the honeymoon scenes to be a bit too heady for some audiences. However, as the negatives here could be fixed in movie form, Stephens earns an average score in this section.

Character Development (2 points)

Character development in this novel is also average. Rena is the strongest character because she is crafted through a blend of flashbacks and realistic emotions. However, it is hard to relate to her ups and downs because of the use of third person. Lord Barric is also a good character because he clearly communicates Stephens’ creative, modern take on Boaz. Unfortunately, Barric is somewhat one-dimensional because his character stops just short of having a clearly defined personality. The minor characters – including Uncle George and Charlie – are good ideas, but it is hard to get to know them because of their late entrance into the story. It is also hard to see Thomas as anything more than a strawman. However, as previously mentioned, Stephens poignant use of flashbacks with Rena demonstrate much potential for future novels. Thus, in spite of the errors, Stephens has made a good start here in her first book.

Creativity & Originality (1 point)

Lastly, Stephens earns a full point in creativity for using it to build an allegory around actual historical events and the likely aftermath of the same. As previously mentioned, all of the aforementioned errors could be fixed by a screenwriter. Therefore, I feel that this novel would make a great Christian period drama. A screenwriter could give all the characters depth by using flashbacks with Lord Barric, Charlie, and Thomas – like Stephens did with Rena. Additionally, they could alter some scenes slightly to leave room for the imagination, and others to present a film that is palatable for all audiences. We need more original ideas like this novel in the Christian entertainment world, and we here at BOR hope that filmmakers with recognize this fact soon. Nice job Ms. Stephens! I think that your ideas have the potential to create a new Christian romance genre.:)

Wish List Rating: 5 out of 10 points