Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Vietnam Redux: For Some the Vietnam War Never Ended

Cohen, H. (2015). Vietnam Redux: For Some the Vietnam War Never Ended. Bookbaby.

Adult / Military / Historical & Realistic Fiction

I gave this book 4* of 5 stars

In Vietnam Redux: For Some the Vietnam War Never Ended, author Howard B. Cohen has written an historical and contemporary military fiction story that takes readers back and forth between the Vietnam War and the war that continues today between the Vietnamese and its indigenous Montagnards, allies to American soldiers in the Vietnam War. 

Politician George Darnell brings together former Special Forces buddies Benny Friedman and Frank Stone -- both retired, wealthy, single, and pushing seventy -- and proposes a plan that Benny and Frank can't resist. Darnell, a lobbyist and advocate for the Montagnards and safe emigration for them, has received information that indicates that the Montagnards are planning a violent revolt, which could compromise any progress Darnell has made on their behalf. He asks Benny and Frank, posing as old Vets touring the country, to go on a fact-finding mission within the Montagnard community and to dissuade them from any violence. With the aid of Nyugen Thi Anh, a Vietnamese woman and Montagnard sympathizer, what Benny and Frank discover is that the Montagnards have an unfathomable problem: a plot by the Vietnamese Environmental Adjustment Agency, run by the vengeful Tran van Throng, to carry out the genocide of the Montagnards. Benny, Frank, and Anh join Dan Carter, leader of the Montagnard resistance, as they set-out to destroy the death camps and document the atrocities for all the world to see.  Through flashbacks to the war, readers learn many of the characters' backgrounds -- full of heartbreak, horror, and heroics -- which molded each of them into the people they are today.  Benny and Frank, compelled by their history with the Montagnards, find themselves going back into the jungles of Vietnam to fight to save their former allies.

What is impressive about Vietnam Redux is how author Cohen must have done meticulous research in order to provide such a factual account of the Montagnards and the role they played vis-a-vis the US Special Forces during the Vietnam War. Additionally, he has pulled current events straight from the headlines, where we see as recently as early March, 2015, there were reports of several dozen Montagnards hiding in Cambodia, hoping to seek refugee status for alleged political and religious persecution in their homeland, who were sent back to Vietnam. The reports indicate that some Montagnards have disappeared and there is suspicion of Vietnamese interrogations and torture.  Cohen's story, given the current climate in Vietnam and with the United Nations, is completely feasible. Military enthusiasts will appreciate the level of detail in describing weaponry, war tactics, and engagements, which are graphic and violent and realistic. It's war, after all, but this war has an entirely new rule book, where the lines are blurry between right and wrong, good and bad. The transitions between past and present were smooth and the characters were well defined. Through the last quarter of the book, the tension builds steadily, resulting in readers rapidly turning pages to get to the conclusion.  

*A note about the writing: readers who are bothered by writing errors will be frustrated by this book. The book is in desperate need of a thorough, professional editing. Normally, I do not recommend books that are in need of substantial editing, but Vietnam Redux is an exception. 

This book was reviewed for Readers' Favorite, which provided me an eBook copy in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give.

Monday, March 30, 2015

If I Only Had Thumbs: Chickee Chicken's Story

Gabany, S. (2015). If I Only Had Thumbs: Chickee Chicken's Story. No Name Press.

Children's Picture Book / Problem Solving

I rated this book 4 out of 5 stars

In If I Only Had Thumbs: Chickee Chicken's Story, readers are told the story of momma Chickee Chicken, who gets stranded across a rain swollen stream while she's gathering food for her babies. She realizes the limitations of her own body -- not being able to fly, swim, or build -- and knows that she's going to have to rely on help to get back to her chicks. Readers will be surprised by her rescuer, who just happens to have thumbs to help solve Chickee's dilemma. 

Artist Arlene Berry creates mixed media scenes using papers, acrylics, sketches, and even photographs pulled together to make funky, interesting illustrations. (I am in love with Chickee's rain boots!) The pages are full of texture, color, and detail that kids will enjoy discovering and studying on repeat readings. 

The writing by author Steve Gabany is simple and straightforward, which makes it easy for the youngest to understand and older kids to read alone.  (Side note: I wonder how many kids note that the story includes Mrs. Sun, rather than the more widely used Mr. Sun.) As a personal preference, I think the story would read better and lend itself to little ones memorizing the stories if the lines rhymed and were more parallel in structure. Several great lessons and talking points come through in the story, not the least of which is the utility of having opposable thumbs! This is a fun book, and I look forward to reading some of the other installments in the If I Only Had Thumbs series.

I received an eBook copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give.

To learn more, follow author Steve Gabany on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads!


available February 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)

Simsion, G. (2014). The Rosie Project. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Adult / Contemporary Romance / Humor

I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book and found myself giggling at many a part; however, I am wondering if I am supposed to feel a little guilty about enjoying this book -- is it making light of Asberger's?

Taking it at face value, what made me laugh is how much of myself (and my husband, and my daughter, and many others I know) I saw in the main character, Don. He's precise; he's structured; he's organized to the second with his life and everything in it. He designs everything for maximum efficiency -- I never thought about him as having a disorder because his world is an exaggeration of what many of us strive for in even one area of our lives! To be so organized!!

Don's logic made me laugh, as did his honesty and straightforwardness, which sometimes embarrassed and/or "caught" others who maybe weren't quite so honest or straightforward with their actions. Don evolved over the course of the story, and he was smart enough to realize that he needed to ramp things down a few notches to grow. He also was smart enough to self-assess, and see that his less than logical actions were explained by emotions he had never allowed himself to explore; really, he had never allowed himself to believe he was capable of emotion.

Rosie is quite the counter to Don and it was delightful seeing her layers peel-off; she's a very well-written character. And the sub-story with characters Gene and Claudia was great, too. There were some fabulous scenes that had me full-grinning as I turned the pages (bartender Don!), and there were others that really made me sad: the mark of a good book, in my assessment.

Yes, everything tied-up quite neatly and nicely, and that was perfect for me and this book. There was even an enjoyable twist at the end, foreshadowed a bit but pleasing nonetheless.

Though this is an adult book and Rosie has a potty mouth, I think older young adults would appreciate this book, too. Plenty of people will see something of themselves in it.

I asked and received this book for Christmas, so it was pleasure reading, and I am providing honest review with absolutely no strings attached! How novel!

Book 2 is out! You can sample the first three chapters on Goodreads! Just click "Open Preview."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life

Neal, G.S. (2015). Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life. 2nd Edition. Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press.

Adult / NonFiction / Religion / Philosophy

I gave this book 5 out of 5 Stars

And now for something completely different but perfect food for thought not just for the Lenten season, but year round.

In Grace Upon Grace, the Reverend Dr. Gregory Neal begins by explaining the difference between various faith communities about how God's grace is received. Neal explains that those faith communities which follow sacramental theology believe that grace is received via instruments of grace and those which follow ordinance theology believe grace is received not by any means other than directly from God.  Neal primary discusses the sacramental theology belief, viewing God as always being the primary actor on a Christian's life; however, he often presents and illustrates his points by contrast to the ordinance theology, so readers get a broad understanding of the theologies.  As the book progresses, through a series of questions at the end of each chapter, readers are encouraged to reflect upon not only how they receive grace, but to define how grace looks within one's own life.  Though he is clear to show that he believes the sacramental theology, he doesn't condemn believers of any faith community and reminds us that "God's grace is bigger than our differences." Neal takes readers on a reflective journey that is expertly written and well-researched with footnotes and an extensive bibliography for consideration.

Almost immediately after starting Grace Upon Grace, I realized that I hadn't ever fully explored the definition of grace. As a Christian, I accept and am thankful to God for His grace, but until Dr. Neal posed the question to readers of how they receive grace -- and I was stumped to answer -- I hadn't thought through the particulars. Dr. Neal, in keeping with sacramental theology, teaches that grace cannot be earned or made or produced by humans.  Further, he states that "what grace does for us and within us depends entirely upon where we are in our faith development."  Neal uses analogies and metaphors that illustrate his points, making it easier for the lay person to understand the concepts -- and there are concepts that had my mind spinning.  Thankfully, theological terms are defined and the summary questions at the end of each chapter really help readers focus and reinforce meanings. I would recommend this book to anyone who ponders the wonder of God's grace and who can be open minded enough to see different perspectives of how grace is realized.

This book was reviewed for Readers' Favorite, which provided me an eBook copy in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Theo and the Forbidden Language (The Forbidden Series Book 1)

Ansley, M. (2014). Theo and the Forbidden Language (The Forbidden Series Book 1). Self published.

YA / Adult / Fantasy

I gave this book 5 of 5 stars

This is an amazingly well written story with a unique premise: humans and animals were at one time truly equal and equally civilized - all were clothed, could speak, think, and read. All lived in communities with laws, trade and schooling, religion and marriage. In short, humans and animals lived separately, but similarly. At some point, written language became forbidden for all living creatures, and books were destroyed -- as were any humans or animals who could read them. Also, at some point, humans began to "pacify" the animals, poisoning them so that they lost their civilities and became mindless beasts to do labor for the humans.  

The main character, Theo, a seemingly unremarkable young rabbit, has been shown books and taught to read by his grandfather, Father Oaks. It is his knowledge of the forbidden language that, once discovered by his village, leads to his imprisonment; however, once discovered by outsiders, it is this forbidden knowledge that takes Theo on a quest that may ultimately preserve the animals' way of life and save them from the empire of Mankahar.  But as is the case with most quests, there is danger abounding and doubt about who is trustworthy. 

The world building is fantastic, reminiscent of landscapes and descriptions experienced in books by Tolkien and Lewis. Rich details and eloquent writing will have readers fully engaged with the various settings.  Also richly written are the characters, and whether human or animal, all characters have unique appearances, personalities, and quirks to make them thoroughly memorable. Author Melanie Ansley is a truly gifted writer who evokes a wide spectrum of emotions from readers, who will find themselves pondering some pretty heavy issues.  

Theo and the Forbidden Language works as a stand alone book and the ending happened at a perfect place, where readers had enough information to be satisfied and were ready to take a deep breath after some intense situations. Having said that, personally, I cannot wait for the next installment and MUST KNOW MORE! There are plenty of paths that could be followed in future books, though these loose ends aren't bothersome.  I have faith that the author will satisfy her readers' curiosity.

Sensitive readers be warned: war is a central theme to this book, and Ansley doesn't shy away from its graphic nature.  There are horrible deaths and destruction, fully detailed so that readers have a very clear picture of what is happening.  As such, I recommend this book for mature middle graders and older -- including adults. 

Thank you to the author, who provided to me a free eBook copy in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give.  


Melanie Ansley was born in Windsor, Ontario, then bundled off to China at the age of 5. Her fascination with mythical talking animals started in Shanghai, where she'd buy Chinese comics like "Journey to the West". In the 1980s she spent most of her lunch breaks in her Hong Kong primary school's library, where she developed an insatiable appetite for fantasy and historical fiction. She now splits her time between Beijing and Los Angeles, and has written several produced screenplays. "Theo and the Forbidden Language" is her first novel.

Melanie was kind enough to answer a few of my (serious and silly) questions! Enjoy!

Hall Ways: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?  
MA: I actually wanted to be He-Man's wife. Thankfully that phase ended quickly. Someone must have enlightened me that that wasn't a viable career. So of course I chose writing and filmmaking--which usually aren't viable either! 

Hall Ways: Ha! That's excellent. Based on Theo, I think readers will say you have found a viable career in writing. How would you describe your writing process? 
MA: Slow. I've learned I need to talk things out on the page. My first drafts consist of huge amounts of dialogue explaining what has and will happen. This is of course the anti-thesis to good writing, where you should show, not tell. But it's how I get the thoughts down and then from there I can shape the story. I have learned the painful lesson that I need to have at least a basic outline before I start writing--I usually ignore the outline and "pants" my way through the writing, but setting an outline at least keeps me within the ballpark. 
Hall Ways: This is not your typical talking animals book in that there is both violence and mature themes. When you were writing, who was your intended audience? Did it stay that way once you were finished? 
MA: When I wrote it, I didn't think beyond writing something that I knew I'd want to read--at age 13. This book first began as a few short adventures imagined in my teenage years, when I was most influenced by stories like Redwall, Watership Down, Animal Farm, and The Plague Dogs. I think reading these books introduced me to the idea that animal stories weren't just limited to innocent themes like Peter Rabbit or Black Beauty. They made me realize that animals could be metaphors, and that animal lives can be and are very brutal. We like to create soft fuzzy stories about animals, but the reality is that most of them live harsh, violent lives, whether in the wild or under human domestication. Theo's story started out more mildly, but once it became clear that he would be fighting against domestication, it got me thinking more and more about what that meant, what that process would look like to a sentient animal. And I realized it wasn't the stuff of Peter Rabbit, it was pretty volatile. 

Hall Ways: It really does make you think. Literacy, and the power it brings, plays a big role in the book. How did this originate? 
MA: This really stemmed from realizing that Theo was trying to stop the humans from farming animals. It made me think about what allows us to domesticate animals, dictate how and when they live, when they breed, when they die. And some would argue it's our higher intelligence, but I looked at it from another angle: would we domesticate animals if they had language and could express themselves? Which made me imagine a time where animals did have speech, but somehow lost it, and how as humans we've been able to shape the world to our designs hugely because we can communicate in complex ways. 

Hall Ways: You know, I'd like to say humans most certainly wouldn't treat animals the same if they could speak to us, but history shows humans dominate whatever/whoever can be dominated. It's shameful.  Please tell us in one sentence why we should read your book.
MA: Where else will you be entertained by warrior rabbits and axe wielding bears?

Hall Ways: I certainly can't think of any place, that's for sure.  This is part one of the series, any hints as to what’s next for Theo and his group? How long do we have to wait? 
MA: Theo's going to keep growing, I see him becoming increasingly assertive and “badass” to borrow a contemporary term. At the end of Book 1 he has just come to terms with who he is, and now he must learn what he will fight for. It's something we all have to learn about ourselves: where are our moral lines, when do we fight and when do we lie down? I also see the series as continuing to deal with dark themes that hopefully challenge our views of animals and how we treat them. As to wait time for the next installment, I'm aiming to publish "Theo and the Forbidden Library" by end of 2015, but in the meantime I'll be putting out a novella that tells the story of one of Theo's companions, Princess Indigo, and how she joined this quest. It’s been super fun writing something that is outside of Theo’s world, but ties in.    

Hall Ways: That sounds FABULOUS! I am so excited about the novella and that book two is coming sooner than later.  Thank you so much for answering my questions!  Finally, just for fun. . .
Sweet or Salty? Salty
Print or eBook? Both please. There is no such thing as too many books. 
Cats or Dogs? Don't make me choose! This is an unfair choice.
Desert or Ocean? Ocean.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee for writing, tea for reading.
Text or Talk? Depends: who's on the other end?

Connect to Melanie on her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, add the book to your Goodreads shelf, 
or buy it on Amazon.  

Congratulations to winners Lupe & Ann!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Now Available: Prequel Novella

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Blackwell Family Secret: The Guardians of Sin

Ferrara, J. (2014). The Blackwell Family Secret: The Guardians of Sin. Newton Square, PA: Dragonwell Publishing.

Young YA / Middle Grade / Urban Fantasy

I gave this book 4* stars

For the past nine years, sixteen-year-old Nicholas has been living at St. Christopher's Academy as its only year-round boarder. Orphaned after his parents were murdered -- which Nicholas witnessed -- Nicholas now has a penchant for trouble and gave up on God long ago.  As the new school year begins, a new student, Amy, draws Nicholas's attention, and a trickster serpent tempts Nicholas into doing something with dire consequences -- Nicholas releases the Seven Deadly Sins, which his parents had confined, into the world of mankind.  It is up to Nicholas to discover the secrets of his family, the Blackwell family, and correct his mistake, but Amy, who has secrets of her own, pledges to help him. Nicholas learns he must defeat the Princes of Hell, each a guardian of one of the seven deadly sins, and Nicholas and Amy begin an adventure into the world of Demonio.  There, the pair finds information and help through a colorful group of Risen demons, who tell Nicholas that in order to defeat the princes and save mankind, he must retrieve each Prince's piece of the Devil's Crown.  Nicholas, Amy, and the Risen demon Pugdush, put their lives on the line as they battle the guardians of lust, sloth, greed, gluttony, envy, pride, and wrath -- but will they succeed in defeating the devil himself? In The Blackwell Family Secret: The Guardians of Sin, Jonathan Ferrara creates a fantastic world with fantastic creatures where the battle between good and evil rages, and the fate of the world is in one boy's hands.

          The Blackwell Family Secret is an easy-to-read, interesting story with a great premise and a rich parallel world of fantastic creatures. Author Ferrara's descriptions of this world and these creatures are really the book's strongest points, giving readers vivid images to carry as they read. Ferrara's imagery definitely sets the mood for his scenes, as in the opening chapter that starts with  "decrepit gravestones scattered across the dead field."  The main characters aren't very fleshed-out, and our protagonist, Nicholas, isn't much of a hero, though he clearly thinks himself one (hmm, do I smell pride?), and readers will chuckle at his vow to protect Amy when she's just saved him from dying at the hands of a Prince of Hell. The message behind this is probably a good reminder that most great accomplishments aren't done alone.  There is a heavy theological aspect to the book, but it's paired with the mystical via the Enchanteds, so it doesn't feel too preachy. Attentive readers will figure out most of the secrets pretty easily, and readers will eventually be given a reason for why Nicholas and his group conquer each Prince of Hell with relative ease, though explanation or not, the battles could be a bit of a disappointment for some readers.

          In The Blackwell Family Secret: The Guardians of Sin, there's never much question of how it all will turn out, but it's fun getting there.  The book would benefit from a thorough editing to correct writing and formatting errors (*really a 3.5 rating) and though it's pitched as young adult, the writing seems geared more towards middle grade readers, who will also more readily accept some of the elements of the story.  Reluctant readers will appreciate the fast pace, and Jonathan Ferrara has definitely left the door open for sequels -- the possibilities there are unlimited. (And if he goes there, I would love a book about the history of the Blackwell men and their fate! Good stuff there!)

This book was reviewed for Readers' Favorite, who provided me a free eBook in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give.