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review 2018-05-07 16:11
Forgiveness In The First Degree (True Crime Account) by Rondol Hammer & Phillip Robinson, with Margot Starbuck
Forgiveness In The First Degree - Rondol Hammer,Phillip Robinson,Margot Starbuck

The gun was never supposed to go off. When a drug dealer assured twenty-nine-year-old Ron Hammer and his brother-in-law that they could make some quick easy money, they were intrigued. He promised them that when a local grocer delivered a bag of money to his store to cash Friday paychecks, they only needed to show him a gun and he d hand over the bag. But high on meth and dulled by liquor, they ended up in a scuffle with their target, and the gun accidentally fired. And when Phillip Robinson rushed from the shelves he d been stocking to investigate the commotion at the front of the store, he saw his father lying on the sidewalk, dying. The lives of Ron Hammer and Phillip Robinson, whose paths should only have ever crossed at the grocery checkout line, became inextricably linked by one foolish decision that would shatter a web of lives. Over three decades the two men came to discover not only that they both needed to be set free, but that in God s unlikely economy of redemption their liberation was bound up with one another. Like the famous prodigal son and his dutiful older brother, the moving story of Phillip Robinson and Rondol Hammer reveals how two men wrestling with law and grace discover unlikely redemption. 

~from back cover





POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This book discusses the topics of attempted suicide, murder and otherwise extreme violence (mainly in the form of prison stories that describe scenes of eyes being gouged out and ears bitten off)


In 1986, twenty-seven year old auto mechanic & Vietnam veteran Ron Hammer, high on meth, carries out armed robbery at a local grocery store. In the process, Ron unintentionally kills the father of the store's assistant manager, Phillip Robinson. Hammer, along with his brother-in-law / robbery accomplice / fellow meth addict, flees the scene with the money. Though he evades escape for a time, Ron is eventually caught and sent to prison. The prison sentence forces him to quit meth cold turkey. It is also there in prison that he finds religion, leading him to the decision to approach the Robinson family with his honest apology for his irreversible actions. 


Though at the time of Ron's initial attempt at apology Phillip is a practicing Christian and aspiring pastor, the road to forgiving Ron proves to be a decades long journey. It is not until 1994 that Phillip finds himself ready to honestly hear Ron out on the topic of forgiveness. Once at that place, though, Phillip discovers the blessing that comes in the form of an emotional weight lifted he didn't even entirely realize he was carrying!


The format of this book alternates between Ron's point of view of the events, and then Phillip's. As far as the flow of the writing itself, I found Ron's portions of the story more compelling. When it came to Phillip's portions... him losing his father in such a violent way is undeniably tragic, but from a sheer matter of reading enjoyment, something about Phillip's portions came off as more boring and preachy. Not surprising, I suppose, as Phillip IS a preacher, but I'm just sharing the truth of my reading experience. 


Still, this story is an important one to be shared because look at the message it presents: a man finds it in his heart to bestow honest forgiveness on the man who murdered his father. If a person can do that, it makes any other seemingly "unforgiveable" dealbreaker-type situation easily traversable, doesn't it? There are also takeaways from the perspective of Ron: one can come back from a life thrown into a tailspin via drug addiction and go on to have a powerful testimony of a life bound to help others out of their emotional mires. The book definitely gives you material to think on. 


NOTE: This book does give spoilers for the film The Outlaw Josie Wales and Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables


FTC Disclaimer:  Blue Ridge CWC and FaithHappenings Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2016-10-18 10:30
The Witnesses by Robert Whitlow
The Witnesses - Robert Whitlow

Young lawyer Parker House is on the rise—until his grandfather’s mysterious past puts both of their lives in danger. Parker House’s secret inheritance is either his greatest blessing . . . or his deadliest curse. The fresh-faced North Carolina attorney shares his German grandfather’s uncanny ability to see future events in his mind’s eye—a gift that has haunted 82-year-old Frank House through decades of trying to erase a murderous wartime past. While Parker navigates the intrigue and politics of small-town courtroom law, Frank is forced to face his darkest regrets. Then, a big career break for Parker collides with a new love he longs to nurture and the nightmares his grandfather can no longer escape. Sudden peril threatens to shatter not only Parker’s legal prospects but also his life and the lives of those dearest to him. Two witnesses, two paths, an uncertain future.







Parker House is a North Carolina lawyer whose career seems to be on a steady climb to the top. Living nearby is Parker's German grandfather, 82 year old Frank House, previously Franz Haus.  Frank served as an officer with the German Army during World War 2. During those years, Frank's superiors discover he has quite the talent for having accurate visions of the future. So accurate that he earns the nickname "The Aryan Eagle".  The general Frank answers to keeps him nearby, adjusting the army's battle strategies accordingly. When Frank gets word that his parents and sibling have all been killed in a random bombing in Dresden, he makes the choice to desert his position and flee to Switzerland, spending some months there before making his way to the United States to settle in North Carolina's Outer Banks area. 


Decades pass, Frank is married and widowed, watches his children and grandchildren grow up, thinking all these years that maybe just maybe he's managed to live a life of relative peace. But as life sometimes goes, just as he lets a little bit of that guard down, in walks in that blast from the past. A man by the name of Mr. Mueller appears at the office of Parker, looking for a "Hauptmann Haus". Reluctantly, Frank agrees to a meeting with Mueller who comes to tell Frank a story about how "Hauptmann Haus" gave him some advice that ended up saving his life. Pretty early on, it's made clear that Frank struggles with a mountain of guilt regarding his involvement in war crimes. After hearing Mueller's story, Frank gives a terse kind of "well, you're welcome" to try to wrap up the topic and send the guy on his way but the reader will soon see the business between Mueller and Haus / House is far from done.  


Along with Frank's struggle with guilt, the reader also gets the sense that he may cling to some sense of comfort or familiarity in that pain, for years choosing to nurse the guilt rather than pursue any sort of forgiveness. Given time though, and with a little helpful nudge from his best friend Lenny, Frank does gradually find his way to a path of emotional peace & salvation. Meanwhile, grandson Parker also has his own experiences with the past revisiting him. As a child, Parker lost both his parents in a car crash when their car was struck by a drunk driver. Now, adult Parker finds himself brought in on two DUI / wrongful death cases that lead him to revisit those buried emotions. To complicate matters, in one case he is asked to defend a woman, a friend of one of the firm's partners, who was charged with a DUI with her 8 year old daughter in the backseat; in another case, Parker finds himself drawn to an attractive blonde woman who turns out to be none other than the daughter of a local bigwig trial lawyer that happens to be super protective of his girl.


Frank's portion of the novel is largely made up of pretty grim historical fiction (we're talking about WW2 after all). In his elderly years, when he begins to look into the idea of allowing self-forgiveness, his story turns much more heavily biblically influenced. Parker's portion does have some religious themes as well but to a much lesser degree. 


I felt myself most drawn to Frank's parts of the story. While Parker and his lady friend Layla were entertaining enough, Frank's tale kept me the most engaged throughout the novel. Though his part gets a bit heavy, I couldn't help but be pulled into that World War 2 timeframe. As for being a courtroom drama though, I didn't find this novel terribly exciting. If you're hoping to go into this story for high intensity courtroom brawls, I found this one lacking on that front. Most of the "action" is made up of pre-trial interviews and discussions about filing paperwork. I don't work in law but I suspect that in reality much of a day's work is made up of the mundane, but when it comes to fictionalizing it, a reader tends to want the nitty gritty heated courtroom battles.  


Also, those two storylines -- the present mixed with the WW2 flashbacks -- for me, until I got to the closing chapters of the novel I felt like the ties between Parker's past and struggles and Frank's were pretty tenuous. I was also a bit confused with the premonition "gift", as it was often referred to... I didn't see it in Parker as much. The back cover synopsis says that Parker seems to have gotten his gift passed down from Frank but with both of them I felt like Whitlow didn't quite go far enough with the idea. Rather than something mystical, magical, etc. ... to me, it really just felt like people working off of a basic gut instinct. Umm, pretty much everyone has that "gift" if they're just even remotely in tune with their mind / body connection. No big mystery, really. So I thought that aspect could've been played up a lot more. 


Final verdict -- courtroom / legal drama just so-so for me. What kept me reading was Frank's history as well as the friendship and banter between him and his fishing buddy, Lenny. I thought Lenny seemed like a pretty cool guy. The front cover of this book claims this is great for fans of John Grisham novels. Fair enough. I can back that, but I still find this one secondary to any Grisham I've delved into ... so maybe check it out when you've gone through all of Grisham's catalogue and need something more of the genre. 



FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2016-05-31 06:36
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul. The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Amazon, Goodreads




The Things They Carried follows the varied life stories of men with one American troop during the Vietnam War. Through the items they each carry on their person -- from letters, to choice of personal effects or luck tokens to the supplies entrusted to them -- the reader is given insight into each of these men. The luck tokens in particular, or the glimpse into the source of a soldier's superstitions was especially interesting and sometimes eerie. Like the guy whose choice of "lucky rabbit's foot" was actually the severed thumb of a Viet Cong teen male that had been killed. 


The novel becomes a study in what makes these guys tick as individuals, not only from a soldiering perspective but also simply as a man away from the fatigues. The reader is given a front row seat to life on the battlefield, the daily blend of terror, joy, and boredom thinly laced with anxiety. I thought it was an interesting choice to write in a character that started out as a conscientious objector who fled to Canada but then ended up in service because he couldn't go longer than a week under the weight of guilt. I was just imaging what the atmosphere might be, in reality, within a troop who had just a member on their team!


I can appreciate that O'Brien wants to give readers a realistic view of military life in the field. He doesn't pull any punches, doesn't worry about coddling the reader. I can respect that. But I still found his approach a bit heavy-handed. Sure, he shows that daily life is far from a tea party, but in some cases he made these guys look like unbalanced weirdos. Lt. Jimmy Cross especially, with his obsession over Martha, his lady friend back home. There are all these lengthy passages about him incessantly pondering on the state of her virginity. When she sends him a pebble as a token of what she sees as their separate but connected status, he sucks on this pebble?! Or what about that thought he has regarding the last time he took her out: : "I shouldv'e done something brave...like tie her up and touch her knee." WTF Jimmy. WTF.


That second chapter, "Love" -- anyone else read the description of Martha's tendency to distance herself from intimate moments... anyone else read that and wonder if O'Brien was possibly suggesting that Martha was asexual?


Oh, and what I said about O'Brien not pulling any punches? Well fair warning here for sensitive readers -- some scenes described in this novel get quite graphic and even sometimes involve the extreme harming of animals. There's talk of a guy's death in a sewage field, a live dog being detonated, and men doing target practice for sport on a baby water buffalo. There's also a pretty visual description of one soldier's pre-service job as a "declotter" -- the guy left to rinse blood and any other leftover residue from carcasses -- in a pork processing plant. Nowhere near as bad as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, as far as detail, but still quite the image the way O'Brien describes the small passage. 



It was a little confusing, the way in which O'Brien chose to write this as a sort of autobiographical fiction. Technically, he calls it a novel, but he's writing from inspirations from his own military career and he gives the narrator his name. It's only the second of his books I've read (the first being Northern Lights) so I'm not sure if he does it with all his work. I come across this style every so often and I'm not sure that I'm a fan, overall. It gives me too much of a headache to constantly try to wonder or figure out what's fact and what's fiction when authors bring their own names into the story. Just give me one or the other. {The one exception to this that I can think of is reading Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer -- he used this technique in that novel as well and again, I didn't love that approach, but I did end up really enjoying the novel}. 


Some might find it strange, but I think for me  the most interesting part of the novel was the story of soldier Mark Fossie's girlfriend coming out to Vietnam to visit with him for a few weeks. I thought that section was actually the most compelling because of anyone she seemed to have the most extreme shift in personality, which had me turning pages to try to understand what was happening to her and how far it was going to go. Girl got dark!!


I went into this expecting a certain level of grimness (I grew up with a Vietnam vet father after all, I know well how his experiences shifted our home life), but I was also hoping for something with a bit of the poetic to it. Not saccharine, just honest but with still at least a tinge of beauty to it. To be honest, I was a little hard pressed to find it here. What left me torn as a reader though, was the fact that just from a writing standpoint alone, there are some truly fantastic passages to be found in this book. So throughout my reading I would constantly find myself vacillating back and forth between "Is this a 3 or 4 star read for me?!". In the end, I have to say the rating needle pointed closer to the 3 mark. There is something to O'Brien's writing style that does seem to bring the reader in no matter what, I just seem to keep struggling to fall in love with his general plots or character development. Something in me weirdly wants to keep trying though! 








Per the back cover of this book:


The Things They Carried has won such literary awards as France's Prix de Meilleur Etranger and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize.


It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic's Circle Award




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review 2016-02-26 22:33
Review | The Wedding Chapel by Rachel Hauck
The Wedding Chapel - Rachel Hauck

A lonely wedding chapel built as a tribute to lost love just might hold the long-awaited secret to hope and reconciliation. For sixty years, the wedding chapel has stood silent and empty. Retired football hall-of-famer Jimmy “Coach” Westbrook built the chapel by hand, stone by stone, for his beautiful and beloved Collette Greer, whom he lost so many years ago. The chapel is a sanctuary for his memories, a monument to true love, and a testament to his survival of the deepest pain and loss. Photographer Taylor Branson left her hometown of Heart’s Bend, Tennessee, to make a new life for herself in New York. She had lots to run away from, not least of all a family history of broken promises and broken dreams. Love catches Taylor off guard when she falls for Jack Forester, a successful advertising executive, and their whirlwind romance leads to an elopement—then to second guesses. Jack, in spite of his very real love for Taylor, is battling his own demons and struggles to show her his true self and the depths of his love for her.Taking a photography assignment in Heart’s Bend, Taylor is thrown back into a past of family secrets buried deep beneath the sands of time. When Taylor and Coach’s journeys collide, they each rediscover the heartbeat of their own dreams as they learn that the love they long to hold is well worth the wait.






Though this is the second in Rachel Hauck's "Wedding" series (The third, The Wedding Shop, set to be released this autumn), The Wedding Chapel is not a direct sequel to The Wedding Dress. In fact, I didn't recall coming across any recurring characters from The Wedding Dress here, so this one can easily be read as a stand-alone. 


The Wedding Chapel opens in the year 1949 with the introduction of teen Jimmy Westbrook living the small-town life in Heart's Bend, Tennessee. He's hanging with his buddy Clem one day when Clem shows Jimmy a picture of his two cousins from England. Clem's never met them in person but was told the girls were orphaned after World War II and have now made plans to come to Heart's Bend to live with their next-of-kin. The girls are around the same age as Jimmy & Clem and Jimmy is immediately taken with the looks of one of the sisters. Upon their arrival, Jimmy learns the beauty's name is Collette and over time a friendship develops between them, a friendship tainted by the romantic interest Collette's jealous sister, Peg, has in Jimmy. When Collette & Jimmy start to fall for each other, it begins to create a rift between Collette and Peg, but Collette's in love and believes everything will eventually sort itself out. Little does she know just how deep Peg's devious roots run! 


Jimmy begins to build a chapel for his love for them to marry in, but the construction as well as the relationship is interrupted with the arrival of the Korean War. Jimmy is drafted. When he comes back, he's surprised to find Collette has up and moved to New York with virtually no explanation. But the truth to this one is a tangled story that takes decades to unravel.


Fast-forward to present time, Collette is now an established soap opera actress in her 80s. The show she's worked on for sixty-five years is coming to a close and the network wants a run of final-season promo shots with the cast. The photographer hired to do the photography? None other than Taylor, Collette's -- grand-niece, is it? the granddaughter of Collette's sister, Peg. The two are virtually strangers, having only spoken a couple times in decades. The family drama gets even more convoluted when Collette gets tied up in a ad-campaign headed by Taylor's ad exec husband, Jack Forester, who has messed up familial ties of his own in Heart's Bend.


Taylor also gets extra work shooting pictures of Jimmy's chapel built for Collette, though she doesn't have any clue of her own ties to the building, only doing the work as a paid gig for an architectural magazine. Jimmy also wants to use the pictures because he feels it's time to make peace with the past and finally sell the chapel since after 65 years it would seem that Collette's probably not coming back... So you can see how everyone's going to end up coming together to finally hash out age-old grievances and hurts.


I ended up not loving this one quite as much as The Wedding Dress -- I just thought the storyline in the first book was just a tad more interesting -- but still really enjoyed this one! There's still a bit of historical fiction here for those who liked that about the first book, but it's not the main focus here. The Wedding Chapel focuses more on the intricacies of relationships (both familial and romantic), making peace with emotional wounds that might never get the resolution you want but will probably heal in their own way and in their own time. It also looks at what true love should mean, as opposed to just heated infatuation or obsession, and what one should be willing to do or sacrifice for those they truly care about. Sweet stuff! There was a tinge of sadness to it for me though. Just the idea of Jimmy and Collette being separated for SO many years without a word. The why of this is explained in the end, but there's still a sense of the tragic to it, so much wasted time! But that idea plays well into the theme of letting go of what's passed and embracing what you have right now in the moment. But dang, it took me back to the first time I watched that Mel Gibson Forever Young movie -- gave me the same happy-sad feelings at the end! Speaking of the ending of this book, it's kind of funny that Collette is an established soap opera actress because those little twists and reveals at the end -- talk about soap endings!


But yes, still having a good time with this series and look forward to the next installment :-)



FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2016-02-26 00:56
Review | The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck
The Wedding Dress - Rachel Hauck

Charlotte owns a chic Birmingham bridal boutique. Dressing brides for their big day is her gift . . . and her passion. But with her own wedding day approaching, why can’t she find the perfect dress…or feel certain she should marry Tim? Then Charlotte discovers a vintage dress in a battered trunk at an estate sale. It looks brand-new―shimmering with pearls and satin, hand-stitched and  timeless in its design. But where did it come from? Who wore it? Who welded the lock shut and tucked the dog tags in that little sachet? Who left it in the basement for a ten-year-old girl? And what about the mysterious man in the purple vest who insists the dress had been “redeemed.” Charlotte’s search for the gown’s history―and its new bride―begins as a distraction from her sputtering love life. But it takes on a life of its own as she comes to know the women who have worn the dress. Emily from 1912. Mary Grace from 1939. Hillary from 1968. Each with her own story of promise, pain, and destiny. And each with something unique to share. For woven within the threads of the beautiful hundred-year-old gown is the truth about Charlotte’s heritage, the power of courage and faith, and the timeless beauty of finding true love.





Charlotte Malone decides to take a breather from running her bridal shop one day to take a walk around a local estate sale, not intending to buy anything, just look and take her mind off her stresses. She's surprised to find herself greatly interested in an antique wooden trunk that appears to have it's lock welded shut. A mysterious man in a vibrant purple shirt appears as the auctioneer, somehow coaxing her to bid on the item though she has no use for it. Charlotte ends up winning the trunk, taking it home, and with the help of some friends manages to eventually get it open. Inside, she finds a wedding gown that clearly looks like it's from another era, though she can't quite place which one. Strangely, it also appears to not have any signs of aging, as if it was just completed only yesterday. Charlotte becomes increasingly fascinated with learning the provenance of the gown, her research leading her to the stories of three other women -- Emily from the year 1912, Mary Grace from the year 1939, and Hilary from 1968 -- who all wore this dress on their wedding day. Each woman brings a riveting piece of history to the story of the dress, stories that will come together to explain the dress's pull on Charlotte. 


I expected a sweet, fluffy story going in but found myself pleasantly surprised to come to the last page and realize I really loved this tale! The different points of history are all fascinating and each character is unique and life-like. There are good-hearted characters to cheer for and wicked people to cut eyes at (figuratively, of course). I can't think of one character here, good or bad, that did not hold my interest til the end! And the mystery of the dress itself -- I had to know how all these stories tied together! There's also the cute couplings to enjoy -- the back and forth struggle between Charlotte and her man (not a bad struggle though -- more of a "man, it'll be great when they come around" kind of tension), even through their rough patches they had nice banter and sweet, honest moments. I think my favorite, though, was Mary Grace and her husband as they were portrayed as the old couple in the retirement home, still looking out for each other. Having known couples like that when I worked in those kinds of homes, it definitely brought some warm-fuzzies to my heart :-)


I liked that this story had the blend of sweet, mysterious and heart-tugging without getting over-the-top sappy. These characters just felt like straight-up good people you'd know or meet in your everyday life. That tiniest vein of magical realism -- with the mystery man in purple -- was a pretty cool touch to keep the pages turning as well!


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