Review: The Devil in Pew Number Seven

In the non-fiction The Devil In Pew Number Seven, pastor Robert Nichols and his family are terrorized by a neighbor in the small town of Sellerstown, NC.  I’m not talking about knocked over trash bins or trampled flowerbeds.  I’m talking about threatening letters and phone calls, no fewer than 10 separate bombing incidents, and the hiring of a sniper to riddle the family’s home with bullets.

The account is narrated by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo, the pastor’s daughter, and eldest child.  Now grown with a family of her own, she decided that the story needed to be told.  What she and her family endured at the hands of a neighbor (Mr. Watts) might enrage you on several levels.  First, you will be furious that a disgruntled church member could spend his days terrorizing a young family.  (Watts had lost his control over the local church when the new pastor came to town.  This didn’t sit well with him.)  Then, you might experience what I felt, and that was pure incredulity that the pastor refused to move his family to safety.  He was determined to continue turning the other cheek.  He forgave in the name of Jesus, flatly refusing to leave his parish, or his home.

The attacks grew worse.  Dynamite was detonated around their home… even next to Rebecca’s room.  Mr. Watts killed their dog.  He flattened their tires.  He would grin at them while they talked with police.  He continued to evade the law.  The pastor and his wife continued to pray for him.  When their daughter and son would cry to them in fear of what would happen next, they would calm them by quoting scripture.  It was more important to forgive than to run away.

Spoiler alert (stop here if you don’t wish to know the outcome):

Mr. Watts did not kill the pastor’s wife.  She was, however, murdered when the children were quite young.  She was shot by a deranged man, who was infuriated because the pastor and his family took in his wife and infant son (to help keep them safe from his abuse).  This man shot both the pastor and his wife.  Only the pastor survived.

The man who shot the couple went to prison.  Eventually, enough evidence was accumulated to also send Watts to prison.  The damage, however, was done.

Following the death of his beloved wife, and years of unrelenting fear at the hands of Watts, the pastor’s nerves got the better of him.  He had several nervous breakdowns, and over the course of the next few years, completely fell apart.  They finally moved from their home to live with relatives in another city.  He grew worse.  He started hearing voices.  He started questioning why he didn’t move his family.  He was repeatedly hospitalized.  It didn’t help.  The pastor died when Rebecca was 14, and her little brother was 9.  They were heartbroken.

Following the death of the father she idolized and adored, Rebecca, now living with her Aunt and Grandparents, received a phone call.  It was Watts.  He was out of prison.

He called to tell her that while in prison, he had found the path to Jesus.  He wanted her to know how sorry he was for his behavior.  He wanted her forgiveness.  And at the age of 14, she did just that.  She forgave him.  Watts then kept in touch with her over the years, and set up trust funds for Rebecca and her younger brother.  Being a very wealthy man, this was easy to do, and likely the only way he thought he could help.

At the end of the book, Rebecca tells her readers that she’s sure that her forgiveness of Watts would be questioned.  But really, how else could she overcome her grief?  It’s how she was raised.  It’s precisely who her parents wanted her to be.  She shares:

“Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

You can’t help but marvel at her strength, and her unwavering faith.  This story was not about terror.  It was simply about the power we have to forgive.  3 stars.

Review: The Last Romanov

With many thanks to Netgalley and Sourcebooks Landmark, we were given the opportunity to read The Last Romanov before its April 2012 release.  The Royal Romanovs have long been the fascination of many, as their extravagance and naiveté ultimately led to their horrific murders in 1918.  The story is a tragedy of enormous proportions, starting with a Tsar who could not see the political upheaval that threatened both his country and his family.

This account follows the life of Darya Borodina Spiridova (fictional); a woman whose devotion to the Russian Imperial Family brought her riches, love, and eventually, a haunted existence.  The bulk of the story takes place during the reign of Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, during which Darya is a young woman.  Darya’s charge is the Tsar and Tsarina’s sickly son Alexei, the heir to the throne.  Alexei’s days are plagued by hemophilia, a bleeding disease that consistently threatens the child’s life.  Darya was largely responsible for the boy’s wellbeing, including keeping his disease at bay.

The book’s quirky turn is that Darya is magical.  She has one opal eye, which allows her to heal the sick, sense danger, and see people’s true characters.  When threatened, she tastes ash.  If hurt, she simply heals herself.  When angered, she could scare the wits out of just about anyone.

Her attempts, however, to heal the ailing Alexei were not enough to please the Royal couple, which led to the introduction of the infamous Rasputin.  The “Mad Monk” was reputed to be a mystic, and a faith healer.  With his calming words, he could stem Alexei’s affliction at a moment’s notice.  (Skeptics have long maintained that he did not heal the boy, but rather hypnotized him into a calmer state, which would diminish the symptoms of the disease.)  Regardless, he became an integral character of the book, as repugnant as he was.  Darya wasn’t a fan, but the two eventually shared an odd mutual respect.

In the book, Darya witnessed the murder of the Romanov family.  She maintained afterward that Alexei survived the execution, and she believed this to be true until the ripe old age of 104.  It was just a matter of finding him.  Her only goal in life was to put Alexei where he belonged: on the throne.  Hence, The Last Romanov.  Over the course of her life, Darya became an eccentric and formidable character, one who readers likely won’t forget.

While I’m always enthusiastic about reading stories about the Romanovs, this story was a bit of a reach for me.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it; it was very creative.  It was a good mix of historical fiction and fantasy.  What left me a little perplexed was why Darya had to have special powers.  For me, it made the story teeter between a really good read, and a fantasy from the YA category.  The story of the Romanovs is fascinating enough; it doesn’t need a new character who has otherworldly talents (including a secret past).  Truly, during such an opulent time, the protagonist’s powers were almost… superfluous.  The story didn’t need more magic.  Rasputin took care of that.  3 stars.

Review: The Boy in the Suitcase

Well this one certainly built up steam and came to a pulse-pounding finale!

I have to admit however, up until this point, with little more than 50 pages left, I felt like it was just an okay read. Not bad, but nothing to run right out and grab a hold of a copy NOW type read.


Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse, wife, and mother of two, is a compulsive do-gooder who can’t say no when someone asks for help—even when she knows better. When her estranged friend Karin leaves her a key to a public locker in the Copenhagen train station, Nina gets suckered into her most dangerous project yet. Inside the locker is a suitcase, and inside the suitcase is a three-year-old boy: naked and drugged, but alive.
Is the boy a victim of child trafficking? Can he be turned over to authorities, or will they only return him to whoever sold him? When Karin is discovered brutally murdered, Nina realizes that her life and the boy’s are in jeopardy, too. In an increasingly desperate trek across Denmark, Nina tries to figure out who the boy is, where he belongs, and who exactly is trying to hunt him down.

What I thought: Firstly, this description I don’t think really captures the story well enough or does it justice. It’s so much more than being about Nina. Secondly, I note that this states it’s “Nina Borg #1” obviously meaning this is a series. I can’t say that Nina Borg was the character that brought me back to the pages in this one. I felt her to be a hapless, silly heroine that mmmm, kind of came across as a tad whiny to me, or unfocused and her “need to help” was really more of a selfish side of her that doesn’t cope well with family obligation…The one character that I really thought was the shining star was the boy in the suitcases mother, Sigita. Now there was someone you could easily identify with and get behind in her hunt to find her son.

We also waited until the story was about 80% complete before we found out the reason for Mika being stashed in to a suitcase and that was a great twist. It’s definitely not what you’re thinking, but you had to sit and wait a bit for it.

Overall, not bad, but I think I have to go back to my earlier impression before the pulse-pounding, highly dramatic, tense ending which was that I was slightly confused at times, and not really clicking with Nina as the one to save the day. 3 stars for me.

Review: The Maid

Firstly, many thanks to NetGalley, and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the opportunity to read The Maid!   This was my first Joan of Arc book.  I was excited to read her story, as up to this point, I confess that I knew very little about her.  Not the case anymore, however, as this story certainly put her short life into historical context.  She was a fascinating character; a peasant girl who responded to God’s call, and helped bring about the end to the Hundred Years’ War.  Her campaign in 1429 unquestionably helped lead France to victory against the English.  Largely because of her, France eventually won their country back.  Thousands of lives were lost, and it was truly amazing that this “Maid” repeatedly gave the war cries that energized an army.  They relied on her, revered her, and then, when she needed them the most, they turned their backs to her.  Everyone knows that Jehanne d’Arc was eventually captured by the English, and burned at the stake.  She was seventeen when she died.  Hardly an end befitting a young woman with that kind of devotion, heart and candor.

Did Joan truly hear the voices of Saints?  Did she really have conversations with Saints Michael, Margaret or Catherine?  Was her determination to lead a French army God’s mission, or the ravings of a madwoman?  Many today have dismissed her “voices” as a sign that she was schizophrenic.  I would love to believe otherwise, however, if only for her sake.  She was recognized by the Catholic Church as a Saint in 1920, so surely her life had some divine qualities.

Overall, while the story of Joan of Arc is never dull, I did struggle to feel true attachment to any of the book’s characters, including Jehanne.  There is no doubt that this young woman led an incredible life, but this story felt rushed.  The writing also jumped between styles, from narrator to Joan’s personal observations, which was odd.  Felt like there should have been more emotion behind the historical account, and there always seemed to be something lacking from the descriptions.  A decent read, but may leave you wanting more from this slice of history.  3 stars.