Kate Davidson was widowed when her husband, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, was tragically killed in a car accident. She and her husband were strong believers in God, but his death has left her faith shattered as she struggles with understanding how a loving God could allow something like this to happen. Trying to keep things as normal as possible for herself and the three children she has been left alone to raise, Kate takes them on a picnic to their favorite mountaintop vista, known as "Top of the World." When a freak thunderstorm rolls in, Kate and the children battle high winds and heavy rain as they slowly make their way back down the mountain, but are finally rescued by a kind stranger who owns a cabin nearby.
Widower, Seth Orbin, was heading to his vacation home in search of some peace and quiet to think and pray. When he sees Kate and the kids struggling against the elements, his first thought is to get them to safety, but the unusual ferocity of the storm makes it impossible for him to take them home. Instead, he gets them warm, dry, and settled in his cabin, inviting them to spend the night. Seth is a strong man of God who never stopped believing in and loving Him even after his wife and young son were killed by unfriendly natives while on a missions trip. He finds himself immediately drawn to Kate and her children, but somewhat reluctant to become involved with her because of her crisis of faith. They begin to build a friendship as Seth takes Kate's children on frequent outings, but their budding relationship is put to the test as they weather through a suspicious fire at his sawmill, illnesses, and obsessive exes. Through all the trials and tribulations of life, can Kate finally find the peace she's been seeking and allow God to restore her joy?
Joy Restored is the first story in The Chronicles of Chanute Crossing, a two book series following the lives of Seth Orbin and Kate Davidson. It's difficult to know where to begin this review. I've never particularly enjoyed writing critical reviews. Since becoming a writer myself, I like them even less, and never more so than when an author has personally asked me to review their work. Therefore, it is with some measure of reluctance that I will endeavor to explain why I was only able to award Joy Restored with 2.5 stars, but I feel that I owe it to myself, my readers, and the author to be as honest as possible.
For starters, I'll say that I did like Seth and Kate for as well as I got to know them, but I saw numerous missed opportunities for much richer character development. Seth is extremely good with Kate's kids, and I liked how he immediately put them at ease from the moment they met. Despite having suffered through the tragedy of losing his wife and young son to unfriendly natives while on a missions trip in Ecuador, he is still a man of strong faith who believes in God's innate goodness. I really would have liked to see more details on why he and his wife chose to go on this trip, and exactly how his wife and son died, as well as Seth's feelings following that event. Seth is also described as a good employer, and as someone who gives back to the community and helps those in need, but we never actually see any of these things. I dearly would have loved to see him in action as the benevolent employer or philanthropist. In one scene, there is a fire in Seth's sawmill, which I think would have been far more interesting had Seth run into the plant to save someone's life or simply to make sure everyone got out safely. At least this would have shown him to be heroic and would have made sense. Instead he went into a burning building for no apparent reason and then stood there watching the fire, which seemed extremely foolhardy, and then of course, he got hurt. As for Kate, she's an excellent mother to her three children who has done an admirable job of continuing on with life for the sake of her kids even though her heart aches after losing her husband in a car accident. Her husband was a Vietnam vet who was struggling with what was most likely PTSD although it wasn't named. There was one moment where she considered the possibility that he might have run his car off the road deliberately, but then it was never mentioned again. Kate has a background as an artist, but we never get to see her in action doing what she supposedly excels at. Instead, she moves from being a receptionist to the design department of the greeting card company where she works with little fanfare. Late in the story, and quite out of the blue, Kate mentions starting a support group for military wives who had lost a husband in or immediately following the Vietnam conflict. Again, I thought this situation was ripe for more scenes of her in action. It would have been a great place for her to work through her anger at God, but sadly, we never get to see a meeting at all.
Unfortunately, Joy Restored relies heavily on an inspirational romance trope that's been done to death, that of one main character who has lost their faith (or never had it to begin with) and one who is a strong Christian who is reluctant to get involved with them because of it. Despite it's overuse, I can still enjoy this theme when it's done well, but in this case, I felt, once again, like there were many missed opportunities. Kate was a strong believer in God before her husband's accident, and it's not like she became an atheist because of it. She's merely a woman who is struggling with the idea of a benevolent God allowing terrible things like this to happen. She was trying though, counseling with her priest and seeking answers, and I felt that she desperately wanted to understand and get back to where she was before the accident. This phenomena isn't all that uncommon, so I honestly didn't see why Seth had a problem with it. Having lost his wife under perhaps even more tragic circumstances and admittedly struggling with it for a time, he was in a very unique position to understand what Kate was going through and help her, but instead he spent a fair bit of the story largely ignoring her and sending her mixed messages. He spent a lot of time with Kate's children but not her at first, which didn't make a lot of sense to me. Why would a man want to spend time with a woman's kids if he's not interested in building a relationship with her? Seth would occasionally do something nice for Kate that didn't necessarily involve the kids, but then next thing we know, there's another woman in his life. Right before the fire he says he cares about Kate, but can't be with her because of her crisis of faith, which seemed forced and overblown, especially considering he had no trouble dating Elizabeth for two years when she was even less of a believer than Kate. This seemed very hypocritical to me. Then immediately after the fire, he's tells Kate that he wants to be with her and can see her faith, it's just buried. Seth was all over the board so much, I didn't really know what to think, and with this being the case, it was very difficult to sense any romance building between this couple.
The villains are little more than caricatures and have no real teeth. They appear in the story only briefly and infrequently, merely to create a little conflict. I've always been told as a writer that every good villain has a good backstory, but the two in this story have little to speak of. Their motives are weak and ill-defined. I had no real idea why Elizabeth was obsessed with marrying Seth, nor do I have any idea why Willard suddenly developed a thing for Kate and became stalkerish. I also didn't understand why Seth would even want to go out with a woman like Elizabeth at all, much less date her for two years, plus fancy himself in love with her and seriously considering marriage. Her personality was so far removed from both his first wife and Kate that she didn't seem like his type at all. In any case, he should have put Elizabeth in her place the minute he realized he wasn't in love with her instead of allowing her to keep coming around and tormenting Kate. For her part, Kate should have told Seth about her disastrous date with Willard and that the man wouldn't leave her alone after that. The fact that she didn't seemed to make a bigger deal out of it than it was. I felt that if her relationship with Seth couldn't weather a single dating mistake, during which nothing really happened, then they probably didn't belong together, especially since Seth had spent two years with the wrong woman.
The technical aspects of the writing could have used a lot more polish as well, and this is one area where I couldn't help wondering if the editor was asleep. There were times when a character might be doing one thing and in the next paragraph doing something else entirely. Sometimes the sequencing of thoughts and actions seemed out of order too, and perhaps were even continuity errors. (eg. Seth asks his parents what they think of Kate when she visits him in the hospital. He says it as though they've never met her, but they actually had met her quite some time before when they picked her kids up for an outing.) In a similar vein, a character might be thinking about one thing and then their thought process suddenly takes a flying leap in logic. (eg. Kate is thinking about having heard that Seth is seeing another woman and in the very next sentence she thinks, "Maybe I can get him to help figure out what's wrong with Maggie." Not only did the two things have absolutely nothing to do with one another, but up to that point there had been no inkling whatsoever that Maggie had a problem.) In all these instances, more transition details were sorely needed. Many sentences are written very simplistically with few words and/or basic word choices. In these cases, using more complexity in sentence structure and more engaging words could have really made the narrative sparkle. Sometimes the character's actions and introspections are too far removed from one another. (eg. Kate might think about something Seth did long after the fact when she should have been thinking about it in the moment to make her feelings more powerful and give them more immediacy.) There are also times when she might think about something Seth or someone else did but it didn't actually happen in the narrative. In my opinion, actually writing these scenes out would have made the story more interesting and given it more action instead just passively telling about these events.
I felt the dialog was very rough around the edges too. To begin with, Seth and Kate don't communicate well. In fact, they barely communicate at all when it comes to really important matters like relationship stuff, so the dialog often seemed like nothing more than filler, not really moving the plot forward or developing the characters like it should have. Seth and Kate spend way too much time wondering what the other is thinking and feeling rather than asking, especially Kate, which could be very frustrating to read. Even when this isn't the case, the dialog doesn't particularly embody the natural flow of conversation. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there frequently isn't a natural back and forth exchange, but rather one character asking several questions and/or making several comments right in a row without giving the other person a chance to respond. The other problem I saw was the author way over-uses names in dialog which just about drove me to distraction. Nearly every line was, "Katalina, this" or "Seth, that." This is something that should be done sparingly as we rarely use people's names in real life, day-to-day conversations.
The one thing I can give Ms. Urbanski credit for are her settings. They are very nicely described, especially "The Top of the World," Seth's cabin, and the surrounding wooded areas. They sounded absolutely beautiful, and I dearly would have loved to have seen more of these things in the narrative. The only small complaint I have in this regard is that although the exact time of the story isn't specified, it's pretty clear that it's set in the 1970's. Nowhere in the cover blurb does it even hint at this when it really should have. The blurb should set the scene for the story, and the lack of more modern technologies such as cell phones, personal computers, and email almost puts this book in the historical realm. All this notwithstanding, I did enjoy the era. All the toys that the kids play with and the mention of popular music was like a blast from my own past. One other thing that Ms. Urbanski did well was her rendering of Kate's children. They each had their own distinctive little personalities, and were all depicted very age-appropriately.
In conclusion, throughout reading Joy Restored, I felt like I was skim-reading a much longer novel with most of the details removed. It seemed like little more than the skeleton of a story that needed a lot more meat on its bones to be an engaging read. I desperately wanted the author to dig deeper and make me truly feel something, because as is, I sensed very little connection to her characters or story. Many of the situations could have lent themselves well to rip-your-heart-out emotional moments, so I was very frustrated not to feel more. There were just way too many conflicts and disasters for one relatively short novel. Every chapter or two someone was sick, injured, stranded, or being attacked by one of the villains, not to mention the tragedies that both Seth and Kate suffered before meeting. In my opinion, Joy Restored would have been a much better story if Ms. Urbanski had focused on only a couple of these things in a lot more depth, because cramming so many in only served to water the events down and make me feel like she was torturing her poor characters to death. The title seems to indicate that it's mostly about Kate searching for the answers to restore her joy, and in a way it is. However, this part of the story seemed more like a belabored point that then had a magical solution. I truly wanted to like this book, but unfortunately, I am only able to chalk it up to a lackluster read.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
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