All Things Bright and Strange

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 Mar 2018

Member Reviews

Enter the days of prohibition and bootlegging.

Set in a small South Carolina town, Bellhaven in the 1920s this is a historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and horror. 

I have to say I did find this to be a rather odd book with a mix of romance, war, religious symbolism, magic, and baseball! Touching on issues such as racism and hate crimes. A pretty eclectic range of things all wrapped up in one book where the main theme running through it being Good v Evil.

It takes place after WWI in a small town near Charleston with a mysterious chapel in the woods that people can communicate with their departed loved ones. The 'healing floor' feels like a slice of heaven to the townspeople...until it slowly starts to turn the townspeople malicious.

With some quirky characters, some not so likeable this is a compelling story bringing the characters to live and the book draws you right into Bellhaven.

Reminiscent of Stephen King's Needful Things this is a somewhat unique, mystifying read but all in all I am glad I read it!

Many thanks to the author James Markert, publishers Thomas Nelson--FICTION and NetGalley for my copy in exchange for an honest, independent review.
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All Things Bright and Strange starts off ok, but gets lost in the middle. It's sort of horror but not that spooky, it's sort of science fiction but not that well developed, kind of fantasy? It could have been interesting, but it gets quite muddled and doesn't commit to one direction so I struggled to keep my attention on it.
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This book is hard to categorize.  There are elements of the gothic (Southern gothic), some magical realism, there is some Lost Generation throwback, there are moments where this book grapples with racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination and bigotry of all sorts.  Despite all those big concepts, it is a book that is light on its feet and imminently readable.  It asks us to consider how, exactly, the collective can continue to push forward and progress without losing the best parts of itself in the process.  Since I think that’s a question worth addressing, I really found value in this book.  There is a wry humor to this book (the main character reminds me of a Hemingway character), with a good dash of whimsy, and the language is at times lush and evocative. There are characters to fall in love with, be angry at, and appreciate for the people they are and the choices they make.

Ellsworth signs up for the War (that would be WWI to us) as a way to process his grief over losing his wife in a fire.  He comes back damaged, as did many young men.  We come to realize that Ellsworth’s life is not one that could simply be explained by the known forces in our world.  As his town struggles to find ways to heal and unite after war, slavery, and in the face of a changing world, they discover a little chapel in the woods.  Although not all can see it, this chapel does not live up to its promise of salvation.  Ellsworth and the team he assembles, so very far from perfect, must work together to be their best selves in order to help the town that they love and the people in it.  

I would recommend this book to: anyone who struggles to accept themself as a result of perceived difference.  Anyone who has wondered about their purpose.  The first half is a slow burn as the reader gets to know the characters, but the plot quickly runs downhill starting at about the 50% mark.  I found this book relevant to the current climate, and so someone looking for a way to encapsulate preoccupation about tolerance in a fiction novel would do well to read this one.
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I admittedly struggled a lot with this book. The premise is interesting enough, but the writing drags forever. There are dozens of characters to keep track of, and they all slip in through the cracks. You don't think anything of them when their names are listed, but suddenly they have portions of chapters and entire background stories that make their actions important. I shouldn't need a map of characters to help me understand and enjoy a book. Sure, it's an entire town that Ellsworth is holding up, but even by the halfway point, I was confused and tired of meeting even more new characters.

I also never truly got the feeling that this book takes place after WWI. Despite the number of times it was brought up, the writing didn't ever encapsulate that. This could have been any old town in any decade, and I was hoping for something more genuinely historical. The main character sounds more like a cranky old man than someone who just came back from the war, and all the characters are almost too old-timey to be believable. They're filled with too many cliches, and maybe that's just my lack of knowledge about the south during that time, but everyone felt like they were on a movie set rather than real characters.
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A really wonderful book. Markert has an excellent writing style that helps the plot and pacing flow along at a great speed. Enjoyable characters and plot.
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A mysterious chapel in the woods draws townsfolk to it. Legend says the church has a healing floor, but the truth is the more time you spend on it, the older you get. Ellsworth, the protagonist is both enthralled by the chapel and decided to get to the bottom of the mysteries that surround it.
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All Things Bright and Strange by James Markert has been labeled Christian fiction, historical fiction, and Southern fiction. It is and it isn't. What I enjoy about the book is its very strong message of tolerance. This small South Carolina town is quite diverse in its ethnic, racial, and religious demographics. Yes, it is constructed to make a point, but it works for it repeats a powerful message. More unites us than divides us, and standing together, good prevails. For that, I label this book enjoyable, thought provoking fiction. 

Read my complete review at 

Reviewed for NetGalley
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I really enjoyed this author's voice as much as I enjoyed the story itself. It's a little bit reminiscent of Stephen King (the premise really reminded me of Needful Things) - but it's a unique story all on it's own. Not just a creepy horror story, it's got a social message as well. Using the history of The Old South and placing the characters at the dawn of the modern era (post WWI) really allows the reader to feel and understand the conflicts and struggles the characters face in their every day lives - they are trying to get on with a normal life when the past is literally buried and boiling underneath them. This was a really interesting, engaging read.
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Interesting fascinating book. Sad but...hopeful too
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In the wake of WWI, Ellsworth Newberry is grieving for his wife and the life they could have had together. All he wants is to be left alone. But when a strange chapel is unearthed in the woods, Ellsworth may be the only one who can lead his community in a fight against an unknown, unseen enemy. Part Christian fiction, part horror, part historical fiction, All Things Bright and Strange starts off strong, but gets lost along the way.
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When I think of this book, the word atmospheric comes to mind. I felt transported to Bellhaven each time I picked it up. The people there are essentially good, but some bad things have happened to them, leaving them altered and slightly off. The story of Bellhaven builds slowly but isn't boring as a consequence. It's a comfortable, small town kind of pace that suits the story. I enjoyed it and plan to read more from the author.
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I was given a copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review. 

This is a story about Ellsworth who returns home after losing his wife and being injured in the war. He's coping only just and with a new neighbor moving in and longtime one growing old, something starts happening in the woods. There is a church hidden deep among the trees, visiting it grants peace of mind and brightened spirits, but is it as benevolent as it seems? Strange things start happening around town, people are choosing sides, and Ellsworth is one of the few with a clear enough mind to act.

I have some mixed feelings about this book and my review will contain minor spoilers.

I enjoyed the style and the pacing, it had a very personal feel to it. When I sat down to read the book I finished it in one day, it really pulled me in and kept me engaged. Even though there were a lot of characters I could distinguish them all from each other, although I interposed Raphael and Gabriel often enough I still knew who they individually were. That's probably my dyslexia more than anything!

I really enjoyed Ellsworth and I didn't think I would from the first few chapters. He has a lot of depth and compassion to him. To see his transformation from disabled and suicidal to a person of conviction and determination was fantastic. Eliza, ohgosh I loved the chapter with her diary, the concept of what she was doing and how, it grabbed my imagination. 

I really, really appreciated how race wasn't shied away from, which worried me in the first chapter where they were saying it was a special town that doesn't see race. I thought it was going to be brushed off as no big deal when the time period especially would say otherwise. It was later talked about in a very real and serious way and the inclusion of the KKK was horrific but again, appreciated. 

I have two, two and a half points that sort of took me away from the story. 

The first being when they were talking about their names and how they were named after the archangels and essentially protectors of the town. It's really neat idea and has great symbolism. My issue was that as they were talking I was picking up on it and then flat out, point blank, let me make you a bulletpoint list, one of the characters says exactly that. It was kind of slapped in the reader's face when it didn't need to be. 

And in that same vein, America Ma, while I thought was an interesting concept, made things too easy. Most the time she was unknown and mysterious, a voice, a person, watching over everyone, seeing everyone, whispering words in the night. But then, ahhh, but then when there was an important plot point that needed to happen or be found out, someone would blurt out all the answers and say 'America Ma told me' and that was that. It felt too easy and I hate to use this term because I know how difficult it is to write a book, but it felt like lazy writing. Which I'm certain it wasn't, it just left me feeling let down. 

And lastly there was the ending. I didn't hate it, but I was a little... confused? Maybe. The sword suddenly and the gunfight and what happened to Ellsworth. It made me feel like there were a certain number of pages and everything had to be squished into that. I sort of wanted more. And maybe that's not really a flaw of the book. But it made me feel like there was all this potential and it only got to like 80% In the end, the town wasn't able to choose, Ellsworth picked their path for them and I suppose that made me feel like most the town learned nothing from what had happened with the church. 

There was a lot about race, religion, and addiction and I feel like the message could have been pushed just a bit further to really leave an impact. But I mean, it's been a few days and I'm still thinking about it, it'll probably stay with me for a while.
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Going into this book, I wasn’t quite sure what it was truly about. The summary seemed intriguing, and now having read it, the summary tells you what happens in the book. Personally, this probably isn’t a book I’ll pick up again. For me, it was a tad anti-climatic and the Christian themes were evident and semi-well-written.

This book takes place in 1920’s South Carolina and follows Ellsworth Newberry. Ellsworth is a guy in his 20’s who has just come back from WWI without his best friend and his leg and returns to the town where he grew up but also where he lost his wife, Eliza. Ellsworth, while trying to figure out some way to live is still seen as the undeclared town leader. Everyone looks up to him. After an incident in the woods, Raphael, the boy his wife died trying to save, brings him to this chapel in the woods where he hears his wife’s voice and then everything starts to go downhill from there that ends in a fight between good and evil; pieces on a chessboard that have been moved and put in place in order that evil may win. But in the end, good prevails.

The main thing I liked about this book was the image of what the town was. In the beginning, and again, in the end, the town and the people in it were wonderfully written. It held the idea of being different from the other towns around it because of the inclusion of everyone. The first picture that you get is everyone in the town hall dancing and having fun, regardless of their religion or race. I LOVED that. For me, it reinforced the idea of what true fellowship is supposed to be. On Wednesday nights, the youth group I volunteer at are going through a series that just went over the inclusiveness of Heaven and how it was meant to be multi-ethnic, not segregated. This scene again, reinforced that idea for me before it all was torn to shreds.

All throughout the book, there was this idea of evil showing itself as good; looking nice until you get to the layer underneath. From the beginning, you can tell there’s something off about this “chapel” in the woods. But nothing is really certain until about 75% through and then you hit the point of realizing that it’s more than it seems. There were lots of Christian themes and references that were obvious and some that were hidden and meant to be thought about.

For me, this book at times was a bit confusing, and to enjoy it fully, you might need to have some basis or knowledge of Christianity. If you’ve read anything by Ted Dekker or Frank Peretti, you’ll definitely like this book.
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It was honestly very difficult to give this book a 2.5star rating because it started from a solid 5 yet somehow things went wrong along the way.

The premise is very intriguing; a mysterious chapel in the woods lures people in from the nearby town with making them able to hear the voices of their dead loved ones. Yet as people go more and more they start to change for the worse so we can suspect the working of some kind of evil. 

There are a diverse set of characters in the novel, the most outstanding being a WW I. veteran named Ellsworth who always takes matters in his hand and the town folk look at him as a leader. We get to know his friends, the widow of his best friend, a strange black boy, a mysterious man who arrives to take over the mansion on the hill and a whole bunch of other characters. This is one of the problems of the book, with its 300 something pages it is too short to carry so much characters. We barely get to know them.

Markert delivers a unique writing style and eerie mood till the end of the first half of the book building up a truly interesting history the second part falls short of delivering clever answers. I was disappointed to find a heap of cliche in the end and felt like a good opportunity has been wasted.

Overall it's a nicely written book that fails to live up to expectations after a promise of a good story. I kept feeling like it wasn't worth the hassle to drag me through so much buildup and so many characters to find a cringe worthy ending.

Additionally I never got to find out the intention behind the title.

* I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for a honest review *
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All Things Bright and Strange by James Markert is a free NetGalley ebook that I began but not finish in early March.

Oi, I tried, but there was a lot of beating around the bush and goes-without-saying: the main third-person character, Ellsworth, is huddled in his Bell Haven home after the death of his wife and fighting in World War I leading to the loss of a leg. There's a solemn, haunted, depressive, death is like rolling off a log attitude that's lightened by the mysterious and prophetic Raphael and Ellsworth's former paramour, Anna Belle.
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Magical realism can kind of be a hit or miss for me depending on how the elements are developed, but I really like how James Markert incorporates them into his stories. All Things Bright And Strange is another example of how I can actually really enjoy magical realism when it’s done right. The story starts out as a typical historical fiction read mostly set in the years after WWI. The main character, Ellsworth, is a WWI veteran along with several other characters, while others have lost someone during the war. I think this is probably my favorite element and the after effects of the war are very well described in the different veterans. A very important topic as well since there isn’t enough awareness when it comes to what veterans are going through! Grumpy Ellsworth really grows on you and he even reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman‘s Ove (HUGE compliment!). The characters in general are well developed and each plays its role in the events in Bellhaven. Some of their names even have special meanings… But that is something for you to discover as you are reading it  to avoid spoiling surprises. The magical elements mix quite nicely with the historical fiction parts, and the author did a great job creating the right atmosphere for the time period. And the descriptions of the chapel in the woods are wonderful. BUT. There was way too much religious talk to my taste, and All Things Bright And Strange should be classified as Christian fiction. True, a lot of different religions are making their appearance in the story, creating diversity, but I simply feel there was too much religious talking going on and some of it sounded almost like preaching. Which is why I ended up enjoying this one less than What Blooms From Dust, but if you don’t mind a healthy dose of religion in your story, you will enjoy it even better than I did. The descriptions of the strange things that are happening in Bellhaven are simply magical.
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I honestly have tried to read this book three times.  I get about halfway and I just realize I do not understand really what is going on.  The plot of the story is so very intriguing, but I just cannot finish it without understanding.
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All Things Bright and Strange and interesting. The language in it is a little hard to figure out at times but when you do you appreciate it. The Christianity in this book is good -what I look for - but there were some things in it I wasn't too taken with. There is a suspenseful aspect to this story and you will love it. You also have the main character walking the line of will he or won't he use that gun he keeps with him. Interesting books.
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I should not have asked for this book. But I've learned my lesson - i don't enjoy adult fiction. I like historical fiction with a strong basis in history, not adult fiction set in a different time period. And again, I don't enjoy mystery so I should NOT have tried to read this. Halfway through, I was bored and too weary to continue reading.
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I'm not going to try to knock out a synopsis of this book. There's a lot, and it's both complicated and very simple; there are holes in the plot, and predictability, but also genuine creepy horror elements and interesting characterization. 

Note: If you're a Yankee like myself, it may help you in reading this book to know that Hoppin’ John is a dish made with black-eyed peas, smoked ham, and rice. Sounds good.  Now that you know the details, you might end up very very hungry by the end of the story, because one character is famous for her Hoppin' John, and makes it a lot. 

There's also a lot of alcohol flowing through this book, Prohibition or no Prohibition. The characters have all had to live through WWI, after all, either on the home front or the actual front, and none of the soldiers came back unscathed. It's realistic, and well-told, the alcoholism and the fight against it, or the surrender to it. 

My complaint about this aspect of the book is the language used about it. "You’ve been dipping the bill in too much giggle juice"… Over and over, in deadly serious contexts, with no levity whatever, characters referred to booze as "giggle juice". I have no idea how dialectically accurate it was – but I found it irritating, especially in light of all the other little regional euphemisms that kept cropping up – "jingle-brained" was one that was perhaps over-used. When a woman's "getaway sticks" were referred to, it took me a couple of pages to figure out that that meant "legs". And the desire to go up to someone and "drygulch him in the noodle", while not as puzzling, still made me go "huh?". Even the more common language felt out of place; I don't know if the author was working to avoid curse words, but in at least one place a character was speaking angrily about something he had every reason to be angry about, but still said "darn". 

So, basically, the language drove me a bit crazy (and that's not even including the one character who adopted a pseudo- manner of speaking which looked like nothing I've ever seen before). But I have to say what was said was memorable. There are images from this book that will stay with me for a while – beautiful and wondrous things, like a flock of cardinals in the form of a man, and a town with all of the trees and flowers blooming at once … and terrible, unsettling things, like a deer ramming its head into a tree, over and over, and like people – and animals – walking backwards … that made the hair stand up on my arms just typing that out. 

But, as mentioned, there was a sort of tedious predictability to it all. I kept hoping the plot would take a turn and do something amazing – but while the climax of the story was overall satisfying, it could have been so much more. Everything felt like it was building up to something huge and heart-rending … and I was just left a bit flat. I felt like there were major missed opportunities. 

But I finally found out why live oaks are called that: "That’s ’cause they hold on to their leaves nearly all year like an evergreen." Hey, thanks.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.
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