"BEYOND THE SAVANNA," Maryann Martinsen, Glass Spider, $16.99, 399 pages (f)
Hannah Blake, born and raised in the Kenyan village where her American parents work as doctors, has always felt a deep spiritual connection to the animals around her. She even raised an orphaned lion cub named Yatima. Unfortunately, her strong-willed passion gets her on the wrong side of a poacher, and a string of horrible events eventually lands her in Solace Valley, Utah, in Maryann Martinsen's "Beyond the Savanna."
Living with indifferent and snobby relatives and suffering from grief, Hannah struggles to find meaning in life. When she meets Sam, they have an instant and undeniable bond, but obstacles stand in their way. Hannah must find the courage to face her fears and reach out for the happiness and belonging that she once had and could be hers again.
The beautiful and vivid descriptions of the African savanna will likely make the readers feel as if they were on safari. There are likewise stunning images painted of the familiar Wasatch mountains. Hannah's relationship with Yatima, her lion, is truly touching and one of the best things about the entire book.
Hannah's growth as a character is the book's shining and redeeming triumph. She starts as a stubborn and naive girl, but as she navigates her way through grief and guilt she becomes more mature and resolute.
The writing at times unfortunately feels a bit clunky and unsophisticated, which distracts from the story, and some of the characters come off more as oversimplified, one-dimensional caricatures.
Though the first half of the plot is slow and meandering, it eventually comes together and readers will be drawn in, wanting to know what comes next in Hannah's journey. The romance is very sweet but is a little rushed toward the end, and a deeper exploration of Sam and Hannah's special connection would have been interesting.
Themes throughout the book include love and forgiveness, courage in the face of evil and human responsibility to protect animals.
There are a few instances of swearing and some allusions to sex, though nothing is graphically described. The violence in this book could be troubling to some readers as gruesome attacks on both humans and animals are included, as well as a couple instances of harassment.