Friday, August 30, 2013

"On Distant Shores" by Sarah Sundin

The second novel of Sarah Sundin's Wings of the Nightingale series, On Distant Shores, focuses on flight nurse Lieutenant Georgianna Taylor and pharmacist Sergeant John Hutchinson.  Since both have a fiancé back in the States while many friends are pairing up, they form a friendship in Italy while trying to remain true to their loves back home, in spite of the fact that as an officer and an enlisted man, they should not be fraternizing.  Even after months of practice in Africa before the invasion of Sicily and Italy, Georgie still isn't sure she has what it takes to be a flight nurse - she only joined for the sake of her best friend who wanted to be one.  Hutch enlisted in the army so that he could use his pharmacy degree rather than taking an officer position where he couldn't - pharmacists, unlike doctors, could not practice as an officer, as there was no Pharmacy Corps yet - but his striving to be respected as a pharmacist festers in bitterness the longer he must wait to see results. 

On Distant ShoresWhile Georgie is a very loving and caring person, as the baby of the family, she has never really had to make decisions, since there are always people willing to make them for her - which is basically how she ended up a flight nurse anyway.  While her family, fiancé, and friends want what is best for her, they never really let her decide for herself what is best.  Hutch challenges her to look to God and make decisions based on what He wants, not what all the other people in her life want.  God gives us wise and godly people in our lives to help hold us accountable, but we cannot rely on them to make decisions for us - God gave us free will for a purpose. 

While Hutch was following God's will when he enlisted so that he could practice pharmacy and be an example for the nation on why trained pharmacists are needed as officers, he loses sight of God in the process and becomes obsessed with the desire for respect.  He has a degree, so he deserves to be respected; he holds the life of any man receiving medication in his hands, so he deserves respect.  However, he fails to respect his officers, his men, and even his friends, and in the process, he loses their respect also.  It is so easy to lose sight of God in the process of following His will - the moment the goal becomes more important than God is the moment things start to go wrong. 

My one complaint about this novel is that in his pursuit of being chosen as a Pharmacy Corps officer, Hutch becomes unbearably grouchy, and it is really hard to like someone with a continually bad attitude.  Because of that, I liked the first novel a little better.  Otherwise I enjoyed getting to know the characters better after their introduction in With Every Letter, though there were some tough spots to get through; I cried so much during one part - war involves death, and no one involved can be immune to the heartache.  The message is, as usual for Sundin, strong and relevant, the history fascinating, and the plot well-written.  5 out of 5 stars!

Wings of the Nightingale
1. With Every Letter
2. On Distant Shores
3. In Perfect Time

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sarah Sundin's "With Every Letter" - loved every word!

As part of a moral boost in Sarah Sundin's WWII novel, With Every Letter, nurses write anonymous pen pal letters to soldiers with whom they are paired.  Through the program, two lonely people find a secure source of friendship that cannot be influenced by what otherwise holds them back - her exotic looks and foreign upbringing, and his suffering under the stigma of being the son of a famous murderer.  Philomela Blake, known as Mellie, is threatened to lose her position as a med-evac nurse - one of the nurses who takes care of wounded soldiers on the flights to hospitals away from the front - if she cannot make friends and work as part of the team.  As a lieutenant and lead engineer for building airports as the Americans push forward toward Italy, Tom McGilliver needs to be able to lead his men, but his position is also threatened by his lack of authority and respect from his men.  Together, sharing insight on what works for them in the other's place of failure, they build each other up, both in confidence in themselves and in faith in God, never expecting that they would fall in love over their correspondence.

With Every LetterThere is so much growth in this story as Mellie and Gill overcome their failings.  In a plan to avoid becoming his father, Gill tries to lead by showering his men with kindness and compassion, rather than ruling by fear, like so many other officers.  However, kindness only goes so far; he cannot actually control his men, and not just Gill suffers for it - other officers and their men have to pick up the slack.  For an excellent example of authority, Mellie recommends that Gill look to Jesus.  Yes, Jesus was full of compassion and kindness, but he was not afraid to rebuke and discipline, which is what Gill needs to work at. 

Some of what the other nurses say about Mellie is harsh, but it still is true - she has closed herself off from friendship for fear of being hurt.  Like Mellie, so often we're afraid to lay our hearts bare, afraid to be rejected, afraid to feel one more disappointment.  But that attitude neither shows love nor receives love. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love (I John 4:18).  Letting go of fear is hard work, and it takes a lot of practice.  It is no guarantee we will not be hurt - is not Jesus hurt constantly by rejection also? - but it opens us to a much fuller ability to receive and share God's love. 

This is an excellent novel, and I feel enriched having read it.  The Christian lessons and advice are not just "stuck in" to make it a Christian book - it is an integral part of the characters, and they live their faith, imperfect though they are.  Their letters feel real but do not overpower the plot or interactions they have with their peers and each other.  The historical details of the med-evac nurses are fascinating, as well as the exotic settings as the war progresses.  Definitely worth 5 out of 5 stars!

Wings of the Nightingale
1. With Every Letter
2. On Distant Shores
3. In Perfect Time 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Goyer and Yorkey's "Chasing Mona Lisa"

In their sequel to The Swiss Courier, Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey send Swiss agents Gabi Mueller and Eric Hofstadler on a mission to Paris and back again, aiding the French Resistance in chasing out the Nazis.  Things seem to be going well for the French, but discord between the Gaullists and the communists is mounting, and another threat is on the horizon: knowing that the Nazis are losing the war, Hermann Goering, famous for his collection of plundered art, decides to snatch the priceless painting Mona Lisa, or as the French call it, La Joconde, as a final blow to the French and potential bargaining chip.  With a Louvre curator pinned under his aide's thumb by blackmail and some unscrupulous Nazi agents to do his dirty work, it should be an easy enough job, but thankfully the American OSS (pre-CIA) in Switzerland is onto the plot.  Thus Gabi and Eric, with the help of the French, take off after the painting, creating a thrilling race to reach her first. 

Chasing Mona LisaWhat I noticed in The Swiss Courier is that Goyer and Yorkey seem to write everything in such a straightforward manner that all of a sudden one is blindsided when an unexpected twist appears.  Since the surprises were "oh duh, I should've seen that coming" moments for me, I figured I just wasn't paying enough attention, so I decided I'd be prepared for Chasing Mona Lisa.

Blindsided again.

It makes sense; it's a supremely intelligent move on their part; I just never saw it coming.  Fool me once, it could well be a fluke; fool me twice, that's good writing.  Congratulations, authors!

One character in particular disappointed me; not in how they were fleshed out, but in choices they make.  Extremism rarely turns out well, and it's hard to watch someone so consumed by a cause that relationships become second-place - there are consequences to shoving away those who love you.  Ending the book the way the authors did was a touch dissatisfying to my happily-ever-after expectations, being a little more bittersweet than I expected.  Suffice to say, I was surprised in more ways than one.  It was a good ending, a realistic ending, and a very fitting ending - but it was no perfect fairy tale ending either. 

I liked the novel a lot; the main strike against it is that like the previous novel, there is not much for a major Christian message - just characters who seem to respect God.  The history is fascinating and plot exciting, and it can stand alone without the first book.  4 out 5 stars

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tamera Alexander Giveaway!

Tamera Alexander is hosting a giveaway of her novel A Lasting Impression and Loveless Southern Biscuits with a choice of strawberry, blackberry, or peach jam. 

To enter, go to her blog post A Southern at Heart Giveaway and comment with three things you love about autumn.  After that, there are more opportunities to enter the drawing, like posting reviews of her novels, becoming a fan on Facebook, pinning the giveaway on Pintrest, and tweeting about it.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck and have fun! 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Goyer and Yorkey's "The Swiss Courier" - a thrilling escape

They had me fooled - more than once.  I can't believe I didn't see it coming!

Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey write a brilliant WWII suspense The Swiss Courier, about intelligence agents in Germany and Switzerland working to smuggle a brilliant, naive scientist into Allied hands before the Gestapo capture him.

The Swiss CourierThe novel starts out with seemingly scattered story lines - obviously related, but thus far unconnected.  From our heroine, Gabi Mueller, as she undertakes her first field mission, to Swiss operatives smuggling escaped prisoners across the border, to the young, upcoming scientist Joseph Engel who is unwittingly of Jewish descent, to agents working both sides of the war, and to the evil Gestapo major Sturmbannfuhrer Bruno Kassler.  As the plot winds on, the story lines grow closer and closer together, until they meet in a thrilling climax.  At first it seemed a bit slow, since everything was still fairly scattered, but everything that happens is important for establishing roles, connections, motives, and the final plan of action. 

Suspense and mystery are not synonymous; this is not a mystery, but it is suspense.  We know almost everything of what is going on, so we feel the thrill, the confusion, the danger - the innocent student is busily working on his equations, little knowing that the Allies are forming a plan to smuggle him out, but the Gestapo is about to knock on the door.   And even when it seems everything has been laid out on the table, the authors can still pull one over on the reader!  I was impressed by their ability to write a good suspense while still throwing in a surprise here and there.  I guess that's what makes it a great suspense!

As far as Christian themes go, there was not a lot outside of some of the characters professing Christ; there was no big lesson to be learned or strong message of faith, but at least some of the characters seemed to genuinely rely on God, especially in such uncertain times where the chances of getting caught far exceeded the chances of survival. 

I found the novel to be a thrilling escape from the modern world as the characters eluded Nazis and even their own countrymen.  4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Rules of Murder" - A Drew Farthering Mystery, by Julianna Deering

Rules of Murder
In the golden age of detective fiction - the 1920's-1930's - there were certain rules to detective fiction to make it a game for the reader, so that by following the clues the reader competes with the detective  to figure out "whodunit" first.  Among the most famous authors are the esteemed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), and Agatha Christie (Miss Marple and Poirot). 

Ronald Knox, a British priest and theologian who happened to enjoy good mysteries and the odd hoax, penned these Ten Commandments of a detective story:

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. 

Our author - Julianna Deering - admits to having broken (or at least bent) as many of these rules as possible with her story, Rules of Murder

A suitable setting for the cozy mystery genre, the novel takes place in England in the 1930's.  Ellison Andrew Farthering, alias Drew, returns home to his estate to find his mother and stepfather hosting a house party and business meeting, with guests from America arriving the next morning.  While Drew squires his stepfather's American niece, Madeline Parker, about the grounds later on, they stumble upon the dead body of one of the house guests.  Embezzlement, blackmail, and red herrings abound as Drew, his best friend Nick, and Madeline investigate the murder, with the help of the local police.

I should like to point out that while I never skip ahead to read the end of the book, occasionally I do skip ahead to the author's note, if they have one, as it usually includes a bit of historical or otherwise interesting information relating to the book, and usually it doesn't include key plot points to ruin the story.  Thus I found out the importance of Father Knox's Decalogue of detective fiction before reaching the end, and thus was enlightened as to why it featured so prominently in the text.  Naturally other authors have deliberately broken all the rules before, but Deering manages it in a highly amusing and almost satirical way, given Nick's running commentary about it.

Being a mystery and not a suspense, this novel is not written to thrill or to scare, but to lay out sufficient clues to solve the murder yet still hopefully surprise the reader.  I thought myself so clever early on, having caught on to a glossed-over clue, but while it was highly important, I still interpreted it wrong and didn't beat Drew to the murderer.  Good job, Julianna Deering!

Deering's book reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels: not only is the main character a gentleman larking about, but Rules of Murder begins with the levity so common in many of Sayers' earlier works, and yet like her later novels, the plot sobers as it becomes less a game and more a burden for the characters.  Given the upbeat nature of the majority of the book, I was surprised by how grave it becomes; it lends a greater maturity to the book than I was expecting.  Also, though the murder is solved, the end is not wholly concluded, which befits the start of a series.  I am curious to see what happens next.

Is this a perfect novel?  No, the romance is a bit fast and the spiritual depth a little shallow (though it does leave room for growth in subsequent novels).   But is it a good novel?  Yes.  I cannot agree with the overly harsh editorial review by Publishers Weekly; this book does not deserve such an attack.  It is a solid start to a series, written in much the style of the great mystery writers.  4 out of 5 stars

Who is your favorite detective or mystery writer?

Post Script: for the record, this novel not remotely related to Downton Abbey - it may be the same country, but it is a different decade and a completely different genre.  I like them both, but I would not classify them together.

Drew Farthering Mysteries
1. Rules of Murder
2. Death by the Book
3. Murder at the Mikado
4. Dressed for Death 
5. Murder on the Moor
6. Death at Thorburn Hall 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Flora's Wish" by Kathleen Y'Barbo

Kathleen Y'Barbo starts off her new series The Secret Lives of Will Tucker with a delightful romp up and down the Mississippi in her novel Flora's Wish.  Suffering from an errant fiancé whose job supposedly keeps interfering with the wedding plans, Fatal Flora (of the now five fiancés, assuming she can keep this one alive, unlike the previous four) finds herself an object of intense suspicion by Lucas McMinn, a Pinkerton agent out to capture the conman Will Tucker - Flora's current fiancé.  Under Lucas' custody and practically shackled to the man, Flora and the agent pursue Will Tucker from Natchez to New Orleans and back, one to prove his innocence, the other to prove his guilt.
book title front

Flora really comes up with a doozy of a plan to save her family home from passing on to an irresponsible relative.  Since she has to marry and produce an heir before her cousin turns thirty, she is in rather dire straits, given that she has had four fiancés perish before reaching the altar.   In order to make it happen, she makes a contract with a man whom she scarcely knows and plans to spring the marriage on her family fait accompli.  Thankfully for her, God has a significantly better plan, even if she has to be arrested, jailed, and basically held captive first to work it out.  While her love of her family is commendable - and she's performing this mad scheme for them, not herself - not even they approve of the lengths to which she goes to preserve their lives for them. 

Flora's predicament is typical to anyone who barges ahead without consulting God first - a mess.  Just recently I similarly prayed for something, assumed automatically that a circumstance the following day was a direct result, and then went on with my own plans without further checking to see if this really was God's plan.  Was it?  Nope.  Thankfully my embarrassment is limited to myself, not half of southern society (all right, not even Flora's is quite that bad, but she comes mighty close to ruining her own happiness and that of her family, who genuinely care if she makes a good, loving match).  So while many of us do not make such disastrous life decisions as Flora, it is certainly not uncommon to rush ahead without God's approval. 

Flora's Wish is a delightfully humorous tale and a cute love story.  Flora and Lucas have a great many sparring matches, playing off each other really well and sparking great entertainment for the reader.  The secondary characters are as fun as the main - Grandmamma is a spectacular lady (quite possibly my favorite character), and even the hotel staff have personality.  The steampunk aspect - little inventions our hero uses that haven't officially been invented yet (or at least patented) - are a fun touch; maybe it does not make it more believable, but it heightens the adventure and adds a dash of romanticism. 

It's cute and a lot of fun; not too deep, but enjoyable.  I look forward to the installment of Will Tucker's schemes.  Four out of five stars

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Into the Whirlwind" by Elizabeth Camden

Part watchmaker and all business woman, Molly Knox has owned and operated a small, specialized watch company since her father died.  A safe haven for men of the 57th Illinois Regiment who were injured in the Civil War, Molly's employees are like family to her.  No matter what comes, she wants the best for her employees - whether in offers to purchase her business, fighting to compete against the new mechanized watch factories, or rebuilding after the great Chicago fire.  Zach Kazmarek, the attorney of their sole watch outlet, has been fascinated by the woman for three years, and now he finally has the opportunity - and the incentive - to woo her, but between business practices, disasters, and their rather explosive encounters, he has a relationship as difficult to build as the razed Windy City herself. 

Cover ArtWhat impresses me most about Camden's writing is her ability to create a unique story.  Because her plots are so different from the run-of-the-mill historical romance, they linger far longer than most books I read.  This is not the story of two people falling in love and realizing it when it is almost too late during the Chicago fire; this is the story of two people rebuilding their lives after the fire.  Yes, they forged a relationship during the blaze; yes, it is the start of a romance; but these are not characters who exist solely to fall in love.  Like real people, they strive to survive and God blesses them with love.

Her main characters are not defined largely by their relationships to each other, with a few interests to make them more interesting or real; her characters are defined by their talents, passions, habits, actions, and thoughts.  They are extremely well rounded, passionate individuals.  By the end, we know enough about them to know how they would react to just about anything.  By trade, Molly is a watchmaker and a talented business woman; her passion is for the intricacies of watch mechanics.  What she loves more than her business, though, is the people who work for her, and that love of others directs her decisions.  Zach is a ruthless business attorney, but he is not heartless; he is fiercely protective of those whom he loves, and while he does not express his love for Polish history in the same way as his parents, he still goes to extravagant lengths to support them and their cause in his own way.  She is calculating, straight-laced, by-the-book; he is impulsive, bold, a whirlwind.  Both are flawed and in need of grace. 

The plot is solid and the supporting characters distinctive with personalities of their own.  The only thing Camden falls a little shy on is the Christian message that is more prevalent in her previous books.  While her characters are God-honoring individuals, there was less of a gospel message or lesson to be learned.  For that, 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Many thanks to Bethany House Publishers, which provided a free review copy for the express purpose of review.  My opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A post devoted to Sandra Orchard's "Deadly Devotion"

How lovely it is to settle down with a new book and a hot cup of tea . . . and within five pages discover our heroine's mentor has just been murdered with said beverage.  Poisoned, naturally.  It couldn't have been accidental, since she certainly knew the difference between edible calendula marigolds and toxic tagete marigolds, so the police think it was suicide, since there was no sign of foul play.  But why would an expert botanist and herbal researcher commit suicide with a plant that, while toxic, is not typically deadly, especially when there are significantly more poisonous and fast-acting herbs at her disposal?

Deadly Devotion, Port Aster Secrets Series #1   -     
        By: Sandra Orchard
Thus Kate embarks on a quest to find the murderer, even with the cops telling her to keep out of it.  Thankfully one detective, Tom Parker, has pity and tries to keep her out of trouble, even if it takes a while before he realizes that it had to have been murder.  Suspects abound, and if one is searching for a motive, it is easy to find; harder to find is the actual murderer.

Sandra Orchard does an excellent job hopping back and forth between suspects so that one never is sure who is the guiltiest.  I found that Kate and, to a lesser extent, Tom, are rather quick to jump to conclusions, both in the investigation and in their developing relationship.  Both have baggage to work through that is not easily fixed, and I appreciate that the story does not end with their lives perfectly wrapped up.  Granted, other things left me a bit frustrated in the end, but to say what would spoil the story . . .

I enjoyed the herbalist aspect; I have long been interested in medicinal and wild plants, so the mode of murder particularly piqued my interest.  Orchard does not delve heavily into plant science; there's enough to make the plot solid, but it is by no means overwhelming.  It was fun to have this in a novel with a modern setting for a change!

It was an enjoyable read; maybe not spectacular, but I do look forward to the next installment, as while the mystery may have been solved, the story is not yet finished.  Orchard leaves plenty room to continue Kate and Tom's story in her next novel of the Port Astor Secrets.  Over all, 4 out of 5 stars.

Port Aster Secrets
1. Deadly Devotion
2. Blind Trust
3.Desperate Measures

 Post Script:
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical AtrocitiesFor people who are interested in herbal studies and poisonous plants, there is an excellent nonfiction book by Amy Stewart titled Wicked Plants: the Weed that Killed Abe Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities.  It covers a wide variety of plants - those that are deadly, illegal, dangerous, intoxicating, painful, etc.  Well written, informative, and amusing, it certainly highlights how amazing (and dangerous!) God's creation is.  Who knew that cashews were so closely related to poison ivy and would give the same allergic reactions were they not cooked first?

The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and HistoryAnd for "a delightful feast of little-known facts, folklore, and history" on common wildflowers, see Jack Sanders' The Secrets of Wildflowers.  I have sat reading that one just as avidly as a work of fiction - it contains poetry, traditional medicinal uses, quotes from literature, the odd recipe, and all manner of botanical trivia, easily occupying one's attention for hours.  Truly, "without wildflowers, the world would be a pretty dull place."