Monday, October 28, 2013

Serena B. Miller's "The Measure of Katie Calloway" - a story of strength, courage, and honoring God

II Timothy 1:7: "God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." The Measure of Katie Calloway exemplifies this verse as abused and down-trodden Katie Calloway runs off from her cruel husband and joins on as cook in a lumber camp.  There she learns to stand up for herself and those she loves.

The Measure of Katie Calloway  -     
        By: Serena Miller
As the novel takes place over the course of the lumber season - from fall until spring, when everyone scatters their separate ways - it feels like God has prepared this as a season of strengthening, restoration, and hope for Katie and other members of the camp, as they live in seclusion in the deep timber of Michigan.  It is not easy - one does not learn to be strong or brave without being forced to practice strength and bravery - but it is a period of great growth.

Miller writes a beautiful novel of strength, courage, and choosing to honor God, even when one's heart wants to act differently.  What I appreciate most about Katie is her fidelity - even when she knows how easy it would be to fall in love with a good man like Robert, she holds back, knowing that marriage is for life, and as unpleasant as it has been for her, and even though her husband is far away where hopefully she will never see him again, she remains true.  Robert, too, when he learns the truth of Katie's marriage, holds himself back and lets her go.  It is good to see such unselfish love that respects the boundaries of marriage. 

The characters are well developed and easy to love, even as uncouth and crotchety as some of the lumberjacks are.  The historical aspects - both the lumber camp life and the post-civil war attitudes - make for a well-rounded novel.  It is an uplifting story, but not because life is in any way easy for Katie - because she overcomes so much.  5 out of 5 stars!

Michigan Northwoods
1. The Measure of Katie Calloway
2. Under a Blackberry Moon
3. A Promise to Love

I also highly recommend Jody Hedlund's Unending Devotion, another excellent novel about lumber camp life in Michigan.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Grace's Pictures" by Cindy Thomson

In her novel Grace's Pictures, Cindy Thomson highlights the plight of the Irish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.  As a young woman being sent to America to escape the workhouse in Ireland, Grace McCaffery has never known anything but poverty, and finding herself taken in by a charitable group is one of the best things to happen to her in her life.  Thanks to the kind help of her landlady and a minister, Grace finds employment as a maid in a middle class household, earning a decent enough wage to afford one of the new Brownie cameras and film.  However, while practicing with her camera, a gangster suspects her of having photographed his mobster boss, a man the police have yet to identify.  After several suspicious - but innocent, on her part - encounters, Grace finds herself in increasing danger, and it is only with the help of Officer Owen McNulty, a rich man who has given up his wealth to keep the peace, that Grace has a chance of saving herself and those she cares for. 

Grace's Pictures, Ellis Island Series #1   -     
        By: Cindy Thomson
The widespread prejudice against the Irish, the horrible tenements for the thousands of immigrants, the corruption in the police force, the rampant crime - all these sad aspects of the early twentieth century are clearly depicted in the book.  However, Thomson does a good job of balancing the bad with the good - charities that take in immigrants and help find them employment as they settle into a new country, police who were true to their calling and actively worked to clean up the dangerous parts of town.  While she does not paint a particularly rosy picture of New York City circa 1900, neither does she depict it as a place beyond redemption and hope. 

To my surprise, there was relatively little romance to the novel, but it fit better this way.  While some interest is quite evident, Thomson takes it slow and does not push Grace and Owen into a sudden relationship.  Over the course of the book, Grace has to overcome her deep-seated fears of the police before she can look beyond Owen's uniform and see a person, and only after that would she be able to see a candidate for a romance, so I applaud Thomson for taking the more sensible and realistic route.  There is sufficient excitement in the tale anyway to hold the reader's attention. 

A major theme in the book is separating truth from lies.  Grace spent her childhood with an abusive father who would have her believe she is incompetent and worthless - lies abounding from the evil one.  However, her Mother impresses the truth that, "You are smart.  You are important.  You are able."  Even if no one else cared - and a great many people prove they do - Grace truly is important to God, and he made her smart and able to perform any task laid before her.  As Grace proves, it is a choice to be made daily which she will listen to: the lies or the truth.  How often do we fall for similar lies?  Half the time no one has to say them out loud - we just assume that "no, I'll never be able to do that," or "I'm not smart enough," and we let those lies keep us from trying in the first place; the truth is that God has equipped us in so many ways, and how will we know what we can do until we try?

Since this is the first book in the series, it is hard to say if Grace's story will continue, or if hers is done and another heroine will take the stage - the ending leaves potential for both, I feel.  Not knowing a lot about immigration during that time, I found it an interesting read with a clever premise.  There is much to think about and apply.

Ellis Island
1. Grace's Pictures
2. Annie's Stories

Monday, October 21, 2013

"Chasing Hope" by Kathryn Cushman

Kathryn Cushman writes a heart-lifting novel about two young women of wildly different circumstances and how they help each other return to hope.  On the one hand is Sabrina, the senior college student who is trying to make the best of her life after her dreams of becoming an Olympic runner and missionary are crushed by health issues; on the other is Brandy, the teen who is throwing her life away for lack of any dreams after a childhood of neglect.  Both were born with the same talent of running.  In order to keep Brandy out of juvie, Sabrina gets talked into coaching the girl, adding one more stress on top of her schoolwork, job, health problems, and internship applications.  Will Brandy learn to stay out of trouble long enough to find her place?  Will Sabrina be able to work through the pain to find God's true calling in her life?  And will they both learn to grasp onto hope again?

Chasing HopeI wasn't sure what to expect from the book, considering my preference is for historical fiction, followed by mystery/suspense; contemporary dramas are typically not my favorites.  However, Cushman surprised me with a deep, uplifting novel.  The drama is realistic, not verging on a soap opera.  The main focus of the novel is on the relationship between Sabrina and Brandy, and how it helps them overcome their troubles.  The novel is not without a little romance, and it also discusses family love, both the gentle, unconditional kind and that which leads to a tense parent-child relationship. 

Chasing Hope is a novel full of family values, hope, and triumph in God, even in the midst of tragedy and unforeseen circumstances.  While I would say it was written for adults, I think teens would appreciate it too.  Honestly, besides being just a plain good read, one could just about use it for a bible study, there is so much good stuff in there - from reaching out to regaining hope to choosing to do the right thing to overcoming with God.  I highly recommend this book.  5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House and GoodReads for a free copy through the First Reads program!

While I have not read many books along the same vein, Chasing Hope reminded of the Sherwood Pictures film Facing the Giants, and it fits well among their family-centric movies, which also include Fireproof and Courageous.  If you like one, I'd recommend the other!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Laura Frantz's "Love's Awakening"

In her second installment of The Ballantyne Legacy, Laura Frantz introduces us to the children of Silas and Eden Ballantyne, focusing on the youngest, Elinor.  When Ellie declares herself "finished" and returns home from finishing school in Philadelphia, she encounters Jack Turlock, one of the drunken, unpleasant sons of her father's enemy, who surprisingly treats her honorably and sees her home safely.  Though they never expect to have dealings with each other again, Ellie opens a day school for young ladies and gets thrown into Jack's company when his tomboy little sister pleads for lessons.  In spite of the disagreements between the families - particularly over whiskey and slavery - they form a friendship over young Chloe.  When the time comes, will they stand with their families or stand together?  Will they stand for what is right, or will they fail to take a stand entirely?

Love's AwakeningJack makes an excellent hero, overcoming so much - starting as a drinking, wenching fence-sitter and maturing to a solid, decisive man of faith.  While he has partaken in his own share of carousing, he is still a chivalrous man who does not agree with everything his family does, but he does not stand up to them either.  Even when asked by a third party to make a choice, he does nothing; however, when his own family threatens those he loves, combined with a sound warning from God, he finally accepts that at some point one must take a stand, and stand firm he does.  He matures significantly in the novel, both in deed and faith.

I like Ellie as the heroine; she is a sweet girl with a good heart, and more capable than her family realizes.  As the youngest, everyone babies her, hardly giving her a chance to prove herself.  Chloe is incorrigible; so well-intentioned, making so much trouble, but so loveable.  Silas, I am glad to see, is still the man that wooed Eden in Love's Reckoning - I was afraid his feud with the Turlocks would lead to a hardening of his heart, but he never disappointed me!  Still as dashing as ever!  Each of the Ballantyne children are well developed, distinct in personality and role, and I can easily imagine them having fairly significant roles in the next book.

There is nothing that I actually disliked about the book, but it feels a little more pampered - like Ellie herself - and lacks the wildness that characterizes Frantz's other books.  Maybe it is that the setting is so much tamer, and the Ballantynes wealthy and constrained by propriety.  Not a bad thing per se, just a little different.  Frantz still knows how to wrench the heartstrings, and her research and historical depth are superior as always.  It is still an excellent novel, full of faith and growth, joy and heartache, and I look forward to next.  5 out of 5 stars

The Ballantyne Legacy
1. Love's Reckoning
2. Love's Awakening
3. Love's Fortune 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Carrie Turansky's "The Governess of Highland Hall" Turansky's first novel of her Edwardian Brides series is a sweet romance taking place at a country estate in Edwardian era England.  Due to her father's poor health, Julia Foster and her family return to England from their missionary work in India, hoping that her father will grow well again and that they might return to their calling in the far land.  In the meantime, Julia must find work, and her teaching in India, as well as her mother's wealthy upbringing, has prepared her to be a governess.  Working at Highland Hall has its challenges - not only is she governess for the Lord William's two rambunctious children, but also for his wards, two hurting teenage girls.  William's shy sister Sarah proves to be an ally in the house, and William is attracted to her, but not everyone wants her there - and as neither a regular servant or a member of the family, Julia is in a precarious position.  With the threat of losing the estate, William has to find a way to raise money, and marrying beneath him will not help, but marrying for wealth holds little attraction to his heart.  Can William find a way to save both Highland Hall and his heart?

I liked the historical aspects of the novel.  Death duties rose significantly during the twentieth century and led to the loss of many country estates, so it is fitting that William is hit with outrageous inheritance taxes.  Class - especially marrying within one's class - is a big issue in the story, as it was then, and I like how the author (through Julia) compares it to the caste system in India, bringing up the question of whether they really were so much better and more civilized than the Indians.  Turansky also does a good job of putting the governess in her place; she is higher than the other servants, and therefore has little in common with them, but she is not actually family either, and therefore she has few people with whom she can actually associate.  Julia has more to do with the adults of the family than was perhaps realistic, but given Sarah's circumstances, I would still say it is within the realm of possibility.

While it is nice that Julia starts out the novel as a strong christian, as such she has very little growth through the story; other than speaking her mind a bit too forcefully a couple times, she pretty much always makes  right decisions.  William, on the other hand, has a great many faults and much room for growth; while he learns to overcome most of those faults, I did not feel that he grows much closer to God.  He willingly participates in all the rituals, but he is not on his knees crying out to God for wisdom and provision. 

It is a sweet romance, but it is fairly predictable and passive, lacking tension that would heighten the romance or varying relationships between characters.  I liked the secondary romance between Sarah and Clark and its pivotal role in paving the way for William and Julia, but I wish the points of view had been limited to those four - or even just Julia and William - to tighten up the story a bit.  Including the viewpoints of the nursery maid and housekeeper besides made it more Downton Abbey-ish, but in my opinion their stories could have still been effectively told without it, and then the focus would have remained more centralized.  The more points of view, the harder it is to pull off a tight-knit story. 

There is some very sound advice in here for anyone considering marriage, and I like how it plays out in the various romances of the story.  It is a pleasant, clean read, reminiscent of The Sound of Music; I did not love it, but I liked it enough that I will probably read the next book in the series.  3 1/2 stars

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Edwardian Brides
1. The Governess of Highland Hall
2. The Daughter of Highland Hall
3. A Refuge at Highland Hall

Fun Links:

More Info from the publisher
Author Bio on Carrie Turansky
Pinterest boards by the author on The Governess of Highland Hall, the Edwardian era, and more
Facebook page of the author

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lorena McCourtney's "Dolled Up to Die" - a seriously funny mystery

Dolled Up to DieMeet Cate Kinkaid, Private Eye.  Or, more officially, Assistant Private Detective of Belmont Investigations.  Having found her love and calling, Cate is officially working toward getting her private detective license as her uncle phases into retirement.  Aside from getting involved accidentally in a murder investigation on Cate's first case, Belmont Investigations doesn't do violent crime; however, when a woman calls frantically that Lucinda, Marianne, and Toby have all been shot and the police aren't responding immediately, what is Cate to do?  Granted, it turns out that those three poor souls weren't alive to begin with, being extremely life-like dolls, but the body in the workroom, on the other hand . . .  Once again, between delivering subpoenas and trailing secretive husbands, Cate gets thoroughly embroiled in a murder investigation in Lorena McCourtney's second Cate Kinkaid novel, Dolled Up to Die

I don't think I'm really throwing out spoilers to say this, but I really liked the ending - it is much more believable and realistic than so many mysteries where the villain Confesses All.  Rather, evidence and actions point to the killer, and the murderer does not explain away every last detail of the crime.  Even after putting the villain behind bars, Cate has to use "informed deductions" in addition to the facts while filling out the case file, since some of the reasoning and methods of the crimes are not explained by the alleged murderer.  Huzzah for the sensible villain who doesn't waste precious minutes gloating over every evil deed when that time could be used to finish off the main character!  (Not that they ever succeed anyway, but at least they use their brains.)

Cate is a great, realistic character.  She is not perfectly coiffed, super highly accomplished, or out-of-this-world brainy, but she has sense, maintains meaningful relationships, and trusts God - an ordinary woman who could live next door or be one's best friend.  Just as she is easy to relate with, so is her relationship with Mitch - both a good friend and an attentive boyfriend, she can call on him to rescue her from any trouble, and he can depend on her to be up for everything, even helping old men from church clean out their closets.  He is a good guy who loves her and wants to protect her but knows when to let her go her own way and not stifle her. 

Another great comedic mystery by McCourtney, I laughed out loud again while reading the novel.  The situations she sticks them in, Cate's quirky thoughts - it is a wonderful piece of literature.  There isn't a big Christian message or lesson, but we can see progression in Kate and especially Mitch from the first novel, Dying to Read, as he is growing stronger in his beliefs. 

Cate Kincaid Files
1. Dying to Read
2. Dolled Up to Die
3. Death Takes a Ride

Monday, October 7, 2013

"Dying to Read" by Lornea McCourtney

Dying to ReadMeet Cate Kinkaid - private eye.  Or at least temporary help for her retiring private investigator uncle until she finds a real job.  On her first assignment, all she must do is verify the current address of a young woman who is receiving an inheritance - simple right?  Until she encounters the Whodunit Book Club and a dead body at the residence.  Then things get a bit more complicated in the first of Lorena McCourtney's Cate Kinkaid Files - her mystery novel, Dying to Read.

For all those twenty-somethings who are out of college and can't find jobs in their respective career fields or discover it's not exactly what one wanted to do after all, this book is most appropriate - through a rather self-deprecating comedy, it speaks to the longing to find a job one loves, to the discontent of being stuck and not really going anywhere in life, and to the resulting desperation to do just about anything to finally do something with one's life.  Still plowing through that stage of life, I completely understand - while I may not have had as much variety in jobs as Cate, with my degree in International Studies I've still sold produce at a farmer's market for an aunt, weeded my brother's boss' wife's flowerbeds, tutored elementary kids in math and reading, given a couple piano lessons, and even sewed a mattress pad and pillow to line a casket.  And trust me, Cate is even worse off than me: her job, her love life, her haircut - nothing has been going right. While the author may not be a twenty-something herself, she definitely must have some in her acquaintance to capture the feel so well.

While a number of the characters are on the eccentric side, making for a delightfully colorful cast, Cate is fairly down-to-earth (aside from taking advice from an overweight, deaf cat; but then who doesn't do something odd now and then?) and easy to connect with.  I found myself agreeing with her about characters she liked and wanting to believe the best of them, much like real people - when I like someone, I want them to always do the right thing, to live up to their potential.  Sadly, humans are broken creatures in a broken world, so no one can meet our expectations all the time.  Fiction mirrors life in that aspect. 

Like her wonderful Ivy Malone mysteries, Dying to Read is a quirky cozy mystery that is full of humor.  There's no big lesson to be learned in the book, but Cate is obviously a believer who is willing to "do the prayer thing" for the people in her life who don't want to be preached at but need some help.  It is a highly enjoyable read for any time one is in the mood for a lighthearted piece of inspirational fiction.

Cate Kincaid Files
1. Dying to Read
2. Dolled Up to Die
3. Death Takes a Ride

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Stranded" by Dani Pettrey - more than I bargained for!

In book three of her Alaskan Courage series, Dani Pettrey outdoes herself in mystery, suspense, and adventure.  Something isn't right on the Alaskan cruise ship the Bering.  When Darcy St. James' friend Abby discovers some mysterious crimes lurking just under the surface of the cruise, Darcy revisits her undercover reporter past to help Abby out, not knowing what to expect until Abby briefs her in person.  However, Abby doesn't show, and word has it a young woman went overboard, but no one is saying anything about the woman - if she is all right, where she is, or even who rescued her.  Gage McKenna and his Last Frontier Adventures company - primarily comprised of his siblings - have been contracted to provide adventure excursions for the wealthy vacationers, and Gage quickly finds himself dragged into Darcy's investigation, as much as he dislikes the duplicity involved in her undercover role.  Together with the rest of the McKenna clan, they have to figure out what happened to Abby and what big story she was onto before that trouble finds them . . .

StrandedWhile this book could be read as a stand alone, it is best to read the first two novels - Submerged and Shattered - beforehand.  While there is a main couple that each novel focuses on, the books do a good job at further developing the whole McKenna family so that by book three, personalities, family dynamics, and relationships are fairly well established, and thus tensions between characters do not need much explanation.  Each novel also sets up the following one by weaving in the thoughts of the main subjects of the next - so while Gage and Darcy are the main characters in Stranded, the point of view occasionally shifts to Jake and Kayden, who will star in the fourth novel of the series.

As a Christian, I really appreciated Darcy's convictions in the story - while there is a thrill to undercover work, she really struggles with the lies and deception involved.  Her heart aches for those that she loves who have yet to meet Christ, and she struggles with the fact she is falling in love with an unbeliever, no matter how good the chances are that he will some day return to Christ, given the number of people praying for him and his strong Christian family.  She knows that before it happens she cannot get into a relationship with him, no matter how much she wants to.  It is a hard message to hear, but it could save so much heartache. 

Another hard subject Pettrey discusses - which proves to be the turning point for Gage - is the loss of a child, and why God would allow such a thing to happen.  Surprisingly, I had never heard Pettrey's view before reading it in the story, but it makes sense and I believe is biblically solid - that God has created us for eternity, and though a baby may only spend a few moments breathing on earth, that child still has eternity with God, just as those of us who know Jesus will each join Him for eternity.  So while we may not have that time here on earth, we will be united after our short lives are over, but only if Jesus is King in our hearts. 

While I enjoyed the first two books of the series, this one so far is my favorite - the publisher's description really is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the mystery, suspense, and adventure, just as Abby's disappearance is the tip of a much larger criminal enterprise than we are initially led to believe.  Hooray for the good guys for figuring it out and not relying on bad guy confessions!  A great story with a great message - 5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House and NetGalley for a free e-copy for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Alaskan Courage
0.5: "Shadowed" (Sins of the Past romantic suspense novella collection)
1. Submerged
2. Shattered
3. Stranded
4. Silenced
5. Sabotaged 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"A Talent for Trouble" by the talented Jen Turano - absolutely hilarious

In the third novel of her Ladies of Distinction series, Jen Turano focuses on the unlucky-in-love Felicia Murdock and the dashing, mysterious Grayson Sumner, Lord Sefton.  When the minister Felicia had hoped to marry weds another, Felicia gives up on the pious, quiet facade she has built up over the years hoping to attract the preacher, along with a poor fashion sense cultivated to please him.  Grayson, trapped in her company by scheming friends and mothers, suddenly finds himself quite attracted to her, but given his dark past, he feels a sweet, charming girl like her should not be tainted by the likes of him.  Unfortunately, in spite of his efforts to protect her, Grayson's past catches up with him and puts her in the danger he was trying to avoid.  Will they survive their talent for attracting trouble long enough to fall in love?

Having read Turano's previous novels in the series, I was expecting another amusing story, but this one gave my abs a workout - I laughed so hard, several different times in the book, that it was verging on painful.  Hats off to the author for such talented writing!
A Talent for Trouble
There are some definite trends between the three novels of this series, but the author deals with them in a creative way by allowing the characters to acknowledge the trends and (occasionally) learn from them from book to book.  Which makes me wonder if in the fourth book they will get it right or not . . .  So in some sense these novels are a little formulaic, but it works for the series - it's part of what makes them so delightful.

Like Eliza and Arabella, Felicia is spunky, lively, and not pinned down by social rules - at least not anymore, now that she is no longer hiding her personality so she can win the minister.  Unlike in a lot of books where the main characters learn their lesson most of the way through the book, Felicia figures it out at the beginning and spends the novel working her way through it.  Granted, Grayson takes a long time to figure out that 1) God can and has forgiven his multitude of sins, and 2) he is not to blame for events beyond his control.  

It's not often that I would choose a book that focuses more heavily on the dialogue than descriptions, character development, and plot, but Turano pulls it off - through the dialogue and thoughts of the characters we see them grow and change, and the witty conversations and repartees are hilarious.  It's a completely feel-good novel, but not without a lesson or two to be learned; it's just that sometimes one needs that teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down, and this books provides a healthy dose.  5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you Bethany House for a free copy of the novel for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions expressed are my own. 

I highly recommend reading the entire Ladies of Distinction series:
1. A Change of Fortune
2. A Most Peculiar Circumstance
3. A Talent for Trouble 
4. A Match of Wits