Monday, December 30, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013

It is so hard to choose one's favorite novels for a year, since it was nearly a year ago that some of these came out!  Being a spectacular year for Christian fiction, I decided to split up my favorites into categories, since my love is for historical fiction, and my inclination is always to put them on top.  However, it just doesn't do justice to some excellent contemporary novels that came out.  Thus we have categories of historical, mystery/suspense, contemporary, and humor, though historical is by far the longest. 

No list is in order by ranking one better than another, as choosing the favorites was hard enough - ranking any one of them as The Best would slight the others!  However, I dislike it to be random, ergo each category has a different but specific system of order.  

My top five historical novels published in 2013:

Burning Sky: A Novel of the American FrontierRebellious Heart by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House, September); pre American Revolution

Ring of Secrets by Roseanna M. White (Harvest House, March); American Revolution

Burning Sky by Lori Benton (WaterBrook, August); post American Revolution

The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen (Bethany House, January); Regency England

Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House, May); late 1800's American West


There were quite a number of mystery/suspense novels I enjoyed this year, but these two stuck out as spectacular and the epitome of their genre:

Trapped by Irene Hannon (Revell, September)

Stranded by Dani Pettrey (Bethany House, September)

Chasing HopeI do not read a lot of contemporary fiction that is not suspense, as I rarely come across any that I love, and I acquired this one by accident, under the mistaken impression it was about pre-WWI orphanages.  I thought the cover seemed remarkably anachronistic for Bethany House, and thus there was already a minor black mark against it. When GoodReads notified me that I won a free copy, I reread the description and was aghast to discover it was just a contemporary novel.  About sports, no less.  BIG black mark against the book.  But, since I won it, I decided I would read it and review it, which is only common courtesy, and hope it was good enough for a 4-star rating so I wouldn't feel bad about winning a book I didn't want in the first place.  Thus it was a shock to discover that this is really good, with a moving story and tons of insight.  I am now torn between keeping the novel and sharing it at church so everyone else can enjoy it too.  Hats off to Kathryn Cushman for the surprise of the year!

Chasing Hope by Kathryn Cushman (Bethany House, September)

A Most Peculiar Circumstance
Finally, because these are still among my favorites for the year but had a hard time competing with the depth of the historical novels above, I had to create a category for Humor (which is my prerogative, as Author of this Blog and Maker of the Rules), for I have rarely laughed so hard when reading books as I did these:

A Most Peculiar Circumstance by Jen Turano (Bethany House, May)

A Talent for Trouble by Jen Turano (Bethany House, October)

What were your favorite books published this year?

Friday, December 27, 2013

"If the Shoe Fits" by Sandra D. Bricker

If the Shoe Fits: A Contemporary Fairy TaleSandra D. Bricker's novel If the Shoe Fits is a cute story - a "contemporary fairytale" - about whether two friends can fall in love.  Just starting up their own law firm, attorneys Julianne Bartlett and Will Hanes have been best friends forever and now finally even get to work together.  As their business gets going, they face a number of difficulties, from murderous clients to fraudulent employees to their own messed up love lives.  Will knows that he is in love with Julianne and pretty much always has been, despite dating a number of other women.  Julianne hasn't really considered Will again since their disastrous date back in high school, though she tends to be unhappy about his relationships, and anyway, she just encountered an "angel" - a hunk of a man who stopped traffic to rescue a dog and lost his tool box and boot in the process.  It must be a sign from God, right? 

When I first saw the cover, my automatic thought was, "the guy in the work boot wins the girl - the rich man never does."  To my surprise, the book wasn't really about rich or poor or works-with-his-hands versus pushes-paper, and it wasn't at all what I was expecting in terms of "should I marry him, or do I really love my best friend instead?"  What it amounts to is that Julianne knows she is pursuing the wrong man - God makes it abundantly clear - but she doesn't feel like there is anyone else who would have her, either - not Will, not anyone, so the cover is a little deceptive.  Bricker doesn't elaborate on it, but she makes the important point that a Christian should only consider another Christian as a spouse, though Julianne doesn't heed that advice in her desperation to have any man besides Will-the-consolation-prize on her arm.

While it is described as a contemporary fairytale, it is more a story of a girl who desperately wants the fairytale - so much so that she chances missing out on true love right in front of her.  Cinderella gets her ball and wows the price, loses her slipper running away, and even has a fairy godmother.  However, it isn't as easy as fairytales imply; there is a lot more vulnerability and soul-baring than she expects. 

It was a cute story, with lots of humor to sweeten the message on pride.  While there were not a lot of deep conversations, the characters were obviously Christians, though they were just as obviously as prone to do dumb things as the rest of us.  Thank goodness for God's grace!  Pride gets them nowhere, but humbling themselves before each other and God goes a long way.  A fun read; 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christian Regency Fiction

In celebration of Regency novels, I have determined to compile a list (not likely an exhaustive one, but as much as I know) of Christian Regency fiction.  For a very basic definition of the Regency era, it refers to the time period (1811-1820) in Great Britain while King George III was unable to rule, so his son the Prince of Wales ruled in his stead under the title Prince Regent.  Granted, anything between 1800-1830 is generally considered Regency, even if it does not strictly fall within the Regent's rule; just so long as the women have curly updos and wear empire-waist dresses, while men dress in breeches.  Think Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  New and upcoming releases include:

The Innkeeper's Daughter The Weaver's Daughter A Defense of Honor (Haven Manor, #1)
Michelle Griep's The Innkeeper's Daughter in March 2018; Sarah E Ladd's The Weaver's Daughter in April 2018; Kristi Ann Hunter's A Defense of Honor in June 2018
Moonlight Masquerade (London Encounters, #1)
And here is the list of Christian Regency books!
* indicates I have read it

Ruth Axtell
Moonlight Masquerade (2013)*
A Heart's Rebellion (2014)*

Linore Rose Burkard
Forsythe Series
1. Before the Season Ends (2005)*
A Spy's Devotion (The Regency Spies of London #1)
2. The House in Grosvenor Square (2009)*
3. The Country House Courtship (2010)*

This is a fairly sweet trilogy that would probably appeal more to young adults, as the heroines are fairly young themselves.  

Kaye Dacus
Ransome Trilogy
1. Ransome's Honor (2009)
2. Ransome's Crossing (2010)
A Necessary Deception  (The Daughters of Bainbridge House #1)3. Ransome's Quest (2011)

Melanie Dickerson
The Regency Spies of London
1. A Spy's Devotion (2016)*
2. A Viscount's Proposal (2017)*
3. A Dangerous Engagement (2017)*

Laurie Alice Eakes
The Daughters of Bainbridge House
1. A Necessary Deception (2011)*
2. A Flight of Fancy (2012)*
3. A Reluctant Courtship (2013)*

Prelude for a Lord (The Gentlemen Quartet #1)Cliffs of Cornwall
1. A Lady of Honor (2014)
2. A Stranger's Secret (2015)

Camille Elliot 
The Gentlemen Quartet
1.  Prelude for a Lord (2014)*

Michelle Griep
Brentwood's Ward (2015)
The Innkeeper's Daughter (2018)*

Kristi Ann Hunter
An Elegant Façade (Hawthorne House, #2)Hawthorne House
1. A Noble Masquerade (2015)*
2. An Elegant Facade (2016)*
3. An Uncommon Courtship (2017)*
4. An Inconvenient Beauty (2017)*

Haven Manor
1. A Defense of Honor (2018)

Wonderful combination of humor and heart - an author to watch!

The Apothecary's DaughterJulie Klassen
Lady of Milkweed Manor (2008)*
The Apothecary's Daughter (2009)*
The Silent Governess (2010)*
The Girl in the Gatehouse (2011)*
The Maid of Fairbourne Hall (2012)*
The Tutor's Daughter (2013)*
The Dancing Master (2014)*
The Secret of Pembrooke Park (2014)*
Lady Maybe (2015)*
The Painter's Daughter (2015)*

Tales from Ivy Hill
1. The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill (Dec 2016)*
2. The Ladies of Ivy Cottage (Dec 2017)
3. The Bride of Ivy Green (Dec 2018)

Julie Klassen is probably the most popular author of this genre out there - her books are excellent; tons of research must go into these books to have such detail - on the locations, the interests of the characters, employments - everything is so well thought out!  While they are solid, clean reads, they are geared toward adults, as some of the novels explore what happened to women who made errors of judgement in that time period.  The Tutor's Daughter is one of my absolute favorites.

The Curiosity Keeper (Treasures of Surrey, #1)
Sarah E. Ladd
Whispers on the Moors
1. The Heiress of Winterwood (2013)*
2. The Headmistress of Rosemere (2013)*
3. A Lady at Willowgrove Hall (2014)*

Treasures of Surrey
1. The Curiosity Keeper (2015)*
2. Dawn at Emberwilde (2016)*
3. A Stranger at Fellsworth (2017)*
The Elusive Miss Ellison (Regency Brides: A Legacy of Grace, #1)
The Weaver's Daughter (2018)*

Carolyn Miller
Regency Brides: A Legacy of Grace
1. The Elusive Miss Ellison (2017)*
2. The Captivating Lady Charlotte (2017)
3. The Dishonorable Miss Delancey (2017)

Regency Brides: Promise of Hope
1. Winning Miss Winthrop (2018)
2. Miss Serena's Secret (2018)
3. The Making of Mrs. Hale (2018)
All the Tea in China

Jane Orcutt
All the Tea in China (2007)*

This is the most humorous of the list, and sadly the author passed away before she could write more in what was presumably meant to be a series.  Some aspects may be less historically accurate than in other novels, though that is what makes it funnier.  They find adventure and humor from England to China, but it has its share of serious subjects too, especially in conjunction with the tea and opium trade. 

Mary Lu Tyndall
The Falcon and the Sparrow (2008)

The Proposal (The English Garden, #1)
Lori Wick
The English Garden
1. The Proposal (2002)*
2. The Rescue (2002)*
3. The Visitor (2003)*
4. The Pursuit (2003)*

Each of these is written the sweet, typical writing style of Lori Wick; they are great for young adult on up.  Many thanks to my dear friend who got me hooked on them back in high school!

Do you know any other Christian Regencies that I've missed?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sandra Bricker's series of "Emma Rae Creations"

Sandra D. Bricker has written a charming quartet based entirely on weddings, where the heroines of the stories fill the roles of Baker, Wedding Planner, and Dress Designer and all end up at the Tanglewood Hotel: a wedding destination hotel that provides basically everything one needs for a wedding.  Filled with humor and helpful hints, the books are quick, nice, light reads that can swiftly get one into a wedding mindset.

Always the Baker, Never the Bride (Emma Rae Creations, #1)Always the Baker, Never the Bride introduces us to Emma Rae Travis, the diabetic baker and premier cake designer hired at the Tanglewood, and her boss, Jackson Drake, who is trying to live out his deceased wife's dream of creating a wedding destination hotel.  With the help of Jackson's sisters, some quirky assistants, and a rather volatile master chef, they get the hotel up and running, but before they can make a future for themselves, they must confront and work through issues from their past. 

In Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride, we are introduced to Emma's college roommate, Sherylin, who is offered the role of wedding planner at the Tanglewood as she prepares to marry her physical therapist fiance and settle back in the Atlanta area.  Unfortunately, their whirlwind romance has not given them time to get to know each other nearly as well as they should, and so things get a little rocky when people from their past start popping up.

Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride (Emma Rae Creations, #2)While Audrey Regan is not employed by the Tanglewood, in Always the Designer, Never the Bride she ends up there for her best friend's wedding, getting introduced to the staff as they encourage her and help with opportunities to keep her wedding dress design business afloat.  As the new brother-in-law of Audrey's best friend, JR gets thrown in with the maid of honor as they help keep the bride's spirits up while her new husband suffers appendicitis and then gets shipped back overseas.  Since JR lives on his motorcycle and Audrey is tugged in several directions for her design business, they have to work out where God actually wants them to go in both their complicated businesses and their relationship.

In Always the Baker, Finally the Bride, Emma and Jackson finally are planning their wedding and preparing to settle down, but life gets significantly more complicated when Jackson receives and incredibly lucrative offer on his business and Emma's diabetes and blood pressure starts getting out of control.  Sell the hotel and follow the dream of living in Paris for a year?  Keep the family they have created there but be ever under stress?  Making the wisest decision proves a lot more difficult than they expected.

At each chapter break is a recipe, wedding tips, wedding lore, or some other tidbit relating to the story.  The books might be worth reading for the recipes alone - the recipes I jotted down include from Baker, a recipe for Devonshire cream for those who adore scones; Wedding Planner, blueberry scones and Petta, a nutty, buttery, Serbian dessert; Designer, an excellent homemade mac-n-cheese recipe (infinitely superior to the boxed Kraft or homemade-with-Velveeta kind); and Finally, the much-discussed and long-awaited Crème Brûlée cake itself. 
Always the Designer, Never the Bride (Emma Rae Creations, #3)
The wedding tips and recipes were a fun addition to the novels.  Wedding standards are obviously a bit different where I am from - decidedly more low key - but it certainly was fun to read about how weddings might be run in wealthier circles.  It surely would not hurt anyone who is planning a wedding or even just a special event to read them for some creative ideas.  They left me with a strong desire to invite friends over for tea, scones, and devonshire cream.  

One of the best things about the series is how much personality the secondary characters have - we get to know them just as much as the main characters.  Emma's parents, aunt, and assistant Fee, as well as Jackson's three sisters, Audrey's assistant Kat, the charming movie star Russel Walker, and others are all just as important to the story as Emma, Jackson, Sherylin, Andy, Audrey, and JR.  Each has their own look and personality, and most of them grow throughout the books, just like the main characters. 

Always the Baker, Finally the Bride (Emma Rae Creations, #4)While there are Christian themes to the book and occasionally some praying, there is not really much of a message or lesson to be learned.  Baker has the strongest faith statement - Aunt Sophie gives Jackson a talk on how God will make all things new, which speaks to the dry spirit that he has had since his God-loving wife died.  Otherwise they are pretty light on the Christian messages.

Of the four books, Always the baker, Never the Bride was my favorite, largely because it had the strongest message.  I could connect best with Always the Designer, as I am seamstress myself, but I liked the Baker story better.  4 stars overall for the series; it was cute with lots of fun tidbits. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Circle of Spies" by Roseanna M. White - another great adventure of the Culper Ring!

In the final installment of her series about the Culper Spy Ring, Roseanna M. White explores the ring's activities during the Civil War.  By this time the ring is down to just family, but they are still vigilant in protecting the interests of their country.  Marietta gets dragged into it when she finds out her in-laws are not the supporters of the Union she thought they were, but rather are involved in a dangerous secret society, and it becomes her job to help Pinkerton agent Slade Osbourne where she can without letting him know of her involvement.  Slade, however, is not sure if Marietta is a southern sympathizer with her dead husband's family, if she is pro-Union with her own family, or if she is playing a game all her own.

Circle of Spies
Though there are three spy groups operating - the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Pinkertons, and the Culpers, White does a good job at keeping them distinct.  Devereaux Hughes is a leader of the secret Confederate society the KGC (a solid bad guy that one can joyfully hate, in an evil and mildly creepy society).  Slade is a Pinkerton agent who is pretending to be a Pinkerton double agent for the KGC, when he is really spying on them to take them down.  Marietta, the Culper, is keeping an eye on both parties, to help Slade where she can and make sure the KGC does not succeed, while keeping her role unknown to the both of them.  I had no trouble keeping track of which party was doing what, which is testament to the author's excellent ability to tell a story. 

Marietta surprised me; it is not often the heroine of Christian fiction is an accomplished coquette.  She can flirt, tease, and seduce with the best of them, but really she is operating under an oppressive burden of guilt for her fickleness with men, even if she has never broken the letter of the law.  She is a sadder but wiser girl - surrounded by wealth, but poor in spirit; free to do as she pleases, but imprisoned by guilt.  It is encouraging to watch her grow throughout the story and return to the faith her parents instilled in her as a child.

A major point the author makes - one pointed at Marietta - is that while forgiveness does not eliminate the consequences of one's sins, that responsibility should not be a prison to one's soul.  She writes, "You have prayed for forgiveness from your sins.  Have you prayed for freedom from their bonds? . . . Never once in the bible does God speak either for or against physical slavery.  But spiritual slavery - that is a topic He addresses time and again.  Over and over Paul pleads with the early church to embrace the freedom of the soul that Christ offers.  You must do that, Mari.  You must cling, not just to cleansing, but to freedom." (228).

Circle of Spies is an excellent novel and I enjoyed immensely, but I wish it were not the conclusion to the series.  The author hit on a marvelous theme for the books, and it is sad to see them end.  However, she finishes it with a flourish!  5 out of 5 stars!

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

The Culper Ring:
1. Ring of Secrets
1.5. Fairchild's Lady (novella)
2. Whispers from the Shadows
2.5. "A Hero's Promise" (short story)
3. Circle of Spies

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Meg Moseley's "Gone South"

Gone South    -     By: Meg Moseley
In her novel Gone South, Meg Moseley explores what happens when a Northern girl moves into the old ancestral home in the Deep South.  Letitia McComb has been fascinated by her family history, and when she discovers an opportunity to buy the house in which her ancestors lived during the aftermath of the Civil War, she gives in to the impulse to uproot her Michigan life and make the purchase.  However, years of bitterness over wrongs by her ancestors both legitimate and perceived lead to a frosty welcome.  With no job or connections in Alabama, all Tish has to lean on are a troubled youth to whom she offers shelter, a handsome antiques dealer with a depressed dog that thinks it lives at Tish's house, and God. 

I have somewhat mixed feelings over Mel (Tish's alleged thief of a houseguest).  I do believe that people are way too hard on her and that she is not as bad as everyone assumes; being neglected and put down all the time could bring out the worst in anybody.  However, I'm still not sure that she is truly repentant or can discern between what is right and wrong.  While she is seeking God, I do not think she quite gets it, since she treats Him more as a genie that grants wishes.  I would have liked to see a little more change or closure on her spiritual life, even if it was only one sentence to indicate that she had fully handed her life over to God.

While a good portion of the plot deals with the grudges and myths left over from the War Between States, I appreciate that Moseley doesn't let Tish's desire to clear her family's name overshadow what is really important - the here and now; living a Godly life and ministering to the neglected and unloved local girl staying in her spare bedroom.  Eventually people will see that Tish is not her namesake; the love and mercy she showers on Mel is proof of her heart and ought to dispel the old prejudices, for truly, "mercy triumphs over judgement" (James 2:13b).  There is a lot of judgement going on in that town, but mercy will overcome. 

It was a pleasant book, with some good lessons to ponder.  Tish is an excellent main character; she is likeable but not perfect - occasionally she can be just as quick to judge as everyone else, but she at least works on it.  I am glad for the gradual change in George and Cal as the girls prove their prejudices are unfounded, and I especially like that George takes a leap of faith with Mel, giving her a chance to prove herself rather than waiting for her to prove herself and then giving her a chance.  4 out of 5 stars

For another novel on a similar vein, I would also recommend Kathryn Cushman's Chasing Hope, in which another young woman sticks her neck out to help a troubled youth. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Emma of Aurora: the Complete Change and Cherish Trilogy" by Jane Kirkpatrick

Emma of Aurora
Originally published as three separate novels, Jane Kirkpatrick's Emma of Aurora contains the stories A Clearing in the Wild, The Tendering Storm, and A Mending at the Edge.  It covers roughly twenty years of Emma Wagner Giesy's life: through marriage, widowhood, and remarriage; from Missouri to Washington to Oregon.  Beginning while there were only rumbles of the impending Civil War, it describes the uprooting and transfer of one of America's more successful utopian societies - the religious society to which Emma belongs - and her rejection and embracing of this good but faulty group of believers. 

Emma changes and grows remarkably through the book, but given that it spans roughly twenty years, she ought to.  A Clearing in the Wild begins with 17-year old Emma starting off in marriage with a man only a year younger than her own father.  I did not care for her at first - Emma is yet immature and prone to vanity and manipulation, though her grievances with the leader of their colony are understandable.  The journey and settlement force her to make decisions, not just manipulate her way into getting what she wants, granting her a bit more maturity and wisdom.  Emma learns to think unselfishly for herself and take others into account and do what is best for them.  However, she is loathe to accept help, and her stubborn and headstrong ways never leave her, though she learns to temper them. The most spiritual growth occurs in A Mending at the Edge, where she really learns to lean on God and work for Him, not just herself.  Kirkpatrick does an excellent job at Emma's voice - it starts out petulant and with all the self-centeredness of youth, but the voice gradually matures more and more through each story.  It never sounds like she was replaced by a different character - her voice remains true, but it is an older, wiser voice at the end. 

The Tendering Storm introduces us to Louisa Keil's point of view, as well as maintaining Emma's, though it is back to purely Emma's for A Mending at the Edge. I appreciated Louisa a bit more as the story went on; she truly is a good woman, believing in her husband, struggling with doubts, and ultimately wanting to help others.  I am not sure her point of view is imperative to the story, but she shows us more of a woman's traditional role in the religious society and gives us a rounder view of Keil, rather than forcing us to solely rely on Emma's jaundiced opinion of him.  

There are many, many, good lessons in this book, so I will try to be brief and highlight only a couple.  I really appreciate how the author emphasizes the importance of standing by one's husband in A Clearing in the Wild.  Emma is not very good at it at first, being rather manipulative and selfish, but she learns to support him, respect him, and encourage him to be the man God created him to be, a servant of the Lord, not of man.  Additionally, Kirkpatrick has a lot of good thoughts on community, reaching out, making people's lives better than one's own, and learning to accept help.  

Kirkpatrick reiterates through the book the importance of studying God's word for oneself, and not depending solely on one's pastor or another fallible human to declare what is truth.  The religious society highlights what a difference there is between believing in God, as so many of them do, and having a relationship with God which so many of them do not.  Like so many utopian societies, the religious colony does many things right, but yet is far from perfect.  Kirkpatrick looks closely at both the positives and negatives, painting a fair picture of their utopian society - she has achieved an excellent balance in representing the community.  

Of the three parts, A Clearing in the Wild appeals most to my romantic side, though I like Emma herself better in the later stories.  Following immediately after it, The Tendering Storm is action-filled and the most suspenseful.  Though it is by far the slowest of the three, A Mending at the Edge evoked the most emotion.  All three have worthy lessons to learn, and together they provide a thorough picture of just how far Emma comes in the course of a couple decades.  Given that very little time passes between stories, these three fit well as a single book - a long but excellent saga.  Since it is based on a real woman's life, not everything ties up perfectly by the end, and some things are bittersweet, but it is still a stimulating and satisfying read.  5 stars!

I received a free e-copy of this novel from Blogging for Books; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own. 


More info from WaterBrook Press

Friday, December 6, 2013

"The Heiress of Winterwood" by Sarah Ladd

The Heiress of Winterwood (Whispers on the Moors, # 1)In The Heiress of Winterwood, the first installment of her new series, Whispers on the Moors, Sarah Ladd introduces an heiress who has fallen in love with her deceased friend's baby.  Since her fiancé refuses to keep the child after they are wed, Amelia poses a proposition to the baby's father when he returns from overseas: marry her, and her substantial fortune will go entirely to the baby Lucy.  Graham, a sea captain, needs to find a secure home for Lucy, and Amelia is the ideal caretaker, but he is still grieving his wife and has no intention of marrying again.  Add the complications that Amelia's fortune is contingent upon getting married in the next few months before she turns 24, her fiancé starts showing a cruel side, and the baby and her nurse are kidnapped . . .  

Considering how few days pass over the course of this book - maybe a month? - I was quite impressed by the author's ability to be so thorough while still keeping the plot moving.  We get a clear picture of the depth of Amelia's family's displeasure over her choices, from early-on misgivings to the full-blown anger of when things come to a head.  At the same time, Ladd does not neglect the politics - a woman who suddenly throws over one fiancé for another would have been the object of much gossip and censure, so working with the pastor to turn opinion in favor of the match was a strategic and impressive ploy.  

I do get frustrated when characters go and do precisely what they were warned not to; since it's in a book, it is guaranteed to end poorly.  There is no hope of a consequence-free act of defiance.  I realize people do this all the time - I probably do as well - but sometimes it's so obviously a terrible decision that anyone with a lick of sense would never even consider it.  Sadly, there is an instance of this in the novel.

I liked how Amelia and Graham's struggles with God were pretty universal - who doesn't struggle with doubts when bad things keep happening and people one loves die?  And isn't it so easy to try to rely on one's own strength to solve problems?  I've found I'm constantly having to reboot my mindset, since it wants to follow rules of this world, but God is outside all the rules and can change them when He wants.  I don't have to rely on my own pathetic power, because God is there to be it for me.  Bad stuff still happens - God doesn't exist just to make me happy, that's for sure - but when I let Him, He carries me through.  

There was little surprise to the story, and it really went nowhere other than the expected route, from the villain, to the love story, to the supporting characters.  It was, however, a pleasant read, and I do look forward to the next installment of the series.  4 out of 5 stars

Whispers on the Moors
1. The Heiress of Winterwood
2. The Headmistress of Rosemere
3. A Lady at Willowgrove Hall

Monday, December 2, 2013

Olivia Newport's "The Pursuit of Lucy Banning" and "The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow"

The Pursuit of Lucy BanningIn the first novel of her Avenue of Dreams series, Olivia Newport introduces Lucy Banning, the daughter of a wealthy, upper class family in Chicago.  While Lucy is an accomplished young woman, engaged to a family friend, and charitable by nature - a perfect daughter.  However, she has a secret passion of which her family and fiance would not approve - she wants desperately to earn a college degree, and she has been taking a class at the university.  Granted, she acquires another secret soon after they hire a new maid; Charlotte Farrow, the new kitchen help, has been hiding a newborn up in her room, and single women in service do not have children, or they will be sacked instantly, assuming they ever were hired in the first place.  Lucy is trying to balance her schoolwork, charitable obligations at an orphanage, and Charlotte's secret, all while trying to find a way to break it off with Daniel, her fiance.  Then, to top it off, her brother has brought home a middle class architect friend who tugs at Lucy's heart.  How can she keep the peace while harboring such secrets?

The Dilemma of Charlotte FarrowIn The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow, Charlotte's story is continued when her year old son is dumped in her arms when the woman who had been watching him must leave for an emergency.  Everyone else assumes the baby was left for Miss Lucy, given her charitable work at the orphanage.  While the family is thinking of the proper thing to do with the baby, given that Lucy is gone to Europe, Charlotte is trying to decide whether it is best to take her baby and run, or let them place him in a loving home.  Archie, the head driver, is in love with Charlotte and trying to get her to trust him, but the appearance of Charlotte's abusive husband in town threatens Charlotte, her son, and their love. 

While there is romance in the novels, the focus is more on the historical aspects and the relationship between Lucy and Charlotte - the daughter of the house and the maid.  Newport writes a clearly well-researched novel.  Her take on the upstairs-downstairs roles is well written, where the servants' jobs are held basically by whim of the butler - it is he whom the family will listen to when hiring and firing, if they bother to take active part themselves.  Only when the family makes a specific request - like when Lucy hires Sarah Cummings - does the butler sometimes have to hold back his personal preferences.  Lucy and Charlotte come from two separate worlds - each is allowed in certain rooms of the house and not others, and they hold very few in common.  However, by trespassing into the servants' areas, Lucy discovers Charlotte's plight and offers to help, forging a bond that is inappropriate for their stations.  While Lucy and Charlotte become friends, there is still a significant divide between them - each knows her place, and they do not forget it.  When the time comes for Lucy to leave and take on her own life, Charlotte is left without an advocate in the household, and so her life as a maid becomes much more difficult. 

Over all, they are both enjoyable novels.  The main characters are very likeable, though Sarah, who has a fairly major role in Dilemma, acts like a pretty spoiled brat for an orphan; the love interests seemed a little glossed over in favor of the secondary heroine of each book.  The main characters were not without a little spiritual growth, and it was fun to watch Lucy match her potential to become a strong and mature woman and Charlotte find her way back to trusting God.  The backdrop of the Chicago World's Fair was interesting, and the plot of both novels entertaining.  4 out of 5 stars for each.  

Avenue of Dreams
The Pursuit of Lucy Banning
The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow
The Invention of Sarah Cummings