Monday, December 29, 2014

Christian Fiction Favorites of 2014

So many wonderful books came out this year - I started compiling my list of favorites in April, but by the end of spring the list of favorites was practically already compiled, and then I had to go back through to make room for more and more later releases.

It was tough.

Picking an absolute favorite amongst a list of favorites would be a cruel and horrid task, since each of these books belongs here and each has their own special qualities, so I refuse to do so.  Thus their orders do not reflect rankings, but rather my whims of the moment (though they must have some semblance of order, I'll grant that). 

My ultimate love, historical fiction, in order of date of setting:
The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn by Lori Benton (Waterbrook Press, April); Colonial

The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen (Bethany House, December); Regency

Full Steam Ahead by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House, June); Antebellum 

A Beauty So Rare by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House, April); Civil War Reconstruction

Surprised by Love by Julie Lessman (Revell, October); Early 1900's

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin (Bethany House, April); WWII
In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin (Revell, August); WWII

Out of the box:

While this is not a book I would read over and over with a shiver of warm fuzzies every time, Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer (Waterbrook Press, August) is such a haunting and powerful tale so different from the books I generally read (and love), that I can't help but include it.  If professors are not afraid of the Christianity in the story, I could see this one used in college history and international studies courses. 

Next to historicals, I've come into a great appreciation for christian mystery/suspense, and once again Dani Pettrey's Alaskan Courage series makes the top:

Silenced by Dani Pettrey (Bethany House, May)
Meant to Be Mine

And a surprise in the contemporary romance department, a genre that generally sits a ways down the totem pole:

Meant to Be Mine by Becky Wade (Bethany House, May); Porter Family Novels, book 2

Since I get to make the rules, I've decided to highlight one time period that outdid itself this year, and most appropriately too given the 70th-year anniversary of D-Day: the WWII era. There were some spectacular novels this year, and while not all of these made my top ten, they all deserved and received 5 stars:

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin
Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer
The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron
Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke
In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin
Wonderland Creek

And although this book was not published in 2014, I just read it for the first time after picking it up at a garage sale this summer: Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin (Bethany House, 2011). Depression era books tend to be depressing (who'd have thought?), but this one was so delightful and whimsical that I completely fell in love, pretty much from the first page. Anyone who loves to read should read this book, being about a fellow book lover who understands the desire to read anytime, anywhere, including through boring funerals . . . So it gets an honorable mention on my favorites of the year!

What are your favorites from 2014?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Hope for the Holidays Historical Collection" by Mary Connealy, Ruth Logan Herne, Myra Johnson, and Julie Lessman

The Seekers of Seekerville present a collaboration of historical, holiday-themed novellas by Mary Connealy, Ruth Logan Herne, Myra Johnson, and Julie Lessman.

"Sophie's Other Daughter" by Mary Connealy returns to the McClellan and Reeves clans, following the youngest - and girliest- of Sophie's four daughters and her old nemesis Ike Reeves. Stuck with Ike as an escort home from the birth of another Reeves baby, Laura is furious to discover Ike has a gang of outlaws hot on his trail. In traditional Connealy style, the story has plenty of guns and humor, and it was great to return to those characters that I have enjoyed so much. It is a perfect epilogue to Petticoat Ranch and subsequent novels.*

In Ruth Logan Herne's "A Town Called Christmas," a reclusive English immigrant ends up hosting a wagon train on his Idaho ranch for the winter. In spite of the inconvenience, he finds himself drawn to the sweet little widow he hires as his housekeeper. A fun tribute to Idaho's pioneering and immigrant history, the story is written with a heavy dose of humor, but it also has a serious thread to tug at the heartstrings.

Myra Johnson's "Designs on Love" sends a young seamstress home to Texas to take care of her parents' estate - and debts - after the yellow fever outbreak takes their lives. While taking on some dressmaking to help cover the debts, an old friend steps back into her life to help her. I enjoyed learning a bit more about Texas history, and anything about sewing naturally piques my interest. Overall, a very sweet love story.

Julie Lessman returns to her O'Connor saga in "A Whisper of Hope," following Charity and Mitch Dennehy as Charity yearns for more children after a decade of barrenness following their twins. Volunteering at an orphanage isn't helping eliminate the yearning, especially after a cross-eyed waif steals her heart . . . Lessman's story is a good reminder to continue to hope whatever the circumstances, and to let go of our own plans and trust God's to be better than anything we come up with. A heartwarming tale, it oozes love and hope and faith.**

While the four stories have little in common but the Christmas theme (and that they are historical, rather than contemporary), they form a solid collection. Connealy's and Herne's are both westerns and heavy on the humor, while Johnson and Lessman sport a stronger serious thread. Whether in the mood for familiar characters or new faces, a lively tale or sweet love story, there is something for everyone in this highly enjoyable collection.

*This story is best having read Petticoat Ranch and Calico Canyon first (being the two books most related to the story), though really it's best to read all three related trilogies for absolute fullest enjoyment: Lassoed in Texas, Montana Marriages, and Sophie's Daughters.

**Again, best read after the two trilogies, Daughters of Boston and Winds of Change

Friday, December 19, 2014

"A Most Inconvenient Marriage" by Regina Jennings - a perfect balance between humor and gravity

Cover ArtAs a final act of kindness by - and for - a dying soldier, nurse Abigail Stuart and Jeremiah Calhoun marry, leaving widowed Abigail to care for his sick sister and horse farm in exchange for a permanent home. After a couple months of throwing her all into helping her new family, Abigail is shocked to discover Jeremiah has come home. However, the Jeremiah Calhoun she married was missing an arm, while this one has all his limbs, and to her great surprise, his family claims him. Jeremiah has never seen her before, and he naturally suspects she is a hustler aiming to steal his home and business. Trying to get his life back on track, Jeremiah gets back to pursuing the woman he planned to marry, working the farm, and recovering from his wounds, but to do it, he finds himself relying on Abigail. Can she find a place with this family on which she has foisted herself?

The Civil War tore through the country, ripping apart families and communities. While no place was left untouched, some states felt the sting more harshly than others. In setting her story in Missouri, the author has chosen one of the most controversial areas in the country, there on the border between North and South, East and West. Her depiction of the war-torn community is heartbreaking, as neighbors refuse to help neighbors that sympathized with the other side, while raiders in the hills terrorize indiscriminately. 

Jennings finds that perfect balance between humor and gravity to form a rich, meaty story that manages to both entertain and make one think. While horses, skunks, and local urchins provide a release of tension, the reality is that no one - not a single character - is without wounds. Abigail tries hard to hide hers, while Jeremiah and his sister's are more obvious; even the community in which they live has wounds that run deep. And some wounds take much longer to heal than others.

Though Jeremiah is gruff and occasionally slow to catch on, he is a loveable hero, just as Abigail makes for a relational heroine: she is practical without having lost her sense of wonder and fun. The secondary characters add both humor and depth to the story, helping form that excellent balance to the tale. A fun, engrossing read! 5 stars!

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

For a fun interview with the author and a peek at what is next to come, see Bethany House's Q&A with Regina Jennings

Ozark Mountain Romance
1. A Most Inconvenient Marriage
2. At Love's Bidding
2.5 "Her Dearly Unintended" from the novella collection With This Ring?
3. For the Record

Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Secret of Pembrooke Park" by Julie Klassen - a decadent, complex mystery

The Secret of Pembrooke Park
Julie Klassen's The Secret of Pembrooke Park is like a rich dessert in which one cannot help but indulge.

After an investment gone wrong, Abigail Foster and her family are forced to retrench. When a distant, anonymous relation offers an opportunity for them to let a mansion abandoned under peculiar circumstances, they take up the offer. Abigail, the practical, older daughter, is in charge of preparing the house while her lovely sister finishes her season. She makes friends with William Chapman, the handsome, local curate, and his family, who know more about the mysterious mansion than they are willing to share. Rumors claim a treasure is hidden in a secret room of the house, but soon Abigail discovers she is not the only one looking for it. Will ferreting out the past prove the key to the future, or will it bring danger upon them all?

I think one of the most difficult aspects of a regency is making a convincing hero - a man who is a gentleman, but a man who is undeniably masculine. Clergymen heroes are often portrayed as incredibly good, sweet men, but they often lack vibrancy. William blows the stereotypes out of the water. He may be a preacher, but there is nothing weak or namby-pamby about him, not physically, not mentally, and not spiritually. He is everything a hero should be - not perfect, but a powerful man of God. 

Abigail is an easy character to relate to. In the course of little over a year, all her plans and expectations for her life are destroyed, leaving her with a wounded self esteem and strained relationship with her family. While the people who love her aren't setting out to hurt her, inconsiderate actions on their part only serve to reopen the wounds. Who hasn't felt that? All those insecurities from lies we believe about ourselves?

I like how the author blends the mystery - and quite a complex one, at that - with Abigail's everyday life, so that while the mystery is an important aspect of the story, it is by no means the whole story. Touches of suspense liven up the relaxed, country atmosphere. Decadently long and rich with Klassen's characteristic period detail, The Secret of Pembrooke Park is a complex mystery to savor. 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Jody Hedlund's "Love Unexpected"

Cover ArtThe first book of Jody Hedlund's new series, Love Unexpected is a tempestuous introduction to the Great Lakes and the lightkeepers that watch over them. Stranded in a remote village on the Michigan shore after a pirate attack, Emma Chambers jumps at the chance to settle into a ready-made family with Patrick Garraty, a very recent widower and lightkeeper of the Presque Isle lighthouse, who desperately needs a wife to watch his son. Their marriage of convenience benefits them both, and his kindness and consideration warms Emma's heart, but rumors of Patrick's past - and his wife's suspicious death - make Emma wonder if she didn't make a grave error in marrying him after all . . .

How does someone with no real experience with children learn to be a mother to a toddler? With a great many trials and tribulations, that's for sure. Children, no matter how sweet and cute and precocious, still need discipline and time for adjustment. I thought the author did a great job working through that struggle, especially in depicting the helpless feeling Emma has when Josiah throws a tantrum or won't do what she wants. It's amazing (but true!) how a child can make an adult feel so inept and powerless!

This tale really confronts the problem of a sinner, saved by grace, whose past still haunts him. Patrick made a lot of foolish choices in his youth, and while he has completely turned back from that lifestyle, he knows that most people, if they knew what he had done, would utterly reject him. As a society, we can have such a hard time believing that person has really changed. When we hear of the awful things they did in their past, we can be so quick to judge and believe the worst, even when their actions today tell a completely different story.

Living near the Great Lakes myself, I had known that there were pirates on the lakes, and it was fun to read a book about them. I didn't realize until I read the author's note in the end that Emma and Patrick are based on a real couple that manned the Presque Isle lighthouse, which, like always, fascinated me - the more closely a story is based on real people and events, the more I love it. As with previous novels, Hedlund does a good job exploring the marriage of convenience, but it follows a different route to love. Wrought with her characteristic tension, the author writes a complex love story with a few surprises in the end. 4.5 stars

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

I would also highly recommend reading To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer, another wonderful novel that touches on similar themes of the old life versus the new and overcoming the stigma of the past.

Beacons of Hope
0.5. "Out of the Storm"
1. Love Unexpected
2. Hearts Made Whole
3. Undaunted Hope 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Dreams to dream - a theme of 2014

Word had it, way back in the beginning of the year, that 2014 would be a year of double-open doors - that doors that once were shut will be flinging open.  Dreams that have long laid dormant will be pursued. That it's time to push for your dreams.

A Beauty So RareI could see it in friends - and myself - who pushed to actively pursue their dreams: from picking up a paper route to save up and pay for midwife training, to giving away and selling possessions in preparation to move to another state, to wading into the world of art by investing in prints of paintings.

And I could see it in the books that were being published this year.

Why dreams?  Why are they so important?

Meant to Be MineThere are dreams we already have that God honors, and there are dreams that God gives us that we never expected would become a dream.  I have always loved studying wildflowers and seeking them out in ditches and swamps, but I never expected God to give me a dream - and the ability - to draw them, not when I made it through school as a decent but by no means impressive artist.  And I never expected that clearly God-given ability to translate to animals, when I'd always struggled to make them anything but cartoons.

Playing by HeartGod gives us the opportunity to pursue both kinds of dreams, sometimes even together.  And sometimes they are not particularly compatible, like art and my love of languages. At the moment, my desire has been focused on art, as have time and opportunity, and so it seems like languages have gone by the wayside.  But just because one dream eclipses the other now does not mean that we should give up on either - God gives us dreams for a reason, and I don't believe He will let them be lost.  Who knows when that dream will once again become a burning desire, and suddenly doors will open to pursue it?

Beyond All Dreams(Added December 31, 2014): Suppose you have a dream, something you're passionate about, but you don't know how to pursue it, or your present attempts have failed? I have to add these words from Elizabeth Camden, since it puts it so much more clearly than I could describe it. In her new release, Beyond All Dreams (Bethany House, 2015), the author writes (in regards to a boy with a passion for painting):
"If you don't make it as a painter, funnel that passion into something else, but it doesn't have to die. . . If you don't make it as a painter, perhaps you'll be a great teacher. Or a museum curator. Maybe you'll become a rich industrialist and fund a museum. Just don't limit yourself by thinking you already know God's purpose for you." (134)
God has ways of using our dreams that we don't expect or even imagine.

Given that the fiction this year has overwhelmingly touched on dreams, I compiled a list of those that stood out especially to me, so read and be inspired:  

A Beauty So Rare by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House, April)
Surprised by Love
While Love Stirs by Lorna Seilstad (Revell, May)

Meant to Be Mine by Becky Wade (Bethany House, May)

Here to Stay by Melissa Tagg (Bethany House, May)

In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin (Revell, August)

Playing by Heart by Anne Mateer (Bethany House, September)

A Bride in Store by Melissa Jagears (Bethany House, September)

Surprised by Love by Julie Lessman (Revell, October)

What dreams are you pursuing?

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Wonderland Creek" by Lynn Austin - delightfully whimsical

Wonderland Creek
In an effort to escape the embarrassment of a break-up with her longstanding boyfriend and the loss of her depression-cut job, Alice takes the boxes of book donations she has been collecting on a journey down to a little mining town in Kentucky, where she has offered out help out the librarian there for a couple weeks.  Unfortunately, the librarian is not the woman Alice was expecting, and the people do not want her there.  But rather like the Alice in Carrol's fantasy novel, she is trapped in this strange Wonderland indefinitely, or at least until her aunt and uncle return from their two-week vacation at a spa.  But how's a girl to survive without running water, electricity, cars, and telephones until they come back?

I got a big kick out of this book.  I'm not sure it was meant to be as funny as I found it, but I could relate frighteningly well with the heroine, and that, more than anything, was what brought out the humor in the story.

Alice believes in the protection and preservation of books, and I can wholeheartedly agree with her protective stance regarding folded page corners, creased spines, and damaged covers.  It is a crime.

As Alice points out, organization is key - how else can you find the book you're looking for and make sure it isn't lost?  A jumbled, unorganized library is a crime. 

While I have never read a novel during a funeral (or during church or a wedding ceremony, as my parents would never ever have allowed it), I have been known to get caught up in a book basically everywhere else (trust me, The Scarlet Pimpernel was WAY better than watching Seven Years in Tibet in 11th grade geography).

So maybe my life, like hers, is lacking in excitement, but isn't that what books are for?  I mean, who wants a body to fall down in front of you spurting blood from a bullet hole in the chest?  It is much better to read about such things than to experience them.  Except that poor Alice, on her first morning trapped in this bizarre Wonderland, gets to experience it first hand.  From then on, she is too busy dealing with the body to read, and suddenly, she is experiencing life

Alice does start out rather selfish and oblivious to the world around her.  As much as I love reading, it isn't my life, and it shouldn't be anyone's life.  We need relationships.  We are to be in the world but not of the world - and, while books can certainly drag us away from the world, at the same time they are of the world. The author does a fine job balancing a love of books with the importance of living life, not just reading about it. 

This book is a delight - while amusing, it does not lack in heart. Written in Alice's first person perspective, we get a clear picture of her personality, but even better, we can see her growth and faith journey every step of the way. With a relaxing but steady pace, it has a whimsical air perfect for a leisurely day of reading.It definitely deserves the 2012 Christy Award for Best Historical! 5 out of 5 stars!

Monday, December 1, 2014

December releases 2014!

Love Unexpected, Beacons of Hope Series #1   -     By: Jody Hedlund
The Secret of Pembrooke Park  -     By: Julie Klassen
Exciting releases to close out a spectacular year of fiction:

The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen (Bethany House)

In financial straits, a spinster and her family are offered a mysterious manor to rent, a manor that may contain hidden treasure and danger . . .

A Most Inconvenient Marriage  -     By: Regina Jennings
Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House); Beacons of Hope, book 1

Searching for security, a young woman marries a light keeper she scarcely knows, a man whose secretive past may put them all in danger.

A Most Inconvenient Marriage by Regina Jennings (Bethany House)

Petticoat Detective, Undercover Ladies Series #1   -     By: Margaret Brownley
A Civil War nurse marries a gravely wounded soldier to save his sickly sister and herself, but shortly after the young nurse joins the family, suddenly the real Jeremiah Calhoun shows up - and he is not expecting a wife.

Petticoat Detective by Margaret Brownley (Barbour); Undercover Ladies, book 1

A female Pinkerton agent, posing as a lady of the night, is on the trail of the Gunnysack Bandit in this fun story of the Wild West.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Margaret Brownley's "Petticoat Detective" - a wild west mystery of humor and heart

A Pinkerton detective, Jennifer Layne, alias Amy, is on the trail of the infamous Gunnysack Bandit, and she inadvertently takes the role of a lady of the night. So long as she never actually has to entertain men, it's a great cover - no one ever looks beneath the painted surface of a working girl. Former Texas Ranger Tom Colton is also searching for the bandit, the man he is certain murdered his troubled brother. In spite of his credentials, Jennifer isn't sure she can trust the man, but as she spends more time with him, she discovers that she wants to. Tom, to his shame, is also attracted to Amy - but the last thing he wants is to fall for a soiled dove who "refuses to leave her profession." Will they find the real bandit? And will Tom and Jennifer overcome the lies necessary for her to maintain her undercover role?
Petticoat Detective, Undercover Ladies Series #1   -     By: Margaret Brownley
One of Jennifer's big struggles is the constant falsehoods required by her occupation; as an undercover agent, she has to play a role. Given her role in this particular case, she cannot attend church or fellowship with believers, and, "Friendships require honesty, trust, and transparency--all the things her clandestine activities prevent" (221). As such, she is basically alone, and she cannot build relationships. That reality understandably weighs on her, especially when she finds that she really wants to make friends and be loved for who she is, not what she appears. The author finely balances that dilemma and her love of detective work in a believable character.

While I think bordellos offered a grimmer reality in real life, the author does a good job of bringing out the humanity of the working girls--their hurts, their history, their hardness, and their hearts. The secondary characters are gems, providing opportunities for both humor and serious subjects. I enjoyed learning more about the Pinkertons and their rules. While sweet and a touch cheesy, the story has a number of important points to make about judging, double standards, and who we are behind our appearance. A fun detective story of the old west, Petticoat Detective has both humor and heart.

Thank you Barbour and NetGalley for providing an e-copy for an honest review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Undercover Ladies
1. Petticoat Detective
2. Undercover Bride
3. Calico Spy

Friday, November 21, 2014

Davis Bunn's "The Patmos Deception" - an international thriller

Davis Bunn's The Patmos Deception is a thrilling combination of ancient history, illegal activity, and modern crises. Carey Mathers arrives in Greece to discover her job at the Institute of Antiquities has been terminated, along with the rest of the Institute - another victim of the Greek financial crisis. However, her childhood friend Nick Hennessy, a journalist presently based out of Paris, is offered the chance of a lifetime: to investigate a series of disappearing Greek antiquities, and Carey is exactly what he needs for the job. Meanwhile, on the small island of Patmos, Dimitri Rubinos, who had been making his living off his tourist boat until the financial crisis, suddenly finds himself caught up in an opportunity far more dangerous than it seemed. As the plot proves far deeper than they were initially anticipating, with the three have any hope of riding the waves to safety?

Cover ArtThough the story is definitely suspenseful, there are plenty moments to relax and soak up Greece - the islands, the sea, the food, the history.  While I knew that Greece rich with history and lore, especially biblical, I knew very few specifics - like about the apostle John being banished to the island of Patmos. The author does a good job bringing the history to the the present - making it relevant and interesting, connecting it to places we could really go.

I really liked Dimitri; he is put in a tough position, consults his family for wisdom, and makes a choice - not always the best choice, but he goes about it in an intelligent and wise way. He is smart. Sure, he's dealing in the illegal, but he recognizes when something is plain wrong. I can just feel the tension as he's trying to keep all the balls in the air - the bad guys, the state police, his people who are just trying to survive. The moment one drops, his life is forfeit. It's a terrible position, but well-written, so the reader can readily empathize.

While there are certainly hints of romantic tension, I liked that it's not a major competition between the men who will win the girl; they are not so foolish as to jeopardize their lives by fighting over her instead of focusing on the bad guys. Carey, instead, acts as a foil to show them the emptiness in their lives that can only be filled by God, not a woman, or danger, or high living. And at the same time, the men help point Carey in the right direction too - towards God - and the path she needs to follow.

I can only assume there is a book to follow - it is entirely too cruel leaving such loose ends, even if it is not actually a cliff-hanger. I look forward to reading it and seeing where Carey, Nick, and Dimitri end up! 4.5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House and NetGalley for providing an e-copy for review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Melody Carlson's "The Christmas Cat" - a heartwarming holiday tale

The Christmas CatUpon the death of his grandmother, Garrison Brown, recently returned from the mission field in Uganda with malaria, gets saddled with the daunting task of finding safe, loving homes for each of his grandma's six beloved cats - a task complicated by explicit instructions in her will and some extreme allergies on his part. Placing the cats has unexpected results, and suddenly dreams that once were just wishes have a chance at coming true - but will he take a leap of faith to follow them?

Upon finishing the story I had the sudden and intense urge to go cuddle with a cat. Anyone who has ever felt alone can relate with Garrison - with no family left and his life's work no longer an option for him, he is struggling to find a place for himself. Being intimately acquainted with some missionaries, I had a better understanding than I might have otherwise for his disconnect upon returning to the United States, though I can only imagine how much harder it would be without a wide network of family support to rely on. The novella is a heartwarming holiday story, touched with humor and a dash of romance. Naturally recommended for cat-lovers, but the sweet story has a universal appeal.

Thank you Revell for providing a free book in exchange for an honest review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"The Butterfly and the Violin" by Kristy Cambron - a moving tale of the Holocaust

The Butterfly and the Violin, Hidden Masterpiece Series #1   -     By: Kristy Cambron
Sera James, a Manhattan art dealer, has been haunted for years by the piercing eyes of a holocaust victim's portrait. Her search for the painting of Adele Von Bron leads her to William Hanover, a wealthy Californian who is also searching for the elusive painting. By working together, they are able to piece together more of the story of this aristocratic violinist who was sentenced to Auschwitz for aiding Jews. But will they find the original portrait? And will Sera find the healing she is seeking?

Unlike most novels that are either contemporary or historical, this one juxtaposes the two: Sera's modern search for the mysterious painting, and the story behind the the painting - the story of Adele. The author does a good job balancing the two stories; Adele's story is the stronger focus, being so tied-in with Sera's, but I did not feel that Sera's story was neglected. Both Sera and Adele are developed well; though two completely different women, there are aspects of both to which one can relate.

One thing I love about historical novels is that so often the author writes about a fascinating bit of history we never learned about in school; in this case, it is the music and art of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were actually orchestras comprised of prisoners at the death camps; the Nazis respected music, so those who had talent formed the orchestras that played music as the workers left and returned each day. Though the task could not have been pleasant, it kept many of them alive. Apparently, after the death camp was liberated, stashes of art were found throughout the camp - from poetry scrawled on walls to delicate watercolor paintings. In a place so full of death and darkness, where anything but the clothes on their back had to have been smuggled in or stolen, people still managed to create beautiful works of art.

I appreciated that Adele is not just living for the chance to see Vladimir (her love) again. While that love is important, it is more important that she love and live for her fellow musicians, her sisters in the holocaust. There is no way to know if Vladimir is even alive, whereas these women are her daily life, her family - even though most are Jews and she the daughter of the Austrian aristocracy. They are bound by their friendship amidst such unspeakable atrocities. It is right that her focus be on them rather than a long-lost romance.

I got a little little confused in the complexity of the legal dealings in the modern storyline and had to reread to clarify it, but otherwise it was an excellent novel.  A moving story in both timelines, The Butterfly and the Violin offers a fresh look at the holocaust in a fresh style. I highly recommend it!

Hidden Masterpieces
1. The Butterfly and the Violin
2. A Sparrow in Terezin

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Surprised by Love" by Julie Lessman; The Heart of San Francisco, book 3 - a keeper!

Cover ArtIn the third book of the Heart of San Francisco series, Meg McClare has returned from a year abroad, and a transformative year it was! No longer the chubby, plain, awkward sister, she has become a true beauty both inside and out, astounding even her best friend Bram, who stood up for her and cherished her during the painful teenage years. But the girl Bram always saw as a little sister has suddenly become a woman, and their relationship can no longer be the same. When Meg wins an internship in the district attorney's office, she feels like her dreams are coming true, only to discover the young man who plagued her adolescent existence will be working with her. Meg turns to Bram for advice, and in spite of his attraction, Bram encourages her to forgive and make peace - but he has no peace in his heart, encouraging her to love another man.

A godly hero who made a mistake in his youth, Bram is determined to do what is right no matter the personal cost. The Abraham analogy is perfect for Bram - his self-sacrifice shows his honor and devotion to his parents and God, even if he can't forgive himself for his mistakes. He makes a wonderful hero, like the noble, chivalrous knights of old.

I think every woman has found herself in Meg's place - all it takes is scorn from the wrong man, and a girl's self-esteem can be damaged for years to come, no matter how lovely her face and form. We all know that it's not beauty on the outside that counts, but rather beauty on the inside; but it can be very hard to overcome feeling undesirable, however lovely our hearts may be. We all want to be beautiful, desirable, and pursued. And a man that makes a girl feel beautiful very easily works his way into her heart, whether his intentions are honorable or not.

While Cait and Logan have been secondary characters throughout the series, by this book I had really come to care for them. I like how their story somewhat parallels that of the starring couple's in each book, that Cait and Logan, though older and wiser, still have to learn the same lessons. Their story is possibly even more poignant than that of any of the three starring couples, from the years of wounds that they have sustained and the difficult task of rebuilding trust - theirs is a love that takes a lot of work, but theirs is a love that overcomes.

I wouldn't have minded a tad more at the end to thoroughly conclude the book and series, but it can stand as it is. In more than one instance in this book my eyes did not remain precisely dry - it is not often a story can evoke such strong emotion in me! God-centered, with strong relationships and beautiful romance, this novel tugged at my heartstrings more than either the others in the series and is unquestionably my favorite. 5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Revell for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5: "Grace Like Rain" (novella coda)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Julie Lessman's "Dare to Love Again," The Heart of San Francisco, book 2

Dare to Love AgainThe second installment of Julie Lessman's series is just as rich and complex as the first, except even better! Allison McClare, unlucky in love three times over, bears a grudge against the male race a mile wide, and brash, cranky detective Nick Barone (with a long e) does nothing to improve that attitude. To be fair, Nick is also bearing a grudge against all the stuck-up nobs of the world, which includes Alli, but when her uncle hires him to guard the school where she works and teach her self-defense, he has a hard time hanging onto the hurt. As friendship blossoms and attraction sparks, Alli dares to risk her heart again - but is Nick the hard-nosed cop that he seems?

While the first book in the series was an interesting introduction to pre-earthquake-of-1906 San Francisco, this one takes the reader deeper into San Francisco's history and geography, with a foray into Chinatown and injustices done there during a breakout of the bubonic plague. These books offer a fun glimpse of the city.

I enjoyed the romance of this book better than the first one; though there is some physical attraction, Alli and Nick develop a friendship (albeit a very rocky friendship to start with) before pursuing a romance. And outside of insulting Alli when he loses his temper, Nick treats her with respect, not allowing lust or ambition any rein. I appreciated the toned-down physical aspects of the romance.

The author proves quite sneaky and clever - I was duped by a certain plot twist, only to be surprised with the characters in the end! It was not at all what I was expecting, but it pleased me highly. To elaborate more would certainly spoil it, and we can't have that! While this book can be read as a stand-alone, it is also part of a cohesive series; subplots begun in the first book continue through this one, connecting them well and making it easy to invest in the characters, who are present through the series. And because those subplots remain unresolved, I eagerly await the next book!

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5: "Grace Like Rain" (novella coda)

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Love at Any Cost" by Julie Lessman, The Heart of San Francisco, book 1

Love at Any CostWhen Cassidy McClare heads off to her cousins' in San Francisco, the Texas girl has sworn off men, especially the pretty ones that toy with a woman's affections and then break her heart. Unfortunately, a couple of her cousin's best friends are like family, and one in particular - the insufferably handsome Jamie McKenna - seems bent on pursuing her against all her protestations.  Jamie needs a rich wife, and if nothing else, Cassie is quite the fun, feisty woman with whom he could easily fall in love.  However, she has one stipulation - that he must pursue a relationship with God before she will consider courting him.  He's more than willing to fake it, but when he learns her father's oil wells - and consequently money - have run dry, will he continue to pursue her?

Lessman includes lots of period detail.  As I have worked in costuming, I enjoyed catching descriptions of the different styles of corsets, the Gibson Girl look, the bathing outfits, and other fashions of the time.  In addition to clothing, there is plenty of detail on the city itself.  While I realize San Francisco is a big city with no doubt plenty of vices, I did not know about the horrors of the Barbary Coast, with its prostitution, saloons, gambling dens, and more.

I could appreciate Jamie's love of family and how the desire to protect them drives him forward, but I didn't like how he treats Cassie.  He doesn't listen to her when she says no, and he uses physical persuasion far too much for my tastes.  Granted, he isn't following God, so it's little wonder he acts the way he does, but still . . .  Though I did pity him on occasion - he really messes up royally where Cassie is concerned.

I really appreciated how God was the deal breaker for Cassie - as tempted and attracted as she is to Jamie, she is trying to keep God first. Some days with better success than others, of course, but we all have struggles. The author doesn't shy away from our need for God, and makes it clear in the lives of Cassie, Jamie, Aunt Cait, and even wayward Uncle Logan.

The goofy Texas-isms were on the heavy side at first, but they lessen further in the novel.  My prudish Scandinavian blood can't handle so much passionate kissing, so I tended to skip over those paragraphs, but I see why some refer to the author as the Queen of Passion.  The strong focus on God was quite a redeeming factor, though, and I ended up enjoying the story more than I expected.

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5 "Grace Like Rain" (novella coda)

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Out of the Storm" by Jody Hedlund - the novella kick-off to a new series

Out of the Storm
To kick off her new series centered around Michigan lighthouses, Jody Hedlund tantalizes us with a novella, serving as an introduction to Presque Isle, MI (where the first full-length novel also takes place). Given its brevity, I recommend reading the novella rather than descriptions of it - it's a quick enough read, plus the writing itself is superior.

Hedlund's novella contains all her trademarks - a swift-moving storyline, romantic tension, character development - but all in a concise short story. This is among the better novellas I've read. Due to their length, it's hard to develop a strong, meaty story, but Hedlund manages better than most to balance the action, character development, and romance.

My one complaint (which probably is not an issue for many) is that the romance was a bit passionate for my prudish tastes. But it was an enjoyable story all the same, and I liked getting a feel for the series' setting.

Incidentally, this novella, which also includes the first several chapters of Love Unexpected to cruelly hook the reader a couple months in advance of its release, is free on Amazon and

Beacons of Hope
0.5. "Out of the Storm"
1.  Love Unexpected
2. Hearts Made Whole 
3. Undaunted Hope 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sarah E. Ladd's "A Lady at Willgrove Hall" - a sweet, gentle story

A Lady at Willowgrove Hall, Whispers on the Moors Series #3   -     By: Sarah E. Ladd
Sarah E. Ladd's third regency follows Cecily Faire, a woman who made a foolish choice in her youth and was abandoned by her father at a girls' school, losing all contact with her family. When offered a position as a paid companion for an elderly woman, Cecily accepts, knowing it could bring her closer to the last-known whereabouts of her twin sister. To her shock, there is someone at Willowgrove Hall who knows of her youthful indiscretion, someone who could, with a wrong word, see her sacked in disgrace. She finds a friend in Nathaniel Hall, steward of the estate, and his sisters, but even Nathaniel has a secret he holds close to his chest. When the secrets come to light, will they run from the past or move forward to a future?

It was fun to learn a touch more about paid companions; Cecily is unusual in that she is not impoverished gentility, but how she comes to be one seems plausible to me. I think the reality of a companion could be lonely - not a servant, she could not associate with the servants, but at the same time, she is paid and therefore an employee, not family. 

I like that Cecily has matured since her foolish teenage years. Sometimes - like with Nathaniel - she is overcautious, but I can respect that. She does not want to be taken in by a handsome face again, to give more than she should. Nathaniel is an honorable man, but he holds a lot of anger. In trying to be responsible and protective, Nathaniel can be over-serious, but I like his relationship with his family - though they are occasionally irked with each other, they clearly love each other dearly.

Everyone has secrets that hold them back. The fear of being vulnerable is very real, and Cecily and Nathaniel have it in spades. There is also a strong theme of forgiveness and letting go of anger. But most touching, in my opinion, is Cecily's loneliness and desire for her family - to be loved and have that camaraderie that no else can provide. As much as I wanted to murder them in my youth, I cannot imagine losing contact with my siblings like Cecily loses her twin sister.

Headmistress of Rosemere is still my favorite of the series, and I enjoyed the cameo of Rosemere in this novel. A sweet romance, A Lady at Willowgrove Hall is a quiet, gentle read that tugs the heartstrings rather than sets the heart racing from danger.

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

"A Promise to Protect" by Patricia Bradley - a complex mystery/suspense

In the second Logan Point novel, Sheriff Ben Logan promises a dying man to protect his sister, Dr. Leigh Sommerall - a woman he had fallen in love with back in college, but the romance failed to work out.  Leigh would prefer to avoid Ben at all costs, but with no family left except her son - her parents, grandparents, husband, and brother all dead - she is forced to rely on him for protection, since her brother's killer is after her now too.  But Leigh is harboring a secret that could change Ben's life forever.
A Promise to Protect
Like the book before it, I enjoyed the complexity of the case.  Is there one villain?  Two?  More?  Are all the events connected, or are there multiple vendettas? Bradley is good at dangling potential red herrings for the reader.  The person I suspected most proved innocent (as did my I-really-hope-this-is-not-the-villain runner-up), for which I was kind of glad - I don't want the villain to be too obvious.  And I really appreciate that the villain doesn't waste time with last-minute gloating and confessing!  It makes for a stronger story when the characters don't have to rely on the villain's confession for solving the mystery. 

Given the amount of hurt Ben and Leigh have been carrying around for the past decade, the focus on forgiveness is a good choice; not just for each other, but for family and self.  I enjoyed the return of several characters from book one, including Taylor and her victim-profiling talents.  Hopefully the cop Livy will feature in her own book next . . .  Patricia Bradley writes a solid mystery with a well-played element of suspense.  I look forward to her next book!

Thank you Revell for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Logan Point
1. Shadows of the Past
2. A Promise to Protect
3. Gone without a Trace
4.  Silence in the Dark

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Saving Amelie" by Cathy Gohlke - an astounding historical read

When learning in school about the Superman and the perfection of the Aryan type (Hitler's ideal human), the main thing we were taught was blonde hair and blue eyes.  When learning about who did not fit the type, Jews, of course, were number one.  In the wake of the Holocaust and genocide of the Jews, other peoples who failed to fit the Aryan type were often glossed over.  Blue-eyed blondes with any physical or mental defect - deafness, blindness, epilepsy, schizophrenia, alcoholism - were also persecuted, because these "genetic defects" would weaken the Aryan race.  Cathy Gohlke's novel highlights this oft over-looked group, delving into the unethical study of eugenics, the practice of improving the genetic traits of humans - in this case, through breeding the desirable specimens and eliminating the undesirable. 

Saving Amelie  -     By: Cathy Gohlke
Rachel Kramer, adopted at birth, has spent years going back and forth between Germany and the USA, in which she holds dual citizenship.  Though Hitler has come to power and war is on the horizon, Rachel gets dragged back to Germany again with her father, a eugenics scientist, but for the last time, she vows.  While in Berlin, an estranged friend, married to Rachel's old suitor, comes to her with a fantastic tale of her husband's plan to get rid of their deaf daughter to purify his Aryan bloodline.  Rachel can scarcely believe it, but she finally enlists the aid of an American journalist, Jason Young, to spirit little Amelie away.  When a look through her father's disturbing research reveals secrets of her own background, Rachel must flee too, with Jason's help.  However, with borders closing and the war descending, there appears to be no way out of Germany.  Her only hope is in family she discovers through her father's papers - but will they trust this stranger and the deaf child that comes with her?

The author does a good job of balancing Rachel's character - she has been brought up to believe she is superior, and as such, she is a tad arrogant.  However, in spite of her feelings of entitlement, she is a sympathetic heroine, even before her spiritual transformation.  Lea makes for an interesting counterpart; in so many ways, the girls are exact opposites, which highlights both their strengths and their faults.  The progression of their relationship - initially featuring jealousy and resentment, but working their way to grudging respect and friendship - feels realistic, especially when each one has that which the other was deprived. 

Though eugenics, an unethical branch of genetic research, is an important subject in the book, Gohlke does a good job clarifying the purpose of the studies without bogging down in confusing, scientific research - it may be genetics, but anyone can read this and understand what is going on.  Clearly a great deal of research went into this book, far beyond eugenics and the progression of the war - from the "mercy killings" to the state of the church in Germany; from the censorship of foreign correspondents to the moral dilemma of Oberammergau, the Bavarian village of the Passion Play.  Gohlke's writing makes us question, are we taking the easy way of faith, the way that can suddenly catch us on that slippery slope into apostasy?  Or are we obeying God's word and doing what is right regardless of the consequences, though it makes us uncomfortable, makes us unpopular, or makes us enemies?  Many of the Church who remained faithful to God through Hitler's rise to power, who spoke out against him and showered love on the persecuted, did not live to see the end of the war.  Do we have that kind of faith?

An astounding historical read, filled with tenderness and suspense - 5 out of 5 stars!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Carrie Turansky's "The Daughter of Highland Hall" the second Edwardian Brides novel, Katherine Ramsey, a headstrong debutante, is on the lookout for a titled husband so she can secure herself a future. However, her season in London goes disastrously wrong when a relative involves himself in a scandal that taints the whole family. No longer welcome socially, Kate begins spending most of her time with Jon Foster, a medical student and brother of her cousin-in-law-to-be, volunteering at a free East End clinic, helping the poor. Her heart is stirred by the service, but will she follow her heart or make the marriage expected of her?

Most books that involve a London season are set during the Regency period, so it was fun to read a story that takes place a hundred years later. Some things - the pretentiousness, the worldliness, the decadence - are the same, but there are a lot of differences too. I also like how Jon grew up in missions in India - the nineteenth century was a time of significant revivals throughout Europe, and Jon and his sister Julia would have been products of that movement.

Turansky does a good job emphasizing the need to be equally yoked - no matter how in love a couple may be, if only one has a relationship with Jesus, then their marriage will start out on rocky footing and have difficulty surviving. Kate's faith journey is quiet and sweet - no Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus event, but rather a quiet and steady growth like many have.

It was fun to revisit William and Julia from the first book in the series. There were a few times I wished there had been more "showing" rather than "telling" of emotion and action, but all in all, it is a sweet story with a firm foundation in biblical truth.

Thank you Blogging for Books for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

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

More Info
Author Bio

Friday, October 10, 2014

"The Brickmaker's Bride" by Judith Miller

The Brickmaker's BrideSince her father's death in the Civil War, Laura Woodfield's mother has been trying to sell her father's brickworks, and finally they have a buyer: an Irish immigrant, Hugh Crothers. Laura's desire to see the brickworks succeed leads her to spend significant time with the purchaser's kind and honest nephew, Ewen, much to the consternation of the wealthy lawyer courting her. Unfortunately, Uncle Hugh has little financial sense, and poor business decisions put the immigrants' livelihood in jeopardy. Can they save the brickworks, or will Ewan lose his chance to send for his sisters in Ireland, as well as his chance at love?

When reading historical fiction, I like to learn something new, and given that I knew little about West Virginia, this book proved an insightful glimpse into that under-appreciated part of our great and diverse country. I had no knowledge of brick making prior to reading this novel, but now I have a much greater appreciation for the makers of the bricks that form some of our country's oldest buildings - it's quite a process to make a product that stands beautiful and strong well over a hundred years later.

Laura and her mother truly model Christ's love - as frustrating as Margaret and Hugh Crothers are, they treat them charitably, above and beyond what they deserve. Even in the initial sale of the brickworks, they go far beyond their duty in ensuring that the new business prospers, and then they keep offering their support. Given how annoyed I was with the Crothers (and I am only a detached reader, not a neighbor who must deal with them on a regular basis), their kindness is astounding, and a great model.

The foolish financial decisions were quite a frustration to me; I realize people make poor decisions like that all the time (or there would be a lot less debt and foreclosure), but I cringed over and over at the Crothers' choices and how they treat their own kin. I read in horror of what they would do next . . . While this book will not make my top ten, I like the peek at history it provides. 4 stars

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Irene Hannon's "Decieved" - not necessarily as suspenseful as others, but riveting all the same

Cover ArtIn the final novel of the Private Justice series, Private Investigator Connor Sullivan has quite the improbable case dropped in his lap: Kate Marshall - whose husband and son were declared drowned in a boating accident three years ago, though the boy's body was never found - swears she saw her son in the mall, and that he seemed to recognize her before vanishing with a man. As unlikely as the case sounds, especially since the drowning happened in New York, not Missouri, Connor determines to look into it and try to prove the boy's identity. As he investigates, suspicious circumstances keep cropping up - nothing concrete enough to go to the police, but enough to suggest that the boating accident that killed Kate's husband may have been no accident after all . . .

One thing that impresses me is the work ethic of the private investigators in this series; they do the legwork, even hours of fruitless surveillance, phone calls that amount to nothing, and digging through barrels of trash. Everything they work on is within the confines of the law; they are meticulous about running an exemplary business. They explain why they have to use certain tactics, some of which border on unethical - like "pretext" (making up a story to gain information) - but it is always with the intent to see justice done and lying as little as possible. As one of the three men on the team, Connor makes for a strong, honorable hero.

Villains can make or break a suspense, especially when it comes to their motives. While very different from the other villains in the series, this one is fascinating - he isn't a chillingly creepy guy like in Trapped, but rather the sort that can wreak havoc with the reader's sympathy. I don't want to give away too much, but his story, his motives, his feelings for the child in his care - they really add an extra dimension to the story. This villain is perfect for this novel!

Though the premise of this story is an incredibly unlikely coincidence, I love what the author has to say about it: "Coincidence is a small miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous" (335). I've seen a number of crazy things labeled as coincidence, but God's hand is always behind them. Is the plot of this novel unrealistic? Yes, by the world's standards. But God is sovereign, and unlikely and impossible things happen every day - nothing is too small or too big for Him.

Hooray for intelligent characters who recognize the gravity of the situation and don't run around doing stupid things they know will compromise their safety! Too often that is the impetus for moving a suspenseful plot forward, but thankfully not in this book. I also appreciate that Kate realizes she must prepare for a child who no longer knows her and who has been raised by someone claiming to be his father; she knows life is going to be really tough on that little boy, caught in the cross-hairs as he is. Though Deceived does not have the same intense, creepy-scary suspense as Trapped (book two), it is a gripping read and hard to put down.

Thank you Revell for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Private Justice
1. Vanished
2. Trapped
3. Deceived

Friday, October 3, 2014

Christian Fiction Releases October 2014!

Exciting releases for the month of October!

The Brickmaker's BrideA Lady at Willowgrove Hall, Whispers on the Moors Series #3   -     By: Sarah E. Ladd
Out of the Storm (Beacons of Hope, #0.5)

A Lady at Willowgrove Hall by Sarah E. Ladd (Thomas Nelson); Whispers on the Moors, book 3

Both the lady's companion and the steward of the Hall have secrets they fear to share - what will they do when they come to light?

Out of the Storm by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House); Beacons of Hope, e-novella, book 0.5

Prequel to Hedlund's new series, centered around Michigan lighthouses

The Brick Maker's Bride by Judith Miller (Bethany House); Refined by Love, book 1

In the aftermath of the Civil War, two families work together to rebuild their brick-making business.

Trails and Targets by Kelly Eileen Hake (Barbour); Dangerous Darlyn, book 1

The Daughter of Highland HallWhen four sisters lose their childhood home, they take to the road and are rescued by an unexpected hero with an eye for the sharpshooter of the family.
(Now officially releasing November . . . )

The Daughter of Highland Hall by Carrie Turansky (WaterBrook Multnomah); Edwardian Brides, book 2

Heading into her debut, Katherine Ramsey needs to secure her future, but family scandal forces her to the sidelines where she sees a different side of London.

Contemporary Mystery/Suspense:

A Promise to ProtectA Promise to Protect by Patricia Bradley (Revell); Logan Point, book 2

At the request of an old flame, the sheriff promises to protect her brother, but it turns out she is the one who needs protecting. 

Deceived by Irene Hannon (Revell); Private Justice, book 3

A woman has mourned the loss of her son for three years, but when she spies a boy eerily similar to her dead child, she hires a PI to investigate the increasingly suspicious accident that took him from her.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lisa Norato's "The Promise Keeper" - a seafaring suspense

The Promise Keeper (Sea Heroes of Duxbury)In the first of her thrilling, new series, Sea Heroes of Duxbury, The Promise Keeper is a suspenseful tale set in 1820's Massachusetts.  Iris Moon, the beloved and curious daughter of a retired ship's captain, has be mystified by the keeper of the new lighthouse on the island across the way.  Keeper Jonathan Mayne has been a year at his post, yet she has never met him, nor does anyone save her father know anything about him.  When she finally gives into her curiosity and rows over to meet him, his enigmatic comments lead her to believe they knew each other long ago.  But Johnny isn't the only person from the past to come to Duxbury - a man who knew Iris' mother, who is bent on revenge against the Moon family, has also washed up on shore . . .

Though not based on any particular piece of American history, the story is full of details regarding this little-known period of peace between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.  While it does not speak to the politics of the day, it touches on fashion, architecture, the New England ship industry, the importance of lighthouses on the East Coast and how they worked, and even debtor's prison.  I enjoyed reading about this time and place so far removed from the world in which we live today. 

This novel speaks to something everyone has suffered from at some point - fear.  Coming from an abusive home, Lady Moon, Iris' mother, never lost the fear of her past catching up with her.  After his accident, Johnny understands better what Lady Moon went through - he too is plagued by fears that are far worse than any injuries he has sustained.  Fear robs one of peace and steals one's hope, but as Johnny comes to realize, God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind.

Maybe I am being influenced by the cover art, but the story has a slightly ethereal feel to it.  More than a love story, it echoes the classical romances of the mid-1800's with its heroism, imagination, and depictions of untameable nature.  There is a much stronger element of suspense than I was expecting, but it makes for a captivating tale. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Where Treetops Glisten," a WWII novella collection by Goyer, Putman, and Sundin great writers of Christian WWII fiction have collaborated in a WWII and Christmas-themed novella collection, focusing on the Turner family of Lafayette, Indiana.  Of the five children, only three have lived to see the war, and each bears scars from the loss of their siblings.  Each tries to do their part for the war effort, whether it's serving at the front or at home.

In Cara Putman's "White Christmas," after the death of her boyfriend, Abigail Turner is determined to avoid men and the heartache of death.  However, a careworn factory worker rescues her from being mowed down in the street, and she feels stirred to help him save his home farm. This story really brings to life the Home Front, especially how the country was balancing the effects of war with the slow recovery from the Depression, which still clung to the country.

"I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Sarah Sundin focuses on Pete Turner, home safe from his combat tour in the air force, but drained from all the death he saw.  To his surprise, a little girl makes him smile again, as does her widowed mother - but will the woman he bullied as a child forgive him and give him a chance at love?  The pastor's advice to Pete stuck out to me, as there are always times in which we feel dried up inside - when you're empty, give; the more you give, the more God will fill you up.

Tricia Goyer's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" follows combat nurse Merry Turner as the front lines move through the Netherlands towards Belgium.  To her surprise, she glimpses someone who looks like the man who betrayed her heart and her country.  I enjoyed the fresh overseas setting in this story; Lafayette is still close to Merry's heart, but this tale offers a different view of it through her memories.

The authors did an excellent job making this a tight-knit collection.  Not only is it all centered around one family, but certain themes carry through the whole collection.  It's clear they worked closely together to make the details true through each story; the mother, father, and grandmother feel like the same characters as they appear in each tale, as does the city of Lafayette. I really enjoyed the historic details that the authors included; the title songs of each of the stories debuted in the year the story takes place, and each song has a small roll in the tale. While each story has a unique spiritual theme, there again is a common thread tying them together - the fear of loss.  Giving that fear up to God and trusting in spite of it - that's what we all need to do when faced with any fear.

Where Treetops Glisten is a heart-warming collection to remind us what our nation and its people went through to keep it safe, provide spiritual encouragement, and gear us up for Christmas.

Thank you Blogging for Books for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Book-related links:

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Prelude for a Lord" by Camille Elliot - a musical mystery

Prelude for a Lord  -     By: Camille Elliot
Camille Elliot's Prelude for a Lord is a refreshing regency with a spark of adventure.  Lady Alethea Sutherton, a confirmed spinster, takes delight in quiet living and music, especially her violin, an instrument inappropriate for ladies of quality.  Exiled to Bath with a cantankerous aunt, Alethea is accosted by a man trying to acquire her violin.  In an effort to find out more about her instrument's history and why it is so desirable to the thief, she consults the dark and brooding Lord Dommick, a brilliant violinist and composer himself.  As attempts to steal the violin escalate in violence, Alethea finds herself relying more and more on the Baron.  Can they protect the violin and their families, or will she be forced to give up everything she holds most dear?

I generally enjoy regencies, and the musical theme clinched this one for me.  While I do not play the violin, it was fun to read a book devoted to a musical instrument (and I have to say it just wouldn't have been the same with a Steinway instead of a Stradivarius).  Both her passion for music and the way the music moves Alethea is beautifully described, and I couldn't help but dust my flute off in response. 

I loved the camaraderie of Lord Dommick's quartet (though one member is off fighting Napoleon, and so we only hear of the other three talk about him).  Since the three who are in England are always together, fighting off attackers, rescuing Alethea and Clare, and making music together, I thought of them as the three musketeers - all for one and one for all.  Through it all, they bicker, joke, and ultimately support each other, exhibiting an authentic friendship. 

Like many, Alethea assumes all the neglect and  injustices in her life are proof that God doesn't care.  However, a wise woman tells her, "We most often base our experience with God on the actions of others.  But you must not mistake human frailty for divine relationship."  People have free will, and God won't take it away; that means many innocents suffer the consequences of their actions.  However, it doesn't mean God isn't there supporting us through the circumstances and showering us with His love. 

Rather than the simple, sweet romance I was expecting, this novel is touched with humor and has a strong element of mystery and suspense.  There are moments of terror, despair, hope, and wit.  It has a different tone than many other regencies; I have read others that felt more authentic, but this one has an appealing spark of adventure.  I'd say there is a great potential for a following novel or three, and I hope the author continues!

Thank you Zondervan and GoodReads for providing a free copy through the First Reads program; I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions are my own. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Love's Fortune" by Laura Frantz - a warm conclusion to the series

Cover ArtThe final novel of the Ballantyne Legacy, Love's Fortune follows Rowena, called Wren - the Ballantyne grandchild who grew up in the poor mountains of Kentucky rather than in a house of privilege in Pittsburgh.  When her widowed father decides to return to his family in the north, Wren has no choice but to come along.  Thrust into society by virtue of belonging to one of the leading families of Pittsburgh, Wren has trouble living up to the expectations of her name, and all she longs for is the simple life they left behind.  Steamship pilot James Sackett proves a friend in navigating the waters of society, but death threats haunt him for his part in the abolitionist movement.  Not wishing to subject a woman - particularly not a Ballantyne - to his roots and present circumstances, he does his duty parading her before the eligible bachelors of the city.  But will Wren stay to live up to her family's expectations, or will she flee for the simplicity of home?

As always, Frantz in rich in her research and historical detail of the time.  Not only does she paint a detailed picture of steamboats and sooty, industrial Pittsburgh, but she also goes into depth over the decadence and rigidity of pre-war high society.  As Wren learns all the rules of etiquette, which seem aimed at turning one into an emotionless china doll, it's no wonder she feels suffocated!  The opulence exhibited at parties was astounding - cigars wrapped in or made of paper money, all the women given jewels with dinner; it was (for the elite) an incredibly decadent time in which to live. 

I very much enjoyed meeting Izannah, the daughter of Ellie Ballantyne Turlock; if I could change one thing, it would be to lengthen the story to include a little more about her, especially near the end.  As essentially the only two granddaughters, and of close age besides, Izannah and Wren have the potential to form a lasting bond, but also the potential to become rivals.  I was surprised by Izannah's relationships with the men of the story, but it added an unforeseen depth.

When Wren is dragged from her home to a place and lifestyle she has never seen, her father showing a side that she did not know existed, her whole world is turned on end.  Wren's response to the circumstances begs us to question our own.  When our lives are turned upside down, do we run away back to what was comfortable?  Do we grudgingly stay and pout?  Or do we make the most of our circumstances, living each day for the Lord and not for man? 

Though this story lacks the wildness of her Kentucky novels, Frantz proves she can write as intense a story in the drawing rooms of high society as in the wild woods of the frontier.  Brimming with love, sorrow, and strength, Love's Fortune  is a satisfying conclusion to the Ballantyne Legacy. 

Thank you Revell for providing a free book for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

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

Behind the scenes of the cover shoot:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"A Bride in Store" by Melissa Jagears - a story of strong relationships

A Bride in StoreThe second novel by Melissa Jagears, A Bride in Store, two separate dreams are given a chance to unite in love.  After her train is held up, Eliza Cantrell arrives in town penniless, and her groom isn't even there to help her.  William Stanton, her groom's business partner, takes her under wing until Axel gets home again, whenever that will be, but Eliza proves much better at running a store than William ever will be.  His dream has always been to be a doctor, but funds for school are slim.  Working all day with Eliza, William finds himself falling for the practical woman, but he won't steal another man's bride, no matter how much he likes her and she seems to like him back.  Besides, her dream of running a store doesn't fit at all with his of being a doctor.  When Axel comes back to town, will they go their separate ways, or does God have a different plan in mind?

William is a marvelous hero - passionate yet restrained, compassionate yet able to stand up and fight.  Even if he has the business sense of a rock, his sense of honor and ability to flee temptation, however hard it may be, make him all the more dashing.  I had a harder time connecting with Eliza; she is a very practical, efficient person, and business has always been her life.  She comes far by the end of the story - tempering her business acumen with compassion and thinking of others instead of just herself.  However, like all couples should be, William and Eliza are better together than separate. 

William struggles with fighting for his dream.  He doesn't have enough money, he doesn't have enough knowledge, he hasn't studied enough, people have died under his watch when he could have - should have - done more.  His conclusion is that he shouldn't be a doctor.  But everyone trusts him, comes to him for doctoring, and believes he is meant to be a doctor.  And in his heart of hearts, he knows he wants to be one and always has.  Sometimes you just have to trust God and go for it, not listen to all the lies the devil throws your way.  

Jagears writes an in-depth story with a well-laid plot.  The relationships between her characters are strongly developed, and you know that if these were real people, they would be among those with the most successful marriages.  Compassion, hope, and sacrifice all play a role in their journey, creating a strong, heart-warming bond.

Thank you Bethany House for providing a free book in exchange for review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own.

Unexpected Brides
1. A Bride for Keeps
2. A Bride in Store
3. A Bride at Last