Friday, February 28, 2014

"A Stray Drop of Blood" by Roseanna M. White

Since I enjoyed Roseanna White's Culper Ring series so much, I decided to look up some previous works.  I do not generally read biblical fiction, since the time period is not much of a draw for me, and I get a daily dose in my bible.  However, the first three chapters were free online, which was just enough to set the hook, and I had to seek out a copy.
A Stray Drop of Blood
A Stray Drop of Blood takes place during the time Jesus was in His ministry - rumors of a healer, the possible Messiah, abound.  For Abigail, a slave - albeit a well-loved one, and nearly a daughter - in a Roman household, the rumors have little effect other than to arouse idle curiosity. When her master's son takes her as a concubine, her life changes rapidly, eventually leading her to the crucifixion of Jesus.  Primarily this is the story of Abigail, but in some respects, it is also the story of the centurion at the cross. 

As I said, I do not read much biblical fiction, since I would rather read the true accounts than fictionalized versions.  However, while this novel touches on various events in the bible, largely the main characters have little interaction with real people from the bible.  I much prefer that, since I am not constantly analyzing every line to make sure it does not deviate one iota from scripture.  The parts where the characters do encounter biblical persons, yes, I was more analytical, but in regards to scriptural accuracy this novel largely came off in a positive light. 

A lot of the theology in the latter half of the book seemed a little advanced for the day and age, since this is immediately after the crucifixion and the disciples have not yet had a chance to hash out everything that Jesus' death and resurrection meant, let alone communicate it to all the believers scattered from Jerusalem to Rome.  I'm not sure I could have come to the conclusions about baptism, the Holy Spirit, equality for Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, etc. that Abigail and Titus reach on their own without the preaching of any other believer.  However, the theology seems sound, so I cannot complain too much. 

It is definitely for more mature audiences, discussing a number of laws pertaining to women laid out in Leviticus: dealings with rape, the rights of female slaves, purity laws, adultery laws, etc.  Having just been reading Leviticus, I found it helpful to see a practical example of these laws and get a glimpse of what it could have been like to live under them.  However, this novel is a lot racier than I prefer.  Granted, it has a purpose - it demonstrates in part the lack of rights women and slaves had at the time, but it also illustrates how the desires of the flesh can persuade one to fall back into sin, even after turning to God.  There are some christian authors that I do not read because though they write a well-researched story with a fascinating plot, they go overboard on the romance in ways that I am decidedly not comfortable with.  This is similar in that it really pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, but at least it has a definite purpose beyond making a sensual romance.  So on that issue I am divided.

This is not a light, fluffy romance.  There is a lot of heartbreak, theology, and mature content woven into the story, of which romance is a part but by no means the whole.  And I do not mean to say this is dry reading - it is anything but.  I liked the plot and characters, especially since some plot twists really surprised me, and the length made for a very satisfying read, but I was decidedly uncomfortable with how sex was treated.  Not recommended for teens or the unmarried.  If there were a Clear Play version (with certain scenes blipped out, or made a bit more vague), I would then definitely recommend the book. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn" by Lori Benton - definitely worth pursuing! Benton's novel set in the lost state of Franklin - an area now belonging to Tennessee - grabs the attention from page one and never lets go.  When Tamsen Littlejohn's avaricious and vicious stepfather pushes her on Ambrose Kincaid, a wealthy man of questionable morals, Tamsen is torn in her desire to escape her stepfather.  However, when the man's violence reaches a new level, Tamsen flees with the help of the frontiersman Jesse Bird.  Furious, her stepfather pursues her, along with Kincaid, who believes she has been kidnapped.  As hostilities heat up between supporters of the state of North Carolina and the state of Franklin, as well as between whites and Cherokee, Tamsen and Jesse find themselves not only fleeing her stepfather and Kincaid, but also dodging the violence tearing the disputed state apart.  Is there a land somewhere where Tamsen can be free and safe?  Or will they be run to ground and forced to face her pursuers?

Since I enjoyed Benton's Burning Sky so much, I was highly anticipating this novel.  When the book arrived in the mail, I held off most of the day to get some work done, but when I began the novel, I barely paused halfway through to make some hot chocolate, ultimately skipping supper and staying up later than I should have to finish it (but it was worth it!).  Fast-paced and riveting, the story not only has a captivating plot and characters, but the setting - both in its depiction of history and descriptions of the Appalachians - is beautifully written. 

As one who has never been to the East Coast and never extensively studied its history, I was surprised to discover that the state of Franklin was real (having only ever heard of it in an alternate reality fantasy novel).  Though it never officially achieved statehood, the easternmost region of Tennessee, which had belonged to North Carolina, vied violently for statehood. It makes for a creative and fascinating backdrop to the story. 

While in many historical novels a woman's reputation is placed before her welfare, I liked that such was not the case in this one.  Reverend Teague counsels prudence before marriage - do not rush to marry for protection or to salvage one's reputation, but wait to be sure it is a marriage worth committing one's life to.  Through the reverend, Benton emphasizes that it is a covenant not to be entered lightly, and that a promise before God is to take precedence over worldly concerns.  Marriage may solve one's immediate troubles, but if it ultimately ends in either misery or dishonoring a covenant before God, is it worth it?  Then, too, when they are ready to marry (and for the right reasons), their marriage will be all the sweeter.

It was a beautiful and captivating read.  Not only did the characters all have depth - full histories, quirks, and strengths yet to be discovered, but also they were easy to relate to.  There were a couple instances in which I could readily sympathize, having experienced similar (including a variation on the squirrel incident).  Highly recommended - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

P.S. Not that it is really important, but I had to make note:  Covers tend to be hit or miss - sometimes they depict the story fairly well, and sometimes you know the cover designer never even glanced at the story details.  However, this cover is spot on - I reached a certain scene in my reading and realized, "Wow, that's the cover!"

Related novels:
Many Sparrows (takes place roughly 15 years before Pursuit)

For book extras, see:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

That Jesus came to heal and to save

Luke 4:18-19
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me 
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

We have been praying for a young cousin who had a valve replaced in his heart a few weeks ago, since he grew out of the previous one put in as a baby.  However, during a recent checkup the doctors discovered that a bubble had formed between valves, and it needed to be removed as soon as possible.  What was hoped to be a four-hour surgery became the work of ten hours, and his recovery is not going as smoothly either.

Through this time friends, relatives, friends of friends, churches of relatives, missionaries across the globe - people have been praying everywhere for his healing, that his heart will work properly and he can go back to being the active teenager he was a few weeks ago.  A while back at my prayer group, a friend reminded us that "Jesus came to heal and to save" (one of her common sayings), which in turn prompted a discussion how hard it seems to be to believe that Jesus heals - and that He healed everyone who came to Him (Matt 12:15).  

Jesus came to save us from our sins.  I wholeheartedly believe that, and I have no doubts that I will be in glory with Him some day.  I do not believe that He needs to re-save me every time I sin and ask for forgiveness.  He has saved me to eternity.  He has saved our cousin to eternity also.  The moment I accepted that free gift of salvation, I was saved. 

Jesus came to heal  - to heal the brokenhearted and proclaim recovery of sight to the blind.  I believe that He came not just to save us, but to heal us.  Look at His miracles - He healed everyone.  But it is hard to believe that He still heals everyone - sometimes we see healing, but  . . .  not always.  Sometimes He answers our prayers affirmatively, but sometimes our loved ones don't heal.  Examples of friends and relatives who were not healed have piled up into a mountain of discouragement. 

A friend brought up the point that as Christians, we really don't treat salvation and healing the same, even though Jesus came for both.  He saved us once and for all by dying on the cross - the moment we accept that free gift from God, we are saved.  It doesn't need to happen again and again.  So why do we not treat healing the same?  Accept that we are healed and believe it?  And while we are at it, accept that we are free from oppression and no longer captive to the world?  Then live in that firm belief, just as we believe we are saved? 

In any case, it is indisputable that Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.  To me, that means He came to heal everyone

So we declare:

God, You came to save us from our sins; You came to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.  That is why You were here on earth, and that means that in Jesus' holy name You have already healed my cousin's physically broken heart.  We ask for increased faith to believe it, and as You lifted Peter up when he was sinking on the sea, catch us and lift us up when our faith wavers.  And while we're at it, a little evidence to his healing would not go amiss - astound the doctors with an unprecedentedly quick and complete recovery!  Amen!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tamera Alexander's "A Lasting Impression" - a passionate novel that definitely makes an impression!

Cover Art
In this post-Civil War novel, Tamera Alexander invites the reader into Belmont Mansion, the home of the famous, wealthy Adelicia Acklen.  Claire Laurante, a gifted artist who has helped her family by painting forgeries, finds herself on the run from mysterious thieves who attacked her father.  Determined to begin an honest life away from the family trade, Claire applies for the position of Adelicia Acklen's liason - an event coordinator, secretary, and confidante.  Sutton Monroe, Mrs. Acklen's personal attorney, is battling to reclaim his family's land and clear his father's name, both results of belonging to the losing side of the war, while attempting to make a name for himself in a forgery case.  The two of them have to work together to see that Mrs. Acklen's reentry into society is a success - a task that pushes the two of them much closer together than they ever would have dreamed.  However, can an upstanding attorney (and his influential employer) handle the secrets Claire is loath to share?

Alexander's attention to detail is stunning.  Based on her writing, it is clear that she has walked the grounds of Belmont, that she has studied its inhabitants, and that she has a passion for this place.  In addition to a glorious location, her depiction of the time period - the reconstruction following the Civil War - is a moving blend of hardened, embittered attitudes by those who lost and prayerful hope by those rebuilding their lives.  Understandably, as a person - a woman - who profited during the war and then gallivanted off to Europe while everyone else was picking up the pieces of their lives, Adelicia Acklen is in a tenuous position.  It is fascinating to hear about the struggles this strong woman faced. 

In this novel and her others set in the post-war South (especially To Whisper Her Name), the author has masterfully portrayed the spirit of the Reconstruction, if not the reality.  It is not about mending the heart of a nation, but about mending the hearts of people - the people who make up the nation.  Until the hearts of the people are healed, the nation cannot be whole.  Two or three people finding healing - it isn't much, yet every one of those hearts is crucial to eliminating the bitterness and moving on to a future of prosperity.

Alexander's passion for the setting, the characters, and the theme is palpable, even without her heart-felt author's note in the end.  Her poignant statement, "Would you paint if you knew you were painting only for Me?" struck a chord within me, and it made me question my motivation.  Do I make things jut to sell, or to glorify God?  And do I put off things I love because they are not marketable, because they will probably never make it past my eyes only, when maybe God would like me to pursue it just for Him? 

I love the curl-up-in-front-of-the-fireplace feel to this novel; at 426 pages, it is a thick, rich, decadent read  - the kind of novel I love to savor.  And when an author has as much passion about their story as Alexander demonstrates, it must be worthwhile.  5 out of 5 stars!

Belmont Mansion trilogy
1. A Lasting Impression
2. A Beauty So Rare
3. A Note Yet Unsung

(which contains minor connections to the Belmont Mansion trilogy . . . )
Belle Meade Plantation trilogy
1. To Whisper Her Name
2. To Win Her Favor 
2.5 "To Mend a Dream" (part of the novella collection Among the Fair Magnolias)
3. To Wager Her Heart

Carton Mansion
0.5: "Christmas at Carnton" (novella)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Jody Hedlund's "Unending Devotion"

Unending DevotionJody Hedlund's Unending Devotion tells the story of a young woman serving as a photographer's assistant as she meticulously searches through Michigan's lumber camps for her missing younger sister.  Along the way Lily has discovered a passion for helping fallen women toward a better life, knowing that her sister is likely one of these women.  The town of Harrison she finds to be rife with corruption, and with the reluctant aid of complacent Connell McCormick, the boss of three of the local lumber camps, she searches for Daisy and encourages a spirit of reform.  However, the corrupt and powerful people who run the town have no interest in seeing her succeed at either task . . . 

The plot starts out at a fast clip and it just keeps going - there is definitely no sagging in the middle before the climax.  However, it does not feel like too much happens either (as opposed to some stories in which so much stuff happens that it no longer is believable and the heart of the story is lost among so many disasters); it is well paced, and every event is well developed.  For such an active book the characters are fleshed out beautifully.  And oh, the romantic tension in some spots!  Regarding the villain, it was shocking how much of the evil in the book is based on real people and events.  It is hard to see how people could stand for it, and yet I can see how hard it would be to finally take a stand to put a stop to it. 

My only issue - and a relatively minor one, at that - is the heroine's personality.  She is one of those incredibly idealistic people who is impulsive, never backs down from a fight, and always thinks she's right - which gets her into trouble.  A lot.  Granted, she is admirable for standing up for what she believes in and throwing herself into a worthy cause, but she does not use her head enough.   I like to play it safe and maintain peace as much as possible, so while I largely agreed with what she believes, I cringed at her methods.  Thus I connected significantly better with Connell, the peace-maker, than with Lily.

This book successfully deals with a fair number of problems that easily beset Christians: complacency (going with what society accepts rather than standing up for what God wants), self-righteousness, and self-reliance (rather than reliance on the Lord).  I found one of the strongest points of the story to be when Lily realizes that she is not infallible - when her self-righteous "I would never do that" is tested, and she realizes that not only is she tempted, but also about the only thing keeping it from happening is the self-restraint of someone else; her self-restraint is not enoughA person who has never been offered even half a box of expensive European chocolates can claim all they want that they would never be tempted to eat an entire box all by themselves, but until no one else is around and a pristine, untouched box appears in their lap for the entire course of a sappy, romantic movie during a certain time of the month, can they really be sure that they won’t even be tempted?  

Like Hedlund's other novels, this one excels at romance and historical detail, painted in vivid, captivating writing.  4.5 out of 5 stars!

If you enjoy stories about lumber-era Michigan, I recommend Serena B. Miller's The Measure of Katie Calloway and A Promise to Love, as well as Hedlund's other Michigan novel, A Noble Groom.

And if you like, Unending Devotion has been translated into German and Dutch, and the German copy - Die Assistentin des Fotografen - is available on Amazon.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sarah. E. Ladd's "The Headmistress of Rosemere" - an engrossing drama

In the second book of her Whispers on the Moors series, Sarah E. Ladd focuses on Patience Creighton, the spinster headmistress of a girls' school at Rosemere, a property leased from William Sterling.  It has been difficult since her father died, while her mother sank into despair and her brother abandoned them without word for London, but Patience takes the burden of running the school entirely upon herself with success.  His very life threatened for the gambling debts he owes, William is in desperate need for money.  The thought of parting with any land - his own home, where his stables and fine horses are, or Rosemere, the gem of his property - is detestable, but the creditors are impatient.  Then one night William receives a warning from them, leaving him beaten and unconscious on Rosemere's doorstep, under the ministrations of the lovely headmistress.  Suddenly William keeps finding reasons to return to see Patience . . . 
The Headmistress of Rosemere, Whispers on the Moors Series #2   -     By: Sarah Ladd
While the everyday workings of the school do not play heavily in the story, I liked what there was - it is fun to glimpse the historical aspects of education.  Patience's care for her pupils radiates from her in their presence, and her competence as a headmistress shines.  I ached for her in how her family fails to appreciate her hard work.  However, the practicality, confidence, and competence she has gained from running the school make her a good match for the irresponsible William Sterling - their personalities balance really well.  I was not too sure of him at first, but William impressed me with his growth and maturity as the story went on. 

I did wonder how William was going to pull himself out of debt, as his prospects are not good for most of the novel; the solution was certainly not one I had envisioned at the beginning of the book, but it was satisfactory.  While the mystery of who burned the stables was not what I would consider one of the most prominent issues of the story, and therefore I did not spend a lot of time mulling over who did it, I was surprised when I found out. 

If one thing could have been added, I would have loved to have found out more about Rawdon Creighton.  In truth, he was probably my least favorite character (well, there were people lower than him, but they don't qualify as "favorites," least or otherwise), but what we know of him is mostly from his sister's hurt and annoyed opinion of him.  He clearly has excellent taste in women - I liked both Cassandra and Lydia a lot - but there were undercurrents; I feel like there could be more story hidden there than we get to see in this novel. 

While I had enjoyed the first book in the series, this one has a spark to set it apart from other regency romances.  An immensely satisfying read and an engrossing drama - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

For another excellent novel about Regency-era education, I also recommend The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Echoes of Mercy" by Kim Vogel Sawyer - sweet with a dose of suspense her novel Echos of Mercy, Kim Vogel Sawyer sends two different people undercover in a Kansas chocolate factory - Caroline, a member of the Labor Commission investigating the large number of employed children and the suspicious death of the former labor inspector who was sniffing around the factory, and Oliver, the son of the owner, who is getting a practical feel for the factory and figuring out where changes need to be made.  Though they become friends, they both struggle to keep their real identities hidden, and they find themselves disagreeing over the issue of child labor.  To top things off, both arouse the suspicions of the factory manager, who decidedly does NOT want anyone poking their noses into the death of the labor investigator . . . 

There was significantly more suspense in this novel than I was expecting, but it was a pleasant surprise.  It fits well with the setting, and it balances the political aspects better.  I was afraid the arguing over child labor would be overwhelming, but between the suspense and the drama of the three Holcomb children, it was a well-rounded story.  I especially liked how the three Holcomb children become a practical and personal example for Caroline and Oliver for finding compromise in the work versus school debate. 

It takes a brave author to write in multiple dialects, since it is so hard to be true to how people actually speak and have the reader understand what is actually being said*.  Sawyer does a fair amount of back and forth between upper class and lower class speech, and for the most part it is well done and not distracting.  To protect his identity, Oliver has to fake the informal and grammatically incorrect language of the common laborer, but when he lapses back into his "natural" speech, it is overwhelmingly formal.  It is hard to believe anyone would speak like that, but I will grant it is not outside the realm of possibility, given his very formal upbringing.  However, I found it ironic that Caroline notices his occasional lapse with words like "summon" when it went completely over her head that the poor, illiterate child Letta correctly uses the term "irascible."  (Ask a university full of college students - I bet maybe half could give the gist of its meaning without context.  Maybe.)  However, other than that one instance, Letta's language is stereotypical of the uneducated classes.

While the stories of Caroline and Oliver and the Holcomb children are suitably wrapped up, I wish there had been a little more conclusion regarding Oliver's father - it feels like he is left hanging at the end.  However, I like how Oliver grows into his own man, able to take charge and make changes where he sees the need, and that Caroline overcomes her fears and prejudice.  The author also has some good things to say on prayer.  4 out of 5 stars!

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

*What we hear is not exactly what people say, and it looks really wrong when written down.  In a locally classic example, this is what actually comes out of the mouth:
     "Djeet yet?"
     "No, dj'wanna?"
But the brain processes it as what it was meant to be:
     "Did you eat yet?"
     "No, do you want to?"
People rarely say the formal, correctly pronounced version, unless someone else asks for clarification on what was said.  Then they'll repeat it slowly in the correct way and not even realize they just completely changed the pronunciation.  If you were to show the speakers the "Djeet yet" version written down and ask them to read it and explain what it means, they probably wouldn't have a clue.  So when writing in dialects, it has to convey how the words are pronounced while still being completely comprehensible.  Gotta love language!

For extras related to the book:
Author's Website and Twitter
Author Bio
Read the first chapter!
More Information

Monday, February 3, 2014

Patricia Bradley's "Shadows of the Past" - a masterfully plotted mystery

In her debut novel Patricia Bradley writes a mystery-suspense about a psychology professor who also works as a victim/criminal profiler.  Taylor Martin has been digging into the past trying to find out why her father left when she was a child, but a stalker keeps distracting her from her work.  Taylor is pretty sure it is one of her students, Scott Sinclair, but his brother Nick, a novelist, keeps butting heads with her to convince her of his innocence.  While Taylor and Nick try to track down the elusive Scott, danger also keeps following Taylor in her search for her father. 
Shadows of the Past
I liked the author's style of the plot - it reminded me of a big spiral, events loosely connected circling tighter and tighter until they all narrow into a point.  Many different investigations going on, many mysteries at home and at work, but there is a thread that connects them all.  The mystery was very well written - I kept thinking,  ooh, it's this guy - no, it's this guy, - wait, it must be - but it can't be all of them!  Did I figure it out before the very end?  Not really, though I at least placed my suspicions where they belonged!  (Well, along with on some apparently innocent parties . . . )  I did really like how it all came together and who the villain turned out to be.

I thought that Taylor's responses to Nick's overtures were well written, especially in light of her history.  Her dad abandoned her as a child and her fiance left her for another woman, so she understandably has a lot of issues regarding men - both in terms of self-image and trusting men with her heart.  Sometimes it seemed like the relationship was moving a little fast, especially since Nick still feels guilt over his wife's death, but I like where they are at when the book ends. 

While I never root for the villain, I do appreciate a good villain, so I was a little disappointed (as I often am) regarding said person's intelligence in this story.  So often the villain wastes time confessing crimes, proving over and over that a gloating villain is an unsuccessful villain; a smart villain would do the job quickly with minimal interaction and then skip town/go back to daily life, but the moment a speech pours out, the person is done for.  It fit a little better in this story than in others, at least, since Taylor is a psychologist and knows which buttons to push to stall for time; however, I am always a little disappointed when the villain falls for the attempt to stall and Tells All.  Taylor is excellent at her job - I bet she could have figured out the reasons why without a confession. 

Both the suspense and mystery aspects of the book were written well; it can be hard to achieve both in the same book, but Bradley does an excellent job.  I look forward to reading the next in the series!  4.5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Revell for a free copy 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