Monday, March 31, 2014

Regina Jennings' "Caught in the Middle" - a tender story about trust

Cover Art
In the third novel of her Ladies of Caldwell County, Regina Jennings follows what happens to Anne Tillerton - a woman who killed her husband.  After growing up in a house of neglect, Anne married into a home of abuse.  Now a widow, Anne has shunned society to be a buffalo hunter; only the need to track down a cook sends her into town, where she encounters the brother of the closest woman she could call a friend.  When the cook disappears again, this time leaving Anne stuck with her squalling baby, Anne has to depend on Nick to help with the infant and track down the babe's irresponsible father.  In the meantime, Nick is juggling a booming business, filling in as a county commissioner, and just possibly running for election in a few weeks - not exactly a time he would pick to aid a disreputable woman who dresses like a man.  Who knows - maybe this disaster will be the best thing to happen to them both?

Jennings does a great job with character development.  While both of the main characters had been introduced in the previous two books, she really digs into their personalities, histories, and motivations.  My favorite character ended up being Nick.  Based on the previous books, it is clear Nick is a nice guy, and the beginning of this book reiterates too.  A bit of a gambler at heart, he has business savvy and is good with people.  But when Nick is forced to make serious decisions that are not just straight business, he becomes a man worthy of great respect.  I was impressed by his choices even when they could affect his health, wealth, and happiness.  He is an appealing hero. 

As Nick discovers, it is easy to follow God when the going is easy.  It's easy to trust when content.  But God wants us to trust all the time, to depend on Him regardless of the circumstances.  And sometimes, doing the right thing has major consequences; being a christian does not make one exempt from the actions of others in this corrupt world.  As Jennings points out, God is to be loved apart from His gifts, to be obeyed regardless of the consequences.  Through her story, she turns that into a powerful message. 

There were definitely several moments of humor in there - Anne's wild ways translate into some pretty funny social situations with a stuck-up society matron.  The journey of love that Anne travels with baby Sammy and Nick is a tender tale, and my eyes did not always remain precisely dry while reading it.  A strong, tender, God-honoring story - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Ladies of Caldwell County
Sixty Acres and a Bride
Love in the Balance
Caught in the Middle

Related novel: For the Record (Ozark Mountain Romance, book 3)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hillary Manton Lodge's "A Table by the Window: A Novel of Family Secrets and Heirloom Recipes"
Hillary Manton Lodge writes a novel of family love and delectable recipes. Juliette D'Alisa, the youngest of five children in a French/Italian family, finds herself pulled in numerous directions.  She has a good job in an enviable field, but her boss wants her to go in directions that fail to thrill her.  One brother wants to open up a new restaurant with her as his partner, though a failed attempt in the past makes her hesitant.  She wishes for romance, but she is not meeting anyone in Portland.  She is stuck and unsure what to do.  Amongst her recently deceased grandmother's belongings, Juliette discovers a photograph of a man - clearly a relative, by the family resemblance - but no one she has ever heard of.  Sensitive to her family's loss, she stays quiet about the mystery photograph but begins to look into it on her own.  Where will her grandmother's story lead?  More importantly, what does Juliette truly want in life? 

If one theme stands out more than any other (besides a love of food), it is family - wonderful, nosy, uplifting, exasperating, beloved, and imperfect as they are.  Sibling dynamics play a huge role, and they are a dynamic bunch.  Each has their own personality, but the author does a wonderful job balancing their individuality with the common ties that make them family.   They might lose their temper or deliberately push each other's buttons, but in the next breath they forgive and turn to each other for comfort.  Lodge nails what a family is about. 

Many can connect with Juliette's place in life - slightly dissatisfied and lonely, needing a change yet afraid to leave the comfort of routine, directionless, discouraged by seemingly hopeless situations - nothing too major in and of itself, but there all the same keeping one from a truly fulfilling life.  Who hasn't been in a place like that?  I would take it a step further than the author and encourage one to be open to God's direction and ask for a change, a surprise, a gift of His love; who knows where it might lead? 

It must be said, the recipes included would make the book worthwhile, even if the story was a flop (and I would disagree with that assessment).  Even without pictures, they look mouthwatering.  I confess before reading the book itself, I skimmed through and investigated the recipes found at chapter ends (only the recipes; I did not skim the story itself).  Main dishes, beverages, and of course desserts are sprinkled throughout.  The Lamb Tagine is every bit as delicious as Juliette implies - well worth the long ingredient list!

Contemporary romance is not my favorite genre, but the connections to the past and the very down-to-earth feel of the story made it an enjoyable read (not to mention the descriptions of food that left me salivating).  I would not call it a spectacular or particularly profound work of fiction, but it is easy to relate to, and I look forward to finding out more about Mireille's secret past.  It is a novel to appeal to lovers of food and the dramas of everyday life.  4 out of 5 stars

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

Links to Book Extras:

Monday, March 24, 2014

"A Beauty So Rare" by Tamera Alexander - a rich and rewarding read

In the second installment of her Belmont Mansion trilogy, Tamera Alexander returns to the historic Nashville home of Adelicia Acklen Cheatham.  Eleanor Braddock, Adelicia's spinster niece, is near destitute when Adelicia takes her in.  To support herself and pay for her father's care in the local insane asylum, Eleanor would love to open a restaurant where she can follow her passion - cooking.  However, such a job is considered too menial for the likes of the niece of "America's royalty."  Unbeknownst to them, working nearly daily the the Belmont conservatory, is real royalty - Marcus Geoffrey, who is close in line for the throne of Austria.  Though earning a wage as an architect, Marcus' other passion is in botany, particularly plant genetics and grafting, and Belmont has been offered as a haven for his experiments.  Eleanor, plain and tall, does not trust particularly handsome men, and Marcus knows his own good looks all too well, yet somehow they strike up a real friendship.  However, as a potential heir, Marcus has obligations in Austria, limiting his time and freedom.  Will the two find courage to follow their dreams?  And will they find the courage to love?
Cover Art
I am so thankful that the author is not afraid to write a long book.  It is not long for the sake of being long, but long to do justice to the plot, and she certainly does that.  Besides working several plot threads that require time, Alexander develops the characters, the setting, and the historic detail that bring the novel to life, turning the length purely to her advantage.  There is no pointless puttering around, but every passage is working towards the conclusion. 

The author does a marvelous job setting the story in history.  It is not just a romance that takes place after the Civil War - it is a meticulously researched tale firmly anchored in the Reconstruction era with real people and events.  The rise of women's shelters, safe asylums for the insane, troubled relations between Austria and Russia, research with plant genetics and grafting, the search for a potato not prone to rot - all were issues being dealt with at the time.  Not only were Adelicia Acklen, her immediate family, and her servants all real, set in the picturesque Belmont estate, but so also were numerous places described in Nashville, such as the insane asylum.  Additionally, historic figures such as Dorothea Dix (activist for the insane), Gregor Mendel (geneticist), and Luther Burbank (developer of the Russet potato) cameo in the story. 

One of the strongest themes of the story (hinted at by the title) is that of beauty.  Eleanor knows that true beauty is dependent on what is inside a person, not in their outward appearance; however, as a plain woman, she struggles with the fact that, by worldly standards, she isn't beautiful.  There are few women I've known who cannot relate with that feeling of deficiency, no matter their outward appearance.  And the author makes a really good point - something I have noticed myself - that the better you know someone and the more you love them, the more beautiful they become.  And conversely, the uglier a person acts, the less and less attractive they appear, no matter how physically flawless.  In this world where so much weight is placed on physical appearance, it is good to be reminded of what beauty truly is. 

I suspect historical novels such as this - by captivating my interest and prompting me to research further - have led to as much if not more of my knowledge of history than I learned in school.  Like all of Alexander's books, this novel is rich with historic detail, a well-thought-out plot, faith, and encouragement.  5 out of 5 stars!

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

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

Belle Meade Plantation (contains some cross-over characters/connections to Belmont)
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

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

Friday, March 21, 2014

Wanda E. Brunstetter's "Woman of Courage"

In her novel Woman of Courage, Wanda E. Brunstetter follows a Quaker girl as she plans to join a mission in the Oregon territory.  Taking place only one year after the first white women crossed the Rocky Mountains, Amanda Pearson is determined to follow their footsteps and escape the embarrassment of her failed engagement.  However, as disasters strike one right after another, she despairs reaching out to her non-believing companions, let alone ever arriving in Oregon to evangelize the Indians. 

Having read Jody Hedlund's novel The Doctor's Lady, about the first white women to cross the Rockies, which included the missionary Mrs. Spalding of this novel, I was excited to see that Brunstetter's novel is a spin-off of the same bit of history, following closely after Hedlund's tale.   Given the great revival of the time, it is little surprise that an evangelistic Quaker woman would want to take part in the missionary movement, even without the backing of the Mission Board. I like how Brunstetter also includes in her novel snippets about the various Native American tribes and customs - Nez Perce, Blackfoot, and Flathead - and how half-breeds descended of white fur trappers and native women were treated.

While I really enjoy the historical period and concept, the style of the story was not what I prefer.  It is very event-driven; one event occurs, then this happens, then this disaster strikes, etc. throughout the whole book.  I prefer character-driven novels, where the emphasis is on character development rather than all the myriad of happenings that befall the character.  As such, I had a hard time connecting with the characters - Buck especially - but I could appreciate their struggles.  Of the characters, my favorite was Mary Yellow Bird; though her story seems tragic at first, it becomes a tale of triumph and overcoming.  Her fears and trials are very real, and she seems more grounded in reality than idealistic Amanda.   

While it was okay to read once, I probably would not read it again.  3 out of 5 stars.

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

Recommended alternate reading:

Jody Hedlund's The Doctor's Lady takes place the year before, chronicling the adventures of the first white woman to cross the Rockies, along with Reverend and Mrs. Spalding.

Emma of Aurora (the omnibus of A Clearing in the Wild, The Tendering Storm, and A Mending at the Edge) by Jane Kirkpatrick, follows a real religious colony of that picked up and settled in the Oregon territory prior to the Civil War.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Ruth Axtell's "A Heart's Rebellion" -

A Heart's RebellionSequel to her Moonlight Masquerade, Ruth Axtell writes about a young woman come to London for her first season.  After years of pining for her best friend's brother, even coming to an understanding with him, he has married another, and the London season seems the best way to show him that she does not need him.  Being a good girl has utterly failed to deliver her heart's desires, and so she throws off the mantle of a vicar's daughter and adopts the airs of society's femmes fatales.  While Lancelot Marfleet, the first eligible young man she meets, would be suitable for her, his profession in the church and interests so similar to her father's only set her more against him.  In her rebelliousness and pursuit of the world, will she go so far as to lose everything?

As it is said, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned - and Jessamine, spurned for a wealthy, French beauty, is simmering in it.  Her frequently bad attitude and childish actions made it really hard to care for her - especially when she deliberately abandons the faith and principles in which she was brought up.  It is one thing when a non-christian lives in the way of the world - that is to be expected.  It is much harder to watch a girl who knows better pursue the world out of anger-born rebellion.  As I have never been particularly inclined to rebelliousness myself, I just could not connect with her.

However, while Jessamine is frustrating, Lancelot makes the story worth it.  Though imperfect, he has a passion for Christ and tries to keep Him foremost in his thoughts and actions.  While he is not sure that he even really likes Jessamine, he is attracted to her, and he pays close enough attention to see glimpses of the girl she has buried under the coquette - a garden-loving vicar's daughter with whom he could easily fall in love.  He cares enough about to her as a human being to tell her - no matter how little she wants to hear it - that (essentially) she is being a flirtatious idiot and apt to ruin her life.  While that honesty gets him in trouble, it shows that he actually cares, unlike most of London society.   

Had I realized A Heart's Rebellion was the second novel in a series following Moonlight Masquerade, I would have made an effort to read that one first, since I prefer to read books in order.  However, in spite of its sequel status, I had no trouble following the plot, nor suffered any confusion from what must have been events from the earlier book.  It summarizes some details from Masquerade to clarify a few things, but it works quite well as a stand alone novel. 

I do not think I could read about Jessamine's folly again - it is too frustrating watching her destroy herself. However, I did enjoy the author's inclusion of historical details, and I would like to try some of her other novels.  I learned a little more about London seasons - I had always assumed everyone was presented to the queen.  Apparently not!  I also liked the botany aspect of the story - given that it is a subject that interests me, I enjoyed learning how the field was growing so much during that era, while new lands were being explored and samples brought back and studied.  3.5 stars

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

London Encounters
1. Moonlight Masquerade
2. A Heart's Rebellion

Friday, March 14, 2014

"Plots and Pans" by Kelly Eileen Hake - fun but with numerous nuggets of wisdom

Plots and PansIn Kelly Eileen Hake's latest novel, Jess Culpepper, the daughter of a Texas rancher, was shuffled off to finishing school in England after an accident that left her and her father injured.  After waiting for years for her father to send for her and bring her home, she receives word that he has died and that she is to stay with her grandparents until her brother can spare the time to fetch her.  However, Jess is tired of waiting impatiently, so she hops a ship to the States and heads home to Texas.  Several surprises await her homecoming, including an unheard-of aunt and an extremely bossy foreman, both of which, as it turns out, have been made partners in the ranch.  Jess and Tucker are immediately at odds and stuck together until her brother gets home to look after her welfare.  And then to top things off, Jess worms her way into running the chuck wagon for the cattle drive . . . 

Hake has written some fun characters.  I loved Jess and Tucker's verbal sparring - as an observer, sometimes I would side with one and then the other, since neither was always right or in the right.  In general I liked what Tucker has to say (or at least could see where he is coming from), but he suffers extreme foot-in-mouth disease and I simply could not sympathize after some major verbal blunders.  Jess is more abrasive, but that stems largely from feeling unwanted and hurt, and she can be a gentle, loving soul when Tucker is not involved.  Her interactions with her aunt Desta are among the tenderest and most insightful parts of the book. 

One little thing that bothered me was the tendency to repeat dialogue when the point of view shifts; it was jarring to suddenly be a sentence or two back in time.  Normally when the point of view shifts in the middle of a scene, the second viewpoint picks up immediately where the first leaves off, rather than recapping the dialogue from the second point of view.  It happens maybe half a dozen times in this book - not a lot, but enough to lose some conciseness and feel like words are being wasted. 

I like how Hake has interspersed the story with little nuggets of wisdom, both humorous ("a closed mouth gathers no boots" (74)) and serious. I especially like the conversation Desta and Jess have about slavery, when they are still a little awkward and getting to know each other.  Hake writes, "When you stop looking for what you have in common with other people, it's the first step to not seeing them as people a'tal" (125).  It was a reminder that we do that all the time - on a personal level with that annoying jerk we just can't stand, to on an international level with whomever we fight against in war. 

I would not have minded a little more conclusion to the novel to wrap up the whole story a little better and not just the romance - it was a rather sudden ending.  However, I enjoyed the story as a whole.  4.5 out of 5 stars!

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

I also recommend Letter Perfect (about a girl who was also kicked out of numerous finishing schools and finds her way to the West) and Fancy Pants (featuring a British Lady in Texas, hiding out as a young man on her uncle's ranch), both by Cathy Marie Hake.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"A Stillness of Chimes" by Meg Moseley Meg Moseley's Appalachian tale, Laura Gantt returns to her hometown to take care of her recently deceased mother's house and belongings.  Not long after she arrives, her old beau and friend Sean Halloran informs her of the rumors spread throughout town - that her father, who drowned in a fishing accident years ago, has supposedly been seen on multiple occasions since her mother's death.  With the gang all home again - Laura, her best friend Cassie, and Sean - they start looking back into secrets from the past while trying to balance the problems and heartaches of the present. 

While I would not necessarily categorize this as a suspense, there were certainly moments of suspense to the mystery.  One scene especially, though it did not seem particularly ominous at the time, becomes spine-chilling in retrospect. Until the very end when All Is Revealed, I spent the story waffling over whether to believe Laura's father was alive or not.  Moseley does a good job leaving clues so that either conclusion could be possible. 

I had found the story a bit slow at first - the search for Laura's dad was not getting anywhere, and to Sean's distress neither was the romance - but when the clues started adding up, it fully captured my attention.  Like in any good mystery, things that did not seem so important at first gain significance, and seemingly random scattered events prove to have a purpose. 

As children, unless our parents have major issues (like Laura's dad's PTSD or Sean's dad's abuse), we tend to think of them as close to perfect, a perception that lasts into adulthood.  Then one day we discover they were not saints - they made mistakes too.  Through the story, Laura and Cassie discover more about their parents' imperfections.  It hurts, to see health go rapidly downhill or to think one may have been abandoned by choice instead of death, and a myriad of other problems they discover - but in spite of the pain, they lose no love for their parents.  Instead, they become all the more precious for their frailty.  I thought it was a good message that in spite of the imperfections of their parents, the children still chose to honor them. 

While the main points of view belong to Laura and Sean, Cassie also plays a part, and I would not have minded if her story had been a little more prevalent, though it is enjoyable as it is.  The three all share some traits in common, but each brings a unique perspective to the story, with different personalities and circumstances backing their point of view, and I found different aspects of each easy to relate to.  It is a solid, reflective novel.  4 out of 5 stars!

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

Book related links:

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Where Courage Calls" by Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan - sweet and uplifting

Where Courage CallsIn Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan's collaboration, Beth Thatcher, middle daughter of a wealthy Toronto family, strikes out from the norm and decides to teach school in the far west, much like her aunt before her.  When she arrives, baggage-less, she is immersed in the "primitive" culture even more than she anticipated.  While learning to cope without the luxuries to which she was accustomed, she also learns that she has a heart for the families of the poor town - not just the school children, but even the Italian immigrant miners.  However, her contract is only for one year - can she make a difference in the lives of these people in so little time, and will she even want to come back if given the opportunity?

Beth grows considerably through the story, from a coddled peace-maker who can barely stand up for herself to an independent young teacher reaching out to outcasts.  Left frail from a childhood illness, her mother has always been overly protective of her, keeping Beth hemmed in and safe, but not really free to be herself.  By striking out on her own, she is finally given the opportunity to grow into her potential.  Though she may never be terribly strong physically, she becomes a strong woman of faith.

While Molly is full of nuggets of wisdom, one that hit home for me (and one that I need constant reminding of) is to cast my cares on Jesus, not try to carry that burden myself.  Molly says, "Cast yer cares and worries at His feet, and in trade He gives ya a burden you can lift.  Amazing how hard it is to carry all them worries - and then it turns out that the burden of the real work ain't near as vexin' as yer worries been." (227-228).  It really is true - there is little that can weigh one down faster than anxiety and worries, and God asks us to give those to Him to shoulder.  In exchange, His yoke is easy and His burden is light. 

Where Courage Calls is not so much about courage in the face of grave peril, but rather courage to go where God leads, even if it is not where others would choose.  I love that the story is not really about the romance, but rather about Beth's decision to come west to teach and what she learns along the way.  Reading this novel, I remember again why I so loved the Women of the West books on which I grew up.  It is a book that I can recommend without reservation to anyone from young adult on up.  I hope Oke and Logan choose to continue the story.  5 out of 5 stars!

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

Return to the Canadian West
1. Where Courage Calls
2. Where Trust Lies
3.  Where Hope Prevails 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Colleen Coble's "Butterfly Palace": a Gilded Age thriller

Serial killers, assassination plots, hidden passageways, obsessions - Colleen Coble's Gilded Age thriller has it all.  Lily Donaldson lost her father several years ago in a fire that also killed her fiance's father.  In his self-imposed guilt, Andrew left her and she had not heard from him since . . . until she got a job as a kitchen maid in a wealthy Austin home, where he turns out to be a guest.  However, nothing is as it seems: Drew is hiding his identity, chasing the man who may have set the fire.  Strange noises come from the walls.  People hide behind layers of deceit.  And someone in the city is targeting blonde serving girls as victims of his serial murders. 

Butterfly Palace  -     By: Colleen Coble
As a historical novel set in early 1900's - approaching the era of Downton Abbey - there was a fair amount of upstairs-downstairs action, but the rules seemed much more relaxed than one will find in most fiction of the same era, with more informality between masters and servants.  Granted, this novel takes place in Austin, Texas, not England or the East Coast, where rules were apt to be more stringent. 

While the murders and plots are solved, I do not think everything else is completely wrapped up at the end.  I would have liked to see Lily and Drew have more conversations about their poor choices in the past, which would probably benefit their future.  Some other things, like baby Hannah and the Marshall family, were neglected at the end, but, as Coble tends to write in series, it is my hope that there will be a second book forthcoming - hopefully about Belle, who turned out to be my favorite character.  Such was not the case at first - I was prepared to dislike her intensely - but she has a lot of potential and grew on me, and I would love to see where her story goes.  Perhaps somewhere with Nathan . . . (pure speculation on my part). 

I had not thought it possible to make butterflies creepy, but Coble managed it.  Not terrifying - nothing to give one nightmares - but not exactly blissful little bundles of color fluttering from flower to flower.  I liked the tone of the novel - Coble did a good job setting up a mysterious and spooky atmosphere while not losing the feel of the era - everything gilded and pretty on the outside, hiding the dark and sinister underneath.  4 out of 5 stars!