Monday, April 28, 2014

Beth White's "The Pelican Bride" - complex with fascinating history

Cover ArtIn book one of her Gulf Coast chronicles, Beth White spins a tale of Genevieve Gaillain, a mail order bride.  As the serious older daughter of a Protestant French baker, Genevieve takes responsibility for her flirtatious younger sister as they sell themselves as brides to the Canadians of the Louisiane colony to escape persecution.  Though given their choice of husband, the depraved men of the colony are not particularly desirable, and Tristan Lanier, the one man Genevieve might consider, is ineligible, given that he has abandoned his lieutenancy and the Fort.  Relations between the French and native peoples are tenuous at best, and the British have a stake in keeping trouble between them.  Can Genevieve safely harbor her secrets, and will the colony survive the turmoil and harsh climate?

Not being from the South, I have little knowledge of the history of the other end of the great river - but what White has detailed in her story is fascinating: the French, British, and Spanish squabbles as everyone tried to snatch their slices of America, French mail order brides known as the Pelican Brides (for the ship on which they sailed over), and the persecution of the Huguenots (French Protestants) and their influence on America.  White incorporates this history masterfully, and the author's note in the end fills in extra detail for those who would love to know more.  

White's depiction of the primitive conditions of the colony - a waterlogged fort sunk in a swamp where the heat, humidity, and tropical diseases preyed on the Europeans - are a stark reminder that even the Deep South was once frontier.  The Pelican Brides did not arrive to be the mistresses of manicured plantations with elegant drawing rooms - they were lucky to have sound houses at all, just like any other frontier habitation. (In that regard, the gorgeous cover art is slightly misleading - I doubt white clothes stayed white long). 

As a rule, the more points of view there are in a tale, the harder it is to write a tight-knit, cohesive story.  White does a good job for having four points of view besides that of our hero and heroine, but I think it could have been done with a total of four viewpoints instead of six.  Mainly I would have liked a little more time devoted to Genevieve and Tristan; their relationship got the short end of the stick, but it was in favor of the complexity of the politics and plot, so it is a toss up which would be the better route. 

The subplot of Nika the Kaskaskian woman brings in and helps clarify some of the tribal politics, as well as providing a foil for the message of God's love; her story is every bit as intriguing as Genevieve's own.  I'm glad the author was bold and wrote of a time and place that receives little attention - it is a joy to discover a new world.  The plot was complex but never dull, with a few surprises along the way!  I look forward to the next in the series!  4.5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Revell for 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.

Gulf Coast Chronicles
1. The Pelican Bride
2. The Creole Princess
3. The Magnolia Duchess 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Making Waves" by Lorna Seilstad - a fun story with a good message

Making WavesIn the first of the Lake Manawa Summers trilogy, Lorna Seilstad introduces us to the delights of Lake Manawa - a large Iowan lake near Council Bluffs where sailboats skimmed across the waves, young and old enjoyed the delights of the water slide and lake, where the wealthy would camp all summer on the shore, and where other, darker snares lay hidden for the susceptible.  Marguerite's family chooses to spend the summer there in large tents with all the comforts of home, and there Marguerite discovers the love of her life - sailing.  Except, of course, women are not supposed to sail, but boys can, so Marguerite convinces her younger brother to take lessons with Marguerite supervising - and soaking up everything he is taught.  The handsome instructor's main stipulation is that she be able swim, which she can . . . for a couple seconds, if she can bounce off the bottom.  Spending more and more time with Trip, Marguerite knows she has to send her rich and boring suitor Roger packing, but she hates to cause a scene.  When her little white lies come to light and family problems suddenly appear, what will she do? 

It's fun when an author chooses a little-known location or time period for their setting.  Lake Manawa, Iowa, is certainly not someplace I had heard of, let alone known it was such a popular entertainment area at the turn of the century.  Back when there was a significantly greater divide in classes, the lake became a place where rich and poor alike mingled, where fantastic daily events drew large crowds to its shores. 

Any lie - big, little, whatever - can hurt someone.  And they don't just hurt other people - they have repercussions on the liar too.  Marguerite's little white lies did not seem all that bad; they were largely to avoid causing a scene.  However, if she had told Roger the truth at the beginning of their courtship - that she had no desire to marry him at all - rather than always putting it off and waiting for her father to rescue her, how much strife could the whole family have avoided?  This is not to say everything is her fault, since the blame can be spread around generously, but could the simple action of telling the truth have prevented much of their hardship?  And her relationship with Trip takes several blows when he catches her evading the truth. 

As much as I like Trip, he is rather judgmental.  All have sinned; all fall short of the glory of God.  Marguerite is right up there with everyone else, relying on God's mercy for the foolish things she does.  But Trip needs mercy too, especially for his attitude, which is far from Godly at times.  It is hard to forgive that which causes enormous pain, but it must be done lest one wallow in bitterness forever. 

This is a well-rounded book - a bit of danger, a bit of fancy, plenty of humor, and sufficient gravity; a spunky heroine, a dashing hero, villainous knave, and a merciful God.  Cute and funny with a good message and appealing characters!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Kate Breslin's "For Such a Time" - brimming with tension and suspense!

Cover ArtKate Breslin's For Such a Time tells the story of Esther, but in a new setting: the Holocaust.  Hadassah Benjamin, known to the Nazi world as Stella Muller, was born with the fair hair and blue eyes of her Dutch grandmother.  To save her from the Nazis, her uncle procured false papers denoting Aryan ancestry, but when the Nazis come to take away the Jews, she is taken too, regardless of her papers.  When SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt discovers the error and rescues her from a firing squad in Dachau, he gives her a wig to hide her shorn head and makes her his secretary at his post at a transit camp in Czechoslovakia.  Having attained the Kommandant's ear and affections, Stella appeals to his compassion to try to save her people, but what can one man and one woman do, when any moment they could be executed right along with the Jews?

While the plot of the story is pure fiction, many places and the conditions Breslin describes were very real - the transit camps, the packed trains, disease, starvation, inadequate clothing - painting a harsh picture of one of the world's greatest atrocities.  The beauty and comfort of the Kommandant's house lies in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the ghetto, but even the house is not a place of safety; it more resembles a gilded cage.

Though this is a retelling of Esther, the author does not hold to every exact detail of the original, but rather shifts things around to best fit the setting and history.  I like how each chapter begins with a verse from Esther and that the author includes the little details reminiscent of the original, especially the names - Hermann (Haman), Aric (Ahasuerus), and Stella (meaning "star," same as Esther).  I was curious whether Stella would be a Christian (since one can both be of Jewish ethnicity and a Christian); while she is not, God is actively pursuing her, and in the midst of her trials she finds encouragement in the bible, both old and new testaments. 

Through Stella's journey, Breslin highlights that even in the worst of situations, where logic states there should be no hope left, God is there.  We question what kind of God would allow such atrocities, but we tend to forget that He gave man free will - free to do good or evil - and if He only allowed the good, how could we have free will?  However, this story shows His workings in the small things, where even in the midst of great horror, He still manages to bestow blessings and favor.  And most of all, there is still hope regardless of the circumstances and outcomes. 

A long, hearty read, the novel immediately snags the attention and refuses to let go.  The characters are compelling, the setting vivid, the romance brimming with tension, and the plot full of surprises.  An excellent, complex tale, bursting with tension and suspense - 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. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Death by the Book" by Julianna Deering - a clean, tantalyzing mystery, told in the classic style

Death by the BookIn her second Drew Farthering mystery, Julianna Deering's amateur sleuth happens upon the dead body of his solicitor, bludgeoned in the back of the head and stabbed with an antique hatpin, pinning the cryptic message "Advice to Jack," written in elegant Elizabethan script, to his chest.  Thus commences the Hatpin Murders, a series of murders that keeps moving closer and closer to home.  In between his dealings with death, Drew is busy trying to win the heart of the watchful Aunt Ruth Janson, with whose approval he can perhaps acquire the hand of her lovely niece Madeline in marriage.

Set in England in the early 1930's, around the same time as many of the classic cozy mysteries and whodunits were written, this story follows a similar pattern.  Citing many references to classic literature - including classic detective fiction - the novel was fun to read and puzzle out the references. 

I figured it out!  After the author meticulously killed off or exonerated my initial suspects (so not until the last fifty or so pages of the book), the clues came together and I did pinpoint the murderer.  It is a well-written mystery; Deering cleverly inserts hints throughout the story, but it takes rumination to sift through the red herrings to find the important clues.  Mysteries are no fun when the answer is pure guesswork, and this is a good one - the clues are not obvious, but they are there! 

While there is not much for preaching in the book, it is clear that Drew is trying to live by his Christian principles, both in his romance with Madeline (trying to avoid temptation when they live so close together) and with anyone else he meets, even when they try to provoke him.  The author brings up the point that good Christian men stumble, and Drew's anguished response is one that comes to mind every time another scandal comes out in the church or a ministry: "The world was always waiting to exult over the failings of anyone who claimed the name of Christ.  Did every man who tried to live his principles have to have a dirty little secret?  Must he absolutely be a fraud?  Surely there were good men in the world, men who weren't perfect but who meant to be honest and true to their faith" (54).  Later on, when discussing what sort of God is followed by so many failures and hypocrites, the author points out what so often mystifies the world: that God is merciful, and if any of us were judged as we deserved, there would be no one left to follow Him. 

Like the first book of the series, this one reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' mysteries, but with a strong Christian influence.  Though humorous, it does not deal with wrongdoing in a flippant manner.  I really liked the climax and the end; I think the author found a brilliant and meaningful solution to conclude the story.  A fun, clean read - 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.

Drew Farthering Mysteries
1. Rules of Murder
2. Death by the Book
3. Murder at the Mikado
4. Dressed for Death 
5. Murder on the Moor
6. Death at Thorburn Hall

Friday, April 11, 2014

Kim Vogel Sawyer's "Through the Deep Waters" - a deep, heartfelt story of redemption Vogel Sawyer's Through the Deep Waters is a moving, compassionate novel.  At her prostitute mother's death, Dinah leaves the brothel, hoping to make a new life for herself as a Harvey Girl, but her age prohibits her from serving, so she instead becomes a chambermaid in Harvey's Clifton Hotel.  Afraid of sharing her past and losing her job, Dinah holds back from making friends with her coworkers, even rebuffing the kind-hearted overtures of her roommate.  However, when a handsome but crippled chicken farmer begins showing interest, the desire to be loved begins a war with the shame inside her.  Will Amos and Ruthie lead her to the love of Christ?  And would they and their God accept someone as tainted as her?

While the characters are generally likeable, they were far from perfect.  Often I felt compassion for Dinah, but there were times I was frustrated by her actions, especially that she would resort to being rude in order to keep people at arm's length - no wonder not even Ruthie really liked her, and Ruthie seems the sort to find the good in anyone!  Ruthie, though, was easy to understand and connect with - a generally good, young Christian woman who struggles with a judgmental attitude and dissatisfaction with her life (and who hasn't experienced either of those?).  Amos, too, has faults that I can see in myself - making requests of God and being disappointed about those that do not materialize and yet blaming Him for those that do. 

While the main theme of the book is God's saving grace washing us clean, there are other good messages to speak to those who have already accepted Christ.  One that stood out to me was about Ruthie and her tendency to want her plans to be God's plans, but God's plans are often different than what she is envisioning for herself.  When Ruthie finally accepts the truth, her preacher father says, "Now that your plans are set aside, your heart is open to explore the plans God has for you" (241).  Sometimes we let our own desires blind us to God's plan, when all the time He is anticipating our needs and wants and has something better planned - it just may not be immediately apparent. 

Watching Dinah's journey to redemption was a pleasure and encouragement, especially how she changed all from stage to stage: not interested (alone and lonely), seeking (opening up to friendship), and finding (fully blossoming as a child of the King).  It is a heartfelt novel, and one can feel the author's compassion for the hurting and lost. 

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

Book Extras:

Monday, April 7, 2014

"A Captain for Laura Rose" by Stephanie Grace Whitson

A Captain for Laura Rose  -     By: Stephanie Grace Whitson
Stephanie Grace Whitson's post Civil War novel follows a young woman who, due to a series of tragic events, becomes captain and pilot of her own steamboat.  Regardless of how skilled she may be, however, females were not given pilot licenses, so Laura White must find a co-pilot willing to share the wheel with a woman.  Unfortunately, thanks to her sex and her ship's reputation for bad luck, the only taker appears to be her brother's old friend, who bears an established reputation as a wild young drunk.  Lest her reputation end up in tatters, Laura is also stuck with Finn's two sisters on board - one a starchy spinster, the other a high-spirited young flirt.  Can Laura travel the length of the river and back again in time to pay off debts on the boat, or, assuming the Laura Rose survives the perilous journey north and back again, will she lose the only home she has ever known?

While Laura and Finn are the main characters, it is almost as much the story of Finn's sisters, Fiona and Adele.  Watching their personal journeys as they travel up the river and down again added more depth to the story - both have plenty room for growth, and they do not disappoint.  The first time Adele's point of view was introduced, my instant impression was "that manipulative little minx," but as she matures, she improves.  She will never be like straight-laced Fiona, but we are all different parts of the body of Christ. 

It was fun to learn about steamships and the hazards they faced as they traveled up and down the Mississippi /Missouri.  While it makes sense, I never supposed that pilots needed licensing even back then, lest no one trust them to take their cargo.  As the author's note points out, some of the stranger details and sights seen are taken directly from history and not the product of an overactive imagination - a case of fact often being stranger than fiction. 

Though not expressed as such in the novel, there is a definite theme of second chances running through the story.  Laura gets a second chance on paying back the loan, while Adele and Fiona have second chances at relationships (with each other and otherwise).  Finn, perhaps, receives the most grace - after a dissolute youth, with occasional lapses even after giving up drinking, the Whites are willing to take a chance on him again.  This is not to say that second chances are easily given or that it is easy to trust after giving that second chance, but it is a good reminder of how many second, third, and even fiftieth chances God, in His grace, gives us.  How can we refuse them to others?

Whitson does a good job showing just how hard the journey (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) was for her characters, yet giving credit where it was due to God bringing good out of the tragedy.  As Laura learns, one cannot live off someone else's faith - at some point a personal decision must be made.  Whitson creates an enjoyable read with a fine balance of historical detail, spiritual growth, and romance.

Friday, April 4, 2014

"Sincerely Yours: a Novella Collection" by Eakes, Cabot, Shorey, and Kirkpatrick

Cover ArtLaurie Alice Eakes, Amanda Cabot, Ann Shorey, and Jane Kirkpatrick work together to compile a collection of novellas spanning a century - stories in which each begins with a letter . . .

Laurie Alice Eakes' "Moonlight Promise" begins with an invitation - for the destitute Camilla of England to join an American friend on a journey through the newly completed Erie Canal.  Unfortunately, Camilla has to make a certain deadline, and the debt collector on her trail is not helping matters, nor the rivalry between Nathaniel, her handsome steamboat caption, and his partner.  The theme for Camilla and Nathaniel - where both feel like God is denying them everything they ask for at every turn, and that nothing in their lives ever goes right - is easy to relate to.  Trusting God in spite of that and continuing to rely on Him whatever the circumstances is the hard part. 

In Anne Shorey's novella, "Lessons in Love," a formal request arrives for "Mr. M. M. Bentley" to appear in person to discuss his articles written for publication - which would be fine, except that Mr. Bentley is really a Miss.  Wanting to pursue her dream of writing, Merrie convinces her piano teacher, the young and handsome Colin, to pretend to be Mr. Bentley for the day, but soon the charade gets out of control.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Merrie is not the stereotypical bold and brash female pursuing an uncommon career; rather, she is more the retiring and nearly reclusive sort, who gets into her situation from lack of boldness more so than over-boldness.  It is a sweet and light-hearted tale. 

A petition from her long missing brother in Amanda Cabot's "One Little Word" convinces Lorraine to hop a train and meet him at a quaint resort.  Lorraine hopes to find a solution to saving her inheritance from an unscrupulous cousin, but instead she ends up being challenged by a carousel carver to find her place in life instead.  While I do not have carousel fever like the author, I did enjoy learning the carousel lore that the author included.  Of the four, this story contains the least (in truth, pretty much no) references to God and faith. 

In "A Saving Grace" by Jane Kirkpatrick, Grace receives a plea from her goddaughter, along with a formal letter from a lawyer, begging that she come take care of the child and help her friend who is wasting away in a remote sanitarium.  Unsure whether to trust Claude, a doctor who is helping out at "Starvation Heights," Grace decides to go undercover as a patient and rescue her friend.  Shockingly, this story is based on a real clinic that touted extreme fasting as a cure of all ills, where many patients died of starvation under the care of the unlicensed Dr. Linda Hazzard.  Though perhaps the least romantic of the four, I found it the most compelling for its suspense and the historical atrocity it describes. 

As I have typically found with novellas, most of these stories I would prefer to be full-length novels.  The first and last I would especially have liked to be longer, since their historical settings were both clever and fascinating.  Of the four, "Lessons in Love" best fits the length.  While the novellas have nothing in common other than romance and that they begin with the receipt of a letter, I found the premise to be more creative than I had been expecting - the letters each have a different purpose, and as such each story spins off in its own radical direction.  They form a nice historical collection, though, printed in order time period (1825-1911).  4 out of 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.

Jane Kirkpatrick (author of "A Saving Grace") has book extras and is sharing some giveaways of the novella collection on her blog:  
Visit and take part!