Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mary Connealy's "Stuck Together" - a fun western

Stuck TogetherWith a scene fit to rival Support Your Local Sheriff, Mary Connealy opens the final novel of her Trouble in Texas series with a good old fashioned free-for-all, and the story keeps on swinging from there.  Vince Yates, lawyer and sheriff, prefers to deal with the usual sorts of trouble - keeping Lana the crazy woman penned up in jail so folks will be safe, sorting out the occasional brawl, and getting his friend's pretty sister Tina out of trouble from her saloon picketing.  However, family trouble lands at his doorstep, and suddenly he's stuck with a sister he never knew about and his dementia-suffering mother.  His plate is overflowing with a potential Indian war on his hands, an escaped prisoner, and his mother who keeps wandering off.  Tina proves quite a help, which is a good thing since she and Vince are constantly ending up stuck together while trying to solve the world's problems. 

Connealy's characteristic humor and turn of phrase again makes for a fun western.  Her narration is what really makes the novels, turning what should be just a boring phrase into a punchline that drips with humor.  I am always entertained, and Stuck Together is no exception.  I liked Vince and Tina's interactions in Fired Up, so I was glad to finally read their story!  Sparks flying all over, tender moments, and a good dose of danger to spice things up - makes for a worthwhile, lighthearted read. 

Vince has trouble trusting God with his future; he is sure he will either turn into his father - a violent jerk - or his mother - a crazy person, losing her memory long before her time.  So used to being "the invincible" Vince, he fears anything that could take away that strength.  Vince's friend Luke hits the nail on the head: "You can't worry about what may happen when you're fifty, Vince.  That makes now a nightmare for you.  It makes every day of your life something to dread, and that's a terrible way to live.  You have to trust God to take care of you.  And for a man who's the master at taking care of himself and everyone else, that might be the hardest thing you've ever done." (265)  It's hard enough to admit we have problems, let alone give them up to God for Him to handle, but think how much more freely we can live without those burdens!

The author finishes up the series with a bang.  I am glad that Jonas, Tina's brother, is not neglected.  When I found out there were only to be three books about a group of four men, I feared something terrible might happen to eliminate Jonas, but it was an irrational fear, thank goodness.  He might not get his own book, but his tale is still communicated!  A great conclusion to the series!

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

Trouble in Texas
Prequel: "Closer than Brothers: Surviving Andersonville" (novella)
1. Swept Away
2. Fired Up
3. Stuck Together

"Runaway Bride" (follows Trouble in Texas and Kincaid Brides series; from the novella collection With This Ring?)

"The Tangled Ties that Bind" (mentions Troubled in Texas characters, follows the Kincaid Brides series; from the novella collection Hearts Entwined)

Monday, May 26, 2014

"While Love Stirs" by Lorna Seilstad

While Love Stirs
Focusing on Charlotte, the middle Gregory sister, Lorna Seilstad continues her series set in the the early 1900's.  Upon Graduating from Fanny Farmer's School of Cookery, Charlotte attempts to find a job in a restaurant in St. Paul, but chefs do not seem to want a female cook in their kitchens.  However, she does get a job traveling around the state offering cooking demonstrations on a new gas stove, with a sweet chaperone and a young musician with a gorgeous voice to keep her company.  On her weeks at home, though, she keeps running into the bossy, order-obsessed young doctor Joel Brooks, who does not care for her suggestions about improving the hospital fare.  Badgered into planning a charity ball with the handsome doctor, the two frequently clash, but they grow to be friends as well.  Can Charlotte set aside her fears for a strong, forceful man, or will she settle for the sweet?

I liked Charlotte a lot.  Though she learned previously not to bend over backwards or change herself to please a man, she is still something of a people pleaser - she hates to be disliked or to disappoint others.  I can be that way myself - maybe it's a middle child thing?  As such, I could relate to her well.  I was glad to see her make friendly overtures to those who do not necessarily respond in kind, yet still stand up for herself and others when she needs to.  She makes a strong heroine - not perfect, but someone to root for.

Following dreams seems to be a theme of the series - in the first book Hannah's dream of completing law school eventually came to pass in spite of impossible circumstances.  Though it isn't precisely what Charlotte was planning for herself, God makes a way for her to share her love of cooking, both in goods and knowledge.  I enjoyed becoming better acquainted with Tessa, the youngest sister, whose dream changes with the wind - it will be fun to read her story and find out where her heart truly lies!

Like usual for Seilstad, the time period and place are well researched and written, and I enjoyed being able to picture some of the places described, having been there myself!  Through the subplot about Tessa, the author is able to insert a bit of intrigue: a pair of mystery initials are given, and though it took a while for me to pick up on it, Seilstad does a great job of sneaking in red herrings to keep the reader guessing.  While sprinkled with the author's characteristic humor, the spiritual message is not as strong as in her other novels, but the story is most enjoyable.  4 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. 

The Gregory Sisters
1. When Love Calls
2. While Love Stirs
3. As Love Blooms

Friday, May 23, 2014

Becky Wade's "Meant to Be Mine" - a story of the journey, not the destination

Cover Art A few magic days in Las Vegas land Ty Porter and Celia Park in a wedding chapel, madly in love and forever committed - until Celia wakes up the next morning and learns she was just a fling after a spat between Ty and the woman he loves.  Disillusioned, she returns to Oregon and he to Texas, both hurt but neither getting around to filing for the divorce.  Five years later, Ty is ready for forgiveness and hoping to finally marry his love Tawny, so he tracks Celia down, only to discover the surprise she kept from him - a precocious daughter named Addie.  Fatherhood changes Ty's plans and desires, and he wants them near him.  However, Celia is hardly ready to forgive him; she can scarcely trust him with her child, let alone risk her heart to him once more.   Besides, even if she did feel something for him again, he is still waiting on Tawny to break up with her latest boyfriend and marry him.  But what if God has different plans, plans that would heal hearts and bring old dreams to fruition?

While contemporary romances do not tend to land very high on my list of reading material, this novel impressed me with its solid story line.  The characters and their relationships are well-developed, and they are likeable - imperfect, but enjoyable to meet.  There is no unexpected danger or evil plot to drive them apart - just the two of them working through their hurts and reestablishing a relationship of sorts for the sake of their daughter.  In a time when divorce seems so common, it is encouraging to read - even if it is fiction - about couples who go the extra mile [or ten] to work through their struggles. 

I wasn't too sure about Ty initially - his extravagant displays of love seem almost like bribery until one takes into account his slightly overblown personality; everything about him is big and showy.  His wealth is what he has to share, and by using it he can show support - even if it is generally behind Celia's too-proud-to-ask-for-help back.  Most of all, he does it out of a giving heart, not to buy their love. His five years of quiet penance, living under a mantle of guilt and self-unforgiveness, adds a layer of genuineness to his showboat personality. 

Just as Ty and Celia's relationship takes a lot of time and work to get back on track, so does their relationship with God.  I love the parallels between the two; as Celia starts opening her heart a smidgeon to Ty again, so she also starts opening her heart again to God.  It is slow going, and realizing she made some mistakes too makes for a difficult journey (in both relationships), but both are beautiful tales of reconciliation. 

This is not the sort of book where the ending - the destination - is the most important part; it is the journey to that destination that makes it so worthwhile.  A touching, engrossing read - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Porter Family Novels
1. Undeniably Yours
2. Meant to Be Mine
3. A Love Like Ours
4. Her One and Only 

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Truth Be Told" by Carol Cox - a light, fun, western mystery

Truth Be ToldWhen Amelia Wagner comes home to Arizona for the summer to visit her father, she hardly expects to find him in his final days of cancer.  When he passes on, she takes over his position running the gazette and takes up his investigation of the questionable Great Western Investment Company.  When Ben Stone's employer at Great Western asks him to spend time with Amelia in hopes of winning her over into a retraction for some unfavorable articles about the company, he finds the assignment a lot easier than he expected, until she asks him to look into Great Western's true plans for the area.  Ben does not like the idea of spying on his own employer, but really - what has he to lose?  He will be able to prove her father's grudge against the company was merely a grudge, and then she'll print the truth.  Except that some of the land purchases made before he arrived show discrepancies and fishy business practices . . . could Amelia actually be right?

I was a bit hesitant about this book at first - it seems so often when a novel involves a journalist, particularly female, they are so bent on getting the story or printing "the truth" that they fail to speak truth in love, often at the expense of someone they love.  Thankfully, this book does not follow that pattern.  Rather than the brash, abrasive personality I was half expecting, Amelia surprised me with her sweetness, thoughtfulness, and above all honorable actions - even if it means possibly defaming her beloved father, she will print the truth, no matter how much it might hurt herself.  While she is clearly a good reporter, both at gathering news and writing about it, she goes about it in a respectful and generally direct manner.  She makes a good heroine.   

I like the secondary characters who surround Amelia - Homer, her father's partner; Jimmy, the paper boy; and Clara, her new friend.  True friends, they support her in her father's death and stand by her in trouble.  I especially like how Homer steps in as a father figure for her and the way they take care of each other after losing Amelia's father; it is difficult for them both, since he was so dear to them, but I think it increases their bond.  Amelia's friends are as much an incentive for her to stay in Arizona as her passion for running the Gazette

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anytime a relationship is begun under false pretenses, regardless of later sincerity, it is going to explode in the deceiver's face.  Sorry Ben, but it was doomed to happen. However, I agree with Homer's later assessment that Ben's actions more than prove his heart.  It was fun to watch Ben grow - as he grounds himself in the Word, he comes into a spirit of purpose, no longer trying to please man but finally turning back, much like Jonah after being spit up on shore, to do what God wants him to do. 

Cox's characteristic humor makes for an enjoyable read - a light, fun, western mystery!

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.

Other fun Arizona adventures by Carol Cox:
Love in Disguise (for those who love a good Pinkerton investigation)
Trouble in Store 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Nany Mehl's "Gathering Shadows"

Gathering ShadowsNancy Mehl crosses genres in her suspense set in a private Mennonite town.  TV news reporter Wynter Evans' younger brother disappeared nine years ago, but she never gave up hope that somewhere, sometime he might still be found.  When she comes across a photograph of a young man who strongly resembles the boy that disappeared, she travels to the small Mennonite community where the picture was taken, preparing to do a small human interest piece on the town while surreptitiously investigating the boy.  In spite of the antagonism of a number of the occupants, Wynter finds herself charmed by Sanctuary and its helpful young mayor, Rueben King.  However, the town seems steeped in secrets, and clearly someone does not want their secrets to be revealed . . .

While I have begun reading more and more suspense, I have never read much Amish fiction, so this is something new for me.  The two genres are not typically paired together, but it caught my attention.  While the majority of the story takes place in a Mennonite community, the mystery/suspense aspect is stronger, given that the main characters are not Mennonite themselves.  It is a good taste of Amish fiction and introduction to lives devoted to simplicity without diving headlong into the genre.  Wynter's interviews as a reporter help clear up misconceptions and convey some surprising facts for those of us who are fairly ignorant about the Amish, Mennonites, etc - a nice, natural way to convey the facts without bogging down in back story or explanations.  

Although I initially was unimpressed - even annoyed - with Wynter's photographer, Zac became my favorite character.  While Wynter has her share of change, opening herself up after years of holding everyone at bay, Zac's development is more radical yet: from sullen jerk to a fun and loveable guy.  I really like how his relationship with Wynter develops once they are over their bumpy beginning.  Since this is the first book of a series, I am hoping Zac will feature prominently in the next installment. 

The author does a good job keeping the reader's attention with a number of surprise revelations.  The mystery reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle - there are many widely differing pieces that must belong to the same puzzle - it's unlikely that pieces of a different one got mixed in - but finding where they connect is the challenge.  The romance moved a bit fast for me, considering Wynter is there for less than two weeks, but it seems longer given that they spend so much time together.  An enjoyable read - 4 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.

Finding Sanctuary
1. Gathering Shadows
2. Deadly Echoes
3. Rising Darkness 

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Fatal Exchange" by Lisa Harris - intense suspense!

Fatal Exchange
It would be a good idea to read book one, Dangerous Passage, first before reading this one.  While the main plot of the first novel concludes by the end, the subplot of Michael Hunt's death continues throughout the series, and it will be significantly clearer if they are read in order.  And it will prevent spoilers (hint hint).

In the second book of her Southern Crimes series, Lisa Harris continues the investigation of the death of Michael Hunt.  While detective Avery North, the older sister, firmly believes Mason Taylor had something to do with his death, younger sister Emily Hunt, a school teacher, has trouble believing Michael's best friend would do such a thing.  When Mason comes to her with concern for one of her students, a young man whose brother was just abducted by a drug cartel, Emily promises to keep an eye out for him, never expecting him to walk in with a gun and hold the whole class hostage.  With Mason negotiating from the outside and Emily trying to keep things calm on the inside, they hope to all walk out alive.  However, the student's unusual behavior leads them to believe there may be more going on under the surface than appearances would have them believe . . .  Is it possible this seemingly unrelated event could be tied to Michael's death?

While I enjoyed the first book for its cop-show-esque feel, this one seriously ramped up the danger for an excellent suspense.  Given that the majority of the book takes place over the course of one day, it radiates intensity and tension.  While there is a fair amount of investigative work, it is second to the continual action.  Warning: this book is really hard to put down!  And then, in a stroke of cruel brilliance, it tantalizes the reader with what is to come in book three - which will not be out until spring 2015!

I like how Harris develops Mason and Emily's relationship.  Since most of the book takes place in the course of one day, it is difficult to forge a lasting relationship, even with some history between the two, and being two sensible adults, they know that statistically relationships formed under trauma do not last. However, I like how Mason and Emily decide to proceed - to not rush in, but neither to completely dismiss their feelings.  It is a fitting end to the book, leaving room for growth in the next. 

While the characters go to church and find faith important, there is not a particular message or lesson the story is trying to convey - I think it could do well as a clean suspense on the secular market as well as christian.  Harris has chosen an excellent style for the series - rather like a TV show, each episode (book) has conclusion, but the ongoing investigation of Michael's case tie the books together so that they must be read in order, keeping one hungry for more. 4.5 stars!

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

Southern Crimes
1. Dangerous Passage
2. Fatal Exchange
3. Hidden Agenda

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Silenced" by Dani Pettrey - great mystery and diabolical suspense!

SilencedBook four of Dani Pettrey's Alaskan Courage series follows Kayden, the most reserved of the five McKenna siblings, and Jake Westin, the man everyone else treated like family but she never could bring herself to trust.  Though Kayden now respects Jake, even is attracted to him, her fears of vulnerability hold her back.  While racing her sister up a wicked cliff on a climbing trip, Kayden comes face to face with a mangled corpse.  As a local climbing expert, she gets paired with the deputized Jake to investigate the death, which looks like no average climbing accident.  While they fly around investigating the case, they become targets of someone's obvious displeasure.  Who and why is the person so fixated on Kayden and Jake?  Could there be a far more personal reason for the threats than just the investigation?

In anticipation of this novel's release, I decided to reread the books that come before it, and I was impressed and reminded all over again why this series is so good! It is by far best to read it as a series, since the characters and relationships are introduced and firmly established throughout the books; to just read one in the middle would mean losing out on detail and good character development.  This might just be my favorite suspense series out there!  Following the previous pattern of the books, this one largely focuses on the secondary characters of the previous novel (Kayden and Jake) and introduces the viewpoints of the main characters of the next novel to come (Reef and Kirra). 

Part of the appeal of Pettrey's novels is the setting: the rugged Alaskan landscape, with so much varied terrain, provides not only a unique and breathtaking backdrop, but also a remote location where the wicked can hatch their evil plans.  Intimate knowledge of the terrain helps both the villain and the McKennas, and it adds a wild element of danger. 

Sometimes a good villain is a danger to stealing the show from the heroes of the story, and Pettrey has created one diabolical villain: calculating, taunting, extremely intelligent, and unmercifully vengeful - the kind that is always one step ahead.  When we finally realize what this person is capable of, the tone quickly switches from a fairly basic mystery to intense suspense.  I really appreciate a villain who thinks things through and provides a challenge, planning against all contingencies - who does not hesitate to keep the victim subdued lest they escape and ruin the evil scheme.  There are no dumb mistakes for this one!  Marvelous villain!

For someone so strong and seemingly fearless, Kayden has a lot of fear holding her back - from eating anything remotely unhealthy, from forming relationships, and especially from being vulnerable.  Just because some people always seem fine and strong, does not mean they do not hurt or fear or need any less support or love than those who are "weaker".  I enjoyed watching Kayden's transformation - as she begins making progress in one area, God starts opening the doors for progress in other areas too.  I doubt she will ever be bubbly and effervescent like her sister Piper, but we can see the thawing around that part of her that froze when her mother died.  

Pettrey has become one of the greatest suspense writers on the market, not only with on-the-edge-of-your-seat, gripping plots and romance, but also with the touches that make it real - detailed setting, family relationships, and God at work in people's lives.  I highly recommend this novel - 5 out 5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House 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. 

Alaskan Courage
0.5: "Shadowed" (Sins of the Past romantic suspense novella collection)
1. Submerged
2. Shattered
3. Stranded
4. Silenced
5. Sabotaged

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"A Broken Kind of Beautiful" by Katie Ganshert - a story to make you think Ganshert's novel is a beautiful story of redemption.  Brought into the modeling industry by age 14, all Ivy Clark knows is that her feelings, dreams, and sufferings do not matter - only her appearance matters, and with that lovely shell she can get anything.  Anything, that is, except the love and healing her soul craves.  After losing a renewal contract, suddenly Ivy is verging on too old to get any more good modeling contracts.  Desperate, she accepts her stepmother's request to model for her bridal shop, putting her in contact with Davis, her step-cousin.  Davis swore to give up photography after a tragedy during his stint in the fashion industry, but his aunt's plea and promise of supporting a specific charity make him drag out his old equipment and work with Ivy.  Though she hides it well, Davis sees a hint of that broken girl behind the beautiful shell, and realizes maybe God wants him there to draw her out.  But will Ivy turn to the true Father who loves her like no earthly man ever could?

Considering that Ivy starts out as rather unpleasant, seductive, and prone to drink, I found it impressive how the author was able to make her if not particularly likeable, at least not unlikeable - a character still able to tug at one's heart.  Ganshert does an excellent job finding that balance between making Ivy a product of the modeling industry - not what one would call a nice girl - and still a sympathetic heroine. 

While Ivy's theme of redemption was moving, I found I connected more with Davis and his struggles with forgiveness.  He knows God has forgiven him for his poor choices, and his sister has long since forgiven him, but when it comes to forgiving himself, he cannot get past it.  I like the point made through Ivy - if God has forgiven him, why isn't he living like it?  What kind of testimony is that, to be a captive of guilt when God came to set the captives free?  Davis is a clear example of how guilt is used as a snare to render Christians ineffective. 

Besides Ivy and Davis, Ivy's stepmother Marilyn and Davis' sister Sarah both have struggles with which many can connect - barrenness, brokenness, being unloved, feeling unworthy, physical injuries, desperation.  While all the characters have more than sufficient troubles, their burdens are not overwhelming, but rather uplifting - God is working in each of them, and fruits of their labor and trust, even though in some cases many years coming, are evident.

This is a well-written novel - it has an interesting plot, but more importantly it makes one contemplate how God is pursuing us - He woos us all in different ways, just as he does the characters of Ganshert's novel. It is also the winner of the 2015 Christy Awards in contemporary romance category.

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.

Book extras:

Friday, May 2, 2014

Dani Pettrey's "Submerged"

SubmergedIn the first of her novels about the McKenna clan, Dani Pettrey introduces us to Cole, the oldest of the McKennas, and most of his four siblings.  When a plane goes down just before arriving in the town of Yancey, Alaska, Cole is part of the diving team sent to rescue/recover the plane's occupants, including the aunt of his old flame Bailey, the girl who broke his heart ten years ago.  When the "accident" drags Bailey back to Yancey, a place she never wanted to see again in her life, her knowledge of Russian studies and her aunt's Russian shop becomes invaluable for  police investigation involving murdered divers.  In order to solve the mystery, Cole and Bailey have to work together with the police, but will they be able to reconcile the past before the dangerous present catches up with them?

I tend to prefer historical novels, though a good thriller has its place.  What surprised me about Submerged is that though it is a contemporary suspense story, it has a strong thread of Alaskan and Russian history, making for a fascinating read.  While much of it is hypothetical "what could have happened," it is based on well known (and perhaps some lesser known) Russian history and its ties with Alaska.  I thought it a brilliant component to the story. 

Poor choices that Bailey made in her youth continue to haunt her.  Though she turned to Jesus and completely turned her life around, she still fights with guilt, a lack of self worth, and a damaging old reputation.  Pettrey does a good job reiterating that, yes, there might be long-lasting consequences to one's behavior before turning to Christ, but when Jesus wipes one's sins away, one is a new creation in Christ.  By God's standards - the only standards that matter - one is new and clean. It is still hard for Bailey to wrap her head around that truth, but the healing God provides goes a long way!

Pettrey does a great job establishing family dynamics and hinting at where things might lead beyond this particular novel.  It is clear each of the siblings has their own personality and role in the family, and it will be fun to see where the series goes.  Piper, the youngest McKenna, and family friend deputy Landon Grainger are secondary main characters with their own viewpoints (though to a lesser extent than Cole and Bailey), setting up the next book to come.

Mystery and suspense, history and hidden treasure, romance, healing, the great outdoors - this book has something for everyone!  5 out of 5 stars!

Alaskan Courage
0.5: "Shadowed" (Sins of the Past romantic suspense novella collection)
1. Submerged
2. Shattered
3. Stranded
4. Silenced
5. Sabotaged