Monday, June 30, 2014

"Murder at the Mikado" by Julianna Deering; or, Merriment and Murder with Gilbert and Sullivan

Cover ArtIn the third Drew Farthering Mystery, Julianna Deering sends her hero to the theatre Tivoli, where an old flame is being accused of murder.  Though neither Drew nor his fiancee Madeline is thrilled with the prospect of working with the actress who broke Drew's 18-year-old heart, Drew sees it as his duty to forgive and take the case, and thus they immerse themselves in the theatrical world of Gilbert and Sullivan. 

By half-way through the novel I hit on a brilliant idea and pegged the murderer.  Except, then the characters picked up on those clues that I was so proud to catch first, and my suspect became a genuine suspect a little too early on, and what with one thing or another, I fell for a red herring.  So I can assert that the mystery is well written, as I did not guess the proper murderer this time. 

I thoroughly enjoy Deering's cheeky wit - the novel is full of references to Gilbert and Sullivan (The Mikado itself being the title of an opera by the pair).  Conversations are brimming with punny plays on song titles (and I'm sure a number of them went over my head), one of the more obvious being Drew's promise to Inspector Birdsong, "I'll be the very model of a modern sleuthing amateur" ("I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" of Pirates of Penzance fame).  Nick, Drew's best friend, is overloaded with wit and comedic timing as per usual. 

I really appreciate that though these are largely humorous books, there is a serious side to them.  Murder is not a lark, and they do treat it seriously.  Drew and Madeline have a discussion of Drew's past early on in the story (which, if they had participated in today's premarital counseling, would have come up by now), and it takes a while to work through it, especially when combined with Madeline's insecurities. 

My favorite Drew Farthering Mystery is still probably Death by the Book, but this one firmly settles Drew and Madeline's relationship, really digging into their pasts and challenging whether their whirlwind romance will stand the test of time.  A thoroughly enjoyable read in the style of the classic mystery masters - 4.5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free e-copy of the novel for a 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, June 27, 2014

"Rise and Shine" by Sandra D. Bricker; or, how Sleeping Beauty learned to live again

Rise & Shine   -     By: Sandra D. Bricker
Continuing on her theme of contemporary fairy tales, Sandra Bricker tackles the difficult Sleeping Beauty . . . which brings to mind the question, how does one fall asleep for years in this day and less-than-magical age?

Thanks to a diving accident on her honeymoon, Shannon Malone has been in a coma these last ten years, but when she miraculously wakes up, it is not her husband's face that appears, but rather that of a handsome young doctor.  Her three aunts are determined to help her, and Doctor Daniel is on call whenever she needs him, but getting used to new technology, remembering her past, dealing with grief from her husband's death two years before she woke up - everything is hard, and she wonders how a loving God could possibly let this happen.  Then there's her wicked sister-in-law, bent on taking away everything Shannon has left . . .

This isn't so much the usual story of how Sleeping Beauty fell asleep and was rescued, but rather how Sleeping Beauty learned to live again after she woke up.  Though it is a lighthearted tale, it places due emphasis on how devastating it would be to lose ten years of one's life over the course of seemingly one night's sleep - to have missed out on births, deaths, marriages, illnesses, hard times, and good times, and to struggle to recall memories from before the accident.  Even if it had been a much shorter time, would not one be crying out to God, "How could You let this happen?  Why me?"  Then couple that with survivor's guilt - how difficult it would be to create a new life. 

I found Shannon's change of preferences - like from tea to coffee and from never cooking to loving cooking - a good touch to the story.  Having known someone who suddenly disliked chocolate after coming out of a three-week coma (bizarre, right?), it stands to reason that Shannon's preferences would also have been altered thanks to the trauma to her brain.  And I know my preferences have changed significantly over the past ten years without any brain injuries - how much more so for her with the addition of trauma? 

This book is an encouragement for everyone to have hope for the future, to be unafraid to develop new passions, and to seek out where one's heart lies, regardless of life circumstances.  No one is the same as they were ten years ago; it is okay to make changes, develop new interests, and discover hidden talents.  Bricker writes a delightful and thoughtful story - touched with humor, yet not neglecting the serious aspects of a second chance at life. 

And for more modern fairy tale fun, read Bricker's If the Shoe Fits! (based, of course, on Cinderella)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jocelyn Green's "Yankee in Atlanta" - deep in the heart of the Civil War

Yankee in Atlanta, Heroines Behind the Lines Series #3   -     By: Jocelyn Green
In the third of her Heroines Behind the Lines, Jocelyn Green explores life in Atlanta during the Civil War and what happened to the Yankees living there.  Caitlin McKae dressed as a man and joined the Union Army to keep an eye on her brother, but an injury and case of mistaken identity brings her to Atlanta, where she gets by with her Irish accent, though many suspect her for a Union sympathizer, if not an outright spy.  When the school closes where she is teaching, German immigrant Noah Becker hires her to be a governess for his daughter while he joins the Confederate army.  Trapped in Atlanta during Sherman's siege and falling in love with a Confederate soldier, her loyalties are torn.  Not a Rebel, yet not quite a Yankee anymore either, will there ever be a place for her in this divided country?

Unlike Widow of Gettysburg, Yankee in Atlanta ties in closely to the first novel of the series, Wedded to War, continuing the stories of Ruby O'Flannery and chaplain Edward Goodrich.  I was glad to find out what happens to the two familiar characters, though since the story is billed as being about Caitlin and Noah, I would have liked there to be a little stronger focus on them; in truth it was almost fifty-fifty Caitlin/Noah and Ruby/Edward.  If the two plot lines were not so entwined, I would have enjoyed them as two separate stories. 

Like Green's other two novels, this one is clearly well-researched, brimming with authentic details that ground it in reality.  I was shocked at the quoted prices of groceries from the height of the war, and I had no idea that there were violent draft riots in New York.  Besides the starvation and battle affecting the civilian population of Atlanta, epidemics swept through the city, preying on weak and strong alike. 

The author does an excellent job painting Caitlin into a corner where she is on both sides of the war yet belongs to neither.  While she believes in the Union, she cannot help but be horrified by what her fellow troops do to the city of Atlanta and all the women and children who reside in it.  The issue of slavery clearly separates her from the South, yet Sherman's assault ruins her for the North.  What does one do when one is part of both sides of an issue yet accepted by neither side?

Ruby and Edward's tale of grace is both painful and uplifting.  In both their tale and Caitlin's, a strong thread of hope runs through.  There is no doubt that it can be hard to hang onto that thread, but it is there, in the midst of battle and uncertainty, in a rocky marriage, when separated far from all that one loves, and even when it seems there are no options left.  Another excellent novel by Jocelyn Green - 5 out of 5 stars!

Heroines Behind the Lines
1. Wedded to War
2. Widow of Gettysburg
3. Yankee in Atlanta
4. Spy of Richmond

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jocelyn Green's "Wedded to War" - a powerful Civil War tale

Wedded to War, Heroines Behind the Lines Series #1   -     By: Jocelyn Green
The first of her Heroines Behind the Lines, Wedded to War highlights author Jocelyn Green's in-depth look at nursing in the Civil War through her headstrong heroine Charlotte Waverly.  Much to her family and suitor's chagrin, Charlotte decides rolling bandages and collecting lint are insufficient support for the Union, and she pursues the opportunity to become a nurse, in spite of her fear of blood.  The job is not easy - the upper class society from which Charlotte comes is scandalized by her work, the surgeons do not want female nurses, and the tasks she is given are not what she was trained to do.  However, she pursues the work wholeheartedly, and is rewarded with the rare glimpse of her old friend, Doctor Caleb Lansing.  As she moves further and further into enemy territory, the demands on her body and spirit grow all the greater, especially with pressure from her mother and would-be fiance to return home.  Does God want her to serve her country by serving those she loves, or by serving the wounded?

I had no idea that the treatment of female nurses in the Civil War was so appalling.  Green's writing is inspired by the real nurse Georgeanna Woolsey, and many of Charlotte's experiences are based on what can found in Georgeanna's journals.  It never occurred to me that at one time, nursing in America, especially when involving the military, was a man's domain.  The conditions and trials women had to deal with to help people were shocking; many surgeons, not actually allowed to bar their aid, made the women's lives as miserable as possible to drive them away.  But before women could make it to a hospital, they were to pass certain qualifications, which were strictly enforced: an impeccable reputation with unimpeachable references, a minimum age of 30 years old, and completely unattractive. 

Normally I would consider the fewer the number of viewpoints in a story the better, but Green uses her secondary characters - all six viewpoints besides Charlotte's - well; not only do they advance the plot, but they provide a more complete picture of the times.  Ruby O'Flannery, whose viewpoint is second only to Charlotte, highlights the poor immigrants of New York, giving us a glimpse of how easily their poor living could spiral downward until there were no options left.  Her downtrodden personality and circumstances provide a foil for Charlotte's wealthy upbringing and bold approach to life.  Mr. Olmsted acts as a conduit for  the Sanitary Commission, giving us a greater picture of its behind-the-scenes triumphs and frustrations and the fight to convince the government of its importance.  A young seminary student out to prove his worth, Edward Goodrich offers one more minor - but terribly important - view to the carnage of war: he is a chaplain, expected to bring healing to these wounded soldiers' souls, but he can't see God among the carnage and despair of war himself, let alone feel he can show God to these men.  The doubts that assail him are the sort that could plague any believer when faced with something so far removed from our safe, peaceful Christianity. 

By deliberately choosing a profession that highlights her weakness - dealing with illness of any kind - Charlotte encourages us to overcome our fears, follow our dreams, and keep doing what is right, even when it seems everyone is against us.  Boldly she fights for the right to help people, defying age and beauty restrictions, disrespectful doctors, and discouragement from her set in society.  Do not be discouraged when it is hard; as Charlotte says, "Just because something is difficult doesn't mean it isn't worth doing," (275).  

Green portrays the determination of the female nurses in compelling narrative, while providing a harshly realistic view of their duties in the Civil War; the detail and research put into this novel is astounding, yet it meshes seamlessly with the story.  Though there is romance, it is secondary to Charlotte's fascinating calling.  A powerful tale - 5 out of 5 stars!

For more background information on the series, see the author's website Heroines Behind the Lines!

Heroines Behind the Lines
1. Wedded to War
2. Widow of Gettysburg
3. Yankee in Atlanta
4. Spy of Richmond (coming 2015)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sandra Orchard's "Blind Trust"

Blind TrustIf you have not yet read Deadly Devotion and you intend to do so, please read no further, as this review will utterly spoil the mystery of that novel.  And it would be a good idea to read it, as it provides a helpful introduction to the characters and the dynamics surrounding the small Canadian town of Port Aster. 

In the second of Sandra Orchard's Port Aster Secrets, it becomes apparent that the scandal of the first book might just be part of an even bigger plot than Kate and Tom had suspected.  The question is, what is related, and what is not?  Does GPC Pharmaceuticals have anything to do with rich Molly Gilmore, who attempted to kill Kate and murdered her friend?  Is the company chasing after something Kate's father discovered 20 years ago that led to his arrest and death?  How can there be a connection between Kate's dad and Tom's past in the FBI in DC?  And what about the rash of counterfeit bills appearing around town, including in Kate's hand?  The questions keep piling up, but the answers are slow in coming.  There are few people that Kate truly trusts, and she knows she can trust Tom to keep her safe - but can she trust him with her heart?

Well, I must remind you that this book is part of a series, and it is the second book of at least three - so it is a relief to know at least one other book is yet to come.   Just sayin', there are some things that might not quite be resolved in the end . . .  

I like that the author is taking Kate and Tom's relationship slowly.  The first book takes place only two months ahead of this one, not to mention Kate has trouble trusting cops, so it is not as though they have had a lot of time to develop a deep relationship.  Also, the author makes a good point about how with even the hint of an indiscretion on her part or romantic bias on Tom's, a lawyer could rip apart their reputations and discredit them to a jury in the upcoming trial.  Reputations are not just an old-fashioned important-in-history-but-not-much-now things; they still make a difference!

What initially grabbed my attention about book one was the focus on herbs, and I'm glad the plants and natural remedies, though perhaps less of a focus in this installment, still have a decent role in this book.  I generally consider myself fairly knowledgeable about such things, but even I learned something new! (Which, naturally, I cannot share, it being pivotal to the plot). 

I would like to see a little more growth on Kate's part; while she is a Christian, I feel like she is avoiding God in the same way she avoids Tom.  She still jumps to conclusions and switches suspects at the drop of a hat, which makes for a lot of theories constantly tossed around.  As a second book in a series, this one serves its purpose well - it expands on the first and builds up to what will likely be the climax in the next book. 

Thank you Revell 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.

Port Aster Secrets
1. Deadly Devotion
2. Blind Trust
3. Desperate Measures

Friday, June 13, 2014

Karen Witemeyer's "Full Steam Ahead" - humor, adventure, and heart

Cover Art
The only child of a shipping magnate whose health is failing, Nicole Renard promises her father to seek out a husband in New Orleans who will serve as a guardian for both the Renard business and family heirloom, a Jean Lafitte dagger.  When her father's ruthless business rival forces her on a detour that leaves her stranded and fundless, she determines to pay her own way to New Orleans.  Hired by an eccentric, young scientist on a crusade to make the boilers of steam ships safe, Nicole transcribes his nearly indecipherable notes, corrects mathematical errors, and in general assists him with his research to earn enough money to pay for a ticket.  Darius is shocked to discover the woman - and a very attractive young woman, at that - is the perfect secretary for him, but he knows that she is hiding something from him.  As their attraction grows, all he wants to do is protect her, but will her stubbornness override the tug on her heart?

Part of the fun of historical novels is learning something new, and given the rising popularity of Steampunk, I thought it a great choice on the author's part to focus on steam for her subject matter.  It was interesting to learn about the troubles regulating steam boilers - that there were so many variables and factors contributing to the explosions that it was impossible to narrow down to one or two easy fixes, which I'm sure contributed to the invention of safer alternatives.  I knew that originally steam travel was quite dangerous, and eventually it became much less so, but it never occurred to me the complexity of finding the solution to safety.  (And thus, I suppose, Steampunk gadgets [run by steam] would actually have been little time bombs, waiting to blow up in their owners' pockets . . .)

Witemeyer does an excellent job creating fun characters and excitement.  This story feels particularly adventurous, with legends of old pirates, secluded experiments, grand explosions, and complex plans to dodge wicked pursuers.  I especially liked Darius, who, though initially somewhat cranky, proves both an amusing and sympathetic character, a strong hero, and a man worthy of admiration.  Nicole is a cute and spunky heroine, and it is easy to connect with her insecurities - does not every girl want to be loved? Especially by the most important men in her life - father and husband?  I was a bit surprised by the amount of romantic tension between Darius and Nicole (more than is generally found in the author's books). 

Driven by guilt after his failure to save a child's life in a boiler explosion, Darius sets God aside to punish and just maybe redeem himself through finding a way to save many lives.  Thus he pushes himself to learn all he can about boilers and what regulations could make them safe, but what he truly needs is to accept God's forgiveness and forgive himself.  The feeling of guilt is a powerful thing, whether deserved or not, and it can eat away at a person's soul.  However, Jesus came to set the captives free - and that includes those held captive by guilt! 

Witemeyer writes another winner!  A lovely balance of humor, adventure, and heart - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

"Love on the Mend," an e-novella sequel starring Jacob Sadler, is now available!

Monday, June 9, 2014

"A Place in His Heart" by Rebecca DeMarino

Cover ArtRebecca DeMarino explores seventeenth century England and America in her colonial debut.  Anglican Mary Langton agrees to marry the recent widower Barnabas Horton, even though he is a Puritan and his heart still belongs to his dead wife.  A young woman who never intended to leave the village where her family has dwelt for centuries, Mary is shocked to discover her husband has long been planning to pack up his family and move to New England, where he can be part of building a church where people may worship freely.  Mary desires to be loved by her husband, but nothing she does seems to earn her a place in his heart.  Will abandoning her family for the unknown across the sea be enough, or will she always be just a replacement mother for his two sons?

I enjoy a generous dose of history in the historical novels I read, and it was fun not only to learn about the early colonization of America, but also to discover that the story itself is based on the lives of the author's ancestors.  The setting described is certainly one of the lesser-explored ages - the mid-1600's England and America, which makes for a fresh new world to explore.  DeMarino does a great job describing village life, including the duties of the village baker.  It is fun to read about daily life in another time and place.

Mary starts out headstrong and a bit immature, and though she never completely gives up her headstrong ways, she matures as a wife.  She continually puts her husband's dreams ahead of hers, even to the extent of leaving a relatively safe, loving home for the New England wilderness.  Her selflessness in their marriage made me want to strangle Barnabas at times - why can't he realize the gem of a woman he is married to?  He is a good man, with strong faith and unwavering convictions, but his blindness in this area is frustrating.  There comes a time to move on, and it is well past!

Enduring the pain of childlessness is such a burden for Mary; I wanted Barnabas to say something like, "You are more important to me than many sons," but he keeps waiting for a child, abandoning her to her insecurities.  I felt for Mary in her years of waiting on the Lord for a child . . . and waiting, and waiting, and waiting; in everyone asking her so frequently if she is pregnant, and her heart breaking anew each time because the answer is no.  Whether it be pregnancy, employment, marriage, or whatever, it is really hard to want something, to be waiting for it, and to be expecting it, yet it never come; then when everyone knows about that desire and asks about it, generally out of well-intentioned hearts, it serves as a continual reminder of one's failures, hurting all the more.  The author conveys well that pain of unfulfilled expectation and how hard it is to hope when expectations are not met. 

It is unusual for a novel to cover such an expanse of years, but it fits the story, rendering the heartache the more poignant and the joy all the sweeter.  I wish it were a little longer to add more detail as years go by!

Thank you Revell 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.

Southold Chronicles
1. A Place in His Heart
2. To Capture Her Heart

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"The Good News About Marriage" by Shaunti Feldhahn
I confess I read very little nonfiction, unless there is a specific subject I am looking up, and then I feel no obligation to read any more than what is pertinent to the subject of my research.  However, since my husband and I had read For Men Only and For Women Only back in courting days, I recognized the author and decided to give this book a shot.  Feldhahn's books are not based on theology or what people should do and think, but are instead a compilation of the findings of extensive surveys and research on what people actually do and think. 

Shaunti Feldhahn (with the help of Tally Whitehead) has devoted a book to the surprising news that marriage is not doomed, dividing her findings into five main points.  Based on numerous studies and surveys, Feldhahn debunks the "well-known fact" that 50% of marriages end in divorce (in reality, the highest it has ever been was around the year 1980, and divorce rates have been slowly decreasing since to about 31%); that most marriages are so-so or unhappy (her findings show that most marriages are happy to very happy); that divorce is just as common inside the church as outside (the myth is a result of misinterpreted data; divorce rates are significantly lower in the church); that remarriages are doomed (the majority of remarriages thrive), and that marriage problems result from major issues (when most unhappy marriages stem from day-to-day misunderstandings and unintended hurt, and simple changes can make a big difference). 

If you cannot handle numbers or statistics, then this book is not for you.  The author cites studies by reputable (and often misquoted) sources, as well as her own in her extensive research on marriage in the United States.  However, if numbers do not scare you, this is a good book to read and share - she does a good job clarifying what the studies specifically looked at and therefore what the numbers mean, especially in cases where her findings differ so greatly from the norm.

The statistics published in this book make sense to me, based on marriages of people I know - among my parents' siblings and my first cousins who are married, roughly 1 in 8 are divorced - that's 12.5% - nothing remotely near the popular 50% (or even the author's figure of 31%).  And that ratio holds pretty true for my friends and their parents. 

This book by no means states that the state of marriage is perfect or even near where it should be, but it clarifies common misconceptions that have created an extremely discouraging view of marriage - the truth is, things are not nearly as bad as people think, and there is a lot of optimism for marriage.  While it does not have much applicable insight (such as how to make a marriage happier or prevent divorce), it conveys hope in an area that has long been struggling, and that hope in and of itself may be enough to tip a marriage toward success rather than failure.  So while I would not recommend that everyone go out and buy their own copy, I do recommend reading it and sharing it - this is a great book to pass around to get the word out there of the good news about marriage. 

It is so vital for us to affirm that although there are many marriages that are hard or go through hard times, that most of the time, marriage is delightful - that it's okay to hope and work for that type of marriage, even as we emphasize that not having it is never an excuse to give up.

Because the good-news truth is that in most cases, marriage is the most amazing, delightful, and profound earthly relationship that any of us will ever know. The truth is that although most couples have to work at marriage, and some will go through very hard times, most come out the other side and enjoy each other for a lifetime. The truth is, although we can never look to marriage to make us happy, we need to trumpet the fact that when a couple chooses wisely and then takes the scary but wonderful step of commitment for life, they are much more likely to have that abundant relationship they are hoping for. (60)

I received a free copy of this book from  Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own. 

Book related resources:

Monday, June 2, 2014

June 2014 Releases!

While this is in no way a comprehensive list of all the Christian fiction releasing in June, it at least highlights the books I am most anticipating for the month.  Having read other books by most of these authors - and excellent writers they are! - I am eager to snag copies of each of these new releases!

Full Steam AheadA Place in His HeartHistorical fiction:

A Place in His Heart by Rebecca DeMarino (Revell) - 1600's

Full Steam Ahead by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House) -1850's

Stuck TogetherYankee in Atlanta, Heroines Behind the Lines Series #3   -     By: Jocelyn Green
Yankee in Atlanta by Jocelyn Green (River North) - Civil War; Heroines Behind the Lines, book 3

Stuck Together by Mary Connealy (Bethany House) - Post-Civil War; Trouble in Texas, book 3

Truth Be Told by Carol Cox (Bethany House) - Late 1800's

Blind TrustTruth Be Told

Contemporary Mystery/Suspense:

Blind Trust by Sandra Orchard (Revell) - Port Aster Secrets, book 2