Monday, July 28, 2014

Sarah Loudin Thomas' "Miracle in a Dry Season" - a tale of judgment and forgiveness

Miracle in a Dry SeasonSarah Loudin Thomas' debut novel focuses on an imperfect community, full of imperfect people, as a drought descends on the Appalachian town.  1954 starts out hopeful for Perla Long, arriving in Wise for an extended visit at her aunt's, with her young, fatherless daughter in tow.  She quickly makes the acquaintance of Casewell Phillips, an upstanding bachelor and elder of the church.  However, rumors soon fly about her unmarried state, and her hopes about a clean start are quickly dashed.  Then, when drought descends, her peculiar gift of making miraculous quantities of  food further separates her from the town.   Will the community band together, or will it crumble like dust?

Unlike in most historical fiction I've read, the heroine of this story - Perla - actually takes a backseat to the hero.  The majority of the story is told from Casewell's point of view, with Perla filling in only occasionally.  Through it, we can really see the changes in Casewell's heart.  Though he tries to avoid gossip - a plague that runs rampant in the town - Casewell starts out disappointingly self-righteous and judgmental.  He forgets to show mercy and extend God's grace.  Then, too, when the preacher admonishes the congregation to repent from their sins, he willingly prays yet can't think of a single thing he has done wrong . . . While it is frustrating to observe his blindness in regards to his own spiritual state, what make it even more difficult is how close it hits home - how easy it is to fall into the same traps as Casewell.  However, God works in Casewell's heart, and he becomes a worthy hero; He can do the same for us. 

I have a hard time with the notion of judgement that the pastor - again, an imperfect man - promotes.  I know it has been very popular (and still is) to see every little bad thing that happens as God's judgment on wrongdoing and sinners.  In the Old Testament, God did judge the nations and punish them for wrongdoing.  However, since Jesus' death and resurrection, we live in an age of grace.  Judgement will come when Jesus comes again, but it has not arrived yet.  Until then we live with the earthly consequences of our sin - if we drink and gamble away our money, our families will starve or end up homeless - but it isn't the same as divine punishment of drought or famine for our sins. 

Whatever we may think about how a child was conceived, children are a blessing from God; I'm so glad Perla sees her daughter as a blessing and not a damaging mark of shame that others view her to be. I really enjoyed the tale of the Talbot twins; though Casewell and Perla's story is no parallel, they have much to learn from the old ladies.  The author drives home several good points on judgement and forgiveness, and most of all she encourages us to examine our own hearts.  It is hard to remain dry-eyed through this tender story. 

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

Appalachian Blessings
.5 Appalachian Serenade (novella)
1. Miracle in a Dry Season
2.Until the Harvest
3. The Memory of Drowning

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Here to Stay" by Melissa Tagg - a solid contemporary romance

In her second novel, Melissa Tagg delves in the story of Blake Hunziker, the man who pretended to be reality show star Miranda Woodruff's husband in Made to Last.  Returning home after half a dozen years' absence, Blake is ready to make things right with his family, however hard it may be, and put down roots in his old home town.  Autumn Kingsley, owner of her family's floundering inn, has been ready to fly for years, and she finally has an opportunity to work her dream job in Paris.  Somehow the two end up partnering to put on the town's Christmas festival, for all that their families are like the Montagues and the Capulets, and they start breaching the rift that has been between their families for years.  But all Autumn has ever wanted to do was leave, and all Blake wants now is to stay.  Can they pursue their dreams without losing each other?

Here to Stay (Where Love Begins, #2)Although the story involves the old scandals, world travelers, and the rich and famous, it is down-to-earth, with real problems that frequently affect real people.  Autumn is desperately trying to keep the bank from taking the Inn, scrambling to make enough money to keep the inn open and her beloved employees employed.  At the same time, she is dealing with a family that was fractured rather than drawn close together by tragedy, and to top it off, her dreams have been simmering on the back burner so long she is afraid they will run dry and she will never be able to pursue them.  She dreams of adventure, but without someone to prompt her to do it, she stays safe - and bored - in her usual routine (and that I can relate to; routine is so hard to break). 

Blake has blamed himself for his brother's death for years, to the point where he left home and tried to run from the guilt.  Whether or not that blame was justified, running proved ineffective, and so he is finally home to try to reconcile with his parents and friends.  However, what still proves most difficult is reconciling with himself and moving forward. 

While there is a fair amount of humor in the book, this is by no means a shallow story.  It has a plausible plot, real-feeling characters, and several good messages to impart.  What spoke to me most was the theme about dreams - both the dreams we've had from childhood and the dreams God gives us later. A solid, heart-warming, contemporary romance - 5 out of 5 stars!

For those who love author Becky Wade (My Stubborn Heart, Undeniably Yours, Meant to Be Mine), I highly recommend this novel!  (And vice versa, of course.)

Related novella: "Here to Stay" (tie-in with Walker Family series)

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Death Takes a Ride" by Lorena McCourtney - another fun, quirky mystery!

In the third of her Cate Kincaid files, Lorena McCourtney sends Assistant Private Investigator Cate Kincaid to H&B Vintage Auto Restoration.  Not, mind you, on a case, but only to give an employee a lift to a church function.  The shootout while she is waiting is purely coincidental.  While at first it appears to be a clear-cut case of self-defense, as Cate gets further involved, she discovers that there is more going on beneath the surface than there initially seemed. 

Death Takes a RideI love Cate, the heroine of the series.  Still a little awkward and non-stereotypical-PI, Cate has not lost the ability to laugh at herself, and it is fun to see her gain confidence in her abilities as the series progresses.  Even in cases where she doesn't figure everything out, her heart is in the right place and she does what is right and legal.  She is a somewhat unlikely heroine, at least in comparison to people she meets on assignment, but it adds to her charm. 

I can understand Cate's insecurities - soon she will be a full-fledged private investigator, legal to carry a concealed weapon, and working on her own while her aunt and uncle drive off into the sunset.  The thought of running her own PI business is an intimidating thought.  And Mitch also has big changes coming that will affect Cate, but she does not know exactly where - or if - she will be fitting into Mitch's new life direction.  Change is rarely easy, but once through the transition, it often leads to surprisingly good places. 

Like the others in the series, this quirky mystery is a fun, fast read.  I thoroughly enjoy McCourtney's style of humor, and each book is an utter delight.  While not full of heavy spiritual themes, the author does honor God in her works.  My main concern is, will there be a fourth novel?  Or is this the last of the Cate Kincaid Files? Personally, I think there is great potential for hilarious havoc to come . . . 

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

Cate Kincaid Files
1. Dying to Read
2. Dolled Up to Die
3. Death Takes a Ride

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Moonlight Masquerade" by Ruth Axtell - a novel of spies and romance

In her regency era romance Moonlight Masquerade, Ruth Axtell tells the story of a Rees Phillips, a merchant's son, who is vying for promotion in the government by agreeing to spy on a widowed countess - French by birth - who, with her powerful connections in both England and France, could well be a spy herself.  Posing as a butler, Rees infiltrates the house and begins his observation of her.  Are her suspicious actions merely coincidental, or do they point to treason?  And if she is a spy, what of his changing heart?  To what lengths can he go to protect her without committing treason himself?

Moonlight MasqueradeHaving accidentally read A Heart's Rebellion, Axtell's sequel to this novel, first, I found that most of the mystery surrounding Celine was lost (my mistake!).  However, it is not a large part of the novel - the dance back and forth between Rees and Celine is far more important, as they secretly observe each other and ultimately form a relationship of sorts.  However, it is definitely more a romance than a spy novel.  I would have enjoyed a bit more thrill of flirting with danger, though at least their relationship is fairly solidly built, for all that they cannot completely trust each other. 

In spite of the complexity of French politics at the time, with Napoleon on the throne, old Jacobin supporters running around, the aristocrat emigrees making noise from England, and other more moderate factions vying for power, Axtell does a good job portraying the history without bogging down.  She only skims the surface of those murky waters, but she does a good job conveying the fact that the politics were both complex and volatile.  It was not just for or against Napoleon - there were many sides, some of which were approved by the English, and some of which were not.  Which were good, which were bad, which were right, which were wrong?  Regarding English daily life, I liked that as a merchant's son, a navy man, and a clerk, Rees had absolutely no experience with service, so posing as a butler is a challenge for him.  It keeps it real and brings challenge to his role as a spy. 

Based on the two books I have now read by Axtell, I believe she is well researched in the Regency era, which comes out in detail in her novels.  Her book is a solid, enjoyable read, and it put me in mind more of Baroness Orczy's classic The Scarlet Pimpernel than of Jane Austen's novels.  4 out of 5 stars!

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

"A Match of Wits" by JenTurano - a highly amusing conclusion to a hilarious series

Cover ArtFinally, in the fourth of Jen Turano's Ladies of Distinction series, Agatha Watson gets to have it out with Zayne Beckett.  In spite of her former infatuation, she no longer cares for him in the slightest, but when she stumbles upon him by accident in Colorado and takes in his bedraggled, drunken state, she knows someone has to take him in hand and home after a two-year absence, and it looks that someone has to be her.  After blowing up his prospects out west, Agatha drags him back East, never mind that she left New York because someone was threatening to kill her, and that threat is still active.  As Zayne tries to protect Agatha, Agatha feels her heart being touched once more by the man, but will the oblivious Zayne ever feel the same way?

I'm so glad Agatha finally got her book (and Zayne, for that matter).  A major character from the very beginning, even appearing briefly in the introductory novella, Agatha has been a source of mischief and a good friend to all the heroines before her.  Quite the daring and outspoken young woman, she makes enemies as easily as mosquito, but her heart is to help those in need, and she has a strong faith backing that desire. 

I love it when a series ties together well, and this one is especially good about referencing and re-referencing characters.  Besides the main characters from the other novels, I enjoyed seeing other recurring characters, who, though minor, have briefly shown up in most of the stories (it helps to reread the series, because suddenly those familiar names pop right out!).  Even a couple characters from the extras, like Charlotte St. James ("A Gentleman of Her Dreams") and Agatha's co-worker Horace Pitkin ("An Interview with Miss Arabella Beckett") make an appearance in this conclusion to the series. 

As with the other novels in the series, Turano left me sniggering throughout the story.  The crazy circumstances in which Agatha frequently finds herself, be they involving pigs, dynamite, or ridiculous disguises, are full of humor.  In addition, besides a broken leg, Zayne suffers from an incredibly painful case of foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to Agatha, creating some highly amusing scenes. 

Zayne exhibits the most spiritual growth in this novel (and well he should, considering the state in which we find him), though in general the spiritual message is not as strong as in some of her other novels.  The secondary characters Mr. Blackheart and Drusilla add a fun dynamic to the tale, and Matilda is a stroke of genius.  This book is a grand conclusion to a hilarious series!

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

I highly recommend reading the entire Ladies of Distinction series:
.5 "Gentleman of Her Dreams" (e-novella)
1. A Change of Fortune
2. A Most Peculiar Circumstance
3. A Talent for Trouble 
4. A Match of Wits

Monday, July 7, 2014

July 2014 Releases!

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the Christian fiction releasing in July, these are the novels I most want to read and thoroughly intend to get my hands on:
Annie's Stories, Ellis Island Series #2   -     By: Cindy Thomson
Captured By Love

Captured by Love by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House); War of 1812 and its effect on Mackinac Island, MI

A Match of Wits by Jen Turano (Bethany House) - Ladies of Distinction, book 4; Late 1800's romantic comedy with a female reporter

Murder at the MikadoA Match of WitsAnnie's Stories by Cindy Thomson (Tyndale House) - Ellis Island, book 2; early 1900's Irish immigrants in New York

Murder at the Mikado by Julianna Deering (Bethany House) - A Drew Farthering Mystery, book 3; 1930's English cozy mystery

Seagrass Pier, Hope Beach Series #3   -     By: Colleen Coble
Death Takes a RideMystery/Suspense:

Death Takes a Ride by Lorena McCourtney (Revell) - Cate Kincaid Files, book 3; humorous mystery investigated by a young private investigator

Seagrass Pier by Colleen Coble (Thomas Nelson) - Hope Beach, book 3; suspense on an island off the North Carolina coast

Friday, July 4, 2014

Jody Hedlund's "Captured by Love" - a captivating tale from the War of 1812

Cover Art
 Appropriate for an Independence Day post, given that it is set in the second war for America's freedom, Jody Hedlund's novel explores the effects of the War of 1812 on the people of Mackinac Island, a strategic position for the fur trade where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet.  Malnourished and oppressed by both her stepfather and the British occupiers, Angelique Mackenzie tries to slip by under the radar, taking care of the blind mother of her fiance and avoiding being married off by her stepfather.  Voyageur Pierre Durant returns to the island after a five-year absence and discovers his suddenly grown-up childhood friend Angelique is engaged to his younger brother - a man he believes is all wrong for her.  Pierre is there to make amends with his family, but he is highly attracted to his brother's fiancee, plus treading a fine line with having previously spied for the British and now spying for the Americans.  With friends on both sides of the war and battle coming closer every day, what will Pierre choose - America or Britain?  To woo Angelique, or to honor his brother?

Since the War of 1812 is frequently lost in the shadow of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, it is fun to learn more about this nearly forgotten part of America's history.  Hedlund highlights the fact that the Great Lakes were a major theatre of the war, and Mackinac Island was a highly desired post given its importance in the booming fur trade.  Though her main characters are fictional, she sticks closely to history in describing the conditions on the island and the battle that ensued over it. 

Like in her novel Rebellious Heart, which takes place in the years leading up to the American Revolution, Hedlund places great emphasis on loyalty.  However, the author looks at it from a different angle in this story.  Pierre, before turning to Christ, sold information to the British, and then later spied for the Americans.  Since turning to Christ, he is convicted over his spying and lying, as while his true loyalties are with the Americans, he has friends among the British.  With his feet in both fires, he cannot be completely true to either.  Similarly, Angelique has adored Pierre since childhood, but with Pierre gone for so long, Jean steps in and eventually convinces her to marry him.  Then while Jean is away fighting for the Americans and Pierre returns, Angelique's feelings for him also return, though she is still promised to Jean.  Both Pierre and Angelique end up playing both sides, unintentional though it may be.  The bible is clear, though, that one cannot serve two masters, and at some point one must make a choice (and ideally choose to do what is right.)

Like in her other novels, Hedlund excels at creating romantic tension, though I was a little concerned in this book, given that Angelique is promised to another.  Love triangles are not really my thing - someone always gets hurt - but it is tastefully done, and it ties in well with Angelique's struggle to overcome her mother and sister's poor choices.  I like that there is a strong theme of overcoming family curses for both Angelique and Pierre - that both strive to not fall into the same temptations and vices as their parents.  I have seen many children making the same mistakes as their parents, and I know many who are (and have to be) vigilant to avoid the same problems.  This book encourages one to keep striving, even when one falls back into sin, because we can overcome by the blood of the Lamb. 

A well-researched, fast-paced novel - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

As a side note, though this is technically the third book of a series, it is first chronologically, and each book is completely stand-alone - there are no character cross-overs.

Michigan Brides Collection (in order chronologically, not by publishing date)
1. Captured by Love
2. Unending Devotion
3. A Noble Groom