Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sigmund Brouwer's "Thief of Glory" - a haunting tale on the Pacific theater of WWII, Sigmund Brouwer tells the coming-of-age story of a boy whose life is forever tainted by war.  Ten-year-old Jeremiah Prin's life of privilege crashes to a halt the day the Japanese take over the Dutch East Indies.  With his father and older brothers taken away by the Japanese, Jeremiah becomes head of the family, taking care of his fragile mother and younger siblings as they are forced into an internment camp.  Amidst starvation, disease, and death, Jeremiah uses all his cunning to keep his family alive and together, but he cannot control their futures.  The war marks everyone, hardening some and breaking others.  But how hard can a child become before it hardens him forever?

 For the record, this book is the 2015 Christy Award winner of not just the Best Historical Romance, but also the Book of the Year. Believe me, it deserves it.

As in most instances when an author has a tangible connection to their story, this tale exudes passion.  Like Jeremiah's father, Brouwer's grandfather became one of over ten thousand of victims of the Burma railway, while the rest of the family was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp.  Though the tales diverge from there, one can feel the author's heart for those who endured the atrocities. 

This book takes place in an interment camp - a place of abuse, death, and little hope.  To balance the moments of horror, there are moments of true inspiration - inspiration to be strong and fight, regardless of the consequences - not for personal gain or safety, but to protect those weaker than oneself.  To be able to stand on the judgement day, knowing one chose right.  Sophie Jansen is a brilliant example of this selflessness - would that we could all be like her!

Thief of Glory is a unique piece of christian historical fiction in more ways than one.  The majority of the story feels like it is being told from a ten-year-old boy's perspective, although we find out later it is an old man recounting his memories of the war.  Though there is a faint touch of romance, it is not remotely the focus of the story.  And unlike most christian fiction, it is not a feel-good book.  There are moments of humor, triumph, and inspiration, but this bittersweet novel is more haunting than uplifting, leaving the reader aching for the characters and the real people who endured such trials.

So be warned: if you're looking for a romance, a fluffy story to brighten your day, an escape from trials - don't read this book.  But if you want a book to challenge you, to paint you an unvarnished picture of what war can do, to warm you yet haunt you for days to come - then yes, absolutely read this book. 

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

Book related links:

Thief of Glory website
More Info
Read Chapter One
Author Bio

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mary Connealy's "Tried and True" - Connealy's characteristic humor combines with a promising premise

Hundreds of women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War, some alongside husbands or brothers, others on their own.  Connealy's new series takes a look at these women, reminding us of what they went through, and more importantly, how they picked up the pieces of their lives afterward.  Soldiers were offered an exemption for homesteading - each year served in the war was one year off the 5-year period to prove up land.  Since it was illegal for women to enlist, women were naturally not eligible for the exemption - even if they did fight in the war.  But suppose a woman - or three - continued their charades as men and filed for a homestead?  Connealy's exploration of this idea makes for a fun premise for the series.

Tried and TrueHaving fought as a young man in the Civil War along with her two older sisters, it didn't seem such a stretch for Kylie Wilde to fall in with her father's plans and take a homestead out west, posing once again as a man.  The problem is, unlike her sisters, Kylie has always wanted to live as a woman back east, enjoying frilly dresses and tea parties.  When Aaron Masterson, the land agent, checks up on the homesteads to make sure they are proving up, he isn't fooled by Kylie's britches or covered hair.  As the land agent, he cannot allow Kylie to defraud the government, but when someone starts trying to run her off her land, Aaron's protective instincts flare up.  Can he protect this soldier from the threat against her, or will she stand up and fight for herself?

While Kylie and Aaron both fought in the same war, even in some of the same battles, Kylie leaves the war behind her while Aaron comes out struggling with hate for what happened to his family.  Though he runs from it, the bitterness follows.  As Kylie points out, hate is something the bible unequivocally condemns - "Love your enemies, bless those that persecute you, do good to those who hate you" (Matt 5:44).  I liked where the author went with it in the story - maybe I don't read analytically enough, but I was surprised by how Aaron must confront it in the end. 

Full of Connealy's characteristic humor, this story reminded me of her Sophie's Daughters trilogy in the bond between these three tough but vulnerable sisters.  They have the same tendency as siblings everywhere to rile and annoy each other, but they do not hesitate to love, defend, and be brutally honest with each other.  I loved meeting Bailey and Shannon Wilde, and I can't wait to read their stories - even as I enjoyed reading about the girly Kylie, my mind was busy contemplating where the other two are going, and where they are coming from to make them the way they are.  A fun read, and I look forward to the next!

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.

Wild at Heart
1. Tried & True
2. Now & Forever
3. Fire & Ice

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ruth Axtell's "Her Good Name" - a strong, thought-provoking story

Her Good Name  -     By: Ruth Axtell
Trying to better her life, Espy Estrada takes a position as house help in a local professor's home, and to her joy, the professor begins tutoring Espy after her work is done.  Warren Brentwood, son of one the leading families of the town, has been groomed to take over his father's businesses since birth, but his heart is not for the business, and his father does not respect his ideas.  In  an effort to reach out to the young people who have fallen away from the church, the pastor pairs Espy and Warren to form a group.  While Espy and Warren get along well, they come from two separate worlds - the haves and the have nots - and try as they might, Espy's friends mesh little with Warren's.  Suddenly, a scandal sets rumors flying about Espy and the professor - will anyone, least of all Warren, believe her, or will her good name be tarnished forever?

A major contribution to Espy's ruined reputation is simply her class difference - she is poor, with a disreputable father and no prospects, while the professor holds a respectable position in town.  Throughout the novel there are examples of class prejudice - Mr. Brentwood's instant dismissal of the Estradas based on looks alone, Christina's maneuvering in the church group to oust Espy and place the wealthy into all positions of power, the snubs of Mrs. Brentwood and her friends.  However, the class prejudice goes both ways - Espy's friends abandon the wealthy to have ice cream and fun on their own, Alvaro dislikes Warren's authority, a poor woman refuses to accept charity from Warren and his sister.  Crossing that gap is difficult, as the relationship between Espy and Warren proves; very few people are truly care about integrating the two groups.  How often do we do the same with our own cliques and groups?

My first inclination is to defend Espy wholeheartedly - everyone is so busy accusing her that they do not bother to listen to what actually happened, and the injustice is infuriating.  In this situation, Espy is not in the wrong; foolish, maybe, to be spending time alone with a man, but it is with his wife's knowledge and permission.  However, looking back, I can see where Espy should have been more careful to promote a chaste image.  It may have made no difference with the professor, but she tends to flirt with the young men who flock around her, so it is easy for people to leap to the conclusion that she would also flirt with a married man. 

While rules of propriety have changed over the years, a good reputation is still something that, once lost, is incredibly difficult to regain.  The story is a good reminder to be careful in our conduct.  Many good christian girls do not realize what a temptation they can be, in both manner and dress.  Physical contact can send the wrong signals; a touch that may be meant in sympathy or friendship can be taken as a romantic overture.  So often we think we are perfectly modest when standing in front of a mirror, but men do not see us from the same angles, given their superior height; what is modest when looking straight on is not necessarily modest from above (or modest from below, when on a stairs). 

Through Espy's experiences, Axtell includes a lot of points to ponder about modesty and reputation, but there is much more to the story than just that - Warren is on his own journey learning to follow God's lead, which is not necessarily his father's direction.  I like where Espy and Warren's relationship goes - it does not necessarily start out well, but as they pursue God, it becomes purer, more loving, and more respectful; I can see them making it work.  A strong novel with well-developed characters and a moving journey - 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Elizabeth Camden's "With Every Breath" - another beautifully rich, detailed historical

Cover ArtSet in 1891, Elizabeth Camden's novel focuses on the devastating disease tuberculosis - the leading cause of death in American cities. Kate Livingston, a widow and government statistician, has long resented the loss of a college scholarship to her high school competition, a wealthy young man who did not need it.  Over a decade later, Kate receives a job offer from the man, Trevor McDonough, to be his research assistant in his experiments to find a cure for tuberculosis.  Both Kate and Trevor thrive off of the competition the other offers, and though they grow closer than Kate would have ever thought possible, Trevor has many secrets he keeps buried.  Someone from his past - who, he cannot figure out - has systematically been trying to destroy his career, and now Kate is threatened as well.  Neither Trevor nor Kate is one to back down from a fight, but can they win against an enemy they cannot find?

I liked Trevor as the hero; besides being Mr. Darcy-esque (with all his aloofness, wealth, and appeal), he has strong convictions, and he stands by them even when it costs him.  He knows that he has a calling from God to pursue a cure for tuberculosis, and even if he never finds it, he will continue to alleviate their suffering to the best of his ability, and with every experiment that fails, he will publish the results so no more time is wasted on that false cure.  Yes, he needs to relate better with people, to learn tact and diplomacy and express his feelings more, but his unwavering determination in the face of adversity is an inspiration.  No matter the pain of the circumstances, he knows his calling, and he does not doubt it or ever consider giving it up.  That conviction is something I'd love to see more of!

Ever since losing two brothers to diphtheria, Kate has had trouble with death, and losing her husband in a work accident only compounded her fears.  Though she accepts the job working with terminal tuberculosis patients, she fears letting anyone too deep into her life lest she lose someone else, and Trevor's job, which frequently exposes him to the harmful bacteria, carries risk.  That fear of loving and losing is not uncommon in this world, and it is a hard fear to overcome. 

Like her other works, Camden's story is a well-rounded tale, rich with historical detail and strong, compelling characters.  I enjoy the dry banter between Trevor and Kate and that they develop a strong friendship besides a romance.  The mystery and threats added the element of surprise, and I had the pleasurable experience of not knowing where the story was going.  I appreciate Camden's willingness to tackle a piece of history in which there was little hope - a cure for tuberculosis was not discovered for another fifty years, but the research performed by doctors until then was important, even if they did not themselves live to see the results.  5 out of 5 stars!

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Anne Mateer's "Playing by Heart" - an inspiring tale of the American Homefront in WWI

Cover ArtSet on the Homefront of World War One, Anne Mateer's novel captures the changing times in a fascinating story.  Putting her old reputation of flightiness behind her, Lula Bowman is on track for a PhD in mathematics, with the help of a prestigious scholarship and a job teaching college math.  However, a tragedy calls her back to her hometown to help her sister, and she is trapped into staying the rest of the school year with no other recourse but to accept jobs as a music teacher, girls' basketball coach, and church pianist - a far fall for an academic scholar.  The boys' basketball coach, Chet Vaughn, finds himself for the first time not running away from a single, young female, but the proud woman is hard to reach, in spite of her desperate need for his help in coaching basketball.  One of the few single young men remaining in the town, Chet's obligations have kept him from enlisting and fighting in the Great War, and he wonders if God doesn't have a bigger plan for him here than he expected.  The question is, is Lula part of that plan, or will she return to college like she wants when the school year is up?

Written in an uncommon style, the story is told entirely in first person, but the viewpoint trades back and forth between Lula and Chet.  I was surprised when the viewpoint switched over in the second chapter, though not confused since the change is denoted in the chapter headings.  I like how the style makes the characters' feelings more personal, and it offers a pleasant change from the more traditional points of view. 

Family dynamics and family dysfunction, grief and loss, healing, chasing dreams - all play a role in this deep novel, molding together in a rich story without overwhelming the reader.  Neither Lula nor Chet is perfect, and like in real life, their lives are hardly ideal.  An afterthought in a large family, Lula feels she will never grow up in the eyes of her older siblings, and by their standards she can never do anything right.  Chet's father died in scandal years ago, and his mother has long favored his brother over him.  Both Lula and Chet have chosen an unconventional path, and in that similarity they form a connection. 

Lula has fallen into the trap of seeking the approval of man - her only remaining parent - over God, inadvertently building a house on sand instead of the solid rock.  New dreams, designed to capture her father's heart and approval, shoved aside the old dreams that her mother had encouraged.  Now back in her hometown, Lula is forced to confront what she left behind years ago and, more importantly, to face that the foundation she built is crumbling. 

With such a wealth of inspiration in this story, it was hard to choose just a few topics to write about.  It was fun to discover that this story has a basis in the author's family history - that a grandmother really did get stuck coaching basketball with almost no knowledge of the game.  This is the first book that I have read by Anne Mateer, and I am impressed by her solid work.  5 out of 5 stars!

The subject of my work wasn't as important as the act of doing it well. Giving it my all. Seeing it through to the end. (Playing by Heart, pg. 252)

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. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Annie's Stories" by Cindy Thomson - full of turn-of-the-century immigrant history

Cindy Thomson returns to the Hawkins House boarding house in the second book of her Ellis Island series.  An orphaned Irish immigrant with a respectable job as a housekeeper in the boarding house, Annie Gallagher is saving her money for her own place, a library where she can honor her father's storytelling.  Memories of the torturous reformation facility in Ireland, where she was essentially imprisoned, continue to haunt her.  Stephen Adams, a young postal worker, is on the lookout for manuscripts of children's literature, and he thinks the stories Annie's father left her might be the thing to appease his publisher landlord. In the meantime, one of the boarders at Annie's house ends up in a troublesome mystery that threatens them all. 

Historic details behind the book are both fascinating and horrifying.  The Magdalene Laundry in Ireland in which Annie was imprisoned was originally a ministry to provide alternate work for prostitutes, but by the late 1800's was little more than a prison for any woman accused of indiscretion, where they were forced into unpaid labor with little hope of escape.  Atrocities like this are generally glossed over or ignored in schools, but they are important pieces of history from which we need to learn.  I was also interested to learn the reputation the post office had for scaring off criminals, and that they were more feared than police or Pinkerton agents. 

Stephen is a great guy, willing to give away his only pair of mittens when he doesn't have the money for a new pair.  It is no wonder his generous heart and gentle demeanor attract Annie.  However, he is a fool when it comes to money, and his good intentions aren't worth a cent.  I realize this is how people end up deep in debt - they forget to pay their bills, spend money on luxuries rather than necessities, trust the wrong people, fall for scams, and so on.  It is frustrating to see, though, and I cringed every time he puts his trust in questionable people.  Besides learning to use money wisely, he has other faults and struggles, making him a very human but endearing character.  While he generally has good intentions for everything he does, he has a habit of landing in trouble.  And as it reiterates in the Bible, obedience is more important to God than sacrifice and good intentions. 

Since her father's death, Annie's life has been extremely difficult and painful, and she has utterly given up on the idea that God sees and wants her, taking to heart the lies that say she is a sinner of the worst kind.  We live in a fallen world, and bad things happen; it can be hard to see God's hand in the midst of trials, but as Annie learns, He is there, whether we recognize it or not. 

Thomson's story is filled with energy, reflecting the hope of immigrants for a new life, despite their poverty and oppression.  There is a strong feeling of progress: women control their own business, German immigrants live with Irish, Americans frequent the kitchens of Italians and Jews - the melting pot is in action!  Her story has many points to ponder, and it is a great glimpse of turn-of-the-century America.

Thank you Tyndale 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.

Ellis Island
1. Grace's Pictures
2. Annie's Stories

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sarah Sundin's "In Perfect Time" - a rich, supremely satisfying story

Cover ArtIn her conclusion to the Wings of the Nightingale trilogy, Sarah Sundin follows Kay Jobson, the girl with a boyfriend (or five) in every airfield.  Overlapping with events in the previous two novels, we get Kay's perspective on the war and further insight into her relationship (or lack there-of) with pilot Roger Cooper.  Roger, knowing temptation when he sees it, studiously tries to avoid Kay, but God keeps throwing them together in His pursuit of her heart.  Roger is willing to follow God's direction, but dreaming of being a professional drummer in a band, he mainly wants to log his flight hours and then muster out, leaving Kay far behind.  However, God just might have a different plan, including resurrecting dreams buried deep in his heart of hearts. 

I really enjoyed the subject of Sundin's series - the WWII flight nurses.  Prior to this series, I knew next to nothing about them, and it has been fascinating reading about the dangers and difficulties they endured to serve their country, from initial prejudice to plane crashes to getting tapped behind enemy lines.  The detail the author includes is astounding; she closely follows the troop movements and ever-shifting front lines of the Mediterranean theatre of the war, writing with research-driven authenticity. 

As has been a common theme this year, dreams play a significant role in this story.  I really like that not only does Roger pursue his dreams, but God dispels lies and empowers him along the way.  Through his efforts to please his commanding officer, Roger becomes a more responsible, more mature lieutenant; in turn, that recognition of increased maturity encourages him to believe that yes, he is capable of being a teacher.  He is responsible, and not the screw-up he long believed himself to be. 

Another theme that struck me was that of redemption.  Like for Kay, it is one thing to know that we are redeemed and forgiven; it is another to live like we believe it.  Any little discouragement makes the difficulty increase tenfold, especially when it comes from other trusted christians.  Though it is discouraging for Kay when men suppose she is of easy virtue, it is piercingly painful when Roger acts that way.  She has to work hard to believe that she is redeemed, and she has to choose to act like she is redeemed every time she is placed in a tempting situation. 

While I am sad to see the series come to an end, Sundin concludes the series in a heart-warming manner that perfectly fits the theme of the series.  It is fun to look back where Kay, Mellie, and Georgie began in With Every Letter and see how far they've come by the end of this one.  Like Sundin's other novels in the series, this one is rich in historical detail, driven by complex characters, and based on God's uplifting truth.  5 out of 5 stars!

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

Wings of the Nightingale
1. With Every Letter
2. On Distant Shores
3. In Perfect Time

Monday, August 4, 2014

Lorna Seilstad's "When Love Calls"

When Love CallsFocusing on the eldest of the Gregory sisters, Lorn Seilstad begins her series with the foreclosure of the Gregory farm, leaving the three orphaned women without a home.  Taking care of her sisters like always, Hannah lets go of her dream of becoming a lawyer and turns to employment as a Hello Girl - a switchboard operator.  While laws (and upholding them) are something Hannah approves of, following pointless rules has never been her strong suit, and the job of switchboard operator has a lot of them.  When her childhood friend is arrested as an arsonist, Hannah is sure he is innocent, so she is forced to turn to a young attorney, the man who delivered the message of their foreclosure, for help.   Can Hannah hold onto her job and care for sisters, or will the rules and the two young men angling for her affections drive her crazy?

Clearly the author has put in a lot of research to perfect the setting - both in its time period and place.  Descriptions of the Des Moines capitol building sound breathtaking, while the little details of everyday life firmly set it at the turn of the century.  It was fun to learn about the Hello Girls, though based on the rigid rules, I would think just about anyone would have a hard time keeping that job!  I am sure they were exceedingly efficient, but to be forced to stare straight ahead without ever glancing at the people right next to you, or to be required to ask permission to blow a nose or wipe a forehead?  Wow!

Seilstad is good at working messages into her stories, and this one is no exception; in fact, besides the main theme of depending on God and not just on oneself, she works into it a secondary theme - don't give up on your dreams.  Sometimes circumstances force one to put them aside for a while, but God has given us dreams, and he finds a way to bring them to fruition.  Hannah had long wanted to be a lawyer, but in order to survive, she has to work rather than go to college; yet that dream never dies.  Even if it is not in the way she expected, God provides a way for her to use her talents and education.  It was encouraging and good reinforcement after just discussing this same theme in bible study!

Sprinkled with a generous dose of humor, the story is a fine balance of drama, danger, and romance.  The characters are both fun and flawed, making it a pleasure to follow their stories.

The Gregory Sisters
1. When Love Calls
2. While Love Stirs
3. (coming 2015)

Friday, August 1, 2014

August 2014 Releases!

Noteworthy novels releasing in August 2014 (and by noteworthy, I mean books I am anticipating reading!)

Historical fiction:

Prelude for a Lord  -     By: Camille Elliot

Prelude for a Lord by Camille Elliot (Zondervan) - Regency

Though the violin is an inappropriate instrument for a lady, a young woman seeks a place where she can play without scandal and protect it from thieves who are bent on acquiring it. 

With Every Breath by Elizabeth Camden (Bethany House) - 1900's

In spite of initial misgivings, a Harvard physician and a government worker band together in hopes of developing a cure for tuberculosis.
With Every BreathThief of Glory   -     By: Sigmund Brouwer

Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer (Waterbrook) - WWII

Trapped in an internment camp in the Dutch East Indies, a 10-year-old boy desperately tries to care for his frail mother and younger siblings amidst the starvation and brutality of their prison. 

In Perfect TimeIn Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin
(Revell) - WWII; Wings of the Nightingale, book 3

Seeking to improve her lot, an air force nurse with a boyfriend for every day of the week finds herself depending on the one pilot who holds her at arm's length.

Miracle in a Dry Season
Miracle in a Dry Season by Sarah Loudin Thomas (Bethany House) - 1950's

Returning husbandless to the home of her childhood with her precious daughter in tow, a young woman tries to find a place of safety free from the condemnation that haunts her.