Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Margaret Brownley's "Petticoat Detective" - a wild west mystery of humor and heart

A Pinkerton detective, Jennifer Layne, alias Amy, is on the trail of the infamous Gunnysack Bandit, and she inadvertently takes the role of a lady of the night. So long as she never actually has to entertain men, it's a great cover - no one ever looks beneath the painted surface of a working girl. Former Texas Ranger Tom Colton is also searching for the bandit, the man he is certain murdered his troubled brother. In spite of his credentials, Jennifer isn't sure she can trust the man, but as she spends more time with him, she discovers that she wants to. Tom, to his shame, is also attracted to Amy - but the last thing he wants is to fall for a soiled dove who "refuses to leave her profession." Will they find the real bandit? And will Tom and Jennifer overcome the lies necessary for her to maintain her undercover role?
Petticoat Detective, Undercover Ladies Series #1   -     By: Margaret Brownley
One of Jennifer's big struggles is the constant falsehoods required by her occupation; as an undercover agent, she has to play a role. Given her role in this particular case, she cannot attend church or fellowship with believers, and, "Friendships require honesty, trust, and transparency--all the things her clandestine activities prevent" (221). As such, she is basically alone, and she cannot build relationships. That reality understandably weighs on her, especially when she finds that she really wants to make friends and be loved for who she is, not what she appears. The author finely balances that dilemma and her love of detective work in a believable character.

While I think bordellos offered a grimmer reality in real life, the author does a good job of bringing out the humanity of the working girls--their hurts, their history, their hardness, and their hearts. The secondary characters are gems, providing opportunities for both humor and serious subjects. I enjoyed learning more about the Pinkertons and their rules. While sweet and a touch cheesy, the story has a number of important points to make about judging, double standards, and who we are behind our appearance. A fun detective story of the old west, Petticoat Detective has both humor and heart.

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

Undercover Ladies
1. Petticoat Detective
2. Undercover Bride
3. Calico Spy

Friday, November 21, 2014

Davis Bunn's "The Patmos Deception" - an international thriller

Davis Bunn's The Patmos Deception is a thrilling combination of ancient history, illegal activity, and modern crises. Carey Mathers arrives in Greece to discover her job at the Institute of Antiquities has been terminated, along with the rest of the Institute - another victim of the Greek financial crisis. However, her childhood friend Nick Hennessy, a journalist presently based out of Paris, is offered the chance of a lifetime: to investigate a series of disappearing Greek antiquities, and Carey is exactly what he needs for the job. Meanwhile, on the small island of Patmos, Dimitri Rubinos, who had been making his living off his tourist boat until the financial crisis, suddenly finds himself caught up in an opportunity far more dangerous than it seemed. As the plot proves far deeper than they were initially anticipating, with the three have any hope of riding the waves to safety?

Cover ArtThough the story is definitely suspenseful, there are plenty moments to relax and soak up Greece - the islands, the sea, the food, the history.  While I knew that Greece rich with history and lore, especially biblical, I knew very few specifics - like about the apostle John being banished to the island of Patmos. The author does a good job bringing the history to the the present - making it relevant and interesting, connecting it to places we could really go.

I really liked Dimitri; he is put in a tough position, consults his family for wisdom, and makes a choice - not always the best choice, but he goes about it in an intelligent and wise way. He is smart. Sure, he's dealing in the illegal, but he recognizes when something is plain wrong. I can just feel the tension as he's trying to keep all the balls in the air - the bad guys, the state police, his people who are just trying to survive. The moment one drops, his life is forfeit. It's a terrible position, but well-written, so the reader can readily empathize.

While there are certainly hints of romantic tension, I liked that it's not a major competition between the men who will win the girl; they are not so foolish as to jeopardize their lives by fighting over her instead of focusing on the bad guys. Carey, instead, acts as a foil to show them the emptiness in their lives that can only be filled by God, not a woman, or danger, or high living. And at the same time, the men help point Carey in the right direction too - towards God - and the path she needs to follow.

I can only assume there is a book to follow - it is entirely too cruel leaving such loose ends, even if it is not actually a cliff-hanger. I look forward to reading it and seeing where Carey, Nick, and Dimitri end up! 4.5 stars!

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Melody Carlson's "The Christmas Cat" - a heartwarming holiday tale

The Christmas CatUpon the death of his grandmother, Garrison Brown, recently returned from the mission field in Uganda with malaria, gets saddled with the daunting task of finding safe, loving homes for each of his grandma's six beloved cats - a task complicated by explicit instructions in her will and some extreme allergies on his part. Placing the cats has unexpected results, and suddenly dreams that once were just wishes have a chance at coming true - but will he take a leap of faith to follow them?

Upon finishing the story I had the sudden and intense urge to go cuddle with a cat. Anyone who has ever felt alone can relate with Garrison - with no family left and his life's work no longer an option for him, he is struggling to find a place for himself. Being intimately acquainted with some missionaries, I had a better understanding than I might have otherwise for his disconnect upon returning to the United States, though I can only imagine how much harder it would be without a wide network of family support to rely on. The novella is a heartwarming holiday story, touched with humor and a dash of romance. Naturally recommended for cat-lovers, but the sweet story has a universal appeal.

Thank you Revell 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, November 14, 2014

"The Butterfly and the Violin" by Kristy Cambron - a moving tale of the Holocaust

The Butterfly and the Violin, Hidden Masterpiece Series #1   -     By: Kristy Cambron
Sera James, a Manhattan art dealer, has been haunted for years by the piercing eyes of a holocaust victim's portrait. Her search for the painting of Adele Von Bron leads her to William Hanover, a wealthy Californian who is also searching for the elusive painting. By working together, they are able to piece together more of the story of this aristocratic violinist who was sentenced to Auschwitz for aiding Jews. But will they find the original portrait? And will Sera find the healing she is seeking?

Unlike most novels that are either contemporary or historical, this one juxtaposes the two: Sera's modern search for the mysterious painting, and the story behind the the painting - the story of Adele. The author does a good job balancing the two stories; Adele's story is the stronger focus, being so tied-in with Sera's, but I did not feel that Sera's story was neglected. Both Sera and Adele are developed well; though two completely different women, there are aspects of both to which one can relate.

One thing I love about historical novels is that so often the author writes about a fascinating bit of history we never learned about in school; in this case, it is the music and art of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were actually orchestras comprised of prisoners at the death camps; the Nazis respected music, so those who had talent formed the orchestras that played music as the workers left and returned each day. Though the task could not have been pleasant, it kept many of them alive. Apparently, after the death camp was liberated, stashes of art were found throughout the camp - from poetry scrawled on walls to delicate watercolor paintings. In a place so full of death and darkness, where anything but the clothes on their back had to have been smuggled in or stolen, people still managed to create beautiful works of art.

I appreciated that Adele is not just living for the chance to see Vladimir (her love) again. While that love is important, it is more important that she love and live for her fellow musicians, her sisters in the holocaust. There is no way to know if Vladimir is even alive, whereas these women are her daily life, her family - even though most are Jews and she the daughter of the Austrian aristocracy. They are bound by their friendship amidst such unspeakable atrocities. It is right that her focus be on them rather than a long-lost romance.

I got a little little confused in the complexity of the legal dealings in the modern storyline and had to reread to clarify it, but otherwise it was an excellent novel.  A moving story in both timelines, The Butterfly and the Violin offers a fresh look at the holocaust in a fresh style. I highly recommend it!

Hidden Masterpieces
1. The Butterfly and the Violin
2. A Sparrow in Terezin

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Surprised by Love" by Julie Lessman; The Heart of San Francisco, book 3 - a keeper!

Cover ArtIn the third book of the Heart of San Francisco series, Meg McClare has returned from a year abroad, and a transformative year it was! No longer the chubby, plain, awkward sister, she has become a true beauty both inside and out, astounding even her best friend Bram, who stood up for her and cherished her during the painful teenage years. But the girl Bram always saw as a little sister has suddenly become a woman, and their relationship can no longer be the same. When Meg wins an internship in the district attorney's office, she feels like her dreams are coming true, only to discover the young man who plagued her adolescent existence will be working with her. Meg turns to Bram for advice, and in spite of his attraction, Bram encourages her to forgive and make peace - but he has no peace in his heart, encouraging her to love another man.

A godly hero who made a mistake in his youth, Bram is determined to do what is right no matter the personal cost. The Abraham analogy is perfect for Bram - his self-sacrifice shows his honor and devotion to his parents and God, even if he can't forgive himself for his mistakes. He makes a wonderful hero, like the noble, chivalrous knights of old.

I think every woman has found herself in Meg's place - all it takes is scorn from the wrong man, and a girl's self-esteem can be damaged for years to come, no matter how lovely her face and form. We all know that it's not beauty on the outside that counts, but rather beauty on the inside; but it can be very hard to overcome feeling undesirable, however lovely our hearts may be. We all want to be beautiful, desirable, and pursued. And a man that makes a girl feel beautiful very easily works his way into her heart, whether his intentions are honorable or not.

While Cait and Logan have been secondary characters throughout the series, by this book I had really come to care for them. I like how their story somewhat parallels that of the starring couple's in each book, that Cait and Logan, though older and wiser, still have to learn the same lessons. Their story is possibly even more poignant than that of any of the three starring couples, from the years of wounds that they have sustained and the difficult task of rebuilding trust - theirs is a love that takes a lot of work, but theirs is a love that overcomes.

I wouldn't have minded a tad more at the end to thoroughly conclude the book and series, but it can stand as it is. In more than one instance in this book my eyes did not remain precisely dry - it is not often a story can evoke such strong emotion in me! God-centered, with strong relationships and beautiful romance, this novel tugged at my heartstrings more than either the others in the series and is unquestionably my favorite. 5 out of 5 stars!

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

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5: "Grace Like Rain" (novella coda)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Julie Lessman's "Dare to Love Again," The Heart of San Francisco, book 2

Dare to Love AgainThe second installment of Julie Lessman's series is just as rich and complex as the first, except even better! Allison McClare, unlucky in love three times over, bears a grudge against the male race a mile wide, and brash, cranky detective Nick Barone (with a long e) does nothing to improve that attitude. To be fair, Nick is also bearing a grudge against all the stuck-up nobs of the world, which includes Alli, but when her uncle hires him to guard the school where she works and teach her self-defense, he has a hard time hanging onto the hurt. As friendship blossoms and attraction sparks, Alli dares to risk her heart again - but is Nick the hard-nosed cop that he seems?

While the first book in the series was an interesting introduction to pre-earthquake-of-1906 San Francisco, this one takes the reader deeper into San Francisco's history and geography, with a foray into Chinatown and injustices done there during a breakout of the bubonic plague. These books offer a fun glimpse of the city.

I enjoyed the romance of this book better than the first one; though there is some physical attraction, Alli and Nick develop a friendship (albeit a very rocky friendship to start with) before pursuing a romance. And outside of insulting Alli when he loses his temper, Nick treats her with respect, not allowing lust or ambition any rein. I appreciated the toned-down physical aspects of the romance.

The author proves quite sneaky and clever - I was duped by a certain plot twist, only to be surprised with the characters in the end! It was not at all what I was expecting, but it pleased me highly. To elaborate more would certainly spoil it, and we can't have that! While this book can be read as a stand-alone, it is also part of a cohesive series; subplots begun in the first book continue through this one, connecting them well and making it easy to invest in the characters, who are present through the series. And because those subplots remain unresolved, I eagerly await the next book!

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5: "Grace Like Rain" (novella coda)

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Love at Any Cost" by Julie Lessman, The Heart of San Francisco, book 1

Love at Any CostWhen Cassidy McClare heads off to her cousins' in San Francisco, the Texas girl has sworn off men, especially the pretty ones that toy with a woman's affections and then break her heart. Unfortunately, a couple of her cousin's best friends are like family, and one in particular - the insufferably handsome Jamie McKenna - seems bent on pursuing her against all her protestations.  Jamie needs a rich wife, and if nothing else, Cassie is quite the fun, feisty woman with whom he could easily fall in love.  However, she has one stipulation - that he must pursue a relationship with God before she will consider courting him.  He's more than willing to fake it, but when he learns her father's oil wells - and consequently money - have run dry, will he continue to pursue her?

Lessman includes lots of period detail.  As I have worked in costuming, I enjoyed catching descriptions of the different styles of corsets, the Gibson Girl look, the bathing outfits, and other fashions of the time.  In addition to clothing, there is plenty of detail on the city itself.  While I realize San Francisco is a big city with no doubt plenty of vices, I did not know about the horrors of the Barbary Coast, with its prostitution, saloons, gambling dens, and more.

I could appreciate Jamie's love of family and how the desire to protect them drives him forward, but I didn't like how he treats Cassie.  He doesn't listen to her when she says no, and he uses physical persuasion far too much for my tastes.  Granted, he isn't following God, so it's little wonder he acts the way he does, but still . . .  Though I did pity him on occasion - he really messes up royally where Cassie is concerned.

I really appreciated how God was the deal breaker for Cassie - as tempted and attracted as she is to Jamie, she is trying to keep God first. Some days with better success than others, of course, but we all have struggles. The author doesn't shy away from our need for God, and makes it clear in the lives of Cassie, Jamie, Aunt Cait, and even wayward Uncle Logan.

The goofy Texas-isms were on the heavy side at first, but they lessen further in the novel.  My prudish Scandinavian blood can't handle so much passionate kissing, so I tended to skip over those paragraphs, but I see why some refer to the author as the Queen of Passion.  The strong focus on God was quite a redeeming factor, though, and I ended up enjoying the story more than I expected.

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5 "Grace Like Rain" (novella coda)