Monday, December 29, 2014

Christian Fiction Favorites of 2014

So many wonderful books came out this year - I started compiling my list of favorites in April, but by the end of spring the list of favorites was practically already compiled, and then I had to go back through to make room for more and more later releases.

It was tough.

Picking an absolute favorite amongst a list of favorites would be a cruel and horrid task, since each of these books belongs here and each has their own special qualities, so I refuse to do so.  Thus their orders do not reflect rankings, but rather my whims of the moment (though they must have some semblance of order, I'll grant that). 

My ultimate love, historical fiction, in order of date of setting:
The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn by Lori Benton (Waterbrook Press, April); Colonial

The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen (Bethany House, December); Regency

Full Steam Ahead by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House, June); Antebellum 

A Beauty So Rare by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House, April); Civil War Reconstruction

Surprised by Love by Julie Lessman (Revell, October); Early 1900's

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin (Bethany House, April); WWII
In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin (Revell, August); WWII

Out of the box:

While this is not a book I would read over and over with a shiver of warm fuzzies every time, Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer (Waterbrook Press, August) is such a haunting and powerful tale so different from the books I generally read (and love), that I can't help but include it.  If professors are not afraid of the Christianity in the story, I could see this one used in college history and international studies courses. 

Next to historicals, I've come into a great appreciation for christian mystery/suspense, and once again Dani Pettrey's Alaskan Courage series makes the top:

Silenced by Dani Pettrey (Bethany House, May)
Meant to Be Mine

And a surprise in the contemporary romance department, a genre that generally sits a ways down the totem pole:

Meant to Be Mine by Becky Wade (Bethany House, May); Porter Family Novels, book 2

Since I get to make the rules, I've decided to highlight one time period that outdid itself this year, and most appropriately too given the 70th-year anniversary of D-Day: the WWII era. There were some spectacular novels this year, and while not all of these made my top ten, they all deserved and received 5 stars:

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin
Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer
The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron
Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke
In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin
Wonderland Creek

And although this book was not published in 2014, I just read it for the first time after picking it up at a garage sale this summer: Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin (Bethany House, 2011). Depression era books tend to be depressing (who'd have thought?), but this one was so delightful and whimsical that I completely fell in love, pretty much from the first page. Anyone who loves to read should read this book, being about a fellow book lover who understands the desire to read anytime, anywhere, including through boring funerals . . . So it gets an honorable mention on my favorites of the year!

What are your favorites from 2014?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Hope for the Holidays Historical Collection" by Mary Connealy, Ruth Logan Herne, Myra Johnson, and Julie Lessman

The Seekers of Seekerville present a collaboration of historical, holiday-themed novellas by Mary Connealy, Ruth Logan Herne, Myra Johnson, and Julie Lessman.

"Sophie's Other Daughter" by Mary Connealy returns to the McClellan and Reeves clans, following the youngest - and girliest- of Sophie's four daughters and her old nemesis Ike Reeves. Stuck with Ike as an escort home from the birth of another Reeves baby, Laura is furious to discover Ike has a gang of outlaws hot on his trail. In traditional Connealy style, the story has plenty of guns and humor, and it was great to return to those characters that I have enjoyed so much. It is a perfect epilogue to Petticoat Ranch and subsequent novels.*

In Ruth Logan Herne's "A Town Called Christmas," a reclusive English immigrant ends up hosting a wagon train on his Idaho ranch for the winter. In spite of the inconvenience, he finds himself drawn to the sweet little widow he hires as his housekeeper. A fun tribute to Idaho's pioneering and immigrant history, the story is written with a heavy dose of humor, but it also has a serious thread to tug at the heartstrings.

Myra Johnson's "Designs on Love" sends a young seamstress home to Texas to take care of her parents' estate - and debts - after the yellow fever outbreak takes their lives. While taking on some dressmaking to help cover the debts, an old friend steps back into her life to help her. I enjoyed learning a bit more about Texas history, and anything about sewing naturally piques my interest. Overall, a very sweet love story.

Julie Lessman returns to her O'Connor saga in "A Whisper of Hope," following Charity and Mitch Dennehy as Charity yearns for more children after a decade of barrenness following their twins. Volunteering at an orphanage isn't helping eliminate the yearning, especially after a cross-eyed waif steals her heart . . . Lessman's story is a good reminder to continue to hope whatever the circumstances, and to let go of our own plans and trust God's to be better than anything we come up with. A heartwarming tale, it oozes love and hope and faith.**

While the four stories have little in common but the Christmas theme (and that they are historical, rather than contemporary), they form a solid collection. Connealy's and Herne's are both westerns and heavy on the humor, while Johnson and Lessman sport a stronger serious thread. Whether in the mood for familiar characters or new faces, a lively tale or sweet love story, there is something for everyone in this highly enjoyable collection.

*This story is best having read Petticoat Ranch and Calico Canyon first (being the two books most related to the story), though really it's best to read all three related trilogies for absolute fullest enjoyment: Lassoed in Texas, Montana Marriages, and Sophie's Daughters.

**Again, best read after the two trilogies, Daughters of Boston and Winds of Change

Friday, December 19, 2014

"A Most Inconvenient Marriage" by Regina Jennings - a perfect balance between humor and gravity

Cover ArtAs a final act of kindness by - and for - a dying soldier, nurse Abigail Stuart and Jeremiah Calhoun marry, leaving widowed Abigail to care for his sick sister and horse farm in exchange for a permanent home. After a couple months of throwing her all into helping her new family, Abigail is shocked to discover Jeremiah has come home. However, the Jeremiah Calhoun she married was missing an arm, while this one has all his limbs, and to her great surprise, his family claims him. Jeremiah has never seen her before, and he naturally suspects she is a hustler aiming to steal his home and business. Trying to get his life back on track, Jeremiah gets back to pursuing the woman he planned to marry, working the farm, and recovering from his wounds, but to do it, he finds himself relying on Abigail. Can she find a place with this family on which she has foisted herself?

The Civil War tore through the country, ripping apart families and communities. While no place was left untouched, some states felt the sting more harshly than others. In setting her story in Missouri, the author has chosen one of the most controversial areas in the country, there on the border between North and South, East and West. Her depiction of the war-torn community is heartbreaking, as neighbors refuse to help neighbors that sympathized with the other side, while raiders in the hills terrorize indiscriminately. 

Jennings finds that perfect balance between humor and gravity to form a rich, meaty story that manages to both entertain and make one think. While horses, skunks, and local urchins provide a release of tension, the reality is that no one - not a single character - is without wounds. Abigail tries hard to hide hers, while Jeremiah and his sister's are more obvious; even the community in which they live has wounds that run deep. And some wounds take much longer to heal than others.

Though Jeremiah is gruff and occasionally slow to catch on, he is a loveable hero, just as Abigail makes for a relational heroine: she is practical without having lost her sense of wonder and fun. The secondary characters add both humor and depth to the story, helping form that excellent balance to the tale. A fun, engrossing read! 5 stars!

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 my opinions are my own.

For a fun interview with the author and a peek at what is next to come, see Bethany House's Q&A with Regina Jennings

Ozark Mountain Romance
1. A Most Inconvenient Marriage
2. At Love's Bidding
2.5 "Her Dearly Unintended" from the novella collection With This Ring?
3. For the Record

Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Secret of Pembrooke Park" by Julie Klassen - a decadent, complex mystery

The Secret of Pembrooke Park
Julie Klassen's The Secret of Pembrooke Park is like a rich dessert in which one cannot help but indulge.

After an investment gone wrong, Abigail Foster and her family are forced to retrench. When a distant, anonymous relation offers an opportunity for them to let a mansion abandoned under peculiar circumstances, they take up the offer. Abigail, the practical, older daughter, is in charge of preparing the house while her lovely sister finishes her season. She makes friends with William Chapman, the handsome, local curate, and his family, who know more about the mysterious mansion than they are willing to share. Rumors claim a treasure is hidden in a secret room of the house, but soon Abigail discovers she is not the only one looking for it. Will ferreting out the past prove the key to the future, or will it bring danger upon them all?

I think one of the most difficult aspects of a regency is making a convincing hero - a man who is a gentleman, but a man who is undeniably masculine. Clergymen heroes are often portrayed as incredibly good, sweet men, but they often lack vibrancy. William blows the stereotypes out of the water. He may be a preacher, but there is nothing weak or namby-pamby about him, not physically, not mentally, and not spiritually. He is everything a hero should be - not perfect, but a powerful man of God. 

Abigail is an easy character to relate to. In the course of little over a year, all her plans and expectations for her life are destroyed, leaving her with a wounded self esteem and strained relationship with her family. While the people who love her aren't setting out to hurt her, inconsiderate actions on their part only serve to reopen the wounds. Who hasn't felt that? All those insecurities from lies we believe about ourselves?

I like how the author blends the mystery - and quite a complex one, at that - with Abigail's everyday life, so that while the mystery is an important aspect of the story, it is by no means the whole story. Touches of suspense liven up the relaxed, country atmosphere. Decadently long and rich with Klassen's characteristic period detail, The Secret of Pembrooke Park is a complex mystery to savor. 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Jody Hedlund's "Love Unexpected"

Cover ArtThe first book of Jody Hedlund's new series, Love Unexpected is a tempestuous introduction to the Great Lakes and the lightkeepers that watch over them. Stranded in a remote village on the Michigan shore after a pirate attack, Emma Chambers jumps at the chance to settle into a ready-made family with Patrick Garraty, a very recent widower and lightkeeper of the Presque Isle lighthouse, who desperately needs a wife to watch his son. Their marriage of convenience benefits them both, and his kindness and consideration warms Emma's heart, but rumors of Patrick's past - and his wife's suspicious death - make Emma wonder if she didn't make a grave error in marrying him after all . . .

How does someone with no real experience with children learn to be a mother to a toddler? With a great many trials and tribulations, that's for sure. Children, no matter how sweet and cute and precocious, still need discipline and time for adjustment. I thought the author did a great job working through that struggle, especially in depicting the helpless feeling Emma has when Josiah throws a tantrum or won't do what she wants. It's amazing (but true!) how a child can make an adult feel so inept and powerless!

This tale really confronts the problem of a sinner, saved by grace, whose past still haunts him. Patrick made a lot of foolish choices in his youth, and while he has completely turned back from that lifestyle, he knows that most people, if they knew what he had done, would utterly reject him. As a society, we can have such a hard time believing that person has really changed. When we hear of the awful things they did in their past, we can be so quick to judge and believe the worst, even when their actions today tell a completely different story.

Living near the Great Lakes myself, I had known that there were pirates on the lakes, and it was fun to read a book about them. I didn't realize until I read the author's note in the end that Emma and Patrick are based on a real couple that manned the Presque Isle lighthouse, which, like always, fascinated me - the more closely a story is based on real people and events, the more I love it. As with previous novels, Hedlund does a good job exploring the marriage of convenience, but it follows a different route to love. Wrought with her characteristic tension, the author writes a complex love story with a few surprises in the end. 4.5 stars

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.

I would also highly recommend reading To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer, another wonderful novel that touches on similar themes of the old life versus the new and overcoming the stigma of the past.

Beacons of Hope
0.5. "Out of the Storm"
1. Love Unexpected
2. Hearts Made Whole
3. Undaunted Hope 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Dreams to dream - a theme of 2014

Word had it, way back in the beginning of the year, that 2014 would be a year of double-open doors - that doors that once were shut will be flinging open.  Dreams that have long laid dormant will be pursued. That it's time to push for your dreams.

A Beauty So RareI could see it in friends - and myself - who pushed to actively pursue their dreams: from picking up a paper route to save up and pay for midwife training, to giving away and selling possessions in preparation to move to another state, to wading into the world of art by investing in prints of paintings.

And I could see it in the books that were being published this year.

Why dreams?  Why are they so important?

Meant to Be MineThere are dreams we already have that God honors, and there are dreams that God gives us that we never expected would become a dream.  I have always loved studying wildflowers and seeking them out in ditches and swamps, but I never expected God to give me a dream - and the ability - to draw them, not when I made it through school as a decent but by no means impressive artist.  And I never expected that clearly God-given ability to translate to animals, when I'd always struggled to make them anything but cartoons.

Playing by HeartGod gives us the opportunity to pursue both kinds of dreams, sometimes even together.  And sometimes they are not particularly compatible, like art and my love of languages. At the moment, my desire has been focused on art, as have time and opportunity, and so it seems like languages have gone by the wayside.  But just because one dream eclipses the other now does not mean that we should give up on either - God gives us dreams for a reason, and I don't believe He will let them be lost.  Who knows when that dream will once again become a burning desire, and suddenly doors will open to pursue it?

Beyond All Dreams(Added December 31, 2014): Suppose you have a dream, something you're passionate about, but you don't know how to pursue it, or your present attempts have failed? I have to add these words from Elizabeth Camden, since it puts it so much more clearly than I could describe it. In her new release, Beyond All Dreams (Bethany House, 2015), the author writes (in regards to a boy with a passion for painting):
"If you don't make it as a painter, funnel that passion into something else, but it doesn't have to die. . . If you don't make it as a painter, perhaps you'll be a great teacher. Or a museum curator. Maybe you'll become a rich industrialist and fund a museum. Just don't limit yourself by thinking you already know God's purpose for you." (134)
God has ways of using our dreams that we don't expect or even imagine.

Given that the fiction this year has overwhelmingly touched on dreams, I compiled a list of those that stood out especially to me, so read and be inspired:  

A Beauty So Rare by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House, April)
Surprised by Love
While Love Stirs by Lorna Seilstad (Revell, May)

Meant to Be Mine by Becky Wade (Bethany House, May)

Here to Stay by Melissa Tagg (Bethany House, May)

In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin (Revell, August)

Playing by Heart by Anne Mateer (Bethany House, September)

A Bride in Store by Melissa Jagears (Bethany House, September)

Surprised by Love by Julie Lessman (Revell, October)

What dreams are you pursuing?

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Wonderland Creek" by Lynn Austin - delightfully whimsical

Wonderland Creek
In an effort to escape the embarrassment of a break-up with her longstanding boyfriend and the loss of her depression-cut job, Alice takes the boxes of book donations she has been collecting on a journey down to a little mining town in Kentucky, where she has offered out help out the librarian there for a couple weeks.  Unfortunately, the librarian is not the woman Alice was expecting, and the people do not want her there.  But rather like the Alice in Carrol's fantasy novel, she is trapped in this strange Wonderland indefinitely, or at least until her aunt and uncle return from their two-week vacation at a spa.  But how's a girl to survive without running water, electricity, cars, and telephones until they come back?

I got a big kick out of this book.  I'm not sure it was meant to be as funny as I found it, but I could relate frighteningly well with the heroine, and that, more than anything, was what brought out the humor in the story.

Alice believes in the protection and preservation of books, and I can wholeheartedly agree with her protective stance regarding folded page corners, creased spines, and damaged covers.  It is a crime.

As Alice points out, organization is key - how else can you find the book you're looking for and make sure it isn't lost?  A jumbled, unorganized library is a crime. 

While I have never read a novel during a funeral (or during church or a wedding ceremony, as my parents would never ever have allowed it), I have been known to get caught up in a book basically everywhere else (trust me, The Scarlet Pimpernel was WAY better than watching Seven Years in Tibet in 11th grade geography).

So maybe my life, like hers, is lacking in excitement, but isn't that what books are for?  I mean, who wants a body to fall down in front of you spurting blood from a bullet hole in the chest?  It is much better to read about such things than to experience them.  Except that poor Alice, on her first morning trapped in this bizarre Wonderland, gets to experience it first hand.  From then on, she is too busy dealing with the body to read, and suddenly, she is experiencing life

Alice does start out rather selfish and oblivious to the world around her.  As much as I love reading, it isn't my life, and it shouldn't be anyone's life.  We need relationships.  We are to be in the world but not of the world - and, while books can certainly drag us away from the world, at the same time they are of the world. The author does a fine job balancing a love of books with the importance of living life, not just reading about it. 

This book is a delight - while amusing, it does not lack in heart. Written in Alice's first person perspective, we get a clear picture of her personality, but even better, we can see her growth and faith journey every step of the way. With a relaxing but steady pace, it has a whimsical air perfect for a leisurely day of reading.It definitely deserves the 2012 Christy Award for Best Historical! 5 out of 5 stars!

Monday, December 1, 2014

December releases 2014!

Love Unexpected, Beacons of Hope Series #1   -     By: Jody Hedlund
The Secret of Pembrooke Park  -     By: Julie Klassen
Exciting releases to close out a spectacular year of fiction:

The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen (Bethany House)

In financial straits, a spinster and her family are offered a mysterious manor to rent, a manor that may contain hidden treasure and danger . . .

A Most Inconvenient Marriage  -     By: Regina Jennings
Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House); Beacons of Hope, book 1

Searching for security, a young woman marries a light keeper she scarcely knows, a man whose secretive past may put them all in danger.

A Most Inconvenient Marriage by Regina Jennings (Bethany House)

Petticoat Detective, Undercover Ladies Series #1   -     By: Margaret Brownley
A Civil War nurse marries a gravely wounded soldier to save his sickly sister and herself, but shortly after the young nurse joins the family, suddenly the real Jeremiah Calhoun shows up - and he is not expecting a wife.

Petticoat Detective by Margaret Brownley (Barbour); Undercover Ladies, book 1

A female Pinkerton agent, posing as a lady of the night, is on the trail of the Gunnysack Bandit in this fun story of the Wild West.