Friday, January 30, 2015

Siri Mitchell's "Like a Flower in Bloom" - delightful, tongue-in-cheek humor

Like a Flower in BloomSet in England in the mid-1800's, when botany suddenly became a manly, scientific profession, Like a Flower in Bloom focuses on what happened to the women, whose contributions to the of the field of study were largely ignored.Charlotte Withersby is every bit the professional botanist her father is, yet society refuses to honor her publications unless they are submitted under her father's name. However, Charlotte has been happy to help - and largely complete - her father's work, until her well-meaning uncle brings up the idea she should be married. Her father agrees with the notion, and when one of his correspondents from New Zealand shows up to act his assistant, Charlotte is booted out into the incomprehensible world of society. Hoping that a real threat of marriage will make her father see how much he needs her, she accepts her new role, though not without mishaps. And when proposals do come, what will she do?

Overall, I found it a delightful, amusing read with a tongue-in-cheek sort of humor that put me in mind of Jane Austen. Given their personalities and the style in which they were portrayed, many of the characters - Mr. Trimble, Miss Templeton, the Admiral, Mr. Hopkins-Whyte - felt like they could be from a Jane Austen novel; not that they were in any way replicas of her characters, but they would fit right in.

Having an interest in botany myself, I particularly enjoyed the theme of the book, and I was quite proud to know what they were talking about when such terms as Ranunculus (buttercups) and Pseudorchis (small white orchid) came up. However, I do not think it is overwhelmingly technical for those who have not studied the subject. It was fun to learn about the practices of Victorian-era botany, and how professionals went about it, especially as opposed to the people who pursued it because it was a fashionable hobby of the time.

I really liked Mr. Trimble, who is far more than what he seems. Or far more than what Charlotte notices. I wish we could have seen a little more of her interaction with him, especially after her disasters in courtship. Charlotte's anger at him is rooted in feelings of rejection, and, while it may not be just, it's understandable that she wants to lay the blame for her hurt somewhere. How often do we ourselves lash out when in pain?

Delving into issues of self-worth, introversion, and dreams, the author writes a well-rounded story of both serious subjects and humor. 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, January 26, 2015

"Wings of a Dream" by Anne Mateer - tugs the heartstrings

Cover Art
"Is that what God wanted of me? Just to trust that He'd hold me up, take me where He wanted me to go?"

In Anne Mateer's debut novel, Wings of a Dream, Rebekah Hendricks is sure of what she wants: to marry airman Arthur Samson and live a life of adventure. When word comes that her aunt in Texas is ill, she takes it as a sign that God has blessed the union, bringing her within reach of the air force base. However, God's plans are different from Bekah's: it turns out her aunt has been the guardian of four children whose mother recently passed and whose father is fighting in France. And her aunt isn't just sick - she is one of the victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Suddenly Bekah is thrust into a position of responsibility she never expected, forced to care for the children until their father comes home - if he survives the War to End All Wars.

Every great once in a while, I read a book that speaks so clearly into my life, it was like it was written for me for just this time. This is one of those books. While I am not dealing with death or suitors or taking care of someone else's kids, I can relate to Bekah's uncertainty with the future - having plans and dreams and wondering why some things happen, yet others, no matter how strongly desired and prayed for, do not. I can certainly relate to Bekah's "What, Lord? What do you want me to do? Silence, as usual." If God would just tell me what to do, I'd do it; but instead it feels like I'm fumbling around without clear direction.

One thing that really spoke to me was Bekah's struggle with the why: why the bad things happen, why none of her plans work. She knows in her head that God will work it for good, yet she feels lost anyway. Though a simple statement, she reaches the profound conclusion that, "Perhaps understanding didn't matter as much as I imagined. Perhaps that was the true definition of faith." Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see; faith is not needing to know why or how things will happen.

As to the story itself, Bekah, though a trifle immature to start with, is no Scarlet O'Hara; she matures with responsibility, and even when she makes foolish decisions, she is a sympathetic character, easy to relate to, and never obnoxious. While yes, there is some romance, it isn't really the main focus of the story - Bekah's journey with God is. I especially liked, since it is told entirely in first person, that Bekah's choice of her suitors is not obvious at the beginning. Rather than a "how will these two end up together" kind of story, it is a "who will she end up with" story. It took until well over halfway before I could be sure.

Between the realities of death of loved ones and life with children, this is an emotional story that could tug at the hardest of heartstrings - though not without heartache, it is an uplifting tale. It begs us to question what are our plans versus our dreams, and to trust God when things go wrong or the way is not clear. Highly recommended! 5 out of 5 stars!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Kelly Eileen Hake's "Trails and Targets"

Trails & Targets, Dangerous Darlyns Series #1   -     By: Kelly Eileen Hake
First of her new series on the Dangerous Darlyns, about four sisters of rather terrifying talents, Kelly Eileen Hake focuses on the eldest, the sharp-shooting Beatrix Darlyn. Practical Bea has taken care of her father and sisters ever since her mother died over a decade ago, and she is used to being passed over for her gorgeous sisters. When the banker threatens to foreclose on the farm, Bea has to find a way to save it - and God provides Greyson Wilder, a man haunted by the past who makes his living collecting and selling buffalo bones. Somehow an offer for supper turns into a hefty business proposal that has a chance to set them up nicely, unless the disreputable banker has more tricks up his sleeve.

While skeletons are rarely the main focus of fiction (at least, christian fiction), they play a surprisingly different role in this book - not exactly morbid, though for sure a little disconcerting. Anyone who has studied the Great Plains even a little has heard about the great buffalo hunts, that men would ride the trains as they chugged across newly laid rails across the country, and decimate populations of bison as they went, the corpses wasted, rotting in the sun, to no good purpose. But what happened after the bones were picked clean? And this is where I learned something new - the bison bones came in great demand by factories in the East for rendering into bone china, fertilizer, and glue. Who'd have thought old bones could be a significant source of income?

Though the girls certainly have unconventional talents, they also have a good understanding of Victorian-era propriety and know that common knowledge of their talents could lead to ostracism. Bea's sharpshooting and Jodie's trick riding seem almost normal compared to Ariel's archery and Cassia's knife throwing. I like that the author is able to take such an unconventional premise for the series and find a way to use it in a believable manner.

It's funny how it can be easier to forgive someone else than oneself; Grey's inability to forgive himself - part of his survivor's guilt - is a prime example, which many can relate to. While the book does not lack for humor, there is more depth than in previous works, and Hake's maturity as an author is showing through. My only complaint is that it ends rather abruptly - a few threads are not completely finished off, but since this is the first of series, hopefully it will be addressed swiftly in the next book.

Dangerous Darlyns
1. Trails & Targets
2. Slings & Arrows (2015)
3. Fire & Knives (2015? 2016?)

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Hidden Agenda" by Lisa Harris

Hidden Agenda
Before going into anything about this book, it is best to know that this review will utterly spoil the first two books. So if you haven't read them, go do that first. Besides, this story takes place in the week following the course of events in Fatal Exchange (book 2), so this one will be clearer if it's all fresh in your mind.

Now that that's settled, Hidden Agenda is a satisfying conclusion to Lisa Harris' Southern Crimes series. Michael Hunt, presumed dead, has been working undercover with a drug cartel, but they've just discovered he's a spy. When Olivia Hamilton and her deaf brother learn of his impending death, they stage a rescue, little realizing the extreme consequences of crossing the cartel, even when the head is their own father. Trouble follows them as they speed Michael to safety, but who can they trust? The drug lord clearly has no compunction against killing. Dirty cops besmirched Michael's name after his supposed death. And to top it off, there may be other players involved with an interest in the Cartel de Rey.

Like the two previous books in the series, this one is fast-paced, with plenty of action and suspense to keep one's eyes riveted to the page. There is less of a mystery element, but the suspense more than offsets it. However, I felt that the romance moves unbelievably quickly, given that the book takes place over maybe a week and Michael and Olivia had never met prior to the rescue, and given that their relationship is developed under such a traumatic experience. But it makes for a thrilling conclusion to series.

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.

Southern Crimes
1. Dangerous Passage
2. Fatal Exchange
3. Hidden Agenda

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Farewell, Four Waters" by Kate McCord - based on a true experiences in Afghanistan

In a story based on true events, Kate McCord writes about a humanitarian aid worker's experiences in Afghanistan - specifically, the (unexpectedly) last fourteen days of her mission there. When an aid worker is shot down in cold blood in a Kabul street, Marie is only too happy to return home to Shektan in the north, where she will be beginning a new literacy program for women. However, she could never have guessed that soon her new program would land her in the middle of local feud.

Farewell, Four Waters    -     By: Kate McCord
To be clear, this is a work of fiction, but it is based on a number of real events. Rather than the suspenseful tale I was expecting, this is really more of a tribute to Afghanistan - the people and the land, the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the ugly. As Marie is falling in love with the village of Four Waters, it is easy to be caught up in her enthusiasm and fall in love too. The people are by no means perfect - great wrongs have been done and continue to be done, even within the most important families - but their humanity is clear.

I enjoyed learning about the Afghan culture. While I would not say I am an expert after reading this, the story offers much to appreciate about the Afghan people, and it has much to teach about the culture, especially the women's role. As Americans, we tend to think of Afghanistan as peopled by terrorists and the poor oppressed who cannot fight them, and that the Muslim men have all the rights and the women have none. However, there are many people groups within the country, and even within cities and villages, with all manner of economic situations. While women may have fewer rights, the rules governing their behavior are not as strict as the media would have us believe. Or at least such was my understanding after reading this book.

My problem with Marie is that she is pretty aloof - she tends to hold back from the other aid workers, even her housemate, to avoid being hurt (which doesn't work), and, while she exhibits tons of compassion for the Afghan people, she doesn't show it well with her coworkers. I don't like how she has separated herself mentally from them, and it makes it hard to really connect with her. However, events do force a shift in priorities and attitude, which help near the end.

One thing the author hits right on the head is how we so often think of prayer and God. "How do I know God is with me? I pray. I'm sad, angry, excited, maybe just bored. Then I pray and remember--God's with me. I feel His presence. She chided herself. But really, most of the time I just forget. I work. I get busy. I live here like I'm alone. Most of the time, anyway" (171).  It's a really easy trap to fall into. If someone asks us how we know God is there, we have an easy answer - I pray and He answers, or I feel His presence. But do we really live each moment of every day with Him? Are we actually treating Him like He is with us all the day long?

This book reads differently than most novels, and I think it is because its goal is to convey real experiences (though not necessarily the exact situations the author went through). I've read novels with more poignant prose and greater flare for a story, but this one feels real, whereas most suspense novels are simply an enjoyable escape from reality. While I did not love the book, I feel it tells an important tale that will help the average American truly connect with the experiences of foreign aid workers, missionaries, and, above all, a people we tend to misunderstand.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Thomas Locke's "Emissary" - high fantasy

Cover ArtIn the first of his fantasy (also known these days as "speculative") series, Legends of the Realm, Thomas Locke (aka Davis Bunn) introduces us to a fantasy realm where magic can still be found. A great evil has arisen, so powerful that neither humans nor any other race can stand alone against it. The young man Hyam, who as a youth studied among wizards, had always expected to farm his family's land where his ancestors have always lived. However, in his twenty-first year, a power - forbidden and impossible - awakens in him, sending him on a journey far from his home and pushing him into an ancient role for which he has had little preparation - Emissary, the powerful link between races.

Emissary is christian fiction in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is - written by a Christian author, instilled with values aligning with Christianity, yet not actually containing a word about God, Jesus, or the bible. In fact, religion has no part in the tale, so the highly controversial meshing of God and magic is not an issue. And unlike CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, there is no obvious allegory, for which I was grateful, as allegory is not my favorite subgenre. What is leaves is a good, clean fantasy that can appeal to adults and young adults alike.

So while there is nothing overtly christian about the story, the characters still exhibit qualities that any can admire, such as self-sacrifice: Hyam would like nothing more than to seek out the mystery of his heritage, but the reality is he can either do that or accept the role foisted on him and work for the greater good. There isn't time for both, and Hyam, though the mystery pains and plagues him, knows he must do what he has been called to do. The characters are also all too human (more or less), some wounded, some unwanted, some homeless, some complacent.

To make my husband happy, the author does a good job explaining where the magic comes from and roughly how it works (and hopefully this will continue to be hashed out even further as the series progresses, as Hyam is a bit of an anomaly, plus there are other races that could be explained further). Locke does a good job fleshing out his world, making it unique but believable. As befitting a series of high fantasy, the end is not so much The End, but a decent place to pause and wait for the next book, which I do with much anticipation. If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings (the plot, if not the prose) or other high fantasy, then I definitely recommend the novel. 

The CaptiveThank 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.

For a free glimpse of the novel, one can read "The Captive," a short e-book comprised of excerpts from Emissary following the character Joelle, a young woman who is imprisoned in a school of wizards. She is a prisoner (condemned to death if she leaves), something of a servant, and definitely not a student - certainly not allowed to be taught magic, as much as the head wizard would like to. But she has special powers too, which have allowed her to glimpse an evil growing far beyond the college walls. It can be downloaded for kindle for free on Amazon.

Legends of the Realm:
1. Emissary
2. Merchant of Alyss
3. The Golden Vial

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Beyond All Dreams" by Elizabeth Camden - a rich novel with plenty to mull over

Cover ArtIn her second novel centering on the nation's capitol, Elizabeth Camden brings the Library of Congress to life. Anna O'Brien, a map librarian, stumbles upon a discrepancy in the records of the wreck of her father's ship over a decade ago. However, the navy blasts Anna for questioning their records, threatening her job. Then, to her annoyance, she is assigned as a personal assistant librarian to the dashing, outspoken congressman Luke Callahan. Surprisingly, she ends up enjoying the witty congressman who has commandeered her time, for all that he is her opposite. Between jobs for him, she continues to pursue the wreck of her father's ship, yet she is stonewalled at every turn, to the point where Anna suspects she is being spied on. What is the navy covering up? Can Luke help her find the answers to the ship's disappearance?

For a story lodged in the hotbed of our nation's politics, I found the quoted words of Keats to be most appropriate:
The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.  (321)
As a rule I try to avoid politics and harbor a general distrust for politicians - including for reasons mentioned in this book - but I have to say the author manages to turn a politician into a pretty decent hero. Like any politician, Luke has to fight the urge to bow to the majority, to say what people want to hear, and to pursue his own ends, but he gives us hope that honorable (if imperfect) politicians still have a hand in running our government. And while the political element is a major part of the book, the story never bogs down in politics.

Of the wars of the 1800's, the Spanish-American War is one that is severely glossed over in light of the wars bookending it. Other than knowing that Teddy Roosevelt was involved, I knew nothing about it - why it was even fought. Camden's novel is enlightening in that regard - we get a pretty clear idea of the politics surrounding it, and it is interesting to see parallels between that war and the wars we have been involved in during the past fifty-odd years. 

I really liked what the author has to say about dreams and the encouragement this book offers to pursue them. Regarding Luke's nephew's passion for painting, Luke says,
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)
Just because your passion doesn't result in talent or a job doesn't mean you can't pursue that passion in other ways - never limit God and His ability to give us opportunities to pursue our dreams!

Most people would agree that if there is an injustice, it should be righted; but what happens if righting the injustice will have consequences that far outstrip the initial wrong? That was just one question the story begs us to consider. Camden also tackles themes of forgiveness, fear, and the inexplicable love for family, no matter how dysfunctional. With her typical masterfully-developed characters, Camden's novel is a rich account of our capitol's history, with plenty of hefty thoughts to mull over - and not all with a cut-and-dry answer. 5 out of 5 stars!

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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

January 2015 releases!

The start of a grand new year of fiction! To kick the new year off, we have a broad spectrum of genres - historical, mystery/suspense, and fantasy. While I generally enjoy fantasy novels, I have actually read very little Christian fantasy, since it can be difficult to mix magical elements with biblical truth and not have the story come out weird and forced. But descriptions of Thomas Locke's story, as well as the short, free e-book teaser, have captured my interest and I am excited to give it a shot.

Like a Flower in Bloom Beyond All Dreams Hidden Agenda

Like a Flower in Bloom by Siri Mitchell (Bethany House)

A botanist's daughter finds herself dragged from the world of science and, to her dismay, thrust into society.

Beyond All Dreams by Elizabeth Camden (Bethany House)

A map librarian in the Library of Congress discovers a discrepancy with the records of her father's shipwreck, and she must turn to a dashing congressman for help.


Hidden Agenda by Lisa Harris (Revell); Southern Crimes, book 3

In way over his head, an undercover cop's only chance at survival hinges on the aid of the drug lord's daughter.

Fantasy: (also known these days as "speculative fiction")

Emissary by Thomas Locke (Revell); Legends of the Realm, book 1

Inside a young man with a talent for dead languages, a fantastic power suddenly awakens, but is it enough to combat a great and terrible evil that threatens the realm?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Most-Anticipated Novels of 2015

As I started compiling a list of my most-anticipated Christian reads for the new year, I realized it was practically a catalog, and far more extensive than last year's.  I guess I keep enjoying new authors too much!

So in an attempt to whittle it down to only the most-anticipated, where I absolutely want a copy on my shelf without needing to think about it, I have decided to pick the one each month that I want more than any other.  Thankfully, the publishing companies were distributing them better this year instead of lumping half my favorite authors all in one month. 

Of course, titles for fall have not yet been released, so there are some gaps to be updated as more titles are released. 
Beyond All DreamsSabotagedAfter a Fashion

Beyond All Dreams by Elizabeth Camden (Bethany House) ~ Camden has a deserved reputation for well-researched novels with deeply-charged story lines

Sabotaged by Dani Pettrey (Bethany House), Alaskan Courage, book 5 ~ This is a big concession, being a contemporary suspense, when my general preference is historical fiction, but I can no longer deny it - Pettrey's novels are spectacular and I am hooked.

After a Fashion by Jen Turano (Bethany House), A Class of Their Own, book 1 ~ Turano has made me laugh more than any other Christian fiction writer out there.

      To Win Her Favor, Belle Meade Plantation Series #2   -     By: Tamera Alexander
      A Worthy Pursuit

The Wood's Edge by Lori Benton (WaterBrook), The Pathfinders, book 1 ~ As her previous two novels have shown, Benton is a phenomenal writer of early American fiction, rich with historical detail and adventure.

To Win Her Favor by Tamera Alexander (Zondervan), Belle Meade Plantation, book 2 ~ An author who excels at indulgently long, thick, rich stories, and whose passion for the setting flows from her pen . . .

A Worthy Pursuit by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House) ~ Always a delightful blend of humor and Godly message

Lady Maybe  -     By: Julie Klassen
       Through Waters Deep       The Mistress of Tall Acre
Lady Maybe by Julie Klassen (Berkley) ~Klassen's regencies are always detailed, complex historicals that are a pleasure to savor.

Through Waters Deep by Sarah Sundin (Revell) ~ I would definitely say one of the foremost authors of WWII fiction out there

The Mistress of Tall Acre by Laura Frantz (Revell) ~ What with her detailed, delectably rich stories, I'd be hard put to find an author I'd want to read more.

Fire and Ice            At Love's Bidding
Fire and Ice by Mary Connealy (Bethany House), Wild at Heart, book 3 ~ In the first book of the trilogy, the glimpse of the oldest of three sisters masquerading as men particularly intrigued me, and I've been eagerly been awaiting her story ever since! 

At Love's Bidding by Regina Jennings (Bethany House), Ozark Mountain Romance, book 2 ~ Jennings finds that perfect balance between humor and depth, love story and spiritual growth.

And because I make the rules and can break them when I wish, I will tack on these because I really want to read them too:

In Good Company     Not by Sight    The Lost Heiress

In Good Company by Jen Turano (Bethany House, July) ~ As afore mentioned, my abs get a workout reading books by this author

Not By Sight by Kate Breslin (Bethany House, August) ~ I really enjoyed Breslin's For Such a Time, so I wanted to include this book, yet it had to compete with Sarah Sundin's new series for the August slot - tough, tough decision.

The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White (Bethany House, September) ~ I loved White's Culper Ring series from Harvest House, but again, competing against another favorite author!