Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nancy Mehl's "Deadly Echoes" - a good mystery/suspense

Deadly EchoesIn the second book of Nancy Mehl's Finding Sanctuary series, Sarah Miller, the school teacher in Sanctuary, learns of her sister's murder and the horrible similarities it shows to their parents' deaths years before. However, the police seem loathe to draw any connection between the two, which are both being blamed on robberies gone wrong. Sarah and her friend deputy sheriff Paul Gleason decide to look over the cases to draw together enough evidence to make the case stay open, but in the meantime Sarah is dealing the difficulties that come with taking in her grief-stricken, orphaned niece. Should Sarah drop the case, like most people seem to want? Or should she put herself - and her niece - in danger by pursuing justice?

While this book focuses less on the Mennonites than the first of the series did, it still is a nice cross-genre book that combines contemporary suspense and mystery with the conservative values that characterize the plain people. It is encouraging to see a town so successfully operate with such a mix of peoples.

The author deals with the tough issue of taking care of a newly orphaned child in a believable way. Cicely is hurt and afraid, living with someone she only knows a little, and her actions reflect her insecurity. Even Sarah, who went through a similar situation in her own childhood, finds Cicely difficult to deal with. She can draw on her experiences to help understand her niece, but it doesn't keep her from being wounded every time Cicely lashes out.

While the romance is not as strong an aspect of the story as in other romantic suspense novels, I like how it is carried out. Sarah and Paul realize after a while that despite being attracted to each other and seeing each other frequently, all they ever talk about is Sarah's case - not exactly something to build a relationship on. So then they plan steps to get to know each other without any reference to the murders. They are wise in how they deliberately go into their courtship.

Mehl brings in several biblical principles, including the difference between revenge and justice, and, to a greater degree, the danger of comparing ourselves to others. And thank heaven for a sensible heroine who uses her head! (Sometimes, heroines of suspense novels make the most foolish decisions . . .)  I found it a well-rounded book with a nice balance between suspense and mystery and spiritual growth, and the lighter dose of romance was perfect for this story, considering what the characters were going through.

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

Finding Sanctuary
1. Gathering Shadows
2. Deadly Echoes
3. Rising Darkness 

Friday, February 20, 2015

"The Maid of Fairbourne Hall" by Julie Klassen - third time around, and still excellent!

The Maid of Fairbourne HallJulie Klassen's The Maid of Fairbourne Hall sends a young woman in fear for her virtue fleeing London as far as she can, seeking a position in service. Margaret Macy has never worked a day in her life, but if it means safety from her stepfather and his lecherous nephew, she will learn. When a local steward hires her as a housemaid, she little expects he is the new steward of Nathaniel Upchurch, a man Margaret scorned for his handsome brother, little good that it did her. Suddenly Margaret is emptying his chamber pots and learning that maybe she misjudged him - and his siblings. But is it safe for her to reveal her true identity to them?

While Klassen writes an in-depth Regency-era novel, this one reminds me of the Donkeyskin/Catskin/Rashie Coatie fairy tale  - a common story about a princess who flees her father's house, disguises herself as a servant, and hides in the castle of a prince. When he hosts a ball, she cleans herself up and appears in a dress made of starlight, and the prince falls in love, but then she returns to her disguise below stairs. Eventually he seeks her out, rids her of her disguise, and marries her, at which point she reconciles with the family she fled. This novel could be a retelling of the story, though without the magic and with a lot more hard work. Klassen grounds it in reality, taking a girl who knows nothing of work and making her learn, teaching her how to live with and respect those who are "beneath" her.

Though she grew up a vicar's daughter, Margaret is by no means perfect - a trifle spoiled, she is accustomed to a life of gentility, with servants to do all the work for her; as such, she is rather selfish and condescending. When she has to start fending for herself, she discovers how useless she is, with no marketable skills to commend her. I like the changes that come over her while she is in service; she is still impulsive, but she learns to appreciate all the hard work the servants do, she gains better discernment, and she learns self-sacrifice. 

There is less of a focus on God in this book than in some of Klassen's others, but there is a good message on not judging people, especially on first impressions. Margaret learns that over and over again - with her former maid, her fellow servants, and the Upchurch siblings. And it proves true, too, with how other characters view Margaret.

This is a clean romance, with a good character building for Margaret and Nathaniel. I appreciated that, at least for the first half of the book, Margaret and Nathaniel have next to no contact with each other, as it should be between a man and the female staff. And when they do start interacting, the reasons make sense. The romance is a bit predictable (as mentioned, it follows the same plot as a number of fairy tale variants), but it did not detract from the story for me. Besides, there are a fair number of enjoyable subplots to spice up the tale and keep it fresh. And if I've read it three times now, it must be good!

Incidentally, it is also the 2012 Christy Awards winner for the Best Historical Romance.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"Where Trust Lies" by Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan

Where Trust LiesIn the second Return to the Canadian West novel, Beth Thatcher returns home after a year of teaching out West, only to discover that her family is leaving almost immediately on cruise to tour the Atlantic coast. Though it gives an opportunity to reconnect with her mother and sisters, there are challenges - seasickness, her younger sister running with a faster, more rebellious crowd, Beth's usual challenges with her mother . . . At least she can maintain contact with Jarrick, her love from Alberta. But then her family trusts the wrong person, and suddenly her life is turned on end . . .

I love the early 1920's setting, that hazy period of transition, where suddenly girls are cutting their hair, but yet conservatism and tradition still hold some sway, especially amongst the upper class and out in far rural areas. So while Beth is less fashion-minded and comfortable in conservative styles, her sister Julia adores the fast pace and daring hairstyles and clothes of the new era.

Considering that Beth and Jarrick are located on opposites side of the continent for most of the story, the authors do a good job of furthering their romance through letters, telegrams, and phone calls. I appreciate their intentionality in pursuing a relationship - distance does not prevent them from having important conversations to get to know each other and their intentions better. Plus it reminded me of when my husband and I were dating, and I was traveling out West on a 3-week hiking trip, calling from hotel rooms whenever I had the chance . . .

The authors do an excellent job of depicting family, both its strengths and weaknesses. You can tell Beth, Margret, and Julia are sisters by both how they get on each others' nerves, and how they fiercely love each other. Since Beth's relationship with her mother has always been strained, Beth's father admonishes her before leaving is that she needs to take time to know her mother better, and when she finally makes the effort, Beth does learn that there is more to her than meets the eye. It's funny but true how sometimes we can be so close to someone yet not understand them.

Where Trust Lies picks up almost immediately after Where Courage Calls leaves off; while they could be read as stand-alones, I think they are far better read together. I'm certainly looking forward to the next in the series - I can't wait to see where Beth goes next, and how her adventures this time will effect her decisions in the future.

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

Return to the Canadian West
1. Where Courage Calls
2. Where Trust Lies
3. Where Hope Prevails 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Karen Witemeyer's "Love on the Mend" - a sweet follow-up to Full Steam Ahead

Love on the MendThe novella sequel to Karen Witemeyer's novel Full Steam Ahead, "Love on the Mend" follows young Jacob Sadler, now grown up and a doctor, having come through the Civil War to accept a practice in his old hometown. Jacob knows it's God's will he return, and he's ready for it - until he discovers his uncle is still there and alive. Knowing he should forgive and actually forgiving are two different things, but his nurse, Mollie - a woman he finds more attractive by the minute - is determined to help him.

Though it is not a full-length novel, the story is fun epilogue to Full Steam Ahead. I especially liked that it took a mystery from the first novel - Jacob's past - and let us know how he ended up a runaway in the the streets of Galveston - what drove him and instilled such fear and hurt into him. So it isn't just the story of what happens to him when he grows up, but also the story of what happened to him as a young child.

I liked the point the author makes about forgiveness, something Jacob finds harder than he planned: "He'd been prepared to face his past as long as it was easy. . ." but with his uncle alive, "a few mumbled words wouldn't be sufficient - he'd have to live out his forgiveness day after day. Anything but simple." True forgiveness is not just saying it - it's living it, day in and day out. It's not easy, but it must be done, or it will eat away at you, leaving festering bitterness in its wake.

A nice balance of adventure, romance, and spiritual themes in one sweet, short story!

Monday, February 9, 2015

"To Win Her Favor" by Tamera Alexander

To Win Her Favor, Belle Meade Plantation Series #2   -     By: Tamera Alexander
Tamera Alexander returns again to Belle Meade Plantation and the powerful racehorses of its stables. Cullen McGrath, an Irish immigrant, is not who Maggie Linden would have picked for a husband - not when everyone knows that the Irish are little better than the Negroes. But to save her family land and her champion Thoroughbred mare, Maggie's father asks her to marry Cullen. Women are not allowed to race, so her hopes are now pinned on a man who has been burned by a racing scandal in England - but how can she convince her new husband to race Bourbon Belle? And to top it off, the escalating violence of one of Nashville's "secret societies" has found its way to their door . . .

It's hard to take a character of decided prejudices and make her an appealing and sympathetic heroine, but the author manages it with Maggie. She is of Nashville's old, landed gentry, and her attitude reflects that status, even if her circumstances are much reduced. But those prejudices are not insurmountable - Maggie's heart does soften, even if it takes time. The author does a good job of gradually shifting her opinions in a believable manner.

I really liked Cullen, the hero. He isn't afraid to stand up for what is right, even if it means embarrassing Maggie in order to defend her. Given the cold shoulder he receives from her, he is remarkably patient and loving, even when she doesn't necessarily deserve it. I like how their relationship progresses - their marriage is definitely one of convenience, not a love match, and they have to work their way to an understanding. And it takes work, as all marriages do. And just because they reach the point of caring for each other doesn't mean they will not continue to have disagreements, as all marriages do.

Like in the author's other southern novels, To Win Her Favor is saturated in historical detail: of post-war Nashville, of horse racing, and of the era-ending changes to the lifestyle of the American South. It was fun to catch cameos of the main characters from her other related novels, brief though they are. I love how the presence of Maggie's father is carried throughout the story, how his love of the Lord is gradually also realized in his daughter and son-in-law. Alexander weaves a beautiful story of despair and the fulfillment of dreams, loss and triumph, and prejudice and brotherly love. 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Belle Meade Plantation
1. To Whisper Her Name
2. To Win Her Favor
2.5 "To Mend a Dream" (part of the novella collection Among the Fair Magnolias)
3. To Wager Her Heart

Belmont Mansion (related to Belle Meade Plantation novels)
1. A Lasting Impression
2. A Beauty So Rare
3. A Note Yet Unsung

Carnton Mansion
0.5 "Christmas at Carnton" (novella)

Friday, February 6, 2015

"Sabotaged" by Dani Pettrey - full of suspense and Alaskan adventure

Cover ArtWhile working search-and-rescue for the Iditarod sled dog race, Kirra Jacobs gets worried when her uncle doesn't make the checkpoint. When she sneaks off to find him, her old nemesis from childhood, Reef McKenna, refuses to let her go alone. However, when they find him, they learn more is wrong than just an accident along the trail: someone has kidnapped his daughter and is using her as leverage to force him into performing some evil deed. With only until the end of the race to stop disaster, Kirra and Reef, along with the rest of the McKenna clan, put all their efforts into finding Kirra's cousin. But can they find her in time?

Like in Pettrey's other novels, Alaska jumps to life - this time centered around the Iditarod, during the brutal Alaskan winter. While the race isn't the focus of the story, it's neat to learn about the behind-the-scenes activities that keep the racers safe and running. Plus, it was fun to read at the same time as the John Beargrease sled dog marathon up here.

I enjoyed how the other McKennas and their significant others are a key part of this story. Not only does it make the investigation more believable, utilizing all their strengths and talents, but it allows us one more glimpse at their lives as the author wraps up the series. I would highly recommend reading the whole series, rather than just a single as a stand-alone, as the characters are developed throughout the series, and a person jumping into it now without reading the previous books might be confused by the number of characters and their relationships.

Kirra struggles with the question of, "Where is God when trouble happens?" After a devastating experience in her past, she wonders why God would let it happen to her, why there wasn't justice, and where He was in all of it. The reality is that God gave us free will. And He gave wicked people free will too. They make choices, same as us, and if God didn't allow them to make bad choices, then they would not have free will. It's a broken world that we live in, but it doesn't mean that God has abandoned us or that He doesn't weep for the wrongs done against us.

The book flew by. Rife with suspense, there is never a dull moment, and it is painfully hard to put the book down. It's sad that the series is ending, but it concludes with a bang. 5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you Bethany House for a complimentary copy of the book. I was not required to write a positive review.

Alaskan Courage
0.5: "Shadowed" (Sins of the Past romantic suspense novella collection)
1. Submerged
2. Shattered
3. Stranded
4. Silenced
5. Sabotaged

Monday, February 2, 2015

February releases!

February releases that I am most looking forward to:

Love on the Mend          Where Trust Lies

"Love on the Mend" by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House); ebook novella sequel to Full Steam Ahead

Sparks fly when a young doctor returns to his old hometown and encounters a nurse who has ties to his past.

Where Trust Lies by Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan (Bethany House); Return to the Canadian West, book 2

After teaching for a year out west, a young woman is called back home by her family, leaving her torn - does she belong with her family in the east, or back with her students and love in the west?

Sabotaged          Deadly Echoes


Sabotaged by Dani Pettrey (Bethany House); Alaskan Courage, book 5

Two search-and-rescue workers go on a mad race against time to find the kidnapped daughter one of the Iditarod racers, lest a disastrous plan be put into action.

Deadly Echoes by Nancy Mehl (Bethany House); Finding Sanctuary, book 2

After her sister is murdered, a teacher and the deputy sheriff investigate her death, only to discover that someone is willing to kill to keep a twenty-year-old secret buried underneath years of lies.

What are you most looking forward to this month?