Monday, March 30, 2015

"The Wood's Edge" by Lori Benton - a heart-rending, sweeeping epic Benton's start to her Pathfinder series sweeps the reader away to colonial New York in an epic worthy of the classics. Two women give birth in a British fort amidst battle during the French and Indian War - Major Aubrey's wife to a dead son, and Good Voice, the Indian captive, to twin sons, one white and the other dark. In a rash moment of grief and love, the major steals the fair twin and leaves his dead son in its place, sparking a wildfire of grief and guilt to wrack two families for decades. As years pass, Two Hawks grows up knowing his brother is lost out there somewhere, while William has no clue of a twin. And Anna, the semi-adopted foundling of the Aubrey family, becomes a part of the lives of both of them, bridging the two worlds together at the wood's edge.

Having read both previous novels by the author, I have high expectations for her work (and it is with good reason that Burning Sky earned three Christy Awards). The problem is, with such a high standard, can the next novel actually live up to it? I have to admit, this one did not live up to it - it surpassed it. Benton captures the loss and confusion, grief and despair, the self-destruction - all the messy consequences of sin that few authors dare explore in such depth - and entwines it with the rich, messy history of upstate New York.

Normally I'd say that the more points of view expressed in a story, the less cohesive and less intense the tale. But I have to make an exception with this one, which boasts five different viewpoints. It isn't a romance where the plot is about two leads developing a relationship and falling in love, where they are the two singularly most important characters of the story. No. This is the tale of what happens to two families broken by one man's rash decision, and what they go through over the years - exploring if reconciliation for such a deed is even possible. (And yes, there is romance, but there is so much more). Such a far-reaching tale demands a broader perspective to give justice to the history and heartbreak hidden between its covers. Each point of view is essential to the story.

In one respect, it is a heart-rending tale of the far-reaching consequences of sin. Guilt eats away at Major Aubrey, tainting his relationships and life, while at the same time he is not allowed to grieve the death of his son, because in the eyes of the world, his son lives. Good Voice, the mother of the twins, is anguished in the abduction of her son, and her husband, Stone Thrower, is eaten by hate and thirst for vengeance. Not to mention the effect on the children - they are caught in the middle, reaping the consequences of their parents' choices, whether they are aware of them or not.

But on the other hand, this epic tale is also a testimony to God's hand working things for the good, in spite of the poor choices made along the way. You cannot go back. You have to move forward. But you can choose to go forward on a different path.

Benton doesn't hold back - the story is messy, painful, wrenching. It cannot be tied up neatly in a bow, with good feelings restored all around. There is resolve, but the story is by no means finished - it has only begun. With great relief and anguish, I can assure you that there will be a sequel, but not until 2016. There is so much I'd love to add - all the meticulous attention to the history of the area, the tribute to a father's imperfect love, the romance - but then I'd be writing a book instead of a review. The Wood's Edge is unquestionably in my top ten novels of the year. I highly, highly recommend it!

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

The Pathfinders
1. The Wood's Edge
2. A Flight of Arrows

Containing cross-over characters:
Burning Sky

Additional book-related resources:

Friday, March 27, 2015

Melissa Tagg's "From the Start" - more than just football

From the Start (Walker Family, #1)In her first full-length romance of the Walker family, Melissa Tagg takes two hurting, disillusioned individuals and gives them a chance at a new start. Kate Walker is a writer, but her TV romance scripts have lost their spark, and she wants to write something worthwhile. Colton Greene was forcibly retired from professional football with a career-ending injury, and he is lost, without a career, a love life, or a dream. When his friend Logan Walker invites him to spend a few days with his family in Iowa, he comes along, not expecting to encounter Logan's sister - a woman with the skills to write his sports biography. As Kate and Colton work together on the book, old wounds come to light. Could God have put them together for more than just a sports biography?

Sports are not my thing. At all. It didn't really occur to me until after I started reading this book that a story about a retired football player might actually involve (you guessed it) football. While I will likely never be in love with the sport, Tagg certainly makes it palatable in her contemporary romance. And though I am no clearer than before on the intimate workings of the game, I have more appreciation  for what the players go through upon retirement. Especially forced retirement, with injuries that will never completely heal and life's dreams shattered in one instant. The feeling of being lost, without a place anymore. She turns a football player into a real person.

I love the family that the author has set up: a tight-knit, godly family, yet each of the four children has wounds - something holding them back. They certainly act like family: knowing exactly which buttons to push to get the biggest rise out of someone, being completely real with each other (be it lovingly or biting heads off), and protecting and looking out for each other. I definitely want to see where Reagan, Beckett, and Logan end up and to learn more of their backstory.

I completely understood Kate's dilemma, as I went through it myself upon graduating college: God seems to be opening a door to a dream, and then suddenly He's opening a different door that goes in a completely different direction. Which do you go through? Which is His will? It's a nerve wracking position to be in.

Tagg's novel is a satisfying, well-written romance, injected with moments of humor, as well as tenderness, pain, and self-realization.

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

Walker Family
0.5. "Three Little Words"
1. From the Start
2. Like Never Before 
3. Keep Holding On
3.5: "A Maple Valley Romance" (published in Right Where We Belong collection of small-town novellas)
4. All This Time

Related Series:
Enchanted Christmas Collection (now available in print as Enchanted: A Christmas Collection)
1. One Enchanted Christmas
2. One Enchanted Eve
3. One Enchanted Noel

Monday, March 23, 2015

Kristy Cambron's "A Sparrow in Terezin" - a gripping and emotional read

#2: A Sparrow in Terezin   -     By: Kristy Cambron
On her wedding day, Sera's groom William Hanover is arrested for fraud. Sera believes his innocence, but all evidence, including a significant paper trail, points toward him. Not knowing what the future holds, Sera continues her plans for opening an art gallery in San Francisco, but as time passes, she feels the need to confront William's estranged father, and the trip to London also gives her an opportunity to visit Sophie, a friend and Holocaust survivor. Sophie tells her the tale of a young Czechoslovakian woman who worked for a newspaper in London and disappeared in Prague during the war. Though the story of Kaja Makovsky has little in common with Sera's predicament, the hope they must both hold onto transcends time.

If a story has ever started out with a piercing hook that won't let you stop reading, it's this one. The opening: the wedding day, the beginning of happily ever after, cut short by the arrest of the groom. The opening of the dual WWII storyline: a mad, secretive rush to the train station, their last chance to escape as Nazis roll into the city, bringing the war to Prague. From there on, it's impossible to put down the book - both storylines are gripping, taut with emotion and suspense.

Like in The Butterfly and the Violin, the author wildly succeeds at the time split/dual storylines. She continues the modern-day story of Sera and William from the first book, while adding a fresh, new tale of WWII to capture our interest. Though the story of Kaja is fictional, aspects of Terezin, including the art made by thousands of children who passed through on their way to Auschwitz, are true. The London bombings reminded me of the Academy Award-winning film Mrs. Miniver, and were a reminder of what England went through in the course of the war.

From Sera's story, I especially liked the concept that when you choose to love someone, you love them, past mistakes and all. And when you trust them, whether it's God, your spouse, or your best friend, it's a choice. Trust does not actually always have to be earned; you can choose to trust, or you can choose not to. It is still hard when circumstances are difficult; but that is when faith is built.

Cambron's emotion-packed second novel is a beautiful cross between modern women's fiction and a historical suspense/romance, with plenty to take home from both storylines.

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

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Three Little Words" by Melissa Tagg - a strong, well-developed novella

Three Little Words (Walker Family, #0.5)Back in college, Ava Kingsley and Seth Walker were, if not exactly enemies, for sure polar opposites as they fought each other tooth and nail in the campus newspaper. Ten years later, when they meet again, they still squabble as much as ever, but somehow they become friends and spend a year emailing each other daily. When Ava's plans fall through in the job market, she takes Seth up on his offer of a vacation in small-town Iowa where he runs a restaurant. Will their friendship change when they spend time together in person?

Not only is the novella an excellent transition piece to warm one up to the new cast of characters, but it is a solid, well-written story in its own right.

"Three Little Words" makes for a clever tie-in for the author's books, connecting characters from her past novels with her upcoming series on the Walker family. Autumn Kinglsey (Here to Stay) and Blake Hunziker (Built to Last, Here to Stay) make a cameo appearance as Ava's sister and her boyfriend. The tone is set for the Walkers, establishing them as a warm, welcoming family who have been touched by sorrow.

What particularly impressed me about this novella is the feeling of a deep, well-established relationship - a romance that makes sense and doesn't feel rushed. The kind of romance one generally only finds in a full-length novel. Novellas are maybe a third the length of a full-length novel, so it makes sense that they tend to be rushed, especially since you want to fit in a bit of character development and conflict along with the romance. But by establishing a year's worth of daily correspondence in a single sentence, the author builds a solid foundation for not just the romance, but the whole plot.

Because novellas have such little time to establish a strong story, I rarely rate them as anything but three or four stars, but this time I must make an exception! (Oh, and incidentally, this novella is free - look it up!)

Walker Family
0.5. "Three Little Words"
1. From the Start
2. Like Never Before
3. Keep Holding On
4. All This Time

Related series:
Enchanted Christmas Collection
1. One Enchanted Christmas
2. One Enchanted Eve
3. One Enchanted Noel

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jody Hedlund's "An Uncertain Choice" - a wholesome young adult romance

An Uncertain Choice    -     By: Jody Hedlund
Jody Hedlund's first foray into the young adult genre is a definite success. With only one month left before Rosemarie takes a vow as a nun, suddenly an old family friend shows up with a clause that could get her out of her parents' vow - she need only fall in love and marry by her 18th birthday. And the Duke has brought along three fine candidates from among his knights for her to choose from. Rosemarie had finally made peace with the vow, but now she feels compelled to give the knights a chance, though her closest adviser is still pushing the church. Can someone actually fall in love in so short a time? Or will this sudden immersion in frivolity make her discontented with her future vows?

A little lighter fare than her novels for an adult audience, the subject matter and themes are definitely geared toward teens and lovers of young adult fiction. While there are no particularly surprising plot twists, there is plenty of action and suspense to hold one's attention in this wholesome medieval tale.

Throughout the story is a persistent but not overwhelming theme of purity, shown in how the men treat Rosemarie and do not expect her to give any sort of favors. They treat her honorably, and she is free to hold onto her standards. Also, it's wonderful to see examples of chivalry in action. It does in fact exist, and not just in fiction! Girls just have to watch out for it. Each of the three suitors cherishes Rosemarie in his own way, and while they cannot all win her heart, they irrevocably win her friendship.

And, of course, a teaser at the end leaves the reader hungering for the next book. Given how much I came to appreciate all three suitors, dare I hope the next books are to be about the two noble knights who do not win Rosemarie's hand?

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

0.5. "The Vow"
1. An Uncertain Choice
2. A Daring Sacrifice
3. For Love and Honor 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Jen Turano's "After A Fashion" - another fun, clean read!

Cover ArtJen Turano starts off her new series with plenty of laughs. Harriet Peabody is a middle class milliner who loses her job after an altercation with a client. Oliver Addleshaw, the client's almost-fiance, feels that Harriet's loss is partly his fault, and given her sensible nature, he has a brilliant idea how to help them both. He needs a feminine companion to help sway a business deal, and Harriet is out of a job - what could be better than to hire her for a couple weeks? Of course, there is the fact that Harriet has never been a part of high society and has no idea how to conduct herself at an upper class dinner party or the opera or high-end shopping. Plus an unsavory bit of her past is determined to dog her footsteps . . .

Oh, the unfortunate situations that befall poor Harriet! Even so sensible a person as Harriet can't completely avoid trouble. One thing I love about Turano's works is her ability to drop the heroine in such sticky situations and make them absolutely hilarious. And it's always fun, clean humor - nothing a teen should not read!

I enjoyed the middle-class perspective, where Harriet needs to work, she needs to be thrifty and fiscally responsible, and her best friends are on the same page. I can definitely connect with that mentality! It's a fun change of perspective from the upper class heroines.

Oliver serves as a reminder to pay attention to our surroundings and see those who need our help. Before Harriet, he scarcely perceives the poor right in front of him, but those people are her friends and acquaintances, people she makes an effort to help even when she has so little. While we are not all as dense as Oliver or as intent on amassing a fortune, we can still learn or be convicted along with him.

Every one of Turano's novels is a delight, and this one is no exception. I believe the following books of the series include the stories of Millie and Lucetta (and maybe Victoria?). Lucetta particularly intrigued me by her peculiar personal habits and some subtle comments indicating a secretive past . . . I'm definitely looking forward to the upcoming books of the series!

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

A Class of Their Own
1. After a Fashion
2. In Good Company
3. Playing the Part 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Stephanie Grace Whitson's "Daughter of the Regiment" - juxtaposes two women on either side of the Civil War

Daughter of the Regiment   -     By: Stephanie Whitson
Stephanie Grace Whitson weaves a fascinating tale of two women who, sharing one county yet residing on opposite sides of the war, are thrown together on the battlefield. When 6-foot Maggie Malone receives word that her brother Jack has been wounded in battle, she packs a bag and sets after him to care for him, falling right in with the regiment.  Back in Littleton, southern belle Libby Blair is playing hostess for the Wildwood Guard of Confederate soldiers camped on her lawn. Both know that soon the two armies will collide, but how many boys they love will be lost in battle to come?

While the Civil War is often described as the war that pitted brother against brother, nowhere was it more prevalent than in the border states, like Missouri. Littleton is a town divided by war, one half "fighting for freedom" and the other fighting "to end tyranny." The author does a great job depicting this controversial area, where there are those who keep slaves, those who don't but still support the Confederacy, and those who support the Union, all living in the same town, about to battle one another. With friendships and family ties severed, how can anyone truly win in such a tragic situation?

Whitson finds a beautiful balance in her tale, where there is a definite right and wrong, yet neither side can be classified as purely evil or perfect. On the Yankee side, Maggie has her "boys" that she loves, yet there are certain men in the regiment that she avoids, who fight out of cruelty and hatred. On the Confederate side, it is the same - Libby serves many good, young men who she cannot bear to see hurt, yet others are not good men. The women do not focus on the politics of who is right and who is wrong, but rather on loving all the men placed in their care. And whatever else may happen, love never fails.

Prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes. We generally assume that those with the power are the judgmental bullies, while those who are looked down on - be they black, Irish, or whatever - are the innocent oppressed. But the reality is that anyone can be prejudiced. Libby, the southern belle, surprised me in that in her first assessment of Maggie, she sees someone who is smart, sensible, and would make a good friend. Maggie's first opinion of Libby is decidedly less kind - just an narrow-waisted, empty-headed, biddable southern belle who would look down on Maggie. For Maggie, accustomed to prejudice against the Irish, it becomes an excuse to be prejudiced against the class of those who have generally looked down on her. It is a strong reminder that any of us can be prejudiced, not just those we expect to be. 

I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two women, who are so different, yet their hearts are the same. When it comes to it, the story doesn't need Colt's viewpoint, as these two women are strong enough to carry the story on their own. Whitson proves again that she is an excellent storyteller with an eye for historical detail. 4.5 stars!

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

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Anna's Crossing" by Suzanne Woods Fisher - an Amish Beginnings novel

Anna's CrossingSuzanne Woods Fisher delves into the history of the Amish in Anna's Crossing, a story of the Amish immigration to America. Being the only one of their village fluent in English and able to translate, Anna is pressured into taking the 2-month sea voyage, but she hopes to return home to Germany. As she travels, she attempts the impossible task of keeping an eye on a young boy whose mother has spiraled into depression, but Felix is skilled at disappearing. Through her translation skills and chasing after Felix, she keeps encountering the ship's carpenter, Bairn, a young man with more to him than meets the eye. Assuming  they survive the perilous voyage, will Anna be able to return home? Or has she found something better where she is?

With historical novels, I like to learn at least one new bit of history with each story, but this book contained a wealth of new information for me. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that the Amish and Mennonite peoples were so old, and that they have been separate peoples since long before immigrating to America, which happened a good hundred years earlier than I had thought. I knew that those early crossings were long and dangerous, but I had not heard of the cunning people who took advantage of the naive immigrants and sold the poor and defenseless into slavery. It is a fascinating story, both in terms of the story and the history.

I think that the modern church could learn a lot from these people - a people who would give away half of their dwindling drinking water, not knowing if God would provide, and, more importantly, accepting that even if He doesn't provide and they all perish, His work will continue. They did what was right, regardless of the consequences. So often we want to take care of ourselves before taking care of others, but what God asks of us does not always follow worldly logic.

I don't read much Amish fiction, but I do read plenty of historicals, so this was a clever way to combine the two. I really liked young Felix's viewpoint, and I would enjoy reading more about him when he grows up, to see if he ever loses that over-developed sense of adventure. The love story between Anna and Bairn was sweet, and I was delighted to discover a hunch I had was true. It is a sweet, cross-genre novel.

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

Monday, March 2, 2015

March Christian fiction releases!

Christian fiction releases I am excited to read this March!

An Uncertain Choice    -     By: Jody Hedlund
Anna's Crossing #4: Spy of Richmond  -     By: Jocelyn Green

An Uncertain Choice by Jody Hedlund (Zondervan) ~ A Young Adult historical romance

Jody Hedlund tries her hand at young adult fiction for this medieval story about a girl who has been brought up with the intent of joining the nunnery, but suddenly she is presented with the option of marriage instead.

Anna's Crossing by Suzanne Woods Fisher (Revell) ~ An Amish Beginnings novel

We catch a glimpse of the origins of Amish life in America as a young English-speaking woman sets sail to guide her people to the New World, planning to return to her native home - but will she make the crossing and still be able to return?

Spy of Richmond by Jocelyn Green (River North) ~ Heroines Behind the Lines, book 4

As a Union loyalist, a woman in the capitol of the Confederacy will do anything to see the North win the war, even spy on her own father and suitor.

Daughter of the Regiment   -     By: Stephanie Whitson
After a Fashion    Three Little Words (Walker Family): A Novella - eBook  -     By: Melissa Tagg

Daughter of the Regiment by Stephanie Grace Whitson (FaithWords) ~ a Civil War novel

Following her brothers to war, an Irish immigrant joins up with the Union Army, finding friendship in the most unexpected places.

After a Fashion by Jen Turano (Bethany House) ~ A Class of Their Own, book 1

A young milliner loses her job over a misunderstanding with a client, and the client's ex-almost-fiance figures out a way that he can help her and she him - but neither could expect the results of his unusual proposition!

"Three Little Words" by Melissa Tagg ~ The Walker Family, book 0.5: an e-novella prequel

In spite of having next to nothing in common, two sparring wordsmiths become pen pals and end up developing an unexpected friendship - or could it be more?