Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"A Proper Pursuit" by Lynn Austin - history, humor, and heart

Cover ArtLynn Austin's novel A Proper Pursuit Violet Hayes convinces her father to let her go to Chicago to stay with her grandmother and see the world's fair, though secretly it's to find her mother, who left when Violet was eight. However, her grandmother and her three sisters each have a different agenda for her while she's there, and none are particularly willing to spill the truth about her mother. As she finds herself with numerous suitors and numerous roads to take, Violet must decide for herself what the best choice is for her life.

While not as whimsical as Austin's more recent Wonderland Creek, A Proper Pursuit shares similar humor - a daydreamy, imaginative humor that particularly tickles my fancy. Violet definitely has her head in the clouds, imagining all sorts of more exciting events than reality generally gives her. I love the relaxed feel of the story and its indulgent length (432 pages).

The supporting characters--Violet's aunts and grandmother and suitors--make for a wonderful cast of characters. The four sisters are so different from each other, with such unique perspectives and agendas, and each has something to teach Violet, even if they appear frivolous or ridiculous at first. None of the four are perfect, but they each have something to love about them. The same goes for her four suitors; they are each very different, and they give Violet ample opportunity to figure out what she most wants in a husband, or if she even wants a husband at all. They all form a part of helping her grow up into herself.

While Violet does not go to Chicago in pursuit of a husband, men certainly are pursuing her. After the first third of the book, there were four men seriously interested in her, and at that point I honestly wasn't sure who she'd fall in love with--not a common situation in most romances! (And a refreshing situation I enjoyed). As it is a christian book, one might assume the seminary student, but as a romance, it could point to the wealthy man who is tired of pretending. But in a turn of events, the boring man from home could prove to have surprising depth, or the traveling salesman be a solid, reliable person in spite of appearances. As time goes on it becomes more obvious, but I liked that all four are given an equal chance of being the one.

Violet is refreshingly honest, especially when it comes to serving. She admits that she doesn't like serving in the tenements and slums with her grandmother, not because she has no compassion (and she does, indeed, have great compassion for the poor), but because frankly, the sights and smells of the slums make her sick, and she is not sure she could handle a life devoted to serving there. Her rich aunt's form of serving--helping financially by raising money through charity events--is something that is far more appealing for her and well within her scope of abilities. I really appreciate that the book points out that it's okay to feel that way. Both ends of the spectrum are legitimate areas for serving God, and we need both (and everything in between) to reach out for God's kingdom. Not everyone is a hand in the body of Christ, and not everyone should be.

I loved Wonderland Creek so much that I wasn't sure anything else by the author could compare, but I ended up delighted by this book too. It was fun to tour the Chicago World's Fair through Violet's eyes and meet some famous people of the time, from evangelists to suffragettes to reformists. I found the different forms of Christianity in the novel to be realistically expressed: from just-go-to-church-on-Sundays indifference to strict, loveless obedience; from all-consuming, passionate ministry to simply loving like Jesus. The mystery with her mother made me cry near the end, when more is revealed. Full of both humor and heart, it is a highly satisfying novel with enough whimsy to tickle my fancy but enough depth to tug at my heart. It well deserves its 2008 Christy Award for Best Historical. 5 out of 5 stars!

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Closer Than Brothers: Surviving Andersonville": Mary Connealy's prequel to her Trouble in Texas series

Product DetailsMary Connealy is known for her romantic comedies with cowboys. But in her own words, "Closer than Brothers" doesn't quite fit that mold. It's the story of how friendship stronger than that of brothers was forged in the next closest thing to hell: Andersonville Prison. The most notorious atrocity of the Civil War.

To quote the author:

"It's not very funny--not much to smile about in Andersonville. It's not a romance--the goings on between Callie and Seth don't add up to happily ever after . . . not for a while. But it's a glimpse at the fires that forged the characters in later books. And what happened that would make them come running when one of them was in trouble in Texas. And how their faith grows stronger as they fight for survival. Men who overcome the depths of human deprivation to live happily ever after."

Closer Than Brothers: Surviving Andersonville (Trouble in Texas, #0.5)As far as prequels go, this is one of the best. It sets up two connected trilogies: The Kincaid Brothers and Trouble in Texas. And, if I understand correctly, potentially a third . . . or at least, a hero who appears in a third. Right there, one prequel is going a long way.

As far as its inclusion in the Seekers' With This Kiss Historical Collection--well, it's considered a bonus story for a reason. As a romance, it stinks. But that's because those things take place later on in her novels; this story sets them up.

While no, it isn't as funny as her stories typically are, neither is it so heavy that it is painful to read. We get a good notion of just how bad things are in Andersonville without being overloaded with gory detail. Connealy's unmistakeable turn of phrase is ever present, along with her sarcastic humor--about the only kind left to these men.

It stands out because it isn't a romance. It stands out because it depicts one of America's worst atrocities. And it stands out because it's about finding hope, wonder, and God in a Godless place.

Kincaid Brides
0.5: "Closer than Brothers: Surviving Andersonville" (prequel to Over the Edge)
1. Out of Control
2. In Too Deep
3. Over the Edge

Trouble in Texas
0.5: "Closer Than Brothers"
1. Swept Away
2. Fired Up
3. Stuck Together

"Runaway Bride" (follows both Kincaid Brides and Trouble in Texas; from the novella collection With This Ring?)

Other novellas in With This Kiss Historical Collection include:

"His Beloved Bride" by Ruth Logan Herne starts with a marriage of convenience: Phillip needs a wife and child to come into his inheritance, and Grace--newly widowed with a newborn--is in desperate need of help. But can a marriage of convenience survive?

Pam Hillman's "Meeting in the Middle" connects to neighbors who can't make it on their own: Alaina, whose father just died, and widower Curt, who is trying to watch two small girls and run a farm. They strike a bargain to help each other get the cotton in, but maybe they need to meet in the middle to make it work.

In "The Innkeeper's Promise" by Cara Lynn Jones, Dane returns to his deceased uncle's inn, only to discover his uncle's widow and stepdaughter have run it to the ground. Lydia is fighting to keep the inn, even with its financial mess, while Dane wants to sell; who will win the battle?

Julie Lessman's "Grace Like Rain" returns to her Heart of San Francisco series to follow up with Blake "the Rake" McClare as he discovers that one specific God-fearing woman might be worth infinitely more than all the floozies, society belles, and others combined that he has spent his life pursuing.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Grace Like Rain" by Julie Lessman - a novella coda to her Heart of San Francisco series

Julie Lessman's "Grace Like Rain," published in the Seekers of Seekerville's With This Kiss Historical Collection of novellas, returns to her Heart of San Francisco series to follow up with Blake "the Rake" McClare. With his friends all falling victim to matrimony, Blake is the only bachelor left and intends to remain so; however, drinking and womanizing suddenly lose their appeal when he starts spending more time with the firm's secretary, Patience Grace Peabody. Patience knows to avoid Blake and never let him into her heart; for one, she's a woman of faith, and for two, her mother already made that mistake. But can the leopard change his spots? Can a man of Blake's rakish reputation turn his life around?
Product Details
As a brother of two heroines and a cousin of one, as well as a coworker and close friend of two heroes, Blake McClare could be said to be a fairly major character of The Heart of San Francisco series. It is only fitting that he should find love and be reformed too. Thus this novella is a fun coda to the trilogy--it brings back all the major elements and characters that made the series so loveable. (Even though this novella can stand alone, I do highly recommend reading the full-length novels first, seeing as it is always better to read books in order, but also because they're well worth reading).

Impressively, this novella (which must be a third the length of a full-length novel) still manages to pack quite a punch. Trademark Julie Lessman, there's intense romance and a plot twist to send the heart into overdrive. I like that the novella takes place over the course of months, not just days or weeks; it makes the changing hearts and attitudes more believable, so we don't have to worry that the Rake's flirtation with chastity is a momentary fling. And it gives him time to win over Patience's heart--something she won't hand over easily.

I really enjoyed the story. Most likely because I really enjoyed the first three books and was already invested in the characters, and therefore knew that Blake needed his story told too. And it was well told.

The Heart of San Francisco
1. Love at Any Cost
2. Dare to Love Again
3. Surprised by Love
3.5 "Grace Like Rain" (e-novella coda to the series, published in With This Kiss Historical Collection)

Other novellas in With This Kiss Historical Collection include:

"His Beloved Bride" by Ruth Logan Herne starts with a marriage of convenience: Phillip needs a wife and child to come into his inheritance, and Grace--newly widowed with a newborn--is in desperate need of help. But can a marriage of convenience survive?

Pam Hillman's "Meeting in the Middle" connects to neighbors who can't make it on their own: Alaina, whose father just died, and widower Curt, who is trying to watch two small girls and run a farm. They strike a bargain to help each other get the cotton in, but maybe they need to meet in the middle to make it work.

In "The Innkeeper's Promise" by Cara Lynn Jones, Dane returns to his deceased uncle's inn, only to discover his uncle's widow and stepdaughter have run it to the ground. Lydia is fighting to keep the inn, even with its financial mess, while Dane wants to sell; who will win the battle?

Bonus (and not as romantic) novella "Closer than Brothers" by Mary Connealy tells the story of how five men became true friends that are closer than brothers amidst the horrors of Andersonville Prison during the Civil War . . . a prequel to both the Trouble in Texas and Kincaid Brothers trilogies (focusing mostly on Trouble in Texas).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Lorna Seilstad's "As Love Blooms"

As Love BloomsIn the final book of the Gregory Sisters trilogy, Tessa, the youngest, finally comes into her own. While she has chased many dreams over the years, her love of gardening has stuck with her through them all. When she is prevented from returning to college, she decides to prove herself as a horticulturist by working at Como Park, but they refuse to hire a woman. However, a handsome gardener named Reese offers to use her designs in his plot and let her help create the garden. In the meantime, Tessa is also wooing high society to vote in favor of a new conservatory, hoping that her efforts will win her a position in the end. But will she ever see a dream come to fruition?

It was fun to read a story set in a place I'd been to several times as a child (and now want to visit again to see with the eyes of an adult). Como Park is one of the big landmarks of St. Paul, and the conservatory one of its highlights. I really enjoyed learning more of the history behind the park. Impressively, it is still meeting it's original goal to be an educational facility that everyone can enjoy, rich or poor, young or old. And this book is coming out just in time for the conservatory's centennial celebration! Nice timing.

I'm a lot more like peace-loving, middle sister Charlotte than Tessa, so I spent the whole book in mortal fear of what scrape she'd get into next. Or rather, at each less than wise decision, I could see a whole host of consequences waiting to happen, and a ducking in the waterlily pond was the least of my concerns. However, she does make for a fun, spirited heroine. Reese provides a nice balance--his stability, her creativity.

At what point does acting become manipulation? Or simple persuasion become manipulation? And when does privacy become secrets? Or not speaking become a lie? There are a lot of moments when the characters' behavior rests on the tipping point between acceptable and unethical, and it's hard to draw the line. However, the characters prove just how easy it is to hurt the ones you love when you tip over the edge.

I liked the inclusion of Aunt Sam's romance--it was fun to have that touch of a more mature (as in, 65-years-old-mature) love story, especially in contrast to Tessa, who is by far the least mature of the three sisters. Tessa definitely fits the part of a youngest child (complete with stereotypical attitude and show-me actions), especially in her frustration with forever being treated like a child by her older sisters. Over all, the story was cute and fun--a nice conclusion to the series.

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

PS. I am utterly scandalized that Tessa picks a blossom off a tubercled rein-orchid. Very, very rare! As in, they only grow a few places in the state! Granted, picking the wildflower was a calculated and clever move on her part, and she didn't pick the whole plant. But still, it's the principle of the thing.

The Gregory Sisters
1. When Love Calls
2. While Love Stirs
3. As Love Blooms 

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Reservations for Two" by Hillary Manton Lodge her sequel to A Table by the Window, Hillary Manton Lodge writes another recipe-filled installment of Juliette's story. Juliette D'Alisa is overwhelmed. Her mother has cancer, she's opening a new restaurant with her brother, and she's trying to unravel the mystery of her grandmother's past. And a long distance relationship with Neil, who lives across the country? She's just not sure how much she can handle. She loves every moment spent in his presence, but otherwise she is wracked with stress and worry. Is the distance--and differences--between Portland and Memphis too far to overcome?

Before opening this novel, I definitely recommend reading book one first; Reservations for Two begins immediately where A Table by the Window leaves off. The two could really be one thick book instead of separate entities. Plus, there are some incredible recipes that no one should miss out on (Moroccan Lamb Tagine, for one. Mmmmm.)

I love the way the author incorporates recipes with a story. Every recipe included is also mentioned in the story, so for once when reading about some mouthwatering meal or dessert, there's a good chance you can drag the book to your kitchen and whip it up for yourself. And Lodge includes some mighty tasty recipes. I can't wait to try out the ones in this novel!

That said, I wasn't as thrilled with this leg of the saga as in the first. I really enjoyed finding out more about Juliette's grandmother through the letters--it catered nicely to my love of historical fiction. However, it was Juliette's indecision and extreme angst that I had more trouble with. At the end of the first book, it seemed like she had basically figured out what she wanted, but she regresses. If anything, she seems even more insecure in this book. And, not unusual for the second book of a trilogy, the ending left something to be desired (and I am not particularly happy about it). I guess we'll have to wait for book three to see what Juliette ultimately chooses.

I finished the first book feeling hope, but this one left me feeling discontented. It's not one that I would pick up and read by itself--it definitely needs the third book for resolve.

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

Two Blue Doors
1. A Table by the Window
2. Reservations for Two
3. (coming May 2016)

More book related resources:

Friday, May 8, 2015

"No Place to Hide" by Lynette Eason

No Place to HideIn the third of Lynette Eason's Hidden Identity series, a complex terrorist conspiracy sets up an innocent man to take the fall, never expecting he'd make it on the run. Jackie Sellers is sure her childhood friend Ian cannot be a terrorist, and when she tries to help him, she ends up with her face splashed across the news too, on the run with her friend. Between the real terrorists, the FBI, and the vigilant public, they're running out of places to hide. Can they figure out the real terrorist plot--and prove their innocence--before disaster in unleashed?

I have to admit, it took two attempts to read this book--the first time I had a number of other things going on, and it turns out any sort of distraction is fatal to following the plot. So I restarted it when I knew I'd have time to focus solely on the story. With the points of view of ten different characters within the first hundred pages, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who, why they were important, and what exactly was going on. But for the latter two thirds of the book, it was easier to follow the plot, especially as more and more connections are made between characters and where they fit into the storyline.

Once I was able to begin connecting the dots, the complex terrorist plot became a lot more exciting and definitely held my attention. There's lots of fast, thrilling action to accompany it, and it reads with the intensity of an action flick rather than the deliberation of a detective show. Actually, I think it would make an even better movie than book: the action would translate well to film, it's not heavy with introspection, and the multiple viewpoints would benefit from visuals to accompany them. Plus, the world needs some christian action movies!

I think reading the entire book a second time would heighten the enjoyment, as everything would be a lot clearer and I'd be better able to pick out how each piece fits into the story as it's happening. It would be less surprising for sure, but one does not have to be surprised to enjoy a good story.

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

Hidden Identity
1. No One to Trust
2. Nowhere to Turn
3. No Place To Hide

Monday, May 4, 2015

Becky Wade's "A Love Like Ours" - finding hope in hopeless situations

Cover ArtIn the third Porter Family novel, Beck Wade focuses on Jake, the young marine suffering from PTSD and a loss of hope.When his childhood friend Lyndey returns to Texas looking for a job exercising his Thoroughbreds, Jake wants to refuse--exercising race horses is a dangerous job--but he can't deny her qualifications. Lyndey sees it as a God-given opportunity to pursue her passion and possibly--hopefully--help heal Jake in the process. But can Jake handle the possibility of letting someone else he loves get hurt?

Once again, Becky Wade writes a story with strong, likeable characters. Jake might be serious and intense (and yes, a little cranky), but his protective nature, his wounded heart, and his willingness to sacrifice his happiness far outweigh his flaws. I love the various facets to Lyndey: the bold, active jockey, the whimsical, fairy-loving artist, and the compassionate aide to her special-needs sister. People are rarely all artsy or all jock or all computer nerd, so it stands to reason that she would have interests and abilities that don't fit a stereotype. It makes her real.

PTSD is, of course, a major aspect of the book, and the author portrays it really well. Jake's symptoms, while not exactly the same, have much in common with those of a friend who also hit a roadside bomb in Iraq. Thus when reading this story, I could make many connections between Jake and our marine friend. A big thing that stuck out to me was that there is no earthly cure for PTSD--the trauma can't be un-expereinced, it can't be un-seen. The affects of PTSD are not gone, but for Jake and our friend, a deepening relationship with Jesus has made all the difference between despair and hope. And interestingly enough, our friend has even found helpful therapy at a horse farm. So I guess the author made a good pairing there!

Holding onto hope is another strong theme of this story--not just in Jake's situation, but also the situation with Lyndey's sister, who has cerebral palsy. The reintroduction of Amber and Jayden from Undeniably Yours added some lightness and humor to the tale--a necessary relief from the darkness and intensity swirling around Jake--as well as providing a heart-warming continuation of Amber's story. Another strong, healing romance to make one both cry and laugh!

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

Porter Family Novels
1. Undeniably Yours
2. Meant to Be Mine
3. A Love Like Ours
4. Her One and Only

Friday, May 1, 2015

May 2015 Christian fiction releases!

Books being published this May that I am most looking forward to reading:

To Win Her Favor, Belle Meade Plantation Series #2   -     By: Tamera Alexander
As Love Blooms

To Win Her Favor by Tamera Alexander (Zondervan) ~ Reconstruction; Belle Meade Plantation, book 2

In order to save her Thoroughbred and farm, a young woman agrees to marry a man she would not otherwise have considered, little realizing her passion for racing and his dark past would collide . . .

As Love Blooms by Lorna Seilstad (Revell) ~ 1900's; Gregory Sisters, book 3

Denied a horticulturist position at the Como Park Conservatory, the youngest Gregory sister plans a slight deception to infiltrate their ranks. The question is, will the handsome gardener distracting her be a help or a hindrance?
A Love Like Ours

Contemporary romance:

A Love Like Ours by Becky Wade (Bethany House); Porter Family, book 3

A former marine still suffering from PTSD cautiously hires a childhood friend to exercise his Thoroughbreds. As she works on his horses, will she also work on his shattered heart?

No Place to HideSuspense:

No Place to Hide by Lynette Eason (Revell); Hidden Identity, book 3

When a woman sees her childhood friend and one-time crush on the news wanted for a terrorist plot, she races the FBI to track him down. Unlike the Feds, she intends to prove his innocence.