Monday, June 29, 2015

"Things Not Seen" by Jon Bloom - a fresh look at bible stories

Jon Bloom's Things Not Seen focuses on familiar stories from the bible and offers a fresh perspective on how God was working. Old Testament and New, this is proof of God's grace, love, and hope - His ability to change the agonizing circumstances into blessing.

Right from the 2-page Word to the Reader, I knew that if I took nothing else from the book, those few short paragraphs would be blessing enough: they are a reminder of hope. After naming multiple well-known figures of the bible who agonized over the circumstances, it says, "Now think of the blessing that each agony eventually produced." And each example DID lead to blessing, even--and especially--Jesus dying on the cross. Whatever we may suffer, however much we may hurt, there is HOPE.

If you have a problem with any sort of variation on scripture other than the traditional approved translations, then this book may not be for you. It takes a well-known bible story and makes a key section--maybe one that we aren't privy to, but likely happened in the background--into a story rather than straight bible verses. It encourages us to see the story differently, a different angle of how God was working in these people. For example, in the story of Joseph, it elaborates on the scene where the eleven sons return from Egypt and tell Jacob that Joseph is alive, confessing their role in how he ended up there. In this story-like version, the emotions of those involved are clear, and God's role in changing hearts is emphasized.

However, if you are growing bored with the bible or needing a fresh perspective, then this book would be a good choice to read in tandem with the bible. The chapters are short, only a few pages, and would work well in a bible study or as a devotional. It encourages the reader to look deeper than the surface events and really dig in to God's hand at work.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

"Hearts Made Whole" by Jody Hedlund - high stakes and high tension

Cover ArtIn the second Beacons of Hope novel, a series focusing on female lightkeepers on the Michigan coast, Caroline, who has been running the lighthouse singlehandedly since her father's death, is suddenly evicted from her post, along with all four of her siblings, in favor of a war veteran with no experience. Ryan Chambers is not capable of running the light, and he knows it--the pain from his war wounds keeps him addicted to opium and alcohol, and he doesn't have the strength to fight it. Recognizing his inability, he allows Caroline and her siblings to stay on indefinitely, if she would teach him how to properly run the light. However, someone is intent on scaring Caroline away. When the saboteur threatens her family, who will she turn to for help?

I really like Ryan as the hero. He has a number of things to overcome, but he is both fun and gentle. He knows when to be humble, and yet he is not afraid to step into authority. I cannot help but compare him to Arnie, who, under his father's thumb, is more boy than man, for all that he is no child. Ryan is all man. A wounded man, but a mature man who has survived the world, who, when in his clear mind, will not let himself be dominated.

However, it's clear that Ryan's addictions to both opium and alcohol cripple him more than his missing fingers and wounded arm. Not having experience with addictions such as these, I can only guess at the best route to success, but I think the author portrays a reasonable path to healing. There is balance: Ryan needs help to overcome temptation; on his own, he cannot find the motivation or encouragement to break free, and that is where Caroline is so good for him. However, there is also a time when he has to leave the nest and no longer rely on other people to keep him on the right path. God has given us friends, partners, and fellowship so we don't have to go it alone, but ultimately, at the heart, we have to rely on Him, not just human support.

The sibling rivalry between Caroline and Tessa is well written, and the invalid sister Sarah upped the stakes in the tale. However, I would have liked more attention and personality bestowed on the twins, who felt more like a plot device than real boys. After how realistically the child in Love Unexpected was portrayed, I was a little disappointed in this one. It will definitely be interesting to see how Tessa manages in the next book, given her choices and dislike of lighthouses.

I have to say, the author is talented at taking a bad situation and making it even worse (but in a good way). Certain moments made me cringe and groan and want to bury my head beneath a pillow to block out the horror, but they also kept the story moving at a fair clip, once I gathered the nerve face them. As usual, Hedlund maintains tension masterfully, whether it be through conflict, inner turmoil, or romantic tension, before finally arriving at a satisfying conclusion.

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.

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Wood's Edge by Lori Benton: a Father's Day devotional

As a tribute for Father's Day, I thought I'd go back to one of my favorite novels of the year, The Wood's Edge by Lori Benton. (Yes, the year is only half over, but I know a masterpiece when I read it). 

As the author mentions in the dedication, this book ended up having much to do with fathers, including birth and adoptive fathers, as well as our Heavenly Father. It tells a poignant tale of a father's love for his children, imperfect though our human fathers' love may be.

Benton's story begins when two women give birth in a British fort amidst battle during the French and Indian War - the wife of Major Aubrey 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. Aubrey serves as an adoptive father not only for his abducted son, but for a young, orphaned girl he rescued in the midst of battle. He feels that rescuing Anna was the one truly right thing he's done in his life, thus he shares a very close relationship with her. On the other hand, his son William is a constant reminder of the worst deed he ever committed, and the guilt constantly eats away at him, holding him back from embracing William as he should. The guilt taints all his relationships, including that with his wife and close family friend Lydia, and as a result, he holds himself aloof in spite of his love. To top it off, he is not allowed to grieve the death of his beloved little son, because in the eyes of the world, his son lives.

While Good Voice, the mother of the twins, is anguished in the abduction of her son, her husband, Stone Thrower, is eaten by hate and thirst for vengeance. I think some guilt plagues him too - he was unable to protect his wife and save her from being carried away to the British fort where all the problems began. Good Voice initially demands vengeance, wanting her son back, and he takes up the cause. But as years of failure pass, he falls into alcoholism, thirsting for revenge and strong drink, while she grieves and forgives. The obsession with finding his abducted son causes him to neglect the child that remains, and the love he feels is frequently buried under hate and demon-rum.

Both sons feel unloved by their fathers. And I have to say, their fathers are not prime examples of loving dads. And yet, their fathers are real examples of dads - imperfect men who have made mistakes, whose imperfections sometimes bring out other emotions that mask the love they feel. Whose pasts cast a shadow over the present, shadowing their love also. Dads that could be ours.

The only perfect father in the story is God the Father, and He's the only perfect father we'll ever see too. While His children - be they thieves, abusive, self-destructive, alcoholic, or neglectful - make foolish choices, hurting each other and themselves, He loves them still, showing that love by using His hand to work the heartbreaking circumstances for their good. As Romans 8:28 says: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Thankfully, that promise does not expire when we - or our fathers - make mistakes.

Given the various examples of fatherhood expressed in the story, it begs us to look past the places where our own fathers have erred - all the foolish, destructive things they may have done - and see the love instead, even when they have a hard time expressing it in a loving manner. Recognize that love before it's too late, and love them regardless.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Mary Connealy's "Now and Forever" - another rollicking romantic comedy

Cover ArtIn the second book of her series about three sisters who fought as men in the Civil War, Mary Connealy focuses on Shannon Wilde, the sheep-loving middle sister. When Shannon and mountain man Matt Tucker avoid a bear by going off a cliff into a wild, raging river, Tucker thinks they're done for. But somehow they claw their way out, and when a search party--including a preacher--finds them several days AND NIGHTS later, there's nothing to be done but say their vows. Suddenly the mountain man is stuck trying to save his new wife's stupid sheep as someone is trying to run them off of their land. And no matter his personal feelings on sheep, someone attacking his wife and property doesn't settle too well with him.

As always with a Connealy book, I love her turn of phrase. While romantic comedies are not my husband's thing, I could still read lines out of this book to him and he'd snicker along with me. Classic Mary Connealy.

While everyone who survived the War Between States came home with scars, I love that the author takes a look at what one of the hundreds of women who fought in battle dressed as a man might have taken home from the war--how it affected her and what may have haunted her dreams after the experience. Had I been in Shannon's shoes, I could see suffering the same nightmares. Until it was pointed out, I had not connected how the peaceful life she has built for herself is a direct attempt to counter her war experiences, but after what she went through, it is little surprise that she would desire to create a life as different from battle as she could get.

Sometimes the bad guys are unrepentantly evil, while others are just lost souls in need of Jesus. I like that Connealy can take the villain/s from one book and turn them around into people one can potentially like in the next book, such as with the bad guys from the previous novel, Tried & True. However, such is not the case with all villains . . . She can craft a good sneaky villain too--one that you can gleefully despise.

While the book is written with a heavy dose of humor, it is has some good things to say too: if you have doubts, God is big enough to handle them, and He already knows about them, so it's not like you have to worry about breaking the news--just talk it out with Him. I have been thoroughly enjoying this series, and I am especially looking forward to Bailey's story in the next novel--she continues to become more intriguing with each book!

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

Wild At Heart
1. Tried & True
2. Now & Forever
3. Fire & Ice 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sandra Orchard's "Desperate Measures": the final book of the Port Aster Secrets trilogy

Desperate MeasuresIn the final installment of Sandra Orchard's Port Aster Secrets trilogy, Kate will finally find out what is so special about the secret Amendoso plant that people will kill over it . . . Kate has been secretly growing the plant in her cellar and running tests on its properties, hoping that she can discover what makes it a miracle plant, and therefore find out why her father was almost killed. Unfortunately, she's willing to risk just about anything to find the truth . . .

I'm glad to finally understand the conspiracy behind all of Kate's troubles. All the pieces from the first two books came together in this one to finally complete the puzzle, making for a solid, complex trilogy. The plot is suitably twisty that it's hard to guess who is good and who is not, and there were definitely some turns I was not expecting. 

Kate is still mule-headed about running straight toward trouble. She doesn't trust the people she should (Tom, especially), yet she's perfectly willing to run off alone with people she shouldn't trust. Which she does. More than once. I had wished by this book she'd be more sensible about such things, but if anything, she's worse than ever.

Like in the other two books of the trilogy, I highly enjoyed the botanical aspects of the story, though this time I was not surprised by any of the unique medicinal qualities of plants mentioned in the story. I am pleased to note that the connections between jewelweed and poison ivy are quite accurate! I really appreciate it when an author does her research, and Orchard consistently has.

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

Port Aster Secrets
1. Deadly Devotion
2. Blind Trust
3. Desperate Measures

Friday, June 12, 2015

Margaret Brownley's "Undercover Bride" - a creative plot and delightful characters

#2: Undercover Bride  -     By: Margaret Brownley
The second of the Undercover Ladies, Pinkerton agent Maggie, is placed undercover as a mail order bride. Her job is simple: investigate the man she's agreed to marry and prove he is the notorious Whistle-Stop Bandit. But if she doesn't prove his guilt within the month, she'll end up married to the man! But then the more she investigates Garrett, the less certain she is that he is her man . . . or at least, she's less certain that he's the bandit. But if this wounded man and loving father isn't the bandit, what will happen when he finds out the truth about his bride?

When I started the book, I was certain that Garrett was innocent. All they have linking him to the crime is circumstantial evidence. Some of his habits appear suspicious, but I had great faith that they could be explained away. But as time passed, the author certainly did a good job of making me question my convictions!

Even in a lighthearted story like this one, the ramifications of lying--even undercover as a detective--are clear and painful. After hours of worrying together over a sick child, it is terribly difficult for Maggie to separate her undercover role from her feelings, and it just gets worse as time goes by. And then the betrayal that Garrett feels after preparing to wed the woman . . . The author does a good job exploring the feelings of both parties.

The supporting characters were delightful--Garrett's hypochondriac aunt, Maggie's crazily disguised partner, the precocious children. I highly enjoyed the snippets of information on the Pinkertons and undercover work that are sprinkled about the book, which Maggie employs with aplomb. Over all, it was a highly enjoyable novel, with a creative plot and delightful characters.

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

Undercover Ladies
1. Petticoat Detective
2. Undercover Bride
3. Calico Spy 

Monday, June 8, 2015

"A Worthy Pursuit" by Karen Witemeyer - a delightful blend of humor and depth

Cover ArtKaren Witemeyer's A Worthy Pursuit pits a bounty hunter against a woman who refuses to give up her charges. Charlotte, formerly a teacher, is the legal guardian of a young prodigy, but she knows that the little girl's wealthy grandfather will stop at nothing to get her back. When the old man sics bounty hunter Stone Hammond after her, it takes some work to convince Stone that she is in the right. Stone doesn't like being played--and he's pretty sure it isn't the lovely teacher who is playing him. But how can they protect the girl, especially when her grandfather is inclined to keep sending bounty hunters after her--and not all of them are as scrupulous as Stone?

Being a pianist myself, I loved the musical theme to the story. I really connected with Charlotte's use of the piano as a catalyst for emotional release, having many times found release in the same way. I also enjoyed being able to hear the music in my head as she plays, since most of the mentioned pieces are famous works such as Beethoven's The Tempest and the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata

I was really happy that even though Charlotte has trouble trusting people, she and Stone don't fall into the he-breaks-her-trust-just-when-she-begins-to-trust-him cliché. It's a trap many heroes fall into, but not in this novel! Which is not to say things go smoothly for the two of them, but they avoid the overused conflict that so often accompanies trust issues, making for a less predictable story.

The three children are precious of course, each special in their own way--I was highly amused by Lilly's rather bloodthirsty nature. I really appreciated that being intelligent individuals, Stone and Charlotte are prone to using their heads and making intelligent plans, not just impulsively jumping straight into the hot water! I hate it when characters make obviously foolish choices, and these two never do. Their plans do not always work out, but they always use their brains.

Karen Witemeyer is an expert at blending humor with depth for a well-rounded, satisfying read, and this one is no exception. 5 out of 5 stars!

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

Be sure to read the novella sequel, "The Husband Maneuver," from the With This Ring? anthology.

Friday, June 5, 2015

"Love's Rescue" by Christine Johnson - an enjoyable introduction to the Florida Keys

Love's RescueIn Love's Rescue, the first of her Keys of Promise series, Christine Johnson introduces us to the tempestuous Florida Keys. Elizabeth Benjamin returns to Key West after learning of her mother's death, but her homecoming isn't all she wanted it to be: her brother still resents her for a mistake she made that led to his crippling, and her father and aunt are pushing a match with a man she despises, while her heart still belongs to the wrecker Rourke O'Malley. When family secrets are revealed, she must decide if she will choose her family or her own way.

I always enjoy it when an author chooses a lesser-known location or part of history to focus on in her story. In this case, we get an introduction to the dangers, beauty, and unusual politics of Key West. While I have read one other series taking place in the Florida Keys, it was fun to get another--later--perspective, after the pirates are relegated to history and the area is largely civilized. While a lack of basic dry goods in the Keys was understandable, I found it especially interesting that most foods save fish and a few tropical fruits also had to be brought in; very little was raised there on the islands. A very different culture!

The author strikes a nice balance between Elizabeth's opposing aspects of her upbringing: she is the daughter of a wealthy, slave-holding southerner, and thus she does exhibit characteristics of her entitled class. But she was also brought up with a slave for her best childhood friend, and so she does have sympathy for her maid. Slavery is the way of life down there; I wouldn't call Elizabeth an abolitionist, but she tries to be a good mistress of her house. In that, I think she is more realistic than many heroines of the South who go from indifference or ignorance about slavery to suddenly acquiring intense abolitionist leanings.

For a romance, there is surprisingly little interaction between the heroine and hero, though they clearly occupy each others' thoughts. I liked Rourke's selfless pursuit of his mission, especially since it focuses on neither him nor his love interest; it's a different approach to a romance. The book has good things to say about forgiveness--both in seeking it and giving it. An enjoyable historical read!

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

Keys of Promise:
1. Love's Rescue
2. Honor Redeemed
3. Freedom's Price

Monday, June 1, 2015

June 2015 Christian fiction releases!

Here are June's christian fiction releases that have me excited:
(Reviews to come!)

Historical Fiction:

Love's Rescue Now and Forever Hearts Made Whole
Love's Rescue by Christine Johnson (Revell) ~ Antebellum; Keys of Promise, book 1

After her mother's death, a young woman returns to Key West to be the southern belle her parents wished her to be, but can she sacrifice her dreams for duty?

Now and Forever by Mary Connealy (Bethany House) ~ Reconstruction; Wild at Heart, book 2

Thanks to a grizzly bear, a cliff, a rushing river, and a woman who somehow gets tangled up with him, a civilization-hating trapper ends up married to a sheep farmer who dresses like a man. But when someone starts trying to runs his new wife off her land, he finds something worth fighting for.

Hearts Made Whole by Jody Hedlund (Bethany House) ~ Reconstruction; Beacons of Hope, book 2

A young woman running a lighthouse is replaced by a man who doesn't know how to do the job. When he proves incapable, will he let her help?

Undercover Bride by Margaret Brownley (Barbour) ~ Late 1800's; Undercover Ladies, book 2

A female Pinkerton Agent goes undercover as a mail-order bride. Can she prove (or disprove) the suspect's guilt before they tie the knot?

A Worthy Pursuit by Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House) ~ Late 1800's

A bounty hunter tracks down a teacher who supposedly abducted her student, but things quickly prove different than they first appeared. Who is telling the truth? The teacher or the child's grandfather?

#2: Undercover Bride  -     By: Margaret Brownley
A Worthy Pursuit Desperate Measures
Contemporary Suspense:

Desperate Measures by Sandra Orchard (Revell); Port Aster Secrets, book 3

Herbal researcher Kate has finally found the miracle plant that led to her father's disappearance years ago, but there are others after it too. Will her single-minded pursuit of the truth push away those who care for her and leave her open to danger?