Monday, February 29, 2016

Lynn Austin's "Fire by Night" - an engrossing tale of women in the Civil War

Fire by Night (Refiner's Fire, #2)After hearing a mortifying statement about her self-centeredness by a man she's loved for years, Julie Hoffman wants to prove him wrong. In spite of obstacles, she wrangles herself a job as a nurse--and it's not an easy road. Phoebe Bigwlow, a tall, raw-boned tomboy raised by men, wants nothing of the life of a woman; she wants to prove herself on the battlefield like her brothers, so she runs away and joins the Union, fighting alongside the men. But neither of these women can anticipate the horrors of war, or what they are each truly capable of until they are put to the test.

The book started out a little predictable, and I had a hard time mustering enthusiasm for Julia, who was, as she admits to herself, spoiled, self-centered, and immature. But on page 166* everything changed for me, when I realized that the inevitable was NOT inevitable. In fact, some spectacular twists were going to happen instead. And from then on, I really enjoyed the story. But I have to say, I'm glad the book is 429 pages, or there may not have been enough time to develop that oh-so-satisfying storyline.
(*2003 edition)

Fire by Night, Repackaged EditionI wondered how and when the two female protagonists' lives would intersect, and I'm glad that once they did, they never became far separated again. Both Julia and Phoebe see a lot of growth, though in different ways. Phoebe becomes the woman she had been deprived the chance to become under the lax supervision of her brothers, while Julia matures into a beautiful woman on the inside as well as the outside. In both cases, their stories became more and more compelling as the book goes on. And while they're as different as night and day, because of their experiences they share a bond that few others can understand. It's a powerful tale of friendship besides personal growth.

I love the author's ability to take a piece of war and turn it into a biblical illustration - such as a soldier sacrificing himself out of love for another to illustrate Jesus's sacrifice for us. As Julia and Phoebe grow, there are increasingly potent tidbits of wisdom. Though very different from the first book in the series, it is powerful and fitting all the same.

Refiner's Fire
1. Candle in the Darkness
2. Fire by Night
3. Light to My Path 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Lynn Austin's "Candle in the Darkness" - a deep, moving story of the Civil War

Candle in the Darkness (Refiner's Fire, #1)Daughter of a wealthy, slave-holding family, Caroline Fletcher is raised to believe that slavery is God-ordained. But as her views of the institution change, she finds herself torn between love for the slaves who raised her and love for her staunchly Confederate family and friends. When war arrives, which side will she choose?

I can see why this was the Christy Award winner in 2003 for best North American Historical. Not only a richly detailed novel of Richmond's role in the Civil War, it is also an inspiring tale of conviction, transformation, and faith.

Caroline sees incredible growth throughout the novel, and she is one of the most convincing Southern abolitionists I've ever read about. Essentially, this is the story of how the child of a slave-holding Southern couple ended up fighting for the freedom of slaves, detailing the events and people who influenced her to turn her from her upbringing. It wasn't an overnight experience, and it didn't mean that she hated her Confederate family, friends, neighbors, and city. She's strong, real, and believable.

Candle in the Darkness, Repackaged EditionWhile some may find this story to be heavy on spiritual matters, it is important to Caroline's journey to becoming the strong woman she is. And there are so many gems of wisdom in there, it could fill a book by themselves. I loved the parallels between the Civil War and the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.

One thing that stood out to me is difference between Caroline's actions and those of the most of the other characters in the book. She isn't fighting for a cause, not like the fire-filled abolitionists of the North or the Confederates who are fighting for states' rights. She is fighting for the people she loves.

Not only is this book a solid choice for Civil War history, it is a solid, moving story. I highly recommend it - 5 out of 5 stars!

Refiner's Fire
1. Candle in the Darkness
2. Fire by Night
3. A Light to My Path

Friday, February 19, 2016

Siri Mitchell's "The Messenger" - pacifism in the American Revolution

When Hannah Sunderland's twin brother, after rejecting the pacifist stance of the Quakers and joining the revolting colonists, is captured and thrown into prison, Hannah wants desperately to help him, but her faith forbids it. Jeremiah Jones, a colonial spy, needs to get someone into the prison to smuggle notes while arranging a jailbreak, and Hannah is his only option, if he can convince her to disobey the Quakers' ruling on not getting involved. As they come to a truce, Jeremiah is frustrated with Hannah's refusal to tell a lie--what kind of spy only tells the unvarnished truth? And Hannah finds her faith challenged by the bitter man helping her. As the danger increases, will they find the courage to do what is right?
Cover Art
It was interesting to see the pacifistic side of the Revolutionary War - neither for nor against, but washing their hands of it all. I can see why they'd be loved by neither side. The story brings up several tough subjects, such as at what point does not doing something hold you culpable? Violence may be wrong, but ignoring injustice is too. 

The story ended a little abruptly; I wouldn't have minded a bit more closure on . . . most everything. Even a two-page epilogue would have helped settle it more.  But it was definitely interesting to read about a spy who not only follows the letter of telling the truth, but the spirit too. No deception for her!

I liked learning more about the Quaker Society of Friends. Some things, like their historical stance on not ministering to the prisoners of war, I didn't agree with. But I enjoyed the depictions of the Meetings, and how the Friends staunchly believed in listening to the Holy Spirit.  It's tastefully portrayed, though that aspect of the book feels radical, being outside of mainstream Christianity today. Radical, but not to be dismissed.

There are novels about the Revolutionary War that I have liked more, but this one is still well worth the read, especially given its unique perspective.

On a similar vein, I'd also recommend:
Rebellious Heart by Jody Hedlund, about the oppression and life leading up to the Revolution, while people were still choosing sides (which explores moral themes not unlike The Messenger)
Ring of Secrets by Roseanna M. White, about spies operating in New York City
The Colonel's Daughter by Laura Frantz, about the war on the Kentucky frontier

Monday, February 15, 2016

"A Spy's Devotion" by Melanie Dickerson - Sense & Sensibility and Etiquette & Espionage

A Spy's Devotion (The Regency Spies of London #1)In the first book of her series The Regency Spies of London, Melanie Dickerson takes a wounded soldier and turns him into a spy for England. Nicholas Langdon unwittingly speaks of coded documents to the wrong people, and he desires to rectify his error by discovering the identities of the spies. Certain that Mr. Wilhern is one of the culprits, he makes time for the man's infatuated daughter and more than lovely niece, Julia Grey. An impoverished ward living off her relation's goodwill, Julia has two options: marry for money or become a governess. But when Nicholas involves her in spying against her uncle, her heart falls instead for the army-lieutenant-cum-spy. Can they foil the plot that threatens the nation? And in the aftermath, will Julia find safety and love?

I have read and enjoyed a number of Dickerson's fairy tale retellings, but this novel--geared toward adults, yet appropriate for teens--I liked even more. I appreciated the complexity with the variety of subplots and how the author was able to touch on a number of issues of the regency period. Between the country's laws and society's rules, women had a pretty limited existence, and I love how the author incorporated the law forbidding a wife to testify against her husband. Pretty clever!

I really appreciate a sensible heroine. Julia is intelligent and practical, and while she is a bit cautious when it comes to taking risks, with good enough motivation, she is willing to do it. And she does it with intelligence! No willy-nilly, flighty, acting without thinking for her! But she also learns to loosen up and embrace that she can be loved for who she is rather than because she has always followed the rules.

As this presumably is part of a series, I will be interested to see how closely connected the following books will be--I'm really hoping to see more of Nicholas's sister, but I'm wondering if there will be connections to the villains as well. I look forward to the next book!

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

The Regency Spies of London
1. A Spy's Devotion
2. A Viscount's Proposal
3. A Dangerous Engagement

Friday, February 12, 2016

Lynette Eason's "Always Watching" - constant, riveting suspense

Cover ArtWhen it becomes clear that local celebrity Wade Savage has a stalker, his father secretly hires the Elite Guardians protection agency to guard him. When one of their own is nearly killed, agency owner Olivia Edwards takes on the case personally. However, keeping him constantly under her eye makes the case more personal yet as her heart becomes involved. As events escalate, will the Elite Guardians be able to protect him and his daughter?

I love the concept of a group of women--all former police--who work together (and with law enforcement) to provide elite bodyguard services. It puts a different spin on the protection angle, with very different dynamics between guardian and client - the man's instinct to protect and be in charge wars with the woman's job and very evident abilities. It was never obnoxious; just a refreshing and intriguing dynamic.

My suspect that I was pretty sure about from the get-go turned out to be wrong, which was both pleasing and disappointing - I hate to be wrong, but on the other hand, the author had some great red herrings (and she was one of them). Though at least the stalker was in my top three suspects. Both the mystery and the suspense were very well written. From the opening scene until the last pages, the suspense was intense and consistent--it made it very hard to put down! And there was a nice plot twist that I did not anticipate going in to the novel.

This is by far my favorite of Eason's books to date. I look forward to following the stories of the other ladies of the Elite Guardians!

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

Elite Guardians
1. Always Watching
2. Without Warning
3. Moving Target
4. Chasing Secrets

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dani Pettrey's "Cold Shot" - excellent, intense start to the series

Cover Art
In the first Chesapeake Valor novel, ex-sniper-now-park-ranger Griffin McCray runs across a body at Gettysburg--and not a Civil War-era one. Griff calls in his old friend Declan from the FBI, while forensic anthropologist Finley Scott calls a crime scene analyst to help--who just happens to be the third of the old group of four friends that splintered through tragedy back in college. Griff is forced to face not just his history as a sniper, but the harsher past that wounded his closest friends, all while trying to protect the lovely Finley from a threat centering anyone who dares to investigate the murder . . .

Talk about suspense and complexity! Between the complex case and some seriously tough history between the guys (not that Finley lacks her own demons), there is plenty to grab and hold the attention for the entire book. And those little glimpses of the bad guys peppered throughout the book heighten the suspense; just knowing that they're there, watching our heroes' every move, waiting for the perfect time to strike kept me on the edge of my seat.

I loved the team they made--the three old friends: sniper-tuned-park-ranger, forensic scientist, FBI agent, plus the three ladies: forensic anthropologist, photographer, IT whiz--all working together, each with their own special talents brought to the group. It reminded me of the body of Christ, where no two parts are the same, all working for the common good. And without even one of those parts, the body no longer functions as well. I hope they will continue to work cases together in future, even if they belong to different departments and entities.

While there's conclusion to the case, this book sets up the series beautifully. Thanks to deep and intriguing history of the men, it was so easy to become emotionally involved with the other characters--Declan, Parker, Avery, Kate, even the absent Luke--that it makes it painful to wait for the next book. But that is one of several places the author excels: getting the reader hooked on the characters before their stories are even unfolded.

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

Chesapeake Valor
1. Cold Shot
2. Still Life 
3. Blind Spot
4. Dead Drift (July 2018)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ruth Logan Herne's "Back in the Saddle" - family and reconciliation

Back in the Saddle, Large Print  -     By: Ruth Logan Herne
Ruth Logan Herne's Back in the Saddle sends the prodigal home . . . Colt Stafford finally returns from Wall Street to his father's ranch, recovering financially while his father recovers physically. Tension flares with his younger brother who stayed home on the ranch, and tension of an entirely different sort stirs with his father's housekeeper. Angelina is a heat-packing cook with her own set of secrets, and Colt isn't sure what to think of a bossy woman who can get away with telling his father what to do. As his stocks recover, will Colt return to the allure of Wall Street, or will he make his home back in the saddle?

I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, but this was an enjoyable tale. A contemporary western featuring a ranch in Washington, the story takes place in a time of birth on the ranch and a time of second chances for the characters. Hope, reconciliation, and love all play a role in bringing a broken family back together.

There's enough humor to keep it from getting too heavy, but it's not a light piece of fluff, either. Nearly all the Stafford men have something to learn about loving their neighbor and letting go of bitterness, and it isn't easy; it takes practice, over and over.

Angelina is a rock. Not afraid to get in the face of any of those stubborn Stafford men, she holds her own, all the while being an example of Christ's love in action. I like that a tough cop can also be a mother, cook, and housekeeper - no stereotypical professional female who is a failure in the kitchen. And I like that the author emphasizes that to be a cook is of no less value than a cop, and vice versa.

I can see that the story isn't over for all the Stafford men; I look forward to the next in the series!

I received a free book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Double S Ranch
1. Back in the Saddle
2. Home on the Range
3. Peace in the Valley (Spring 2017)