Monday, August 28, 2017

"The Austen Escape" by Katherine Reay--reality vs escapism

The Austen EscapeAt her dad's request, Mary Davies allows herself to be dragged away from the tension at her engineering job and a romance that was over before it had even begun to a Jane Austen Regency experience in Bath, England, with her best friend--and occasionally worst enemy--Isabel. Her friendship with Isabel has always been a little tense, not the least because Isabel adopted Mary's family as her own to replace her own neglectful family. And when tensions shoot sky-high between Isabel and her father, Isabel shuts down, becoming the character Emma Woodhouse to the point where she physically remembers no other life than that of a Regency-era woman. Mary is frantically trying to take care of her friend when she finds out their lives have intersected more than she had realized, and now she finds herself caught between who Isabel was, who she seems to be, and the man who stands between them.

I realize I've gotten a bit behind the times, and this is the first Katherine Reay book I've ever read (even though I've heard many, many good things). And of course, I wonder what took me so long.

The Austen Escape reminds me of Shannon Hale's Austenland, with its Austen-esque, Regency experience, but it is much kinder--a place of healing rather than disillusion. I appreciate the truly welcoming atmosphere of guests in a friend's home, and it feels down-to-earth and real, offering guests the freedom to go as deep into the Regency experience as desired without requiring they give up any more modern technology than they wish. And though there are moments of humor, it never feels silly--it's far more thoughtful.

I enjoy how different Mary is from the norm--an engineer, brilliant with electricity and gadgets, who, for all her less than typical pursuits, is still plenty feminine. In some respects it feels like we're getting the story of the sidekick rather than the heroine, a role Mary has been relegated to too often in her life, yet she crawls out of that role to become a heroine of her own making. There's a strong focus on friendship through the story, probably equal to that of the romance (which, really, is more like real life than the average romance novel). Her struggles with her job, with the loss of her mom, with her feelings as a sidekick rather than a heroine in her own right--all make her very real and relatable. All in all, a very enjoyable Austen experience.

Thank you Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for providing a free e-book. I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions are my own.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Ronie Kendig's "Operation Zulu Redemption" - full of danger and suspense

Operation Zulu RedemptionThey never should’ve existed. Now they don’t.  Zulu, the first all-female special ops team was set up to take a devastating fall. Fearing for their lives, Zulu members vanished with new identities. Isolated and haunted by their past, they are terrified of being discovered.  Over the years, the brave women of Zulu have begun to hope they might be safe and the terrible tragedy forgotten.  Until two of them are murdered, setting off a chain of events they can only pray they'll survive . . .

Originally published serially, Operation Zulu Redemption is a 5-part mini-series that would really make a great TV show. Full of action and danger, it's really hard to put down! I really enjoyed the TV-series-like concept of "episodes" and putting them together into a "season." As with TV shows, there's significant potential for a second season, with many relationships and mysteries that could be explored further.

The women all had believable side effects from the trauma of their sabotaged Op, as well as five years of building a new life. Some are ready to embrace their new lives, only to have it ripped from them again; others are unable to cope with the trauma and new identity, and happy to be back on the team where they feel they belong. Of the women, I had the hardest time reconciling the Teya of Zulu with her Amish alternate identity; she's just so very effective at her job, with being probably the best hand-to-hand combatant of the bunch. Nuala I would love to know more about--it felt like she took a bit of a backseat to the others, but I really liked her quiet observation, her constant belief in the best of others, and her more introverted personality.

With so any characters and points of view, I really appreciated that it's long enough to flesh out the characters and plot (over 500 pages! I love long books!), and yet somehow there's the sense that we've still only scratched the surface . . . I hope the author has more plans for Zulu!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Lynette Eason's "Chasing Secrets"

Chasing Secrets #4  -     By: Lynette Eason
In the final Elite Guardians book, bodyguard Haley Callaghan finds herself in danger on multiple fronts--from the local gangbanger who beats on a kid she's taken under her wing to the murderer who assassinated her family 25 years ago in Ireland. Detective Steven Rothwell takes it upon himself to back her up, but can they keep ahead of the bullets, bombs, and bad guys that never seem to quit?

Haley is just as tough as the other members of her team, if not more so, since she spends most of the book wounded yet not taken down. There's a lot going on with the story, between Haley's past, her bodyguard job, and her personal life helping kids, not to mention Steven's past and his current case that has no apparent connection with Haley's problems. With all that happening, the story certainly moves quickly, and as I have come to expect from Eason, it's non-stop action.

It definitely wasn't my favorite of the series--it didn't have the novelty I felt in the first book (the introduction to the women bodyguards), nor the out-of-the-box plot of the third. However, I think a good part of my lower level of enjoyment was a result of distractingly enticing non-reading activities, and the slightly less unique plot couldn't compete. I will say, the romance progressed fairly realistically compared to other suspense books, and there were some good thoughts on forgiveness.

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

"To Wager Her Heart" by Tamera Alexander

To Wager Her Heart (Belle Meade Plantation, #3)One year ago, two trains crashed outside of Nashville, killing over a hundred people. Silas Rutledge, new owner of the Northeast Line Railroad, comes to Nashville to put in a bid to develop a new rail line into Belle Meade Plantation, but the competition is stiff, especially for an outsider from Colorado. He needs help breaking into the Southern Gentlemen's circle, and Alexandra Jamison, daughter of one of Nashville's oldest families, is the key. Alexandra, in pursuing her dream to teach at the freedmen's school, is cast out from her own family and must provide for herself, so she agrees to help, in spite of her reservations--chief of which was having lost her fiance in the trash crash his father was blamed for. However, she finds herself learning to respect him. But in Nashville's post-war society, can they find the justice they seek?

One thing you can count on in Tamera Alexander's stories is a deep appreciation for--and attention to--historical detail. From the Fisk University (a freedmen's school) and its internationally renowned Jubilee Singers to hymn-writer Philip Bliss to the prevailing prejudices of the time, the story is rich with historical detail. While each book in the series is perfectly stand-alone, they also fit well together, dealing more pointedly with the prejudice in Reconstruction-era Nashville, while tying them in with the historic Belle Meade Plantation.

Alexandra grows a lot during the story, both learning to find her own way and overcoming deep-seated fears and grief. Like Alexandra, I found my initial opinions of Si changing. Not that I ever disliked him, but I was impressed by how willing he was to ask for help when he was clearly a strong, self-made man. The romance is sweet, gentle, and believable as they grow into friendship and slowly evolve into romance, each helping the other pursue their dreams.

Overall, it was an enthralling and inspiring story, in classic Tamera Alexander-fashion.

Thank you Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free e-book; I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions are my own.

Belle Meade Plantation (contains some cross-over characters/connections to Belmont)
1. To Whisper Her Name2. 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 (contains some cross-over characters/connections to Belle Meade)
1. A Lasting Impression
2. A Beauty So Rare
3. A Note Yet Unsung

Carnton Mansion  (contains some cross-over characters/connections to Belle Meade and Belmont)
0.5: "Christmas at Carnton" (novella, October 2017)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Hillary Manton Lodge's "Jane of Austin" - a story of sense and sensibility and tea

When a new landlord takes over and remnants of their father's business scandal force the three Woodward sisters out of their home and San Francisco tea shop, they find themselves landing in Austin of all places. Jane is having a hard enough time finding anything to like about Texas, with their inability to find a new location for their tea shop and her baby sister unhappy about leaving her friends, but her older sister Celia hurting from a break-up--and refusing to talk for the first time in their lives--is the worst. But then, they have an encounter with a heroic and chivalric Texan, and Jane just might have found one thing to like about the state . . .

I'd like to think that just because a novel is related to Jane Austen's work, I wouldn't automatically pick it up--but that has yet to be proved. Perhaps I might have been able to resist, but there is that huge focus on tea and baking . . . and I love tea. So there it is.

Lodge takes a different tack from the average Jane Austen knockoff with the focus on Sense and Sensibility (as opposed to the more popular Pride and Prejudice). And it works really well; there's no Austen references in the text, but the story is undeniably a modernized Sense and Sensibility. I'm more of an Elinor than a Maryann, so I identified with the personality of Lodge's Celia more so than Jane, but Jane proved a bit more pragmatic than Austen's Maryann (even with her heightened 'sensibility'), and I enjoyed her sense of humor (not to mention all her baking and tea-making, though I cannot understand her love of chamomile).

I have to admit, one of the big draws to this book was that I knew it would have recipes in it--and one of my favorite recipes (a Moroccan tagine with couscous) came from another of the author's books. These look equally delicious. Other than a brief mention of seminary in the last chapters, there is absolutely no faith element, regarding which I was a little surprised and disappointed (especially considering the publisher), but on the other hand, the story is clean and entertaining. It is my favorite book by Lodge to date.

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

August 2017 New Christian Fiction

New releases coming out in August 2017:

Many Sparrows The Promise of Breeze Hill (Natchez Trace) Chasing Secrets (Elite Guardians, #4)
Many Sparrows by Lori Benton (Waterbrook)

When a settler's son is captured by Shawnee, she will do anything to get him back, even follow him in enemy territory herself.

The Promise of Breeze Hill by Pam Hillman (Tyndale) - Natchez Trace, book 1

After his indenture is purchased by a colonial plantation owner's daughter, a carpenter discovers that someone has his eye on the plantation and is willing to do anything to acquire it.

Chasing Secrets by Lynette Eason (Revell) - Elite Guardians, book 4

A body guard finds herself in danger when a case from 25 years ago is reopened.