31 December 2011

Opinion: My Top Ten Books of 2011

I’m not going to tell you how many books I’ve actually read this year (not that I keep count…), but there is a strong possibility that I have spent time reading that could have been spent much more profitably trying to get paid work, doing housework… or not.

Of the books I have read, some were by authors that I have been following for years, but many (particularly since I started this blog) have been by authors I have not read before.  Most were very good, some were mediocre, a couple were really bad and one I simply could not finish (which is very unusual for me, and I will be reviewing that book early in 2012 just in case any of you were thinking of buying or reading it).  A small number were truly excellent, so I thought I would share my Top Ten Christian Reads of 2011.

So, in no particular order, these are my favourite books published during the calendar year of 2011:

Best Forgotten by Paula Vince (romantic suspense)
Lonestar Angel by Colleen Coble (romantic suspense)
Nick of Time-by by Tim Downs (thriller)
Nightingale by Susan May Warren (historical romance – review coming)
Protection for Hire by Camy Tang (thriller)
Shadows on the Sand by Gayle Roper (romantic suspense)
Smitten by Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, Kristin Billerbeck and Denise Hunter (novella collection)
Southern Fried Sushi by Jennifer Rogers Spinola (debut novel - contemporary)
Ten Plagues by Mary Nealy (romantic suspense)
Turnabout's Fair Play by Kaye Dacus (contemporary romance)

No prizes for guessing my preferred genre! I haven’t included any non-fiction on the list for the simple reason that I haven’t read enough to make a judgement.  Have you read any good Christian non-fiction titles this year? What is your favourite book of 2011?

Leave a comment and tell us.

27 December 2011

Review: Tomorrow's Sun by Becky Melby

Emily Foster is a woman on a mission – to renovate and profitably sell the 1840’s property she has just purchased in Rochester, Wisconsin, population 1100. She has fond memories of one summer spent in the old house, the summer nineteen years ago when she found God and had her first kiss. But Emily is not going to let sentimentality (or her own disabilities) stand in the way of her goal, but the house has mysteries hidden in a bundle of 160-year-old letters, a hidden cellar and an old quilt.

As Emily begins to renovate the house, she hires handsome handyman Jake to help, and he slowly begins to knock down her walls, both literally and figuratively. They discover a hidden cellar and suggestions that the house was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses used by slaves seeking their freedom by escaping to Canada in the 1850’s. Meanwhile, Jake has problems of his own, in the form of help and interference from his 12-year-old twin nephew and niece. Their mother has died and he suspects their stepfather is threatening and mistreating them. He wants to gain custody, but can’t unless he can prove they are being abused - which they deny.

Tomorrow's Sun is a story told in two parts, in two separate time periods. The main story is the present, the secondary story flashes back to the 1850’s, to Hannah Shaw, her secret beau Liam, and their secret lives as conductors on the Underground Railroad in a town where many people are pro-slavery, and a time when it is an offence to assist an escaped slave. (The title, Tomorrow's Sun, comes from an old Negro spiritual song quoted in the book). Their story is almost more interesting than Emily’s, as it is told in a combination of letters found in the present, and excerpts from the past.

I enjoyed Tomorrow's Sun, but I found that Emily was a hard character to get to know, because of her unexplained resolution not to form friendships in her new home, and her determination to see it as a temporary stop on her way to achieving her goals. We see that she is a driven person; what we do not see (at least initially) is what is driving her and why. This, to me, was the main weakness in the plot, as it made it hard to relate to Emily and therefore made her difficult for me to like. It is not that she was unlikeable; it was more than she felt unknowable. For most of the book, the other characters (Jake, Adam, Hannah, Liam) were more knowable, and therefore I was more engaged in their stories. But I did like the way the author wove the theme of slavery, both physical and emotional, into the story, and the way Emily eventually rediscovered her faith in God as she thawed emotionally.

Tomorrow's Sun is the first book in Becky Melby’s Lost Sanctuary series, with the second stand-alone book, Yesterday's Stardust (Lost Sanctuary), due to be published on 1 June 2012.

Thanks to Barbour Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

23 December 2011

Review: Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker

Wedding planner Sherilyn Keyes has left Chicago behind to marry Andrew Drummond IV, an Atlanta native with a family name that tops all the social registers. She joins Emma, her old college roommate and baker, in working at the Tanglewood Inn, a destination wedding hotel. But Sherilyn faces a series of challenges to her relationship and her faith as she and Andrew settle into their new jobs and begin planning their own wedding.

Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride is the second book in Sandra Bricker’s Never the bride series, following Always the Baker, Never the Bride(which I found to be a sweet love story, if you will excuse the pun). The final two titles in the series will apparently be Always the Fashionista, Never the Bride and Always the Baker, Finally the Bride. Always the Wedding Planner was enjoyable, with moments of humour, but overall I found it bittersweet – there just seemed to be a sadness about it that was not present in Always the Baker
, which I enjoyed much more.

Some of what I found funny might have been unintentional. For example, at one point in the story, Emma bakes a new desert. She says, “it’s called Pavlova. It’s an Australian dessert that Russell told me about”. Hmmm. The actual origin of Pavlova is the source of much trans-Tasman rivalry, and we in New Zealand don’t exactly agree with this interpretation. Equally debated is the nationality of actor/singer Russell Crowe, who seems to have a lot of the same characteristics as Always the Wedding Planner'sRussell Walker (although we are generally glad to let the Aussies claim Crowe as long as he is behaving badly). The e-book I reviewed had a few entertaining buy slightly distracting typographical errors (the song title ‘Waltzing With Matilda’, a reference to an ‘empire waste’ dress), but these will hopefully be fixed in the final print version.

I also found the Southern perception of English food and drink amusing. In ten years living in England, I never saw a smoked salmon sandwich with cranberry jelly on pumpernickel bread. The English use cranberry sauce (not cranberry jelly), and I never ate pumpernickel bread in England - that was German. The English did serve smoked salmon with dill and cream cheese on Vogel bread as an open sandwich (very nice). However, cold chicken curry is a popular dish and sandwich filling, except that they called it Coronation Chicken, as it was created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (I don’t like Coronation Chicken – curry, in my opinion, should be served hot).

Overall, Always the Wedding Plannerwas good but not great. However, I often find the second book in a series is the weakest, so I will probably read the next book, if only to find out how the characters are moving on in their lives.

Thanks to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

21 December 2011

Review: Firethorn by Ronie Kendig

Nightshade is a team of highly-trained military black-ops specialists. In the case of Nightshade, they are so black that they don’t officially exist - except that someone in power not only knows of their existence, but is out to destroy them. One team member, Griffin, has been falsely imprisoned for murder, while the others are ambushed and taken prisoner by unknown assailants attacking their headquarters. Their wives and children are taken to a government safe house, and their boss has disappeared. Help comes in an unlikely form – Kacie, a woman with a dark past and a mix of skills that seems to include everything from gymnastics to breaking Griffin out of his super-maximum security prison. But who is Kacie working for, and can she be trusted?

One of the features of thriller/suspense novels is the relative complexity of the plot (well, compared to romance or romantic suspense). The first few chapters of a thriller inevitably introduce three or four sets of characters in different places and with no apparent connection. As the plot progresses, the connections between the characters and sub-plots are gradually revealed to the reader. But one of the problems with this structure is that the reader often develops a preference for one aspect of the story (for me, this is the sub-plot with the most likelihood of becoming a developing romance), and it can be quite jarring to be force to move onto the next sub-plot just when something interesting is about to happen (like a kiss).

Another disadvantage of a large number of sub-plots is the large number of leading and supporting characters. This gets particularly confusing when a significant number are ex-military, so have three names: their first name (used by wives and non-combatants), their surname (used by their superior officers), and their nickname (used by their colleagues). Sometimes a single character will be addressed by two different names on the same page, which adds to the confusion: who is who? Several of the characters also have wives, children and siblings involved – more names to remember. I felt like I should have been taking notes to keep all the names, roles and relationships straight in my head. This, to my mind, is too much complexity. It’s not as though I can’t process the information. Rather, it’s that I don’t want to, because I read for enjoyment, and too much confusion is taxing on my mind, not enjoyable. Despite all that, I did enjoy Firethorn. The plot was well constructed, there were a cast of super-hero good guys, suitably evil bad guys, plenty of action, a little romance, some soul-searching and an underlying theme of redemption through Christ.

Firethorn is the fourth and final book in Ronie Kendig’s Discarded Heroes series, following Nightshade, Digitalisand Wolfsbane. In a note to the reader at the end of the book, Kendig says that as it is the final book, she has deliberately reintroduced characters from throughout the series to show the reconciliation of family relationships. In this, she has been successful, but, as someone who has not read the previous books, I found the large cast of characters confusing. However, this statement is also a relief, in that it suggests that this level of complexity is not typical of her books in general, so I will be keen to try another of her books to find out! (Her stand-alone, Dead Reckoning, has been sitting on my to-read pile for a while…)

Thanks to Barbour Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

19 December 2011

Review: Longing by Karen Kingsbury

Longing is the third book in the Bailey Flanigan series (following Leaving and Learning, with the final book, Loving, due to be published in March 2012).  I haven’t read the first two (although I have read all the previous books right back from the beginning of the Baxter Family books), and I found it easy to pick up any details I may have missed in those two books. However, aspects of the novel would probably be quite confusing for someone who has not read the any of the previous novels, as the whole series (21 books and counting, over more than ten years) feels like a long-running soap opera.  For example, one chapter of Longingwas pure Baxter catch-up, with little relevance to the rest of the story, and another scene at the Flanigan house felt like a public service announcement drug warning, as it bore little relation to the rest of the plot.

Bailey is now 22, and is working in Broadway, going out with movie star Brandon while still having some feelings for Cody because the relationship never had closure. Longingis a fun young adult novel, full of contemporary pop culture references to things like Twitter, Owl City and Adele, things I know because I have kids, and which reinforce the youth focus.

I think my problem with this series is that somewhere along the way, it has moved from being a true-to-life problems of normal (albeit fictional) characters to being some kind of fantasy more suited to the teen and young adult audience.  The original Redemptionand Firstbornnovels appealed to a much wider age group, and dealt with issues many of us face, whereas Bailey has led what seems to be a totally charmed life in which her biggest decisions have been to act on Broadway or Hollywood, to date the heartthrob movie superstar or the disabled war hero who just coached a high school football team to the state final. Yeah, right. It’s like a Christian version of having to chose between a vampire and a werewolf (I chose the wrong side there, and may have done it again with Team Cody).

It’s not that the books are not good – they are, in a long-running family saga kind of way.  It is that I think they have moved away from their original audience.  I commend Karen Kingsbury for the way her novels have spoken to people, young and old, and for wanting her newer books to touch young people in the same way as her previous books have spoken to women of all ages all over the world.  People have read my Kingsbury books and returned them, saying “that’s me!” because they related so well to what she is saying.  But those same people stopped borrowing them during the Sunrise series.  I suspect Kingsbury would have been better off creating a new set of unrelated characters for the more youth-oriented Above the Line and Bailey Flanigan novels. And, on a lighter note, I wish that Jenny Flanigan wasn’t quite so perfect.  It’s a tough act for us real-life mothers to have to live up to!

If you have read and enjoyed the Above the Lineseries or the first two Bailey Flanigan stories, then you will probably enjoy Longing. If you haven’t, then this is probably not the best book to start with.  I would suggest young adults start with Take One, and older adults start with Redemption.

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

16 December 2011

Review: Shared Friendship by

Shared Friendship: Inspiration for a Woman's Heartis a lovely little gift book, filled with short inspirational stories and quotations about the nature of friendship from well-known Christian authors such as Fanny Crosby, Stomie Omartian, Corrie Ten Boom and Shelia Walsh.  Shared Friendship is a nice book, probably not something I would buy for myself, but it would make a lovely Christmas or birthday gift for a friend or relation (it even has a To/From page at the beginning).  It is probably best shared as a 'real' book - I think the ebook version loses some of the impact.

Each page has a scripture quotation, followed by a short excerpt on different aspects of friendship.  It can be read one passage at a time, in sequence, by theme, by bible verse (there is a Scripture Index at the back) or simply by opening randomly.  Examples of topics include ‘What is a True Friend?’, ‘What Friends are For’ and ‘Friends Bring Happiness’.  It’s not really a book that you read from cover to cover in one sitting – more a book that you read a couple of pages a day or look over when having one of ‘those’ days! 

Shared Friendship: Inspiration for a Woman's Heart is published by Circle of Friends Minstries, a non-profit organisation established to “build a pathway for women to come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and build Christian unity among women”, to evangelise women locally, nationally and internationally.  Thanks to NetGalley and Circle of Friends Ministries for providing an ebook to review.

13 December 2011

Review: Judgement Day by Wanda Dyson

Judgment Day opens with a quotation from John Connor, leader of the human resistance in the Terminator movies: “It was never about avoiding judgment day. It was all about surviving it”. I’ve always loved sci-fi books and movies, so this had to be a good start! (Don’t worry – this is not a sci-fi book. It is Christian fiction, although the Christian element is quite understated and not at all preachy).

Suzanne Kidwell is the presenter of a TV crime show, Judgement Day. She believes she won’t “get anywhere in life unless she was willing to be a little ruthless, a little mercenary, and [have] a whole lot of ambition”, but it seems that no everyone agrees with her, as her producer is giving her trouble about not sufficiently checking her sources, and her boyfriend, surgeon Dr Guy Mandeville, is pressuring her to give up her career and get married. However, this little problem is soon sorted when Guy is killed while driving Suzanne’s car – the car loses control and explodes, and Guy’s distraught mother has Suzanne removed from the funeral service.

Suzanne’s life then goes from bad to worse when she wakes up one morning to the sound of the police banging on her door – and a dead body beside her. Needless to say, she is charged with murder, and the police consider the investigation closed. To prove her innocence, her attorney refers her to the private detective agency run by close friends Marcus Crisp and Alexandria Rachelle Fisher-Hawthorne (Alex). Oops. Suzanne and Marcus were engaged in college, the relationship did not end well, and Alex is initially hostile towards Suzanne and reluctant to take the case because of this history. But there are indications that Suzanne the victim of a conspiracy, and this persuades them to take the case (assisted, strangely, by a sizeable advance from Willard Mandeville, Guy’s father). What follows is a high-octane thriller as Marcus and Alex work with Suzanne to solve the mystery before anyone else gets hurt.

While Judgment Dayis a thriller rather than a romance, there is a strong thread of romantic tension between Marcus and Alex running through the novel. They have been friends since college, business partners for six years, and somewhere in that they have each developed romantic feelings for the other, but neither want to take the risk of revealing or acting on this. I thought it was extremely clever how Dyson managed to convey this tension without spelling it out in words, and without wanting to give away any spoilers, the ending was more than satisfying! Overall, a very enjoyable novel, and I would certainly be interested in reading more about Marcus, Alex and their PI work.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah and Blogging for Books for providing a free ebook for review.

By the way, WaterbrookMultnomah give away free books at random to those readers who rank reviews of their books.  You can rank my review using the buttons below, or read and rank more reviews on their website, http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/bloggingforbooks/book-lovers.  This will also help me - the more people rate my reviews, the bigger the selection of books I get to choose from.

10 December 2011

Review: Protection for Hire by Camy Tang

Tessa is half-Japanese, half-English/Scottish/Italian, aged 30 and unemployed. She is looking for a job while she volunteers at a San Francisco women's shelter, but her prison record (seven years for manslaughter) and her family (niece of a notorious Japanese crime lord, for whom she used to work as an enforcer) are making it difficult for her to find an honest job. Her uncle has offered for her to return to working for him, but she became a Christian in prison, and wants to live a life that reflects her new faith.

While working in the shelter she meets Elizabeth St. Armant and her son, Daniel. Elizabeth is a wealthy heiress whose husband is trying to kill her, so when she finds out about Tessa’s unique skills, she hires Tessa as her own personal bodyguard. Her attorney (and old family friend) does not approve of this move. Charles thinks Elizabeth is over-reacting, he knows Tessa from his days as a law clerk involved in her trial and sentencing, and he has a hard time believing that she has changed. However, it soon becomes apparent that someone really is trying to harm Elizabeth, so Charles and Tessa are soon investigating to find out who and why. While Charles might know the law, it soon becomes apparent that Tessa’s knowledge of the criminal underworld is invaluable.

Protection for Hireis a fast-paced and enjoyable thriller with lots of crossing and double-crossing, and although it was a little lacking in the romance department, there is a sequel in the works that will hopefully deliver more on this front. While the novel overall was serious, there were also a handful of comic moments that I enjoyed, such as when Charles does some undercover investigating, and is introduced as Charles Carmichael - the name of Chuck Bartowski’s suave spy alter ego from the TV show ‘Chuck’. Or when we find out Charles’s mother is from Shreveport, the home of all those vampires in the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the TV show ‘True Blood’.  Very enjoyable, and a departure from Camy Tang's previous Sushi romance series.

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

8 December 2011

Review: Smitten: Love is on the way (Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, Kristin Billerbeck and Denise Hunter)

The main employer in Smitten, Vermont, is closing down, leaving a town full of peple wondering about their futures in a beauty spot none want to leave. Four friends come up with the idea of trading on the town's name, and turning it into a romantic getaway destination for honeymooners and couples. But the men of the town are not in favour of the idea.

Natalie: Birthday Wishes by Colleen Coble:
Most of the single women in town have a crush on Carson, but not Natalie Mansfield. She knows (or thinks she knows) something uncomplimentary about Carson and her sister…

Julia: Small Town, Big Dreams by Kristin Billerbeck:
Julia Bourne's dream is to open an upscale spa in Smitten, like the one she used to work for in New York before she came home to care for her sick mother. She seeks the assistance of her ex-boss, who immediately sees the potential of the Smitten Grill building. Neither Julia nor the new tenant, Zac Grant, see the vision, so the sparks begin to fly...

Shelby: You’ve Got a Friend by Diann Hunt
Shelby Evans is a seamstress and the owner of Social Graces, where she teaches young girls how to become ladies. A house fire means that she can no longer teach her classes in her home, so close friend Nick Majors steps in to offer her a location and help get her house in order…

Reese: All Along by Denise Hunter
Reese Mackenzie hired old friend Griffen Parker to help renovate what will become her outdoor outfitters shop. But then she realises that her feelings towards him are not exactly friendship…

The stories feature long-time Smittenmen who have been in love for years, not saying anything for their own reasons, but waiting for the women to figure it out. They reminded me of us and God, about how He has always loved us with an unfailing love, but He has to wait for us to realise and do something about it. I liked the fact that the couples were all older (by which I mean they are in their thirties).

I especially liked the fact that all of the couples had known each other for some time before the romance bug hit. While I can see the appeal of meeting and falling in love with the new guy (or girl) in town, I do agree that the best marriages are built on a foundation of God and friendship, not just attraction. I also think this is a much better message for young women to be hearing as they search for their future partners.

I do enjoy these romance novella collections. They are a lighthearted, quick read, great for a change after reading something with a bit more depth, or as an escape from the pressures of life, and Smittenis guaranteed to make you smile. The four authors are close friends and brainstorming partners in real life, and this shows in this collection, in the personalities of the characters and the consistency of the plots. All in all, an excellent read, even though the sequel is not due out until December 2012!

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.