29 March 2013

Review: The Heiress's Homecoming by Regina Scott

Lady Samantha Everard must marry by her twenty-fifth birthday—next month—or lose her inheritance. Her neighbour and childhood friend, Jamie, wants to help, despite the long-standing antipathy between their two families. Jamie’s father is Will Wentworth, Earl of Kendrick, who has decided not to remarry after losing his wife in childbirth seventeen years ago. But things don’t always happen as we plan…

While The Heiress's Homecoming was an enjoyable story, it was very much like many other historical romances in this time period: intelligent woman who must marry within a given timeframe in order to protect her inheritance, but romantic enough that she wants to marry for love, and doesn’t want to marry a fortune hunter. The novel is well-researched, with a good Christian message that avoids preachiness, and a well-told story, but the details are forgettable (to the point where I had trouble writing this review). Next month I’ll be reviewing The Heiress of Winterwood, the debut novel by Sarah Ladd, and I think it makes a much better job of this plot device.

The Heiress's Homecoming is part of The Everard Legacy series, but can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. Thanks to Harlequin Love Inspired and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Regina Scott at her website.

27 March 2013

Review: Swept Away by Mary Connealy

Ruthy MacNeil is rescued from a swollen river after her wagon train is washed away by a flash flood. Luke Stone, her rescuer, is returning to his home in Broken Wheel, Texas, to reclaim his family ranch. Friends Darius Riker (the town doctor), Jonas Cahill (preacher), Vince (lawyer) and Big Joe Conroy (Texas Ranger) are now in Broken Wheel to help Luke. The five men met when they were all Regulators in Andersonville, an infamous Civil War prison.

Swept Away is fast paced and well written with strong characters and a good mix of action, humour and romance. Ruthy is feisty, hard-working and independent, while Luke is the kind of loyal ad honest Wild West hero everyone wants to read about. My main complaint is that the faith elements are pretty unobtrusive. My personal view is that this is a weakness, but I know some readers prefer low-key Christian content.

Swept Away is a quick and entertaining read, perfect for long winter evenings or a day at the beach. It was good, but not outstanding. I thought the whole story (especially the attraction between Ruthy and Luke) moved too quickly and wasn’t quite believable, but it will be interesting to see it develop further in future books. I also thought it focused too much on the external conflict, with too little insight into the inner motivations of the characters.

It is the first book in the new Trouble in Texas series, and those who have read and enjoyed Mary Connealy's earlier books will notice the references to Callie and The Kincaid Brides trilogy. I expect the future books in the series will chronicle the adventures and romances of the other four Regulators.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Mary Connealy at her website.

25 March 2013

Review: Fed Up With Flat Faith by Kathy Howard

Fed Up with Flat Faith is for those Christians who know their faith could be more active, more real, more dynamic, but don’t know how to make the step from flat to vibrant. Writing from her own experience, Kathy Howard describes five attitudes that she believes we must adopt to revitalise our faith:

Attitude #1: Relationship over Religion
Attitude #2: Surrendered to the Saviour
Attitude #3: Remember Christ’s Forgiveness
Attitude #4: Living for His Purposes
Attitude #5: Eternal Perspective

None of these are new. But unlike many books which merely diagnose the problem, Fed Up with Flat Faith also provides us with five actions we can take to reignite the fire in our faith:

Action #1: Diligently Read and Study the Bible
(she says “Intimacy cannot be built through someone else’s three-minute devotionals”)
Action #2: Connect with God in Worship
Action #3: Obey God to Experience His Blessings
Action #4: Stay vitally connected to a local church
Action #5: Participate in God’s Saving Work
(but don’t do everything. She says “We are too quick to add commitments to our lives and too slow about removing them.”).

As Christians, we are probably already doing some of these things, but it’s a challenge to do them all, and the author speaks from her own personal experience, which she shares. She also points out that we do have ups and downs in our Christian walk:

“To experience a fiery faith, we must go beyond merely knowing about these attitudes and actions. We must humbly submit ourselves to their truth and then follow God in complete obedience.”

Fed Up with Flat Faith is well-grounded in the Bible, with quotes from a range of modern and classic Christian authors such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, AW Tozer, Rick Warren and Lysa TerKeurst, and includes a comprehensive list of resources to help in personal bible study at the end.

It’s a quick read, and while the vocabulary is simple and the style easy to read, the words are challenging and thought-provoking. Those have to be the tests of any book that seeks to improve our relationship with God or the way we live our faith. In that, Fed Up With Flat Faith succeeds.

Thanks to New Hope and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Kathy Howard at her website.

22 March 2013

Review: How Sweet the Sound by Meredith Resce

I’m going to start by saying that I’m not really a fan of Christian allegory. I’ve read some great ones (e.g. Chronicles of Narnia and Streiker's Bride) and some that really missed the boat for me, both in terms of story and allegory (e.g. Streiker's Morning Sun). So I was a bit apprehensive when I picked How Sweet The Sound up and realised it was allegory.

I had nothing to worry about.

Justin is the grandson of the King, and has been betrothed to Christina since he was a boy. They have only met a few times, as she lives with her parents to the distant island of Terranin. But trouble is afoot, and the King sends Justin, along with bodyguards Gabe and Michael, on an undercover mission to discover what has happened, and to find Christina and bring her back. When Justin’s small group reach Christina’s home, they find it abandoned, her parents murdered, and Christina living with Lucien, the self-appointed Emperor of a now-depraved and deprived land.

I found Christina very annoying at times with her reluctance to trust Justin and her unwillingness to leave Lucien's 'protection'. But that's the nature of an allegorical story about the relationship between Christ and the church. There are no real surprises in the plot in that it follows the biblical record, but it's interesting to think about the way the author has chosen to portray this in an allegorical fantasy.

The story is told in a rather distant third-person point of view, almost omniscient. I don’t usually like this style, but it worked here because the story is almost like a fairy tale, set in a faraway land with a handsome Prince trying to win the hand of the fair lady. There were some editorial issues (e.g. telling, head-hopping, typos and paragraphs that were too long for the Kindle screen), but nothing that distracted from the story. It should be noted that there were some scenes that, while not graphic, means that this is an adult novel.

Overall, I enjoyed How Sweet The Sound a lot (especially the ending). It is well worth reading.

Thanks to Meredith Resce for providing a free ebook for review.

20 March 2013

Review: The Cat Whisperer by Mieschelle Nagelschneider

In The Cat Whisperer: Why Cats Do What They Do--and How to Get Them to Do What You Want, Mieshelle Nagelschneider, cat behaviour specialist, covers seven major behaviour problems (litter box issues, spraying, multiple-cat tension, aggression, yowling, destructive and otherwise unwelcome behaviours, and compulsive behaviours), and demonstrates with case studies how each can be overcome using her CAT plan – Cease, Attract and Transform. She guarantees results, but warns that it could take owners 30-60 days of consistent training to achieve a positive result, depending on the severity of the problem and the personalities involved (feline and human).

The Cat Whisperer is a well-written and easy-to-read book, based on over twenty years of experience working with cats (and another dozen or more childhood years playing with and taming feral cats, among other animals). She has a humorous writing style which quotes both Alice in Wonderland and Rudyard Kipling (but not Garfield). It seems to me that used methods such as these to refine cat behaviour is a lot more sensible that banning the domestic cat, especially given Nagelschneider’s point about what happened the last couple of times a nation tried to get rid of cats (no cats meant the rats were free to spread the Black Death).

My one area of disagreement with the author is cultural: she prefers that cats live indoors (which she says is the status quo for 75% of domestic cats in the US). I prefer that cats be permitted outside, partly because that is normal in my non- American culture and partly because my cat is a stray who adopted us and was initially scared to come inside. Her description of declawing (an operation performed primarily on indoor cats) made me feel physically ill (and glad that I live in New Zealand, where this operation is apparently illegal).

As a result, while she went into great detail about litter box etiquette and providing appropriate environmental stimuli for indoor cats, nothing was said about resources for outdoor or indoor-outdoor cats. Do I need to do prey play with my outdoor cat when she can stalk real birds and rats? And the author’s preference for indoor cats means she doesn't provide advice for dealing with one outdoor cat issue: what to do when they bring you a 'present'.

Despite this, I think The Cat Whisperer is a valuable resource for cat owners whether or not they currently have behaviour issues (after all, prevention is better than cure). It will be especially useful for those with indoor cats or those with more than one cat. Recommended.

Thanks to Bantam and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Mieshelle Nagelschneider at her website.

18 March 2013

Review: The Survivor by Diann Mills

TV reporter-turned crime novelist Kariss Walker is approached by Dr Amy Garrett, The Survivor of a brutal childhood assault in which the culprit was never caught. Amy wants her story told, and asks Kariss to write it. In her personal life, Karris is recovering from having broken off her relationship with FBI agent Special Agent Santiago (Tigo) Harris, partly because of his lack of Christian faith.

Tigo and his partner, Ryan Steadman, are pulled off a gang killing to investigate the carbomb murder of Joanna Yeat and her daughter. It seems at first that the real target might have been her husband, Jonathan Yeat, but the picture of the perfect family soon shows cracks.

The nature of a suspense novel means that the reader knows there must be some link between these two plot lines, but it isn’t immediately apparent. When it comes, it’s well done, but I thought the ending was too contrived and there were a couple of minor plot points that were never properly resolved (e.g. who did Joanna meet at the mall?).

And, out of interest, is there a single contemporary fiction character that doesn't own an iPhone and/or an iPad? Does Apple pay for this advertising? If not, why don’t any novels feature characters with tablets from Dell, HP or Samsung? Or phones from Motorola, Nokia or Sony? This isn’t a criticism of The Survivor—it just seems that every contemporary novel I open has an iPhone and an iPad, and it’s getting annoying.

Overall, this was a solid but not outstanding novel that will appeal to fans of Christian romantic suspense and authors such as Dee Henderson, Irene Hannon, Dani Pettrey and Susan May Warren. The Survivor is a sequel, and while it can be read as a standalone, it will be better read in sequence, as The Chase covers the first part of Kariss and Tigo’s relationship.

Thanks to Zondervan and Booksneeze for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Diann Mills at her website.

15 March 2013

Review: The Girl in the Glass by Susan Meissner

Marguerite (Meg) Pomeroy was promised a trip to Florence, her Nonna’s birthplace, as a high school graduation gift, but she’s now almost thirty and her father still hasn’t taken her. Now she might finally be going, and hopes to connect with Lorenzo and Renata DiSantis, the brother-and-sister pair who write and photograph travel books published by her San Diego employer. And she might also get to meet Sophia, their neighbour, a tour guide and would-be author who claims to be descended from the famous Medici family.

The Girl in the Glass is written from three perspectives: Meg’s first-person story, the first-person musings of a betrothed girl named Nora, and Sophia’s memoir. But it took quite a while to work out who Nora was (a long-dead Medici) and what relationship she had with the rest of the story (Sophia claims to hear Nora speak through art works).

This made The Girl in the Glass quite hard going at first – in fact, I stopped reading at the 25% mark, because the points of view were confusing, nothing had happened, and I was getting annoyed with Meg moaning about wanting to go to Florence but not doing anything about it (goodness, this is the twenty-first century. Women can travel on their own, even such distances as San Diego to Florence). But I eventually picked it up again—and had to start again from the beginning, to remind myself what I was reading.

At this point I was thinking that Sophia's memoir was fascinating, a book I'd like to read even though I'm not a fan of art or memoir. Nora's short reflections of her childhood were interesting, even though it wasn't clear how these fitted into the larger story. Meg’s story? Uninspiring. Boring, even. The writing was lovely. But there wasn’t enough story for my liking (or perhaps it was just that Meg had yet to prove herself likeable). Anyway, I persevered.

Finally, at the 28% point, something happened, and by the 40% mark, Meg was on her way to Florence, and the story picked up pace. Finally. But now I can’t tell you what happens, because that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, the second half of the book was much better than the first and the ending was both perfect and unexpected. I’ve visited Florence, and these scenes both brought back memories and made me want to see the city again, this time through Meg’s eyes and with Sophia as a guide.

The Girl in the Glass is published by WaterBrook, a Christian publisher, but the book hardly mentioned God or religion at all. If you’re looking for a novel with a strong Christian message, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for inspirational women’s fiction, this may well suit, as long as you can get past the first hundred pages.

Thanks to WaterBrook Multnomah and BloggingforBooks® for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Susan Meissner at her website.

13 March 2013

Review: The King's Sword by CJ Brightley

Kemen Sendoa, a retired soldier, finds a teenage boy lost in the snow near the capital of Stonehaven in the kingdom of Erdem. He soon recognises the boy as the prince, Hakan Ithel, who has escaped from the palace after the assassination of his father, the King. Although Kemen has no great respect for the King, as a soldier he vowed to protect the kingdom, so takes it on himself to protect the prince.

What begins as Kemen helping a lost teenager becomes a time of training a prince to win and rule his kingdom, by giving him practical lessons that can only be learned by seeing the country and speaking with the people. But this is all undertaken incognito, as there are bands of soldiers with orders to find the prince and return him to the palace in Stonehaven - alive or dead.

Although it is a foreign place, most of the language and problems are familiar, if in a somewhat feudal way. There is racism, fighting, factions, riches and poverty. Many terms are familiar and those that are unfamiliar are similar enough to English words to not need explaining, which makes the story a lot easier to read than those that go to special effort to come up with unpronounceable terminology.

The nature of the story requires a lot of world building, and for the most part the author manages to get the required information across to the reader at the appropriate time without it sounding like an information dump. For the most part, the author accomplishes this. I say ‘for the most part’ because there were a couple of times when I noticed that the purpose of the dialogue or narrative was to explain the culture or backstory… if I noticed it, then it was a bit too obvious.

There was a lot of detail around some things, like different kinds of knives, which some readers might find unnecessary but I personally found fascinating. I also really liked the way Kemen thought about names and their meanings, because that’s something I’m interested in. I especially liked the fact that the story was character-driven, as this meant the author managed to tell the story without descending into violence and abuse (I haven’t read Game of Thrones, but found the TV series far too dark and violent for my tastes). I don’t need a thrust-by-thrust description of the sword fight – I want to know what happened and how it affects the characters, and The King's Sword managed this well.

The story is not overtly Christian (in fact there is no mention of religion at all), but the underlying theme has definite Christian undertones, with its emphasis on honour, loyalty and service, and the fight against treachery and evil in all its forms. The one thing that some readers might not like is that it is written entirely in the first person (from the viewpoint of Kemen Sedona). Personally, I found that he had an engaging and self-depreciating style that was highly engaging, but I know some readers don’t like first person at all.

The sequel to The King's Sword, A Cold Wind, has just been released (and added to my wish list). Well worth reading for fans of historical fantasy.

Thanks to CJ Brightley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about CJ Brightley at her website.

11 March 2013

Review: Love in the Balance by Regina Jennings

Molly Lovelace lives and works in Lockhart, the cultural centre of Caldwell County, Texas. She is looking for a husband who will meet her parents’ expectations and who will be able to support her in style. Who will be that man? Old friend Bailey Garner, or Edward Pierrepont? Her parents certainly favour the rich and dashing stranger from New York who is visiting Lockhart, and who seems rather taken with their daughter.

Bailey Garner has romantic feelings for Molly, but he is not a man her parents will approve of—and when he announces in front of the whole church that he needs prayer to free him from the burden of temptation so he can get right with God, Molly assumes she is the temptation he is speaking of and takes offence.

I really liked Bailey. He was by no means perfect (perfect is boring in a novel—it doesn’t provide any good conflict), but he had a heart for God and was prepared to stand up and be accountable for his behaviour. He knew what he was doing was wrong, so he took a positive step to change his behaviour—a step that Molly misinterpreted.

Molly comes across as rather self-absorbed in the early chapters of Love in the Balance. She is an intelligent woman with thoughts and attitudes that weren’t exactly commonplace in 1878 Texas. In fact, I found this really hard to get into because while Molly wasn’t stupid, she made some rather silly and impulsive choices. However, by halfway through I was absorbed and found I couldn’t put it down.

By the end I could see that some of Molly’s bad choices were actually made because she was trying to obey her parents, in particular her father, who didn’t really know or understand her. I thought the Christian side of the story was excellent, with a difficult theme of redemption and making the decision to obey our heavenly father, not our earthly one.

Love in the Balance is a standalone novel, but does feature some characters and locations from her previous novel, Sixty Acres and a Bride (Bailey Garner is cousin to Weston Garner, the hero of the first novel who has a cameo role in Love in the Balance).

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Regina Jennings at her website.

8 March 2013

Review: Threads of Hope by Christa Allen

Nina O'Malley is a journalist with Trend magazine in Houston, Texas. She is the owner of one small dog, Manny, the daughter of the critical, controlling and possibly neurotic Shelia, and the employee of Elise, owner of the magazine, who doesn’t think she has the capability to be promoted to lead the New York office. Greg Hernandez and his wife adopted an AIDS baby from Ethiopia, Jazarah. Lily was killed in a car accident, so Greg has moved back to Houston to be closer to his sister, Elise.

In an effort to prove herself to Elise, Nina decides to write a series of articles about the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest piece of community folk art in the world, weighing over 54 tonnes. In the process, she meets the relatives of several people who have died of an HIV-related condition, as well as meeting Jazarah. But then Nina has to decide what is more important: her career, or Greg.

The beginning of Threads of Hope was a bit uncertain, in that it seemed as though something was missing. And the end skipped forward in time, leaving a significant chunk of the plot in the gap between two chapters. There were also editing errors, such odd changes between past and present tense, as a disconcerting switch from third to first person (which made me wonder if the novel wasn’t originally written entirely in first person, then changed to third person to include scenes from Greg’s viewpoint).

The idea behind Threads of Hope is excellent, and the real-life information about the quilt was inspiring. I really liked the developing relationship between Greg and Nina, and the way Nina gradually changed as the story developed. But the story only really flowed well between the 40% and the 90% mark on my Kindle, and half a good book just isn’t enough.

Thanks to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Christa Allan at her website.

6 March 2013

ACRBA Review: Tangled Secrets by Carol Preston

4 - 8 March
is introducing
(Even Before Publishing Sept 2012)
Carol Preston

About the Author
Carol lives in Wollongong, NSW with her husband, Neil. As well as writing novels based on her family history, Carol has a private counselling practice and enjoys reading, gardening, spending time with her four grandchildren and bushwalking. She has pursued with great admiration the lives of her ancestors in Australia and has greatly enjoyed writing novels based on their stories and the inspiring history of the Australian people. For more information about Carol's books and her other interests she can be contacted on her website: www.carolpreston.com.au


About the book

In tragic circumstances Beth and her brothers are left in England to grow up without their parents. When Beth's childhood dream to be reunited with her father in Australia finally eventuates she finds that dreams do not always come true.The reality she faces is a tangled web of disappointment, deceit and mistakes. Further abandonment follows. Will she ever find true love? And will she discover she doesn't have to be alone before it is too late? Set in the early colonial days of New South Wales and based on real characters in the mid 1800s.Revisit Charlotte and Thomas from Charlotte's Angel and Mary's Guardian, and meet new characters in this new novel by Carol Preston. Mary's Guardian was a finalist in the fiction section of CALEB 2011.

My Review

Beth’s father was transported to Australia when she was just a small child, and now she is eighteen, he has sent for her and her two younger brothers to join him in his new home. Beth has hopes that they will be able to live together as a family, but this is not to be, and she instead marries William, a strange man who has some deep problems of his own. Estranged from her family by distance and secrets, she has to learn to fend for herself in this strange and harsh new land. 
Tangled Secrets is the third book in the series that began with Mary's Guardian and Charlotte's Angel. The stories are fictionalised accounts of real historical people and events, a result of Carol Preston’s personal family history research (which explains why so many of the characters are confusingly called Elizabeth or William). Although there are a number of characters from the earlier books, this story can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. It gives an excellent depiction of the struggles of the early Australian immigrants, especially the ex-convicts, and has a strong Christian message about the ways family secrets and lies can affect us.
Thanks to Even Before for providing a free ebook for review.

4 March 2013

Review: Ring of Secrets by Roseanna M White

Winter Reeves’ pretty smile and vacant expression belie the intelligence she hides as she collects intelligence from her grandparents’ friends in 1779 New York, a British stronghold. As a member of The Cypher Ring, she must hide her true allegiance from everyone except Robbie Townsend, her childhood friend, and Freeman, a loyal family servant who is treated no better than a slave by her Loyalist grandparents.

Bennet Lane is a Yale professor sent to New York to try and find the source of the intelligence leaks. He meets Winter and is immediately attracted to her because he somehow sees that she is more than she appears. He also recognises that a courtship with the beauty will give him a reason for being in the company of New York’s elite, which should aid his quest.

Ring of Secrets is told in the third person from the viewpoints of Winter and Bennet, with occasional scenes from more minor characters (actually, I thought these were probably unnecessary). Both are well-rounded and likeable characters—it is said that any character with an interesting secret has a good chance of coming alive, and this can certainly be said of both Winter and Robbie (her contact in the spy ring).

There is also the added complication of Colonel Fairchild—Winter has cultivated a relationship with him in order to gain intelligence, but he is courting her with a view to a more permanent relationship. Overall, I thought the romance was well-developed and the story excellent, but I found some of Winter’s prayers a bit long-winded (even for Christian fiction), and there were a couple of too-convenient coincidences towards the end.

I really enjoy historical fiction that is actually well-grounded in history, as Ring of Secrets is. Even I, as a non-American, recognised some of the historical figures, and a note at the end of the book enlightened me more about the founders of The Culper Ring, an organisation which the CIA will neither confirm nor deny the ongoing existence of. The Epilogue suggests that more stories about The Culper Ring will be forthcoming, probably each in a different historical period. I will certainly be interested in reading more. Recommended.

Thanks to Harvest House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. I was reading an advance copy, and found a handful of typos that will hopefully have been eliminated in the final print edition. You can find out more about Roseanna M White at her website.

1 March 2013

New Releases: March 2013

New releases I will be reviewing in March:

More new releases in Christian fiction. What are you looking forward to reading?