28 October 2011

Review: Orphaned Hearts by Shawna K Williams

David Langley is pastor of a small-town church in the middle of the Great Depression, and he has a problem.  A six-year-old boy is about to arrive on the train, but the family who promised to adopt him have changed their mind at the last minute.  As a former orphan himself, David does not want to send the boy back to the orphanage, which leaves him with the problem of what to do with Caleb.  To complicate matters, Caleb lost an arm in an accident, a disability which means it harder to find potential adoptive parents.  This is a problem that David, horribly scarred in the fire that took his family, understands only too well.

Sadie Miller, the town spinster, has spent the last few years caring for her ailing father and hoping that Brother Langley will notice her.  Now her father is dead and, at thirty-three, she feels she is too old for the husband and family she always dreamt of.  When David brings Caleb to her, she agrees to take him in immediately and soon falls in love with the small damaged child.  But there is no chance that the orphanage will approve a single woman as an adoptive parent, no matter how well she might be able to provide for the child, and Sadie and David will have to fight just to get the orphanage to approve her as a temporary foster parent.

I really enjoyed Orphaned Hearts.  The writing was strong, the characters were likeable and realistic, the plot was excellent, the romance was sweet and while the novel has an underlying Christian theme, it was not overtly ‘preachy’.  It also is the first novel I have read set during the Great Depression of the 1930's that has managed to not be depressing!  The only problem was that it is really a novella rather than a full-length novel (43,000 words compared to 90,000 for a standard novel), and I would have liked it to be longer.  Having said that, there was just enough plot for the length of the book, and to make it longer would have been adding words, not story.  In fairness, I should point out that Shawna and I have been ‘conversing’ in online discussions for over a year as the modern equivalent of pen-pals.  However, that does not affect my opinion – it just means that I should have read her books long before now!

Shawna has a new book coming out in a couple of weeks.  The Good Fight is the third in the series that began with No Other and In All Things.  She is currently writing a sequel to Orphaned Hearts, which is due to be published in December 2012.  I will look forward to reading it. 

Orphaned Hearts is published by Desert Breeze Publishing, a relatively new specialist ebook publisher of romance in all its guises.  Desert Breeze will soon be offering ten of their most popular titles as traditional books.  Meanwhile, their ebooks are available from http://www.amazon.com/, http://www.desertbreezepublishing.com/ and www.smashwords.com.  Thanks to Shawna Williams and Desert Breeze Publishing for providing a free ebook to review.

25 October 2011

Review: Bandit’s Hope by Marcia Gruver

Reddick MacRae (known as Tiller) left home many years ago with his cousin, attracted by the drifter lifestyle.  He travelled with a band of thieves, but didn’t consider himself to be a thief because he was the decoy who ‘befriended’ the potential victim before the others arrive to commit the robbery.  After stealing the life savings of an old man, Tiller suddenly develops a conscience and leaves the gang, ending up at the Bell Inn, owned by John Coffee Bell.

Mariah is half-Choctaw Indian, and had promised her dying mother that she will maintain ownership of the Inn that once stood on their tribe’s land.  She reasons that no one will permit a half-Indian female to maintain ownership of the property, so she must hide her father’s death until she can marry.  Her initial thought is to “find a husband with a strong back and a feeble mind”, but the arrival of Tiller MacRae sends her thoughts in other directions…  Tiller agrees to work for room and board, undertaking some necessary improvements to the Inn, but the arrival of the injured Otis Gooch with his God talk disturbs both Mariah and Tiller as their relationship develops despite their secrets.

“Mariah Bell reached the bottom landing, stumbling under the wright of the most precious cross she’d ever had to bear.  Balancing her father’s lifeless body …”
Bandit's Hope had an interesting premise and a terrific opening sentence that immediately grabbed me.  Unfortunately, the novel went downhill from there, although it did improve towards the end.  The writing had occasional flashes of brilliance, the inclusion of the local Indian culture in the plot was original and the characters were well-written and interesting.  But overall, while overall Bandit's Hopewas a pleasant enough diversion, it was not a compelling read. 

I had a few problems with the book.  While most of it focused on Mariah and Tiller at the Inn, at one point it veered off to Tiller’s hometown, where we were introduced to an entire clan of his relatives.  These passages could have been eliminated almost entirely, as they were confusing and had little relevance to the main plot.  There was one plot device that seemed to have been included to add length rather than depth to the novel.  More importantly, the conflict in the plot is based on lies and deceit, which is not a plot device I enjoy, particularly when the characters are supposed to be Christian, as Mariah was.  I understood the characters’ reasons for their lies, and the fact that Mariah was not practicing her ‘faith’, but I just don’t enjoy these plots.  As a result, I found the novel dragged in places, and it didn’t really hold my interest.

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

21 October 2011

Review: Turnabout’s Fair Play by Kaye Dacus

As I am not an American, I had never heard of author (Mary) Flannery O’Connor, for whom the heroine of this novel is named (to the heroine’s continued annoyance).  Apparently, O’Connor is a famous American author whose works are frequently studied by high school and college students.  There, so I learnt something from reading a Christian romance novel! 

Flannery MacNeill is a 30-something Christian fiction editor for a small publisher in Tennessee.  She is feeling somewhat depressed because one of her best friends is about to get married, the other is engaged, and she is afraid that they will both have personality changes and no longer want to maintain the relationship once they marry.  However, her friends would like to introduce her to some nice young men.  Just as long as they don’t suggest Jamie O’Connor, the wedding usher and a gorgeous, overconfident Sports Marketing executive…

Jamie O’Connor is up for promotion to Sports Marketing Director at the Nashville advertising agency where he works – or so he thinks.  A shock announcement forces him to rethink his career and his life, and he realises that fitting in with the boys at work may have meant that he has moved away from the person he really is, like the friends he used to have and the secret he is at pains to hide… Meanwhile, the grandmother who raised him is trying to marry him off, and that Flannery MacNeill seems like a good candidate, particularly when she is accompanied by her extremely attractive grandfather…

I really enjoyed Turnabout's Fair Play – so much so that I read it twice, back-to-back.  I liked the interaction and friendly banter between the hero and heroine, I liked the way the hero and heroine had so much in common, I liked the way their ‘secrets’ came out as a natural part of the relationship so there was no dreading ‘big misunderstanding, I liked the way that their faith was woven into the plot without making a big deal about it, and I liked the way that the story did not just revolve around the hero and heroine, but had a very satisfying secondary romance as well as some real relationships with friends and family (good and not-so-good).  Only one thing was missing – the recipe for the Parmesan Smashed Red Potatoes that Jamie loved.  I can live without the accompanying corned beef and cabbage, but those potatoes sounded good!

Although Turnabout's Fair Play is the third in The Matchmakers series (following Love Remains and The Art of Romance), it can easily be read as a standalone novel.  Kaye Dacus was nominated for the 2010 Christy Award (Contemporary Romance) for her novel, Stand-in Groom .  This is now on my Wish List, and I look forward to reading Dacus’s backlist (including the first two in The Matchmakers series).  The 2010 Christy Award was actually won by Diann Mills for Breach of Trust, which I have previously mentioned as one of my favourite novels - so to come second behind Mills is no mean feat!

18 October 2011

Review: Ten Plagues by Mary Nealy

Ten Plagues begins with Chicago PD detective Keren Collins following up a missing persons’ report.  Juanita Lopez hasn’t been seen for a week, and Keren’s visit to a condemned tenement building blows up in her face – literally.  Keren has the Biblical gift of discernment, the supernatural ability to sense good and evil spirits, a gift which can be both a blessing and a curse.  Her gift tells her that there is evil surrounding the burning building, but that the man going in to rescue a teenager is good.  Then she finds that the man, Pastor Paul Morris of the Lighthouse Mission, is the man who, as a cop, sent her career spinning backwards, and she is suspicious and resentful towards him.

Paul spend years as a hard-bitten cop, but a personal tragedy forced him to re-evaluate his life, and he now runs a soup kitchen and homeless shelter in inner-city Chicago.  He is pulled into the investigation because of his seminary-taught Latin, the language used by the kidnapper to deliver his hand-carved plaques.  At the same time, he becomes a potential suspect when it is discovered that both of the victims were regular visitors to the homeless shelter.  To complicate matters, Paul is immediately attracted to Keren, but she seems to have an inexplicable aversion to him.  Why?

As the case progresses, Keren and Paul learn to work together to solve a series of crimes that seem to be patterned after the ten plagues of Egypt.  They also have their own personal issues to work through as their mutual attraction grows, including their joint history, Keren’s gift and the reason behind Paul’s change of life. 
I enjoyed Ten Plagues.  I thought the characters were strong, the story was well-plotted, and there was an interesting mystery to solve along with some nail-biting suspense and enough romance to lighten the mood.

Ten Plagues is the first novel from Mary Nealy, the romantic suspense pen-name of award-winning Mary Connealy, who has been a Christy Award and RITA Award finalist for her ‘Romantic Comedy with Cowboys’ novels.  This is not a novel for the faint-hearted (although those who like Tim Downs will probably find this somewhat tame…), but I enjoyed this new voice in romantic suspense, and I will certainly watch out for more of Nealy’s novels.

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

14 October 2011

Review: Two Novellas by Susan May Warren

Waiting for Dawn by Susan May Warren is the bittersweet story of how Lacey Galloway, PhD and math geek, went undercover in the war-torn Middle East of 1991 to rescue Jim Micah, who she thinks might be in love with her…  Accompanying her is John Montgomery, Lacey’s ex-boyfriend and Micah’s best friend since high school.  Only John doesn’t seem to be acting like an ex-boyfriend, more like a current boyfriend…

Those who have read Flee the Night will know how the story ends (well, this is a prequel!).  For those who haven’t yet had that pleasure, I won’t spoil it for you.  Suffice to say that I heard rumours of a novella-length prequel several years ago and never found it, despite scouring the internet.  Well, here it is, and although it was a short read, it is probably worth the wait.

Those who have read the rest of the Team Hope series will enjoy this for the background it provides to Micah’s character.  Those who haven’t read the other books have a treat ahead, as these were the books that got me hooked on Christian Romantic Suspense.  Read them in order: Waiting for DawnFlee the Night, Escape to Morning and Expect the Sunrise.

In Hook, Line, & Sinkerby Susan May Warren, Abby Cushman has been in love with Ross Springer for as long as she can remember, hanging out with his older brother, Scotty, in order to spend time with Ross. And Ross once told her he loved her too, but that was before Scotty died, before Ross worked out that Abby and Scotty had been a couple on the Bethel College campus. Now Ross runs the New Life Christian group at Bethel while completing his senior year, even though he is three years older than the other seniors. Meanwhile, Abby is completing her PhD in Greek, running the Sojourners Bible study and resenting Ross for being a girl-magnet who all but ignores her. Friendly rivalry between the New Life and Sojourners groups leads to a challenge to enter the Deep Haven fishing competition in the lakes around Deep Haven, Missouri, a competition which Abby is determined to win.

Hook, Line, & Sinkeris a more straightforward romance than Waiting for Dawn, but is probably more enjoyable for that reason. It is based on a simple misunderstanding, yet still touches on issues of how we see ourselves and how others see us. Timewise, this novella falls sometime after Tying the Knot (Deep Haven Series #2), as Ross was one of the college-age counsellors at Noah’s camp in that book. Hook, Line and Sinker has all the charm of the other Deep Haven books, in a smaller package. And how can you not like a romance series where the first book is called Happily Ever After?

The fourth book in the Deep Haven series, My Foolish Heart, is available now, with The Shadow of Your Smile due in January 2012.

11 October 2011

Review: Sweet Sanctuary by Shelia Walsh and Cindy Martinusen Coloma

In Sweet Sanctuary, Wren is a single mother, raising 10-year-old Charlie alone after his father abandoned them both when Charlie was three months old, signing over his parental rights along with the divorce.  She has struggled over the years to reclaim her faith and to survive financially, and is now working as a librarian in a small town in coastal Maine.  The two live in the caretakers’ cottage on the property of the family holiday home, which has been unused since Wren was a child.  She is surprised on morning by an unplanned visit from her grandmother, Ruth, who wants to get her three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren together for her upcoming 90th birthday party, in an effort to heal the family relationships that were broken long ago.

Meanwhile, Wren is preoccupied by problems with Charlie and problems at work.  Charlie is an accomplished violinist with the opportunity to study at a prestigious music school in Boston, but that would mean moving and be a financial challenge.  Charlie is also having problems with his best friend at school, whose mother happens to be Wren’s prayer partner.  Wren is surprised to find that Derek, her ex-husband, has been in contact with Charlie without her knowledge or permission, and wonders how she is meant to deal with the fact that he appears to want a relationship with them.  She is also surprised to be asked out by a man from work, and unbelieving at the workplace gossip that Paul, the handsome cafĂ© owner, might be interested in her.  As the novel progresses, Wren is encouraged by others to trust in God, and challenged around some of her long-held beliefs about family relationships.

Sweet Sanctuary was written entirely from Wren’s point of view.  I found it a refreshing changing to find a modern writer who does not engage in ‘head hopping’, or continually changing points of view from character to character. Changing point of view, when done well, can add immeasurably to the understanding of the different characters in a novel, but when done badly I find it confusing.  By writing exclusively from Wren’s point of view, I gained a deeper understanding of her problems, including her questions about her interactions and relationships with other people.  It was also nice to see her relationship with Paul develop despite her concerns.

Sweet Sanctuary first caught my attention because it is by Shelia Walsh, who I remember as a Christian singer in the 1980’s (I’m potentially showing my age now!).  I knew she had moved into writing as I have seen her name on several non-fiction books over the years, but this is the first time I have come across a fiction title, so I was keen to see how well the musician had translated into an author.  The answer: very well!  I did a little research and found that not only has Shelia continued with her recording career, she has also managed to earn a Doctorate in theology, and authored many non-fiction titles.  Her first fiction title, Angel Song, was published in 2010.  I enjoyed Sweet Sanctuary, and would certainly read further books by Shelia Walsh and her co-writer, Cindy Martinusen Coloma.  Perhaps there will be a sequel to Sweet Sanctuary, as some of the sub-plots could certainly sustain further development…

7 October 2011

Review: The Lady's Maid by Susan Page Davis

Elise Finster is The Lady's Maid (Prairie Dreams), having served Lady Anne Stone (and her mother before her) for twenty years. Lady Anne’s father, the Earl of Stoneford, has recently died, and his heir, David Stone, was last heard from ten years ago when he was running a shop in America. Efforts to find Uncle David have been in vain, and the question of who is the new Earl cannot be settled without knowing for sure whether David Stone is dead or alive. Meanwhile, Lady Anne is left with only a small annual allowance that is not enough to maintain her lifestyle, so Lady Anne decides to travel to America to find Uncle David, with Elise accompanying her as her maid and companion.

Once in America, the ladies find evidence that David Stone rode west to Oregon ten years earlier, so they decide to purchase a wagon and mules, and join a wagon train going west. The train is guided by Mr Rob Whistler, with Mr Edwin (‘Eb’) Bentley as the scout. They have reservations about two women travelling alone, particularly as these women are obviously ladies, and, equally obviously, have none of the skills necessary for survival in the wild. However, good fortune provides them with one Mr Thomas Costigan, who offers to drive their team, but who may not be all he appears to be…

The Lady's Maid (Prairie Dreams)was a really sweet historical novel, with a growing friendship between Anne and Elise, a romance, and some suspense. The lead characters were plainly Christians, but this was not really the emphasis of the story, so the book was not in the least preachy. It has to be said that the end of the novel does not quite tie up all the loose ends, leading me to suspect that a sequel will follow. Perhaps this will also answer the question of why David Stone left England for America almost twenty years ago… However, the end is quite satisfying for all the romantics out there. Overall, The Lady's Maid (Prairie Dreams)was a very enjoyable book, even though it was quite different from Susan Page Davis’ contemporary romantic suspense novels (such as Frasier Island (Frasier Island Series, Book 1)) that I have previously enjoyed.

I have to say that the journey Anne and Elise took was quite pleasant and sanitised in comparison to some, yet it still renews my awe for those hardy settlers who crossed America in tiny covered wagons to settle the West, particularly for the hardships they faced. My family drove north across part of the Great Plains in 2010, and I found it amazing that the drive that took us only a matter of hours would have taken months for those in the wagon trains. Even more amazing – 150 years later, in places you can still see the grooves left by the thousands of wagons that made the journey before the railroad was completed.

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