29 November 2011

Review: The Shard Fence by Keith Marsden

A shard fence is made of smashed glass bottles, jars and containers, with “the biggest, sharpest, deadliest pieces pressed into the wet concrete at the top of the wall, so that when it dried, a glass shard fence capped the wall and kept out all intruders”.  It is a sign of affluence in a country where so many people are desperately poor.

Brandon travels from affluent Oregon to a poor Brazillian favela to teach music at the Igreja da Esperança, the Church of Hope, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil – a city I have never heard of, yet with a population of 3 million people, almost much as New Zealand.  He quickly finds that it is going to be more challenging than he had anticipated.  A young man is killed as he arrives, and Brandon must decide whether he will stand with the people of the mission or 'be one who runs away'.  He is challenged to stay by Aline Reis, whose beauty has probably inspired Brandon to visit Brazil more than any divine calling.

Aline is a woman of strong faith in the face of the huge obstacles facing the church and congregation.  She must draw on her Christian faith to meet the needs of hurting people, and to stand firm in the face of evil.  Brandon, who is in Brazil for reasons of his own, must decide where he stands, too.  He quickly comes to learn that being ‘fortunate’ is not all about money, but is about things more eternal.  The Shard Fence had a clear Christian message, and a strong challenge around conquering our fear and living for God in what might seem to be impossible circumstances.  In that The Shard Fence, was excellent.

On the down side, the book had some elementary editing errors (misspelled words, misplaced punctuation, plot inconsistencies).  I also felt that there was not enough emphasis on the developing relationship between Aline and Brandon, although that could have been because I am a female reader who likes the romance side of the plot, rather than a male reader who might well find that the romance distracted from the ‘main’ plot!  I have heard it said that female readers prefer more ‘show’ than ‘tell’ in their fiction, whereas men feel the opposite.  From that point of view, this was definitely a novel targeted more towards the male reader.  It was an excellent story, but the romantic in me would have liked more development in that area.

Thanks to Keith Marsden and Club Lighthouse Publishing for providing a free ebook for review.

25 November 2011

Review: The Pirate Queen by Patricia Hickman

Saphora is a wife, mother and grandmother, married to Bender whose “life was summed up by the activity of ambitions rather than the depth of his character”.  Her plan to leave the philandering plastic surgeon is disrupted when he announces (literally as she is leaving) that he has been diagnosed with brain cancer.  They move to their holiday home in Oriental on the Outer Banks of South Carolina, where the children and grandchildren come to visit.  Their grandson, Eddie, stays with them, and through him they meet Jamie and her son, Tobias, also summer residents in the small town.  Through a series of events, large and small, Saphora begins to rediscover their relationship as she cares for Bender. 

The Pirate Queen focuses on the minutiae of detail in everyday life.  While there are a couple of ‘big drama’ moments, the beauty of the writing is in the details and the everyday interactions.  The story is not preachy (although Saphora does show a curiosity about or a desire for God that her husband does not share - she refers to him as someone whose “interest in religion was piqued only when he breathed a prayer” on the last hole of a round of golf).  Yet it is Bender that develops the relationship with Rev John Mims, and who begins to read the Bible and ask questions. 

As seems to be the trend for this genre, The Pirate Queenwas all written from Saphora’s point of view.  It would have been nice to have a little variation, as although we clearly see Saphora’s responses to different situations, by the end of the novel I felt that my view of some situations might have been clouded by her preconceptions.  As Bender was sometimes portrayed as the villain of the piece, it would have been good to have his point of view too.

The novel was not perfect.  Character’s names often annoy me, and Bender (apparently his mother’s maiden name) is a name that has unappealing connotations that took me out of the story until I learned to read over it.  At one point Saphora finds Bender’s journal and begins to read it, but this is put down, forgotten and not referred to again, which I found strange.  I also object to the analogy of Saphora’s son as being ‘as emotional as a woman’.  That phrase implies that emotions are somehow inferior to being unemotional, which is something I cannot agree with. 

Overall, The Pirate Queen is an intriguing story with nuggets of wisdom interspersed throughout, in both the quotations at the beginning of each chapter, and in the story itself.  The quotations are both pithy and relevant, and could be the subject of a whole discussion on their own.  I suspect this is one of those books that can be read on many levels, with subsequent re-readings revealing different aspects of the story and the characters.  Like many modern novels, this has a Reading Group guide at the end.  The questions, like the book, will inspire a lot of discussion (and probably yet more questions…).  I did enjoy The Pirate Queen, and will certainly look out for more titles by Patricia Hickman.

As I commented on how much I liked the quotations, I thought I would share a few of my favourites:

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are… let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. ( Mary Jean Irion)

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.  In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. (Maya Angelou)

Do you really want to look back on your life and see how wonderful it could have been had you not been afraid to live it? ( Caroline Myss)

Where was it written that a woman had to silently submit to a life that did not acknowledge her for her worth? ( Saphora)

She had heard it said that it was easier to live through someone else that to become complete yourself. (Saphora)

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.

22 November 2011

Review: The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck by Kathleen Y’Barbo

The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck is the story (obviously) of Charlotte Beck, an only child who was English-born and American-raised, and the grand-daughter of an Earl.  At seventeen, she is keen to take her place in society, and wants to attend college to study mathematics so that she can prove to her father that she can work in the family business (very unusual for 1887).  At her unofficial debut into proper London society, she meets Martin Hambly, the stargazing heir to an earldom.  Their relationship gets off to a rocky start (she literally falls into his arms, while he is actually Viscount Alex Hambly, Martin’s twin brother), and common interests keep bringing them together until they find themselves engaged to be married.

I enjoy reading romance novels with the marriage of convenience plot device – two people forced to marry through a twist in circumstances beyond their control, who come to love each other as they work together to overcome some common obstacle.  Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softlyis probably the best known of the genre in Christian romance, but many authors have successfully used a variation on the theme to produce an enjoyable novel with likeable characters that you want to get their happily-ever-after.  The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beckis not one of these books.  Why not?

Firstly, the marriage of convenience only occurs two-thirds of the way through the book, after the couple have had a four-year engagement.  Admittedly, they are still virtual strangers at that point, having ignored each other for the entire period of their betrothal.  Secondly, no matter how much I tried, I just could not like the heroine.  She came across as intelligent, but headstrong and troublesome to the point of being irritating.  Thirdly, this is supposed to be Christian romance, but the ‘Christian’ was so minor as to be almost an afterthought.  Finally, there were a couple of minor plot points that were only raised at the very end of the novel and were then explained away very briefly, yet they seemed key to the overall resolution.  As a result, the conclusion was not altogether believable, because if these plot points were important, they should have been introduced earlier. 

This is the final book in Kathleen Y’Barbo’s Women of the West series, and really needs to be read in sequence.  As the author says in her Acknowledgements at the conclusion of the novel, Charlotte Beck first featured as “an impish child in The Confidential Life of Eugenia Cooper, and then as a young lady longing for adulthood in Anna Finch and the Hired Gun”.  Perhaps if I had read these first, I would have had an understanding of Charlotte’s background and issues, and would not have got confused at certain points in the story.  Perhaps, too, I would have found her a more likeable heroine.  As it was, I found the book confusing and the heroine annoying.

If you read and enjoyed the first two books in this series, you will probably enjoy The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck.  Otherwise, I would advise you either start at the beginning of the series, or ignore this altogether. 

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.

18 November 2011

Review: The Spirit of Nora by Lyle Scott Lee

Nora and her best friend, Ella, leave small-town Minnesota to travel to New York City to train as nurses in 1889, where they meet a pair of young and handsome trainee doctors, and a famous artist who paints a telling portrait of the pair.  Nora is clearly the stronger personality, the leader of the two, the one who is prepared to act to attain a goal, rather than waiting for someone else to act on her behalf.  However, this impetuous independence has catastrophic consequences for both Nora and Ella.  The Spirit of Nora follows Nora over a period of thirty years, from New York to Europe and Russia, and through the upheaval of World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic and the Russian Revolution. 

I realise that there are several aspects of The Spirit of Nora that will annoy some readers.  It is written in the first person, present tense, which many readers find difficult and therefore avoid.  It starts with a prologue and immediately goes back in time thirty years, which some readers find to be almost a ‘spoiler’.  Some of the subject matter borders on ‘edgy’, and the heroine, Nora, is not a perfect Christian, and at least some of her actions show her in a negative light that most Christian novels avoid.

Yet the book is beautifully written, even more of an achievement considering the difficulty of writing in the present tense.  The prologue (in my opinion at least) is a teaser not a spoiler, the potentially ‘edgy’ content was dealt with in a sparse and sensitive manner, and I found Nora to be quite a realistic character.  Her main problems were a spirit of independence that was ahead of her time, and kind of thoughtless selfishness that I found quite realistic. 

The Spirit of Nora has obviously been well researched, which impressed me, as did the beautiful use of language and the seamless way the author has managed to integrate major world events into his story (one phrase that I particularly liked was the description of New York as a city of ‘petty bureaucrats, faux aristocrats, and sleepless tomcats’).  The one thing that perhaps I would have liked to have more of was a greater focus on Nora’s spiritual journey, not just her physical and emotional journey.  There is a lot the author doesn’t say, which left me as a reader wondering exactly how far Nora fell from her early faith, which had been established early on (“I am committed to the path chosen… by God himself… I’ll allow nothing to derail it”), while later she felt ‘abandoned’ by her own religious beliefs even though she wants to “find a cause to believe in.  I want to be swept up in something worthy of God’s blessings”.  In that, I think we can all relate to Nora.

This is Lyle Scott Lee’s first book, and I enjoyed it.  I would certainly be interested in seeing how he develops and improves in his craft.  His writing is touching without being unnecessarily emotional, and I feel he has great potential. 

Thanks to Lyle Scott Lee and Tate Publishing for providing a free ebook for review.

14 November 2011

Review: Nick of Time by Tim Downs

My husband doesn't like me reading Bug Man novels, because I have a tendency to laugh at the outlandish things Nick Polchak says, in much the same way as I laugh at Sheldon or Raj off The Big Bang Theory on TV.  Nick is a combination of the two characters in that he is extremely intelligent, has a rare and complex professional specialty, and doesn't relate to people well, especially not to women (how else do you explain the ending of the last book, Ends of the Earth, where Nick managed to propose to two women at once?).

Nick is a forensic entomologist, which means he studies the insects that are attracted to human remains, and uses this to determine when (and sometimes where) the victim died.  It is best not to read the BugMan novels while eating.  They feature a lot of dead bodies and even more bugs.  Anyway, Nick is now happily engaged to Alene Savard, a reclusive a dog trainer he met when he needed a cadaver dog to find a dead body, and they are getting married in a week.  Alene is a brilliant dog trainer but is as socially incompetent as Nick, in her own special way.

The Vidocq Society is a dream team of forensic specialists dedicated to solving murders no one else can, and Nick is proud to have been invited to join. He attends a Society meeting a few days before the wedding at the express request of trusted friend and colleague, Pete Boudreau (and against Alene's wishes), but Pete is strangely absent, which sends Nick off on his trail.  His single-mindedness means he forgets to call Alene when he promises, so she gets worried and follows him to the Pocono’s, where there is a mystery waiting to be solved – but as circumstances keep them apart, can they solve the mystery before one of them becomes the next victim?

I don’t always enjoy books by male authors, as they can focus too much on story to the detriment of the relationships.  But Tim Downs and the BugMan novels are an exception.  Nick has deep-seated issues regarding human relationships, to the point where he often speaks of humans as being a distinct species that he is not a member of.  Alene has issues as well, and Tim Downs does an excellent job of showing the development in these two flawed characters, while maintaining enough humour to overshadow some of the gore in the content.  This is another well-crafted mystery from an author that I always look forward to reading.  An excellent novel.

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

11 November 2011

Review: Tall, Dark and Determined by Kelly Eileen Hake

Tall, Dark, and Determined (Husbands for Hire) is the second in the Husbands for Hire series, which follows four women who have left everything to journey west to Hope Falls, to build a sawmill and find husbands. I found the first three chapters of this novel were quite confusing, as I had not read the first book in the series (Rugged and Relentless (Husbands for Hire)), so had a little trouble working out the different characters and the relationships between them.  The book would have benefited from an introduction outlining the characters and the main points of the first book.

Eighteen-year old orphan Lacey Lynam sold her family home and moved West to be with her brother following the news that he had survived the deadly mine collapse in Hope Falls.  With her three friends, she has planned to turn the failed mining town into a saw-milling town to take advantage of the plentiful lumber and convenient railway line.  The ladies posted an advertisement to recruit God-fearing men with lumber experience to cut the trees – and marry the ladies. 

Chase Dunstan lost his brother-in-law in the mine collapse, and is convinced that it was no accident that left his sister a destitute widow.  He journeys to Hope Falls to discover who is responsible for the mine collapse, and bring them to justice.  However, Chase is surprised to find that the town appears to be under the total control of the four women, led by Lacey, and that only employees are permitted to live there.  His job leaves him little time for investigation – but gives him too much time with the frivolous chatterbox who controls everything and everyone.

Overall, Tall, Dark, and Determined (Husbands for Hire) is a fun read that will appeal to those who enjoy Christian historical fiction set in the American West, although some might consider this book to be a little light on the romance and on the Christian content.  For maximum enjoyment, I recommend that the first book in the Husbands for Hire series, Rugged and Relentless (Husbands for Hire), is read first. 

Thanks to Barbour Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook version of Tall, Dark, and Determined (Husbands for Hire) for review.  The paperback will be published on 1 December (which gives you plenty of time to read the first book).

8 November 2011

Review: Lonestar Angel by Colleen Coble

Eden met handsome Clay Larson in Hawaii six years ago, and a holiday romance led to an unplanned pregnancy and a quick-fire marriage.  But the marriage rapidly disintegrated after the abduction and death of their six-week-old daughter, Brianna.  Now Clay has walked back into her life, disrupting a romantic dinner to tell her that he never signed the divorce papers, and that Brianna is still alive, and staying on a ranch in Texas.  Who sent the information, and how do they know?

Their daughter is one of five small girls staying on the Bluebird Ranch, which caters for children in the foster-care system, and which is looking for a married couple to take over as counsellors for the group of five-year-old girls.  A friend of Clay’s puts in a good word for them with the ranch owners, enabling them to get close to the girls to discover which is their daughter.  When a rattlesnake appears in their bedroom on their first night at the ranch, they begin to suspect that someone does not want them there.  Working so closely together gives them the opportunity to get to know each other in ways that they never did when they were married, as well as the chance to talk through why their marriage failed – and what they will do if and when they identify Brianna. 

Lonestar Angel is an excellent romantic suspense novel.  The previous Colleen Coble novels I have read have either been more thriller than romantic suspense, or have been part of a series that has been difficult to pick up.  This was a welcome change, with two flawed characters with a difficult shared history, united in their desire to find and care for their daughter. Lonestar Angel is well-written with strong characters, a fast-moving plot, plenty of suspense with a number of twists and an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion.  Although clearly a Christian novel, it was not preachy, with subtle lessons on trust woven throughout. 

I really enjoyed Lonestar Angel.  What I liked best was how an extremely difficult event (the kidnapping and loss of a child, followed by their separation) led both Clay and Eden to become Christians and to grow as people without becoming bitter, despite their great loss.  This meant that when they met up again, they were both able to put aside their differences to work together. I liked the romance, the faithful way Clay was still hooked on Eden.  I also liked the twists in the story, the unexpected links between Clay, Eden and the kidnappers that really filled the story out.

Lonestar Angelis the fourth book in Colleen Coble’s Lonestar series (following Lonestar Sanctuary, Lonestar Secretsand Lonestar Homecoming), but it can enjoyably be read as a stand-alone (although, like me, you may then want to add the previous books to your wish list).

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

5 November 2011

Review: A Stranger’s Gift by Anna Schmidt

You will have heard the old joke about the guy who is on the roof of his house during a flood or hurricane, and his neighbour comes along in a rowboat to rescue him.  ‘No, God will rescue me,’ the man says.  Next come a crew in a speedboat, but again he says ‘No, God will rescue me’.  Finally a helicopter hovers overhead to winch him up, but he sends that away too.  So, the guy drowns, goes to heaven and is really upset.  He asks God, “why didn’t you rescue me?”, and God says “I sent a rowboat, a speedboat and a helicopter – what were you waiting for?”.  The first part of joke forms the basis for the plot of this novel (well, you can hardly kill off the hero!).

A Stranger's Giftbegins with Hester Detweiler working with the Mennonite Central Committee, a national disaster relief organisation, to prepare for Hurricane Hester, which is due to hit her hometown of Pinecraft, Florida.  Hester is the local MCC leader, a role that causes some consternation among the more conservative members of the Mennonite congregation her father pastors.  They believe that a woman of her age should be channelling her energies into a husband and children, but Hester, at 33, shows no signs of marring (even though there are whispers that her father expects her to marry Samuel Brubaker, the new carpenter he has recently hired).

John Steiner has been banned from his Amish community because he wants to experiment with self-sufficient living in the style of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  He has spent the last two years working alone on his property near Pinecraft, repairing and restoring it, and has no intention of leaving despite the impending arrival of Hurricane Hester.  

Although the Amish and the Mennonite faiths are linked by a common Anabaptist heritage, plain dress and a simple, separatist lifestyle, the differences are clear.  Hester, a trained nurse, has a college education whereas most Amish leave school when they reach thirteen.  The Mennonites also appear to interact much more with the outside community, as evidenced by Hester’s voluntary work for an aid charity.  However, Hester is still frustrated by the weight of expectation upon her, to fulfil her place in “a community where sameness was not only preferred by also expected”, when her personal longing was for “something beyond the norm”.  John has his own frustrations and an overwhelming sense of guilt that he must overcome.  As John and Hester get to know each other, they find that perhaps they can work together for the good of others.

A Stranger's Gift is not at all preachy.  Obviously, when a novel is based on the lives of a very conservative Christian denomination there is going to be some religious or spiritual content, but it is not overwhelming or out of place.  It is a story of two individuals who don’t quite fit in with the way they were raised, and who individually and together come to realise (and convince those around them) that God can work though many different types of people.  Overall, this was a very enjoyable novel and I would certainly read more from Anna Schmidt.  The second novel in The Women of Pinecraft series, A Sister’s Forgiveness, is due to be published in May 2012.

3 November 2011

Review: The Healing by Wanda E Brunstetter

Samuel Fisher has just lost his beloved wife, Elise, mother of their four small children. Living in their shared family home has too many reminders of their life together, so he decides to move from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, to the Amish community where his younger brother, Titus, now lives. Once there Samuel begins working as a painter and general handyman for an ‘English’ woman, Bonnie, who is opening a Bed-and-Breakfast in her grandmother’s old home. Samuel hires Esther, a local Amish woman, to look after his children while he works, and Esther rapidly forms an attachment with the grieving children who are being virtually ignored by their father. She develops feelings for Samuel as well, but will he heal from his loss and see what could be? And if he does, will he return Esther’s feelings, or will he form a bond with Bonnie despite her not being Amish?

The only Amish books I have read until now have been by Beverley Lewis, and have been exclusively set in the Old Order Amish communities of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This book was set in a less conservative Amish community, and there were a number of noticeable differences, particularly the way the Amish characters in this community appear to know and are able to quote appropriate Bible verses, so this was a pleasant change. (I find the rules of the Old Order Amish to be very restricting, similar to the Jewish law outlined in Leviticus).

The Healing is the second book in the Kentucky Brothers series, following The Journey. Although it is obvious that it is part of a series, it reads well as a stand-alone (although I suspect from the way further back-stories are hinted at that some of the minor characters are part of other Brunstetter books, and it is clear that the Timothy/Hannah sub-plot existed only to set the background to the next book in the series). I’m sure that fans of Wanda Brunstetter or Amish fiction in general will enjoy this book, but I found the constant German phrases annoying, the ending was a complete cliché, and the Timothy/Hannah subplot came across as an over-engineered conflict that could have been solved by an honest conversation between Timothy and his father-in-law. Of course, that would mean there couldn’t be a whole book dedicated to it… As you have no doubt guessed, I won’t be reading the sequel.