30 March 2012

Review: Deadly Pursuit by Irene Hannon

Romance Writers of America have just released the list of finalists for the 2012 RITA Awards. Finalists in the Inspirational Romance section are:
  • The Christmas Child by Linda Goodnight
  • Deadly Pursuit by Irene Hannon (reviewed below)
  • Katie's Way by Marta Perry
  • The Ladies' Room by Carolyn Brown
  • Love on the Line by Deeanne Gist
  • The Measure of Katie Calloway by Serena Miller
  • My Foolish Heart by Susan May Warren
  • Save the Date by Jenny B Jones
  • To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer (on my Wish List)
Have you read any of the finalists? If so, what is your pick for the winner?

Deadly Pursuit is the second book in Irene Hannon’s Guardians of Justice series, which looks at three siblings ‘bound by a passion for justice’.  This novel is the story of Alison Taylor, a social worker for Child Protective Services in St Louis, Missouri, the sister of the over-protective Jake (a deputy US marshal, and the hero of Fatal Judgment), and Cole (a police detective, who looks like he will be the hero of the third in the series).

Alison has been set up on a date with Mitch Morgan, and ex-Navy SEAL who is Cole’s new partner.  They experience an instant attraction that soon turns protective as Alison finds a ‘gift’ on her front doorstep when he takes her home after a date, and she confesses that she has had some heavy-breathing telephone calls and a previous ‘gift’ of dying flowers.  But it is this latest gift that has Mitch worried, because the gift had an implied threat of escalating violence.  Cole and Jake are equally worried when they find out, and the three men are determined to keep Alison safe – but their adversary is equally determined.

I have long suspected that there are actually only six basic plots for a romance novel, and that Jane Austen wrote one of each.  In reading Irene Hannon’s writing, it would appear that there are only three romantic suspense plots.  Fatal Judgment (the first in the Guardians of Justice trilogy) had clear similarities to Against All Odds, the first in the Heroes of Quantico series.  Deadly Pursuitgave me a similar sense of de ja vu, as it has clear similarities with An Eye for an Eye, the second Heroes of Quantico novel.  I truly hope that this does not continue, as while I really enjoy Hannon’s writing, I want to read a new story not a revision of a previous novel with new characters.  This would be my one criticism of Deadly Pursuit– while it was a quick and enjoyable read, it was not sufficiently unique to be excellent or truly memorable.  I hope that Cole’s story will be an improvement.

If you enjoy romantic suspense and have not read the Heroes of Quantico series, you will probably enjoy this.  Otherwise, I'd suggest you borrow this one or wait for it to be offered free on Kindle. Umm, so you can probably guess I'm not backing this to win the RITA...

28 March 2012

Review: El Rey by Ginger Myrick

El Rey: A Novel of Renaissance Iberia opens with an intriguing prologue of a woman talking to her great-granddaughter. The story then goes back in time to the elderly woman’s own childhood, when she was eleven years old and first met El Rey. We find that the girl/woman is Inez, younger daughter of merchant Inigo Garcia and his wife, Joanna. El Rey is a 28-year-old sea captain, rumoured to be a relative of the King of Portugal, and for Inez, this meeting is love at first sight despite the difference in their ages and situations.

El Rey is written from the omniscient point of view with long narrative passages and just enough dialogue to keep the story moving. It has a rich and varied vocabulary that reinforces the formality of the setting, which was Iberia in the early 1500’s.  The writing style is very formal, almost remote, but this fits well with the time and place, as it adds to the realism and the sense of ‘being there’. The style of writing is more Sharon Penman than Philippa Gregory, but the focus is on everyday characters and their relationships, rather than the historical accuracy and more political focus that a Penman novel would bring.

There were many examples of jarringly modern vocabulary (e.g. ‘moxie’), which I found distracting because they didn’t fit with formal style of writing. I noticed some details that were not historically accurate (e.g. the sextant had not been invented in the 1500’s), which makes me wonder what I didn’t notice. The author included individual character histories as part of the main plot when this information (if required at all) could have been better communicated through dialogue in real time, rather than a two-chapter story within a story. There were several of these digressions, and I found them to be quite distracting, as they had little relevance to the overall plot.

El Rey is not genre Christian fiction, nor is it specifically targeted at the Christian market. However, it is a clean read, set in a time and place where Christian faith was more cultural than personal, and the attitudes of the characters towards religion and the Church reflect that well. Overall, this is a good self-published first novel, but one that could be improved with the application of good modern editing principles. I enjoyed El Rey, but have to admit that even though the ending was lovely, there was a portion in the middle where I was just getting so cross with one of the characters… I have a tendency to forget that it’s fiction, not real life.

26 March 2012

Review: Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley

It is 1895 and 29-year-old author Kate Tenney has arrived in the tiny town of Cactus Patch, Arizona, having left her home city of Boston after one of her dime novels was banned for indecency. She has answered an advertisement seeking professional woman to be ‘heiress’ to the Last Chance Ranch, owned by Eleanor Walker. Kate has a lot of baggage in her past, including being abandoned by her father, neglected by her mother, and an upbringing that ignored God and taught her to trust no man.

When the train arrives in the small town, not only is there no one around to meet her, but the entire town appears abandoned. Actually, they are hiding, because Cactus Joe, their local outlaw, has come to town to cause some trouble, and Kate soon finds herself in the middle of it, before being rescued by handsome blacksmith Luke Adams. We also meet Luke's aunts, a pair of offbeat (if naïve) matchmakers, intent on seeing Luke happily settled, and providing an amusing sub-plot.

Kate soon settles in to her new home, although she finds ranch life somewhat different from how she described it in her novels. But she is determined to prove herself, and has no issue with remaining single as Miss Walker demands. To her embarrassment, she finds that not only has most of the town has read her book but some of them want her to read it to them, some want her to write for them, and some are treating it as a how-to manual to experience toe-curling kisses in their own marriages. There is a level of irony here – a romance novel about a writer who has promised never to marry, and who doesn’t trust men, yet one who used to write 'passionate' dime novels.

I have to allow myself a bit of a rant here. I know authors are often told "write what you know". However, I have read enough novels about journalists and novelists. Please, authors, do some research and write something new! Find something and research it so you know something new to write. Admittedly, there could be an element of envy here. After all, what I know is management consulting, and no one wants to read a novel about my job. It's just not exciting. Rant over, and back to Dawn Comes Early (where, to be fair, the heroine did have to learn ranching literally from the ground up. I admire her willingness to work and her tenacity).

The best part about Dawn Comes Early was the minor characters. Each had their own distinct style of speech, to the point where I could almost hear their voices. My favourite was Ruckus, an older ranch hand who befriended Kate and taught her all about ranching, and gave her a glimpse of a God that perhaps might actually care. While this is a Christian novel, the Christian content is very low-key and not at all preachy.

Overall, this was a fun romance with the unique and interesting premise of a heroine promising not to marry. The one lack was around the development of the relationship between Kate and Luke. They simply didn't spend enough time together to make it believable for me. This is the first in a new series, with the following books no doubt introducing more potential heiresses for the Last Chance Ranch.

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

23 March 2012

Review: Hearts that Survive by Yvonne Lehman

Lydia Beaumont is travelling from London to New York on the Titanic, accompanied by her fiance, John Ancell, and Craven Dowd, an employee of her father - and the man her father wants her to marry. But Lydia is hiding a secret. She is pregnant with John’s child, the result of one night that went too far, despite them both having a Christian faith. Together with her friend, Caroline Chadwick, she plans a historic wedding on the unsinkable ship.

So, less than one chapter in, I had a feeling I could see where this plot was going (well, they are on the Titanic!). I was partly right, and partly wrong. Yes, the ship sank, and John Astor has died three times this week in three different books. But in the end, Hearts That Survivedidn't go anything like how I expected. I was expecting a standard Christian romance story that covered a few months in time or a year at most. Instead I got a much deeper story that covered decades. I admit I overlooked the Amazon product description that used words like ‘epic’ and 'decades later’, indicating a longer timeframe. My excuse is that I didn’t want to come into the book with any preconceived ideas, and I feel justified now I do look at the Amazon listing, because the two aspects of the plot summary occur fifty years apart, which is one of my pet hates as it could be considered a bit of a spoiler…

Lehman has a unique ability to capture the nuances of emotion in her writing, to change her style and tone to reflect the emotions of her characters. This made for difficult reading at times, particularly in the passages after the sinking, when both women were coping with their grief in their own way. The scene inside the ship as she went down was beautifully and sensitively written, with a sad nobility that reminded me of the scene where the Towers come down in Kingsbury's 9/11 novel, One Tuesday Morning. The sinking scenes themselves were confusing, with too many people, too many points of view. But even this gave it a sense of realism, particularly as some scenes showed men and women at their most noble, and others behaving in quite the opposite manner.

After the tragedy, the tone of the writing changes, with subtle differences between Lydia and Caroline's points of view highlighting the differences between them. Frankly, I found the portions from Lydia’s point of view to be depressing. Craven was controlling and manipulative at a time when Lydia did not have the strength to stand up to him, and I didn’t like that, either. So, overall, this was not a novel I particularly enjoyed. The story dragged too much in places, some of the word choices felt out of place, the story changed focus from Lydia to Caroline, and parts of it were confusing with too many characters. But underneath all that, Hearts That Survive has some brilliant writing with some profound spiritual insights, which I appreciated.

For example, at one point, Caroline is thinking that “Out there, she’d seen hundreds and hundreds and hundreds calling on God and Jesus to save them. He didn’t.” This made me think, because it seems so out of character for a Christian novel. I decided Caroline was wrong. God did save them. But we, as humans, often confuse the physical with the eternal. He has promised to save all who believe and call upon Him, just as He has promised us healing. But not all of these promises are fulfilled in this mortal life. God may not have saved the bodies of those crying out to Him, but he did save them, just as He saves those who cry out to Him today.

What do you think?

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

21 March 2012

Review: Echoes of Titanic by Mindy Starns Clark

Echoes of Titanicopens at the 1913 Titanic memorial service, with an unnamed woman thinking of her loss, of the nightmare and of her guilt.  The story then moves to 2012 and to Kelsey Tate, who works for Brennan & Tate, the investment firm established by her great grandmother, Adele Brennan. Kelsey’s PR speech is interrupted by a heckler announcing that Adele perished on the Titanic, and Jocelyn assumed Adele’s identity. While Kelsey discredits the story, it is within the realms of possibility, as the cousins were the same age, and Adele had not seen her father since she was three.  Then Kelsey’s career mentor, Gloria Poole, is found hanged in the company offices hours after the big announcement, an apparent suicide – or is it murder?

Kelsey must resolve the attack on Adele's name and cope with the death of her mentor.  As Kelsey investigates, she begins to questions her own lifestyle and faith. She realises that it was one of many things that changed five years ago when her relationship with Cole fell apart, when Gloria didn’t get an important promotion, and when Kelsey made her first big deal. Kelsey finds things are not as they first appeared and begins to question the actions and motivations of others, as well as her own.

The story flips back and forward between 1912 and 2012, from Adele and Jocelyn to Kelsey as she attempts to solve a century-old mystery within a tight deadline, accompanied by a hint of romance and a hint of suspense and an underlying theme of God's grace and love.

I have read several books by Mindy Starns Clark, but Echoes of Titanicis the first that she has co-authored with her husband, John Campbell Clark, a lifelong Titanic buff, whose background in accounting comes through almost too strongly in some of the investment passages.  Another problem was that there was too much backtracking and repetition of the family history (at least one passage could have been deleted). I suspect that someone thought that an established author like Mindy Starns Clark would not need much editing. That might normally be true, but if so then John Campbell Clark is a first time author who certainly does need some editorial guidance. 

One thing I have noticed about Mindy Starns Clark's heroines is that they have an annoying habit of resorting to physical exercise in times of stress, and Kelsey is no exception. However, this might say more about me than it does about Clark's books...

Thanks to Harvest House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

19 March 2012

Review: By the Light of the Silvery Moon by Tricia Goyer

2012 is the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, and this week I am reviewing two novels set on the fated ship and a third that has Titanic flashbacks. Hopefully they will be an improvement on the movie! (While I like both Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio as actors, I didn't like the movie plot and haven't listened to Celine Dion since).  The movie will be re-released on 6 April in 3D as a tribute (with the Blu-ray to follow. Cashing in?) As you may have guessed, I won't be going to see it. Anyway, on to By the Light of the Silvery Moon.

Quentin's mother drowned when he was only a small boy, and he is now returning to America. Although he comes from an affluent background, he has been barely surviving on the streets of London for the last two years. Damien Walpole and his father are returning to America after a business trip to London, where they also searched for Damien's lost younger brother. The two brothers are quite different, but both have their strengths, and both have their faults.

Amelia is boarding the Titanic with her Aunt Neda, who has raised her since her mother left to follow the call of the sea when Amelia was just six. The two are now travelling to America at the behest of Elizabeth, Neda's daughter, and her neighbour Mr Chapman, who has been corresponding with Amelia and has paid for their tickets. Amelia has a passion for helping those without fathers or mothers, no doubt because of her own upbringing. A twist of fate and an act of kindness sees Quentin on the same voyage.

The key in a book about a well-known historical event is to engage the reader to the point that they get so engrossed in the story that they forget what is coming. Goyer has achieved this by creating a cast of interrelated characters that the reader is keen to explore, and written with a very readable voice.  The themes are familiar - pride, love, forgiveness and reconciliation.  By the Light of the Silvery Moonis quite plainly a Christian novel, with Christian characters and an underlying Christian theme, but it only rarely sermonises.

If there are any faults, they would be that Amelia is almost too good to be true - I got somewhat tired of reading about her never-ending good deeds.  Another potential fault is that the plot has overtones of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, but with two added twists: which brother survives? Which brother gets the girl?  It's not that I don't like the story of the Prodigal Son - I do - it is just that I prefer original stories where I am not distracted by thinking I know what is going to happen (if that makes sense, given that I am reading a novel where I know the ship sinks and over 1,500 people drown). But Goyer manages to conquer even this potential fault, by providing insight into the feelings and motivations of the responsible brother. He often comes across as proud and unlikeable in sermons, but Goyer makes him likeable and heroic.

There were a few things that annoyed me about this book, mostly to do with the editing and fact checking, which will hopefully be cleared up in the final print edition. But the writing, the plot, the themes, the characters, the integration of a clear and uncompromising gospel message - those things were excellent. The prodigal son and his responsible brother facing the icy waters surrounding the Titanic raise the question of another inheritance, a spiritual inheritance, an inheritance that we can forget but that can never be destroyed.

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

16 March 2012

Review: Gone to Ground by Brandilyn Collins

The Closet Killings have claimed five victims in three years in the town of Amaryllis (pop. 1700). All middle-aged women who lived alone. All killed in their beds, then stuffed in the bedroom closet. Now there is a sixth victim… young widow Erika Hollinger.

Gone to Ground is told from three different points of view, three women who are sure they know who the murderer is, and who have reason to want to hide that knowledge.  Cleaner Cherrie Mae Devine knows the murderer is the mayor.  Pregnant Tully Phillips knows it is her husband. And hairdresser Deena Ruckland knows it is her simple-minded younger brother.  Who is right? Or are these simply red herrings, designed to distract us from the real murderer?  The story is interspersed with articles from local Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Trent Williams, and these give background information about the town and the personalities involved in the investigation.

This is an excellent who-dun-it, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the investigators (and the reader) guessing.  The three narrators were well-developed characters, with each woman having her own distinct voice, which makes it easy to understand the changing points of view.  I liked each of them (although Cherrie Mae’s use of the word ‘police’ got old quickly – if the emphasis had to be included, I think I would have found ‘po-lice’ less intrusive).

While Cherrie Mae is a Christian and she prays with the other narrators, it is not clear whether or not they are Christians, nor is it relevant. Although Gone to Ground is not an overtly Christian novel, this is less of an issue to me in a mystery or thriller than it would being a romance, where it is vital that the hero and heroine share a relationship with God. Overall, Gone to Ground is well worth reading if you like mysteries.  Recommended.

Thanks to B&H Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

14 March 2012

Review: Saving Hope by Margaret Daley

Saving Hope is not a story for the faint-hearted. Kate Winslow runs Beacon of Hope, a shelter for teenage runaways, all of whom are ex-prostitutes. She is particularly attached to Rose, but Rose is missing.  Wyatt Sheridan is a Texas Ranger who works on a task force fighting child prostitution. He is also the father of fourteen-year-old Maddie.  Wyatt and Kate are drawn together when a dead teenaged girl is found near an abandoned white van that is registered to Beacon of Hope.  Wyatt and Kate work together to find Rose before more girls go missing - or are found murdered.  Meanwhile, Kate's funding is cut and they must fight a powerful enemy who seems to know more than they could.

As the story progresses, we meet a mysterious man known as King, who is behind the prostitution ring, and who will no doubt attempt to abduct Maddie. The tension builds as we try to work out who King might be...  It is also apparent early on that King is getting inside information about the investigation, but it is unclear who is the source, giving the reader another mystery to ponder.  But is King the kingpin in the illegal operation? Or is someone else pulling the strings? 

At one point I thought I had identified King, but then that didn't fit. I was gratified to find at the end that some of my theories were correct, even if others were not, and it had the added bonus of a growing romance between Kate and Wyatt. The characters, particularly Kate, pray and speak of attending church, but this is not obtrusive nor does it feel 'preachy', which satisfied my desire for some Christian content in Christian fiction.

Overall, Saving Hopewas a sound romantic suspense novel that touched on some difficult issues in modern society.  I know that many readers of Christian fiction prefer to avoid potentially disturbing issues such as these even though the difficult issues were addressed with a high degree of sensitivity, and no graphic language or imagery.  Saving Hope was an engaging read that I anticipate will be enjoyed by fans of the genre.    I would certainly read more books from Margaret Daley.

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

12 March 2012

Review: The Key on the Quilt by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Widow Jane Prescott soon realised she had made a mistake in marrying Owen Marquis in order to give her daughter a father. Owen was an abuser, and one night, after an innocent dance with the local doctor, the fight went too far and Jane found herself serving ten years for his manslaughter.  Dr Max Zimmer feels responsible for Jane's imprisonment, as he alone knows of the injuries Jane suffered at the hands of her second husband, and he wonders if dancing with Jane at the town social might have caused the fatal argument.

The loss of her daughter affects Jane more than the loss of her freedom. To manage this loss, she withdraws herself, including from Dr Max Zimmer.  As Christians we seek freedom in Christ for ourselves and for others, but we don't realise that some people are so bound up in their personal prisons that they are afraid of being free. That fear must be broken before they can be whole, before they can be free. Jane is one of these people.

The Key on the Quiltis an original story, well-written with strong supporting characters, interesting sub-plots and a strong Christian theme, although it slowed a bit towards the end. It is a story of 'grace notes', healing and redemption in Christ.  Grace, in Christianity, is sometimes defined as the unmerited favour of God. In music, grace notes are extra notes added as an embellishment. They are not needed for the melody or the harmony, but are simply to enhance the overall sound.  So Christian grace notes are those extra things God gives us that we don't deserve, but which make life so much more than it could be.

One of the problems with having read a large number of books is that I don't often find a truly original plot, so it was a pleasure to discover The Key on the Quilt. Perhaps most gratifying for a history junkie like me is the note from the author at the end, explaining the inspiration behind the story, her research and the (very few) liberties she has taken with the facts. One of my pet hates is a historical novel that gets its facts wrong, so Stephanie Grace Whitson scores highly in this regard.  Overall, a novel that is well worth reading.

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

9 March 2012

Review: If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful - William Morris

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is written in a very readable tone, and covers the four main areas of the house: the bedroom, the bathroom, the living room and the kitchen, from medieval times to the present day. While most of the books I review are Christian, this one is not, and those with delicate sensibilities might be advised to avoid it.

As ‘An Intimate History of the Home’, If Walls Could Talkis filled with fascinating, useful, useless and sometimes just plain revolting information about the homes and lives of our British ancestors (with some information on the Americans). Some of the information (like the discussion on childbirth) I Really Did Not Need To Know. At the same time, it makes me wonder what modern cultural or medical beliefs we hold will be mocked or looked upon with horror by future generations.

For example, have you ever said it is time to hit the hay or hit the sack? Worsley reminds us that this saying derives from a time when most beds were a sack stuffed with hay (at the rich end of the spectrum, Henry VIII apparently slept on eight feather mattresses which travelled with him).

There was also some gentle mocking of some of our modern standards, such as our “strange desirability of imperfection”, our belief in the superiority of hand-made products, even through they have “a certain margin of crudeness. The margin must never be so wide as to show bungling workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost.”

The author has undertaken extensive research, and If Walls Could Talk has over 40 period illustrations, a comprehensive list of references and a detailed index. Much of the information is from the author’s first-hand experience, gained working at Historic Royal Palaces (who manage properties such as Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London), and through presenting a BBC TV series on the history of the home.

Overall, If Walls Could Talkis a fascinating history of home and hearth that reminds me to be grateful for modern conveniences - many of which are more modern that I realised. Recommended for those who are addicted to shows such as Downton Abbey, Time Team and Antiques Roadshow.

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