Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book Review: The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay

The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson Publishers

My Rating

❤ Goodreads Synopsis ❤

Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious measures to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy's secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt, and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.

In a sudden turn of events, James's wealthy grandmother Helen hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy's predicament better than anyone else.

As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen's wisdom, as Helen confronts the ghosts of her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters' beloved heroines, who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of change.

Now Lucy must go back into her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that's been waiting for her all along.

❤ My Thoughts ❤

I've been faithfully reading Reay's books since her first publication, and that wasn't even all that long ago. And I'm never entirely sure if I love them or not. I think perhaps her work is more complex than mere love or dislike, or it could also be that she gets this close to perfection, but not quite. Or it might just be me, expecting something, anticipating something, that I'm just never going to find. It doesn't mean I don't like her work, find it entertaining, or read it quickly, because I do . . . on all three counts. It's just I always hope for something . . . different.

The best parts of The Bronte Plot involve Lucy and Helen's trip to England, which is pure delight. I love all the literary references (the ones I understand anyway) and love all the places the women visit that have a literary theme. Places I never knew about because I never anticipated I would ever have a chance to visit England. I hope to do that someday and so this novel actually gave me quite a few sight-seeing tips, places that need to be on the list for any lover of classic literature.

I love textures and colors and furniture so I also delighted in the antiquities aspect of the story. I could see and feel everything Lucy described and those descriptions warmed me. I adored the moments she spent in Haworth, where the Bronte sisters lived, where Lucy spent time redesigning the rooms of the inn where she was staying, helping the hostess rework the themes. It was a very selfless act on her part and I think I felt closest to her while she's in Haworth, struggling with her identity. I would have loved to be there, not with her per se, but experiencing what she experienced. Of course, I've always been a little bit of a loner so the idea of spending time alone on the moors appeals to me. A touch of romanticism, I expect.

Sid, Lucy's employer, is charming. I wish he'd been in more of the story in some ways, but also understand why he couldn't be. Still, I just loved him. Dillon, their driver in England, is adorable, and Bette, the hostess for their stay in Haworth, just warmed my heart. I love how Dillon calls her pure sunshine. Her gift is to make others feel welcome, to be a hostess, to love. I do believe that apart from Sid, Bette was my favorite character.

Now, for the reason I'm only going with 4 stars instead of 5. I fear the romance between Lucy and James, Helen's grandson, was a bit off-putting. Stories of self-discovery do not need to include a romance on top of everything else. The story would have been just as good, likely even better, had it been just about Lucy's soul-searching. As it was, the romance at the beginning felt rushed and harried. They meet, fall in love, and break up within the first 50 pages of the book, with far too much of their relationship developing off the page and being reference later as to having happened. It felt hurriedly squeezed in and just didn't work. And in that same vein, the ending fell too cookie-cutter perfect. Real life isn't like that. Mistakes have consequences and the consequences for Lucy were wrapped up with a tidy pink bow that just didn't feel real to me.

I also would have appreciated a bit more faith-based decision-making. Instead I seriously doubted whether anyone actually was a believer. They learned some moral lessons, yes, but nothing that pointed to an actual relationship with the Lord. The only real reference to faith of any kind if Helen's enjoyment of C.S. Lewis' theological works, which is good, but probably could have been expanded on for a little more depth.

Other than these few dislikes I mentioned, I found The Bronte Plot to be quite engaging . . . a nice distraction for a holiday weekend. Just make sure you're actually familiar with the Bronte sisters' works if you give this novel a try. I've only ever read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but I've seen several film adaptations of their work so I wasn't lost. Otherwise, my confusion would have been monumental. ❤

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Book Review: Dressed for Death by Julianna Deering

Dressed for Death by Julianna Deering
Drew Farthering Mysteries #4
Bethany House Publishers
March 1st, 2016

My Rating
❤ Goodreads Synopsis ❤
Drew and Madeline Farthering celebrate their six-month anniversary by attending a fancy Regency era costume party. Drew is glad to see Talbot Cummins, an Oxford classmate, and his fiancée, Alice Henley, though many present seem worried about the couple. Everyone's concerns are realized when, at the concluding grand ball, Alice dies of an overdose of cocaine. Tal refuses to believe she took the stuff intentionally, and Drew is determined to find out if her death was an accident or murder.

Drew is shocked and disillusioned when the police arrest Tal's father and reveal that the man has been smuggling drugs into the country for the past twenty years. Reeling from the death of his fiancée and the revelation about his father, Tal begs Drew to find out what's going on. Drew, now questioning his own ability to see people as they really are, does so reluctantly, not ready for the secrets he's about to uncover--or the danger he'll bring down on everyone he holds dear.
❤ My Thoughts ❤ 
As it happens, readers have been waiting for the 4th Drew Farthering Mystery much, much longer than I first supposed! I was sure the 3rd novel, Murder at the Mikado, was published last year, but no, it was 2014. So fans have been loooooooong overdue for this latest release and I am pleased to announce that Dressed for Death is well worth the wait!
Look at the cover. Is anything different about it? What era is this series set in? If you're guessing the 1930s because you know the series then yes, you are 100% correct and win the gold Cupie doll! But the book cover is most absolutely a Regency cover! You should have seen my double take when I pulled the book from its package from Bethany House. If you're guessing I should have known by the synopsis, realize that I rarely read synopses in full. I like it when a book surprises me. In fact, I wouldn't have it any other way.

So the realization that Drew, Madeline, and Nick are attending a week long Regency themed house party where appropriate Regency garb is required at all times just made my little anglophile heart leap. It made for an absolutely charming change of pacing and setting and I'm so glad Ms. Deering thought up such a clever idea.

If you've read any of this series before then you already know that the novels are high-spirited and comedic in nature. But the series also involves quite a bit of death and the ruination of lives, and so the mystery in the 4th novel is a depressing one. It reveals, quite painfully, how drug dealers operate within a rather limited morality, caring only for their own loved ones and not for anyone else. It's very much like The Godfather, and I assume that is because the theme is true. If it weren't, we wouldn't have drug dealers to contend with because they would care about the people they hurt. I applaud the originality of a theme rarely presented in historic Christian fiction.

The little things I liked are . . . Eddie the cat (so ADORABLE!), the Regency era reenactment (it's now given me quite a few ideas for a potential house party someday), nad Drew and Madeline as a married couple (YAY!). I felt the mystery was solid and left only one loose thread in the maid, Jacequline's, mysterious illness that was never addressed. But seeing as that is a very small, unimportant thread, I'm not one to quibble.

One thing I've noticed about myself is that I rarely finish reading a series. I'll go so far and thank kaput. But with the success of Ms. Deering's last two books, and their ability to hold me spellbound, I will follow Drew Farthering and his darling bride on their adventures until their final publication. I love the growth of the characters from one book to the next and my fondness for Nick continues to expand, which is good since he's Drew's best friend. This particular set of characters is endearing to me and I can't help wishing the series would continue forever.

I also hope *hint, hint* that other Christian authors may try their hand at historic mysteries that are high on adventure and less focused on romance. The balance Ms. Deering has found for her Drew Farthering Mysteries is just perfect. And look at those incredible book covers! ❤

* I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review, which I have given.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spoken For by Robin Jones Gunn (mini review)


In the world we live in, sometimes it's very difficult to maintain a positive attitude about being single. But Robin Jones Gunn reminds her female readers that we are already spoken for . . . by a heavenly father who loves and by Jesus who calls us His bride. I found this book to be very inspiring and motivational, an excellent read for a time in my life where I sometimes resent being single.

- I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: Murder at the Mikado by Julianna Deering

Murder at the Mikado by Julianna Deering
Drew Farthering Mysteries #3
Bethany House Publishers

My Rating

❤ Goodreads Synopsis ❤

Just as Drew Farthering thinks his life has found smooth waters, Fleur Landis, an old flame, reappears in his life. She's married now, no longer an actress, and he expects she'll soon disappear--until she comes to him in dire need. The lead actor in her old troupe's production of The Mikado has been murdered, and Fleur is the police's number one suspect.

Drew would love nothing more than to just focus on his fiance, Madeline, and their upcoming wedding, but he can't leave Fleur in the lurch--even if she did break his heart once. As Drew, Nick, and Madeline dive into the murder, they discover more going on behind the scenes of the theater troupe than could ever have been imagined. Nearly everyone had a motive, and alibis are few and far between. It's Drew's most complicated case yet.

❤ My Thoughts ❤

Sometimes you just a need story to transport you to another time and place. This is it!

While I love books 1 and 2, Rules of Murder and Death by the Book, I find that Murder at the Mikado is my favorite so far of the Drew Farthering mystery series. It has literally everything you could want from a novel set in the era of Poirot and Bertie Wooster. The niggling little complaint I had in Death by the Book, that I couldn't easily follow the trail of the mystery, has been emphatically rectified, if anything, this is one of the more cohesive mysteries that I've ever read from modern storytellers. No hems and haws, no ummms, no confused flipping back through the pages to find details, just AHHAAH moments where I thunked my forehead and went "Oh, that's what this moment was leading up to!"

The Holmes and Watson gag is still quite present with Drew and his best friend, Nick, although Nick does not have as large a role as in the prior two novels. Instead, the focus shifts to a much stronger attention on Drew and Madeline. After all, those two are planning their wedding. So, while Holmes and Watson remarks are there, I was much more enthralled by the occasional Tommy and Tuppence comment. Drew and Madeline had an entire conversation that involved Agatha Christie's infamous duo! Loved it, and it just really served to solidify me in the era. Of course these are the books that Drew and Madeline, mystery lovers that they are, would have been reading!

You know how sometimes characters fall flat. They feel one-dimensional, like flat representations of people instead of real people? I'm challenged by this weakness myself in my writing sometimes. Julianna Deering does NOT have this problem. Her characters, from the lead characters to the secondary ones to the window dressing, are all real. I could go back in time to 1930s England and brush up against Drew Farthering walking down the street as easily as I could brush up against Bertie Wooster. Now that is some remarkable talent.

The mystery itself is absolutely intriguing. All of the pieces fit together seamlessly, flowing from one step to the next in a beautiful range of motion that I almost envy. Involving the theater of the 1930s enchanted me and I admired the contrast made between Madeline's gentile compassion and wholesome charm and the beguiling allure of Fleur Landis. You get to watch Drew, who never would have left Madeline despite her doubts, finally solidify in his own mind the emptiness of a relationship with a woman like Fleur and the fulfillment brought about by being with Madeline. In that same vein, I also must applaud Drew for his restraint when it comes to his fiance. He brushes kisses to her cheek, holds her hand, squeezes her to his side, but is always, always aware of propriety and how careful he must be to avoid temptation. He is every bit the gentleman and I love him for it. Of course, the road to love is never altogether smooth, and so there are a few bumps for Drew and Madeline in Murder at the Mikado, but I understood the whys behind them. They weren't just thrown in for drama.  

I think I mentioned this before in my Death by the Book review, but it bears repeating. I love the authenticity of Christianity as represented in this series. There is no pretense. There is no idle vanity of faith and there is no ramming it down the readers throats. It is simply a part of these already complex people. I love it. The realness of Drew and Madeline's faith warms me because I see where they struggle and I see where they fail, but God is always faithful.

The Drew Farthering Mysteries delight me, wholeheartedly. I love having a series that I can give to my mother (a diehard Poirot and Jeeves & Wooster fan), who loves them equally as much as I do. Julianna Deering has certainly stumbled across what, I hope, is a gold mine for her. These books are delectably unique and as soon as I dot the last I and cross the last T of this review, I'm going to start Dressed for Death, book 4 in the series that just arrived for me as a complimentary copy from Bethany House. I'm sure I'll love it! ❤

Sunday, March 13, 2016

KidLit: The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye

My Rating

My Synopsis & Thoughts

Princess Amy, although her name really is Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne, is as ordinary a girl as you could wish for thanks to a fairy blessing(?) at her christening, and she is ten times more a princess than most of the sparkling, bejeweled, pristine princesses we read about in so many fairy stories. Not to say those types of princesses don't have their place, but there is also a place for princesses like Amy.

Imagine being born as the youngest of 7 daughters and the only one to be ordinary in the sense that she cried as a baby, her hair isn't blonde and curled in perfect ringlets, and that she dislikes any sort of elegant accomplishment like piano or sewing and shudders at the idea of tossing a golden ball around like her sisters do. Neither is she mean-spirited. She bears a distinct fondness for her parents, despite their attempts to turn her perfect like their other daughters, nor does she dislike her sisters, although she probably has great cause. Instead she just wishes she could be herself.

When she makes her escape, she is already a teenager, probably around 15-years-old and her last sister has just been married and she is the only one left. She cannot bear the thought of being married to a drab, sycophant prince and so she runs away into the forest after having traded her fancy gown to a commoner who she found quite delightful. Dressed in rags, she lives in the forest for months, befriending a squirrel and a crow who she named Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious. But her dress grows more ragged and she realizes that she must replace it as some point and to do that she needs money and to have money she needs a job. A job that she finds at the castle of a kingdom that borders up to her own Phantasmorania.

Working as a kitchen maid in the castle, Amy will earn enough money within a year to buy a new gown and so she determines to stay that long and then flit back to the forest, taking Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious with her, for they live with her now in her shabby little attic room. During her time there, Amy befriends a man-of-all-work named Peregrin who is only just a bit older than herself and who happens to dislike royal customs as much as she does herself. Together they find more and more in common, as Perry joins her on her Thursday afternoons off in the forest and together they build a little hut out of beeches so they can still steal away to the forest during the colder months and be protected by the elements. Amy is so happy, but she cannot hide forever and she can only have her happily-ever-after she faces up to her challenges.

I grew up on fairy tales and so I'm always excited to find a new one, although I do believe children's fairy stories to be much more believable and with far less to prove than ones for teens or adults. Such is the case with The Ordinary Princess which is what makes its moral lessons all the more palatable . . . because the author isn't trying too hard.
Amy is a delightful character. While I do love princesses in all of the traditional fairy tales, I also love the Fairie Tale Theatre version of The Princess and the Pea with a very down-to-earth, laid back princess as the heroine. She's not perfect and she doesn't need to be and Amy reminds me of her. In fact, I almost wish that all princesses or heroines could be like Amy. She manages to be independent without being snide or rude, but best of all, she knows that true beauty isn't about the outside, but what's on the inside. 

The Ordinary Princess thoroughly enchanted me. It's a simple, easy read that is only about 100 pages and perfect whether you're a child or a grown-up. There is nothing questionable unless it concerns you that a child might rebel against their parents wishes. Except that Amy doesn't want to marry a prince of her parents choosing, and rightly so. In the long-run, Amy's more like Merida than Aurora, albeit more polite than Merida, and I must applaud M.M. Kaye for her creativity. This story apparently came to her in a blast of inspiration and she wrote it down in a whirlwind without having to change a thing. I've experienced that once before in my writing life and it was something amazing to behold. ❤

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: Undaunted Hope by Jody Hedlund

Undaunted Hope by Jody Hedlund
Beacons of Hope #3
Bethany House Publishers

My Rating

Goodreads Synopsis

Tessa Taylor arrives in 1870s Upper Peninsula, Michigan, planning to serve as a new teacher to the town. Much to her dismay, however, she immediately learns that there was a mistake, that the town had requested a male teacher. Percival Updegraff, superintendent and chief mine clerk, says she can stay through winter since they won't be able to locate a new teacher before then, and Tessa can't help but say she is in his debt. Little does she know that Percival will indeed keep track of all that she owes him.

Determined to become indispensable, Tessa throws herself into teaching, and soon the children of the widowed lighthouse keeper have decided she's the right match for their grieving father. Their uncle and assistant light keeper, Alex Bjorklund, has his own feelings for Tessa. As the two brothers begin competing for her hand, Tessa increasingly feels that someone is tracking her every move, and she may not be able to escape the trap that has been laid for her.

My Thoughts

The lighthouse was lovely, as always. That's the single most outstanding setting in Ms. Hedlund's Beacons of Hope series that I continue to enjoy. I grew up on the Oregon coast, with countless lighthouses, so it's always fun and nostalgic to read a novel that includes a lighthouse.

I think it's time to speak life to Christian historic romance writers. You can do this.

Ms. Hedlund, I have read some amazing stories by you. The Preacher's Bride? Oh my gosh, that is the best book ever, one of my top favorites because it is so authentic and REAL. You are a talented and skilled writer. So I know that you can create fiction of lasting quality, that really means something to your readers.

Don't give up. Don't just assume that you can't offer depth to a story or that you have to work with a cookie-cutter formula of romance. Be brave. Be different. Make the relationships and characters real because I've seen you do it before.

Undaunted Hope was not the book for me. But I don't want to go into the reason because I am now trying to speak life to brothers and sisters in Christ instead of judging harshly.

Ms. Hedlund, keep trying. Do something different than what you have been for the last couple of years. Maybe try returning to the story and characterization you designed back when you wrote The Preacher's Bride. Because where you're going now is not a good use of your remarkable talents and abilities. Prove me right. I know you can do it.

Be authentic. Be genuine. Write characters that put the Lord first and themselves second, whose thoughts aren't all wrapped up in themselves and their romantic entanglements. Be the cut above the rest that I know you are.

*I received this book free from Bethany House in exchange for an honest review, which I have given.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Audio Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as performed by Elijah Wood

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
performed by Elijah Wood

My Rating

Purchase from Audible 

I grew up reading this book and whether you like it or not, whether it makes you uncomfortable or not, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a time-honored classic. So for the sake of space, this is a review of the audio book only, whether the story was captured in a compelling way or not.

If, like me, you love the 1993 film version of this story that stars Elijah Wood, well, needless to say this audio book PERFORMED by him should make you positively giddy. Which it definitely did me when I ran across it by accident while browsing Audible the other day. My eyes just about bugged out of my head like a stomped on bullfrog. Now where is that quote from because I know it's from somewhere?! Now I'll be up all night trying to remember!

Ahem, back to the audio book as performed by Elijah Wood.

To be totally and completely fair, I wasn't sure what to expect. Yes, Elijah made a terrific Huck. When he was 12. I didn't really have that much confidence that he would be able to recreate the character he portrayed so vividly when he was a boy. And even if he was able to recreate being Huckleberry Finn, what about all the other voices and local syntax that Mark Twain just LOVED using in his stories? Could he master every single voice and make it unique? I just wasn't sure about his skill set.

My doubt in his voice performance was UNJUSTIFIED! To the max!

What makes an audio book narrator a cut above the rest? Performing convincingly as uniquely individual characters within a story. Somewhere about 1/3 through the story, I forgot that it was Elijah voicing Jim. Because he became Jim. Just as he became Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and his deadbeat father and every other single character you mean along the way including the King and the Duke.

I've never before encountered a reading of such a complex book that was so completely easy to follow. There were perhaps a few times at the slow parts where I think Elijah may have been wearing down a tad, but he gained energy again and those brief moments of lost connection were soon forgotten. 

There is a good chance that this reading will become the quintessential audio book performance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My one regret is that I didn't find out about it until just NOW. I could have been loving Lij's narration for years! Now comes the hope, albeit dim, that he may take to performing other audio books. Who knew he was so well suited for the job? ❤

Book Review: Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart (Kopp Sisters #3, 2017)

Original Summary Deputy sheriff Constance Kopp is outraged to see young women brought into the Hackensack jail over dubious charges ...