Posted in Reviews

Before We Were Yours

I tend to only review books that are sent to me for that purpose, but the more I read, the more I realize that I want to share about other outstanding titles I enjoy. I primarily want to do that because it will enable me to share more nonfiction (which I rarely agree to review because I read nonfiction much more slowly and don’t want to be rushed for the sake of deadlines). I’ll be starting those nonfiction reviews soon, but for today I have another novel to share.

I can’t remember where I first heard of Before We Were Yours, but some suggestion somewhere along the way led me to put it on reserve at the library. When I reserved it, there were sixteen people in line ahead of me – not surprising considering it spent six months on the New York Times Bestseller list. Fortunately, it was also a book my mom loved, so she bought her own copy and loaned it to me months before I would have gotten it from the library. I can tell you this, though: it would have been worth the wait.

One look at the synopsis reveals very clearly that Before We Were Yours is not a light and fluffy read. On the contrary, it’s quite hard, especially if you tend to start, like I do, by looking at the historical context for a novel such as this. Fiction, no matter how dedicated the author to depicting history, can rarely fully encompass the horror of dark points in our history. And that is the case in the story Lisa Wingate weaves of Rill Foss and her family. Despite the horrors Rill and her siblings endured, many families endured much worse in real life.

Rill’s story is set in the late 1930s and early 1940s during the days of Georgia Tann, a woman who “rescued” poor children from their bleak circumstances and matched them to wealthy families who desired children, usually for a hefty price. Some of the children were rightfully removed from their families by the state, victims of abuse and neglect. But others were literally stolen from happy, loving families whose only crime was poverty.

Decades later, a chance encounter leaves another young woman, Avery Stafford, stumped. An elderly woman she’s never met claims to know Avery’s beloved grandmother. Avery knows she should simply leave the question alone, but the woman’s cryptic statements, combined with her own grandmother’s failing memory and odd responses, spark her curiosity. Even more disconcerting is the fear that the connection between the two women may hide a scandal that could destroy her family’s political and societal standing. Determined to uncover the truth, Avery embarks on a journey that will change her life in more ways than one.

Before We Were Yours is the type of historical fiction I love – a glimpse into the side of history that never makes its way into the history books. Lisa Wingate explores both the immediate and long-term impact of historical events, while also building a beautiful tale of relationship and family. She combines the treat of being able to read a beautiful open-and-closed storyline with the reality that no life can truly fit within the beginnings and endings of a satisfying novel. The story also reminds us that hope and joy can be found even in the darkest of places. Even though the spiritual aspect of that reality is not really explored in Before We Were Yours, it is not difficult for believers to see how God’s hand was present even in the darkness that encompassed so many families during Georgia Tann’s decades of power. Yes, it’s a hard read, but it is also a worthwhile read.

I definitely recommend this book for adults and for older, mature teens.

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Posted in Elizabeth Camden, Reviews

A Daring Venture

I recently glanced through all of my Elizabeth Camden books, remembering the plot of this one or a favorite character from that one. As I compared older books to her latest, I realized why I still do not hesitate to get my hands on each new release. Even though she releases at least one new title – if not two – every year, and even though her writing style and character development have morphed and changed over the years, there has never been a change in the quality of her research, creativity, and quality. Camden’s most recent effort, A Daring Venture, is just as captivating, and her characters are just as rich as ever.

A Daring Venture is unique in Camden’s ventures, however, in that it is a genuine sequel. Although once before Camden has taken a minor character from one book and turned him into a major character in another, nothing in those two books demands that they be read together. A Daring Venture holds its own as far as the story line is concerned, but readers will miss a great deal if they do not first get to know Nicholas Drake’s background through his sister’s story in A Dangerous Legacy.

(Note: This review, by nature, will contain some spoilers for those who have not yet read A Dangerous Legacy.)

Nicholas Drake’s inheritance from his estranged uncle has brought him fortune, but not automatically fame. Despite having vast resources, Nick must still fight a battle for recognition and acceptance among not only the wealthy, but also the political leaders in New York. He is convinced that being named Commissioner of Water for New York will allow him to earn the respect he needs to take care of the growing city, but he has no illusions that it will be an easy task. What he doesn’t expect, however, is the continued family tension that he cannot seem to escape – or that his new role might force him to sacrifice his heart.

Rosalind Werner’s world crashed around her early in life when a deadly cholera outbreak attacked her family. Now an adult, Rosalind has learned that impure water is not her only enemy. Educated as a research doctor in a time when women are not recognized as competent in the scientific arena, Rosalind must not only defend her qualifications, but also her controversial research findings – and even her personal reputation. But she never imagines the fullness of what it will cost her to stand and defend what she knows to be true.

I love the combination of flaws and strengths in Nick, Rosalind, and even familiar characters Lucy and Colin. The relational interactions are vivid and powerful, battling real temptations and struggles. A Daring Venture is not a neatly packaged, every-problem-solved romance. Yet it is satisfying and beautiful at the same time. Camden has beautifully handled the transition from single-story writing to weaving a series, and I felt that the character development from the first novel to the second was well-handled and strongly presented. And, of course, the history reminded me once again why I devour Elizabeth Camden’s novels. The story line explored an aspect of history vitally relevant to each and every one of us, yet one we take for granted and do not truly even think about. I love diving into these historical glimpses, and I love the way they urge me to research on my own. Camden does a great job of merging fictional and historical characters and exploring the impact events and decisions made on real people.

Elizabeth Camden continues to succeed, providing my teen daughters and I yet another book to read and reread. And, the story isn’t over yet! I am already counting down to next year’s release of book three, A Desperate Hope!

This book was sent to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.
Posted in Reviews

A Most Noble Heir

We all think we love – and would love to live – a good “rags to riches” story. But the reality of rising from one social context to another never runs as smoothly as the glorious fairy tales like to reflect. The struggle, rather than the fairy tale, is what is reflected in Susan Anne Mason’s A Most Noble Heir.

Nolan Price is perfectly at home in the stables, caring for the Earl of Stainsby’s horses. But Nolan’s real passion is for a place of his own with his beloved Hannah Burnham by his side. Just as those plans are coming together, however, his mother’s deathbed confession destroys every hope in an instant. Nolan is the earl’s son and rightful heir. His place is no longer in the stables but in the earl’s home, living as befits his station. Nolan wants none of it, and he is determined to move forward with his own plans. The earl, however, has no intention of letting Nolan go – and he has the power and authority to ensure his will is enforced, no matter the cost.

As can be imagined, the interactions and relational dynamics of A Most Noble Heir are intense. Every relationship Nolan holds dear is stretched and strained, and the one relationship he never had but truly wanted has now been forced upon him in a most undesirable way. At the risk of spoiling the story a bit, I must confess that Nolan’s reactions to his life upheaval left me preferring every other character – even the earl himself! – over Nolan. I wanted him to be, well, noble. I wanted to see what it was about this man that made Hannah fall in love with him. Looking back, though, I realize that what I wanted was fluffy idealism. The picture Mason has painted in A Most Noble Heir is a realistic one, depicting a young man with good character but an untried heart. His life, while encumbered with the challenges of servitude and relatively low station, has not truly been stretched. The sudden upheaval of everything he held dear stretches and strains him, revealing flaws that need purification and youth that needs maturation. Although I still find myself drawn more solidly toward other characters in the book, I see that Nolan is much more the picture of the noble heir than I initially believed him to be.

So, where does that leave the book as a whole? Despite the potentially heavy subject matter of A Most Noble Heir, this is a quick and easy read, full of sweet moments and even a touch of humor. Being married to a church history nerd, I did notice that a more modern concept of faith was incorporated into the narrative. While it will seem very fitting to contemporary readers, it is not an accurate historical depiction of what Christianity would have looked like, even for those with a solid and intimate relationship with the Lord. This does not distract from the story itself – it is simply a reminder that our appetite for both history and theology may be whetted by fiction, but we can never be content to allow fiction to be our main course in either discipline.

The storyline moves along at a good pace, and a small thread of mystery weaves its way throughout the narrative, leaving the reader wondering what other forces are working behind the scenes. Lessons are learned, character is developed, and a few surprises are worked in along the way. All in all, A Most Noble Heir is a fun read for lovers of late 19th century historical fiction.

This book was sent to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.
Posted in Reviews

Keturah

Time flies when you’re reading good books! And I’ve read several great ones lately – and lost track of a couple of review due dates. So, since I have one review that’s a bit late and another that’s due now, you get two this week!

The first one is the latest historical fiction from wonderful storyteller Lisa Tawn Bergren. I was first introduced to her books through the God Gave Us children’s picture book series. Several years later, I was introduced to her adult fiction when I devoured her Grand Tour series. Then came her young adult River of Time series, followed by other books from each genre. The most recent delight from her writing desk is Keturah, book one in The Sugar Baron’s Daughter series.

For years, the widowed Lady Keturah Banning Tomlinson’s father has told his daughters again and again that the family sugar plantation in the West Indies is not the appropriate place for young women. But word of her father’s death is accompanied by word of dire financial issues, Keturah makes the decision that flies in the face of all societal convention: she is going to the West Indies to try to save not only the plantation but also her sisters’ inheritance back home in England. Unwilling to either be left behind or see their sister travel alone to Nevis, Keturah’s two sisters make the decision to travel with her. Challenges begin for the sisters almost immediately as they learn what it means for women to try to live and work in a culture dominated by men – white men.

Keturah offers everything I love about historical fiction. It is rich in exploration of the culture in which the story is set. That means the good and the bad, including a look at slavery. But that is not the only challenging topic Bergren deals with in Keturah. At the risk of introducing spoilers, our widowed heroine does not look back upon her short marriage fondly. Instead, she still bears the scars of the horror she silently and secretly endured as a young bride.

Because of this, I am a little more limited in my recommendation of this book than I might be with others this wonderful author. That doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend it! It just means that I’ll only share it with my daughters as I know they are of an appropriate age to handle the material, and I will be careful to give warning to friends who still bear the scars of their own abuse experiences.

Well-written, well researched, and beautifully told, Keturah is a captivating introduction to The Sugar Baron’s Daughter series. I greatly anticipate the continuation!

This book was sent to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.
Posted in Reviews, Roseanna M White

A Song Unheard

Sometimes accidentally requesting to review book two in a series has delightful results. Such was the case with Roseanna M. White’s Shadows Over England series. Having borrowed and read A Name Unknown, book one in the series, I was excited to dive into A Song Unheard.

The mysterious Mr. V has a new assignment for London’s most exceptional family of thieves, and this time the special skills of young Willa Forsythe make her the ideal choice. Willa has always loved music, but when a old, battered violin came into her possession, she discovered that genuine talent also flowed through her. Although formal training was never available, time spent in the alleys near the open windows of practice rooms or up in the rafters of performance halls fed Willa’s hunger for music and introduced her to new tunes she could then bring to life with her treasured instrument. So, when Mr. V needs someone to obtain a cypher key created by the father of famous Belgian violinist Lukas De Wilde, the musically-minded Willa is the obvious choice.

After barely escaping with their lives, Belgian musicians have temporarily resettled in Wales where, thanks to the generosity of wealthy patrons, they prepare for concerts that will hopefully bring in finances to help fellow Belgians displaced or left starving by the German invasion. But Lukas De Wilde no longer cares about his incredible talent or once-enjoyed fame. Instead, he thinks only of returning to Belgium to find his lost mother and sister. When the fascinating Willa Forsythe arrives in town, his anxious heart is soothed somewhat by the discovery of a raw talent that far surpasses his own. Her passion, her strength, and even her stubbornness captivate his imagination, and he is determined to provide the formal skills she lacks and free her natural talent to truly blossom.

As I picked up A Song Unheard, I confess that I expected to discover a formula, of sorts, to the series. I was still excited about the book, because I knew the author could make even a formulaic novel feel captivating! But, as I began to read, I quickly realized that this second book of the series would be as unique and fresh as A Name Unknown. From the relationship between Lukas and Willa to the progression of Willa’s assignment, this story weaves history and fiction together in a beautiful glimpse of life in the early stages of World War I. Readers are taken from the streets of Wales to the depths of occupied Belgium and back again with a look at the struggle experienced on both sides of the English Channel. As with the first book in the series, this second installment was creative and captivating, full of unexpected developments, sparks of joy, and depths of heartache.

A Song Unheard is definitely a book I will both share and reread, and I greatly look forward to An Hour Unspent, book three in the Shadows Over England series.

This book was sent to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.
Posted in Reviews, Roseanna M White

A Name Unknown

It’s book review time again!

I seem to have a knack for selecting review books that are part of a series – but are not book one! Fortunately, my most recent slip-up was discovered before I started reading the review book, and I had the good fortune of finding book one at the library. So, I started reading that one while waiting for the review book to arrive. And I’m very glad I did!

A Name Unknown is the first title in Roseanna M. White’s Shadows Over England series. Set in the early stages of World War I, A Name Unknown introduces readers to a rather unique London “family.” A family of thieves. Though none are related by blood, the dozen siblings care for one another with a love that is fierce, protective, and powerful. All are banded together by the oldest, a young man named Barclay, and all are watched over by a pub owner named Pauly. Together they survive by stealing from the rich to put food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.

Brilliant though their thievery may be, the family barely brings in enough resources to keep the many mouths fed. But, a mysterious stranger has picked up on the unique talents of the eldest members of the family, especially young Rosemary Gresham. He begins to offer her jobs, but the one he hands her now is the biggest – and highest paying – of them all. All she has to do is find proof that Peter Holstein, friend of the king, is a traitor.

The Holsteins, though Germans, had been highly thought of in their corner of Cornwall before their deaths. But, their son Peter is a different story. A recluse who mingles little with the people of the town, Peter struggles both at home and in the London political arena, fighting questions about his loyalty. But, with tensions in Europe on the rise, he is determined to prove once and for all that his heart and his loyalty lie with England. Unfortunately, any proof that may exist lies buried somewhere in the chaotic depths of what may have once been referred to as a library. Every potential employee he has found to help him tame the “cave” has fled in horror upon seeing the nature of the task…until a young woman by the name of Rosemary arrives at his door and agrees to tackle the job.

Roseanna M. White weaves a captivating story of character, history, intrigue, mystery, and yes, even romance in A Name Unknown. But, as I read, I had a struggle. Because I’d agreed to review it, I knew what the second book would be about. And I knew that getting to the second book meant that some of the events of the first book would most likely end up being either lame, overly contrived, or boringly predictable. I was delighted to find none of those as the story drew to a close. It was well written, captivating, and powerful in every way. It did not take me long to decide to own my own copy instead of just enjoying the library’s, since I’d soon have the second book anyway.

A Name Unknown is unique in its heroes and delightful in its twists. And I definitely recommend it to historical romance loving readers from the teen years on up.

Check back next week for my review of the actual review book, A Song Unheard.

Posted in Elizabeth Camden, Reviews

A Dangerous Legacy

Recently, I’ve come across a few books I thought I’d reviewed, but realized I never actually did! So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be fitting them in between reviews of current books.

The first in the list is A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden. As a long-time Camden fan, it has been fun to read each new title and see how she has evolved – and stayed the same – as a writer. Her job as a research librarian seems to keep her creativity flowing as she discovers new and fascinating tidbits of history to combine with her delightful imagination, weaving engaging stories that combine historical facts, intrigue and mystery, engaging characters, and genuine romance.

In A Dangerous Legacy, Lucy Drake and her brother Nick have poured their lives and resources into a single goal: regaining rightful control of their grandfather’s invention. Unfortunately, their opponents have seemingly unlimited resources and influence to keep Lucy and Nick stuck on the losing side of the legal battle. Lucy’s job with the Associated Press provides her a secret weapon in the fight, but will it be enough?

Matters complicate even further when Lucy meets Sir Colin Beckwith, the new man in charge of Reuters, Britain’s news agency and rival of the Associated Press. The two agencies share a building and certain resources, at least for the time being. The partnership leads Lucy and Colin into a tentative friendship that cannot help but grow in depth. But, each one carries burdens, responsibilities, and secrets that no amount of friendship seems capable of breaching.

Every aspect of the story in A Dangerous Legacy reinforces Elizabeth Camden’s skill as a storyteller capable of weaving history and fiction, romance and real character development. But something felt different as I read this particular novel. It seemed that there was not enough room for the depth of development Camden usually manages to pull off. Lucy and Colin are, to be sure, explored beautifully. Their characters deal with life and issues that have no clear solution, and the resolution of their story fits with the reality that sometimes the answer arrives from a completely unexpected direction. There was something delightfully unexpected about the way events twisted and turned to their final conclusion.

But, then there was Nick Drake. As I read, I could not help but feel that I was supposed to be getting to know him better. That his story was there, waiting to be exposed and explored. That his interactions were essential, not to the immediate plot of A Dangerous Legacy, but to becoming known. The feeling intensified as I read the epilogue and realized that new information was being presented – information that could not possibly be resolved in a few pages. Sure enough, Nick’s story will continue in A Daring Venture, releasing in 2018. This is part of what shows Camden’s skill as an author. Instead of trying to cram too much into this one novel or glossing over the additional story begging to be told, she allowed the glimpses to shine through and lay the groundwork that would allow a sequel to follow.

As with other Elizabeth Camden books, I recommend this for older teens through adults who love history and intrigue interwoven with some romance.

This book was sent to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.