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 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 Reviews

Death at Thorburn Hall

Although I enjoy a good twist or a bit of mystery worked into historical fiction, mystery whodunits are not necessarily my favorite genre. But, my oldest enjoys them. So, when I came across a Drew Farthering Mystery, I decided to give it a whirl to see if it was suitable for an avid sixteen-year-old reader who loves a good mystery.

Death at Thorburn Hall is the sixth book in Julianna Deering’s Drew Farthering series. So, there are obviously little details scattered throughout the book about character history and past “cases” that readers jumping in late won’t quite understand. But, those little details did not cause issue for this story. They were more like hooks, making me want to learn more about Drew Farthering.

This particular episode of Farthering’s mystery-solving adventures was an interesting one set in beautiful Scotland in the mid 1930s. While British citizens enjoy the British Open and debate happenings in Europe – especially Germany – Drew Farthering, his wife Madeline, and their friends Nick and Carrie are invited to enjoy a holiday at the home of a distant cousin of Drew’s. But upon arrival, Drew quickly realizes that his host, Lord Rainsby, had more than entertaining distant relatives on his mind when he extended the invitation to the Fartherings and their friends. Knowing Drew’s propensity for solving mysteries, Lord Rainsby shares sketchy details and feelings of unease with Drew, hoping to get to the bottom of some nagging suspicions. But before Lord Rainsby can truly disclose what is causing his unease, he is killed in a fall from his horse during an afternoon ride. What initially appears to be an accident begins to look suspicious as small clues present themselves, leaving Drew and his companions scrambling for clues.

Although not the most complex or surprising mystery I’ve ever read, Death at Thorburn Hall is also not a formulaic murder mystery. A few unexpected twists and turns give even the seemingly evident facts an element of surprise, keeping the reader engaged even when the guilty party seems apparent.

Not having read other Drew Farthering books, I did wonder if Julianna Deering had settled into a pattern in the series or if she’d been able to keep each book relatively unique. After reading this one, my mystery-loving daughter decided to check a few others of the series out from the library, and her assessment is that Deering does a great job of keeping each individual story in the series fresh and unique.

Since Death at Thorburn Hall nudged my daughter to check out other titles in the series (and add these to her wishlist of potential books to buy or ask for as gifts), I’d say Julianna Deering has produced a winner! If you enjoy a murder mystery series, Death at Thorburn Hall and the rest of the Drew Farthering Mysteries might be a great option to check out!

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

The Mark of the King

Being more diligent about reading is allowing me to get back to trying out new fiction authors while I wait for my established favorites to finish their next round of books. The latest new experience was Jocelyn Green through her novel The Mark of the King.

The Mark of the King covers a segment of history that is unfamiliar to me. Set primarily in New Orleans in the early 1700s, this story explores France’s attempt to settle their Louisiana territory – oftentimes through rather unsavory means. When Julianne Chevalier, a French midwife, is convicted of murder after the death of one of her clients, she jumps at the chance to be a part of the Louisiana settlement. Little does she know, however, that her commitment means a forced marriage to another convict, miserable conditions in a harsh foreign land, and one tragedy and heartache heaped upon another.

Other than learning how France’s presence in Louisiana impacted the British colonies and then, later, turned into the French-American treaty that resulted in the Louisiana Territory being added to the United States, I have never greatly explored the history of France’s presence in the Americas. So, viewing settlement from the French perspective was fascinating to me. The Mark of the King offers a small glimpse into the challenges France faced when attempting to settle Louisiana, especially knowing Britain’s success in settling their own colonies. Additionally, this novel explores conditions before the French and Indian War, revealing how the British and French pitted Indian tribes against one another in order to protect the interests of the colonies.

Like all good historical fiction, The Mark of the King explores how that grander scope of historical seasons impacted individual lives. In this case, the individual lives were convicts like Julianne and her husband Simon, military personnel such as Marc-Paul Girard and his subordinates, and the local tribes that interacted with both the French and the British. And those individual lives faced hard challenges. The beauty of this novel is that it deals with the hard challenges – and describes them very clearly – while still showing the thread of hope that comes only from discovering the personal nature of God. Although all who showed a more personal relationship with God were persecuted in France, the isolation of the colonists, and the lack of an organized church, tended to forge a natural path for these settlers to seek God and His mercy.

Do keep in mind that The Mark of the King is not a lighthearted read. It fully depicts the nature of life in the colonies, including Indian attacks, the results of leaving “law” in the hands of restless soldiers and colonists, and the harsh nature of life in an unsettled land. So, although you will find romance and beauty in this novel, know that it is not your standard escapist Christian romance. But, it is just the kind of novel I tend to highly recommend because of its historical depth, its picture of mercy and healing even in the midst of hopelessness, and its exploration of difficult truths. If this is typical of Jocelyn Green, then I am definitely interested in more of her novels.

Posted in Reviews

The Inkeeper of Ivy Hill

Nearly six years ago, I posted my first Julie Klassen review. I’d already snagged a second of her books free for Kindle, so I read that one, too. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. Julie Klassen’s flair for unexpected twists, fascinating character development, and glimpses into British society all fascinated me. Since then, I have been on a mission to collect all of her titles, the last of which ended up under the tree this Christmas – including the German version of one title! (My husband is so sweet to feed my love for historical fiction.)

So, naturally, when Klassen’s most recent novel came up for review, I jumped right on it. Typically I keep track of what my favorite authors are up to, but somehow I’d fallen behind this time around. Thanks to the full plate I was balancing, I had not followed her Facebook posts or e-mails for some time, other than to note that a new book would be coming. I didn’t pay much attention to what it was. I just knew I wanted to read it.

Very early in the reading, I began to wonder what this wonderful author was up to. She always has several plot lines that leave me wondering how they will all tie together. But, The Inkeeper of Ivy Hill seemed to have more than the norm. I could see how several of the various lines interconnected, but a couple of others seemed to be a little too independent. How in the world would everything be resolved in a mere 435 pages? I was halfway through the book – enjoying it immensely, but still concerned about everything coming together – before I took the time to look at the cover and notice a small detail I had missed: Tales from Ivy Ill – 1. Suddenly, it all clicked. Julie Klassen was writing her very first series!

So, how has she done so far? Well, here’s what I can say based on The Inkeeper of Ivy Hill:
– The main story of this title can somewhat stand alone. I like that. Although I enjoy series like those of Patrick W. Carr or Brock Eastman (for a younger audience – although I love them, too!) that continue a story through multiple books, I am also thoroughly enjoying Julie Klassen’s approach in the Tales from Ivy Hill series. She has introduced a variety of characters whose stories we know will be developed more fully in future installments. But, The Inkeeper of Ivy Hill fully processes through the immediate story of Jane Bell and her battle to save her late husband’s inn – as well as her internal battle to discover whether or not she even wants to save the inn!
– The mysteries make me want to come back for more. Not only have a variety of characters been introduced, but their mysteries have been hinted at. I love Klassen’s approach to mystery. It somehow keeps the stories exciting while never being outlandish or far-fetched. These are real-life mysteries. The kind we might find in our own daily existence. Yet, they are still captivating.
– The Inkeeper of Ivy Hill deals with heart-wrenching realities, and deals with them well. Real people facing real heartache. Sometimes reading such things in a novel gives us insight into how to walk through the same thing with a friend.
– Faith, also, is handled in a real-life manner as characters work through their beliefs and reliance (or lack thereof) on the Lord as they process through their circumstances.

Once I realized that there were not, in fact, too many plot lines that would lead to rushed connections or a lack of resolution (because, after all, book two will come around next year!), I honestly could not find anything to dislike about The Inkeeper of Ivy Hill. Julie Klassen has already proven that she can write without falling into a predictable formula. Now she is showing that she can successfully create a series. I look forward to every single upcoming title in the Tales from Ivy Hill series!

Posted in Reviews

Martin Luther

Several years ago, we discovered Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers series. These mini biographies are beautiful, appealing to children of all ages (and their parents, too!), and quite varied in the individuals covered – including both well known and not so well known names.

The most recent addition to the series is Martin Luther, who obviously fits into the “well known” category. But, our history books often gloss over the biography of this influential man. Simonetta Carr digs just a little deeper, even in a children’s book, to provide some background to the familiar information most of us know about Martin Luther.

Several of my favorite things about this book actually line up with my favorite things about the whole series:

  • The book itself is beautiful and of high quality. Although it appeals to children, it is also the type of book you would want to display on your coffee table, in a book basket, or on a prominent shelf in your home.
  • The illustrations are delightful. Using a combination of historical images and the artwork of illustrator Troy Howell, the illustrations give children a solid grasp of the story and the genuine history of Martin Luther and the times in which he lived.
  • Martin Luther digs back a little further than most history books and child-friendly biographies, giving a glimpse into Luther’s childhood.
  • This book gives a personal feel to Martin Luther, showing a glimpse into his tender, sometimes light-hearted nature instead of simply depicting him as a bold church hero.
  • There is a good balance of the heroic and the humanity of Martin Luther, allowing a glimpse into some of his faults as well as his strengths. I love this reminder to children that God uses real people.
  • In addition to the well-flowing story, the author includes a “Did You Know?” section that adds some additional information. Some of these facts enhance the story already told, facts that would not have fit into the smooth flow of the story or information that parents may want to share at their discretion. Others are additional facts that move beyond the story. They also include additional information about Luther’s wife Katherina.
  • The book ends with a brief timeline and a portion of Luther’s Small Catechism.

I appreciate that Carr included details about Luther’s later-in-life anti-Semitism, but put that in the notes rather than in the midst of the story. That leaves parents free to discuss such things in their own way and time. It also introduces the reality that Luther was not always right in his beliefs. Again, he was a human, just as we are. And, we can take his strengths and be thankful for his bold actions while also evaluating his beliefs through our own studies of Scripture. This is, in fact, the greatest portion of Luther’s legacy: the freedom and drive to explore the Word of God for ourselves.

I love timelines, so I would love to have seen a little more depth to Carr’s timeline at the end of the book, especially after his marriage to Katherina von Bora. Also, it is hinted that the nailing of the 95 theses is not a definite historical fact. I would like to have seen this discussed a little more in the facts or in a historical note to parents, especially since this is heavily taught as fact in many resources.

Overall, I enjoy this book’s approach to exploring both well- and lesser-known information about Luther and his story. I’m delighted to add Martin Luther to our collection of Christian Biographies for Young Readers.