Thursday, May 26, 2016

David Dyer
The Midnight Watch
By David Dyer‏
St Martin’s Press, April 2016

About the Book

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chart room below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored.

The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel—the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.

My Review

Parts of this book were really good and others seemed to drag on a bit too long. It read sort of like a whodunnit mystery, but without the red herrings. The many lies and the cover-up testimonies were interesting to read about because the stories kept changing. No one wanted to admit to anything that would make them the cause or contributor to the tragedy and such a great loss of life. I liked reading most of the novel from the point of view of a newspaper reporter. At the same time, I didn’t feel like there was enough about the Titanic tragedy itself, as the plot was more focused on the Californian. 

Now, technically I understand the intention was to focus on the inaction of the other ship when they saw the rockets, which makes the Titanic’s story all the more tragic because the boat was only ten or so miles away and could have saved a good number of passengers had they done something. The feeling I got at the conclusion of this book was more like I’d been reading depositions of the Nazi leaders and their testimonies of their participation in international war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. So if you find that approach a bit dry, you might not stick with this book until the end.

My favorite part of the story was when the author showed the last hour of the Sage family’s life. It was an intriguing perspective of how a large family with nine children might have dealt with the ship’s sinking as a unit. Since the eleven-member family actually died when the ship disappeared under water, I found it especially intriguing that not one of them survived. They didn’t want to be separated even if that meant they could live, and that was an emotional part of the book for me. As a family they fought to stay together despite the hopelessness of their situation. Such a tragic ending.

All in all this was a decent story. Would I rave about it and recommend it to friends? Probably not. But that’s just my opinion. What makes a Titanic-themed story intriguing is the tragedy and experiencing the events as if you were there as the ship went down. The book did include some of these scenes, but most of the story was about digging up the facts and trying to get to the truth. That’s the part that dragged on longer than necessary.

Michelle Szymanoski
Michelle Sutton author—Healing Hearts

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Rumors and Promises by Kathleen Rouser ~ Book Review

Rumors and Promises by Kathleen Rouser

We are so excited that one of our PASTimes contributors has a new book out, her first full-length novel! Congrats, Kathy!!!!

From Amazon:

Sophie Biddle, an heiress on the run with a child in tow, considers herself abandoned by her family and God. Wary, self-reliant Sophie is caught off guard when meeting a kind, but meddling and handsome minister at the local mercantile.
 In 1900, Reverend Ian McCormick is determined to start anew in Stone Creek, Michigan, believing he has failed God and his former flock. He works harder than ever to forget his mistake, hoping to prove himself a most pleasing servant to his new congregation and once again to God.  
While Sophie seeks acceptance for the child and a measure of respect for herself, the rumors swirl about her sordid past. Should Ian show concern for Sophie plight, he could risk everything - including his position as pastor of Stone Creek.
Now the pair must choose to trust God and forgive those who slander and gossip, or run. Will the scandals of their pasts bind them together forever, or drive both deeper into despair? 

Reviewed by Donn Taylor, author of Lightning on a Quiet Night, Rhapsody in Red, etc.
Sophia Bidershem, a teen-aged heiress in late nineteeth century Detroit, was taken advantage of by a predatory older man and bore a daughter outside of marriage. To avoid a forced marriage, she runs away with the Daughter, Caira, always fearing her predator might find them. Taking the name Sophie Biddle and pretending that the now-two-year-old Caira is her sister, she arrives destitute in Stone Creek, Michigan, to take a job in a boarding house and start a new life. Her pleasant personality, competence, and obvious love for Caira quickly win her friends, but she feels guilty for lying about her status, and she lives in fear of being found by the girl’s ruthless father.

                  The young minister Ian McCormick provides Sophie charitable help and is instantly attracted to her. But Ian has hidden secrets of his own, secrets that leave him as guilt-ridden as Sophie. He tries unsuccessfully to assuage his guilt feelings through good works. Sophie’s presence and their growing attraction to each other only complicate his situation.

                  Kathleen Rouser threads this story skillfully from that point, surrounding her protagonists with a colorful group of well-drawn secondary characters, introducing new conflicts, and building to a thrilling climax and satisfying denouement, all the while weaving in the spiritual dimensions of her characters. The result is an always-interesting, well-written historical romance that will keep readers turning the pages.

Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he earned a PhD in English literature (Renaissance) and taught literature at two liberal arts colleges. His publications include three suspense novels, one historical novel, and a book of poetry. He lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Summer Before the War

By Michelle Ule

A good friend and I are having a good-natured disagreement about Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War.

You can and should read Jamie Clarke Chavez' remarks here: Study This: The Summer Before the War.

I'm the friend disagreeing with her--on some things.

If you're in Downton Abbey withdrawal or love the thick juicy novels of R. F. Delderfield, this is an excellent book for you.

It's a rich, long story featuring multiple characters and their points of view during the hot, glorious summer of 1914 England.

I've been looking forward to it for months and saved it to read on my recent vacation.

Here's what it's about, from the blurb Jamie kindly included in her post:

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small,  coastal town of Rye.
Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.
 When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.
But … the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.
We have plenty of characters and their lives to root for as we delve through a luxuriously long and detailed telling of their days that fateful summer.

"They" say if you want to know political history, read history books. If you want to know about domestic life, read historical fiction.

The Summer Before the War is the perfect book for learning about British domestic affairs before WWI.

Simonson has done her homework and filled the tale with spot-on facts and insights about that time in post-Edwardian England. (George was the king that year).

I savored moments of irony and interesting facts.

She's also filled the story with unusual characters, as well as different slants on men and women whose quirks often appear in stories from this time period.

But you don't mind, because they are interesting--when was the last time you read about a Romany (Gypsy) boy in England who made an ultimate sacrifice?

The foppish poet is here, but you like him despite of his irritating idiosyncrasies and particularly for his decisions by the end of the book.

The dutiful doctor, perhaps led into the wrong path by the foolish marriageable daughter of his mentor, is also in attendance.

But Hugh has a heart that recognizes it is negotiating with his brain and you root for and encourage him to see clearly.

And Beatrice--a bright orphaned woman who has to face the reality of what making a life for herself means in 1914 England when her financial situation cripples her dreams. She reflected the burgeoning feminist movement at that time in an admirable and understandable way.

Agatha oversees it all; happy in a long marriage but disarmed by the poor choices the nephews she loves so much appear to be making, not to mention how to cleverly foil some of the ridiculous and short sighted townspeople.

There were lots of people to root for and few antagonists except in a "I recognize that woman and man" type of way.

The involved story takes us all over the countryside that summer, often by bicycle, and it's a fine period piece to set the stage for what is to come.

There is much to like in this book.

My problem

Choosing to read a 500-page book while traveling several hundred miles a day by car probably isn't the best way to wallow in this rich read.

At best I read several chapters a night before falling asleep. I'm very sorry I didn't read it on the four hour plane trip--which would have immersed me in the experience.

Snatches and sips don't allow for much mulling or nuance recognition.

It's perfect for a long, lazy, warm, free summer weekend--or two.

Plan to spend time savoring this read.

The major issue for me, however, is something most people won't suffer from.

I've just finished writing a WWI novel.

I've spent the last three years researching WWI.

You can visit my Pinterest board to get a feel for what I've seen: World War I Shots

A good novel pulls you in and entertains. It enlightens and immerses you in the emotions of the story.

It paints pictures that stay in your mind and insights which causes you to think slightly differently about what you thought you knew.

That's available to most readers of The Summer Before the War.

My problem was I know too much and I could not shake the reality from my head.

I recognized and delighted in the irony of their innocent statements about what was happening across the Channel.

I laughed out loud more than once on the ridiculously naive things characters said.

But for me, beneath that laughter--and which often overtook it in the reading--lay the grim horror of what I knew was happening and what probably would happen to all those beautiful young men--whether in their flying machines or not, and certainly in those grotesque trenches.

I just couldn't laugh every time, even as I recognized the delicious irony and absurdity.

Simonson, I believe, was making a statement about the naivete and innocence, not to mention arrogant ignorance, of much of England and France during the summer of 1914.

Agatha's husband knew and warned, but he was brushed off as being able to solve any diplomatic crisis.

Sometimes, though, even the most experienced and qualified person can't solve all the problems.

And that, friends, is one of the major tragedies of the Great War.

If you can set knowledge aside, enjoy The Summer Before the War.

I'm glad I read it.


Two friends disagree--sort of--about The Summer Before the War.  Click to Tweet

Setting aside what you know to enjoy a novel--or not. The Summer Before the War. Click to Tweet

About the author

Michelle Ule is the author of five historical novellas including The 12 Brides of Summer Collection which will release on June 1, and an outlier Navy SEAL novel. She is currently writing a biography for Baker Books: Mrs. Oswald Chambers, which will be published in fall, 2017. You can follow her and her twice-a week blog at

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tracy Rees
Amy Snow
By Tracy Rees
Simon and Schuster, June 2016

About the Book

Winner of the UK’s Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition, this page-turning debut novel follows an orphan whose late, beloved best friend bequeaths her a treasure hunt that leads her all over Victorian England and finally to the one secret her friend never shared.

It is 1831 when eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway finds a naked baby girl abandoned in the snow on the grounds of her aristocratic family’s magnificent mansion. Her parents are horrified that she has brought a bastard foundling into the house, but Aurelia convinces them to keep the baby, whom she names Amy Snow. Amy is brought up as a second-class citizen, despised by Vennaways, but she and Aurelia are as close as sisters. When Aurelia dies at the age of twenty-three, she leaves Amy ten pounds, and the Vennaways immediately banish Amy from their home.

But Aurelia left her much more. Amy soon receives a packet that contains a rich inheritance and a letter from Aurelia revealing she had kept secrets from Amy, secrets that she wants Amy to know. From the grave she sends Amy on a treasure hunt from one end of England to the other: a treasure hunt that only Amy can follow. Ultimately, a life-changing discovery awaits . . . if only Amy can unlock the secret. In the end, Amy escapes the Vennaways, finds true love, and learns her dearest friend’s secret, a secret that she will protect for the rest of her life.

An abandoned baby, a treasure hunt, a secret. As Amy sets forth on her quest, readers will be swept away by this engrossing gem of a novel—the wonderful debut by newcomer Tracy Rees.

My Review

Aurelia, a rebellious young heiress in Victorian Surrey, discovers an abandoned infant in the snowy fields outside her family’s manor. She christens her “Amy Snow” and raises her as her companion and closest friend, much to the consternation of her parents. Amy grows up, sleeping in a potato bucket in the kitchen and being treated like a servant, but she is also educated in Aurelia’s shadow until Aurelia nears marriageable age.

When a life-threatening heart defect derails all plans of marrying Aurelia off to a wealthy suitor, Amy knows her time with her closest friend and only advocate is waning. When Aurelia dies, Amy is thrown out of the house, as expected, and yet her life changes when a mysterious letter arrives from Aurelia weeks after her death. Aurelia knew for several months that she would not live long enough to ensure Amy a happy, independent life, and so she has set in motion a curious treasure hunt across the country, providing Amy a chance at happiness, with new experiences and the possibility of love and friends she’d never imagined. All the while, Amy learns that her dearest friend was not everything Amy thought her to be and nor is Amy all she assumed she was. As Amy grows closer to the great secret at the end of the trail, Amy is transformed, becoming the independent woman her best friend always wanted her to be.

Although rather predictable in places (the reader will certainly guess Aurelia’s “secret” long before Amy does), each stop along the route is alternately joyous, difficult, and challenging, and yet every situation was carefully chosen to gradually reveal Aurelia’s secret and to teach Amy about the wider world she has so far been sheltered from. Amy undergoes a condensed growing up period amongst strangers, some who love her, some who provoke her, and some who teach her how to live the life she deserves.

Even though the mystery is not a big leap, it’s the journey that matters here, a journey that reveals as much about Amy as it does Aurelia. It uncovers what she’s capable of despite her limitations of obscurity and poverty and highlights the life Aurelia wanted for her. Observing Amy’s blossoming—sad, moving, joyous, frightening, and frustrating in turns—is like unwrapping a gift. You’ll enjoy every moment.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review: A Flight of Arrows

Lori Benton

A Flight of Arrows

The Pathfinders, Book 2
By Lori Benton
Waterbrook, April 2016

About the Book

Twenty years past, in 1757, a young Redcoat, Reginald Aubrey stole a newborn boy—the lighter-skinned of Oneida twins— during the devastating fall of Fort William Henry and raised him as his own. No one connected to Reginald escaped unscathed from this crime. Not his adopted daughter Anna. Not Stone Thrower, the Native American father determined to get his son back. Not Two Hawks, William’s twin brother separated since birth, living in the shadow of his absence and hoping to build a future with Anna. Nor Lydia, who longs for Reginald to be free from his self-imposed emotional prison and embrace God’s forgiveness— and her love.

Now William, whose identity has been shattered after discovering the truth of his birth, hides in the ranks of an increasingly aggressive British army. The Redcoats prepare to attack frontier New York, and the Continentals, aided by Oneida warriors including Two Hawks, rally to defend it. As the Revolutionary War penetrates the Mohawk Valley, two families separated by culture, united by love and faith, must find a way to reclaim the son marching toward them in the ranks of their enemies.

My Review

A Flight of Arrows is both thrilling and profoundly moving in so many ways I can’t recount them all. After reading The Wood’s Edge, book 1 of this series, I couldn’t imagine how Benton would be able to match the message of God’s grace she portrayed in that volume, while bringing plot and character development to a satisfying resolution. But in A Flight of Arrows Benton reaches even deeper into the heart of God’s love to reveal treasures beyond human understanding.

Benton immerses readers in the story’s historical place and time through writing that’s elegant and organic. She vividly recreates the British campaign through the Mohawk Valley in 1777, portraying its effect on those caught up in it: American, British, and Native American. Against this larger backdrop the very personal struggles of Stone Thrower and Good Voice, Reginald and Lydia, Anna and Two Hawks, William and the Oneida Nation play out in a haunting and heart-wrenchingly beautiful story of grief and joy, sin and sacrifice, love lost and regained.

Anna and Two Hawks ache to marry but cannot for Reginald’s refusal to grant permission. Reginald and Lydia hover on the cusp of a long-delayed love, but between them stands Reginald’s inability to accept forgiveness for the desperate act that tore another family apart and ultimately estranged William and Anna from him. Even though Stone Thrower and Good Voice chose through great heartache to clothe themselves in God’s grace toward Reginald, they fear they may never embrace their lost son after all. For William, shattered at discovering that the identity he believed his was a sham, has fled to join the British Army to oppose the man who stole him.

Now both Reginald and Stone Thrower join in a desperate journey to find William and bring him back. If he can be persuaded. If he can embrace his true identity. If they can save him from the ravages of war, an act that will require one man’s unthinkable sacrifice.

I love this historical setting. I love how Benton’s characters are rendered so believably that I ached for and rejoiced with each one. How Benton portrays God working through the lives of each of these frail, flawed, broken human beings to accomplish His perfect purpose is indeed a wonder to behold. She offers the strength, hope, and grace all of us need for our own journey.

J. M. Hochstetler

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Review: The Anatomist's Wife

Anna Lee Huber

The Anatomist’s Wife

A Lady Darby Mystery, Book 1

By Anna Lee Huber

Berkley, November 2012

About the Book

Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes.

Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage—a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl.

When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim.

My Review

Set in the 19th century, Anna Lee Huber’s tale of mystery follows amateur sleuth Lady Darby as she tracks down a murderer in a Scottish castle. Lady Darby is a widow with a past. When her husband died, it was discovered that Lady Darby was the artist who created the detailed anatomical drawings of cadavers her physician husband had dissected. Dissecting cadavers to gain a better understanding of anatomy was scandalous enough during that time, a time which saw a rise in the theft and sale of corpses to physicians and medical schools, but was particularly disgraceful when associated with a woman and one of rank.

 Shunned and abused by society, Lady Darby escapes to her sister and brother-in-law’s Scottish castle for peace and refuge. Her first exposure to society 18 months after her husband’s death is a house party at the castle where one of the guests ends up with her throat slashed. Because of her “unnatural background”, the noble guests are anxious to see her named as the top suspect. Now Lady Darby must join forces with the arrogant investigator Sebastian Gage and use her medical knowledge to track down a killer both to clear her own name and to protect the family members who have been so loyal to her.

This book was a joy to read—the historical details surrounding oil painting, jigsaw puzzles, medical dissection, and Scottish castles made the story authentic as well as intriguing. I also loved the Austen-esque swipe at societal snobbery, which always reminds you that some things never change, no matter which century you are in. Lady Darby is a courageous, loyal, intelligent but maligned character, someone you want to root for from the very beginning.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book 

By Geraldine Brooks
Penguine Books, December 2008

About the Book

Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity by an acclaimed and beloved author. Called a tour de force by the San Francisco Chronicle, this ambitious, electrifying work traces the harrowing journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain. When it falls to Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, to conserve this priceless work, the series of tiny artifacts she discovers in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—only begin to unlock its deep mysteries and unexpectedly plunges Hanna into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics.

My Review

In this 2008 novel by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, we are invited to view a fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. For those who don’t know, a Haggadah is a Jewish religious text used to oversee the Passover seder. Here Ms. Brooks dreams up a fictionalized journey for one of the more famous editions.

Australian antique manuscript expert Hanna Heath is called by the UN to catalogue and conserve the newly resurfaced 15th century text. This Haggadah is different than most in that it’s intricately illustrated and is one of the oldest known copies in existence. As Hanna carefully unlocks the mysteries the book holds, she finds a series of artifacts—part of a butterfly’s wing, a white hair, a red stain—that gives her clues to the book’s incredible journey.

Interspersed with Hanna’s story are flashbacks that give the reader insights into how the artifacts link to those who created and cherished the book throughout its history. The physical evidence takes us from 15th century Spain, to 17th century Venice, to the 1990s, and although the evidence itself is fascinating, it’s truly the “people of the book” that Ms. Brooks highlights. As we trace the book’s path, we relive the struggles of the Jewish people across time and space.

I admit I was far more interested in the physical artifacts than in the stories (just a personal preference), but the stories are undeniably moving and the book serves as the bridge to link these disparate groups together. If you are like me and don’t read much in the way of Eastern European history, this book is really eye opening. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer