Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Catching the Wind

Melanie Dobson
Catching the Wind 
By Melanie Dobson
Tyndale, May, 2017

About the Book

What happened to Brigitte Berthold?

That question has haunted Daniel Knight since he was thirteen, when he and eleven-year-old Brigitte escaped the Gestapo agents who arrested both their parents. They survived a harrowing journey from Germany to England, only to be separated upon their arrival. Daniel vowed to find Brigitte after the war, a promise he has fought to fulfill for more than seventy years.

Now a wealthy old man, Daniel’s final hope in finding Brigitte rests with Quenby Vaughn, an American journalist working in London. He believes Quenby’s tenacity to find missing people and her personal investment in a related WWII espionage story will help her succeed where previous investigators have failed. Though Quenby is wrestling her own demons—and wary at the idea of teaming up with Daniel’s lawyer, Lucas Hough--the lure of Brigitte’s story is too much to resist. Together, Quenby and Lucas delve deep into the past, following a trail of deception, sacrifice, and healing that could change all of their futures.

My Review

Lately it seems I rarely finish a book because I tend to get bored with the story. I finished this one, so that tells me something. I wasn’t bored. Nor was I on the edge of my seat. The author wasn’t trying to create anxiety, but it was more like a tender longing and a deep need to understand the past and find healing in it. She did a great job showing the fear of abandonment and the wariness when it came to trusting anyone. I was intrigued with the story. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart rather than an anxious one. While nothing scary happened, it captured my heart anyway.

There is just something about Melanie’s writing and characters that pulls me in. I have yet to come across a pathetic or annoying character in any of her books, and I have read plenty of them. Eleven so far (to be exact) and I have enjoyed them all. They are often quite different. It’s not so much the subject matter that captures me (though I love WWII era fiction) but the author’s voice that compels me to keep reading.  The first book I have ever read by Melanie was Together for Good and from that point forward I have been hooked. She never has tension in a story or a plot that feels contrived. Regardless of how far from my own experience the characters’ experience tends to be, they always manage to speak to me and make me think about my life and my decisions. And like the author, her books have a sweet and calming tone to them despite how deep the story goes. None of her novels are fluffy and fake. All of them will pull you in. At least for me, that’s how it is.

This book slips between the past and the present day. Both eras intrigued me and while a bit more was in the present day, at least a third of the book contained historical chapters. I tend to prefer the historical chapters but in this book I liked them the same. I felt some of the angst and fear that Brigitte had when she couldn’t find her friend and was taken in by a man and woman who didn’t like her and only used her for her knowledge of the German language. It was interesting how the twists and turns through her life caused her to develop a strong desire to help abandoned children feel loved. I also loved how the main character resisted feeling anything for the man in the story because she didn’t want to get close to anyone lest they hurt her again. Well done!

I give this story five stars because of its pull on me and my desire to finish it. I don’t want to give any spoilers, which is why some of this review is a bit vague. Discovering things is half the fun of reading a good book so it ruins it for me if someone tells me the plot in the review.

Michelle Szymanoski
Michelle Sutton author—Healing Hearts

Monday, May 22, 2017

Redeeming Grace and the Book of Ruth

By Michelle Ule 

I happened to pick up Jill Eileen Smith's Redeeming Grace: Ruth's Story, the same day I reached the book of Ruth in my Bible reading.

It made for an interesting companion as I examined the Scriptures and saw them written into dialogue in the historical novel!

Smith is an accomplished historian of ancient Biblical times and Redeeming Grace is an excellent example of how a novelist can bring insight into a well known tale.

Background 

While the book of Ruth is only four chapters long, Smith filled in the story with a plausible reason why Naomi and Elimelech traveled to Moab during a famine.

She presented a sad tale of Israelites who set aside their religious beliefs and married Moabite women and became part of the culture.

With scrupulous attention to research, Smith taught me a lot about the Moabites' religious beliefs. In so doing, she provided an explanation for the seeming hatred some felt for Ruth in the Biblical account.

As in any historical fiction, it's interesting to see the universal desires of the heart played out in a time long past.

I appreciated, too, her thoughts on Boaz and why he behaved the way he did.

Finally, I began to understand, too, elements of the Israelite worship at Shiloh, long before Jerusalem became the city of God.

Truth 

As always with historical fiction, the reader must rely on the author's research.

I know Smith spends a lot of time reading anything she can get her hands on about the times and place she writes.

Redeeming Grace rang true to me.

Tweetables 

Embroidering a plausible tale of the Bible's book of Ruth. Click to Tweet 

Backstory and insight into the book of Ruth: Redeeming Grace. Click to Tweet

Bestselling historical novelist Michelle Ule is the biographer of Mrs. Oswald Chambers, coming from Baker Books in October 2017.

For more about her and her writing--and to investigate the stories
behind the writing of the biography--visit her website at www.michelleule.com

Monday, April 24, 2017

Luther and Katharina: a Novel of Love and Rebellion

By Michelle Ule 

 Jody Hedlund's Luther and Katharina: a Novel of Love and Rebellion, won the 2016 Christy award for best historical fiction.

 As a Lutheran, I read the book with interest--curious about what she could show me concerning the founder of my church.

 Hedlund did not disappoint, fashioning a romantic, sensual tale of a man who rarely seemed that way to me!

 She provides excellent insight into the lives of nuns and reformers in medieval Germany 500 years ago--a challenge from modern day America.

 I learned much about the reasons for Luther nailing those 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. I was horrified to discover the depravity that took place in convents.

Grounded in research into the time, Luther and Katharina spins the tale of two people who felt unloved by their families.

She provides an interesting twist and explanation into their historic behavior, though no one can really know for sure.

Hedlund makes other historical characters come to life in their conversations and actions. Who knew those reformers had such a sense of humor?

Other than the brilliant, though flawed, Martin Luther himself.

Katharina 

Little is known about Katharina. Only eight letters she wrote survive, according to her biographer Michelle DeRusha.

This provided Hedlund with ample opportunity to embroider her story.

Unfortunately, I found some of it a little of a stretch. In Luther and Katharina, we see rebellion in some of Katharina's behavior--which puts her into danger.

At least twice, Hedlund gives Martin Luther a type of superhero status--riding off into the countryside swinging a sword to save the day.

Given the man had health problems and was an ancient 40 at the time, such behavior struck me as out of place.

Even if it was romantic.

All the same, Luther and Katharina is a worthy investment of time. I learned a great deal and enjoyed it.

For a fuller examination of fact and fiction in the Luther romance, see my blog post: Mr. & Mrs. Luther in Fact and Fiction.

Tweetables

Rollicking romance featuring Martin Luther? Click to Tweet

The dramatic romance of Martin and Katharina Luther. Click to Tweet

Bestselling historical novelist Michelle Ule is the biographer of Mrs. Oswald Chambers, coming from Baker Books in October 2017. For more about her and her writing--and to investigate the stories
behind the writing of the biography--visit her website at www.michelleule.com

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: The Body in the Ice

A. J. MackenzieThe Body in the Ice (The Romney Marsh Mysteries)
By A. J. MacKenzie
Zaffre, April 20, 2017

About the Book

Christmas Day, Kent, 1796. On the frozen fields of Romney Marsh stands New Hall; silent, lifeless, deserted. In its grounds lies an unexpected Christmas offering: a corpse, frozen into the ice of a horse pond.

It falls to the Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace in St Mary in the Marsh, to investigate. But with the victim’s identity unknown, no murder weapon, and no known motive, it seems like an impossible task. Working along with his trusted friend, Amelia Chaytor and new arrival Captain Edward Austen, Hardcastle soon discovers there is more to the mystery than there first appeared. With the arrival of an American family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, a French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, ancient loyalties and new vengeance combine to make Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor’s attempts to discover the secret of New Hall all the more dangerous.

The Body in the Ice, with its unique cast of characters, captivating amateur sleuths and a bitter family feud at its heart, is a twisting tale that vividly brings to life eighteenth-century Kent and draws readers into its pages.

My Review

I received a PDF of The Body in the Ice for review and thoroughly enjoyed the story. It releases today in both ebook and hardback editions.

The story’s setting has all the charm readers want in an 18th century English murder mystery. Romney Marsh, on the English coast directly across the Channel from France, is a hotbed of smuggling and French spies as one would expect at this period, which enhances the story’s dark feel and plot complications. The historical details of the period are nicely incorporated, and I appreciated the maps and diagrams at the front of the book that help the reader to envision the lay of the land. A complex network of relationships pulls readers into the story, but also conceals dangerous deceptions and intrigue.

The main character is Reverend Hardcastle, although I didn’t realize that at first. Because Chapter 1 is in Amelia Chaytor’s point of view, I expected her to be the main character and amateur sleuth and was initially disappointed when I realized that she’s for the most part peripheral to the action, at least in this volume. There were several instances of head hopping in the first few chapters as well, mainly to describe Mrs. Chaytor through others’ thoughts. Surprisingly, she remains somewhat enigmatic as what we learn about her is more often through the descriptions of others than through to her own actions and thoughts. In one instance she receives what I would think to be important information but neglects to tell Hardcastle, inexplicably waiting to inform him until he drops by her house days later. This is balanced later by a couple of well done scenes of heart-pounding action in which she acts with a deliberation and determination that live up to other characters’ estimation of her.

These minor objections were easy to overlook due to the story’s strength. I like that both Hardcastle and Amelia are dealing with personal issues that make them appealingly vulnerable. The secondary characters are nicely portrayed with realistic plights and motivations as well. The Body in the Ice is an intriguing murder mystery full of twists and turns that kept me turning pages, wondering what happens next.

According to Amazon, A. J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a married couple who’ve written more than 20 nonfiction and academic titles between them, including works on management, medieval economic history, and medieval warfare. Both The Body in the Ice and the previous volume The Body on the Doorstep (2016), are subtitled “A dark and compelling historical murder mystery.” The series name for book 1 is listed as A Hardcastle and Chaytor Mystery, however, so evidently the series name has changed to Romney Marsh Mysteries. Judging from The Body in the Ice, this series will appeal greatly to fans of both historical fiction and mysteries, and I highly recommend it. I’ll be looking forward to further installments.

J. M. Hochstetler

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Review: The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree
By Nicola Cornick
Harlequin UK, December 2016

About the Book

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better. The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr, who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past. It holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance and the enigma of Alison’s son. But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows.

My Review

Alison Bannestre is born in 16th century England to a family distantly related to the famous Seymour clan. Her entire family dies of an illness, forcing her to the Seymour holding of Wolf Hall. There she meets another survivor, Mary Seymour, daughter of Thomas Seymour and the late queen Katherine Parr. Both girls are beholden to their cousin Edward Seymour as they are without family, money, or social standing. The girls are uneasy companions, Alison fiery and rebellious, while Mary is meek and introverted, but the two find common ground in their loneliness and outsider status.

Alison takes a lover and becomes pregnant. When her son, Arthur, is born, the baby is taken away from her, and she is to be married off to a well-to-do but abusive farmer. Mary, on the other hand, has magical powers, namely she sees past and future events and talks to a spirit guide, Darrell.

When an accident kills a Seymour servant, the girls are bundled off to an obscure Seymour relative at Middlecote House, except Alison will not go quietly. She jumps out of the coach, bent on finding her lost child. Before she goes, Alison asks Mary for a promise: Whatever happens to her, Mary must find out what happened to Arthur and find a way to get word to her. Mary reluctantly agrees before Alison runs off to a tavern, where she stumbles upon a portal to the future.

Now hundreds of years into the future, Alison is trapped, unable to return to the past to find Arthur and unable to find any word from Mary about her son. Alison reconnects with a former lover, Adam, and they make their way to Middlecote House, where a portrait of Mary Seymour holds clues that might show Alison the way back to her son. Alison has thrived in the future, living an independent lifestyle that the past never permitted her, but finding her son means returning to that restrictive past and leaving Adam behind. Can she decipher Mary’s clues? And if she does, will she choose her son over the freedom and love she has finally found?

I confess this book has all my favorite elements: Tudor history period, time travel, strong female characters, and a solid romantic arc. Ms. Cornick expertly contrasts the two women, with Alison’s tale being told in third person (which matches her more external challenges) and Mary’s tale told in first person (which matches her more internal conflicts). The two women are terribly different but find common ground as women have across the ages. Both women struggle and then evolve into their own, finding the love and purpose that is denied them at Wolf Hall. The travel from past to present is also fascinating, as Alison’s 16th century perspective contrasts sharply with modern life. In traveling to the future she gains much but loses some too.

Part coming of age, part bittersweet tale of love and loss, this one has many layers and they are all worth experiencing.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Slender Reeds: Jochebed's Hope




By Michelle Ule

I first read Texie Susan Gregory's Slender Reeds years ago in manuscript form and it has stayed with me. I was delighted to get a copy of the book recently and see if I remembered well.

Gregory's story and meticulous research into Egypt during Pharoah's time was interesting and thorough. Slender Reeds is about Moses' mother, Jochebed, as Pharaoh's rule clamps down on the Israelites.

Jochebed begins the book as an uncertain girl dependent on her mother and puzzled by her fractured friendships with two friends. Her story arc shows maturity and a greater sense that fear does not need to control her life because Elohim can be trusted.

The trauma of crocodiles in the river is what I remembered best--the fear of encountering such a beast while drawing water or washing clothes.

Egypt was more knowable from Gregory's book, and I could better understand--even though this is a novel--what it might have been like to live during that time.

Jochebed is a weaver, which is where Slender Reeds gets its title. Her skill enables her to construct the basket which saved her youngest son's life and, of course, gave us Moses.

The story is woven through with the relationship struggles teenager girls often have. Jochebed doesn't always behave in as mature a manner as I would like--but she was a teenager.

Told from several points of view--including that of the arrogant Pharaoh--the story ties itself as neatly as Jochebed's knots.

We see Jochebed's faith grow with maturity until the very end where her friendships finally complete a full picture of Israelite women on the brink of Moses' life.

I enjoyed it.

Tweetables

What was Egypt like before Moses' birth? Click to Tweet

Slender Reeds, a story of Moses' mother in Egypt. Click to Tweet


Michelle Ule is the best selling author of six novels and the upcoming biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers. Learn more about her at her website, www.michelleule.com

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: Three Maids for a Crown

Ella March Chase
By Ella March Chase
Broadway Books, August 2011

About the Book

In the second novel from Ella March Chase, we meet sixteen-year-old Jane Grey, a quiet and obedient young lady destined to become the shortest reigning English monarch. Her beautiful middle sister Katherine Grey charms all the right people—until loyalties shift. And finally Lady Mary Grey, a dwarf with a twisted spine whose goal is simply to protect people she loves—but at a terrible cost.

In an age in which begetting sons was all that mattered and queens rose and fell on the sex of their child, these three girls with royal Tudor blood lived under the dangerous whims of parents with a passion for gambling. The stakes they would wager: their daughters’ lives against rampant ambition.

My Review

I enjoyed this author’s writing style and perspective. Normally I would read books like this in a day, or two at the most, but I’ve been pretty busy lately so I haven’t had much time to read. That said, I would definitely recommend this book. I have always found the reluctance of Jane Grey to be appointed queen and being forced to marry at fifteen a bit of a travesty. Women had no rights and were used as pawns back then. And being of royal blood makes the issue that much worse, especially if people wanted you to help their family take over the kingdom. This story was told over time through the perspectives of the three sisters. They all experienced grief and loss. They were all used by their parents to further the family’s ambition and power. None were truly valued for themselves.

At any rate, I found the story tragically beautiful. The love stories of the two remaining Grey sisters, of Lady Mary and Lady Katherine, was emotionally moving. I felt their pain and the denial of true love by the crown. They had to marry in secret and hope to be forgiven, but Elizabeth was not a forgiving queen, at least from the perspective of the “sisters of royal blood”. She always saw them as a threat and kept them imprisoned or in her service. I loved how Lady Mary Grey pitied Queen Elizabeth whose fear put her in a prison of her own making.

Good story and worth the read for the take-away value alone. It made me think about the meaning of true love and commitment to family. I am glad I picked up a copy.

Michelle Szymanoski