Thursday, January 30, 2014

Runaway Saint - by Lisa Samson

Sara has only vague memories of her Aunt Belinda, since she left when Sara was four.  She really only has vague memories of her childhood in general, including an imaginary friend named Jason, and not knowing why her parents divorced, or why Aunt Belinda left and didn't come back.  Until now, twenty years later, when Bel shows up at her father's house, and Sara's parents ask her to take her aunt into her home for awhile.  What happened to Belinda while she was gone?  Why did she leave in the first place?  What happened to strain the sisters' relationship?  What will this arrival do to Sara's content, if not happy, life?

There is no good way to summarize this book, and the cover copy I read before agreeing to review it did the book no justice.  This book is about so much more than Belinda and her mysterious departure and return.  It's about Sara, and what the hidden details of Belinda's life do to Sara's own - her memories, her faith, her future choices.  Sara was so well written, and her viewpoint so open, that I felt her every emotion, her humor, her doubts, and her ties to the people around her, even when those relationships were confusing.  I loved how she was amused by those around her, describing her mother, she says "She sleeps year-round in a tent on an organic farm where she works and lives.  It's find.  Go ahead and let that sink in."  She can see the trappings of modern worship: "God is God no matter what.  I don't have to have the perfect experience.  Because, let's face it, I"m not the perfect Christian," but let herself experience God in simplicity: "'Let the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.' The words are like water, washing the outside world away." Her realization that people see Jesus in different ways encourages readers to search for who Jesus is to them, while allowing that it's okay to struggle through the answer.

This is not a "happy" book.  But it is a great book.  The relationships are quirky, somewhat dysfunctional, but oh so real.  The faith and doubts and discussion of what a missionary really is and what a church service really needs to look like were thought-provoking and perhaps convicting at times.  This book was one to savor and I see myself re-reading it to get even more out of it.  It also makes me want to re-read The Sky Beneath My Feet, which I did not realize was connected to this book until I got to the part about St. Rick having stayed in a shed for a month, which sparked my memory and made me want to re-visit their story as well.

I give this book 5 stars - deep characters, great writing, and wanting to read the book again - all signs of a favorite.

You can find Runaway Saint HERE.
You can find Lisa Samson's website HERE, although it looks like it hasn't been updated in awhile.
Here's an interesting article about Lisa taking a break before The Sky Beneath My Feet.

I received this book from Thomas Nelson, in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Dancing Master - By Julie Klassen

Julia Midwinter has felt unloved and out of place for most of her life.  Stuck in a small town that seems joyless, due in part to her own mother's influence that has driven dance and frivolity away for the past 20 years, she longs to explore the world, and dreams of marrying any man who might take her away.  When Alec Valcourt arrives, bringing with him his background of dancing master, tensions grow and secrets come out that force the people of the town to look hard at themselves and their pasts to determine what their future might be.

I was drawn into this book by the beautiful cover, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't love it.  The characters stayed stuck in their secrets and selfishness for a large majority of the book, with the only growth or change happening quickly, all at once, at the end.  The epilogue was nice to wrap things up, but even it felt abrupt, tying the loose ends together in just a couple of pages.  I didn't feel very connected to any of the characters, because the main ones weren't likable, and the interesting ones weren't featured enough to be drawn into.  Julia and her mother spend most of the book hiding things from each other and being upset at their lack of connection, without actually ever trying to connect to each other.  Alec spends much of the book only focusing on getting his career back in line, without examining his life or his father's mark on it.

There was enough secret and mystery that I did find myself wanting to find out how everything was to come together, and so I give this book 3 stars.  The humility and self-realizations that happened at the end of the book were vulnerable and refreshing, but I wish there had been more growth along the way.  I freely acknowledge that this time setting and style is not my cup of tea, so it is completely possible that if you are more of a Jane Austen fan, you may enjoy this much more than I did.

You can find The Dancing Master HERE.
You can find Julie Klassen's site HERE.

I received a copy of this book from Bethany House Publishers, in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Taken for English - by Olivia Newport

Taken for English is the third installment in the Valley of Choice series.  Annie has committed to the Amish faith through baptism, and is patiently awaiting Rufus' proposal.  Her future sister-in-law, Ruth, who has foregone the Amish baptism in order to pursue a career in nursing is living with Annie while she serves an internship in the town.  Meanwhile, their paths cross with several people new to the town who will cause upheaval in their lives.  How will their encounters affect their life choices?

While I did read the first book in this series, Accidentally Amish, I missed reading the second book, In Plain View.  I can't say that I noticed a gap in the series, but perhaps the characters would have felt more fleshed out in this novel if I had read the series to completion.  The first novel was intriguing for me, to watch Annie's transition from a technology-driven life, to the simple life of the Amish.  This book did not have the same driving interest.  Annie has fully settled into her Amish lifestyle, and does not seem to miss her old life; maybe the second novel was where she experienced doubts as she transitions.  Additionally, the inclusion of the ancestral history seemed almost superfluous to the contemporary story.  I kept wanting the chapters of Joseph and Maura to be over so that I could get back to Annie and Rufus.  Other than the obvious connection of the color of Rufus' eyes, there was no real tie-in or lessons passed down to connect teh stories.

I give this book 2.5 stars; I finished reading it because I felt invested in Annie and Rufus' story from the first book, but I did not feel that there was any growth or developments in this installment to make me love it.

You can find a copy of Taken for English HERE.
You can find the author's website HERE.

I received a copy of this e-book from Barbour Publishing, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What Once Was Lost - by Kim Vogel Sawyer

Christina Willems has been capably running the Brambleville Asylum for the Poor on her own, since her father passed away.  She enjoys the work, enjoys the people, and enjoys feeling like she's doing ministry for God.  When a fire leaves the house uninhabitable, she is forced to find temporary arrangements for each of her charges, including Tommy, an 11-year-old blind boy who people continue to turn away.  She finds refuge for Tommy in the unlikeliest of places, with Levi Johnson, the hermit miller who lives outside of town - both physically and emotionally.  Can Christina salvage the poor farm?  What of her charges?  What of her faith?  And will Tommy ever feel safe and wanted?

I admit that it took me awhile to pick up this book; I've read more than my desired share of historical novels in the last year, and I was afraid that this would be just another one like those.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself quickly engaged in Christina's fight to keep her "family" together and safe.  I found myself wishing for some more depth to her character from time to time, but the challenges to her faith and her struggle to be happy for others when it meant losses for herself felt realistic and genuine.  Several of the supporting characters were fleshed out fairly well, and I was drawn to them perhaps even more than Christina.  They kept the book moving along well, and kept me from being sucked into Christina's discouragement too much.  The romance between Christina and Levi was cute and added to the book without being the focus.  It was well done and felt natural for the period setting of the story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and give it 4 stars.  The caution to make sure your godly choices are actually from and for God instead of yourself are thought provoking enough to make the book stick with the reader more than just another historical romance.

You can find What Once Was Lost HERE.
You can find the author's website HERE.

Please consider ranking my review, so that I can continue to receive great books to review!

I received a copy of this book from WaterBrook Press, as part of their Blogging for Books program, in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Painted Table - by Suzanne Field

Handcrafted and brought to America from Norway in the early 20th century, the table that stood in Josephine's childhood home served as refuge from dangers both within and without her home.  As she grew, the memories attached to the table seemed to filter into her broken mind and create a strange relationship that fed her frenzies.  Her daughters, observing the oddities of their mother, developed their own methods of coping and growing, never quite knowing what normal should be.  Only as the eldest daughter, Saffee, grew and encountered people in her life willing to work around her rough edges, could she fully examine her own relationship with her mother and find healing in the strangest of places - The Painted Table.

This was a difficult book to read.  The reader is drawn completely into Josephine's drama and mania, her fears and delusions, as well as Saffee's uncertainty and seclusion.  It was so hard to decide whether to feel bad for the characters or dislike them for how they treated others.  For the first portion of the book, I was completely invested and engaged, however, the middle section felt unnecessarily long and drawn out.  There was just too much of the same thing over and over.  Once, Saffee began to become her own person, though, and work through her past through the people in her present, the story became alive again.

It is hard to say if one "likes" a book about mental illness and the complete devastation it can have on families, but this was an interesting read that felt very real and vulnerable.  I give it 3.5 stars.

You can find The Painted Table HERE.
You can find more about the book and author HERE (including a contest for a table!).

I received a copy of this book from Thomas Nelson, in exchange for my honest review.

Glittering Promises - by Lisa T. Bergren

Glittering Promises is the conclusion to Lisa T. Bergren's Grand Tour trilogy.  Cora and her siblings, along with the Morgans, the fathers, their guide, and bodyguards, are attempting to finish their tour of Europe, while also avoiding bad press and potential kidnappers.  Cora must decide once and for all if Will is the man for her, or if her new life would be better suited to a man like Pierre, with a title and money and an estate.  As if all of this weren't enough to handle for this group of young people, they will continue to face tragedy and dangers from both without and within.  How will they handle it?  Will it drive them apart or closer together?  Can Cora decide where her worth and identity come from?

In my reviews of both Grave Consequences, and Glamorous Illusions, I bemoaned the fact that Cora seemed caught up in her new world and enchanted by her pursuers, but that she couldn't look beyond those to do any real searching within her heart, faith, or life.  Finally, within this concluding novel, Cora is able to take some time apart after a family tragedy to find her identity in her true Father.  With this self-revelation comes clarity on her future, and how she can reconcile who she was with who she's become, into who she will be.  Not only did I enjoy Cora's personal journey more in this book, but I also enjoyed watching the personal relationships between the siblings change and grow.

Although I enjoyed this installment better than the second book (isn't that often the way with trilogies? Poor second novel.), I still found the theatrics and dangerous situations a bit over the top, and I'm not entirely sure that several of the scenarios were even partially realistic.  I give it 3.5 stars for bringing the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion, and for including more emotion and character development than was found in book 2.

You can find the book, including and excerpt, HERE.
You can find Lisa T. Bergren's site HERE. (In popping by, I was excited to see that there's a 4th River of Time novel coming out this year!)

I received a copy of this e-book from the publisher, in exchange for my honest review.