Book Review: Saving Amelie

AmelieIn the novel Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke, American Rachel Kramer’s dreams for her life do not match her father’s, so she is eager to get away and start her own life. But she agrees to accompany him for one last trip together to Germany in 1939.

Her father, Dr. Kramer, has done extensive work in the field of genetics, specifically eugenics. Motivated by a desire to eradicate tuberculosis, he argues for sterilization of those who might spread the disease. He shares his work with German scientists who want to apply eugenics much more broadly.

While in Germany, Rachel plans to meet with an old friend, Kristine. But instead of a joyful reunion, Rachel is alarmed at the changes. Kristine is cowed by her controlling husband, SS officer Gerhardt Schlick. Furthermore, Kristine is afraid for the life of her daughter, Amelie, who is deaf and thereby a blight on Gerhardt’s Aryan bloodline. Kristine begs Rachel to take Amelie away before something terrible happens to her. But Rachel has her own plans. She’s not good with children and doesn’t know how she would ever get her out, much less what to do with her afterward.

But as Rachel checks further into her father’s research, she finds that eugenics goes far beyond the prevention of disease, and the German scientists are running experiments on a wide variety people whom they deem imperfect in some way. She’s further stunned to find that she herself has been an object of experimentation, and she has a family she never knew of.

American journalist Jason Young’s reports have been censored by the authorities before leaving the country. But even though his reporting has been hampered, he’s aware of much more than he lets on. At first he thinks Rachel is a part of the Nazi regime and scientific community, then realizes she doesn’t know the full extent of it. Once she does, they join together to save Amelie and others, even crossing paths with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rachel herself has to go into hiding, with Gerhardt Schlick determined to find her.
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This is the first book I’ve read by Cathy Gohlke, but it won’t be the last. Not only was the story was riveting, but Cathy deftly showed how some of the policies of that day are making inroads in modern times, with some less than perfect children deemed unworthy of life. I love how she wove the philosophical discussion in without weighing down the action of the story. The secondary characters are just as well-drawn as the main ones. Highly recommended.

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Book Reviews: If I Run Trilogy

If I RunTerri Blackstock’s If I Run trilogy follows Casey Cox on the run from the law. In the first book, also titled If I Run, Casey went to meet her friend, Brent, at his home only to discover his bloody, lifeless body. Horrified, she ran from the scene, leaving a trail of evidence and DNA between his house and hers. She threw a few things together and fled in disguise.

Dylan Roberts has been hired by Brent’s parents to find Casey. He and Brent grew up together, but Dylan had never met Casey. Dylan had been a criminal investigator while in military service, but his severe PSTD has prevented him from landing the police job he wanted. As Dylan searched for Casey, he can’t help but do a bit of his own investigating and profiling. Nothing pointed to Casey as a killer — except her DNA at the crime scene.

Dylan is a Christian and struggles with gaining victory over his PTSD. Casey is not a believer, but comes across a Christian lady in her new location.

As Casey starts life with a new look, name, and job, she discovers that a missing girl is being kept captive. If Casey helps her, she risks blowing her cover and being discovered. But how can she not?

The chapters go back and forth from Casey’s and Dylan’s viewpoints as more of the story unfolds. Casey’s reasons for running become clear.

If I'm FoundIn Book 2, If I’m Found, Casey is on the run again in a different town with a different look and name. Dylan believes her story and finds an untraced way to communicate with her. They agree that it’s too dangerous for Casey to come back: first they need to have a solid case against the people who killed Brent and are after her. Dylan has to be careful to make it seem like he is still searching for Casey while he’s actually seeking evidence to clear her.

Meanwhile Casey accidentally witnesses parents giving their daughter to a man who pays them for time with the girl to abuse her. By the time Casey realizes what is going on, it’s too late to stop the incident. But she can’t let this happen again and looks for ways to rescue the girl and bring the adults to justice.

If I LiveI was a little afraid the plot would follow the same formula in Book 3, If I Live, with Casey risking her own safety to help an innocent victim. Thankfully, that was not the case. By this point in the story, Casey is getting weary. She and Dylan have not only met, but have come to care for each other. But they still need further evidence to bring a solid case against Casey’s pursuers. Dylan is having a harder time keeping up the ruse that he’s still looking for Casey, which puts his own life in danger. Meanwhile Casey is having an even harder time avoiding notice as the police have issued several pictures of her in different disguises taken from various business security cameras. Danger escalates on all sides as Brent’s killers get more desperate. In this book some of the chapters are from the killer’s point of view as well as Dylan’s and Casey’s. Dylan is gaining victory over his PTSD, but his parents’ misunderstanding makes it even harder.

Finally Dylan and Casey have what the evidence they need. But who can they give it to? They can’t trust anyone in the police department, because the killer has several of them under his thumb. As they concoct a plan, they draw closer to each other, closer to God, and the plot comes to an exciting conclusion.

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I read the first two books in this series in quick succession while traveling. Since I had the third one on hand, I decided to wait to review the series all togteher after reading the last book.

The story grabbed me from the very beginning. Each book was hard to put down. I was glad I had them all before I started so I could immediately go to the next one instead of waiting. I’ve loved Terri’s books since I first read her Newpointe 911 series decades ago and passed them on to my mom. I love that her characters are relatable. I enjoyed getting to know both Casey and Dylan and felt with them through their stresses and faith journeys.

Terri says in the afterword of the last book that this series was inspired by the old TV show, The Fugitive. That was one of my favorites shows as a kid, with the innocent man on the run from the relentless detective. I also didn’t realize until that afterword that the three covers go together to form a picture. Clever!

If I Run seriesAn excellent series all together. Highly recommended if you like suspense stories. Even though that’s not the genre I read most often, I enjoyed this series very much. As it happens, just now the first book is on sale for the Kindle app for $1.99.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: Katie’s Dream

Katie Katie’s Dream is the third installment in Leisha Kelly’s book about the Wortham family. In the first book, Julia’s Hope, Sam and Julia Wortham had come to the end of their resources when they discovered an empty house needing work and asked if they could live in it and let repairing it be their rent. The owner, Emma, agreed, and the Worthams even made it possible for Emma to move back home. They forged a new kind of family and learned from and helped each other. In the next book, Emma’s Gift, both Emma and a neighbor passed away. The neighbor was the mother of ten children. The Worthams had to help the neighbor’s grieving husband plus deal with their own grief and the consequences of Emma’s passing.

In  Katie’s Dream, the Worthams and their neighbors, the Hammonds, have settled into a routine. Half the Hammond children are at the Wortham’s house at any given time. Sam Wortham and George Hammond help each other with the farming. Life is still hard and resources are few, yet everyone is doing well.

But suddenly life is turned upside-down when Sam’s brother, Edward, shows up on their doorstep after being released from prison. He claims that Katie, the little girl he has with him, is Sam’s daughter.

Sam is dumbfounded. He has never been unfaithful, has never even met the girl’s mother. Why would Edward do such a thing? What will the townspeople think? What will Julia think? And what should be done with poor Katie, who just wants a home?

Samuel has never talked about his family much in the years Julia has known him, but now she learns about his mother’s alcoholism, his father’s violence, and his brother’s antics. It wasn’t that Samuel was ashamed of them, but he just wanted to forget the life he came from and start a new one. But now the old one won’t leave him alone. But perhaps he and Julia can find the grace to listen, to forgive, and to share God’s love with those who seem to have no interest in it.

The plot is a somewhat unusual premise: I don’t think I have ever read a story quite like this. But I liked the truths that were subtly conveyed. For one, you don’t have to come from a pristine family to go on and serve the Lord and change the course of your own life. Too, troublesome people (even family members) are not just a plague to be avoided: it’s a challenge to show them love and grace, but sometimes that’s exactly why God brings them to us. As Julia says, “Thank God for the opportunity to know Hazel and George and Edward and all the other difficult people we’d ever had to love. God knows what he’s doing wrapping up the crazy mix he put on this earth.”

There’s also a subplot with the Hammond family. One son, Frankie, is smart but can’t learn to read. He’s somewhat dreamy, but can say the most insightful things at times. His father, George, just doesn’t understand him and sometimes unwittingly hurts him by his reactions. This comes to a head when Frankie is injured.

I think each of these books could be read as a stand-alone novel, but the story is enhanced greatly by reading them all.

I loved visiting with the Worthams once again and am looking forward to the next book.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Cold Outside

Dottie Morgan just wants to be left alone. Even at Christmas. Especially at Christmas. A part of her died when her son, Nelson, died in WWII. She’s not been well-favored in the town of Frost, Minnesota, since she ran off and married a “Dapper Dan” stranger, only to return pregnant and alone when her husband went to jail and later died. She and the town had held each at arm’s distance ever since. She felt that even God was keeping His distance from her because of her mistakes.

And then a blizzard trapped four other people in her house.

First Violet Hart came to tentatively ask Dottie about using the star she and Nelson had once made for the Christmas dance. But Violet got into an accident right in front of Dottie’s house and had to be tended to. Violet had been in the WAACs during WWII, a crack mechanic, but people didn’t respect her service. Now, even when she changed a light bulb or fuse, people wondered why she did a man’s job. But Violet had always felt more comfortable with mechanical issues than typical women’s pursuits. She had met one young man, Alex, overseas and corresponded for years. She had hoped he’d come to visit, but when her last letter came back stamped “Return to Sender,” she could only conclude he wasn’t interested, and she’d end up an old spinster like Dottie.

Jake Ramsey was the inadvertent cause of Violet’s accident when he tried to catch her. He had been Alex’s best friend all his life. When Alex died, all his belongings came to Jake, including Violet’s letters. Jake sort of took over Alex’s place, writing in his stead. In the process he began to get to know Dottie and then to love her. But how would she react when she learned that Alex had died and Jake had pretended to be him?

Gordy Lindholm had been Dottie’s neighbor across the street for as long as they could remember. He had loved her once. Still did, in fact. But she had married someone else. He had loved Nelson like his own, but Dottie resented that Gordy had taught Nelson to shoot and then inspired him to be a soldier. Dottie and Gordy had maintained a distant truce over the years, but he watched out for her, filled her wood bin and such. Now he heard the accident and went over to see what was wrong when the blizzard suddenly blew in. He could probably make it home, but it looked like he could be of help at Dottie’s house – if she’d let him.

Arnie Shiller had to stay after school as punishment for daydreaming. Darkness and cold descended on him as he made his way home, and then a sudden snow storm. He tried to make it home, but when that seemed impossible, he strove to make it to his designated Storm House, Mrs. Morgan’s.

Susan May Warren deftly weaves all these lives together in  Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I had started this before Christmas, but then set it aside to finish a library book that I could not renew due to holds on it. After Christmas I planned to put this book away for next Christmas. But I picked it up and read a few pages where I had left off – and got hooked into the story.

Susan has managed to write a tale of five wounded souls with all their flaws, unrecognized virtues, and issues without it becoming sappy or trite Christmas fare.

I loved this book. I loved each person’s story, their interactions, misunderstandings, and journey to make peace with God and each other.

And there were some brilliant moments throughout. As one example (in a slight spoiler), Arnie has been out in the cold too long when he is finally discovered. As they try to warm him, Jake explains that as feeling comes back into Arnie’s limbs, they’re going to be painful at first before they get better. In an aha moment, I realized that the exact same thing was happening to Dottie inwardly. All the emotions she had numbed since her son died were being rubbed back to life by all the circumstances and conversations, and at first they caused nothing but pain. I love that Susan made that parallel without being blatant about it, setting it up to dawn on the reader. She explains in her afterward another parallel or symbolism in the storm house itself.

A few quotes:

God doesn’t expect us to be strong without Him…we’re supposed to need Him, and there’s no disgrace in that. In fact, weakness just might be the mark of a man of God. Don’t call yourself weak because of the things you can’t do. Call yourself weak when you don’t let God take over, do His work in your life…That’s the point of Christmas, isn’t it? Our weakness, His strength? Him coming to our rescue? (pp. 225-226).

Hope, however fragile, is the one thing that keeps us from getting lost…We can’t stop the pain. We can only apply the comfort of God to it (p. 281).

Excellent book, even after Christmas.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Among the Fair Magnolias

magnolias Among the Fair Magnolias contains four different stories set in the Civil War-era South.

“A Heart So True” by Dorothy Love takes place in Pawley’s Island, SC. Abby Clayton’s father plans to run for governor and expects Abby to marry a distant cousin, Charles. But Abby’s previous encounters with Charles have turned her against him. Besides, she loves the country doctor. Will she end up marrying Charles out of duty, or will he show his true colors and convince her father Charles is not the man for her?

In “To Mend a Dream” by Tamera Alexander, Savannah Darby takes care of her sister and brother after the deaths of their parents and loss of their Nashville home. She works for a seamstress and suddenly finds herself tasked with sewing curtains for the new owners of her family’s home. This is an opportunity to find a box her father had told her he had hidden away on the property.  Bostonian Aidan Bedford had visited the area and bought the place after an unusual conversation with an enemy soldier whom he nicknamed Nashville. Aiden has brought his fiance to see the place and decorate it to her tastes, but the more time they spend together, the less sure he is of their engagement. But something about the seamstress working on their curtains intrigues him.

In “Love Beyond Limits” by Elizabeth Musser, the Civil War is over, the slaves are now working as freedmen and sharecroppers in Georgia, and Emily couldn’t be happier. She spends most of her time teaching former slaves how to read. Not everyone shares her joy, however: the Klan is dangerously active in the area. An old friend seeks Emily’s hand, but she can’t accept him because she loves another: one of the freedmen. But she can’t express her love because it would be dangerous for the man she loves. (This one had an unexpected double twist at the end!)

In “An Outlaw’s Heart” by Shelley Gray, Russell Stark has been on the run for years. He had defended his girlfriend, Nora, from an attack by his drunken father and killed him in the process. Both his mother and Nora told him to go, and he has spent most of his time with an outlaw gang. Now he’s come home to Fort Worth to find his mother seriously ill and his former girlfriend caring for her. Nora is still single but seeing another man, someone Russell thinks is hiding something. But will anybody believe an outlaw? And can he ever put his past behind him and move on?

Some of the characters in the stories were from other books by the authors, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything in the stories by not having read the previous books.

I got this book mainly because I love Elizabeth Musser’s writing. But I enjoyed all these stories, the lessons learned, and the journeys of faith for each one.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Annabel Lee

annabel leeAnnabel Lee lives with her uncle, called Truck, and his scary dog in small-town Alabama. Truck teaches her from home, mostly languages like German and Creole. Suddenly one day Truck takes Annabel to an underground bunker, leaves the dog with her, and tells her sternly not to open the door for anyone, including him, without the safe code.

Meanwhile investigator Trudi Coffey has noticed that a personal newspaper ad that has said merely “Safe” for months now suddenly says “Unsafe.” Shortly thereafter a mysterious “Dr. Smith” comes to her agency to ask if she has seen or knows anything about Truck. Trudi denies any knowledge, though Truck was a friend and colleague of her ex-husband, Samuel.

Then Samuel himself shows up, asking to borrow back a book he had gifted her with some years before: a volume of Edgar Allen Poe’s works. Trudi gives it to him but doesn’t tell him that she had discovered the secret compartment in the back and removed the key and note there.

The Mute is an ex-military sniper who first earned his nickname because he was so quiet. Then an explosion while on duty took away his voice for real. The Mute is Truck’s friend and knows Annabel is in trouble but doesn’t know where to find her. But he knows evil people are also looking for her.

Annabel Lee by Mike Nappa grabbed me in the first chapter and did not let go. Not only was the story riveting, but the banter, particularly between Trudi and Samuel, was exquisite. The point of view goes back and forth between Annabel, Trudi, and the Mute. The story was a bit more violent than my usual fare, but it wasn’t gratuitous: the bad guys were extremely bad guys and needed extreme means to defend against. There’s a definite faith element and undercurrent to the story, though it’s not blatant.

Though I wanted to race through the book to find out what happened, I was also sad to see it end. Great story: wonderful writing: highly recommended.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Christmas Heirloom

Christmas Heirloom The Christmas Heirloom: Four Holiday Novellas of Love through the Generations by Karen Witemeyer, Kristi Ann Hunter, and Becky Wade follows a family brooch handed down through generations.

“A Legacy of Love” by Kristi Ann Hunter takes place in 1827 England. Sarah Gooding came about her job as a lady’s companion in an unusual way, and she and her employer have a close relationship. Sarah is attracted to her employer’s grandson, but their different stations in life would prohibit anything more than friendship between them. Yet they do come to each other’s attention in protecting Lady Densbury’s interests, and she’s unconventional enough to help their relationship along. She bequeaths Sarah a brooch that had been given to her by her husband when they first married.

“Gift of the Heart” by Karen Witemeyer takes place several generations later in 1890. Ruth Fulbright is a young widow starting a new chapter in life with her daughter. They travel several miles via stage coach to a new job as a cook in Hope Springs, TX. She carries her heirloom brooch in an bag embroidered with her initials plus those of its three owners before her. Not having quite enough money for accommodations, she proposes giving the brooch as collateral to her landlord until she can earn enough to buy it back. Normally he would not accept such an arrangement, but she does not take no as an answer, and he sees how much it means to her. He has been almost a recluse since an injury and disfigurement of his arm in his youth changed his mother’s perception of him. He thinks everyone must feel about his handicap the same as she did. But Ruth’s bright spirit draws him out.

In “A Shot at Love” by Sarah Loudin Thomas, Fleeta’s parents have passed away, and she lives with an aunt and uncle in Bethel, West Virginia in 1958. Her main interest in life is guns: known as a crack shot, she also loves building them and carving designs into them. Her hope is to have her own gun store. Fleeta’s aunt brings out the brooch and tells Fleeta about it, saying her mother had wanted her to have it “when the time was right for [her] to find true love.” Fleeta doesn’t have much interest in love. Grief for her father hastened her mother’s demise, and other women seem to be held back by the romantic relationships in their lives. But then a stranger comes to town, a friend of a friend, who is just as good a shot and has just as much an interest in guns as she does. And he’s not put off by her unconventional femininity.

“Because of You” by Becky Wade tales place in modern-day Merryweather, Washington. Maddie Winslow had a crush on Leo Donnelly, but Leo married her friend, Olivia. But Olivia has passed away, leaving behind a young son as well as a grieving husband. Maddie still loves Leo but feels loyalty to Olivia places him “off limits.” Maddie and Leo are paired together for their church’s “Mission Christmas,” in which the different participants work together to help a family without means during the holidays. Maddie comes across the brooch while looking in the attic for items for a fund-raising rummage sale. She asks her mother about it and learns the story. Thankfully someone’s family history research reveals the brooch’s past. Leo had had no thoughts of loving again, but as he gets to know Maddie, he begins to think his heart can love again. The only thing I didn’t like about this one was multiple mentions of going to bars and drinking alcohol. I know Christians have a variety of opinions these days as to what exactly is acceptable in the realm of drinking, but I’d rather it was not “pushed” as normal. Having had an alcoholic father and visited a few bars before my salvation, to me, alcohol is part of the old life. There are any number of other places the folks in the story could have met.

There’s some mention of the brooch bringing its owners love, but the authors dispel the notion of it as something of a good luck charm, saying rather than love comes from God’s leading and provision.

This was a sweet, clean, enjoyable holiday read.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Christmas Bride

Christmas Bride The Christmas Bride by Melanie Dobson is based on her own ancestors five generations back who were married by lot. That’s how things were done in the Moravian community, known then in the 1750s as the Unity of the Brethren under Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf. If a man wanted to marry, he went to the brethren with his request. They consulted the lot, which, for them, was a tube with three pieces of paper in it. One said “Yes,” one said “No,” and one was blank, indicating “Wait.” If the answer was yes, the woman still had the opportunity to accept or decline. Sometimes the couple knew each other beforehand and were in love: other times they did not know each other or didn’t really have a relationship, but the man needed to marry to participate in certain forms of ministry. Melanie writes in her afterword that many women were reluctant to marry in this way but accepted it as the will of God. Her own ancestors were married for fifty-eight years. The couple in her book were not based entirely on her ancestors, as she did not know much else about them, but she researched the Moravian customs at the time and represented them faithfully.

This story opens with the wedding of Susanna and Christian Boehler – and several couples in a group wedding. Susanna had seen Christian from afar and admired him, but she did not know him. She was excited about their upcoming ministry to Indians in Pennsylvania and willing to accept marriage as part of God’s will. She was understandably concerned about what her relationship with her husband would be like, but she was willing to be a good wife. Yet, at the end of the ceremony when Christian simply nodded to her and left the building, she was disappointed. What she didn’t know was that Christian had loved another, who was marrying someone else in the same ceremony.

Married couples in the Brethren did not live together at this time in Moravian history. The community was divided into “choirs” – not singers, but groups divided by gender and marital status. the single woman lived in one house, the married women in another, etc. Married couples had the opportunity for a one-hour private meeting once a week in a room for that purpose. Children live in the community nursery.

At first Christian and Susanna were married in name only and lived much as they has as singles. They’re awkward with each other, and Susanna is dismayed when she’s too ill to accompany Christian on his first mission. He’s gone for more than six months, but she finds ways to be useful. She befriends an Indian woman in the community, begins to learn the language, and enjoys visiting the children in the nursery.

Most of the Indians that the Moravians visit are not interested in their message. Some are friendly: others are openly hostile, not just due to a message about a different religion, but because of other issues with the French and British. The Moravians aren’t associated with the fighting and practices of the other white men, but it’s hard for the Indians to distinguish between them. But a few do believe – an individual or a handful here and there.

The rest of the book details the growing ministry to the Indians with its problems and blessings, Christian and Susanna’s getting to know each other amidst fits and starts, and a subplot with Susanna’s friend, Catherine, who comes from a more refined family and has trouble adjusting the the hardships of their life – and who, unbeknownst to Susanna at first, was the woman Christian originally loved.

Melanie’s afterword shares that the separation of families only lasted for about twenty years altogether. The purpose of that separation was so that people couple serve the Lord and community without the problems and distractions of family life. But, as Melanie shows, that separation strained family relationships, and some began to wonder at the wisdom of it.

I don’t know much about Zinzendorf. I heard bits and pieces from his life in a presentation on BBN Radio produced by Moody Bible Institute, but not enough to have a firm grasp of it. From what I understand, he preached and taught the gospel. But I would differ from him in many aspects, family living being a major one.

The physical side of the Boehler’s relationship is an issue in the story, because there was none at first. When they finally do come to love each other in that way,  there’s just a bit more description leading up to it than I care for, but nothing explicit.

This book was originally published under the title Love Finds you in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Melanie graciously offered the Kindle version of it free under its new title to subscribers of her newsletter.

It was interesting to learn of this background of the Moravians, and I enjoyed the different plotlines. I especially enjoyed the way Christian and Susanna and Catherine grew in their faith through their circumstances.

Book Review: I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Home I’ll Be Home For Christmas: Four Inspirational Holiday Novellas by Lenora Worth, Belle Calhoune, Jill Kemerer, and Allie Pleiter contains, as the title suggests, four stories that involve coming “home” in some way.

In A Hope Valley Christmas by Belle Calhoune, Mallory Jefferson is visiting her family over the holidays. The one person she hopes she doesn’t run into is Colton James. She’d had a serious crush on him back in the day, and her youthful exuberance and infatuation had led to some pretty embarrassing attempts to get his attention and show him her feelings. Yet who should walk into her father’s mechanic shop, just when she’s helping out, disheveled, and greasy, but Colton. Her father suggests she give Colton a ride home. As Colton and Mallory talk, Colton tells her his grandfather isn’t doing well. His grandfather wants to see Colton happy and settled with someone he loves. To ease his grandfather’s mind, Colton told him he did have a girlfriend. Then Colton gets the bright idea that Mallory can stand-in as his pretend girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner. Reluctantly, Mallory agrees, and they get to know each other as they are now, and not as they were in their high school memories.

In Sugarplums and Second Chances by Jill Kemerer, Chase McGill is a former NFL star trying to recover from mistakes in his past. In a fit of vengeance he had assaulted his wife’s killer and served time. Now he’s trying to make up for lost time with his son as well as help out another young man. Courtney Trudesta is the widow of his former teammate and wrote him regularly to encourage him while he was in prison. Courtney stops by on her way to a new job to visit with Chase for a few days. As they try to help each other deal with their losses and find their purpose in life, they wonder if those purposes might include each other.

In A Brilliant Christmas by Allie Pleiter, Zoe Walters’ passion is the community arts center that she runs. She has mixed feelings about the new artist-in-residence for the next six weeks: Nigel Langdon, a famous animator who has fallen from Hollywood graces. Besides the fact that he’s not currently popular, his gruffness doesn’t promise good things for his time with “her kids.” His first session does get off to a rocky start. But Zoe begins to fathom the hurt and the heart underneath his crusty exterior, and her devotion to her kids and program opens his eyes.

Seashell Santa by Lenora Worth is a different kind of Christmas in Key West, Florida. Navy Seal Rick Houston‘s beloved grandfather, Pappy, has died and requested that Rick come to his old cabin at Christmas and disperse his ashes. Who else should show up at the cabin but Willa Kincaid, Rick’s ex-girlfriend, who had received the same request. Realizing Pappy’s trick, they decide to put aside their differences to honor his wishes. In the meantime, as their arguing gives way to further discussion, they each realize they didn’t know everything about the other’s motives for their previous actions.

I’m not a fan of romances in general, both because of the silliness of tingling sensations and such, descriptions of kisses, and the end-all of romances being the declaration of true love (when, in real life, that’s just the beginning.) However, I do like when the characters have to learn or overcome something in the process of coming into a relationship, and that happens in each of these stories. Some of the stories have more of a faith element than the others. A couple of them contain characters from the authors’ other series, but the stories were complete enough in themselves that I didn’t feel I was missing pieces.

My favorite was Allie Pleiter‘s Brilliant Christmas. Both the story itself and the writing were refreshingly different. I’ll be looking up more of her work in the future. My favorite line from the book came from her story:

Our job is to bring out whatever talent or self-expression is there. Help them see that picking up a paintbrush might just be more powerful than picking up a knife. Get their emotions out in ways that don’t involve sending each other to the emergency room.

My least favorite line in the book came from Lenora’s story, about a character who “put out feelers to the Big Guy in the sky.” Big Guy in the sky? Seriously?

This collection is not showing up on Amazon anymore, but Sugarplums and Second Chances and A Brilliant Christmas are available individually. I’ve not read any of these authors, but I used to follow a blog that Lenora contributed to, so that’s probably what prompted this purchase. All in all it was a nice Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Twelve Days at Bleakly Manor

BleaklyTwelve Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep is the first in her Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series set in Victorian England.

Clara Chapman’s family has lost its fortune, and the person seemingly to blame was her former fiance, Benjamin Lane. Not only did Ben abscond with the family fortune, but he left her at the altar with no explanation. She’s been living with an aunt, trying to survive in reduced circumstances.

Out of the blue Clara receives an invitation from an unnamed host to Bleakly Manor. If Clara can stay the entire twelve days of Christmas, she’ll receive 500 pounds. At her aunt’s urging, Clara accepts the invitation.

Clara finds no host at Bleakly Manor, but she is surprised to see an assortment of people there who have all been promised various rewards if they will stay twelve days. A late and most startling arrival is none other than Ben!

As the participants get to know one another, personalities clash. The host remains absent. And odd occurrences begin happening: one person’s jewels go missing, strange foods are served at mealtimes, accidents happen that turn out not to be accidents. And then the group is informed that only one of them will win what they were promised.

This book started out as a cozy mystery, dragged just a bit in the middle for me, and then took a darker turn as the “accidents” increased in intensity.

I had to look up my review of Dickens’ Bleak House to remind myself of the characters there and see the parallels. This story is not meant to be a point-for-point retelling, but it does contain elements of the plot and some characters.

All in all an enjoyable Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved