Book Review: My Father’s House

My Father's House My Father’s House by Rose Chandler Johnson begins with the idyllic childhood of Lily Rose Cates in Georgia. Then her father died when she was sixteen, turning her world upside down. Her mother had been not entirely mentally present for some time, a situation made worse by the death of Lily’s father. A lady who took care of their home, Annie Ruth, became a second mother and the main stabilizing influence in Lily’s life.

Milestones pass – high school graduation, friendships, college. Lily has a couple of part-time jobs she likes, but life is pretty tame. She is invited to visit a cousin’s place in New York City and is absolutely mesmerized by all there is to see and do. One highlight is an encounter with a handsome and charming waiter who asks for her number.

To her joy and surprise, the waiter, Manny, does call – only he’s not a waiter. The restaurant was his family’s, and he was just helping out for a while. He’s actually a driven, high-powered lawyer in Detroit. A telephone romance leads to a proposal and a move for Lily Rose. Some incidents and reactions from Manny make Lily uncomfortable, but she’s in love and her courtship is such a whirlwind, she lets them go.

Their first few days are bliss until Manny has to go back to work, leaving Lily lonely trying to get accustomed not only to a new city, but a new situation, style of home and life, everything. Before long, Manny’s dark side comes out bit by bit. Lily realizes that she can no longer brush off or overlook his actions. Manny has become unpredictable and dangerous, and Lily decides to leave with the help of a friend.

Lily goes back to Georgia to a home of her father’s that she had inherited but had not told Manny about.  She knows Manny will come looking for her, but for a while she has time to heal, stabilize, and rediscover her roots and her faith.

This was a wonderfully told story with a strong sense of place. The description of the Southern setting makes one want to settle in a rocking chair on the porch with a glass of sweet iced tea. I was drawn right in and looked forward to each new chapter, sorrowing with Lily over the loss of her father and her marriage, rejoicing as she grew.

There were a few too many references to Lily and Manny’s intimacy for my tastes, but none of that was explicit, and what was said did make sense in context. Then in the second half of the book, there are a number of instances of an unmarried man and woman staying overnight in a cabin and home. None of the other characters seems to have a problem with that: I would have loved for at least one of them to object. The author prevents anything from happening between them. And there’s an odd incident where Lilly almost seems to be saying she visited her father in heaven in a dream.

But other than those caveats, I thought this was a lovely story.

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Book Review: Looking Into You

Looking Into YouIn Looking Into You by Chris Fabry, Paige Redwine is an English professor at a college in Nashville. Only her parents know her secret: some twenty years before, she became pregnant and placed her baby for adoption at the insistence of her parents. Told that the father of her baby died, Paige had no choice but to go on with her life. But she feels stuck: she’s supposed to be finishing her dissertation on a mother’s love in literature, but she can’t seem to make progress. She also feels stuck in a relationship with a nice man who wants to be more than friends, but she can’t seem to move forward.

Then one day a coworker tells her about a documentary she saw about a nursing home’s residents and workers (told in Every Waking Moment). Among the nursing home staff was a girl in her twenties who had been placed for adoption but ended up being passed through the system. The girl had nystagmus, which caused her eyes to move rapidly, and when overwhelmed she made a typing motion with her hands. She wasn’t very expressive, but she had an unusual way with the residents, especially those who couldn’t or didn’t communicate. Paige is jolted when she learns the girl’s name: Treha, the unusual name she had purposefully given the baby she had placed for adoption.

Shaken, Paige finds and watches the documentary. But even now, knowing where her daughter is and what she has been through, Paige is hesitant to reach out. But then, “indecision made the decision” for her: suddenly Treha shows up as a student in one of Paige’s classes, unaware that Paige is her mother.

The point of view switches back and forth between Paige and Treha, and also occasionally to Miriam, Treha’s boss at the nursing home. I enjoyed seeing both sides as mother and daughter learn to overcome their fears to reach out and have a crash course in mother-daughter relationships. I’m glad Fabry didn’t paint this too rosy: every relationship has its rough spots, and both women had a lot to learn in relating to one another. “Grace allows you to see yourself in light of the past, not in the shadow of it.”

This book drew me in right away, and the ordeals of both women touched my heart. I think this book could be read as a stand-alone – I had forgotten much of Every Waking Moment when I started this book. But I’d recommend them both.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,  Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: The Illusionist’s Apprentice

Illusionist On New Year’s Eve in 1926, a medium in Massachusetts advertises that he will raise a man from the dead.  Though someone does rise from the newly unearthed coffin, he immediately falls down dead. The FBI treat the case as a homicide, and their investigation takes them to other vaudevillian performers, particularly Wren Lockhart. Wren is an illusionist who apprenticed under Harry Houdini. But interest in her goes beyond her stage work: the dead man had the name of Jennifer Charles in his vest pocket, Wren’s real name which she has tried to keep buried. FBI agent Elliot Matthews works with Wren to gain more information helpful to the case, but Wren reveals as little as possible, wary of bringing her past to light.

When Wren and Agent Matthews are chased and shot at in a car, the case expands from the one magic trick gone wrong on New Year’s Eve. Is someone after Wren to gain Houdini’s secrets? Or is someone wreaking revenge for the part Houdini and Wren played in debunking a medium’s claims? Or has someone uncovered Wren’s carefully buried secrets?

The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron kept me on the edge of my seat with multiple twists and turns and the revelation of new information along the way. Wren’s history is told in flashbacks which jumped around to different parts of her life. They could have been confusing, but I made it a point to look at the date beginning every chapter to try to keep on track.

Besides the mystery and suspense elements, I loved Wren’s development through the story as she slowly learns to trust Matthews. I also enjoyed that there were several layers to the story. The faith element first shows up in Wren’s insistence that only one man ever raised anyone from the dead and that her profession wasn’t magic but illusion. After that her faith is more undercurrent than overt, but its expression becomes more vivid near the end.

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

There cannot be dark without the light that will overcome it. Whatever darkness there is, God’s light shines brighter. It has to. He’s the Hero in every story–especially this one.

Kristy’s first two books were set during WWII, the third one took place in a circus, and now this one centers around illusionists and vaudeville. Though I also enjoy authors who write in particular time eras or niches, I love that Kristy’s subject matter is unexpected and often largely unexplored until now.

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

 

 

Book Review: Anchor in the Storm

AnchorIn Anchor in the Storm by Sarah Sundin, Lillian Avery looks forward to her first job as a professional pharmacist in Boston in 1941. Her new boss had not wanted to hire a woman, but a male pharmacist wasn’t available. He’s also aggravated about employing a “cripple,” though Lillian’s wooden leg doesn’t hinder her work in the least.

While Lillian sets out to prove her value at work, she fends off attention from her brother’s best friend, Arch Vandenberg. Arch is rich and good-looking, but Lillian feels these attributes are hindrances rather than attractions. Besides, for reasons of her own, she doesn’t trust any man and will never allow herself to be weak.

Arch is an Ensign recently assigned to a destroyer along with Jim Avery, Lillian’s brother. Jim and Arch had survived an attack on their previous destroyer, but Arch has been battling flashbacks, shaking hands, and a fear of being trapped below decks. He can’t tell anyone, though, both because he is an officer, and because he might be ejected from the Navy.

Arch hates his family’s wealth and plans to give his inheritance away when he gets it. He’s tired of girls who only show interest because of his family’s money. Lillian seems different, but they get off to a wrong start. Arch decides to just befriend her with the hopes that eventually she’ll be open to him as more than a friend.

While Lillian notices some odd prescriptions at the pharmacy, Arch notices odd behavior on the ship: men acting groggy, almost drunk, and not performing their duties well. Lillian tries to alert a detective to her suspicions, but he doesn’t believe she has enough evidence. Lillian and Arch decide to investigate together and compare notes. But their findings might be just as dangerous as the war.

My thoughts:

I don’t like to read romance just for the sake of romance, especially giddy, silly romances.  Sarah’s stories have much more to them, and I love that. They are neither silly nor giddy. Lillian and Arch have much to work through, mentally as well as spiritually, and the plot line involves more than their romance. I always love the way Sarah includes a lot of historical data about WWII but without becoming stuffy or didactic. The mystery plot line was well-done and the faith element was natural and realistic. I enjoyed the book very much.

This book is the second in the Waves of Freedom series, the first being Through Waters Deep. Though some characters from the first book appear in the second, and it’s enjoyable to read both, the second can be understood well as a stand-alone book.

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

Book Review: Another Way Home

Another Way Home Another Way Home by Deborah Raney is the third in her Chicory Inn series involving the family of empty nesters Grant and Audrey Whitman, who have turned their family home into a bed and breakfast. (The first was Home to Chicory Lane; the second, Two Roads Home.) Though the whole family of their adult children, sons- and daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are in every book, each book in the series focuses on one particular child and his or her family.

This time the spotlight shines on middle daughter Danae and her husband Dallas. They have been trying to conceive for years with no results except tension in their marriage and resentment and hurt on Danae’s part. She’s particularly stung when sister Corrinne becomes pregnant – again – unexpectedly without even trying. Danae can’t keep her resentment from showing, and Corrinne feels guilty and unsure when to even announce her news to the family. Though the family empathizes and tries to be sensitive,  Danae resents their well-meaning questions and concerns and sympathy. Dallas especially feels he has to constantly walk on eggshells around Danae. Dallas won’t even discuss the possibility of adoption, for reasons which he won’t share, even though he himself was adopted and raised by a loving family.

Danae decides they should stop fertility treatments and the quest to have a baby for a while. To try to occupy herself, she responds to an announcement at church asking for volunteers at a women’s shelter. There she becomes friends with another older volunteer, Bertha, and gets involved in the lives of one of the women there and her son.

I don’t want to say any more than that so as not to give the story away.

I love how Deborah doesn’t sugarcoat any of the facets of the story. All of the characters’ struggles are gritty and realistic while they seek for God’s direction, provision, and grace.

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

Book Review: Sins of the Past

Sins of the Past Sins of the Past is a collection of three “romantic suspense” novellas by Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, and Lynette Eason. The characters and stories are unrelated except that each main character’s current dilemma is a result of or related to something in his or her past.

In “Missing” by Dee Henderson, Wyoming police chief John Graham received word that his mother was missing from her retirement community in Chicago. He flew back to Chicago from Wyoming. Initial reports showed no foul play or evidence of a robbery or a sudden attack. John begins to fear that someone from his undercover days in Chicago is taking revenge on him through his mother. He works with Lieutenant Sharon Noble to find his mother and her kidnapper.

In “Shadowed” by Dani Pettrey, competitive open-water swimmer Libby Jennings goes for a pleasure ride to see dolphins when the skipper of the boat sees a dead body in the water. When they pull the body in, Libby finds it is one of her competitors, Kat. Kat was from Russia and the two women had had some conflicts in the past, but Libby hates to see Kat dead. Libby works with the local law enforcement of small town Yancey, Alaska, to find out what happened. Since this story takes place in the Cold War era, investigators suspect ties to Communist intrigue as well.

In “Blackout” by Lynette Eason, Macey Adams has been suffering from migraines and memory loss since a horrific accident several years earlier. But just when bits and pieces of her memory begin to return, she finds herself in danger. Her brother-in-law had died trying to help her regain her memories, so she closes herself off from others so as not to put anyone else in danger. But a police officer-neighbor comes to her aid when he hears her screaming after a home intrusion, and together they investigate who might be trying to do Macey harm and why.

My thoughts:

The draw for me in this book was Dee Henderson. Suspense and crime drama aren’t my first choice of book genres, but I discovered Dee years ago while looking for Christian fiction that my mom might be interested in, and I think I have read all of Dee’s books since then. I very much enjoyed her story, though I figured out the culprit early on. I was surprised as to the person’s motives, though. I had not read either of the other two authors before. There were a couple of odd sentences in Dani’s story (one example: “He looked her in the eye, the depth of his heart wading in them”) and a few too many “She looked at his lips, which she wished were pressing hers” kind of statements. There seemed to me to be a couple of illogical aspects in the last two stories (a civilian heavily involved in a murder investigation, someone who is being stalked taking out the garbage alone behind her building at work). But overall I did enjoy these stories, too. Lynette’s particularly started off right in the middle of a tense scene and drew me right in. I appreciated that the characters in the first two stories acted “Christianly” (to borrow Rebekah‘s word), yet in a natural way. There wasn’t much from a Christian nature in the third except for a couple of prayers or acknowledgments of God’s intervention.

If you like stories that are clean, Christian, and suspenseful, you might like these books. One advantage of novella collections is the opportunity to sample writing from a few different authors.

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

How Christian Do You Like Your Christian Fiction?

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Recently I was talking with an author friend about a favorite Christian author’s most recent book, which wasn’t particularly Christian, unlike her previous books. He said that Christian publishers are now encouraging authors to write moral stories which are not overtly Christian because there’s no market for the latter.

I was astonished. Admittedly I’m just one small speck in the universe, but I hear from people all the time who want Christian fiction. Clean, moral stories are fine in their place, but readers of Christian fiction want the Christian content. It doesn’t have to contain a full-blown conversion story (though it’s fine if it does), it shouldn’t be didactic, some things may be implied rather than spelled out, but one reason we read Christian fiction is for Christian content. We want to see how people apply Christian principles to their dilemmas and everyday life. We expect to see them acting Christianly, as a friend recently said. That can be done and has been done without the book being preachy or stuffy.

I know there is a market for such books, though I am sure it’s a smaller market than secular or just moral books.

But one major bestselling series with a clear Christian thread running through it is Jan Karon’s Mitford series. I don’t think it’s even marketed as Christian fiction, yet there are conversions, clear gospel presentations, characters attending church, praying, reading their Bibles, Biblical principles worked out into life. I don’t know if it’s so well accepted because the main character is a minister, or if it’s because Jan Karon weaves everything together so naturally and realistically. But it can be done.

I have noticed, though, with some books that seem to be striving for the middle ground, that some reviewers criticize it for having too much religious content and others criticize it for not having enough. So it seems like this is one area where it’s best to be overtly Christian or not at all.

I’d love to know how you feel. If you don’t like Christian fiction, fine, you don’t need to trash it here. But if you do like Christian fiction, how Christian do you like for it to be? And what do you think we can do to let publishers know that, besides, of course, the most important way: buying it?

See also:

Why Read? Why Read Fiction? Why Read Christian fiction?
The Gospel and Christian Fiction.
Sexuality in Christian Fiction.
“Edgy” Christian Fiction.

(Sharing with Faith on Fire, Literary Musing Monday)

Two Short Christmas Reviews

In The Great Christmas Bowl by Susan May Warren, Marianne Wallace is an avid football fan, but none of her sons have been interested in playing – until her youngest son’s senior year. She becomes the Big Lake Trouts’ biggest fan. But is she a big enough fan to don the trout costume when the mascot is out for the season? Especially when her husband, thinking she needs some spice in her life, volunteers her to head the hospitality committee with its upcoming Christmas Tea (note to husbands: don’t do this!) and she’s trying to create the perfect Christmas for her family.

The Christmas Tea is a challenge as the older pillar-of-the-church ladies want to keep the tea the same as it has been for eons, but the younger women want to change it up. And as her grown children one by one cancel their plans to come for Christmas, this holiday season is shaping up to be one of the most disappointing and stressful ever.

The story is written in a humorous vein but it still manages to tackles key issues, for instance: is showing another person your love best done the way you think conveys it, or are the unusual and perhaps unorthodox opportunities that arise, that seem like hindrances, actually new opportunities to show love? Another: what’s the nature and focus of traditions and hospitality?

Loved this novella!

The second one also happens to be by Susan May Warren: Evergreen: A Christiansen Winter Novella. The Christiansens are facing their first Christmas with an empty nest. John is excited, planning a surprise trip to Paris to renew their vows at the top of the Eiffel tower. But Ingrid agrees for them to head up the church’s live Nativity, their dog has a major illness, wiping out the savings for the trip and needing their time and attention, and Ingrid’s sister, who is going into rehab after being arrested, asks them to take in her son, a nephew they haven’t seen in years. Their disagreements over these things dredge up past unresolved hurts, driving a wedge between them.

Some quotes from this one:

Even Mary had to let her child go…You have to wonder, as Mary watched Jesus on the cross, did she look back and ask herself if she had made a mistake? God had told her she would be the mother of the Savior. You can’t get more devastated than Mary, watching her Son—the Savior—die…But Jesus’ path wasn’t for Mary to determine. Her greatest ability as a mother was to be His mother. To love Him, nurture Him, care for Him. She embraced her destiny, then let Him go to embrace His. You have to let your children embrace theirs.

She didn’t want to hear it. To see his love in a thousand small ways. Because then she’d have to loose her hold on the ember of bitterness, let God heal her heart.

I should have leaned into God for courage, instead of reacting in fear.

Along with the nature of love and the best ways to show it, this one also discusses protection and fear. Protecting each other is something we’re supposed to do, yet sometimes it can stifle the other.

This was a different tone from the first one, but poignant and quite good. Evidently Susan has a whole series involving the Christiansens.

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

Book Review: One Enchanted Christmas: A Novella

Enchanted ChristmasIn One Enchanted Christmas by Melissa Tagg, Maren Grant had one of the best nights of her life one December evening. Her book was about ready to be published, and as she developed a serious crush on Colin Renwycke, the model posing for the cover of her book, he actually asked her out. They had a wonderful, “enchanted” evening going to dinner and then a carriage ride around the city, ending with his issuing an open invitation to come visit his family’s farm, even to stay there and write for a while.

A year later, even though Maren only heard from Colin once, via a postcard reminding her about his open invitation, and at the urging of her best friend, she decided to take Colin up on his offer. She had begun to think of him as her story’s hero, and was stuck in her next novel. She decided seeing Colin’s home and town might provide her with inspiration. She couldn’t reach him, so she decided to just show up. He had told her where to find the key if the family was away, and as she tried to retrieve it, who should arrive but – not Colin, but his brother, Drew, mystified as to why this woman was trying to break into his house.

After much explanation and the fortunate recognition of her by Drew’s niece, Winnie, who had read Maren’s first book, Drew invites her into the home he shares with his sister and niece. He had inherited the family farm and was trying to make a go of it as a haven for his siblings and himself, helping out with their problems the best way he knew how. He and Colin had argued over the inheritance, and Drew had not see his brother since. He begins to entertain the hope that this author might draw Colin back to the farm.

But as Drew shows Maren around town and as she unavoidably gets pulled into some of the family issues, they find they mesh well, her playfulness a complement to his seriousness. He may not want Colin to rediscover Maren after all.

My thoughts:

I had never read Melissa Tagg before, and romances aren’t my favorite genre, but this was a delight. I loved how Maren and Drew interacted, and a quirky narrator popped up occasionally to summarize, give background information, etc. Though the story has something of a romantic comedy feel, there’s drama as well from the family issues and misunderstandings. It’s a little light on the faith element, but otherwise it’s quite an enjoyable Christmas read.

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

Book Review: Keeping Christmas

Keeping ChristmasIn Keeping Christmas by Dan Walsh, Stan and Judith Winters are empty nesters. Stan enjoys having a little more freedom of schedule and quietness, but Judith’s life has always been wrapped up in her children, and she misses them. She’s sad that they can’t come for Thanksgiving, but when she learns that none of them can come for Christmas, she falls into a deeper depression than Stan has ever seen. She doesn’t even have the heart to decorate the Christmas tree. That was something they had always done together, and most of their ornaments are what Stan calls “ugly ornaments,” ones Judith made with the kids.

Judith’s best friend does her best to distract her, with minimal success at first. Judith doesn’t think her friend understands, since all of her children and grandchildren live in town. But her friend conveys that just because they’re all there doesn’t mean everything is idyllic and shares some of the family conflicts and quandaries.

Judith and Stan had developed different and separate traditions for their after-Thanksgiving activities, and not only had they hardly talked over their meal, but Stan had even left the TV on. But as he tries to help lift Judith’s spirits, he becomes more attentive. Finally he has an idea, one involving the box of “ugly ornaments” and some sacrifice, but it’s his last option.

My thoughts:

Though predictable, this was a sweet story, not just about helping an empty nester mom’s depression, but about a husband and wife learning to reconnect after all their kids are gone. I’d be a little concerned that moms in the same situation reading this might be even more down since the Hallmark-type happy ending in the book is not likely to happen in real life. But perhaps there’s enough in everything else the characters go through and learn to be beneficial even without that ideal ending. Overall a nice, heartwarming Christmas novel.

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