Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Painted Castle by Kristy Cambron

The Painted Castle

We get three stories in one novel here. Such an interesting twist on a time-slip novel, where we usually get one historical and one contemporary story.

Let’s begin with the summary:

A lost painting of Queen Victoria.

A library bricked off from the world.

And three women, separated by time, whose lives are irrevocably changed.

When art historian Keira Foley is hired to authenticate a painting at a centuries-old East Suffolk manor, she hopes this is just the thing to get her career and life back on track. But from the time she arrives at Parham Hill Estate and begins working alongside rumored art thief Emory Scott, she’s left with far more questions than answers. Could this lost painting of Queen Victoria be a duplicate of the original Winterhalter masterpiece, and if so, who is the artist?

As Keira begins to unravel the mystery behind the portrait, two women emerge from the estate’s forgotten past. In Victorian England, talented sketch artist Elizabeth Meade is engaged to Viscount Huxley, then owner of Parham Hill. However, Elizabeth’s real motive for being at Parham Hill has nothing to do with art or marriage. She’s determined to avenge her father’s brutal murder—even if it means a betrothal to the very man she believes committed the crime.

A century later, Amelia Woods—a World War II widow who has turned Parham Hill and its beloved library into a boarding school for refugee children—receives military orders to house a troop of American pilots. She is determined the children in her care will remain untouched by the war, but the task is proving difficult with officers taking up every square inch of their world . . . and one in particular vying for a space in Amelia’s long-shut up heart.

And now, my review:

I was a bit lost at the beginning. I had somehow missed that this was the third in a series when I volunteered to read for review. You might consider reading books one and two, if you haven’t, before you tackle this one.

That said, each character’s world was engaging. The author has a strong voice. She built three distinctive worlds for this novel, each somewhat enchanting. I did find a spot where the modern heroine’s voice (POV) sounded much like the historical woman’s voice from the previous scene, which section may have been reworked before by publication.

Each of our heroines has a tough challenge to overcome. I liked that they were all strong heroines. Two of them were in art, which is always a fun topic. I enjoyed watching their romances unfold with the heroes of their world. We only get a little time with each, since this novel is divided into three story lines. I admit, given how long the novel is, though I was still interested, I had to move on to another book in my queue before finishing. I think I’d prefer two story lines and a shorter book overall, where we get to dive into each character’s world and enjoy their romance with more layers.

I loved the author’s descriptions. She has a way with her historical voice, with the prose, pacing, and descriptions. I lost myself more easily in the historical story lines. The modern story line seemed to have holes, but that may be because the characters were introduced in earlier books.

These heroines are looking for redemption or vindication or reassurance in a broken world. These are relatable themes, part of the human condition. They don’t see their own courage, though readers will.

If you’re looking for a novel to get lost in, this is it. Overall, the journeys are strong and enjoyable.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Lady and the Highwaymen by Sarah M. Eden

The Lady and the Highwayman

Such a fascinating book!

Let’s begin with the summary:

Elizabeth Black is the headmistress of a girls’ school in 1865 Victorian London. She is also a well-respected author of “silver-fork” novels, stories written both for and about the upper-class ladies of Victorian society. But by night, she writes very different kinds of stories—the Penny Dreadfuls that are all the rage among the working-class men. Under the pseudonym Mr. King, Elizabeth has written about dashing heroes fighting supernatural threats, intelligent detectives solving grisly murders, and dangerous outlaws romancing helpless women. They contain all the adventure and mystery that her real life lacks.

Fletcher Walker began life as a street urchin but is now the most successful author in the Penny Dreadful market, that is until Mr. King started taking all his readers. No one knows who King is, including Fletcher’s fellow members of the Dread Penny Society, a fraternity of authors dedicated to secretly fighting for the social and political causes of their working-class readers. The group knows King could be an asset with his obvious monetary success, or he could be the group’s undoing as King’s readership continues to cut into their profits.

Determined to find the elusive Mr. King, Fletcher approaches Miss Black. As a fellow-author, she is well-known among the high-class writers; perhaps she could be persuaded to make some inquiries as to Mr. King’s whereabouts? Elizabeth agrees to help Fletcher, if only to ensure her secret identity is never discovered. What neither author anticipated was the instant attraction, even though their social positions dictate the impossibility of a relationship.

For the first time Elizabeth experiences the thrill of a cat-and-mouse adventure reminiscent of one of her own novels as she tries to throw Fletcher off her scent. But the more time they spend together, the more she loses her heart. Its upper-class against working-class, author against author where readers, reputations, and romance are all on the line.

And now, my review:

I loved learning more about penny dreadfuls in this book. Our heroine is writing under her pseudonym (see summary), which was also fun. In a time when women couldn’t as easily compete for market space as authoresses, this let her have a means of earning an income while writing and expressing her creativity. She has a noble position caring for needy children as well.

The hero is also noble as he’s a member of the Penny Dreadful Society, and he helps rescue endangered children.

Each character in this populated novel has a unique voice, which I love. The author uses great prose, which I’ve come expect from her. She’s one of my favorites.

Every now and then we got to read the penny dreadfuls along with the characters. This was fascinating, but I admit I skimmed some of the less desirable passages. With their inclusion, we got to see this author write speculative fiction into her historicals.

Both of our MCs are writers of these serials, so we get to see inside their writerly minds. I loved when their “real lives” would cross over into their fiction. So much fun!

Because we read the extra stories within this story, I felt we missed a bit of the romantic thread development in favor of a reasonable overall word count. Sarah’s a master at writing tender romance, and we had that here, but I’d have loved to see that thread developed more. That said, the romance we had was delightful.

Another area where Sarah always shines is her humor. (Which is why I devour her work!) And this story never disappointed in that arena.

Such an enjoyable read! 4.5 stars. Highly recommended!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Lake Season by Denise Hunter

Lake Season by Denise Hunter

I already miss these characters and this setting! Lake Season is book one in Denise's new Bluebell Inn Romance series.

Here’s the summary:

When their parents die in a tragic accident, Molly Bennett and her siblings pull together to fulfill their parents’ dream of turning their historic Bluebell, North Carolina, home back into an inn. Staying in town would be temporary—three years at most—then they plan to sell the inn, and Molly can get back to chasing her own dreams.

Adam Bradford (aka bestselling author Nathaniel Quinn) is a reclusive novelist with a bad case of writer’s block. Desperate for inspiration as his deadline approaches, he travels to the setting of his next book, a North Carolina lake town. There, he meets his muse, a young innkeeper who fancies herself in love with his alter ego.

Molly and Adam strike up an instant friendship. When Molly finds a long-lost letter in the walls of her inn, she and Adam embark on a mission to find the star-crossed lovers and bring them the closure they deserve. But Adam has secrets he isn’t ready to share. Past and present collide as truths surface, and Molly and Adam will have to decide if love is worth trusting.

And now, my review:

I’m looking forward to reading this whole series. This first book was delightful. It read fast and kept me interested. Here we meet the cast: a sibling trio who run an inn on a lake in North Carolina. This is a getaway setting to help readers escape. First, we get to experience Molly’s story. She’s has a crush on her favorite author, who just happens to stay at her inn incognito. I loved that premise.

The hero is a best-selling novelist, which was super fun to read about. I wonder if Denise let us in on her own writing process a bit. She has had several of her novels made into TV movies, which has been a delight for this fan. Perhaps this one will be a movie one day too.

The lost-letter aspect kept me intrigued. Their inn used to be a post office. This semi-historical element served as the B story and kept me hooked.

The hero is a nerdy bookish type. I loved him! He’s relatable in a few ways, and I instantly sympathized with him. He’s insecure about disappointing people, so we get why he’s hiding his true identity from his fans. I liked how awkward he was in social situations and how romantic he was. He doesn’t see his own lie, of course, which is his inner journey. I liked that he’s learned, a man of words in more than one language.

The heroine doesn’t know she’s his muse (see summary above), even while they grow closer. Denise is a master at writing romance. Every. Single. Book. Reading these two characters’ romance was delightful. The heroine is bookish too, which draws these two together.

One area that I’d hoped to read and that wasn’t included was around the revelations of their secrets. I would have loved to see a stronger reaction in their romantic relationship when the truth came out. I need to be vague here so I don’t spoil anything, but this felt like a missed opportunity.

The heroine has surprises for Adam, and he has his big secret. It was fun watching this unfold.
The heroine is paranoid of leaving things unsaid between her and her loved ones. She has been wounded by loss and is anxious and insecure, even though she’s surrounded by loving family and friends. This will be relatable to anyone who has suffered similar losses without warning.

Well done! Highly recommended!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Forever, Lately by Linore Burkard

Forever, Lately

Let’s begin with the summary:

Maine, Present Day

Author Claire Channing is desperate to write a bestseller to save her failing career. She moves into her grandmother’s abandoned cottage to write the book, but a local resort baron wants to raze the place. Without the deed, the clock is ticking on how long she can stay. She thinks she’s writing St. John’s story. But when she discovers an old prayer shawl and finds herself in his Regency world, she falls in love with him, a man she thought she invented! Miss Andrews, however, is also real—and she’d rather see Julian dead than in another woman’s arms!

Claire must beat the clock to prevent a deadly tragedy, but can love beat the limits of time itself?

And now, my review:

I liked the time-travel element in this book. In this way, it’s a contemporary, a Regency, and a speculative fiction novel—something for almost everyone. The heroine is a writer, which was fun to read about.

Since the historical part of the story takes place in England, the author uses British English spellings. That took some getting used to. Words like: connexions, jewellry, grey, and realise(d), etc. She does a good job of immersing us in the Regency time period. I loved the language/prose she used.

One of the issues I had, and this may be a genre-specific preference, is what editors (and writers) call “head-hopping.” Moving from one point-of-view character’s thoughts/feelings into another POVC’s perspective from paragraph to paragraph was dizzying at times. That's why writers generally avoid it. When they change POVs, they wait until a scene break or a chapter break. Acquisitions editors prefer this "purist POV" approach. There were other POV missteps as well, including instances of omniscient POV where the author told us what was coming before showing us—unnecessarily.

I liked the escape to a cottage to work on her novel. One other element I loved was how short the chapters were. The pace stays strong much of the first third to half, urging you through the story. Unfortunately, the story lagged in the middle after a false ending, and it lost my interest.

I would have liked to see the heroine stand up to the obnoxious neighbor and wondered why she didn’t.

By visiting the other time, the heroine has an opportunity to live a fantasy and escape all her modern-day problems. That premise is interesting, and I think readers will enjoy pondering that aspect.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Chosen devotional by Amanda Jenkins, Kristen Hendricks, and Dallas Jenkins

The Chosen devotional

Whether or not you’ve watched the on-line series, readers will still find this devotional insightful and valuable.

Let’s begin with the summary:

Encounter Jesus the way his followers did.

Every follower of Jesus in the Gospels had a not-so-great ''before.'' A brash fisherman. A pious religious leader. A demon-possessed woman. A thieving tax collector. Christ's love saw beyond their brokenness and forgave. Jesus revolutionized the lives of those who followed Him.

And He's still doing it today.

Each of the forty devotions in The Chosen contains a Scripture, a unique look into a Gospel story, suggestions for prayer, and questions that lead you further in your relationship with Christ. See Jesus through the eyes of those who knew him best, and explore the backstories of people like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Matthew, Nicodemus, and more.

It's hard to relate to the sinless Son of God, but we can all identify with the sinners. You too can be transformed: Jesus sees past your ''before'' to the person He is creating you to be.

And now, my review:

I generally don’t review non-fiction, but I was grateful to receive this ARC (advanced reader copy). These authors take turns writing on different topics, using a Scripture for their base text. (Common for devotionals.) They share their insights with interesting writing voices. A lot of times with devos, the writer or publisher will include a prayer for readers to pray. That always seems controlling and presumptive. But with The Chosen devotional, the authors include possible prayer topics. That honors readers who can then consider the list of topics and approach God in their own words. I much prefer this method.

The authors use mostly gender inclusive language, which was ideal for a devotional about Jesus, considering how He treated women in the first century, not to mention how He relates with us today. I appreciated this choice so that no reader needs to feel left out.

I read this over weeks rather than the forty days the title alludes to. Readers won’t have to feel they need to finish it in forty days. These devotionals are “meaty” and readers may want to contemplate what they’ve read for more than a day before moving to the next one.

Overall, I highly recommend this devotional. Very well done.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Curiosity Keeper by Sarah E. Ladd

The Curiosity Keeper by Sarah E. Ladd

Let’s begin with the summary:

Camille Iverness can take care of herself. She’s done so since the day her mother abandoned the family and left Camille to run their shabby curiosity shop. But when a violent betrayal leaves her injured with no place to hide, Camille must allow a mysterious stranger to come to her aid.

Jonathan Gilchrist never wanted to inherit Kettering Hall. As a second son, he was content to work as the village apothecary. But when his brother’s death made him heir just as his father’s foolish decisions put the estate at risk, only the sale of a priceless possession—a ruby called the Bevoy—can save the family from ruin. But the gem has disappeared. And all trails lead to Iverness Curiosity Shop—and the beautiful shop girl who may be the answer to his many questions.

Caught at the intersection of blessings and curses, greed and deceit, these two determined souls must unite to protect what they hold dear. But when a passion that shines far brighter than any gem is ignited, they will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for their future, love, and happiness.

And now, my review:

Sarah’s writing has strong prose and this story had good pacing, generally.

The heroine has a lot to overcome. She's lost her mother, which makes us sympathetic toward her, especially as we see her strengths. Someone she trusts is a selfish, greedy, neglectful person who isn't against putting her in harm's way.

The hero has to rise to challenges he hadn't expected to face. His was a subtle characterization, compared to the heroine's melodrama, which I appreciated. He was also noble, a highly respectable trait.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, I found quite a bit of melodrama in this historical. This begins with telling phrases and exaggerated words, like “lungs starved for air” when the story didn’t call for it, which means readers may not feel it. Or verbs like “ripped” and “wrenched.” Or when the heroine beats the man’s chest with “all the strength her frame could muster,” which felt contrived. Those examples of overboard wording turned me off several times. However, when the author toned down the melodrama, and allowed us to feel the emotions of the characters, there were some poignant passages. I understand some characters may be melodramatic, so if this was an intentional choice, I can respect that. Unfortunately, I’ve seen melodrama in several historicals lately and these instances pull me out of the stories. If you read the summary above, you'll find melodrama there as well.

The romantic thread in this story was well done, overall.

There were several instances of the “could not help but” cliché. And when the heroine glanced at someone it was written she “cut her eyes.” Eeks.

I found myself skimming parts of this story. I wish the author and publisher well, even though this novel didn't appeal to me.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Ladies of Intrigue by Michelle Griep

Ladies of Intrigue by Michelle Griep

Let’s begin with the summary of this compilation:

The Gentleman Smuggler’s Lady
Cornish Coast, 1815
When a prim and proper governess returns to England from abroad, she expects to comfort her dying father—not fall in love with a smuggler. Will Helen Fletcher keep Isaac Seaton’s unusual secret?

The Doctor’s Woman
Dakota Territory, 1862
Emmy Nelson, daughter of a missionary doctor, and Dr. James Clark, city doctor aspiring to teach, find themselves working side by side at Fort Snelling during the Dakota Uprising. That is when the real clash of ideals begins.

A House of Secrets
St. Paul, Minnesota, 1890
Ladies Aide Chairman, Amanda Carston resolves to clean up St. Paul’s ramshackle housing, starting with the worst of the worst: a “haunted” house that’s secretly owned by her beau—a home that’s his only means of helping brothel girls escape from the hands of the city’s most infamous madam.

And now, my review:

The description may not be clear because it doesn't include previous publishing dates, but these are all repackaged books, so you may have read them in the past. I've noticed this pattern—repackaging older novellas into one volume, but not telling readers. That said, thankfully I hadn’t read any of these stories, so it was a good way to learn about her writing.

Full disclosure, I only read the first two in this novella collection. I found myself growing weary of the voice—the fact that there were a lot of overly told emotional reactions without the opportunity for readers to feel them along with the characters. Repeated melodramatic descriptions of cries “tearing from her throat,” etc. (cliché; melodrama; telling) There were POV issues as well. I noticed these issues in a more recent novel I read by this author, so I may not read more of her work for a while.

On the positive side, there were moments of strong, insightful prose. Some relatable conflicts—will the hero choose the future or the past? If he chooses vengeance, he is choosing to focus his energy on the past. If he chooses his future, he can focus ahead. Those are choices everyone must make.

I write and prefer reading contemporary romance, but sometimes it's fun to immerse myself in a historical world of formality and different customs. That's what I was hoping for with this collection. Though these stories didn't appeal to me, perhaps other readers will enjoy the escape these stories offer.