Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Fifth Avenue Story Society by Rachel Hauck

The Fifth Avenue Story Society

What a lovely cover! A reader’s delight—shelves of books in a cozy room. An unexpected element? This novel is not a time-slip novel like Rachel's other recent books.

Let’s begin with the summary:

An invitation to join The Fifth Avenue Story Society gives five New York strangers a chance to rewrite their own stories.

Executive assistant Lexa is eager for a much-deserved promotion, but her boss is determined to keep her underemployed.

Literature professor Jett is dealing with a broken heart, as well as a nagging suspicion his literary idol, Gordon Phipps Roth, might be a fraud.

Uber driver Chuck just wants a second chance with his kids.

Aging widower Ed is eager to write the true story of his incredible marriage.

Coral, queen of the cosmetics industry, has broken her engagement and is on the verge of losing her great-grandmother’s multimillion-dollar empire.

When all five New Yorkers receive an anonymous, mysterious invitation to the Fifth Avenue Story Society, they suspect they’re victims of a practical joke. No one knows who sent the invitations or why. No one has heard of the literary society. And no one is prepared to reveal their deepest secrets to a roomful of strangers.

Yet curiosity and loneliness bring them back week after week to the old library. And it’s there they discover the stories of their hearts, and the kind of friendship and love that heals their souls.

And now, my review:

I like the premise of mysterious invitations to join a story society. At first, I thought it’d be a book club, but the objective is deeper than that. Picturing the setting of an old library made me want to grab a hot beverage, a throw, and curl up with this book.

Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses in this ensemble cast. I liked the multiple-POV approach. Rachel is always clear about whose POV we’re in, and her characters had distinct voices.

Though this wasn’t a time-slip novel, which I'd expected (I don't read back covers before reading books—too many spoilers), I was interested and invested. But I was interested and invested. The only downside was that we never go too deeply into any one character’s history. Because we’re spread over several, there isn’t page space.

Rachel kept me hooked through withholding information. There are plenty of secrets to learn about each person, and we unravel those as we read. She gave us enough info to both care about the characters and root for them.

As is her trademark, we have a supernatural element in the book. This novel would work well as a crossover as the God-element is subtle for three-quarters of the story. Her prose is often so insightful, I have to highlight it.

I loved watching the characters have victory. Through sharing their real struggles with each other, they find healing and their burdens lift. These varied folks find friendship. I enjoyed that theme. They also find courage to do what they need to do for those victories.

I'm always watching for Rachel's next book to release. She's a must-read for me. Whether it's a time-slip or not, I enjoy her distinct writing style.


Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Way of the Brave by Susan May Warren

The Way of the Brave

Susie has a new series!

Here’s the summary of book one in the Global Search and Rescue series:

Former pararescue jumper Orion Starr is haunted by the memory of a rescue gone wrong. He may be living alone in Alaska now, but the pain of his failure—and his injuries—has followed him there from Afghanistan. He has no desire to join Hamilton Jones's elite rescue team, but he also can't shirk his duty when the call comes in to rescue three lost climbers on Denali.

Former CIA profiler and psychiatrist Jenny Calhoun's yearly extreme challenge with her best friends is her only escape from the guilt that has sunk its claws into her. As a consultant during a top-secret mission to root out the Taliban, she green-lighted an operation that ended in ambush and lives lost. When her cathartic climb on Denali turns deadly, she'll be forced to trust her life and the lives of her friends to the most dangerous of heroes—the man she nearly killed.

Her skills and his experience are exactly what's needed to prevent another tragedy—but in order to truly set Orion free from his painful past, Jenny will have to reveal hers. They'll have to put their wounds behind them to survive, but at what cost?

And now, my review:

What a read! I could almost see my breath in front of my face, when I remembered to breathe.

We spend much of this book stranded on an icy mountain, and I could feel the cold. Such great descriptions. Susie took us into the minds of both rescuers and climbers. I learned some of their jargon. The story was well researched. I also felt the fear of the stranded climbers.

As usual, we got more than one love story, and I enjoyed that. One of the themes was bravery, of course. Other themes included having a new heart, finding grace, finally being free, and discovering God’s goodness. These were relatable, and as the characters reached toward them, I both rooted for them and sympathized with them.

The romantic, why-not issue seemed insurmountable between the primary MCs (main characters), which kept me hooked. The female characters were doctors or psychologists—great careers. And this led to strong conflict when their training alone couldn’t save them, nor leave them exempt from physical or mental health problems.

I enjoy Susie’s writing, book after book. I would like to see a variety of character voices. Most of the time, they each have the same voice, even in their introspection—both genders. But that element doesn’t keep me from reading her novels as soon as they come out.

With two of the characters, especially, Susie set us up for her the second in this series. We’ll be off on another suspenseful, adventurous rescue. Can't wait!

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, edge-of-your-icy-seat read—this is it.

Highly recommended!

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.