Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Out of the Ruins by Karen Barnett

Book Cover and Synopsis:
While her sister lies on her deathbed, Abby Fischer prays for a miracle. What Abby doesn’t expect, however, is for God’s answer to come in the form of the handsome Dr. Robert King, whose experimental treatment is risky at best.

As they work together toward a cure, Abby’s feelings for Robert become hopelessly entangled. Separated by the tragedy of the mighty San Francisco earthquake, their relationship suddenly takes a back seat to survival. With fires raging throughout the city, Abby fears for her life as she flees alone through burning streets. Where is God now? Will Robert find Abby, even as the world burns around them? Or has their love fallen with the ruins of the city?

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Right from the beginning I was intrigued with these characters and their difficult situation. The then ground-breaking treatment of cancer using X-Rays is extremely interesting, and I especially enjoyed seeing things from Robert's perspective as he experimented with the new technology. His manner is very down-to-earth, despite his advanced medical knowledge, which I really liked. Abby is also very likeable and easy to identify with. Her feelings for Robert are very understandable (he is pretty great!), and this also added an interesting dynamic--sort of a forbidden vibe--considering that Abby's sister is his patient.

The story is split into two different sections, with the first section covering a span of several months, and the second covering just a couple of days, going hour by hour. Obviously, the two sections have vastly different pacing, but it actually works well and the transition between the two is smoothly done. The first section serves as a way to get to know the characters and their back-stories, but the second section is where most of the action happens. I liked both sections equally well.

I have to applaud the author for her skill in conveying the dramatic events so clearly and vividly. I felt like I was actually there--right beside Abby and Robert--in the midst of the earthquake chaos and destruction. Prior to reading this book I had zero knowledge of the 1906 earthquake and resulting fires, but I have since researched it a bit further. I was amazed to discover photos taken of the actual events are amazingly similar to the images the book painted in my mind! That's a sign of some powerfully descriptive writing!

This is the first book by Karen Barnett that I've read, but it will certainly not be my last. The characters and storyline burrowed into my mind so much that I found myself thinking about it during the day, anxious for the time when I could read a couple more chapters. Though most of the story is serious, there are some surprisingly lighthearted and humorous moments that keep it well balanced. (In particular, a certain large bow on the back of a dress comes to mind!) Overall, this is a title I can easily--and highly--recommend. I'm anxious to see what the next book in the series will hold.

My Rating: 5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Abingdon) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Full Steam Ahead by Karen Witemeyer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
When Nicole Renard returns home to Galveston from an eastern finishing school, she's stunned to find her father in ill health. Though she loves him, he's only ever focused on what she's "not." Not male. Not married. Not able to run their family business, Renard Shipping.

Vowing to secure a suitable marriage partner, Nicole sets out with the Renard family's greatest treasure: a dagger personally gifted to Nicole's father by the pirate Jean Lafitte. Many believe the legend that the dagger is the source of all Renard Shipping's good fortune, though Nicole is sure her father's work ethic and honorable business practices are the keys to their success. Before she can board the steamer to New Orleans, Nicole finds her father's rivals—the Jenkins brothers—on either side of the gangplank, ready to grab her and steal the dagger. Quickly, she decides to instead travel north, to Liberty, Texas, where she can decide what to do next.

Darius Thornton needs a secretary—someone to help him get his notes in order. Ever since the boiler explosion aboard the "Louisiana," Darius has been a man obsessed. He will do anything to stop even one more steamship disaster. The pretty young socialite who applies for the job baffles him with her knowledge of mathematics and steamships. He decides to take a risk and hire her, but he's determined her attractive face and fancy clothes won't distract him from his important research.

The job offer comes at exactly the right time for Nicole. With what Darius is paying her, she'll be able to afford passage to New Orleans in mere weeks. But Mr. Thornton is so reclusive, so distant, so unusual. He can create complex scientific equations but can't remember to comb his hair. And his experiments are growing more and more dangerous. Still, there are undeniable sparks of attraction between them. But Nicole is leaving soon, and if she marries, it must be to a man who can manage a shipping empire. Darius certainly doesn't fit that description. And the Jenkins brothers have not given up on kidnapping Nicole and seizing the Lafitte dagger for themselves.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Nicole is a fun heroine with lots of hidden talents that continually amused me. Coming from society, she is proper when needed, but she also has a spunky side that often pops up. Her intelligence and skills in math are able to put most men to shame, and in a pinch she is even handy with a blade! I liked how she didn't let Darius' gruff exterior deter her from her purpose, and I also have to admit I found it rather humorous that she found his feet attractive, LOL! :)

The Lafitte dagger is the basis for the story, basically the reason that many events take place, however I have to admit that the dagger itself began to get on my nerves after a while. The superstition surrounding it is extreme, and the high value some people place on it is very misguided...though I suppose it actually is a plausible scenario. I certainly didn't feel the dagger was worth risking life and limb for, but I did appreciate that Nicole didn't buy into the superstition and she only sought to protect the dagger out of love and respect for her father. Above all, I loved Darius's attitude toward the dagger, but I won't spoil it by saying any more on that subject! :)

The time frame on the story is fairly short, with most of the events taking place within the span of about one month. This results in the relationship between Nicole and Darius moving fairly quickly, without a lot of time for them to get to know each other. To be honest, it actually didn't seem too fast when I was reading it, but when I stopped to think about the timeline--and realized just how short of a time they'd actually known each other--I became a bit skeptical. For the sake of realism and practicality I would've liked to see them know each other for a longer period of time before committing, however the nature of the plot really didn't allow for this. It's certainly not a deal breaker for me, but it was just something I noticed and pondered on.

While it's not my favorite of Karen's novels, I still did enjoy it quite a bit. She has a knack for writing extremely unique, out-of-the-box stories, and this one certainly falls into that category. There's mystery, intrigue, romance, bad guys, chases, and even a couple explosive experiments! For fans of historical fiction, Full Steam Ahead is a title that I can easily recommend.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (BethanyHouse) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: The Good Girl by Christy Barritt

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Tara Lancaster can sing Amazing Grace in three harmonies, two languages, and interpret it for the hearing impaired. She can list the Bible canon backward, forward, and alphabetized. And the only time she ever missed church was at seventeen because she had pneumonia and her mom made her stay home.

But when her life shatters around her and her reputation is left in ruins, Tara decides escape is the only option. She flees halfway across the country to dog-sit, but the quiet anonymity she needs isn't waiting in her sister's house. Instead she finds a knife with a threatening message, a fame-hungry friend, a too-hunky neighbor, and evidence of...a ghost?

Following all the rules has gotten her nowhere. And nothing she learned in Sunday School can tell her where to go from there.

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This one started out a bit slow for me, but when it finally picked up speed (around the half-way mark) I found myself very intrigued by the mystery of the crazy happenings at Tara's temporary home. Ghostly hauntings--or anything even resembling them--are not the norm for a Christian genre book, but the mystery is done quite well, especially when coupled with Tara's already fragile faith that has her questioning all of her long-held beliefs.

Part of what made the beginning so slow for me was Tara's constant thoughts and inner-whining about a past false accusation against her reputation, which the story doesn't reveal specific details about until a third of the way through. I found it hard to connect with Tara or be sympathetic when I didn't know what, or how bad, the situation actually was. Yes, it turned out to be quite bad, but finally learning the details changed my feelings and allowed me to better understand her, which I was unable to do until her full past was revealed.

In the midst of a crisis of faith Tara's thought process is undoubtedly very realistic for some people, but I admit that some of her fleeting musings on trying new things and doing the opposite of what her old "good girl" self would have done made me a bit uncomfortable. However, it was very heartening when she eventually came back around to the realization that God is always good, even when life isn't.

Despite the slow start, the book was definitely worth reading. I enjoyed the mystery aspect, especially when the strange activity really ramped up with crazy unexplainable events happening at every turn. The characters and their relationships were interesting and amusing as well. The out-of-the-norm characters (like Candy with her blue hair!) are a great reminder to not judge a book by its cover, so to speak, as people can often turn out to be quite different than what their appearance or first impression conveys.

The thought of staying in a creepy house with unexplainable events is not a reality I want to ever experience...but it does make for a great plot. If you're looking for something unique, this story might just be the thing you're searching for!

My Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review: The Merchant's Daughter by Melanie Dickerson

Book Cover and Synopsis:
An unthinkable danger. An unexpected choice.

Annabel, once the daughter of a wealthy merchant, is trapped in indentured servitude to Lord Ranulf, a recluse who is rumored to be both terrifying and beastly. Her circumstances are made even worse by the proximity of Lord Ranulf's bailiff---a revolting man who has made unwelcome advances on Annabel in the past.

Believing that life in a nunnery is the best way to escape the escalation of the bailiff's vile behavior and to preserve the faith that sustains her, Annabel is surprised to discover a sense of security and joy in her encounters with Lord Ranulf. As Annabel struggles to confront her feelings, she is involved in a situation that could place Ranulf in grave danger. Ranulf's future, and possibly his heart, may rest in her hands, and Annabel must decide whether to follow the plans she has cherished or the calling God has placed on her heart.

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
Like most of Melanie's novels, this one is marketed as YA fiction...but don't let that scare you away if you're older! I'm in my late 20's, and the story certainly didn't feel too young or simplistic for me. Fairy tales have a universal appeal, and similarly I feel that The Merchant's Daughter has appeal for many different ages. No, it's not a fairy tale per-say, but it's based on one, and the time setting of so very long ago gives it a hint of an other-worldly feel.

I really liked the reminder that love should be based on inner qualities, rather than the outer. We've all heard it before: appearance shouldn't matter, it's what's inside that counts. The story does a nice job of getting that point across, and it's a truth that's worth being reminded of. But in all honesty, Ranulf actually didn't sound all that hideous to me. A little scarred up, yes... but hideous? I don't think so. Thankfully, Annabel didn't think so either. Some of the characters described Ranulf's personality as "beastly", which I thought was a unique way to bring the traditional "beast" imagery into the story without involving fantasy elements.

Though I don't feel it's Melanie's strongest novel, it's also not the weakest, either.... it falls somewhere in the middle. However, I do think the faith element fits more seamlessly into this story than any of her other fairy-tale retellings. Maybe it's because I'm not all that familiar with the original Beauty & the Beast tale, but from my perspective the faith and Bible reading really fit into the story well, giving Annabel and Ranulf something to bond over. I do admit that Annabel's desire to go into a nunnery seemed slightly odd and out of place, but it wasn't a large enough plot point for it to be a deal breaker for me.

Overall, The Merchant's Daughter kept me moderately intrigued through-out. It held my attention and I wanted to see how everything would play out, but it just didn't seem to have the "wow" factor that I was hoping for. Still, it's an admirable re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, and I love how the Christian elements are woven in as a large part of the story without feeling preachy or out of place. If you're a fan of the idea that love conquers all (shouldn't we all be!?), then it's worth considering giving The Merchant's Daughter a chance.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: Love on a Dime by Cara Lynn James

Ladies of Summerhill, #1
Book Cover and Synopsis:
Newport, Rhode Island, 1899, is a place of shimmering waves, sleek yachts, and ladies of leisure. Of opulent mansions that serve as summer cottages for the rich and famous. Home of railroad magnates and banking tycoons--dashing young men and the women who aspire to marry them.

But it's not the place for lady novelists. Especially not those who pen disreputable dime novels. This poses a problem for Lilly Westbrook, because that's exactly what she does.

No one in Lilly's social set knows she pens fiction under the "nom de plume "Fannie Cole. Not her family or the wealthy young man about to propose to her. And especially not Jackson Grail, the long-lost beau who just bought her publishing company...and who stirs her heart more than she cares to admit.

But Lilly must put aside her feelings and follow the path that will maintain her family's social stature and provide the financial security that everyone is depending on.

Now Lilly faces a double dilemma. Can she continue to protect her secret identity? And will she have the courage to choose the man who will risk it all just to win her heart?

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
I don't often contemplate not finishing a book, but I have to admit that several times I considered giving up on this one. The story simply failed to engage me, and the characters didn't pull me in either. The descriptions and dialogue often struck me as feeling somewhat stiff and matter of fact, which admittedly could partially be due to the time period that it's set in...however, I don't normally have this issue with other books in the genre.

Though I really like the premise of being a closet dime-novelist, this alone wasn't enough to endear Lilly to me. Her longtime blindness in the romance department irked me quite a bit; it was hard to believe she couldn't see just how wrong a certain someone was for her. Additionally, through-out most of the story there is an impending blackmail threat, and Lilly is so stubborn, and also naive, that she absolutely refuses to ask for help, instead floundering around on her own and waiting until the last possible minute to finally seek assistance. Jackson was in a perfect position to help her, which he offered to do multiple times, and I so wanted Lilly to trust him and take him up on his offer. Things would have been much easier if she had.

Despite my qualms with the overall story, I must admit that the church service towards the end really spoke to me. The few short verses that made up the sermon were well chosen, being relevant not only to the story, but also in my own life, coming at exactly the time I needed. It's so awesome when God is able to speak through fictional stories like that. And that moment alone--no matter what else I have to say about the story--made reading the whole book worth it.

Overall, as far as the actual story goes, I really struggled to get through it.... so unfortunately I don't think I'll be reading the rest of the series. I think part of what didn't mesh with my tastes was the Newport setting, and all the uppity society rules and games that go along with it. Still, I won't tell anyone to stay away from the book, because of the blessing I received through the church service in the story. Personal tastes aside, you know an author is doing something right when God is able to speak through their book in such a way!

My Rating: 3 stars