Monday, January 27, 2014

A Gift to Remember by Melissa Hill

A Gift to Remember
Darcy Archer works in a small bookstore in Manhattan. A daydream believer, she refuses to settle for anything less than being swept off her feet by the perfect man… literally.

One day, when cycling to work, Darcy accidentally crashes into a sharply dressed gentleman walking his dog. He is knocked out cold, rushed to hospital and the poor pup gets left behind.

Wrecked with guilt, Darcy takes the dog and makes plans to reunite him with owner, Aiden. As she discovers the mysterious stranger's world of books, travel, adventure and all the wonderful things she's ever dreamt about, Darcy builds a picture of this man and wonders if he could be THE ONE…

But does fantasy match reality? What happens when Prince Charming wakes up? Will Aiden be the happy ever after she's always imagined?

Cycling to work, bookworm Darcy Archer collides with a handsome pedestrian, Aidan Harris, knocking him out cold. Feeling terrible, all she can do is take his dog under her wing after the ambulance whizzes off. When Aidan suffers temporary amnesia, she feels the least she can do is help him piece together his identity.

As she delves into their few clues, it appears he has the wealth and sportiness to match his good looks. Darcy regrets the thought of leaving his life once his memory returns. But is everything as it seems?

There are some really cheeky tricks directed at the reader. It's fun to look back at the trail of red herrings placed directly for our benefit.

Darcy herself makes this such a pleasure to read. She's so down-to-earth and sweet, content with her tiny apartment, low paying job and collection of books, even though people try to push her to sharpen up her act and be different. I love her brushes with the opulent upper-class and the conclusions she draws. It's great when a heroine helps us remain happy with just who we are.

There are a few stand-outs among the other characters too. Who can resist a hero like Aidan, devastatingly attractive but seemingly unaware of that? Bailey, the dog, is as well-drawn a 3D character as some humans I've come across. And then there's the likeable Nathaniel Cleaver-Parks Junior, the senator's son who pulled a few strings.

I actually bought this book at K-Mart on impulse, something I rarely do, and I was amazed to find the amnesia thread, as I love amnesia novels and have written one myself. It's also good when a lighthearted read can help us to start thinking about significant things.

4.5 stars

A Gift to Remember available from Amazon

Saturday, January 18, 2014

'Dear Mr Knightley' by Katherine Reay

Dear Mr. Knightley
Dear Mr. Knightley is a contemporary epistolary novel with a delightful dash of Jane Austen.

Samantha Moore survived years of darkness in the foster care system by hiding behind her favorite characters in literature, even adopting their very words. Her fictional friends give her an identity, albeit a borrowed one. But most importantly, they protect her from revealing her true self and encountering more pain.

After college, Samantha receives an extraordinary opportunity. The anonymous “Mr. Knightley” offers her a full scholarship to earn her graduate degree at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The sole condition is that Sam write to Mr. Knightley regularly to keep him apprised of her progress.

As Sam’s true identity begins to reveal itself through her letters, her heart begins to soften to those around her—a damaged teenager and fellow inhabitant of Grace House, her classmates at Medill, and, most powerfully, successful novelist Alex Powell. But just as Sam finally begins to trust, she learns that Alex has secrets of his own—secrets that, for better or for worse, make it impossible for Sam to hide behind either her characters or her letters.


This is one of those epistolary novels which is written almost entirely in letters.

Orphan and former street kid, Samantha Moore has had a history of getting shuffled around from one foster home to the next. She gets an offer to attend a journalism course, all expenses paid. The one condition is that she has to write letters of progress to her anonymous benefactor, who calls himself Mr Knightley.

I was expecting a light read, but there's a good depth to this story. I understand why some readers may find Sam annoying. She has a tendency to automatically compare herself to heroes and heroines of the great English classics, but I think when we understand that this is a defense mechanism, it's far easier to like her. Besides, she knows how it comes across. Rather than having delusions of grandeur, it's a natural reflex to hide her vulnerability.

She's able to have a laugh at herself too. I love it when she admitted that after bingeing on Jane Austen mimics and knock-offs for months, 'I ended up with a stilted language pattern that took a month to purge.'

For somebody who was told that she insulates herself and doesn't always notice what may be obvious to others, the girl often picks up subtleties that may escape other people. This perceptiveness helps to bring other characters to life too, such as Kyle, the 14-year-old tough boy, Ashley, the rich, pretty girl, and Alex, the successful author.

At first I thought the letters way over-the-top in their descriptiveness and what she chose to reveal. I changed my mind. If somebody wants to call himself 'Mr Knightley' and request correspondence in that cloak-and-dagger way, he's asking for what he gets. Clearly, he did Sam a wonderful favour, giving her an outlet to explore who she is, and find the courage to declare it.

I've read Jean Webster's 'Daddy Long Legs', the book this was obviously based on. (I hope it's OK to say that in a review. I think anybody who has read both would quickly make the connection.) That made the plot predictable but still fun. For readers who haven't read the other book, the twists may astound them. A 21st century version turned out to be a great idea.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Thomas Nelson in return for an honest review.

4 stars

Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel available from Amazon

'It's a God Thing' by Don Jacobson

It's a God Thing: When Miracles Happen to Everyday People
Some things in life have no earthly explanation. It's just a God thing.

Miracles are not reserved for the characters in the Old and New Testaments; they happen to everyday people. Series creator Don Jacobson ("When God Makes Lemonade") and K-LOVE Radio Network (12 million listeners) have joined together to produce one of the most remarkable collections of modern day miracles ever compiled.

From a hunter who survived a horrific accident to a mother woken up to escape an attacker, from a soldier guided to safety through unspeakable horrors to a young backpacker who walked free from a terrorist attack, "It's A God Thing "presents some of the most amazing stories of God's hand on our lives.

Collection of personal testimonies about God's goodness are often encouraging. This one is very up-to-date, having just been published. It even includes an event which happened during the 2013 Boston Marathon, which wasn't even a year ago.

My favourites were the stories about God's protection, and how individuals were saved from death through accidents and probable murder. There are clear supernatural protection elements involved. I also like being reminded of the subtlety with which little, serendipitous God-incidences may occur. As many of us do, I have a few of my own, and it reinforced that they were indeed divine appointments, because of their similarity to others within this book.

Here's a word of warning for the tender-hearted, though. What I didn't like so much was the number of stories concerning the deaths of loved-ones, often children. Although each of the authors made it clear that they felt God's love during these times of bereavement, I still felt very sad reading them and shed some tears. If you're expecting a book which consists of nothing but uplifting, happy-making experiences, this might not fit the bill.

I received a copy from Net Galley and Thomas Nelson in return for an honest review.

3 stars

It's A God Thing: When Miracles Happen to Everyday People available from Amazon

Sunday, January 12, 2014

'The Redemption of Caralynne Hayman' by Carole Brown

The Redemption of Caralynne Hayman
Caralynne Hayman is angry and bitter over the abuse and death of her eleven-year-old daughter at the hands of a radical religious cult—The Children of Righteous Cain. So when her husband, a founding member of the cult, suffers a massive heart attack, Caralynne allows her husband to die.

Caralynne’s secret seems safe until Dayne MacFarland returns, determined to learn the truth about the cult. His investigation and his rekindled love for Caralynne lead the pair toward a confrontation with the group’s elders.

Can Dayne’s love for Caralynne bridge the gulf of anger and bitterness that divides the community? Or will Caralynne’s deadly secrets prove too high a price for her redemption?

To the outside world, they look like an innocent group minding their own business, but the Righteous Children of Cain is a religious cult with some terrible practices. Its leader, the corrupt and controlling Elder Simmons, is not used to resistance from anyone, especially when it comes to making all the marriage decisions of the community, and organising horrific 'breaking in' rituals for preteen girls.

Recently widowed Caralynne Hayman is a loving and incensed mother whose eldest daughter was accidentally killed during one such ritual. She will guard the younger two girls with her life. The elders are going to foist a new husband on her, her cruel and cunning brother-in-law, one of the only men they believe may successfully break her spirit.

Meanwhile, her childhood friend, Dayne McFarland, has returned as the new town preacher. Simmons expects him to be malleable, but Dayne has done plenty of thinking for himself, questioning the way he was brought up. And he doesn't like what he sees.

Caralynne's young daughters, Leila and Lacy, made the story very meaningful for me. They are innocent and beautiful, taking their neighbours' lifestyles at face value, little knowing what lies in store for them unless something radical is done. Nobody is as vulnerable as those who don't realise they even need saving.

I might have appreciated a bit more about the brainwashing methods used on young boys, to cause so many of them to grow into the unsavoury specimens we see within the pages of this book. There is plenty of female perspective, when the experiences of Cara's friends are added to hers, but not as much of the male perspective, unless you count Dayne's flashbacks to his past, and he's hardly a typical example.

We see sweet young toddler boys, belonging to some of Cara's friends, and then we see the rough Martin brothers, who seem to be in their late teens or early twenties and are already dangerous. How are the boys aged from 5 to 15 treated, to make them such blind followers of Simmons and his elders?

It's a page turning story all the way through, and also a wake-up call that such bizarre groups do exist, living close to the rest of civilisation, but many aren't aware of how desperately the victims need help. It's also a great testimony of what may happen when strong characters like Cara and Dayne are prepared to question the status quo and take action, as hopeless as it may seem.

Thanks to the author, for giving me a copy in return for an honest review

4 stars

The Redemption of Caralynne Hayman available from Amazon

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

'The Dancing Master' by Julie Klassen

The Dancing Master
Leaving London, dancing master Alec Valcourt moves his mother and sister to remote Devonshire--but is stunned to discover that dancing is prohibited! He finds an unlikely ally in Miss Julia Midwinter, but her questions about his past are becoming harder to evade. Together, can they bring new life to this quiet village--and heal long-kept-secret scars?
A scandal rocks Alec Valcourt's family. He and his mother and sister are forced to move in with his penny-pinching uncle. Alec expects to resume his occupation of dancing and fencing master in this new town, Beasworthy, but his efforts are doomed. The town noblewoman, Lady Amelia Midwinter, has prohibited dancing long ago, and there's enough of the feudal system left in eighteenth century country towns that others will go along with her.

Lady Amelia's daughter, Julia, is a lively girl and a bit of a flirt. She doesn't know that this year, she and Alec are going to discover the twenty-year-old secret which explains why dancing has fallen out of favour. It involves several members of her family, not to mention herself.

I've got to be honest and admit that, in spite of its fairy-tale sounding premise, this isn't my favourite Julie Klassen novel. I did like Alec, with his strong work ethic and sense of family responsibility. However, something about him seemed to be lacking for a hero. He didn't have the daring heroism of Henry in 'The Tutor's Daughter' or the cute smartness of Francis in 'The Apothecary's Daughter.' Even the heroine, Julia, kept thinking of him as a bit of a dandy, even after she fell for him.

Perhaps it's because, at heart, this book is more about the older generation than Alec and Julia's age group. Even though the snippets of their romance were promising, I did think Klassen could have revved it up another notch or two. Lots of potential seemed to go begging.

Still, it was a fun read just the same. For ballroom dancing enthusiasts, it would be great, often delving right into the intricacies of the steps and execution. I'm glad we have Julie Klassen. With Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters long gone, I appreciate it that someone has taken up their mantle and put in the meticulous research, to make these stories so authentic.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Bethany House in return for an honest review.

3 stars

Dancing Master, The available from Amazon

Sunday, January 5, 2014

'Sensible Shoes' by Sharon Garlough Brown

Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey
Sharon Garlough Brown tells the moving story of four strangers as they embark together on a journey of spiritual formation: Hannah, a pastor who doesn't realize how exhausted she is. Meg, a widow and recent empty-nester who is haunted by her past. Mara, a woman who has experienced a lifetime of rejection and is now trying to navigate a difficult marriage. Charissa, a hard-working graduate student who wants to get things right. You?re invited to join these four women as they reluctantly arrive at a retreat center and find themselves drawn out of their separate stories of isolation and struggle and into a collective journey of spiritual practice, mutual support and personal revelation. Along the way, readers will be taken into a new understanding of key spiritual practices and find tangible support for the deeper life with God. 

If you were given a flyer from a local retreat centre inviting you to take a sacred journey and learn the unforced rhythms of grace, would you be tempted to take part? If you answer 'no', this book probably won't interest you. Otherwise, it's an invitation to a terrific virtual course, through the eyes and experiences of four very real and complex women. We're even given the worksheets to make use of too. Frequent flashbacks to the worlds of the characters' girlhoods and youth gradually reveal more and more secrets, keeping the story moving and vividly displaying when some of their vulnerabilities and fixed attitudes first formed.

Mara is a lady familiar with rejection, first from kids at school, later from her husband and boys who take her for granted. Though she comes across to others as a colourful, confident person, she's nothing of the sort deep down.

Charissa is a beautiful, intelligent, high-achiever who aims to be an English Professor. Her husband, John, dotes on her and does all the cooking. Yet she feels very uncomfortable in situations which she can't control, and can't help looking down on people who haven't reached her high standards by their self-effort.

Hannah is a burned-out pastor who is forced to take a long sabbatical, yet finds it impossible to rest because being a busy servant, responsible for everyone else, is her whole life. Her part of the story became my favourite. What a satisfying ending for her.

Meg was hardest for me to deal with, at the start, coming across as too mousy by far. Come on, woman, you're facing a series of workshops, not a firing squad! Yet as her story unraveled, she grew on me and I found myself loving and understanding her.

How different they all are, yet how easy to see parts of each of them inside myself. Having a school history like Mara's, I totally understand her not being able to shake off the wounds years later. Like Hannah, I know how easy it is to build a false identity around not wanting to let people down. I get some of Charissa's attitudes too, such as her impatience for unstructured brainstorming, and wanting to be told definite answers to the elusive questions. And after deploring Meg for awhile, I realised that her imagination is just like mine, only my intense fears are in different areas.

I was torn reading this book. Part of me wanted to slow down and ponder the revelations deeply, while the other part wanted to gallop on and find out what would happen, or be revealed, next. Luckily, returning to Katherine's virtual-class worksheets is easy to do.

This book was full of pithy quotes, and here are just a few.
Hannah - 'Busyness is my socially acceptable addiction.'
Charissa - 'I've spent years investing energy into keeping up appearances, wanting everyone to think I've got everything together. Dr Allen calls it "impression management"'
Mara's son, Jeremy - 'I had a mom who loved me. And that's a lot more than some kids get.'
Meg - '...her imagination had always seemed more a liability than a gift, the vehicle by which she reaced at breakneck speed to worst case scenarios. She had lived in thousands of potential realities over the years, most of which had never materialised.'
Nathan - 'When Laura walked away from our marriage into an affair, her sin was condemned publicly. But for years, my sin had been congratulated and affirmed. I was such a good and faithful servant.'
And finally, one lovely image for the book lovers among us. "Hannah had forgotten what a prolific book-marker Nathan was, and his margin notes were undressed windows into his mind and spirit."

4.5 stars

Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey available from Amazon