23 March 2017

Review: Season of Miracles by Alexa Verde

Faith, but No Murder

Lana Smith is a visiting nurse in Rios Azules, Texas, having escaped from a rough upbringing being moved from home to home as a foster child, then from the shallow Los Angeles party scene. Arturo De La Vega is a star running back with the Houston Storm, home temporarily to visit his sick grandfather … and where he meets Lana.

Most of Alexa Verde's novels are romantic suspense, as promised by her tagline: Faith, Hope and Murder.

I’ve read and enjoyed some of her romantic suspense novels, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy this nearly so much. The writing was fine, but the plot didn’t seem as developed as in her other novels. There was little external conflict, and the internal conflict was too understated—by the time I realised Lana’s real problem, she’d solved it. And, strangely, I didn’t find the romance as convincing as in her earlier novels. I never got the impression either character really "saw" the potential in the other.

Write What You Know

I also wasn’t convinced by Arturo—and this might come down to the fact that Verde admits she knew little about football before writing Season of Miracles. It shows. While there is no on-field action to highlight her lack of knowledge, I did question Arturo’s constant visits to Rios Azules, a five-hour-drive from his Houston home. It might have made sense if he was injured, but he was playing each weekend—so how did he come to have so much free time? Didn’t he have training sessions to attend each day?

Thanks to the author for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Alexa Verde at her website, and you can read the introduction to Season of Miracles below.

21 March 2017

Review: To the Farthest Shores by Elizabeth Camden

Not Her Best

I’ve read most of Elizabeth Camden’s novels, and haven’t had a bad one yet. She avoids the more common time and place settings for historical fiction/historical romance, and her novels often feature women in unusual settings and occupations. To the Farthest Shores is similar, set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, and featuring a civilian nurse in an Army hospital as the main characters.

But the beginning of To the Farthest Shores was shaky in comparison with Camden’s earlier novels, and I found it took a long time to settle. The story starts with Jenny Bennett and Lieutenant Ryan Gallagher professing their undying love as Ryan is about to be sent to fight in the Philippines in 1898. But he doesn’t come back … and when he does—six years later—he has a daughter in tow. And he’s pretending not to know Jenny. And lying to her. We soon find out what happened in the intervening years (through a big pile of backstory), but Jenny doesn’t find out until much later in the book.

There were a lot of secrets, and that annoyed me because it disobeyed one of my felt’ rules of fiction—that we can trust our point of view characters, that they have no secrets from the reader. I love the tension that comes from a novel where the reader knows something one of the main characters doesn’t know, and we’re then waiting with baited breath for the character to find out. When will they find out? How will they react? So much room for tension … that’s removed if the reader doesn’t know what the secret is (in Jenny’s case) or even that there is a secret (in Ryan’s case).

The story included references to early military intelligence, the search for the ability to culture pearls, and even a reference to the still-present conversation around equal pay. The research seemed solid, and never overpowered the story. The one glitch I did find was mercurochrome—something I’d never heard of, so looked up. The Kindle dictionary told me was a trademark for a disinfectant, dating from the early 20th century. In fact, it was first discovered in 1918, which means Ryan was unlikely to be using it in 1904. He was clever, but not that clever.

Overall, the story showed promise and ended well, but I found Jenny and Ryan’s secrets—and the fact they both hid them—took away a lot of the tension and therefore took away a lot of the power of the story. The story lacked in any Christian content, a trend I’m not altogether happy with, and not what I expect from a major Christian publisher like Bethany House.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Elizabeth Camden at her website.

14 March 2017

Review: The Second Bride by Katharine Swartz

An Intriguing Premise ...

The Second Bride is an intriguing dual-timeline story set in the wild north of England. The present-day plot centres around Ellen, a freelance proofreader married to Alex. It’s the second marriage for both of them—they each have a teenage girl from their respective first marriages, and they also have ten-year-old Sophie.

It’s a peaceful life, until Alex’s ex calls with the news that she’s leaving the country for a year and their sixteen-year-old daughter will have to come and live with them. This well and truly messes up the family dynamics as Ellen finds herself cast in the unwanted role of the wicked stepmother, and resenting the fact Alex leaves the parenting of Annabelle up to her. Ellen finds an old death certificate hidden in the boards of the spare bedroom … and that’s the link to the past storyline.

The death certificate is for Sarah Mills, who died in 1872 at the age of twenty-two, of ‘General Debility’. That provides instant conflict and suspense for the past story, which starts in 1868 as eighteen-year-old Sarah Telford and her ten-year-old sister are leaving their home town of Goswell for Kendal, to live with their aunt, their only surviving relative. Sarah’s story is revealed in the past as Ellen searches for it in the present, at the same time as trying to hold her family together.

I have to say that I found Sarah’s story a lot more engaging. Ellen’s problems were real, to be sure, and—like Sarah—she didn’t necessarily have a lot of control over what happened to her. That frustrated me as I like to see characters triumph over their circumstances, and that never quite happened for Ellen.

It didn’t happen for Sarah, either, but we knew from the first page that she was going to die young, so her story was tinged with that sadness. Also, Sarah’s misfortune wasn’t the result of her own bad choices—it was more the result of bad luck and circumstances she couldn’t see any other way out of. And that engaged me more than Ellen, especially when I compared Sarah’s self-sacrificing attitude with Ellen’s simmering resentment of Annabelle and her effect on their once-happy family.

So the present story was good, but the past story was better. The writing was solid but not spectacular, but there was plenty of conflict and it certainly kept me reading. The Second Bride is part of the Tales from Goswell series, but can easily be read as a standalone novel. I didn’t even realise it was part of a series at first, and don’t feel I missed anything.

Recommended for those who like British fiction.

Thanks to Lion Fiction and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can click here to find out more about Katharine Swartz, and you can read the introduction to The Second Bride below:

10 March 2017

Friday Fifteen: Elizabeth Musser

Today I'd like to welcome Elizabeth Musser to Iola's Christian Reads. Elizabeth is an American missionary living near Lyon, France, and has just released her latest novel. The Long Highway Home

Welcome, Elizabeth!

1. Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess and The Secret Garden captured my heart as a child. Loved, loved, loved Sara Crewe and when I read her riches to rags to riches tale, I longed to write a story like that.

2. Walter Farley and 3. Marguerite Henry

I grew up around horses and when I wasn’t riding one or cleaning out a stall or tossing hay to my ponies, I was curled up with Farley’s Black Stallion series or Henry’s Born to Trot, Misty of Chincoteague and the sequels. I started writing horse stories because of these authors, and I would also illustrate them (inspired by the wonderful drawings by Wesley Dennis in Henry’s books.) Despite my obvious skill, ahem, I have never been asked to include my illustrations in my novels!

4. Carolyn Keene

I now know this was a pseudonym for various authors who penned the Nancy Drew series, but I didn’t know it as a child and I devoured these stories—I think I had the whole collection at the time (in the late 1960s), maybe 50 or 60. Nancy gave me my first taste of mystery tales—(and taught me a new word: sleuth)—and I determined I would write some myself.

5. Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” That first line! The mystery, the romance, the intrigue, I fell into those wonderful and exotic lands of du Maurier’s prose as a teen and wanted to stay there forever. This novel and a few others were also a big inspiration for me.

6. Charles Dickens

I wept when I read A Tale of Two Cities. The themes of sacrifice and redemption broke my heart and inspired me to try, try, try, in my small way, to show faith and hope in my stories. And I love Dickens’ ‘cast of thousands’ in his novels and the way he leads us down many paths with delightful twists and turns that ultimately come together.

7. Catherine Marshall

As a young woman, Marshall’s non-fiction, A Man Called Peter, To Live Again, Beyond Ourselves and The Helper profoundly influenced my spiritual life. Her novels Christy and Julie showed me a contemporary author (of the 20th century) doing what the great writers of centuries past had done—incorporate themes of faith into a wonderful story.

8. C.S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity and on and on. His words helped me understand God’s Word better and encouraged me to grow up in Christ.

9. Bodie Thoene (and hubby Brock)

Her Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles series provided endless hours of entertainment as well as history lessons for me and many other missionaries in Europe. We’d pass the books around til they were completely worn out. I admired the way she included great historical detail and non-stop action in her stories of faith. I learned so much about recent history from her novels, and they added to my desire to write recent historical fiction (20th century) that I call ‘entertainment with a soul’. She paved the way for the Christian fiction movement of the late 1980s on up through the present.

10. Mary Higgins Clark

When I needed a complete escape from life, I’d read her suspense novels in French (helped my language learning too) and off I went.

11. Randy Alcorn

His books Money, Possessions and Eternity and Heaven had me nodding in agreement, reflecting, reconsidering and challenging me to think more broadly.

12. Philip Yancey

I so admire the way Yancey tackles the most difficult questions with honesty and humility. He tells fascinating stories of real people that force me think outside a too-narrow box of faith.

13. Ann Lamott

When I first read Traveling Mercies as a young missionary wife and mom, I was deeply offended, highly entertained and ultimately so thankful for her very ‘out of the box’ unique voice. Her Bird by Bird has been a great encouragement as I write.

14. Sharon Garlough Brown

A few years ago, I began spiritual direction with a fellow missionary who lived in France. She gave me Sharon’s novel Sensible Shoes as the first book to read. A novel! And what a novel! The Sensible Shoes series (Sensible Shoes, Two Steps Forward, Barefoot) has been a life-changing adventure for me as Sharon brilliantly tells the story of spiritual transformation in the lives of four ordinary women. I find myself in each of the women and the spiritual exercises they work through have been extremely helpful for me, too, in this season of my life. I recommend the books widely and use the Companion Guides in my Member Care role with fellow missionaries.

15. Ann Tatlock

Her prose is breathtaking and her stories real, the characterization deep, the faith element subtle and true. One of our finest CBA authors today.

About Elizabeth

ELIZABETH MUSSER writes ‘entertainment with a soul’ from her writing chalet—tool shed—outside Lyon, France. Elizabeth’s highly acclaimed, best-selling novel, The Swan House, was named one of Amazon’s Top Christian Books of the Year and one of Georgia’s Top Ten Novels of the Past 100 Years. All of Elizabeth’s novels have been translated into multiple languages. The Long Highway Home has been a bestseller in Europe.

For over twenty-five years, Elizabeth and her husband, Paul, have been involved in missions’ work in Europe with International Teams. The Mussers have two sons, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren who all live way too far away in America. Find more about Elizabeth’s novels at www.elizabethmusser.com and on Facebook, Twitter, and her new blog. See photos from scenes in The Long Highway Home on Pinterest.

About The Long Highway Home

Sometimes going home means leaving everything you have ever known.

When the doctor pronounces ‘incurable cancer’ and gives Bobbie Blake one year to live, she agrees to accompany her niece, Tracie, on a trip back to Austria, back to The Oasis, a ministry center for refugees that Bobbie helped start twenty years earlier. Back to where there are so many memories of love and loss…

Bobbie and Tracie are moved by the plight of the refugees and in particular, the story of the Iranian Hamid, whose young daughter was caught with a New Testament in her possession in Iran, causing Hamid to flee along The Refugee Highway and putting the whole family in danger. Can a network of helpers bring the family to safety in time? And at what cost?

Filled with action, danger, heartache and romance, The Long Highway Home is a hymn to freedom in life’s darkest moments.

9 March 2017

ARCBA Book Review: Chocolate Soldier by Hazel Barker

6 - 10 March 2017

is Introducing 
(Rhiza Press, 1 October 2016)

By Hazel Barker

About the Book:
London. 1940.
When World War II breaks out and men over eighteen are conscripted, Clarence Dover, a conscientious objector, refuses to go rather than compromise his principles.  Instead he joins the Friend's Ambulance Unit.  From the London Blitz to the far reaches of Asia the war tests Clarence in the crucible of suffering.  In the end, will he be able to hold his head up as proudly as the rest and say, to save lives I risked my own?
One man will stand as God's soldier, not the war's soldier.
About the Author:
Hazel Barker lives in Brisbane with her husband Colin. She taught in Perth, Canberra and Brisbane for over a quarter of a century and now devotes her time to reading, writing and bushwalking. From her early years, her passion for books drew her to authors like Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Her love for historical novels sprang from Scott, and the love of literary novels, from Dickens. Many of her short stories and book reviews have been published in magazines and anthologies.
Hazel’s debut novel Chocolate Soldier, and Book One of her memoirs Heaven Tempers the Wind, will be released in 2016. Both books are set during World War Two – the former in England and the Far East; the latter in Burma.
For more information, visit her blog on:

Chocolate Soldier: The Story of a Conchie

England began conscripting men into the armed forces not long after the beginning of World War Two. That placed men like Clarence Dover in an award situation: did they go against their personal beliefs and sign up, or did they do the unthinkable and register as a conchie, a conscientious objector?

Clarence chose to register as a conchie, and was assigned a place in the Friends Ambulance Unit, from where the book gets its title. The FAU was run by the Friends, better known as the Quakers, and they trained near Bournville, home of Cadbury’s Chocolate. The Chocolate Soldier is the fictional retelling of Clarence’s war, based on his real-life diaries and surviving letters. Parts of the story are also from the viewpoint of his brother and sister, Doug and Eva, and his maybe girlfriend, Mary.

The book didn’t work for me as a novel. There was no overall plot, just a series of events. There was no great character growth or change in Clarence—he acknowledges towards the end that while he has a greater appreciation of different cultures and beliefs, he remains a Christian and an Englishman. The writing focused on the retelling of facts rather than inciting the reader’s emotions (I never really felt the horror of the situations Clarence found himself in). Much of the story read more like a diary than a novel, while other parts read more like the author than Clarence.

Despite those faults, I still enjoyed The Chocolate Soldier. I’ve lived in London and met Blitz survivors (including my great aunt). My grandfather served in Egypt, and Doug’s letters show some of what he may have experienced. I’m a history buff and a family historian, and I appreciated the insight into their lives.

It’s often the details which elevate a book from good to great, and The Chocolate Soldier had details in spades. Big details, like London in the Blitz and visits to tourist attractions like the Taj Mahal. And little details, like the fact soldiers received only six weeks of training before being sent into battle, trucks running on charcoal because there was no petrol, and the Chinese eating watermelon seeds for protein. Those snippets made the story.

Recommended for those looking for a first-hand look at life in London during the Blitz, life in Colonial India and wartime China.

Thanks to Rhiza Press for providing a free ebook for review.