Tag Archives: romance

Review: Calm Before the Storm, by Janice L. Dick

Calm Before the Storm, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2020)

Family dynamics, faith, coming-of-age, and gentle romance, all set in the turbulent days leading up to the Russian Revolution.

From a haven-like estate in Crimea to impoverished rooms on the wrong side of town in St. Petersburg, from starving soldiers near the front lines of World War 1 to a private hospital for the mentally ill, and with other settings along the way, Calm Before the Storm evokes 1914-1916 Russia as experienced by the Hildebrandt family and their friends.

The Hildebrandts are Russian Mennonites, people of German heritage whose ties to this land only go back a hundred or so years. As the poorer classes grow more desperate for political reform, hostility also brews toward these “German” Russians.

Katarina Hidebrandt is a young woman who sees the best in everyone, yet she must acknowledge the growing tension and the sense that life is about to change. As her family separates and the young teacher she loves is sent to serve in the hopeless war effort, she learns to rely on her faith and to make what difference she can in her world.

What could be a depressingly heavy tale is instead told with a careful touch, beautiful descriptions, and traces of humour. The characters are honest in their questions and their choices, and somehow despite the pain they find hope (most of them).

As well as providing a fascinating glimpse into this period of history, the novel resonates particularly well with the brooding uncertainty of 2020. Katarina’s struggles in the face of unwanted change and trouble can help readers who are feeling the same concerns even if our situations are different.

It’s not a preachy story, but Katarina’s and others’ examples of living out their faith give us clues we may take to heart. I feel a bit better-equipped to face my own doubts when they sneak up on me again.

Some favourite lines:

The Juschanlee River wandered westward over the Russian steppes, collecting little villages on its meandering way… (Chapter 1)

“The air is so clean and clear, like it’s been washed and left to dry in the sun.” (Johann, in Chapter 5)

“In political crises people cease to view others as people, and instead consider them merely a means toward an end or, in this case, an obstacle to a desired end.” (Heinrich, Chapter 6… timely, no?)

“Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow is in God’s hands. No regrets, no worries. I can put all my energies into this day.” (Katarina, Chapter 8, but this peace was not easily won)

Calm Before the Storm is book 1 in Janice L. Dick’s Storm series. Book 2, Eye of the Storm, is expected to release in December 2020. The series was originally published by Herald Press and is now out of print. I’m glad to see new editions being released in print and ebooks as part of The Mosaic Collection. For more about the author and her work, visit her website.

[Advance review copy provided by the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes

Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes

Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes (Bethany House, 2020)

Lyrical, beautiful, heart-warming and satisfying, Set the Stars Alight is a must-read.

Page one welcomed me in like I was coming home.

Before I even reached that page, the dedication spoke to me—the part about wonder:

Hang on to it, brave ones.
And more—hang on to the Giver of it.
Though darkness may fall and times grow hard,
hold fast to this given light. [Kindle location 45]

Timely words for a hard year like 2020.

The novel follows two timelines: 1987 – 2020 and the 1800s during the Napoleonic wars, each revealing what’s needed to understand the other. It’s not choppy, switching timelines each chapter; instead, the story flows in segments with time enough to settle in place and care about the people involved.

In the contemporary thread, childhood friends Lucy and Dashel reunite as adults in a quest to locate a legendary shipwreck in the English Channel. The historical thread follows Frederick, a landowner’s son, and the young lovers Juliette and Elias.

Some of the many lines I highlighted in the book are sparks of light to hold close:

Taking note of the good, the true, the just, the miracles hidden at every turn is like…a deliberate act of defiance against the darkness. [Lucy’s father, Kindle location 431]

Such freedom, to know our limits. And to know the God who has none. [Clara, Kindle location 3347]

Others are just beautiful:

The woman had a way of almost gliding—not in the graceful, practiced way of the ladies of gothic novels, but rather more like an apparition gliding over ice. [Kindle location 1625]

Set the Stars Alight is a novel of love and loyalty, friendship and faith, that encourages wonder and affirms the value of everyday actions and individual lives. As an added bonus, readers who loved Amanda Dykes’ debut novel, Whose Waves These Are, will welcome the quiet nod to that book in chapter 25.

For more about author Amanda Dykes, visit amandadykes.com.

[Review copy provided by the publisher via #NetGalley.]

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Review: When Mountains Sing, by Stacy Monson

Wen Mountains Sing, by Stacy Monson

When Mountains Sing, by Stacy Monson (His Image Publications, 2019)

Mikayla Gordon’s discovery of a family secret sets her on a quest to find answers. In the process she may find herself—and find God. 

Mikayla is the outdoor, adventurous type, thriving from childhood on fishing with her father. Her journey takes her away from her magazine-writer job on a cross-country trek, with a tiny dog as her travel buddy.

From her native Minnesota, Mikayla ends up Colorado, where the mountains capture her heart. Camp director Dawson Dunne, who offers her a temporary job, may claim her heart too, although Mikayla’s committed to returning home in time for her sister’s wedding.

The scenery in this novel makes it a beautiful place to linger, and I enjoyed hanging out with the characters. Mikayla’s anger and hurt takes time to work through, but the kind people she meets are a balm to her and to readers as well.

Favourite lines:

“No use hurrying through life when all we have is what’s here in front of us.” [Kindle edition, page 75]

Layers of jagged mountain peaks surrounded them, from green and detailed in front to a hazy blue in the distance. Thick forests spread like carpeting, a river winding through the valley. [Kindle edition, page 178]

Recommended for nature lovers, this gentle story of self-discovery and romance includes themes of disappointment, family secrets, forgiveness, faith, and relationships. The bond between Mikayla and her two sisters is warm and strong, despite their very different personalities.

When Mountains Sing is book 1 in the My Father’s House Series, and it’s one of the books in The Mosaic Collection. Visit stacymonson.com to learn more about author Stacy Monson and her books.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay

The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, 2019)

Friendship, self-discovery, love, and a celebration of reading—and of independent bookstores.

Maddie Cullen had a knack for engaging with her customers and knowing the right book to suggest. When she died, she left envelopes for her two employees and her estranged niece. Each woman’s letter included a Bible passage and a list of books.

Madeline, her niece, inherited the store but doesn’t want to keep it. Claire and Janet, Maddie’s employees who supported her through her final days, wish the new owner would just let them carry on the business as usual. As the three women work together, each also reading the books Maddie’s letter “assigned,” they develop a strong friendship and each grow toward the potential Maddie had seen in them.

Each woman’s point of view is written in a different tense: first-person past, third-person past, and third-person present. I always find that sort of delivery jarring, and I confess I also had a hard time connecting with the characters. All three were a bit of a mess at first.

I’m glad I stuck with it, because it’s a heartwarming story. As it progressed I grew to care for each of them. And I wish I could visit the bookstore!

For more about Katherine Reay and her books, and for book club resources, visit katherinereay.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: A Girl’s Guide to the Outback, by Jessica Kate

Book Cover: A girl's Guide to the Outback, a novel by Jessica Kate

A Girl’s Guide to the Outback, by Jessica Kate (Thomas Nelson, 2020)

Jessica Kate’s second novel delivers the love/hate romance, snappy banter, and deeply-crafted characters readers expect from her, plus a bonus. This one’s largely set in Australia. Since it’s new territory for the American heroine, Kimberley, readers enjoy a virtual tour with her.

This is a novel where the setting is key to the story. Kimberley’s time on the remote ranch belonging to her nemesis, Samuel Payton, and other settings like the Gold Coast, aren’t just backdrops.

A Girl’s Guide to the Outback follows after Love and Other Mistakes, so readers who remember the first book will recognize some familiar people. Readers starting with this book will have no trouble, because the love interests in this book were secondary characters in the first one.

As well as romance, A Girl’s Guide to the Outback is a story of misunderstood motives and the way past pain can keep even Christians back from their full potential.

Favourite lines:

She’d just blasted the good-looking HR manager of a company looking to recruit her. While wearing a potato costume. [Kindle location 53]

Jules’s brow cinched together like an invisible hand had pulled a loose thread. [Kindle location 2333]

“Sweetheart, when God closes a door, He closes it. Best not to hold on too long and get your fingers jammed in the process.” [Kindle location 3104]

For more about Jessica Kate and her books (and her StoryNerds podcast) visit jessicakatewriting.com.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book from #Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.]

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Review: Smoke Screen, by Terri Blackstock

Smoke Screen, by Terri Blackstock

Smoke Screen, by Terri Blackstock (Thomas Nelson, 2019)

In Smoke Screen, Terri Blackstock gives us a novel of second chances, romance, faith—and mystery. It’s not a high-suspense story, but the emotional tension will keep readers turning pages.

Nate’s father has spent 14 years in prison for the murder of Brenna’s father, all the while claiming he’s innocent. If he is, then there’s a killer in town. Nate himself, now a smoke jumping firefighter, is thought by many to be responsible for burning down the dead man’s church. Even his father thinks he did it—but he didn’t. So who did?

Brenna and Nate were childhood sweethearts until tragedy scarred both their families. Now Brenna’s in a losing battle for custody of her kids after her husband left her for a younger woman. Her children are her life. When they’re gone on the weekend, not even alcohol can numb the pain.

What I appreciated most about the story is the compassionate and honest portrayal of a Christian struggling with drinking. It happens, and as in Brenna’s case, the faith aspect can increase the shame and guilt. I hope her example can bring hope to others who fight this battle in real life.

For more about the book and about New York Times bestselling author Terri Blackstock, visit terriblackstock.com.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.]

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Review: On a Summer Tide, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Book cover: On a Summer Tide, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

On a Summer Tide, by Suzanne Woods Fisher (Revell, 2019)

When their widowed father announces that he’s sold the family home and bought an island off the coast of Maine, Cam Grayson and her sisters are afraid he’s losing his mind. Partly due to this fear and partly due to life circumstances, each of the women decide to spend some time with him on Three Sisters Island.

Their father, Paul, plans to renovate the rustic island camp where he first met his wife. He hopes the family project will draw his daughters closer together. In the beginning, this is a family who don’t listen to one another, who may work together but without sharing any depth of relationship.

The daughters are widely different in personality and goals. I feel they’re perhaps too much defined by their dominant traits, to the point I didn’t really connect with any of them. We have Cam the driven businesswoman, Maddie the counsellor-in-training who analyzes family members at every opportunity, and Blaine the 19-year-old who can’t decide on her future path.

Despite a bit of disconnect, I enjoyed the story. The setting is isolated and beautiful, and I enjoyed watching the camp restoration. There’s a nice romance between Cam and Seth, the island’s schoolteacher. Seth’s gentle conversations with Cam about faith are a good example of natural ways to engage with non-Christian friends in real life.

There are flashbacks sprinkled throughout the novel and I don’t think they added anything that wasn’t (or couldn’t have been) conveyed in straight story time. For me they were more of a distraction than a bonus. The bonus was watching the interaction between teacher Seth and Cam’s son Cooper.

Favourite lines:

The driveway unfurled in a lazy curl through strands of trees until it reached the clearing where the old house sat against a windbreak of pines. [page 69, Cam’s first sight of their father’s new house]

“It’s okay to start with a small faith. We’ve got a big God.” [page 220, Seth to Cam]

On a Summer Tide is book 1 in the Three Sisters Island series, and since Cam was the central sister in this story, I expect Maddie and Blaine will each be the heroine of their own book as the series continues.

Suzanne Woods Fisher is a multi-published author of contemporary and historical novels. For more about the author and her work, visit suzannewoodsfisher.com.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.]

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Review: The Curious Case of the Missing Figurehead, by Diane Noble

The Curious Case of the Missing Figurehead, by Diane NobleThe Curious Case of the Missing Figurehead, by Diane Noble (David C. Cook, 2014)

Elaine Littlefield, “El” to her friends, is a widow “of a certain age” who’s been known to combat stress by baking triple-chocolate cookies in the wee hours while wearing sock monkey pajamas and dancing to Mozart.

By day, she runs a catering company and solves mysteries. And spends as much time with her daughter and granddaughter as she can.

El has landed a huge catering job for the retirement party of local university professor Dr. Max Haverhill, but when the guest list triples two days before the event, and then Max wants to cancel the event for security reasons, it’s no wonder she’s trying to manage her stress level.

The party goes ahead, and as the back cover says, “countless guests fall ill, a two-hundred-year-old relic is stolen, and her best friend vanishes. All in the first hour.”

The Curious Case of the Missing Figurehead is a fast-paced, light-hearted mystery blended with romance: Max is a lifelong bachelor, but as he and El work together to solve the crime, they may also be falling in love.

Certain aspects of the story may be a bit over the top, but they suit the story and the characters and provide readers with an enjoyable experience.

El, Max, and the other key character, Hyacinth, are fun and courageous. El’s chapters are written in first person, with the others in third person. It wasn’t as confusing as it sounds, because whenever the point of view changed, there was a label on the new chapter telling whose eyes we were seeing through now.

The three are each Christians, and it’s interesting to see how each one’s faith helps sustain them in crisis moments. The faith aspect is subtle in the story, but there are discussion questions at the end of the book to encourage readers to think through different aspects of faith as it pertains to forgiveness, sacrifice, love, and friendship.

The Curious Case of the Missing Figurehead is listed as “A Professor and Mrs. Littlefield Mystery,” but I don’t see any more in the series. Pity. Author Diane Noble has also written historical and contemporary suspense and women’s fiction. For more about the author and her work, visit dianenoblebooks.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay

Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine ReayDear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

Samantha Moore relates better to the characters in her favourite books than she does to the real people around her. Fired from her job for not “engaging,” she seizes one last chance: a master’s degree in journalism, funded by a mysterious benefactor.

The condition of the funding: she must write to “Mr. George Knightley” and keep him updated about her studies.

So begins a delightful story told through her letters and the occasional reply. It’s the story of Sam learning to let go of the walls she’s put up to protect herself, and discovering who she is.

It’s not as light and fluffy as the cover suggests. Sam’s past is very painful, and her struggle for identity can take hold of readers’ thoughts and not let go. There’s a lot of heart in this book.

It’s also well crafted and funny in places, laced with quotes from Jane Austen and other classics, and Katherine Reay adds plenty of quotable lines, herself, in Sam’s somewhat stream-of-consciousness delivery. Some of my favourites:

(Sam describing her new apartment) And it’s yellow. The way pale yellow should look, like sunshine and butter, mixed with hope and cream. [p. 73]

There are first moments when the eyes tell one’s real emotions, before the brain reminds them to bank and hide. [p. 176]

You can always talk more deeply when running because it feels safe. You can’t directly look at the person next to you. And you can’t hide much in so few clothes and so much sweat. Exhaustion also addles your inhibitions. [p. 232-233]

This is Christian fiction where the faith is subtle. There are Christians around Sam, but she doesn’t notice their gentle attempts to share “crumbs” of faith with her until about half-way through the book. She admires the love she sees in them, but she’s not convinced it would apply to her as well.

Dear Mr. Knightley is a heart-warming first novel from Katherine Reay, and it received multiple awards. For more about this and the author’s other novels, visit katherinereay.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Secrets of Sunbeams, by Valerie Comer

Secrets of Sunbeams, by Valerie Comer
Secrets of Sunbeams, by Valerie Comer (GreenWords Media, 2016)

Chickens… and a goat… in the city? Yup. Eden Andrusek discovered the bylaws in her Spokane neighbourhood allow such things, as long as the goat is a small one.

Pansy, the goat, is like family to Eden, who’s still grieving for her parents and sisters after a car crash five years ago. Pansy also gets her into trouble. Like when the little goat escapes the fence and chows down on the new neighbour’s architectural drawings. Is it any wonder the neighbour, Jacob, doesn’t want the goat around?

Eden and Jacob are drawn to one another, but will the goat drive them apart? If they truly love one another, why does each want the other to change?

Fans of Valerie Comer’s Farm Fresh Romance series will recognize a few characters in this, the first in her new Urban Farm Fresh Romance series. Secrets of Sunbeams has snappy dialogue, and characters trying to apply green lifestyles (and faith) to daily life.

The developing community centre and community garden will no doubt be a feature throughout the series. It’ll be interesting to vicariously participate in the different events, and maybe come away with an idea or two for our own lives.

Farm Fresh and Urban Farm Fresh are about characters who care about sustainable living in a way that is easy to read and doesn’t feel like they’re telling readers what to do. They give readers a chance to understand the creation care and Christian mindsets without expressing judgement on those who hold different views.

Because Secrets of Sunbeams is shorter than the Farm Fresh novels, most of the pages are focused on the romance and the “can Jacob love a goat” question. Still, there were hints of what’s to come with the community centre, a brief mission trip to Mozambique, and even a visit to Farm Fresh’s Green Acres farm.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted, inspiring romance, check out Secrets of Sunbeams. For more about award-winning author Valerie Comer and her books, visit valeriecomer.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]