Like a River Glorious: Reading My Favorite Author’s First Book

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I was a voracious reader as a child, teen and young adult. I remember the Carolyn Haywood Betsy and Eddie books, Encyclopedia Brown and All of Kind Family. I didn’t discover the wonder of Lucy Maude Montgomery, not really, until the early years of my marriage. The same with J.K. Rowling and Rosamunde Pilcher. (While I still consider the Harry Potter books to be a fun little romp, I can’t compare them with Pilcher, they aren’t in the same class at all). Somewhere in all those years, filled with their fair share of twaddle, I discovered Lawana Blackwell.

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I read the Courtship of the Vicar’s Daughter. It was a gift from my then boyfriend, now ex-high school boyfriend. It turned out to be the second in a series. I sometimes find it amusing that the relationship ended after two and half years, but the book still sits on my shelf nearly 15 years later. I reread that book, along with Blackwell’s others every year. But for some reason I never went back. I loved the trios, the Greshem Chronicles (along with its additional fourth book) and the London Tales. I even enjoyed A Table by The Window as an entity unto itself. But I never tried to read her older four novels. When I think about it, I’m not sure why it took me so long.

I think I was afraid. Afraid that this voice that spoke to me from the page as an old friend and later a fellow writer (though I don’t yet consider myself her peer let alone her equal), would be changed. That by reading her early work I would see the cracks in the façade and peek behind the curtain, thus losing the mystery.

But desperate for something to read, lest my writing inspiration dry up altogether and not in the mood to tackle a new author (though Naomi Novik’s new book still sits half finished on my nightstand, waiting for me to try it again), I logged onto paperback swap and wished for the first book in her Victorian Serenade series.

I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, I can see how she has grown as an author. The prose is not quite as tight, the characters a little less realistic and the ending a tad too predictable, but I liked it. No, it won’t be a new favorite. (Which, for the record, is Leading Lady, but it only edges out the Dowry of Miss Lydia Clark by a tad, as it is nearly tied with Courtship of the Vicar’s daughter anyway). The plot had some unique twists and I found it to be darker than Blackwell’s other work. Maybe it is the grit that makes it feel just a little too much, like the author was trying too hard, but yet it makes me respect her more as an author. This was her first published novel, at least to my knowledge. She didn’t play it safe. She wasn’t afraid to show the darker, grittier side of life. I found the image of a man being treated in a Crimean war hospital particularly poignant.

“Then to Adam’s ultimate horror, Satan–covered with blood and holding a knife–turned in his direction and motion to his demons . . . As he gladly gave himself up to the comforting nothingness, his mind registered astonishment that Satan would speak the Queen’s English and wear a British army uniform.”

Wow! She had me right there. Yes, I saw the ending coming, in a way that I often do in most romance novels. (The exception being A Garden in Paris and A Hilltop in Tuscany where Stephanie Grace Whitson evolved the plot so slowly over the course of the two books that the ending is almost a surprise, yet it isn’t really a surprise because when you look back you can see the beautiful, winding road that led to the end.) But yet Blackwell took me there in ways I wasn’t expecting.

I don’t think I realized that the other books were actually related, originally believing them to each be stand alone pieces. Unfortunately book 2 was been lost by the US Post Office and books three and four sat on my nightstand taunting me. I’m also resisting the urge to reread all of her other books again, but I want to wait. I wait to appreciate these early books for what they are, without comparing them too closely with her others.

Why is she one of my favorites when I have read, arguably, more successful or talented writers? Because she lets me see what I could be. There are authors that I read who make me mourn what I can never write. There are those who make me furious because the work is just that bad and yet someone published it. (No doubt the same guardians of good literature who claim that indie publishing removes the all important gatekeepers of what is worth reading). Then you have authors like Blackwell who are part role model, part secret pleasure. Both inspiring and rejuvenating as I page through her books yet again. Never underestimate how your words may impact someone else, especially another writer.

Working My Way Through One Bite at a Time: Eat That Frog

Adult leopard frog
Adult leopard frog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been meaning to read Tsh Oxereider’s One Bite at a Time since it first came out, but thanks to the Ultimate Homemaking ebook Bundle, I got a copy along with several dozen other books I’ve been wanting to read. While the book does contain 52 challenges, she encourages the reader to work through them that your own pace, so I’m trying to do so. So you will periodically see me post the details of my attempts, but it probably won’t be one every week.

Eat that Frog. This isn’t a new concept for me. Not so much because my frog is things I don’t want to do (of which there are many like dishes and housework) but the things that if I don’t do them first thing, there is little hope of them being done at all. Exercise, eating breakfast, quiet time with God (I say quiet time rather than devotional time because I am able to work in devotional time occasionally, but with my kids roaming around, it is rarely quiet), getting dressed. So I have far too many frogs and children who wake up inconsistently and far too early. Truthfully what I really need is a good review of Tell Your Time with a workable plan in place. I have too many things to do and not nearly enough time. But I can’t quite let go of any of them. They are all important, most are necessary, many of them are things I love and sustain me. Those things rarely overlap, so how can I find a balance?

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sunrise (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I tried waking up early for a while to exercise before my kids got up. This worked well for a few weeks until my son started getting up at 6:30. Given the choice between getting up early to spend an extra hour child wrangling, or taking my son into our room and falling back to sleep, sleep usually wins out. Once the kids are up most of my high goals for the day are shot anyway. So how do I find a way to eat the frog will having the kids in tow? Have can I keep from getting distracted by all the little things that need to be managed in the morning? So I’m probably going to try again to start getting up early again, to exercise, get dressed, sometimes shower and try to get breakfast for the family started. The hardest part about this will be going to bed earlier so I can get up earlier, but I think I can probably manage that. It’s possible that some frogs can be more easily eaten in the morning if the kitchen and cooking implements are prepared the night before.

Another Reason to Visit Cornwall: A Review of the Tutor’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

the Tutor's daughter51N7fCrpUrL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Emma Smallwood and her father have the opportunity to become tutors in residence for the family of two former students, the Westons. One, Philip, was a good friend of Emma’s, the other, Henry, an adversary. But when they arrive confusion arises. Not everyone seems pleased to see them and there are secrets everywhere. While Emma’s father is happy to focus on the education of the two youngest sons of the house, Emma manages to become entangled in the intrigue of family dynamics and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. She soon begins to question who is her friend after all.

I first read Julie Klassen when I picked up one of her earlier books from the library. I was looking for a new author and in the absence of a new book from my favorite author, Lawana Blackwell, I had heard that Klassen’s work was similar in some ways. It was good book. So when I was presented the opportunity to review The Tutor’s Daughter, I looked forward to it.

Perhaps the most compelling part of this book is the beautiful descriptions of Cornwall. While Ebbington Manor itself is fictional it is based on several places Klassen visited on her tours of the Cornwall coast. This isn’t the first time I have been drawn to this beautiful place by the description of a talented writer. (Rosamunde Pilcher has made me want to pack my bags on more than one occasion). The descriptions of the Chapel on the Rock were especially poignant. I found myself wishing I had a retreat like that. While I was able to predict certain parts of the story line, others were total surprises to me until near the end.

I was not compensated for this review but I did receive a free copy of the book to review.

Interested in becoming a reviewer for Bethany House? Apply here.

Starflower: Fantasy, Allegory and I’m Not Sure What Else.

Starflower51Awz+cAFkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I should preface this review by saying that fantasy is not my preferred reading style. My husband is a fantasy author, and while I enjoy his work, as well as that of C.S. Lewis and Madeline L’Engle, generally fantasy is not my go-to genre. In the immortal faerie realm, a cousin of the queen, the fairest of the land, is kidnapped by a dragon. The resident poet and the captain of the guard, rivals for her affection, set off to rescue her. While on his quest, the poet encounters a young woman who he assumes must be a princess of some kind. She cannot speak (though we the reader can hear her thoughts), and he is certain it is because she is under some kind of enchantment.

This book was a struggle to get through. In fact I was nearly 50% of the way through before I became heavily interested. This is how long it takes before we hear Starflower’s story. Her story is far more interesting than the interactions of the faerie realm. How did Starflower end up in this immortal realm? What horror did she escape from and why can’t she speak? These are questions that will eventually be answered, but in my opinion it took far too long.

This book is well written by the plot seems to meander. Would I recommend it to a friend? That depends. If the friend enjoys all styles of fantasy and revels in the drawn out nature of this epic storytelling style, then yes. But if a reader is looking for a first introduction to fantasy this isn’t it. The average reader is likely to be come bored and listless and possibly give up before the best parts of the story.

I was not compensated for this review but I did receive a free copy of the book to review.

Interested in becoming a reviewer for Bethany House? Apply here.

Against the Tide: An Unexpected Novel

51GYE662OuL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I didn’t know what to expect when I went into reading this book. The description on the back speaks of a young woman who serves as a translator for the U.S. Navy and her encounter with a young man trying to end the opium trade. What it didn’t say was that this Against the Tide takes place in 1876. This is not a time period I read much about and while I knew a little bit about the opium trade during this period, I had never read a novel set in the United States that talks about it (a couple of British themes novels I have read in the past mentioned it.) I was immediately fascinated with Lydia Pallas, a Greek orphan with a gift for languages. Her ability to survive in a male dominated world is written believably, even considering the era. As a writer myself, I have the unfortunate gifts of predicting the climax and ending of many novels. While some things about the end proved true to my prediction, the journey blew my expectations out of the water. The level of adventure, excitement and intrigue was unmatched within this genre and I was impressed with the real feel of the characters. All of the characters, including the protagonist felt realistic

Spoiler Alert: One of the more impressive aspects of this book was the detailed descriptions of opium withdrawal. This author has a talent for accuracy as well as tactile description.  I would highly recommend this book as a unique read in a genre often characterized by too much emotion and characterization without strong plot. This book is a definite exception

I was not compensated for this review but I did receive a free copy of the book to review.

Interested in becoming a reviewer for Bethany House? Apply here.

Miracles: A Balanced View on Supernatural Healing

Miracles41tYHmYUvUL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

I should start this review by saying that I believe in miracles. In fact, I always have. Even when people I loved died after I prayed for them to be healed. Even when the situations I prayed would change remained the same. I still never hesitate to ask God to make a difference in situations ranging from desperate to ordinary. This is part of the charismatic tradition in which I was raised (somewhat different from the Pentecostal tradition the author references throughout the book) and something that is still part of my faith.

I expected this book to be either written by an ardent Pentecostal promoting the reality of miracles or a cynical cessationist (someone who believes that all supernatural gifts of the spirit such as prophecy, tongues and miracles no longer occur) looking to disprove and explain away miraculous events. I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be neither.

Instead this is a candid look at miracles by someone who was brought up to believe in them in theory but not in practice. He believes in praying for miracles but isn’t part of a church tradition where it is made into much of a production. Stafford discusses the problems but also the freedom of demystifying miracles and healings. When our bodies heal themselves it is a wonderful, amazing event, and yet it is a function we take for granted. But he also acknowledges real experiences where nothing can explain why someone recovered except the supernatural hand of God.

This book is a great one for both believers in and skeptics of miracles alike because of the balanced few he presents. As a journalist, Stafford investigates but never allows himself to fall prey to cynicism. As someone who believes for and actively prays for miracles and healings I appreciate his suggestions for how to better handle the process. I think this book would also be beneficial to someone who is looking for more information about miracles but has many doubts. It is the most balanced view on the subject I’ve ever encountered. The author skillfully avoids stereotypes and catch phrases, instead focusing of the experiences of people he has encountered in his years as a journalist, allowing the reader to explore real miracles in the lives of real people. This is a worthwhile read and I highly recommend it.

I was not compensated for this review but I did receive a free copy of the book to review.

Interested in becoming a reviewer for Bethany House? Apply here.

Nothing to Hide: A Mixed Review

Nothing to Hide is a well written book. The action is compelling and the tension ebbs and flows in the way that makes you want to keep reading. That being said I had a really hard time getting through this book. I’ve never been someone to categorize fiction based on the gender of the author but this book felt very male to me. It was written a bit like an action movie. Lots of things happening but I didn’t feel like I had nearly enough information about the people it was happening to. The dialogue was mostly between male characters and while they spoke very much like most men do, it wasn’t enough for this reader. Dialogue is a major opportunity to learn about characters but in this case the dialogue was very typically male in that it was utilitarian. I’m used to more nuanced characters with rich back story that is slowly revealed through dialogue and character development.

I realize that Roland March is a recurring character in J. Mark Bertrand’s books, but I had the constant feeling that I was missing important information because I hadn’t read any of his previous work. I also found the amount of violence and the gruesome descriptions of it to be shocking, both in a good and a bad way. I wasn’t a fan of the descriptions but they were well written and compelling. In some ways I was pleased to see this in a book labeled Christian fiction. While it may offend some readers, as a Christian author myself I’ve almost feared that publishing under a Christian fiction label would require me to completely sanitize my books, thus losing authenticity. This is a well written book. It just didn’t appeal much to me. Maybe I have more girly taste in books than I realized.

I was not compensated for this review but I did receive a free copy of the book to review.

Interested in becoming a reviewer for Bethany House? Apply here.