Set a story in Chicago and I’m glad to read it: Review of Secrets of Sloane House by Shelley Gray

I first knew of Shelley Shepard Gray as an author of Amish fiction. Now I know her writing credits stretch beyond those boundaries. In Secrets of Sloane House, writing as Shelley Gray, she pens a novel of suspense, mystery and romance set against the Chicago World’s Fair. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book through the Booklook Bloggers Program in exchange for my review.)

sloane houseI love a story set in historical Chicago, and even though I don’t know much about the era, it’s still fun to read about the city I most love to visit. My husband recently read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a true story of events that happened during the Chicago World’s Fair. As I read Secrets of Sloane House, I got the impression that it was like The Devil in the White City meets Downton Abbey.

Rosalind Perry is a servant in Sloane House, but she’s there under false pretenses–investigating what might have happened to her sister who was a servant there and has disappeared. As she asks questions and tries to uncover the mystery, she begins to fear for her own safety when it becomes clear that everyone around her is keeping secrets and her questions are drawing the wrong kind of attention. Only Reid Armstrong, the heir to a silver fortune, agrees to help her. Remembering his middle class roots, Reid forgoes propriety to help Rosalind, a servant in another house, much to the dismay of some of society’s members.

Though it’s not a fast-paced action kind of story, it is intriguing and held my attention. I wanted to know what happened to Rosalind’s sister, and I was interested in the World’s Fair come to life in the lives of ordinary Chicagoans of the day. The relationship between Reid and Rosalind is full of potential problems and it was fun to see how their story played out.

Secrets of Sloane House is the first in a series that I would continue reading. If you’ve read any of Gray’s Amish fiction, you’ll find this a departure from those stories, but if you’re not interested in Amish fiction, this one is worth a try.

And it makes me wish for a Downton Abbey style show set in Chicago!

Full of surprises from start to finish: Review of Price of Privilege by Jessica Dotta

I discovered Jessica Dotta’s Price of Privilege series almost reluctantly. Because it was on the list for Tyndale’s Summer Reading Program and I could check it out from the library, I gave it a chance. Sometimes I yawn at another offering set in 19th Century England, but I’m so glad I picked up this series. (You can read my reviews of books 1 and 2, Born of Persuasion and Mark of Distinction, on Goodreads.)

price of privilegeThe finale in the series, Price of Privilege, is a stunning and surprising conclusion. It also might be my favorite of the three books. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

Without giving too much away for anyone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series, I’ll say this: I want good things for Julia, the lead character, who is telling these stories in the first person. Her life has been marred by circumstances out of her control (and some in her control), and I just want things to work out for her. A friend who read the first book in this series had almost no sympathy for her character, so I’m not sure why I do, but I feel sorry for her. But sorry for her in the kind of way that I’m pulling for her.

I can say that almost nothing that happens in Julia’s life makes me feel good or happy. And this is not your light-hearted happily ever after kind of story, but it has a redemptive storyline that drew me into it. One of the highlights is a character named Jameson who adds a sprinkling of humor through some of the toughest scenes. His character is what made this book my favorite.

Now that I’ve finished the series, I’m a bit sad to leave these characters behind even though there were disturbing events in their lives. I felt their sufferings and sorrows, and what I’ve loved about Dotta’s writing is the kind of dark moodiness she’s able to convey on the page. Definitely reminiscent of the Bronte sisters’ works, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

If you’re looking for something different in the historical genre, love England and don’t mind a story with some darkness to it, then I’d whole-heartedly recommend Dotta’s series.

I wish I could say more about this particular story without giving away other details. This is another series I’d love to read again, straight through, to get a better handle on the turns of events, too.

Just what I expected: Review of Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund

Any time I read a book by one of my favorite authors, I’m expecting a good story. Yet, a part of me wonders, will this be the book I don’t like? Because, over time, it’s possible that I’ll not like a book by one of favorite authors. (Possible, but it hasn’t happened yet!)

LoveUnexpectedFortunately, Jody Hedlund’s new release, Love Unexpected, is another gem of a story, and the only “unexpected” part is how the story will unfold. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the author in exchange for my review.)

Love Unexpected kicks off a new series centered on Michigan’s lighthouses. Being from the Midwest, I have a soft spot for the Great Lakes but have almost no knowledge about the area’s lighthouses. Michigan is a treasure trove for lighthouse lovers, it would seem.

This book is set at the Presque Isle lighthouse on Lake Huron and is based on a real lighthouse keeper from the 1800s. (This is one of my favorite things about Jody’s books. She uses characters from history and fictionalizes their stories while keeping many of the facts of their life intact.) Even if this wasn’t based on Michigan history, though, it would be a good story.

Emma Chambers and her brother, Ryan, are searching for a new life when their boat is attacked by pirates and they find themselves shipwrecked in the lake. They’re rescued by Patrick Garraty, lighthouse keeper, who has just lost his wife and is struggling to care for his two-year-old son while maintaining the lighthouse.

Prompted by the circuit-riding preacher, Emma agrees to a quickie wedding to this stranger. Marrying him gives her what she’s always dreamed of: a home of her own, a husband and a child. But she soon learns she isn’t as up to the task as she thought. And her new husband hints at an unsavory past that feeds Emma’s doubts about her hasty decision.

As her love for the child grows, so do her doubts about her new husband. Is this marriage what she dreamed of or did she just enter a nightmare?

Love Unexpected is part love story, part history lesson, part mystery, and Jody crafts a page-turning tale. I literally tell myself, “One more chapter,” half a dozen times before I have to step away from the story to take care of real life.

If you’re a fan of lighthouses, Michigan history or just really good inspirational fiction, I’d encourage you to check out this book by Jody Hedlund. (You can also read her Beacons of Hope novella, Out of the Storm, for free on Kindle.)

If lighthouses or Michigan aren’t your thing, you can check out her other books. Here’s a list of ones I’ve reviewed.

I’m looking forward to more lighthouse stories from Hedlund. And now I want to take a trip to visit them!

The new way to tell fairy tales: Review of The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson

Two things always surprise me about Melanie Dickerson’s books:

1. They’re considered young adult fiction (and I, a not-very-young adult, LOVE them).

2. They’re creative retellings of familiar fairy tales, often done so well that I don’t immediately recognize the original fairy tale!

princess spySuch was the case with her new release, The Princess Spy. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Zondervan through the Booklook Blogger program.)

When I first started reading Dickerson’s books, I was intrigued by the idea that she could take the basics of fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Sleeping Beauty, set them in the Middle Ages with princesses and knights and castles, and make a whole new story out of them. That’s what started me reading them. Now, it doesn’t even matter to me if they’re retellings, and when I read The Princess Spy, I wasn’t even thinking about The Frog Prince, a fairy tale I sometimes forget about.

Basically what I’m trying to say here is that even if these were stories without a fairy tale association, they would still be good, still worth reading.

In The Princess Spy, Margaretha is being wooed by Lord Claybrook, a man she hopes will be the true love she’s been waiting for. Until she meets an injured stranger, who is brought to the castle’s healer for tending his wounds. The man claims to be an English lord with dangerous information about Claybrook. He enlists Margaretha to spy for him, and soon, she is thrust into a daring plan to save her family and kingdom.

There is adventure, banter, danger, romance, chivalry and unexpected turns of events. Before I knew about The Frog Prince elements of the story, I caught influences of scenes in the movies The Princess Bride and Ever After. In short, it was everything a good fairy tale romance should be. (And the heroine is no weakling. I love a good strong heroine.)

You should know, if you read this, that there are characters from previous novels connected to this one. I now want to go back and re-read the ones that came before and make a family tree of some kind so I can follow along to how everyone is related. But, if you haven’t read her previous books (and WHY haven’t you?), you won’t be lost in this one.

I have to put Melanie Dickerson on my list of favorite authors, and I almost can’t wait (yes, I can) until my daughter is old enough to read these stories. For me, one sign of a good author is that I’m already looking forward to the next book as soon as I’ve finished the current one. That is how I feel after reading The Princess Spy. (Also, her book covers are some of my favorites ever.)

You can take a look at all of Dickerson’s books here. And if you’ve read one of her books, or if you do, let me know what you think!

Refreshing thoughts on outreach: Review of How to Pick Up a Stripper by Todd and Erin Stevens

stripperRequesting a book with a title like this, How to Pick Up a Stripper, is a bit risky. First, your first-grader will try to read the title out loud and you’ll worry that she’ll ask what a “stripper” is and you’ll have to start an uncomfortable conversation. Second, you won’t want to read it in public lest someone get the wrong idea. And third, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find the content is way more practical than the gimmicky title might suggest. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the Booklook Bloggers program in exchange for my review.)

Though Todd Stevens’ wife, Erin, did start a ministry to show kindness to women working in a nearby strip club, the book is less about that particular effort and more about how showing kindness can go a long way in reaching people with the good news of Jesus.

Todd Stevens is the pastor of Nashville’s Friendship Community Church, a group of people who are committed to giving more to their community than they take and showing people God’s love on a daily basis, without strings attached. Their efforts include hosting an Easter Egg hunt for the city, and a separate one a week earlier for parents of special needs children that is just as fun and amazing as the other one; buying lunch for the person behind them in line; catering a meal for the employees of a strip club; and stopping to help stranded motorists. They’ve created a church culture that seeks ways to help people outside of the church walls, for no other reason than to show God’s love. Often those acts of kindness lead people to the church, but it’s not the goal.

It’s such a refreshing approach to outreach, and I found myself, while reading the book, becoming more aware of needs around me. Particularly convicting was Stevens’ commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan. These words were so convicting, I had to tweet them, mostly so I’d remember it for myself later.

I think that’s my biggest takeaway from this book. That if I’m busy and overcommitted and in a hurry to get from one place to the next, I’ll miss chances to show people kindness in the name of God. And I’m beginning to believe that unless people see more radical acts of kindness from Christians, they won’t listen to any of our words proclaiming good news.

How to Pick Up a Stripper is not a guidebook  with steps to follow about how to start a particular outreach. Instead, it’s a book full of compelling stories about how kindness has changed people’s lives. Add it to your list of must-read books about evangelism. And be ready for questions and strange looks if you take the book out in public.

But maybe that’s the first step in doing something out of the ordinary.

More than a story: Review of Tears of the Sea by MaryLu Tyndall

When MaryLu Tyndall writes a book, you should read it.

When she writes a mermaid story, you should put it at the top of your to-read list.

Tyndall, who is known for historical fiction involving pirates and ships and islands and tropical locations, has ventured into new territory with her latest release, Tears of the Sea. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

First, can we just pause and admire this book cover?

tears of the seaI’m learning to love and appreciate the work that goes into a good book cover, and this one is stunning.

So, the story. Perdita lives a cursed life roaming the ancient seas as a mermaid and for 300 years she has sought to break the curse. Every 10 years, she is given one month on land as a human to find a man willing to die for her. Her heart aches for release and all her efforts thus far have been for nothing. Savion Ryne is a defender of his father’s kingdom and sails to overturn Natas’ rebellion. When he falls off his ship during a storm, Perdita is there to rescue him, though he doesn’t know it. As her time on land approaches, Perdita thinks Savion could be the one to free her, but he resists all her charms. And as the month comes to an end, Perdita will face her toughest choice yet.

Everything I love about Tyndall’s previous stories is present in this one. Characters with strong traits. A plot that never gets dull. Conflict. Tough choices. Highs and lows. (And if you’re a fan of The Little Mermaid, you’ll find some similarities at the start. But this is not a retelling of any story I’m aware of.)

You can read this as just another entertaining story, or you can seek the deeper story Tyndall intends. This is not just a mermaid story but an illustration of eternal love and redemption.

I was eagerly awaiting this story, and I read it in a day. I’d gladly read it again and again.

Tears of the Sea is as beautiful on the pages as it is on the cover. Cozy up with this story as the days get cold. It’ll warm you from the inside out.

 

Not the story I expected: Review of A.D. 30 by Ted Dekker

I never used to be a person who jumped at the chance to read a Ted Dekker book, but when I read a book of his earlier this year, my heart was changed, and I am a new fan. His latest book, A.D. 30 is not the sort of book I would expect from Dekker, who is known for more thriller borderline horror types of stories, but it is one of the best biblical fiction books I have read. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

AD30-211x300This story of Maviah, the outcast daughter of a Bedouin ruler, is epic. And I mean that in the literary sense. Maviah is an unlikely hero sent to deliver a message to save her people. But along the way, she is diverted from her mission, which proves as dangerous as she imagined. But on this journey, she also encounters Yeshua, and her world tilts again.

I could not stop reading this story. It lives up to my standards for biblical fiction–of bringing familiar characters to life and engaging my imagination for life in biblical times.

My only complaint is that I did not realize this book would be continued in a sequel, A.D. 33, so I was not prepared for the end. It comes to a conclusion, yes, but not in the sense that the story is over. I am completely hooked to the plot and characters and will eagerly await the next installment of the story.

I am fascinated by Dekker’s ability to write in first-person from a female character’s perspective. But it’s believable and captivating. I could read this book again and again just to savor the sentences and story flow.

An unexpected but marvelous story from Dekker. If you’re like me and have never given his books a chance, change that with this book.

Also, Maviah’s story was not the only hook. Dekker’s explanation for how this story came about hit on where I’m at with my spiritual journey. And the story backs that up.

Check out the trailer below. And find out more about the author here.

Have you read any Ted Dekker books? What ones would you recommend?

A ticket to travel without leaving home: Review of A Lady at Willowgrove Hall by Sarah Ladd

I am unashamedly in love with England. I’m not sure if the love preceded the college semester I lived there or if that semester only intensified my feelings, but pictures, shows and stories of England leave me with a longing like it’s home.

willowgroveUntil I save up a whole lot of dollars, books are my substitute for travel and Sarah Ladd’s Whispers on the Moors series is a ticket to England without leaving home.

The third in the series, A Lady at Willowgrove Hall, has been my favorite so far. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book through Litfuse Publicity Group in exchange for my review. And to read about the two previous books in the series, check out my reviews of The Heiress of Winterwood and The Headmistress of Rosemere.)

In this story, Cecily Faire is taken from her home as punishment for indiscreet behavior, and after being educated at Rosemere, she accepts a position as lady’s companion to a dying woman at Willowgrove Hall. There, she is confronted by her past as she tries to start anew. Nathaniel Stanton, steward of Willowgrove Hall, carries secrets and awaits the day he can be free from his position. Cecily and Nathaniel must decide if their respective pasts will keep them from a future together.

Ladd creates such likable characters in a charming setting, and I wanted so badly the best for each of these characters. (I also wanted to buy a plane ticket and tour the moors of England!)

A cup of tea, a rainy day, even some cold winter nights would be the perfect companions for these stories. And if you’re waiting for the return of Downton Abbey, these are a happy distraction until January.

This series has gotten better with each story, and I’m looking forward to the next series of stories from Ladd.

For thefull scoop on the book’s release and to read other reviews, click here. Read on for more about the author and a fun giveaway she’s hosting for the book’s release!

About the author: 
laddSarah E. Ladd has more than ten years of marketing experience. She is a graduate of Ball State University and holds degrees in public relations and marketing.The Heiress of Winterwood was the recipient of the 2011 Genesis Award for historical romance. Sarah lives in Indiana with her amazing husband, sweet daughter, and spunky Golden Retriever.
Find Sarah online: website, Facebook, Twitter

Award-winning author Sarah E. Ladd examines how to escape the clutches of a tainted past in the final installment of her Whispers on the Moor series. A Regency-era novel, A Lady at Willowgrove Hall cleverly shows that even though our pasts may be shameful or painful, God can take the darkest personal histories and turn them into the brightest futures.

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Celebrate with Sarah by entering her Kindle HDX giveaway!

One grand prize winner will receive:

  • A Kindle Fire HDX
  • A Lady at Willowgrove Hall by Sarah E. Ladd

Enter today by clicking the icon below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on November 2nd. Winner will be announced November 3rd here.

ladywillowgrove-enterbanner

A book I wish no one had to write: Review of Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

rare birdRare Bird is the kind of book I usually try to avoid. Books are an escape for me, and stories of tragedy are ones I don’t often want to consider because they’re just too hard to read.

How incredibly selfish of me. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher through the Blogging for Books program.)

While I wish no one ever needed to read this kind of book much less write it, I’m so grateful that Anna Whiston-Donaldson poured out her grief journey on the pages of this book. Losing her son Jack at 12 years old in a freak neighborhood accident–unthinkable. I related to her thoughts about doing enough right things to keep her family safe and feeling like a failure when it wasn’t enough. Whiston-Donaldson is real and raw about the stages of grief, about unexpected losses of friendship after a tragedy, and how hard it can be to go on. And yet, her story is inspiring. It does not gloss over the reality of pain and suffering, but it doesn’t leave it as hopeless either.

This book made me cry real tears for a boy I never knew. I laughed at family stories so vivid I felt like I was there. And I felt the edges of terror creep into my soul as the depths of grief sought to overtake this family. A couple of times I even uttered, “no way,” at the visions, dreams and messages she received about Jack after his death. (I am not one to quickly believe in messages from beyond, but I also haven’t experienced that kind of loss yet, so what do I know?)

Rare Bird is a beautiful story. And a terrible one. And I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book quite like it. You don’t have to have experienced loss to read this book but if you have had a loss like hers, it’s a must read. Whiston-Donaldson’s words are tender and poetic at the same time they’re jarring and harsh. It’s a glimpse into grief that few of us see firsthand.

A word of caution to those sensitive to language: Whiston-Donaldson uses words that some people might find offensive. But in the context of grief and loss, they are entirely appropriate.

An unforgettable memoir about an unimaginable tragedy and an incomprehensible faith that sustains.

Amish fiction that doesn’t read like Amish fiction: Review of Promise to Cherish by Elizabeth Byler Younts

It’s quite a feat to write an Amish novel that doesn’t read like your typical Amish novel but Elizabeth Byler Younts has done it and I couldn’t put this book down. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.)

promise to cherishThe story takes place during World War II, when Eli, an Amish man is sent to work in a camp as a conscientious objector and is later transferred to the Hudson River State Hospital to assist the nurses in caring for those with disabilities. There, he meets Christine, a nurse, and though they aren’t friendly at first, their common work brings them together. When Christine faces trouble she can’t escape, Eli offers her refuge in his Amish community. But their friendship brings more trouble and invites a visit from Christine’s past that almost destroys their relationship.

Yes, it’s partially set in an Amish community. Yes, it’s a romance. But the story was so well-written and so captivating that I forgot it was an Amish book. That is what I love about Younts’ stories. They draw on her Amish history and experiences but they are not the typical worn-out stories like some in the genre.

I look forward to more of Younts’ work and appreciate the blend of family history and American history she takes in this series. A great follow-up to her debut novel, Promise to Return. Though they’re part of a series, you don’t necessarily have to read them in order. I actually liked this second book better than the first (and that’s no insult to the first book!)

If you’re less than thrilled with the Amish fiction offerings out there, then I recommend this book. I read every Beverly Lewis book I could get my hands on when we first moved to Amish country but quickly grew bored. That’s not a problem for me with Younts’ books.

Visit the author’s website to learn more about her and her Amish heritage.

What do you like or not like about Amish fiction?

If you’ve never read it, would you ever consider it?