Disclaimer: The Seamstress, by Allison Pittman, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
My rating: 4/5
The Seamstress was inspired by the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, where a seamstress meets up with That Guy (to avoid spoilers) and talks to him briefly before they are both beheaded. The Seamstress is basically the story of that seamstress, detailing her life and circumstances leading up to and during the French Revolution.
Pittman says she spoils about 50% of A Tale of Two Cities, but I didn’t see it. Of course, I read Dickens’ novel in high school, so my memory of the book is not great. The Seamstress is much more like a historical fiction set during the French Revolution than a spin-off of A Tale of Two Cities, and, in fact, the ending of the novel, where Pittman most clearly references TTC, is the weakest, as Pittman clearly borrowed dialogue from Dickens’ novel, where it stands out like a sore thumb because Pittman doesn’t write like Dickens.
To be honest, I thought the story about the seamstress, Renee, was the weakest of the novel. The story involving Renee’s cousin, Laurette, was the best part. That was a story laden with forgiveness and grace, of a young woman’s desperate attempts to find love and the way she feels when those attempts give her nothing but emptiness and shame. I normally don’t like perfect men, but Gagnon is exactly the character he needed to be to temper Laurette’s wildness. Laurette’s story is the reason I gave this book such a high rating—and Renee’s story is the reason why it didn’t get higher.
Pittman utilizes the dreaded “first-person, third-person” switch: Renee’s story is in 1st person, and Laurette’s in 3rd. I see no reason why it had to be that way, and it’s jarring and frustrating to keep switching back and forth. And compared to Laurette’s beautiful story, Renee’s is timid and historically thin (Pittman admits she painted an idealistic portrait of Marie Antoinette); Renee herself is given paper-thin motivations for her actions and most of the time is simply a passive observer to what’s happening around her. And the reason Pittman gives for her arrest leading up to her death sentence is laughably unrealistic—plot convenience shines throughout that particular portion.
Yet, the power of the setting and Laurette’s story manage to offset and overshadow many of the flaws of Renee’s story, giving a lush, detailed look at the French countryside and the path leading to the French Revolution. The stark contrast between Renee’s life at court and Laurette’s life in the country helps paint the strong divide between rich and poor that was the catalyst in the Revolution’s start. And Renee’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution helps show the bloodthirsty rage that fueled the Revolution and kept the guillotine dropping.
It’s definitely not perfect, but Laurette’s story alone makes The Seamstress worth a read.
Disclaimer: Lady of a Thousand Treasures, by Sandra Byrd, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Lady of a Thousand Treasures takes us to the world of art-collection fiends in Victorian England, starring the female curator/evaluator Eleanor and the intrigue, drama, and danger she faces after unearthing the seedy underbelly of the art world. There’s also romance because of course there is.
I did really like seeing into the art collection side of Victorian England. There was a lot of depth and explanation in every aspect of Eleanor’s job. There was also some subtle looks into females trying to establish their own careers and their own footing—the real-life Lady Charlotte Schreiber (first female accepted into a previously all-male curators club) and Elizabeth Garrett (first female physician in England) make appearances. Dante Rossetti shows up, too—you know, the brother of Christina Rossetti, of “Goblin Market” fame.
So, basically, I really loved the setting. The plot paled in comparison. There’s intrigue, and suspicion, and forgeries, and scandal, and debts, which sounds very exciting and tense, but to be honest, I spent most of my time wondering why Eleanor made the decisions she did. She is too quick to trust in one scenario, and too quick to doubt in another. She does really stupid things, then follows those up with some swift, quick-thinking decisions that are smartly thought-out. As a character, she is all over the place. I liked the mystery aspect of the plot, but the characters didn’t hold up on their end.
The romance was okay—nothing special. It ends as inevitably as you might suspect, with as much drama and progression as you might expect. I didn’t really like that Harry was used as a device to fuel Eleanor’s doubt, and then swoop in and get her out of trouble, and the parts involving him, his father’s collection, and the secret rooms in his house were some of the most confusing in the novel.
I loved the setting, mostly enjoyed the plot, and tolerated the characters in Lady of a Thousand Treasures. It didn’t blow me away, but I didn’t have strong feelings in the negatives towards it, either. It was an average book for me. I liked it better than many other Christian fiction I have read.
Disclaimer: Everything She Didn’t Say, by Jane Kirkpatrick, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
In 1911, Carrie Strahorn wrote a memoir sharing some of the most exciting events of twenty-five years of shaping the American West with her husband, railroad promoter and writer Robert Strahorn. Nearly ten years later, she’s finally ready to reveal the secrets she hadn’t told anyone—even herself. Certain that her writings will be found only after her death, Carrie confronts the pain and disappointment of the pioneering life with startling honesty. She explores the danger a woman faces of losing herself within a relationship with a strong-willed man. She reaches for the courage to accept her own worth. Most of all she wonders, Can she ever feel truly at home in this rootless life?
My experience with Jane Kirkpatrick has been similar for each book I’ve read of hers: appreciation for the historical research, but boredom with the overall storyline. As I mentioned in my review of The Road We Traveled, “there were parts of the book where I went “Hmm, this is interesting,” and then there were more parts where I wondered when the book would be over.” I really don’t understand how a book could be so carefully researched, yet falter in terms of pace and holding the reader’s attention entirely. Or perhaps I simply really don’t like books that just meander through someone’s life (as I’ve also mentioned in my previous Kirkpatrick reviews).
The format of the book was very confusing to me. Obviously, the excerpts at the end of each chapter are from Carrie Strahorn’s actual memoir, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. Yet, there are also journal entries at the beginning of each chapter—are these Carrie’s actual journals, or things made up by Kirkpatrick so the reader knows what year it is? I also had issues with what I must assume are severe creative liberties on the part of Kirkpatrick—she is filling in the gaps only with what she thinks is true, based off of the few things we have about Carrie. And I get that this is historical fiction, not biography, but the picture built of Carrie, of this strong woman who managed to hold her own and carve her own path despite her husband’s domineering nature, is a fictionalized picture. Were any of the thoughts and feelings in this book part of the real Carrie Strahorn? I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if I didn’t think so highly of context and accuracy.
Everything We Didn’t Say is a good look at a woman I knew nothing about, who helped pave the way in the West along with her husband, Robert Strahorn. This Carrie is a good model, and there are many points in this book ripe for discussion, but I left the book without a solid idea of what the true Carrie was really like. In true Kirkpatrick style, the research was great, the actual grip and hook of the book…not so much. I would enjoy her so much more if she was just a little more exciting as a writer, though I suppose that’s the draw—she documents more aspects of someone’s life than simply the “exciting” parts. I just wish, in this case, there was more of a clear idea that she was actually crafting a true representation.
Disclaimer: The Crescent Stone, by Matt Mikalatos, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give everything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.
My rating: 3/5
The Crescent Stone is a decent fantasy novel of the Narnia subtype: two people find themselves entering a mysterious new world, where there’s magic, strange new people, and a battle to fight. Along the way, they discover things aren’t what they seem. The worldbuilding is good in terms of lore; there are all sorts of things in the appendix to help establish that. I wasn’t swept away in wonder, but I found the fantasy world interesting, for the most part.
Less good is the heavy-handed way that Mikalatos incorporates his cultural relevancy. Two of the characters are delivered a sermon about their perceived ignorance, and the fantasy world itself hinges on Mikalatos’s interpretation of the way the real world works. Except, while the magical aspect is fine, taking it and applying it to reality falls flat on its face. See, Mikalatos’s magic system is a zero-sum game: make something big, something else becomes small. But applying that to the real world, which is what he wants the reader to do, makes little sense. Money is not a zero-sum game; me getting $50 does not stop someone else from getting $50. My use of electricity does not prevent someone else from using electricity. There’s truth in some of what he says, but it’s hidden by the exaggerated magical message.
Other things that fell flat for me: the made-up books that Mikalatos includes to inspire the characters and create in them that longing for a fantasy world. The dialogue of those books is laughably cheesy, made even more so when the characters start quoting lines to each other. The heavy-handedness/preachiness is something I’ve already mentioned. Mikalatos sticks to rigid tropes and stereotypes, which is ironic considering the message he’s trying to get across. Towards the end, MacGuffins abound, and the plot points get muddled and confusing.
For a Christian fantasy, The Crescent Stone is pretty good in terms of worldbuilding, something that oftentimes can slip between the cracks in favor of message. But Mikalatos’s message stretches the bounds of reality—it makes sense in a fantasy world, but start applying it to the real one and it falls flat. A much more subtle approach would have gone over much better, with less preaching, absurd scenarios, or unbelievable concepts to clutter up the good message of compassion and equality.
Disclaimer: A Daring Venture, by Elizabeth Camden, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
My rating: 4/5
I really like Elizabeth Camden. She has a knack for making compelling stories with characters that don’t fit the same old outline of the majority of other Christian historical romances. She also tends to have strong stories that aren’t pushed to the side for the romance. This story is about the battle to chlorinate water—a true story—and deliver clean water so that water-borne diseases, such as cholera, aren’t as frequent. The two main characters, Rosalind and Nick, do have a sort of insta-love, which I never really like, but Camden made it super cute and emphasized aspects of it that made me actually like it this time.
I also liked that the romance was void of a lot of tired tropes. That may also have contributed to my liking of it, since it seemed so new in comparison to the past books I’ve read. And I liked that Rosalind and Nick got to shine as characters, rather than as vehicles for romance. The characterization was really good, though Nick’s turn-around in terms of his view of chlorination was abrupt. And I liked all the court intrigue and the drama that revolved around the plot, though some of it was a little too over-the-top, such as pretty much everything that went on with Aunt Margaret.
This book is the second in a series, but luckily it’s not necessary to have read the first (I didn’t). It would have led to much greater insight into two of the characters, as well as Nick’s background, but overall it wasn’t too bad to fill in the blanks with what Camden gave.
A Daring Venture had a compelling plot, a romance that was sweet (and not annoying, so it gets bonus points from me), and solid characterization. A few elements were a miss for me, such as some of the more dramatic moments and Nick’s abrupt change of mind, but overall, I really enjoyed this book.
Disclaimer: 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry, by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, was provided by Baker Books. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
When I got 12 Faithful Men, I thought it would be twelve stories of famous Christian people who courageously endured, as the title implies, through trials and suffering. And I was right, in a sense, but I wasn’t expecting the pastoral audience the book is clearly aimed for. This was a book written by pastors, for pastors, and so the “portraits” weren’t as detailed or as lengthy as I would have liked.
That being said, I did enjoy the stories of these 12 men. I ended up skipping a lot of the application and simply read about the 12 men, so it was a pretty quick read. Most of the people that Hansen and Robinson wrote about I had already known about, such as Paul, Jonathan Edwards, and John Newton, but some I had never heard about. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Janani Luwum, a Ugandan pastor, and Wang Ming-Dao, a Chinese pastor, because it gave me some insight into the trouble that brewed, and is possibly still brewing in Uganda (and Africa in general) and in China. I knew about Mao, but I didn’t know about Idi Amin, the “African Hitler,” who slaughtered thousands of his own people in his quest for power.
I really wasn’t expecting 12 Faithful Men to be as devotional as it was, so it was a little disappointing, but I did find the lives of the people inside interesting. I could also think of a few other people that the authors didn’t highlight that would have fit right in with the theme of the book, so I think there’s something to be said about endurance in suffering in religion in general, and Christianity in particular. There were some good things said about suffering and faith, too, though I did end up skimming a majority of that part when the authors directed it specifically towards pastors. The book really didn’t fulfill what I thought it would, but I did learn some things nevertheless.
Disclaimer: River to Redemption, by Ann H. Gabhart, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Orphaned in the cholera epidemic of 1833, Adria Starr was cared for by a slave named Louis, a man who passed up the opportunity to escape his bondage and instead tended to the sick and buried the dead. A man who, twelve years later, is being sold by his owners despite his heroic actions. Now nineteen, Adria has never forgotten what Louis did for her. She’s determined to find a way to buy Louis’s freedom. But in 1840s Kentucky, she’ll need all of the courage and strength she possesses—and more.
My rating: 3/5
River to Redemption is a refreshing, non-romance-centric (of sorts) novel based on a true story. While too character-driven for my tastes, and thus slow and meandering with little happening to pick up the pace, I enjoyed the break from the normal historical romance that this book gave me.
It’s really interesting to me to see Christian fiction tackle the Civil War era, as each author seems to want to emphasize something different each time. I thought Gabhart did a good job of integrating the societal feeling of the time while also maintaining the Christian aspect of it. It seems jarring to us, in the modern age, to read a book like this and wonder why the Christians in the novel aren’t all abolitionists. But the character Ruth points out something important towards the end of the novel: that the culture that these people grew up in has influenced them too much in seeing slaves as invisible, and that it took the compassion of Louis for them to see humanity in all the people around them. I think people too often dismiss the power of culture in the minds of individuals. The behavior and thoughts exhibited by some of the people in the novel should be rightly criticized, but maintaining historical accuracy is important, too.
Now, I did say this was “non-romance-centric,” though that’s not exactly true. There is a romance in this book, but since I considered Adria the main character, I didn’t really consider it important enough for a “romance-centric” tag. The romance does take up a lot of the plot—maybe too much, considering the glacial pace of the book—and it is quite predictable and all that jazz, but it was nice for the main character to realize that there are things more important in life than pursuing relationships immediately.
If there had been a bit more action or something to make the pace go more quickly, River to Redemption would have elevated itself significantly in my mind. As it stands, it’s a good book, but too slow for my liking. Many people prefer character-driven books, so this would be a good fit for them. It also handles the “Christianese” and the setting in a good way, integrating them nicely and not leaving too much to complain or rage about in terms of accuracy or portrayal.
Disclaimer: Engraved on the Heart, by Tara Johnson, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Reluctant debutante Keziah Montgomery lives beneath the weighty expectations of her staunch Confederate family, forced to keep her epilepsy secret for fear of a scandal. As the tensions of the Civil War arrive on their doorstep in Savannah, Keziah sees little cause for balls and courting. Despite her discomfort, she cannot imagine an escape from her familial confines—until her old schoolmate Micah shows her a life-changing truth that sets her feet on a new path . . . as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. Dr. Micah Greyson never hesitates to answer the call of duty, no matter how dangerous, until the enchanting Keziah walks back into his life and turns his well-ordered plans upside down. Torn between the life he has always known in Savannah and the fight for abolition, Micah struggles to discern God’s plan amid such turbulent times. Battling an angry fiancé, a war-tattered brother, bounty hunters, and their own personal demons, Keziah and Micah must decide if true love is worth the price . . . and if they are strong enough to survive the unyielding pain of war.
My rating: 2/5
I was interested by the summary of Engraved on the Heart and hoped it would have lots of intrigue, sneaking around, and escapes from danger, as befitting the promise of the setting. I hoped the romance would be imaginative and original, though I didn’t really have too many high hopes in that regard.
I like it when authors introduce elements to the story that make it more unique, and Johnson did that with Keziah’s epilepsy and exploring the stigma associated with the illness. I wish a little bit more time had been spent on it, but at least it was an established part of her character. I liked Keziah in general and her characterization and growth were overall okay. Micah was a typical male love interest, and he didn’t stand out much in any way except for a bit at the end.
Most of the events that happened in regards to the Underground Railroad were pretty plausible. I recently read a book on the topic, and much of what happens in the book fits. My only quibble is that I don’t remember if they were actually calling it “the Underground Railroad” at the time. I also think getting a peek at Lucy’s escape would have been nice, since it seemed way too easy and vague. I also thought the way the plan was communicated to Lucy was dubious and unbelievable.
I won’t harp on the romance, but I’m getting tired of reading the same thing over and over. This romance played out exactly like most of the others in these sorts of books: love at first sight between two amazingly good-looking people, one or both has secret doubts about pursuing a relationship, they refuse to be in a relationship but still end up holding each other/kissing, etc. etc. etc. This romance in particular seemed incredibly similar to the one in the last book I read. It’s clear this sort of thing is being written to please the audience rather than to give something original and exploratory.
Disclaimer: Together Forever, by Jody Hedlund, was provided by Bethany House. It is the sequel to With You Always. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Determined to find her lost younger sister, Marianne Neumann takes a job as a placing agent with the Children’s Aid Society in 1858 New York. She not only hopes to offer children a better life, but prays she’ll be able to discover whether Sophie ended up leaving the city on an orphan train so they can finally be reunited. Andrew Brady, her fellow agent on her first placing-out trip, is a former schoolteacher who has an easy way with the children, frim but tender and friendly. Underneath his charm and handsome looks, though, seems to linger a grief that won’t go away—and a secret from his past that he keeps hidden. As the two team up, placing orphans in the small railroad towns of Illinois, they find themselves growing ever closer…until a shocking tragedy threatens to upend all their work and change on of their live forever.
Together Forever tells the story of Marianne Neumann, the sister of Elise Neumann, the protagonist of With You Always. It picks up the plot thread of the missing sister, Sophie, but very quickly sidelines it for a romantic plot, which is a shame because the missing sister is the most interesting thing in this series, and sidelining it really doesn’t make the characters look good. More on that later on.
Yes, this book is a romance, and boy, does Hedlund really accentuate that. There must be dozens of stolen glances, thoughts about the “delicate” and “elegant” features of Marianne, thoughts about the “strong jaw” and “toned muscles” and “warm skin” of Drew, and multiple looks of desire and/or longing. Hedlund throws in some events to make everything more dramatic, such as Reinhold, Marianne’s old (one-sided) flame, a murder, and some orphan children.
I think I might have enjoyed this book more, cliché and unoriginal romance (and tropes used) aside, if I had liked the characters more. Yet there’s really nothing that drew me to Marianne or Drew; Reinhold was more interesting, but showed up far too infrequently. The problem with Drew is that he’s the typical love interest in these sorts of books—handsome, clever, capable, with some sort of dark past that comes back to haunt him and throw tension into his relationship. The problem with Marianne is that for someone who’s so devoted to finding her sister, she barely does anything about it throughout the course of the book beyond read a few pages of a logbook. The rest of the time she’s busy flirting with Drew, when she’s not contemplating the fate of the orphans she’s placing. There’s also an absurd scene at the end of the novel that’s so contrived and such a dumb thing to do on the part of the characters (basically, it’s a “let’s pretend this is real and lead people on even though we know it’s wrong” decision) that I grew even more irritated at the romance between the two.
If I can say anything positive about Together Forever, it’s that Hedlund shows both sides of the orphan train. She shows it from the point of view of how many of the orphans who would have been living on the streets otherwise were taken in by families and cared for. But she also shows the side of how well those families will treat those orphans, as well as the idea that it’s basically selling children. I appreciated that she showed both perspectives. To be honest, I didn’t know much about orphan trains, so it was nice to see that part of history explored. The rest of the book, though, I could have done without.
Disclaimer: Before I Saw You, by Amy K. Sorrells, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Folks are dying fast as the ash trees in the southern Indiana town ravaged by the heroin epidemic where Jaycee Givens lives with nothing more than a thread of hope and a quirky neighbor, Sudie, who rescues injured wildlife. After a tragedy leaves her mother in prison, Jaycee is carrying grief and an unplanned pregnancy she conceals because she trusts no one, including the kind and handsome Gabe, who is new to town and to the local diner where she works. Dividing her time between the diner and Sudie’s place, Jaycee nurses her broken heart among a collection of unlikely friends who are the closest thing to family that she has. Eventually, she realizes she can’t hide her pregnancy any longer, not even from the baby’s abusive father, who is furious when he finds out. The choices she must make for the safety of her unborn child threaten to derail any chance she ever had for hope and redemption. Ultimately, Jaycee must decide whether the truest form of love means hanging on or letting go.
My rating: 4/5
I have been very impressed with the quality of books I have received from Tyndale (barring one or two.) Before I Saw You is poignant and relevant, handling difficult topics well and keeping up a tone that steeps it in Christian literature (as opposed to being a romance with references to Christianity). I was most impressed with Sorrells’ portrayal of teen pregnancy, something that tends to be unfortunately almost demonized in the Christian circle due to its connections with premarital sex. Yet, Sorrells makes clear that though Jaycee is well aware of the mistakes she has made, as are those around her, the life of a child is placed in its rightful position as something beautiful to be celebrated. Hand-in-hand with that comes the heartwarming, heartbreaking choices Jaycee has to make. While occasionally delving too far into sentimentality and flowery language, Sorrells beautifully displays both the difficulty and the necessity of Jaycee’s choices.
Some aspects that mar this work do so only slightly. As I mentioned, the language can get too sentimental at times (although that may very well be because I am not fond of sentimentality), as well as overly flowery and preachy in areas. Gabe is much too perfect, though his struggle to come to terms with Jaycee’s pregnancy helps redeem him a little bit (and it helps that the romance is not central to the plot). The idea that Bryan is never punished for his actions is also unsettling, though perhaps true to reality. And I never could quite buy the character of Sudie, who was slightly too eccentric and thus didn’t seem to fit well, at least to me.
Before I Saw You has some flaws, but its handling of sensitive issues and Sorrells’ obvious desire to cover taboo topics is refreshing, and she shows the difficulty, and the beauty, in a situation like Jaycee’s. I was mostly pleased that Sorrells did a portrayal of teen pregnancy that, frankly, I’ve never really seen, and that by itself made this book stand out to me.