Review: Behind the Scenes – Jen Turano

Jen Turano. Behind the Scenes. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2017.

Some of my favorite and most compelling moments of reading Christian fiction have come in the form of humorous stories and characters.  Jen Turano’s novels are always an enjoyable blend of history and comedy that transport her reader to another time and place, in spite of their circumstances.

In Behind the Scenes, Ms. Turano builds upon a set of characters first introduced in her e-novella, At Your Request.  As the first full-length novel in the Apart from the Crowd series, Behind the Scenes follows the non-traditional social wallflower, Permilia Griswold.  Growing up travelling through American mines with her businessman father, Permilia finds that she shares his mind for business, in spite of her step-mother’s determined efforts to launch her into proper society.  Instead, Permilia has found a role for herself as “Miss Quill,” an accomplished society columnist for one of the New York newspapers.  During one particularly eventful society event, Permilia overhears a threat on the life of Asher Rutherford, one of New York’s most reputable gentlemen and a successful department store owner.  Out of necessity, they form an unlikely partnership to discover the source of the threat, even as they find an unexpected source of acceptance and future possibilities in one another.

Ms. Turano creates a compelling set of characters and situations that will have her readers crying out for more incredible and humorous tales.  Behind the Scenes offers a fascinating introduction to a great new historical series.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Behind the Scenes!  Ms. Turano’s characters are surprisingly varied, even as they feel comfortable and familiar within their historical setting.  I especially enjoyed seeing how Ms. Turano built upon these characters and others first introduced in her novella, At Your Request, while offering a few sneak peaks at those that will continue to play a part in her forthcoming novels.   While some sections of the novel felt unevenly paced, as a significant portion of the story is spent at a single social event, Ms. Turano uses this structure to introduce many of the novel’s significant characters and events.  By the end of the novel, readers will be left highly satisfied with a fun and fascinating tale that breaks the mold of romantic fiction set in New York high society.

Fans of Ms. Turano’s previous historical Christian novels and novellas will definitely want to read At Your Request.  Likewise, readers who enjoy historical Christian fiction with a relatively light and humorous style will also want to check out At Your Request and the other stories in Ms. Turano’s Apart from the Crowd series.  The next novel in the series, Out of the Ordinary, will release in November 2017!

Special thanks to NetGalley and Bethany House Publishing for the advanced copy of Behind the Scenes!

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Review: When Tides Turn – Sarah Sundin

Sarah Sundin. When Tides Turn. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2017.

Since publishing her very first novel, Sarah Sundin has remained among a short list of my favorite authors.  While Ms. Sundin only releases one book a year, I can pretty much guarantee that her work will be among the select group of 5-star reviews posted on the Books and Biscuits Blog.

When Tides Turn serves as the much-anticipated third novel in Ms. Sundin’s Waves of Freedom series.  Lt. Dan Avery has spent his military career with his eye on eventually becoming an admiral.  Under the advisement of his mentor, Admiral Howard, Dan has avoided any and all social distractions, especially those of the romantic kind.  Growing up together in their Ohio hometown, Tess Beaumont has always been Dan’s opposite, a blond known for her beauty over her brains.  After being passed over for a much-deserved promotion, in spite of her business degree, Tess is determined to make her own mark on the war effort by joining the Navy’s WAVES program.  As a fellow officer in Dan’s division, Tess becomes a well-liked and highly-capable member of the team, even as she continues to face challenges to the presence of women in the Navy.  When Tess and Dan encounter an active spy ring with deadly consequences to civilians in Boston, they discover that their duty to their nation extends beyond their careers and requires them to set aside their differences to help their friends survive the threat.

The Waves of Freedom series follows the Avery siblings as they make their own mark on the war effort.  Along with their friends and colleagues, this Boston-based group encounters the realities of war and the evils faced on the homefront.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading When Tides Turn.  Ms. Sundin writes a captivating historical romance, with a balanced element of mystery that will keep readers turning pages long into the night.  As has been the case with Ms. Sundin’s other series, the Waves of Freedom series has included a strong element of family connections between the main characters, while building upon these characters and previous aspects of the series in consecutive novels.  When Tides Turn is particularly fascinating as it serves as one of the few fictional works focused on women’s efforts in military service, particularly the Navy’s WAVES program.  Personally, I would love to see additional works focus on similar auxiliary divisions of the military during World War II, as these women are so often missed in the broader narrative of this era.  This novel offers an excellent conclusion to this series and will leave readers eagerly anticipating Ms. Sundin’s forthcoming series and novels.

Fans of Ms. Sundin’s novels, especially the Waves of Freedom series, will definitely want to read When Tides Turn.  Likewise, readers who enjoy World War II-inspired Christian fiction will also want to try this excellent series.

Special thanks to the Revell Reads Blog Tour program for the advanced copy of When Tides Turn!

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Review: The Chapel Car Bride – Judith Miller

Judith Miller. The Chapel Car Bride. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2017.

With such a great group of emerging Christian fiction authors releasing novels, it’s nice to also read books by those writers who have made an incredible mark on the genre.  I count Judith Miller among this set of prolific and classic authors who continue to represent historical Christian fiction at its finest.

In The Chapel Car Bride, Hope Irvine joins her missionary father in his ministry aboard a traveling chapel car.  While Pastor Irvine has made a life of this ministry, Hope has previously lived a relatively sheltered life in Pennsylvania living with her aunt.  Life aboard the chapel car brings new challenges and experiences for Hope, even as she seeks to use her skills as a musician and teacher to reach young children and families along their route.  The Irvine family spend the vast majority of their time serving mining families in rural West Virginia, a land much different from anything that Hope has previously known.  There, she befriends Luke Hughes, a young miner, and his sister, who become her confidents and partners in her ministry to reach the mining families, railroad workers, and those in the neighboring areas.  However, their ministry may be in peril when one of the mining manager’s offers of goodwill to the local families may be a front for illegal activities.  Together, Hope, Luke, and their families must discover the truth behind the mining manager’s activities before he places all of them and their ministry at risk.

Ms. Miller contributes her classic style and characters to this historical tale.  Fans of her work will greatly enjoy this story of the Irvine family’s ministry travelling the railroad lines of the eastern areas of the United States.

Overall, I found The Chapel Car Bride to be a pleasant example of historical Christian fiction.  Ms. Miller builds an intriguing concept around the Irvine family’s chapel car ministry, even as many aspects of the novel more closely feature the mining communities of West Virginia and the experiences of those living in these areas during the early twentieth century.  While the novel does not necessarily have an overly-complex plotline, readers will find themselves immersed in Hope’s world as she experiences life on the rails for the first time.  Additionally, Ms. Miller does an excellent job of focusing on the ministry aspects of the Irvine family’s work in West Virginia, while balancing the storyline with a villainous character who threatens to undermine their work.

Fans of Ms. Miller’s previously-released stories will definitely want to read The Chapel Car Bride. Readers who particularly appreciate evenly-paced novels in the style of classic historical Christian fiction will also want to read Ms. Miller’s most recent novel.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Bethany House Publishers for the advanced copy of The Chapel Car Bride!

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Review: The Illusionist’s Apprentice – Kristy Cambron

Kristy Cambron. The Illusionist’s Apprentice. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Sometimes reviewing books comes with its own set of hazards.  Publishers release books on their own schedules, which means they are not necessarily evenly distributed throughout the year.  At the moment, I’m already reading and writing reviews for upcoming months, while waiting for books to arrive that release this week!  Fortunately, Kristy Cambron’s upcoming release arrived several days ago and I enjoyed every moment of this edge-of-your-seat historical mystery.

The Illusionist’s Apprentice follows the story of Wren Lockhart, a former apprentice to Harry Houdini who has made a name for herself on the vaudeville stage.  Together, Wren and Houdini successfully discredited magicians and spiritualists who misled the public with the promise of returning lost loved ones from the grave.  After Houdini’s death, one disgraced performer dares to regain the stage with the promise of returning a man to life.  However, the illusion’s tragic results quickly leads to an investigation by the burgeoning Boston division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The two agents in charge of the case turn to Wren as an expert illusionist capable of determining the truth behind the deadly vaudeville act.  However, the FBI’s investigation leads the agents to discover the true depth of illusionists’ secrets, especially those held by Wren to separate her glamorous stage life from the truth of her past.

Interweaving scenes from Wren’s past and present life, The Illusionist’s Apprentice will captivate readers with fascinating details of the Jazz Age and vaudeville life.  Ms. Cambron brings a rich vibrancy to her characters, while stepping into the arena of Christian suspense and mystery in her most recent novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Illusionist’s Apprentice!  Ms. Cambron continues to show remarkable growth in her writing from novel to novel, with The Illusionist’s Apprentice placing itself firmly at the forefront of her work.  The book offers a riveting depiction of American vaudeville life during the early part of the twentieth century, particularly in light of Harry Houdini and his fellow illusionists’ work capturing the public’s imagination through live performances.  While Houdini makes few actual appearances in the novel, the story reflects his influence on his chosen profession as a mentor and trendsetter.  Ms. Cambron’s choice to focus on Houdini’s work in debunking spiritualism and séance activity was particularly fascinating, especially when set against the public’s grief from the massive losses of World War I and the Spanish Flu.  At its heart, The Illusionist’s Apprentice ultimately focuses on the balance of truth and illusion in Wren’s life, even as she remains true to her faith.  The faith-based element of the story was relatively surprising and appreciated, although not necessarily overt, as Ms. Cambron’s other Christian novels have been known for their historical detail over the strength of their Christian themes. As an example of Christian suspense/mystery novels, The Illusionist’s Apprentice may be slightly spooky (there is a graveyard scene) for some readers.  However, it remains true to the relatively clean and accessible nature of Christian fiction.

Fans of Ms. Cambron’s previous historical novels, especially The Ringmaster’s Wife, will definitely want to read The Illusionist’s Apprentice.  Likewise, readers who enjoy Christian historical fiction set in the early twentieth century will also find this book to be well worth reading.

Special thanks to BookLook Bloggers and Thomas Nelson for the advanced copy of The Illusionist’s Apprentice!

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Review: The Angels’ Share – James Markert

James Markert. The Angels’ Share. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Periodically, a book’s central topic is so utterly unique that I enjoy trying a new author, style, or type of story than I normally read.  With the help of some Christian publishers, I have the opportunity to explore such novels more often than before I started blogging and reviewing books.

James Markert’s latest release, The Angels’ Share, follows the story of William McFee and his family after the end of Prohibition.  Before alcohol became illegal, the family earned their livelihood from the Old Sam Bourbon distillery, under the management of William’s father, Barley.  However, the entire town of Twisted Tree faced a rapid decline without the distillery in operation.  The town buries its indigent residents in the potter’s field next to the distillery and one drifter’s burial soon draws great attention to the area and the McFees, in particular.  Barley McFee begins to fear for the family’s safety, as journalists begin to investigate the miracles of the “Potter’s Field Christ” and the truth behind the elder McFee’s activities during Prohibition.  As William fights to restart the distillery, he soon finds himself searching for the real story behind the family’s tragic past and looking for a way forward for all of them.

Mr. Markert brings a new voice to Southern-inspired fiction, telling the story of Kentucky’s post-Prohibition history and its bourbon distilleries.  Fans of American historical fiction will appreciate Mr. Markert’s perspective and research.

Overall, I was left with mixed feelings toward Mr. Markert’s novel.  He creates a relatively unique set of characters that naturally fit within the setting and era of his story.  Likewise, he develops a fascinating sense of place throughout the novel that will draw in his readers, particularly those with an interest in the history of Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries.  However, I found the actual plotline to be disjointed and lacking resolution, as several subplots appeared in the story without any further development. The Angels’ Share contained stylistic elements and a plotline more commonly found in commercial historical fiction, rather than novels released by Christian publishers.  Additionally, some of the themes, events, and language may not be appropriate to the general audience who typically read Christian fiction. From a storyline perspective, I thought that Mr. Markert offered some intriguing historical perspective and details told through the eyes of his characters, especially William McFee.  However, the “Potter’s Field Christ” plotline would have benefitted from further editing and tighter writing, as the purpose of this storyline (especially in a work of Christian fiction) will likely confuse many readers.  I would have preferred to see this concept developed with a closer eye toward Christian themes, rather than “the mystery of miracles,” as described on the back cover of the book.

Fans of commercial historical fiction may find The Angels’ Share to be a worthwhile read.  Those who enjoy Christian historical fiction, especially focused during the Great Depression or based in the American South, may also find this to be worth exploring.  While most Christian fiction may be accessible to a general audience (teens, adults, etc.), this novel would have a PG-13 or R rating in a movie format, due to content and language.  Additionally, the “Christian” themes are few and far between, as Biblical references are oftentimes taken outside of their proper context and some reviewers have pointed to elements of this book as being “supernatural” or “cult-like,” rather than Christian, in nature.

Special thanks to Thomas Nelson and The Fiction Guild for the advanced copy of The Angels’ Share!

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Amazon – The Angels’ Share