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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Review: Another Day, Another Dali – Sandra Orchard

Sandra Orchard. Another Day, Another Dali. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2016.

The weather has been particularly cold and blustery this week.  Fortunately, I finally tracked down another great Christian book from my local library.  It was actually released in October of last year, but I’m just now getting around to reading and reviewing it.

Sandra Orchard returns to her Serena Jones Mystery series with her most recent novel, Another Day, Another Dali.  Special Agent Serena Jones serves on the FBI Art Crime team.  However, a surprising amount of her work originates from her family’s connections in the city.  As a favor to her grandmother, Serena delves into the mystery of her neighbor’s missing Dali painting and the forgery that was left behind.  She soon discovers that the case coincides with other forgeries throughout the area, as well as the investigation surrounding her grandfather’s murder years before.  Facing an increasing number of suspicious threats on her life, Serena must quickly crack the case before more art and lives are lost.

Ms. Orchard offers a riveting mystery filled with spunky characters and high-action investigations.  Another Day, Another Dali will delight readers of great Christian fiction, especially in the mystery/suspense genre.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Another Day, Another Dali.  Although I have not (yet) read the first book in Ms. Orchard’s Serena Jones Mystery series (A Fool and His Monet), Another Day, Another Dali was incredibly accessible and easy to follow.  While some mystery and suspense novels can seem overly dark, even among those released by Christian publishers, this novel remained very light and enjoyable to read.  Likewise, many of the characters offered a fun and quirky contrast to the high-stakes action of Serena’s FBI investigation.  Ms. Orchard’s style reminded me of Rene Gutteridge’s highly-entertaining Occupational Hazards series, while integrating great references to the world of art crimes and the FBI.  After reading this novel, I am looking forward to tracking down the first book of the series, as well as finding the third novel in the series (Over Maya Dead Body) when it releases in July 2017.

Fans of Ms. Orchard’s other works will be absolutely delighted with the continuation of her most recent series in Another Day, Another Dali.  Likewise, readers who enjoy light-hearted Christian mystery novels will also want to read this book.

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Review: An Uncommon Protector – Shelley Shepard Gray

Shelley Shepard Gray. An Uncommon Protector. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.

After a busy couple of weeks of cold weather and too much to do, I was absolutely thrilled to curl up with a good book, particularly Shelley Shepard Gray’s latest release.

Shelley Shepard Gray continues her Lone Star Hero’s Love Story series with An Uncommon Protector.  After losing her parents and brother, Laurel Tracey finds herself running the family ranch by herself.  Under the intense pressure of operating the ranch and securing it against squatters, Laurel turns to an unlikely source for help, a former soldier who has been held prisoner in the local jail.  In return for his keep, Thomas Baker becomes Laurel’s sole source of help on the ranch.  However, even the presence of a capable man on the ranch does not lessen the external threats to Laurel and her property.  Turning to the men of his unit, Thomas is determined to protect Laurel from those who are trying to steal her ranch from her.

First introduced in The Loyal Heart, a small group of Confederate soldiers continue to readjust to civilian life while coping with their memories of the war in An Uncommon Protector.  Ms. Gray’s approachable writing style and intriguing characters will delight fans of heart-warming historical Christian fiction.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading An Uncommon Protector.  While Ms. Gray steers away from developing an overly complex plot, she writes a novel that encapsulates what makes Christian fiction so great: likeable characters, a positive and hopeful message, and a storyline that takes the reader on a relaxing and enjoyable adventure.  In the midst of an insane week, this is the type of story that makes me want to pick up a book, as a form of relaxation and escape.  An Uncommon Protector remains true to historical details, while feeling universal to the nature of modern-day challenges in people’s lives.  After reading the first two novels in Ms. Gray’s Lone Star Hero’s Love story series, I am eager to see where she takes this series next and which characters she explores further.

Fans of Ms. Gray’s other historical Christian fiction novels will definitely want to read An Uncommon Protector.  Likewise, readers who appreciate relatively light historical Christian fiction will also find this novel to be an appealing read.  Ms. Gray’s light writing style makes this a particularly good read for those readers who oftentimes enjoy Christian novellas.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Zondervan for the advanced copy of An Uncommon Protector!

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