Review: The Space Between Words – Michele Phoenix

Michele Phoenix. The Space Between Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

With the encouragement and prompting of some of the publishers that I regularly read and review, I find myself exploring new authors and storylines that I would not be as likely to discover on my own.  While some novels are more successful than others, I always enjoy finding the unexpected in these stories.

In The Space Between Words, Jessica finds herself in the midst of the Paris attacks.  As an American in a Parisian hospital, she struggles to grasp the horror of her experience, even as the French medical professionals try to help her understand the situation.  Her friend, Patrick, helps her to cope through the early days of her recovery as he encourages her to pursue their planned journey to the southern part of France for an antiquing trip.  A chance encounter and an antique box of old documents soon set Jessica on a new journey.  Translating the archaic French, Jessica discovers the story of the persecuted Huguenots and their faith-filled community.  With the help of new-found friends, she pursues the Huguenot family’s story from France to England, in the hope of discovering the reason for their hope in the face of suffering.

Weaving together the past and present, Ms. Phoenix offers a compelling tale of faith and courage.  Her story goes beyond the terror of one day to explore what comes next in her characters’ lives.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Space Between Words.  While I am not familiar with Ms. Phoenix’s other works, I found this novel to be surprisingly accessible, with a good writing style and pacing that allows it to be easily read by a wide variety of readers.  She also manages to create a depiction of both the Paris attacks and Huguenot persecution that are both horrific and minimally graphic.  While I would be unlikely to hand this book to a relatively young reader, I didn’t have to worry too much about having nightmares from it myself, which I much appreciated.  The Huguenot/historical part of the story was absolutely fascinating, as was Jessica’s journey to discover more about the family involved in the making of her antique box.  With such a strong story of faith included in the historical components of the novel, the contemporary side of the plot felt much weaker in that regard.  Particularly, I found the end to have needed a bit more development, even as I was very happy to see such an emphasis on Christian faith included in a novel published by Thomas Nelson (which has not been the case in some of their more recent releases).

Fans of other Christian fiction works that split contemporary and historical timelines will likely enjoy reading The Space Between Words.  Additionally, those who have previously enjoyed Ms. Phoenix’s other works will definitely want to read this one, too.

Special thanks to The Fiction Guild and Thomas Nelson for the promotional copy of The Space Between Words!

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Review: The Austen Escape – Katherine Reay

Katherine Reay. The Austen Escape. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Lately, I’ve been watching my fair share of British television, whether in the form of recent releases or some older productions that have been from years past.  Some of the most amusing have involved putting modern-day people in historical situations, as they rarely have the basic knowledge to make it through a historical day.  Ms. Reay’s most recent novel takes a look at a very similar situation, with hysterical results. :)

Ms. Reay’s newest novel, The Austen Escape, features the friendship of Mary Davies and Isabel Dwyer.  Mary has her life together with a great job as an engineer at a start-up with excellent prospects.  Through her job, she has met a handsome consultant, who has turned into a trusted friend and possibly more.  However, Isabel soon cuts in on Mary’s life, when she springs a two-week trip to England as an emergency that could further strain or fix their friendship.  Isabel depends on the trip as an essential piece of her dissertation research on recreating Jane Austen’s literature, leaving Mary to cram in reading of all of Austen’s works.  Without Isabel’s scholarly knowledge of Austen’s world, Mary is left floundering through the early days of living on an historic estate with period-costumed guests.  When Isabel loses her memory and believes that she really lives in Austen’s Regency era, Mary must save the day with the help of the rest of the manor’s guests and a few surprise assistants from home.

The Austen Escape proves Ms. Reay’s brilliance at interweaving classic literature with modern-day situational humor.  Fans of PBS’s historical dramas and reality shows will find themselves eagerly delving into this delightful novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Austen Escape!  This novel stands out as my personal favorite novel by Ms. Reay, as she brings a wonderful sense of humor to this story.  Additionally, her characters offer a very different cast from her other books, as well as those found in similar works in the genre of contemporary Christian fiction and literary-inspired novels.  Mary and Isabel serve as just the beginning of a highly-layered cast of characters, with their own faults and accomplishments shown to great effect in this story of misunderstandings, escape, and second chances.  While other storylines in books and television shows have explored the concept of modern-day people living in a Regency Era or Austen-inspired environment, Ms. Reay’s rendition offers a new level of humor and wit to this unique setting.  Particularly, the novel’s contrasting of Mary and her engineering mind in a world of manners and social occasions offers great moments that readers will find absolutely charming.

Fans of Ms. Reay’s previous novels will definitely want to read The Austen Escape.  Likewise, readers who enjoy literature-inspired contemporary fiction or Christian fiction will find this book to be well worth tracking down.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Thomas Nelson for the advanced copy of The Austen Escape!

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Review: The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck – Bethany Turner

Bethany Turner. The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2017.

The fall book release season is already in full swing.  The next few months look to be filled with great novels by fan favorites and some interesting newcomers to the genre.

Ms. Turner makes her debut with The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck.  After Sarah’s marriage with her high school sweetheart ends, she turns to her book club and newfound passion for writing to reestablish her life as an independent woman.  Her hobby soon leads her to become a bestselling author of a trilogy of very steamy romance novels.  However, a life-changing conversation with her best friend leads Sarah to become a Christian.  While attempting to acclimate herself to a new church, Sarah must also decide how to fulfill her contract with her publisher for another book in keeping with her old writing life, which has brought her great wealth and acclaim.  Fortunately, Sarah benefits from the knowledge and experience of her best friend, a young pastor, and others who come to support her on her journey from a lonely, divorced romance writer to a much-loved friend and Christian author.

Told almost entirely from Sarah’s perspective, The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck brings a quirky situation to life.  Readers of contemporary Christian fiction will find this novel to be a unique addition to this fall’s releases.

Overall, I thought that The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck offered a witty and unique perspective to the genre.  The concept of the book is really interesting, as it stands out from quite a few other novels in the field.  However, some aspects of the story come across as being more similar to a character analysis or case study than a well-rounded novel.  Most of the story is written from Sarah’s perspective, which leads many of the other characters to appear very one-dimensional.  Personally, I liked some of the secondary characters much more than the primary ones, even as they felt under-written in this particular story.  Also, I found the author to take up some interesting and unique themes, including what makes for a Christian relationship.  However, the amount of focus on the “sex” question became burdensome, even to the point of impacting the novel’s pacing and this reader’s general interest in the story.

Fans of contemporary Christian fiction may find The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck to be worth checking out.  While I typically feel comfortable recommending Christian fiction to a broad audience of readers, I found the content and themes of this novel to be more appropriate to a more mature audience (at least high school, if not older).  In addition, some Christian readers may find the discussion of “sex” in Christian relationships to be outside the scope of appropriate content for novels by a Christian publisher.  I leave the determination of what is considered appropriate or not up to the individual reader, but I offer this information for general reference.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Revell for the advanced copy of The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck!

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Review: All This Time – Melissa Tagg

Melissa Tagg. All This Time. Middletown, DE: Larkspur Press, 2017.

Sadly, Melissa Tagg’s much-loved Walker Family series ends with her release of All This Time.  I’ve become a huge fan of Ms. Tagg’s work over the last several years, as she brings a thoughtful and ever-optimistic voice to her contemporary fiction.

All This Time focuses on the youngest Walker sibling, Raegan, and her journey into adulthood.  The local townsfolk of Maple Valley have come to expect Raegan to always fill the town’s part time jobs, whether at the pool, library, or anywhere else she’s needed.  Her dreams of being an artist were dashed in the midst of helping her family after her mother’s death.  However, she receives a second chance to live out her dream when she is chosen as the town’s artist for a national show that comes to the area.  In the midst of Raegan reimagining her career as an artist, her long-time crush and good friend, Bear McKinley, returns to Maple Valley with his niece and nephew in tow.  After his brother and sister-in-law disappear, Bear finds himself responsible for the two children, leading him to the one place he ever felt at home.  Together, Bear and Raegan discover how to face their fears and once again dream of the lives that they once put away to help others.

Fans of Ms. Tagg’s Walker Family series will be absolutely thrilled with this final novel.  The entire Walker family returns to Maple Valley to support Raegan and her memorable debut.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading All This Time!  Ms. Tagg brings her unique flair and approachable writing style to this novel about overcoming one’s fears and embracing one’s God-given dreams.  Raegan receives a fitting story for her quirky personality and long-time crush on Bear, even as Ms. Tagg shows an impressive amount of maturity and depth in Raegan and the rest of her cast of characters.  Half the fun of Ms. Tagg’s novels, including All This Time, comes through her online commentary (Facebook) about her writing process and love for her own characters.  I would definitely recommend that fans of her books check out her blog and Facebook feeds to find out more about the behind-the-scenes work on her novels, as they will discover a surprising number of enjoyable hints and quirky plot points that make it into her final versions.  With this book marking the end of the Walker Family series, I am very interested to see what Ms. Tagg decides to write next, whether as a stand-alone novel or series.

Fans of Ms. Tagg’s other novels, especially the Walker Family series, will absolutely want to read All This Time.  Readers who enjoy light-hearted, contemporary Christian fiction, such as written by Becky Wade and Susan May Warren, will also want to read this delightful book.

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Review: On Love’s Gentle Shore – Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson. On Love’s Gentle Shore. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2017.

Sometimes, I find it very challenging to decide which book in a series I like the best.  However, this series does not have that problem, as the author showed tremendous growth throughout the development of her novels, culminating in her final and most recent book.

Ms. Johnson finishes her Prince Edward Island Dreams series with On Love’s Gentle Shore.  Natalie O’Ryan grew up on Prince Edward Island under less than ideal circumstances.  While she was taken under the wing of some of the families in her hometown, she continued to face cruel gossip as a result of her parents’ poor choices.  After leaving PEI at the end of high school, Natalie never planned to return to her hometown, until her fiancé decided to surprise her with planning their wedding there.  In the weeks leading up to the event, Natalie finds herself making final preparations by herself, even as her plans continue to fall apart.  With the help of her childhood best friend, Justin Kane, Natalie finally begins to make progress planning a party worthy of her fiancé’s Nashville friends.  However, the opportunity to work together soon rekindles old memories and a second chance for them both.

On Love’s Gentle Shore serves as a heartwarming conclusion to the Prince Edward Island Dreams series.  Readers will enjoy seeing many of their favorite characters return once again, while gaining a fresh perspective on the townsfolk and staff of Rose’s Red Door Inn.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading On Love’s Gentle Shore.  Ms. Johnson shows continued growth in her writing and character development throughout this series, reaching a new high with this novel.  I especially thought that her pacing was much improved in this novel, as readers will feel much more connected to this set of characters than some introduced in other books in the series.  Natalie and Justin’s story also presents a greater focus on the families of the island, rather than characters that arrive from outside of the area.  As a series focused on island life, I would have expected to see a greater focus on these types of characters and stories much earlier on in Ms. Johnson’s other novels.  However, the inclusion of these aspects makes for a much more interesting and entertaining story in On Love’s Gentle Shore.

Readers who enjoy relatively light contemporary Christian fiction will enjoy On Love’s Gentle Shore, especially if they appreciated Ms. Johnson’s previous novels in the series, including The Red Door Inn and Where Two Hearts Meet.  Also, fans of Christian fiction that takes place in Canadian or seaside settings will also want to read this series.  With the novel’s PEI connection, fans of L.M. Montgomery may find this series to be worthwhile.  However, the modern-day PEI and Ms. Johnson’s writing style are significantly different from Ms. Montgomery’s tales.

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