Review: Sweetbriar Cottage – Denise Hunter

Denise Hunter. Sweetbriar Cottage. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Some authors are known for writing series, while others consistently write stand-alone novels.  Over the last year, a few authors have tried to attempt writing the opposite of their normal, with surprisingly positive results.

Acclaimed contemporary Christian fiction author, Denise Hunter, developed Sweetbriar Cottage as a stand-alone novel.  The story concentrates on the relationship of Noah and Josephine Mitchell, a young couple who unexpectedly discover that the paperwork for their divorce was never finalized by the judge.  In the midst of trying to rectify the final paperwork, Josephine finds herself stranded at Noah’s mountainside horse ranch in a historic blizzard.  After avoiding one another for months, Noah and Josephine are faced with an extended period of time in each other’s company.  When an emergency arises on the ranch, they must both head out into the storm, where they face nature’s wrath and risk their survival trying to return to the ranch.  In the midst of the storm, Josephine finally admits her painful history and the tragedy that eventually led to their divorce.  When faced with the real possibility of death, both must decide whether to love and forgive or finally give up on their relationship altogether.

In this story of unconditional love and forgiveness, Ms. Hunter writes a gripping tale of Josephine and Noah’s relationship.  Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, Sweetbriar Cottage offers an intense winter story with a Southern spin.

Overall, I appreciated the chance to read Sweetbriar Cottage.  While I’m not typically a huge fan of stories focused on broken marriages, Ms. Hunter’s books are of a consistently high caliber to try reading.  Using a series of flashback scenes throughout the novel, Ms. Hunter expertly intersperses the intense winter survival story with past moments of Josephine and Noah’s history.  Readers will find Josephine’s story to be particularly heartbreaking and intense, especially within a work of Christian fiction.  However, Josephine’s tragic past provides a significant and compelling springboard for Ms. Hunter to develop the rest of her plotline.   While some readers may not be comfortable with elements of this story, many will see the worth of this story as one of ultimate love and redemption.

Fans of Ms. Hunter’s past works will definitely want to read Sweetbriar Cottage.  While elements of this story may seem familiar to readers, Ms. Hunter’s storytelling ability shines through and illustrates why she may be one of only a limited number of authors capable of tackling this challenging story.

Ms. Hunter will kick off a new series with Blue Ridge Sunrise in November 2017!

Special thanks to NetGalley and Thomas Nelson for the advanced copy of Sweetbriar Cottage!

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Review: The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories – Celeste Fletcher McHale

Celeste Fletcher McHale. The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Celeste Fletcher McHale’s The Secret of Hummingbird Cake was one of the most surprising and unique debut works that I reviewed last year.  In sharing it with several family members, they were incredibly impressed with the overall story and characters.  When I had the chance to preview an advanced reader’s copy of Ms. McHale’s upcoming release, I jumped at the opportunity.  After finishing the book in record time, I can honestly say that the novel is well worth the read!

Stranded on a rooftop during a devastating Mississippi flood, Jacey becomes attached to her fellow survivors, a poor mother, her four sons, and a man named Colin.  Over the course of three days, Jacey and Colin formed an indescribable bond forged by their life-and-death situation.  When a chance at rescue separates Jacey and Colin, they promise one another that they will reunite, only to have their contact information and Jacey’s memory wiped away in a tragic accident in the flood waters.  A year later, Jacey and Colin are unexpectedly reunited at a friend’s wedding.  Jacey’s faulty memory, triggered by her tragic accident, begins to return after talking with Colin and reestablishing their relationship in the normalcy of their real lives.  However, the flood waters were not the only complication that Colin and Jacey encountered in the years prior.  To move forward, each must have faith to overcome their previous challenges and fears, even if it means setting aside the relationship that they each have sought to relocate after the flood.

Ms. McHale shows herself to be a resonant voice in Southern fiction, writing in a style that reaches beyond traditional Christian fiction and into the real world challenges of everyday people.  The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories will leave readers wanting far more of Ms. McHale’s stories.

Overall, I was absolutely thrilled with The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories!  After reading Ms. McHale’s debut novel, The Secret of Hummingbird Cake, I was left unsure as to whether she could ever write another story of equal caliber.  In The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories, she shows herself to be an incredible (and surprisingly consistent) storyteller.  The novel features complex and compelling characters faced with incredible, yet realistic, challenges, leaving the reader reflecting on the story long after it ends.  While some aspects of the novel may fall outside of the norm for Christian contemporary fiction, Ms. McHale’s story offers a fresh and genuine tale that will resonate with a Christian audience.  Additionally, the storyline, including the characters’ faults and challenges, will also ring true for a general readership.  In this purely Southern tale, Ms. McHale offers an insightful look at the true meaning of redemption and second chances, whether for a family, marriage, friendship, or romantic relationship.

Fans of Ms. McHale and The Secret of Hummingbird Cake will definitely want to read The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories.  Likewise, readers who enjoy Southern-inspired Christian fiction will also want to check out this novel.  Ms. McHale writes for a broad audience, with moderate to fast pacing of her story.  Some readers may dislike some of the novel’s language and actions of the characters, which may impact the age-appropriateness of this story.  However, the novel is well worth the read for those who can appreciate the overall plotline and the characters’ redemption, in spite of their imperfections.

Special thanks to the author (Celeste Fletcher McHale) and BookLook Bloggers for the advanced copy of The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories!

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Review: The One True Love of Alice-Ann – Eva Marie Everson

Eva Marie Everson. The One True Love of Alice-Ann. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2017.

On a very rainy, early spring day, it’s always nice to curl up with another great Christian fiction novel.  While my grandmother, aunt, and mum initially started me in on these types of stories, I now find myself in the fascinating role of regularly recommending novels to them.  Fortunately, there always seems to be more great stories being released that I know they will enjoy.

Eva Marie Everson releases her newest novel, The One True Love of Alice-Ann, this month.  While the novel takes place primarily during the early part of World War II, Alice-Ann’s story begins in the days just before the war.  As a budding sixteen-year-old, Alice-Ann has a crush on her older brother’s friend and plans to share her feelings with him at her birthday party.  However, the events at Pearl Harbor devastate the people of her small Georgia town, even as they send the young men of the area to the nearest enlistment office.  Desperate to share her feelings with Mack, Alice-Ann promises to write him until he returns, in spite of him not sharing any mutual feelings.  After years of correspondence, Mack’s letters suddenly end without warning, causing Alice-Ann to wonder about the true state of their relationship.  Meanwhile, the war has already taken its toll on the local families, including another of her brother’s friends, Carlton.  Alice-Ann finds her spare time taken up helping Carlton to recover from his war wounds, even as it forces her to face the realities of adulthood in a time of war.  Ultimately, Alice-Ann must choose between her dreams of one man and the reality of another, all in hopes of finally wearing her aunt’s wedding dress for the man she loves.

Ms. Everson writes a compelling story of emerging adulthood in a time of war.  Alice-Ann’s story will capture the hearts of readers who enjoy character-driven novels set during the World War II era.

Overall, I surprisingly enjoyed reading The One True Love of Alice-Ann.  While I have had mixed reactions to some of Ms. Everson’s previous work, I found this novel to be exceptionally well written, with even pacing and character development throughout.  She does a great job of showing the influence of the World War II period on a small Georgia town and the surrounding rural areas, through the inclusion of fascinating historical detail derived from her family’s past and additional research.  Additionally, the novel maintains a significant focus on Alice-Ann and the people in her life, offering a compelling narrative that many readers will enjoy without overly graphic descriptions of the war itself.  Based on Ms. Everson’s themes, writing style, and accessible pacing of the novel, I would highly recommend this story to those who appreciate captivating historical Christian fiction.

Fans of Ms. Everson’s previous works will definitely want to read The One True Love of Alice-Ann.  Additionally, readers who enjoy character-driven stories of the American homefront during World War II will also find this novel to be well worth reading.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Tyndale House for the advanced copy of The One True Love of Alice-Ann!

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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 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