Once Upon a Wardrobe

In Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan, Megs Devonshire is a college student at Oxford in the 1950s. Her 8-year-old brother, George, has a heart condition and is not expected to live long.

George has become enamored with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. George wonders often if Narnia is a real place. If not, where did it come from? When he learns that the author of the book is a professor at Megs’ school, George begs her to ask Lewis about Narnia for him.

Megs demurs. First, she explains to George, Oxford is made up of different colleges, and Lewis doesn’t teach at the one she attends. Plus, Megs studies math and physics and is not much for stories. She prefers logic and black and white answers. Of course Narnia is just a figment of the author’s imagination, she insists.

But George keeps asking, and Megs loves him. So she finds a way to meet Mr. Lewis.

Lewis is very hospitable. But he doesn’t answer Megs’ question directly. Instead, he tells her a series of stories about his life over several visits.

George enjoys the stories. But Megs is frustrated that she can’t get a straight answer. And their mother wonders if George is spending too much time thinking about an imaginary world.

There are three levels, or threads, to this story. One is Megs and George and their family. One is Lewis’ biography. And another is Megs’ learning the value of stories. Having read On Stories by Lewis, I recognized a lot of his points in this novel. He’s not saying that the world doesn’t need logic and math and facts. Rather, “Reason is how we get to the truth, but imagination is how we find meaning” (p. 52).

The middle section of the book seemed a little formulaic. Megs’ point of view is written in the first person. She’d visit Lewis and come back with a story for George. As she begins to tell it, the point of view switches to George’s, but in the third person. Then, as if the scene is unfolding in George’s imagination, a section of Lewis’ story is told in the third person.

In the final third or so of the book, the action picked up and there were no more switches, so it was easier to get caught up in the story.

The scenes with C. S. and his brother, Warnie, made me feel like I was there in their room with the fireplace going, listening in. Callahan had studied Lewis’ life for her first book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, and I am not surprised another book about him grew from all that research. The details shared showed a familiarity with Lewis’ home and school without overpowering the story.

Callahan writes in her note after the story that she wasn’t interested in “ascribing logic, facts, and theory to the world of Narnia,” as that has been done by so many others. But she wanted to explore how Narnia changes readers and how, as Lewis said, “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what needs to be said.”

I’ve read many biographies of Lewis, so most of his story was familiar to me. There were parts that surprised me, though. For instance, I knew he took some children from London into his home during the Blitz, but I had never heard anything about them until this book. It also occurred to me that, though I had read much about Lewis, I had never read his book about himself: Surprised by Joy. I’d seen that book quoted in anything else I’d read about him, so I thought I knew it. But I should read it some time.

There were a couple of places the theology was a little wonky. I wasn’t sure whether these were from the author’s beliefs or a character’s.

But overall, this was a sweet and touching story.

I listened to most of the book via audiobook, read nicely by Fiona Hardingham. But I had also gotten the Kindle version on sale and looked up many sections there.

Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men

In the novel Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men by Cara Putman, Captain Rachel Justice is a photojournalist during WWII. Her mother is dying of tuberculosis, and Rachel takes an overseas assignment to Italy to try to find the father she never knew to see if he can help provide for her mother’s treatment. All Rachel has to go on is a sketchbook given by her father to her mother with the initials RMA on some of the pages. Her mother refuses to say any more about her father and does not want Rachel to find him.

Lieutenant Scott Lindstrom is an officer with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, and stationed in Naples. He had arts degrees from Harvard and was a curator of a museum in Philadelphia. But he felt he could use his expertise to do something meaningful, to save history, to salvage beauty and meaning to sustain people after the war. He says, “We are defined by what we love and respect” (p. 28, Kindle version).

The problem was, his superiors and many soldiers didn’t take his job seriously. When lives were at stake, what did art matter to them? He had trouble getting the men and resources he needed.

When he did get a chance to talk to local people who might know where art was hidden, they didn’t trust him. The Germans had said they’d protect art, too—but they stole or destroyed much of it.

And now he was assigned to babysit a woman photojournalist who shouldn’t be so close to the danger.

So Scott and Rachel get off to a rocky start. But as they get to know each other, they appreciate each other’s mission and characters.

When Rachel shows Scott the sketchbook, hoping his knowledge of art and Italy may help her identify the artist, she doesn’t say the artist is her father. Scott thinks he recognizes the early work of an artist friend and mentor in the sketches, but he’s suspicious about why Rachel would have such a prize.

Scott is a Christian. Rachel isn’t sure she believes or trusts God. Her own father’s disinterest in her colors her view of God.

There is historical fiction that contains a romance, and romances that occur in a historical setting. I prefer the former, but this story is the latter. Still, the peek into the Monuments Men work, art history, photojournalism, the problems women in the military faced, the refugee situations in Europe all made for an interesting story.

One thing that jarred me just a bit was a major betrayal in the story that seemed to blow over much more quickly and easily than I would have expected.

But all in all, this was an enjoyable book.

Cara shares some of the influences that went into the book in an afterword and in the video below.

Were you familiar with the “Monuments Men” and their work?

Just 18 Summers

Just 18 Summers by Michelle Cox and Rene Gutteridge is a novel that tells the story of four families.

Butch Browning’s wife, Jenny, has recently passed away, and Butch is in a fog. Jenny had taken care of so many things, especially their young daughter, Ava. Butch owns a construction company and feels the weight of responsibility much more than when he was just another worker. But at home, the most he can manage is pizza every night.

Beth is Butch’s sister, married with three children. Her oldest daughter is in college and her oldest son is heading there next fall. In the midst of distress over her emptying nest, her daughter throws the family a curve ball: she wants to quit college and get married . . . to the pizza delivery guy.

Tippy is Butch’s foreman, and he and his wife, Daphne, are expecting their first child. But Daphne has gone off the deep end in trying to do everything possible to protect their child: reading every book she can find, covering every corner with pool noodles, forbidding certain foods from their home, etc., etc. etc.Her obsession is affecting their marriage, and Tippy can’t fathom how they’ll cope when the baby actually comes.

Helen and Charles Buckley are Beth’s neighbors, and the wives of all these families attend the scrapbooking get-together that Jenny started and which currently meets at Helen’s home. Charles has an excellent job, and Helen is determined to provide their children the very best opportunities so they’ll never be deprived or embarrassed like she was growing up. But Charles’ business responsibilities keep him from being an active part of his children’s lives, and Helen’s driven and regimented schedule for her children misses their deepest needs.

One theme in this book is that parents have a relatively short time—just 18 summers–to form relationships with their children, make lasting memories, and be the primary influence to their children. It goes so fast. Though, of course, we still have a relationship and make memories even after our children leave home, we have the biggest hand in their training when they are young.

Another theme is that there is only so much parents can control. As children become old enough to make their own decisions, those decisions may not be in keeping with what the parents think best. As Daphne discovers, we can’t protect our children from every little thing. Though we seek God’s will and do our best, ultimately our children’s lives are in God’s hands.

The book illustrates both points with humor and poignancy.

Though Jenny seems to have been almost too good to be true, and though Ava seems more capable than a child her age would normally be, all the characters are realistic and enjoyable.

I don’t think I’ve ever read Rene before. And though this is my first book of Michelle’s as well, I enjoyed attending one of her workshops at a writer’s conference. That conference also held a “Lightning Learning” session–kind of like speed dating–where three or four attendees would go in groups to an author’s table, hear their words of wisdom for 5 minutes, then go on to another table when a bell rang. I remember Michelle’s table being particularly merry.

Michelle explains in notes at the back of the book that Just 18 Summers was originally a screen play written by herself, Marshall Younger, and Torry Martin, and they were seeking funding to make the movie. I don’t know if it was ever made—I couldn’t find any videos of it.

As I searched for Michelle’s web site, I discovered there is another Michelle Cox, also an author, who writes in a different genre. The Michelle Cox who co-wrote 18 Summers also writes devotional books based on the When Calls the Heart TV series.

Overall I thought this was a great, enjoyable book. Though it has a point to make, it’s not didactic or heavy-handed. Since my own children are “out of the nest,” I can “amen” the truths in this book.

Book Review: The Road Home

In Malissa Chapin’s debut novel, The Road Home, Cadence Audley has started a new life with a new name—for the second time. Her past has dogged her steps, but she’s determined to lead a quiet, peaceful life in Deercrest, Wisconsin. She’s found a good job as a barista with a great boss. Antique stores in the area fulfill her taste for vintage purchases.

On one such shopping trip, Cadence finds an old recipe box filled with hand-written recipes. Her coworker Googles the name written inside the box and found that the owner had lived in town. Thinking to return a valued heirloom, Cadence finds Fredonia, the middle-aged daughter of the recipe box owner. Fredonia had donated the recipe box in the first place and is not thrilled to see it again—or Cadence, for that matter. But, upon learning that Cadence likes antiques, Fredonia invites the younger woman to drive with her to Kentucky to help clean out her mother’s home.

Fredonia’s offer comes just in time, because Cadence’s past has caught up with her—again.

This is a split-time novel. The second timeline belongs to Ida Beale Evans, owner of the recipe box. She had been a banker’s daughter in Indiana when she married her sweetheart, Bud, and moved with him to his new pastorate in Kentucky. Though she enjoys life as a country preacher’s wife, she has one sorrow. Suddenly one night, her deepest desire is unexpectedly fulfilled—but to keep it will call for a lifetime of secrecy.

Though Ida is a Christian and Cadence is not, both women struggle with trusting that the truth will set them free. The truth seems like it will destroy them. But Cadence has come to the end of her road. Can she escape and start over yet again? Or must she face her past and its consequences, even though doing so means losing everything she holds dear? Can she trust the young preacher who tells her, “Your sin caused problems everywhere, but God is bigger than this. He’s big enough to help you live a new life” (Location 3415, Kindle version).

I enjoyed following the journey of both women and the truths they learned. I also enjoyed the sense of place in the book, especially the Kentucky sections. There was a nice mix of both funny and poignant moments in the story. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes from Ida Beale’s box. It was fun to learn on Malissa’s blog what inspired the pink Cadillac road trip in the book and to peruse her Pinterest board for the people and items that inspired or contributed to the story.

As of this writing, the Kindle edition is $2.99, but a paperback version is also available.

Book Review: Half-Finished

In Lauraine Snelling’s novel, Half Finished, two friends get fed up with all their half-done craft projects and decide to do something about it. One, Roxie, had heard about UFO clubs—not for discovering alien life, but for finishing UnFinished Objects, or projects in their case. They discuss the idea with a few other friends and decide on a time to meet together with each choosing one project to work on while they meet.

As word of the UFO club spreads, more people want in on it—because who doesn’t have unfinished projects of some kind. Soon there are morning and evening clubs at several different locations. Even some of the men get it on the meetings.

But the clubs grow beyond projects. Relationships form and people band together to help each other through the sorrows and joys they encounter.

Lauraine said in her afterword that the book was inspired by such a UFO club in her own town. And this story brought up fond memories of a group of women who did something similar in my early married days. We didn’t focus on unfinished projects—though that’s what they were. But it wasn’t a matter of projects that had been lying around for years. We were too young to have many like that. We just met to spend some time fellowshipping while working on our various projects. We’d rotate houses, and ladies would take turns bringing snacks. I always felt we were a little inspired by the sisters in the Little Women sequels, who would meet together and visit with each other while doing their mending. I was sorry to see our group disbanded after a while: I think some of the ladies felt guilty spending time working on crafts during the day.

The beginning of the book was hard to get into: it was very busy. There were so many characters, they and their families were hard to keep straight. Plus the pages seemed to be stuffed with unnecessary details. For instance, there was one paragraph all about one woman’s two credit cards and which she used for what and why she was using the one she did for a purchase that day. Unless something about the credit cards was going to come up later in the story, there was no need to know any of that, or even that she paid for the purchase with a credit card. I don’t remember seeing that kind of thing in any of Lauraine’s other books.

But once the narrative settled down into a few of the main characters’ stories, the book became more enjoyable. There’s Roxie, a widowed real estate agent and a founding member of the UFO club. She has a grown daughter, Loren, who lives with her. Fred and Ginny own a farm and share their bounty with others. Their son and his family live nearby, and they enjoy getting together often. Their granddaughter, Addy, is an expert cookie baker. Amalia is one of my favorite characters: she is widowed and sold her own farm to live in senior apartments. But, even though she couldn’t keep up with the farm alone, she’s still able-bodied and mentally sound. She spends her days helping out some of the other seniors with physical needs or her friends.

One of the themes of the book is that we’re all half-finished projects. We’re all in a state of growth. So we need to be patient with ourselves and each other, but we also need to keep growing and learning.

Three Christmas Reads

I thought I’d group together short reviews of three books I enjoyed this December.

Expecting Christmas is a 40-day devotional book by multiple authors. I didn’t know any of the author names except one (Jennifer Dukes Lee). It’s put out by New Hope Publishers.

The selections are short, which is appreciated in a month like December. Each began with a verse or two of Scripture, a page and a half to two pages (at least in the Kindle version) of text, then three questions for refection.

The readings cover a variety of Christmas topics, though several deal with light.

A couple of samples: Day 15 talks about how horses in past years were seen as “labor animals, forms of transportation, and even weapons of war” (p. 44). After describing war horses, the writer points out Zechariah 9:9-10: Jesus did not come as an overthrowing conqueror, at least as the kind of conqueror society expected. His second coming will be more like that. But this time, He came humbly on a donkey. The author concludes, “Take time now to thank the Lord for being both just and humble, for bringing salvation instead of condemnation, for riding peacefully on a colt rather than on a warhorse. Ask Him to help you trust Him, especially when you don’t understand His ways. When you find yourself confused by His methods, remember the salvation He brought and the joys of that great gift” (p. 46).

In mediating on Jesus being given “the tongue of the learned” (Isaiah 40:4-5), another writer says, “Jesus didn’t use His deep knowledge and gift for oratory to make a name for Himself or climb social ladders. Rather, as seen in the Gospel accounts of His ministry, Jesus used His words to unburden people, free minds from the lies they had learned from false religions, and draw weary hearts closer to the Living God” (p. 54).

Another points out that people responded differently in praise and worship of the Savior, and that’s okay. “Mary’s response was one of quiet introspection as she treasured the good news of the gospel in her heart. The shepherds, on the other hand, left young Jesus, glorifying God and praising Him with outward enthusiasm and passion. People celebrate the gospel in different ways” (p. 77).

I only wish this book was 25 or 31 days so it would fit within the month of December. I didn’t get started 40 days ahead, so I have a bit yet to finish up. But I wanted to mention it before the month was over. Overall, I enjoyed it.

The second book I mentioned in my top twelve post yesterday. I had never heard of Letters From Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien. I discovered it while looking for a short Christmas audiobook to finish out the year. This fit the bill nicely.

Tolkien sent letters and drawings as if from Father Christmas to his children from 1920 to 1943. He wrote with a shaky script because he was so old, he said (probably also to disguise his handwriting). The letters would comment on happenings in the children’s lives as well as at the North Pole. The North Polar Bear was Father Christmas’s helper and companion, a cheerful but bumbling fellow who unwittingly caused a lot of accidents. Polar Bear adds his own commentaries with a thick script because of his paws. Later an elf named Ilbereth acts as Father Christmas’s secretary. The last few letters mention “this horrible war” (WWII) and the people displaced, the shortage of supplies even at the North Pole, etc.

I got the audiobook superbly narrated by Derek Jacobi as Father Christmas and a couple of others for the infrequent voices of the bear and elf. But when I realized the book had photos of the letters and drawings, I had to get the Kindle version, too.

I thought in passing of Tolkien’s penchant for languages but figured that wouldn’t have a place in this book. But he did come up with a made-up language called Arktic that is spoken at the North Pole, and Polar Bear shares a few lines of it.

He also included some battles with goblins, who at times liked to raid Father Christmas’s supplies.

These letters are wonderfully imaginative. I especially loved the banter between Father Christmas, Polar Bear, and Ilbereth.

My last Christmas book this year is The Ornament Keeper, a contemporary fiction novella by Eva Marie Everson.

It’s Felicia Morgan’s custom to begin decorating the Christmas tree with the special, customized ornaments her husband has given her, one each year except for the last year. Each represented something special about their year: their first Christmas together, their children, her job advancement, etc.

This year, though, Felicia is dragging her feet. She and Jackson have separated after twenty years of marriage. Her daughter convinces Felicia to put up decorations as usual, but the memories are painful.

As Felicia hangs each ornament, we see a flashback to the circumstances surrounding each of them. Felicia’s marriage began with a mistake which has haunted the couple’s twenty years. Though God has redeemed and worked together for good their indiscretion, seeds of resentment and unforgiveness threaten to destroy what they have. Can they find their way back to each other before it’s too late?

I enjoyed the story and the truths brought out. I appreciated that the book wasn’t superficial or treacly.

Have you read any of these? Did you read any Christmas books this year?

The Yuletide Angel

In The Yuletide Angel by Sandra Ardoin, someone mysteriously leaves gifts at the homes of the needy during Christmas season nights in the 1890s. The town dubs the mysterious visitor the Yuletide Angel.

No one knows that the Yuletide Angel is shy, timid Violet Madison.

No one except her neighbor, Hugh Barnes. Hugh had seen Violet on her mission one night, and ever since he has followed her at a discreet distance to protect her.

When Violet learns her brother is planning to marry soon, she begins to worry. Her brother inherited the family home and plans to bring his bride there. They plan for Violet to live with them, but she would feel like she’s intruding on their lives. Her father did not leave her much because he assumed she would marry. But she is plain and not well-spoken, and no one has shown an interest. What could she do to make her own way that would be socially acceptable? She has some ideas of things she could sell in the Hugh the grocer’s shop.

Hugh has been fond of Violet for a long time. He speaks cheerfully to her and tries to gently draw her out. He enthusiastically endorses her plan for selling her baked goods in his store.

Just when it seems their relationship is unfolding well, Hugh’s ne’er-do-well brother, Kit, shows up. When Hugh sees Violet and Kit together, he feels betrayed.

And on top of everything else, an unseen stalker is following Violet on her nightly rounds and stealing her gifts.

This was an enjoyable story. I appreciate that as a Christian author, Sandra is not afraid to deal with Christian issues outright rather than just hinting at them. Yet her style is not heavy or preachy.

As a novella, this was a quick read. But the characters and story arc were well-developed. All in all, a good quick read.

Christmas By the Sea

In A Christmas by the Sea by Melody Carlson, Wendy Harper and her son, Jackson, are in the midst of hard times. Wendy’s husband passed away, and she is left with a mountain of medical bills.

Then she learns that she has inherited her grandparents’ cottage by the sea. She had visited them several summers as she grew up. Though she loves the cottage, she knows she has to sell it to get back on her feet financially. So she and Jackson drive down to spend a few days fixing the cottage up.

Jackson, who has been having a hard time since his father died, is renewed by the town and the cottage. He thinks they are going to stay. Wendy doesn’t want to disappoint him, so she puts off telling him that they have to sell the place.

When Wendy goes shopping for supplies, she meets a helpful man, Caleb, who she takes to be store employee. Later she discovers he is a local craftsman who owns his own store, while his mother owns the tourist shop Wendy remembers from her childhood.

Wendy faces challenges in her renovations, her need to tell Jackson her plans for the house, her deciding what to do next in life, and her growing relationship with Caleb.

I loved the nontraditional setting for a Christmas story. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up on the coast of southern Texas, so my early Christmases didn’t contain snow and sledding and such.

My one complaint is that the story wrapped up awfully quickly and a bit unrealistically. But otherwise, I thought it was a nice book.

Book Review: Chapel Springs Revival

In the Chapel Springs Revival novel by Ane Mulligan, best friends Claire Bennett and Patsy Kowalski meet with other friends weekly at Dees ‘n’ Doughs’ bakery in their small Georgia town. Most of the ladies are also entrepreneurs. As they discuss the diminishing tourist trade, the newest resident points out the shabby fronts of most of the main street businesses.

Claire, “with all the subtlety of a charging water buffalo,” makes it her mission to revitalize the town—or at least encourage all the business owners to spiff up their places and the town council to spring for repainting and flower baskets.

Patsy, for all the time she has known Claire, has helped helped rein her in and bail her out of trouble.

Both ladies are experiencing trouble in their marriages, which need revitalization more than the town does. They had married men who were also best friends, but now one is grouchy and the other is absent more often than not.

A series of “mishaps and miscommunication,” according to the Amazon description, gives the ladies sometimes comedic trouble. But the book isn’t all comedy. The characters learn and grow and have some touching moments.

This book wasn’t quite my cup of tea, so I don’t plan to read any more of the series. Claire never quite resonated with me. And one or more characters had a penchant for saying “Van Gogh’s ear!” when they were exasperated, which made no sense to me. But if you like I Love Lucy-type comedy with a Southern accent, you’d probably like this book.

Book Review: The Nature of a Lady

In The Nature of a Lady by Roseanna M. White, Lady Elizabeth Sinclair prefers microscopes to ballrooms. She never feels she fits in with her peers. Her best friend is her maid, Mabena. Libby’s brother wants to marry her off to Lord Sheridan so she’s “taken care of.” Sheridan would at least tolerate her eccentricities. But is that she can expect out of life—toleration?

Libby decides to take Mabena on a summer holiday to the Isles of Scilly, where Mabena is from. While she’s away, Libby hopes Sheridan will see that they can’t possibly get married. She rents a cottage and discovers the previous occupant had also been named Elisabeth and had left suddenly with no explanation.

Then Libby begins receiving packages and notes that must be for the other Elizabeth. But one contains a cannonball, of all things.

Then a young man shows up at her doorstep demanding to know where his sister is. And this young man somehow knows Mabena.

Oliver Tremayne is a vicar and a gentleman, but most of the family’s wealth was spent on his brother’s illness. He’s exasperated with his sister, Beth. She was supposed to write him twice a week, but he hasn’t heard from her in two weeks. He’s afraid Beth’s absence is aggravating his grandmother’s dementia. He’d told Beth he’d stay away and giver her her freedom while on Holiday, but he has to make sure she is all right. Imagination his surprise, then, when someone other than his sister opens her door at his knock—someone he has met before, someone with Mabena.

Besides the mysteries of what happened to Beth and how everyone knows Mabena, other unexplained happenings include strange noises on one of the islands, a white figure, odd notations in an old book, pirate treasure, and past princes.

Meanwhile, Libby feels more at home in the isles than she has ever felt in her life. But can she ever convince her brother to let her stay?

One mystery to me: why the cover portrays Libby as dark-haired, when she’s repeatedly described as blonde and fair in the book.

I had never heard of the Isles of Scilly before listening to this book, and I enjoyed learning about them. The puzzles and mysteries in the book were intriguing, though I think I lost a couple of the threads before it was all over–probably a result of listening to the audiobook rather than reading the book, which made it harder to go back and trace some things. I liked the threads about being who God created you to be and the fact that science and faith aren’t enemies (though Libby seemed to accept evolution as fact, which I would disagree with).

I can’t say I enjoyed this story quite as much as Roseanna’s other books I’ve read, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. And I am looking forward to the next book in the series.