Two Dickensian Christmas Stories

In A Tale of Two Hearts by Michelle Griep, Mina Scott is an innkeeper’s daughter in 1853 London. She enjoys Dickens novels when she can borrow them and dreams of a better life. She wouldn’t mind if William Barlow, a regular customer in her father’s tap room, was part of those dreams.

And then the unthinkable happens: William asks her to pose as his wife for a dinner with his uncle. The uncle is trying to determine which nephew will be his heir, and William thinks that appearing married will give him a better chance, especially considering his unstable earlier years.

Mina reluctantly agrees. She enjoys the visit to the restaurant and then the uncle’s townhouse, where she feels like a real lady. But she finds she really likes William’s uncle and feels bad for deceiving him. William does as well. Then they discover a scheme by the other nephew in line for the inheritance, and their focus turns to protecting the uncle. But how will they be believed without sounding like they are just angling for a better position themselves?

In The Old Lace Shop, also by Griep, Bella White is recently widowed, but not in mourning. Her husband was abusive, and she had only married him due to her father’s machinations. While selling off her husband’s property, she decides to keep one industry: a small lace manufacturer. She doesn’t need the income, but she needs to prove she can function on her own.

The shop has a partner, though Bella is the majority owner. When she moves to Nottingham to visit the shop, she’s stunned to find that the partner is the man she loved who left without a word to her several years before. After their awkward getting to know each other again and overcoming his resistance to her partnership, they try to find a good working relationship. But they clash on several points. And then they discover a plot that endangers both of them and the people they love.

These books were the second and third of Griep’s Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series. The first was 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, which I read a couple of years ago (linked to my review). The first two books were released separately in two subsequent years, but now they are combined in Once Upon a Dickens Christmas with the third.

As far as I could tell, the stories didn’t seem to be a retelling of a particular Dickens book. But they were from the same era and in similar style. Dickens himself shows up in the last two (I can’t remember if he did in the first).

Another common thread was a “second chance” coin—not a token of luck, but just a wish or acknowledgement for the recipient.

A few quotes:

Real joy is not found in the best moments of life, but in trusting that God is making the best of every moment.

My mother–God rest her– always told me to think of eternity, then live backward from that. Such a view has a way o’ whittlin’ down our current troubles to a size we can crumple up into a ball and toss aside.

His face was a road map of years.

Maybe, perhaps, true meaning in life had nothing to do with outward trappings but with inward genuineness.

Funny, is it not, that one doesn’t know how bad one really is until trying hard to be good.

One quote was overstated a bit. . . . “The heat of a thousand suns burned along every nerve, and settled low in his belly.”

I got a little frustrated with the characters and their choices sometimes. But these books weren’t bad companions for the last weeks of the year.

Book Review: Mistletoe and Murder

Mistletoe and Murder: A Christmas Suspense Collection contains ten novellas by different authors. Some are cozy mysteries: some are a bit darker. For some, Christmas just happens to be the time of year the story occurs and doesn’t really figure into the plot. Others depend on the Christmas setting more heavily. Most have Christian characters and undertones, some more than others.

Here’s just a brief description of the types of stories in the book:

Dead of Winter by Mary Alford: A deputy receives a mysterious text from her brother and then finds his cabin empty, his rifle missing, and blood on the door frame.

Death the Halls by Adam Blumer: A woman plans to introduce her boyfriend to the family at their cabin over Christmas. But someone has ransacked the cabin and takes the woman hostage.

Revenge Ignited by Liz Bradford: A Christmas thief is hitting houses in Knoxville. But the person who robs the home of an FBI agent on bereavement leave, taking care of her dead sister’s children, seems different from the rest.

The Marked Witness by Vicki Hinze: A security consultant hears from a woman and her daughter who had previously been placed in witness protection. They have reason to believe they’ve been discovered and are in danger.

Ghost of Christmas Past by Shaen Layle: An unstable man stalks his ex-wife and lures their deaf son away from her.

The Confession of John Doe by Loree Lough: An Amish Good Samaritan comes to the aid of a man thrown from his car and badly injured. When he returns to the hospital to visit the man, he is asked an even bigger favor: to hide the man from the criminals seeking his life.

Killing Christmas by Nancy Mehl: A long-dormant serial killer resurfaces and wants a pastor who writes a weekly column for the newspaper to write his story.

Deadly Drive by Cara Putnam: A woman’s twin brother has been shot, and she’s called to make a positive identification. When her plane arrives, she’s met in the airport by her brother’s roommate . . . only her brother didn’t have a roommate.

Dangerous Christmas by Lynn Shannon: A social worker narrowly escapes an attacker. When a policeman takes her home, her apartment has been broken into and someone has painted an ominous message on her wall. But why?

Yuletide Protector by Virginia Vaughan: A woman had told the police that her ex-boyfriend was stalking and threatening her. But he’s also a policeman, and the officers protected him instead of her. She changed her name and took precautions. But now someone with her same name is killed in a car bomb. Had that bomb been meant for her?

Most of these are stand-alone stories, but a few tie in to an author’s previous series. But enough was explained that I wasn’t left hanging.

I had only read Adam Blumer and Cara Putnam before. I’d heard of Loree Lough and Nancy Mehl. The other authors were completed new to me.

The stories were definitely suspenseful! I enjoyed some more than others. Since they were all set at Christmas, they all turned out well in the end.

In some cases, a novella doesn’t really provide enough time for two people to fall in love, especially if they were strangers beforehand. So some of the romances seemed a little rushed.

There was one spot where the theology was a little wonky, but most of the time the faith element was a clear and vital thread in the story.

Christmastime seems to lend itself to anthologies. But I’ve never read a collection of Christmas novellas with as many as ten stories. That added up to 938 pages—a little long, in my opinion, for a book that’s primarily going to be read in one month. I would have enjoyed it more if it had broken broken up into two books read on subsequent Christmases.

But I did enjoy it, for the most part. And I think anyone who likes mystery, suspense, crime drama, detective stories, and the like would love it.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

 

 

Book Review: A Portrait of Loyalty

A Portrait of Loyalty is the third in Roseanna M. White’s Codebreakers series which takes place during WWI.

Lily Blackwell inherited her mother’s artistic eye, but her medium is photography rather than paint. Skilled in retouching as well as taking pictures, Lily’s father recruits her into the government’s propaganda department. But they keep her involvement a secret from Lily’s mother, who doesn’t approve of art being used that way.

Zivon Marin’s outspokenness against Lenin led to his fiance’s murder and his having to flee Russia. He had been second in command in Russia’s cryptography department and now offers his services to England. Though England accepts his offer, not everyone in the department is sure they can trust him—especially when compromising pictures begin mysteriously showing up.

When Zivon and Lily meet, neither can be completely forthcoming. So how can they ever truly know and trust each other?

And as WWI seems to be winding to a close, another threat looms: the Spanish flu, known at first as the three-day fever.

A few favorite quotes:

The world may still look dark, but if photography had taught her anything, it was that there was always more light to be found. Sometimes you just needed to change your lens. And sometimes you need a flash. Neither ever changed what was really there… but it showed it in a new way.

We must be still – not our hands and feet, but our minds. And know that He is God. That He has not changed. That the same Lord who loved us when all is well loves us still when all is lost. His promises are as true today as they were yesterday. He has been enough to see people through the worst since the dawn of time. We must trust that His love is enough to see us through now.

She had a feeling he was like a matryoshka doll too–a placid exterior that hid layers of secrets and mysteries. And she couldn’t help but wonder what lay beneath this carefully crafted shell.

Once again, Roseanna has woven together an intriguing story with a lot of depth and layers. The only problem with listening to the audiobook raher than reading is that the audiobook doesn’t include the author’s end notes explaining where she got her inspiration and what parts of the story were based on true happenings.

Although I think any of the books in the series could be read alone, I really enjoyed reading/listening to them straight through. The Codebreakers series continues the timeline and some of the characters of the Shadows Over England series.

Shadows Over England:

Book 1: A Name Unknown
Book 2: A Song Unheard
Book 3: An Hour Unspent

Codebreakers series:

Book 1: The Number of Love
Book 2: On the Wings of Devotion
Book 3: A Portrait of Loyalty

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: On the Wings of Devotion

In Roseanna M. White’s novel, On Wings of Devotion, Phillip Camden’s nickname is “Black Heart.” He earned it when his squadron went down in flames and he was thought to be the cause due to a loud argument and threat to one of his men. A friend pulled some strings to get Phillip out of prison and into Room 40, where the codebreakers worked during WWI. But his surliness and bitterness keep everyone at bay.

Arabelle Denler is a nurse and an heiress. She’s warm and kind, but not considered attractive. Since her father had been absent most of her childhood, all she ever wanted was a family. When a lifelong friend suggested a marriage of convenience so her money could help preserve his family home, she readily agreed. But then her fiance fell in love with someone else.

Phillip puts himself forth as Arabelle’s protector from the stream of men seeking her hand—and her money—now that she’s free. As they come to know each other, Arabelle sees beyond the surface of Phillip’s brusque exterior. He sees the goodness and kindness of her heart.

But an old acquaintance seeks Phillip out. He knows she’s up to no good. But he doesn’t realize that she’s setting him up as part of a larger target.

This book is the second of the Codebreaker series, which is a continuation of the Shadows over England series. I enjoyed seeing a few characters from the previous books pop up. But I enjoyed Phillip’s and Arabelle’s stories even more. All the threads of the story—the characters, the spiritual and mental journeys, the intrigue—kept me listening to the audiobook every chance I got, especially the last fourth or so of the book.

A couple of quotes:

This war was destroying her entire generation. Those it hadn’t wiped out entirely it was trying to take apart piece by piece. And what could she do?

We can be sure it will be painful. Cutting out what stands between us and God always is. But we can also trust that in the giving, we’ll gain something far more precious.

The audiobook was wonderfully read by Susan Lyons. The only negative about the audiobook is that it doesn’t include the author’s notes at the end, where she tells how she came to write the story, what historical details she drew on, etc.

Each book I read from Roseanna is my favorite. Until I read the next.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Literary Christmas Challenge 2020

A Literary Christmas: Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.comI enjoy reading Christmas books after Thanksgiving through the end of the year. Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts a Literary Christmas challenge for that purpose. You can find the details here, but the basic idea is to read Christmas books and write posts about them.

I have ten unread Christmas books on my Kindle app, plus one I’ve read but don’t remember and would like to reread. I don’t think I can get through them all in a month. I don’t want the challenge to be pressured, especially during a month with a lot else going on. So I’ll start with these and add some in if I have time and inclination.

An advent devotional—either Joy to the World: Daily Readings for Advent by Charles Spurgeon or A Christmas Longing by Joni Eareckson Tada. Haven’t decided yet.

Loving My Actual Christmas by Alexandra Kuykendall, nonfiction.

A Christmas by the Sea by Melody Carlson. This appealed to me because I grew up on the Texas coastline, so my early Christmases were more seaside than wintery.

Mistletoe and Murder: A Christmas Suspense Collection of ten novellas by different authors. Not the usual Christmas fare, eh? I’ve only read two of the authors and heard of a couple more. I’m mainly reading it for Adam Blumer’s entry, but I hope to enjoy all of them.

A Very Bookish Christmas by Sarah Holman, J. Grace Pennington, Kate Willis, and Rebekah Jones. A series of stories based on classic books. I loved the Thanksgiving version so much, I couldn’t wait to get the Christmas one.

That gives me a good start! Do you like to read Christmas stories? Do you have plans to read any this year?

(Sharing with InstaEncouragement, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Discovering Jesus and His Love

Discovering Jesus and His Love by Scott Leone is a short book (115 pages) about a family who comes to know the Lord through the influence of their neighbor. The author notes that the story is fictional, yet reflects on the types of experiences many Christians have as they believe on Christ for salvation and walk with Him through life.

The story opens with a brother and sister taking a walk and meeting their neighbor, Mr. Lion, who invites them into the yard for a cold drink and a visit. Mr. Lion uses every opportunity to speak to the children about the Lord. They have not been to church and their family isn’t religious, so what Mr. Lion tells them is mostly new to them.

The children accompany Mr. Lion to church, and over time believe that Jesus is God’s Son and died for their sins. Then Mr. Lion tries to teach them more about the faith as they continue to interact. The changes in the children’s lives affect their parents, who each have their own issues which cause resistance to the gospel.

In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Lion face struggles of their own as they grow older and their health declines.

The book reads very much like the Sunday School papers for all ages that my husband’s church used to give to attendees: brief stories illustrating a spiritual truth or lesson.

It also reminds me a bit of a book I was given as a teenager which told about salvation and the first steps of discipleship, except that book was nonfiction.

I can see this book being used to introduce someone to the gospel or encourage a new Christian in their walk. Mr. Lion’s eagerness to share Christ is convicting.

Thanks to Scott and his wife, Sara, for sending me a copy of the book. Sara has been a longtime email friend I “met” through this blog.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: A Very Bookish Thanksgiving

Three factors intrigued me when I saw A Very Bookish Thanksgiving mentioned at Tarissa’s. First, I can generally trust what Tarissa recommends. Second, I don’t think I have ever seen a series of stories based on Thanksgiving before. Third, each of the five stories ties in with a classic book. I was unfamiliar with all of the authors but interested enough to give the book a try.

A Promise of Acorns by Kelsey Bryant is inspired by Jane Eyre. Erin Moore is hired as a nanny to two children cared for by a reserved grandfather. Dr. Manchester has an unusual request: he has not celebrated Thanksgiving in years because it was his deceased wife’s favorite holiday, and it’s too much for him. He wonders if Erin would take on the responsibility of teaching the children about Thanksgiving. He doesn’t know that Erin has her own difficulties with the day, but she agrees to his request.

As Long as I Belong by Sarah Holman is inspired by Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Annalise Marshell comes from a bickering family headed by a father who can’t keep a job. They’ve been offered a place at a Christian retreat center, headed by the Clark family. Mrs. Clark helps Annalise feel welcome and a part of the team, but Annalise feels like she’s in-between her family and the Clarks, belonging fully to neither.

The Windles and the Lost Boy by Rebekah Jones is inspired by Peter Pan. Patrick Quill takes in stray boys in a secret location. Some are running from abusive situations, and he gives them a safe place until they are ready to launch on their own. Arabella Windle and her brothers unexpectedly discover one such boy needing help. They’ve heard stories about Patrick. Is he real, and can they find him?

Grand Intentions by J. Grace Pennington is based on Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pippa Charles’ dream is to write a novel, but helping her mother take care of her brothers doesn’t leave much time. Then she receives a grand opportunity: her grandmother is going away for a few months and asks Pippa to stay at her house and take care of her dog. Pippa relishes the time alone, but then she gets distracted by the new friends she makes. Will this experience bring out the best or worst in her?

A Fine Day Tomorrow by Amanda Tero is based on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Essie March suffered from serious illness during her childhood. But she survived and now wants to be a nurse. She feels the need all the more as the Spanish flu rages through the country. But a series of misfortunes stop her in her tracks and make her wonder if she’ll ever be good for anything again.

The stories aren’t a point-for-point retelling of their respective books, but the main characters and some of the details mirror them. The books themselves are almost characters in the stories as they are referred to during the plot.

Each of the stories has a strong and well-woven faith element as well.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

Bookshelves told you more about a person or a family than anything else in a house.

Celebrating Thanksgiving was not just about blood family but about creating family among those you celebrated with. I couldn’t be with my parents on this earth anymore, but there were other people for me to love and to love me back.

My favorite thing about any Dickens book was how you could always get something new out of it at each reading, no matter how many times you revisited it.
 
I enjoyed each of these stories—so much so, that I ordered A Very Bookish Christmas based on the same premise by some of the same authors.
 

Book Review: Under a Cloudless Sky

In Chris Fabry’s novel, Under a Cloudless Sky, two girls from widely different circumstances become friends in 1933 West Virginia. Bean, short for Beatrice, is the daughter of a coal miner. Ruby’s father is one of the coal mine’s owners. The other owner, Mr. Coleman, employs some shady practices, and the conflict between him and Ruby’s father comes to a head.

Fast forward to 2004. The community wants to make the old coal mine’s company store a tourist attraction. They invite Ruby, now in her eighties, to be their special guest for the opening. But she had never returned and never planned to. There were too many painful memories and hidden secrets.

But Ruby’s grown children are pressuring her to give up her keys and her independence. So she decides she’ll go back to that little coal mining community on her own without telling her children where she’s going. Maybe that will teach them that she’s perfectly capable of handling herself.

Hollis Beasley is one of the last holdouts who refuses to sell his land to Coleman Coal and Energy. But with his neighbors succumbing to CCE one by one and his wife’s illness, he’s not sure if he’ll be able to keep the promise he made his parents to keep the land. “It was in a man to fight and it was in a woman to nest, and those desires competed and wore both down until they became one flesh.”

As the story goes back and forth between timelines, secrets come to light and provide unexpected connections between characters.

Chris Fabry’s stories always contain a lot of warmth and heart, and this one is no exception. He shares in his afterword the people and stories the book is based on. He skillfully brought them together in a compelling way.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: The Number of Love

Margot De Wilde thinks in numbers. Numerals line up differently in her head when all is well or something is off. Her father developed a system of cryptography before WWI with young Margot as his main pupil. After his death, Margot and her mother were rescued from Belgium (in A Song Unheard) to be with her brother, famous violinist Lucas De Wilde, in London. Though a teenager, Margot is recruited to work in the admiralty’s secret Room 40 deciphering Germany’s coded messages.

Margot had one good friend back in Belgium, but she’s not interested in the silly things most girls are. She’s content to be alone, but when she notices Dot, another young woman at the admiralty seemingly on the outskirts of society, they strike up a satisfying friendship.

Dot thinks her brother, Drake, is in the Navy. Their grandfather in Spain thinks Drake is a student. Neither suspects Drake actually works undercover.

Drake finds Margot fascinating and loves her sarcastic sense of humor. But Margot has no time for or interest in romance.

Then Margot suffers a tragic loss that turns her well-ordered world upside-down. Not only do the numbers in her mind stop, but God seems silent.

And Drake returns from Spain wounded with an enemy who may pursue him all the way to London.

The Number of Love is the first in Roseanna M. White’s Codebreakers series, which follows the Shadows Over England series. A few of the characters carry over. This novel is every bit as captivating as the first three. It may be my favorite of Roseanna’s so far.

A couple of quotes from the book:

Faith isn’t just feeling. We have to know He’s still there, unchanged, even when we can’t feel Him. When the grief’s too loud to let us hear His voice.

There were never any guarantees. Even being sure God wanted him to do this didn’t mean he’d come home safely. Sometimes God’s will meant bullets searing flesh. Death coming too soon. Sometimes God’s will was to let man taste the consequences of his folly and his hatred and his supposed self-sufficiency. Sometimes God let people die. Let His children break. And then pieced them back together into something new. Something that He could use for His glory instead of theirs

I enjoyed the suspense provided by the intrigue and mystery concerning Drake’s pursuer and the historical detail. At the end of the book, Roseanna differentiates between the actual historical facts she used and the details she made up.There was an actual Room 40 of codebreakers during WWI that few knew about.

I love that Margot is an imperfect heroine. Even though she’s smart, she’s also young and a bit immature. And she can come across as a little arrogant sometimes. But her experiences help mature and humble her and teach her to rely not on her abilities or systems, but on God.

I’m so glad Roseanna continued this series. I look forward to the next book!

(See also: Why Read Christian Fiction)

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: An Hour Unspent

Barclay Pearce is the head of a makeshift family of orphans who found each other on the streets and put themselves together as a family. The only way the older kids knew to care for the younger was to become pickpockets. They became quite good at what they did, to the point that V., an enigmatic figure with some kind of ties to the British government during WWI, recruited some of them for some behind-the-scenes, off-record reconnaissance and information-gathering.

Now Barclay and his two oldest “sisters” have become Christians and turned the family from thieving. For now, V provides them with plenty of well-paid work. What they’ll do after the war, they don’t know—but they’ll trust God to lead.

Meanwhile, Barclay, the newest to become a believer, tries to learn how to walk by faith, find God’s guidance, and apply Christian principles to the work V asks of him.

His latest job is to get to know clock-maker Cecil Manning. Dr. Manning is something of a tinkerer, creating toys and other inventions. Rumor has it that he’s working on a synchronized gear that could help pilots in the war. If he is, the admiralty wants information: how close he is to completion, does he need anything to aid his efforts, would he be willing for the government to use the gear.

Evelina Manning Is the clock-maker’s only daughter. She’s close to her father and fondly tolerant of his eccentric habits. She’s less tolerant of her mother’s controlling ways. Evelina works with the suffragette movement, much to her mother’s dismay. Her childhood bout with polio left her with a leg that works most of the time.

But one time when her leg betrayed her, this Barclay fellow stepped in to help, unasked and unneeded. That set them off on the wrong foot. Finding out more about Barclay’s past and his unconventional but loving family doesn’t raise him in her eyes. But there’s something about him that piques her interest.

As the first zeppelins attack London and the Germans also learn of Manning’s gear, Barclay and Evelina will have to work together to escape the danger coming for them.

An Hour Unspent is the third and last in Roseanna M. White’s Shadows Over England series. As with the first two (A Name Unknown and A Song Unheard), I loved the story, the characters, and the realistic faith element. Thankfully, some of the characters from this series carry over into the next, The Codebreakers. I also love the covers of all three books. The fact that they were different from what I have seen before first drew me to them.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)