The London House

In Katherine Reay’s novel, The London House, Caroline Payne was working through an ordinary day until she received a phone call from an old college friend, Mat. He wanted to meet with her about her aunt, of all people. Caroline had been named for great aunt, the twin sister of her grandmother. But the older Caroline had died of polio when she was a child. What could Mat possibly want to know about her?

Mat was working on an article where he inadvertently uncovered information claiming that Caroline’s great aunt had been a Nazi collaborator who ran off with her German lover. As Caroline refutes Mat’s claim, Mat brings up evidence that looks genuine.

Caroline asks for time to research the issue on her own. She flies to London to the home of her late grandmother, now occupied by her mother. They find letters between the twins and diaries of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret. As Caroline wades through them, she is taken back to the 40s and the twins’ coming of age in a life of privilege before war hit. But life-threatening illness and family tension separated them. Some of that tension remained to the current day in the distanced relationship Caroline has with her own parents. Will Caroline’s discoveries heal old wounds or make them worse?

I don’t know if this would be classified as a time-slip novel, but with some of the letters and diaries, we’re transported back to the setting and activities of the twins’ earlier days. In that sense, it’s also partly an epistolary novel. Katherine has a note at the end of the book sharing what elements were true or fictional.

I enjoyed the uncovering of clues in the older Caroline’s letters and the dynamics that brought healing to the younger Caroline’s family. Although WWII seems to be the setting of more novels than any other era, I do enjoy them even while I sometimes long for glimpses of other time frames.

It’s funny how certain themes seem to go around at the same time. For instance, I had never heard of the Monuments Men (who recovered art stolen by the Nazis) until the movie made about them a few years ago. But just this year I’ve read a book about them and seen them mentioned in others. Now there seems to be a theme of dressmakers involved in WWII, with The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron and this one and others. I hadn’t realized this book was going to involve haute couture and dressmaking until I got into it.

All of Katherine’s other books that I have read have been Christian fiction to some degree. I didn’t know that this one was not until I saw a review on Goodreads noting that this book was published under the new Harper Muse imprint and not Christian fiction. That’s not a problem in itself. Christian authors have many reasons for writing stories that aren’t blatantly Christian. Katherine does mention C. S. Lewis’s radio talks of the time which were later transformed into Mere Christianity.

But I was disturbed by a couple of elements in the book. One of the older Caroline’s letters describes her first sexual encounter. Thankfully, it stops before it gets too explicit. But the younger Caroline suspects her grandmother tore the rest of the description out of the letter because she was a “prude.” Then, the older Caroline was employed by Elsa Schiaparelli, a rival to Coco Chanel. She mentions the sexual innuendoes of some of the designer’s work, especially those in collaboration with Salvador Dali—and then proceeds to bring one beyond innuendo and spells out the sexual connotation of it. I could have done without that.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. The story overall was good, but I was disappointed the sexual elements. Even though they probably would be considered tame by most other modern secular fiction, they were still too much for me.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Madeleine Maby, but then also caught the Kindle version on sale and read parts in it as well.

Something Good

The tagline for Vanessa Miller’s novel, Something Good, is “Three Women. Two Mistakes. One Surprising Friendship That Changes Everything.”

Alexis Marshall seemingly has it all: a good husband, family, home, and a generous source of income. She appreciates her husband’s rescuing her from an unstable home life. But it’s a strain living up to his standard of perfectionism.

Then the unthinkable happens. While fumbling to respond to a text while driving, Alexis loses control. The resulting accident leaves a young man paralyzed.

Alexis is consumed with guilt and wants to do something to help the young man. But her husband is about to make a lucrative deal selling the tech company he built. If it becomes public that Alexis caused an accident, the sale would be in jeopardy.

Marquita Lewis is a mouthy teenager who doesn’t understand why she can’t keep a job. She’s determined not to live in shelters as her mom did. She wants better for her baby son. When she loses her latest job, she decides maybe it’s time to confront the baby’s father.

Trish Robinson’s life was turned upside-down when her son, Jon-Jon, was paralyzed. He was in college on a football scholarship with a good chance of going pro. But that potential bright future is gone now. He is so depressed, he’s not even trying in his physical therapy sessions.

Trish’s husband, Dwayne, is enraged at the woman who caused the accident and feels she should be doing more. Trish thinks they should forgive and forget and move on. She’s doing all she can to help Jon-Jon, and now Dwayne is pressuring her to get a job. But how can she leave Jon-Jon alone when he can’t take care of himself?

Trish prays for something good to come from all their trials. But the answer comes in a surprising way.

It was enjoyable to read of friendships that crossed so many differences–race, economic status, personality. etc. It was difficult and took time, but the characters learned and grew through their interactions.

And it was especially refreshing to see a Christian fiction book that was all-out Christian. I know some stories call for subtlety, but some are so subtle that it’s not clear who the characters have faith in or what kind of faith they have. I’m thankful Vanessa created her characters to express their faith in natural and believable ways. Even though the faith element is clear, it’s not heavy-handed.

A couple of sub-plots deal with mental illness in a couple of the families.

My favorite quote from the book: “Sometimes our greatest tragedies become the greatest gifts we can give back to the world” (p. 298, Kindle version).

I had not heard of Vanessa Miller before seeing this book on a Kindle sale, but I am glad I did. I enjoyed this book quite a lot.

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.

Of Literature and Lattes

Alyssa Harrison got along with her father, but clashed with her mother at every turn. Then her mother committed an unpardonable offense. So Alyssa moved out as fast as she could with no plans to return.

But then the company she worked for in CA was closed down by the FBI over rumored wrongdoing. The FBI interviewed all the employees—except Alyssa. While she waits for their call, she has no job and no way to pay for her apartment. The only place she can go is back home to Winsome, IL.

Her parents were divorced, and she wants to move in with her dad. But he doesn’t have the space and sends her to her mom. Sparks fly from the outset. Her mom doesn’t fight back any more, which somehow makes Alyssa madder. Alyssa can see changes in her mom’s life, but she doesn’t take time to try to understand them. She looks for a job and waits nervously for the call from the FBI.

Jeremy Mitchell moved from Seattle to Winsome to be near his young daughter. His wife had walked out of the marriage while still pregnant, and Jeremy’s visits with his daughter, Becca, have been sparse. But he wants to rectify that. He’s put everything he has into a Seattle-style coffee shop. But Winsome residents resent the changes from the homey coffee shop that Jeremy replaced. And he can’t seem to figure out where all his money is going.

Alyssa’s best friend, Lexi, sets her up to help Jeremy with his business. Alyssa speaks numbers like a second language. Alyssa and Jeremy are drawn to each other. But each has so many issues in their personal lives, and neither is sure they are staying in Winsome.

Of Literature and Lattes by Katherine Reay is the sequel to The Printed Letter Bookshop. It took me a while to remember some of the situations of the characters from the first book. I think the background of the first book would shed light on this one, especially Alyssa’s mother’s situation. But I do think this could be read as a stand-alone book.

The back of the book says, “With the help of Winsome’s small town charm and quirky residents, Alyssa and Jeremy discover the beauty and romance of second chances.”

The second chances theme comes through not only for Jeremy and Alyssa, but for many characters. And Winsome is a lovable small town.

Katherine’s books are always sprinkled with literary quotes and references. I wasn’t familiar with some of the books mentioned this time. The main one was Of Mice and Men, which I’ve never read—but now I am tempted to.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story, the bookshop, the small town atmosphere. It was a little hard to take all the arguing between Alyssa and her mother and Jeremy and his ex-wife. I know stories need conflict, but I am not used to people talking to each other so harshly. The tension in some scenes left me tense after putting the book down. This isn’t a criticism—I’m sure some families duke it out verbally as much as these do, or worse. And their verbal jabs point up the severity of their issues. It was just hard for me to take in personally.

My biggest problem with the book would be hard to explain without going into a lot of detail, which I don’t want to do in a book review. Let’s just say I am not ecumenical. There are times to put differences aside and just love people in Jesus’ name. But there are some differences that should not be put aside—like the truth that a person is saved by grace through faith alone. When the main spiritual spokesperson in a book is from a faith background that adds church ritual and traditions, that seems to emphasize works and faith, that’s a problem for me. Yes, I know James says our faith should manifest itself in works—but the works come as an outgrowth of faith, not in addition to faith to merit favor in God’s eyes. I have some very dear friends in this faith background, but I wouldn’t hold a joint ministry together with them. There are all sorts of angles to this that could be discussed endlessly, thus the difficulty of getting into it in a short book review. So I’ll leave it there for now.

My other problem with this book was not the fault of the author. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by an English woman. It felt weird hearing the narration, including the character’s thoughts, in an English accent, but their speaking voices in an American accent. Then, the narrator’s English accent bled through the American voices sometimes. Most words ending in an “a” sound had instead an “r.” The word “idear” came up several times, as did “Grandmar,” “vanillar,” etc. Then there was “enything” for “anything” and “figger” for “figure.” Plus she didn’t do many of the male voices very well. So I’d recommend reading this over listening to it. Most of the comments on the audiobook page were similar. I love English accents in English audiobooks, but I didn’t think the mix worked well here.

If you like small towns with quirky neighbors, stories with a lot of book references, or families coming together over their differences, you’d probably like this book.

Tidewater Inn

In Tidewater Inn by Colleen Coble, Libby Hollander is an architectural historian. She and her business partner, Nicole, convince investors to let them restore old buildings.

While Libby checks out one house, Nicole visits a property on the Outer Banks. But what she discovers stuns both of them. Libby had been told her father died when she was five. However, he had been living on Hope Island all this time, remarried, had two more children, and left his Tidewater Inn to Libby when he passed away a year before.

Libby learns that her half-siblings knew about her. Even though they’ve received a sizeable cash inheritance, they’re not happy that she inherited the inn. Another investor is also interested in the Inn. Though Libby would dearly love to keep it, she doesn’t have the money to restore it. The investor wants to begin a ferry service to the island and build up some other properties, but long-time residents fear commercialization of the island.

Before Libby can even begin to delve into all this, however, Nicole is kidnapped right before her eyes—and the local sheriff thinks Libby is the prime suspect.

And a hurricane is heading toward the island.

There are different layers of mysteries tied up in the story, and a handsome Coast Guard lieutenant helps Libby untangle them.

Several years ago I had read a few of Colleen’s books about a woman named Bree and her rescue dog, Samson, and some of the rescues they were involved in. And, lo and behold, Bree and Samson turn up in this book for a bit.

I enjoyed the story, Libby’s journey, and the setting. I grew up on the Southern Texas coastline, near Padre Island, and stories set in a coastal town bring that back to me.

This is the first book in the Hope Island series, and I’ve already started the second.

Book Review: Hurricane Season

In Hurricane Season by Laura K. Denton, Betsy and Jenna grew up as very different sisters. Their parents were both professionals and distant. Betsy was the responsible one who did all the right things. Jenna was free-spirited, willful, and apt to make a mess of things. But they loved each other fiercely, and Betsy was Jenna’s greatest advocate and protector.

As adults, Betsy married dairy farmer Ty, and they work together to make a go of the business and home that had been passed down through generations in Alabama. Their biggest sorrow is their inability to have children.

Jenna is a single mom to two young girls and a coffee shop manager. An old friend urges Jenna to go to an artist’s retreat in Florida to revive her dormant love of photography. At first it seems impossible. But a scholarship and her sister’s agreement to watch the girls for two weeks enable Jenna to go.

Betsy’s fragile peace with her childlessness is threatened by having two children full time, but she thinks she can hold on for two weeks. But then Jenna calls. She has an opportunity to stay past the initial two weeks, possibly even for the rest of the summer.

Besides the potential storms brewing  internally, a hurricane threatens the Gulf of Mexico.

The point of view shifts back and forth between Betsy, Ty, and Jenna. Their current circumstances and their past histories are shaped by their perspectives and personalities. Probably no one person has the entire perspective of a family. We need each other’s viewpoints and narratives to understand the whole.

I enjoyed each sister’s bumpy journey. My mind raced ahead to different ways the plot might go, but it ended up working our differently than I had thought it would—a good thing!

When I bought this book, I thought it was Christian fiction. Though there are a few mentions of God, prayer, church, etc., I can’t say a faith message was overt. For that reason, I’d label it inspirational fiction.

This is the second of four novels by USA Today best-selling author Denton. Have you read any of her work? What did you think?

(Sharing with Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: The Words Between Us

In Erin Bartels’ novel, The Words Between Us, Robin Dickinson is a loner who runs a used book shop in Michigan. Only her party-girl friend, Sarah, knows Robin’s real last name is Windsor and her father was a U. S. Senator tried and found guilty for murder and treason. Robin’s mother was implicated as well, and both parents have been in prison for eighteen years. Robin hasn’t seen either of them in all that time.

The book opens on the day Robin’s father is scheduled for execution. Robin just tries to get through the day and avoid the news when she gets a surprise package in the mail: a book from the only other person who knew her secret and betrayed her: Peter.

Robin had met Peter when she first moved to the area after her parents’ arrest to stay with her grandmother. He found out she liked to read. His mother had died a year ago and his father had boxed up all her books. Peter was reading them one by one in her honor. He offered to loan them to Robin, and she repaid him with a poem. They were heading toward a high school romance until a crisis resulted in Peter’s betrayal. Now, after having no contact in eighteen years, he sent her a copy of the first book he had loaned to her. Why? How did he know she was here?

The chapters alternate back and forth between “Then” and “Now” as Robin’s story unfolds.

In some ways, this is a story of how people survive excruciating pain. In others ways, it’s a story of judgments and misconceptions. Even when we think we have a “right” to our opinions about others, sometimes we’re wrong. It has elements of mystery and suspense. Ultimately, it’s a story about words and their effect, as the title says.

As the gorgeous cover indicates, there are a multitude of literary references.

Robin spends a lot of time thinking of the meaning of death, that indefinable something that’s missing life. Pondering a dissected frog and dead goldfish, Robin muses: “Always a body, but with something missing, something twisted out of order. It was that off bit that made me wonder. What was really missing other than breath? Because it wasn’t just that.” She notices that same absence in an old house. And later, she realizes even some books do not live:

Most of these books are not alive. They have not stood the passage of time.

They do not still burn in the hearts of those who have read them. It’s unlikely any of those readers could pull the names of the protagonists from memory. They are merely inert paper and ink, and I doubt very much they could live again.

I know why some books live on forever while others struggle for breath, forgotten on shelves and in basements. the authors . . . hadn’t bled. They hadn’t cut themselves open and given up a part of themselves that they would dearly miss. They hadn’t lost anything in the writing. That’s the difference between the books that I could never aptly explain to Dawt Pi and the ones I let The Professor [a parrot] shred. That’s the difference between the dead and the living.

Was that also what made a person or a bird or a frog alive? Was there a part of God’s heart that animated each otherwise insignificant part of the world? Had he given something up in creating me?

A couple of other quotes from the book:

Sometimes we’re handed adversity for our own good, so we’ll grow. Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.

There are many types of quiet. The quiet when you first open a book and prepare yourself to enter a story. The quiet of the seed underground, waiting for spring. The quiet that follows the moment the past rips through time to invade the present.

I couldn’t remember who recommended this book to me, but I had thought it was Christian fiction. Yet I didn’t see much of anything connected to faith at first besides a couple of references, so I thought I was mistaken:

“God loves you, Robin. I pray for you—every day.” I can’t answer her without releasing the tears that are swiftly building up behind my eyes like a river behind a dam. I wish I was so sure that God looked at me with anything but fathomless disappointment.

Because of all the people I know, she’s the only one who has ever made me wonder if perhaps God must be real despite everything.

But by the end, Robin opens up to the possibility of faith in a God who loves her. So there’s a faith element, but it’s not heavy-handed.

I enjoyed Robin’s story and journey.

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

 

Book Review: She Makes It Look Easy

In the novel She Makes It Look Easy by Marybeth Whalen, Ariel Baxter is a stay-at-home mom and photographer. Her photography side business has taken off to such a degree that she and her husband can afford a nice new home in a neighborhood she has dreamed of living in for years. Though Ariel has her gifts, her life and home are disorganized and chaotic.

Through my lens I watched the dynamic of friendship play out among Heather and her friends: the familiarity laced with timidity, the chance to open up paired with the fear of being exposed, the awkward dance of really knowing another person. . . somehow the girls always found a way to come back together, to find what made them stick and hold on to that. I envied their natural rapport, the ease that can only come with time together. How ironic, I thought as I focused and clicked, that these girls already had what I couldn’t seem to find.

Ariel’s neighbor, Justine is one of those women who has it all together. She’s pretty, fit, perfectly made up for a pool party, her daughters wear matching outfits. She’s organized – she even has an organizing notebook! And she’s creative and speaks to her church’s ladies’ group.

Ariel is delighted that Justine deigns to befriend her and help her start organizing and exercising. As they spend more time together, Ariel is sometimes frustrated that Justine calls the shots in what they do. But she doesn’t want to jeopardize the friendship, so she goes along. She even acquiesces when Justine steers her away from another neighbor, Erica, whom Ariel actually likes.

As events unfold, we see that Justine’ life is not as perfect as everyone else thinks. She may be organized, but her happiness, marriage, and spiritual life are facades.

We had been living in denial for months, fooling ourselves into thinking that we were safe if we stayed inside the bubble of our affluent neighborhood, not realizing that’s the problem with bubbles: They shimmer and shine, but they burst easily.

I think we all have a little bit of Eve in us. She had perfection and everything she could ever want and still she reached for more.

I fell asleep praying for the strength to do what was right and for God to guard me from situations that could land me in the same situation Justine had gotten herself into. I was learning we all need protection from ourselves.

The not-so-subtle theme of the book is that no one is perfect and we shouldn’t put people up on pedestals. No matter how great everything looks on the outside, we all have our issues. While I think this is an important point, and we get into a lot of trouble comparing ourselves to each other, I felt the author took the theme and characters to extremes. I don’t think she’s saying that organized, put-together people are bad and disorganized people with messy lives are on the right track, but it almost looks that way in the book.

Another theme is the contrast between healthy and toxic friendships. Justine is the suburban equivalent of the “queen bee” at school whose favor almost everyone seeks and who decides who is “in” and “out.” Ariel’s just glad to be “in” at first and she’s entirely too trusting. Slowly and painfully her eyes are opened to the truth.

Motivations are another key factor. Justine seems to be primarily motivated by finding “happiness,” even if it takes her on a path that she knows is wrong. Her organization, ministries, and everything else were not for God and His glory or to benefit her family and others. They were her personal search for significance.

Some readers would want to know that a couple of characters engage in adultery, but there are no explicit scenes.

Overall, this story uncovers important truths to consider in our friendships, motivations, our evaluation of ourselves, and our walk with the Lord.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)