The Orchard House

If you’re familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s life, you may know that one home where her family lived was called the Orchard House (though Louisa called it Apple Slump). Orchard House is beloved by Louisa’s fans not just because she lived there, but she wrote her most famous novel, Little Women, and several other books there. Orchard House is open to the public for tours and special events.

Heidi Chiavaroli wrote a time slip novel, The Orchard House, using Louisa’s time and town as the setting for one plot line.

Johanna Suhre had written to Louisa for more information about her brother, John, whom Louisa tended while a nurse during the Civil War. John had died, and Louisa featured him in her Hospital Sketches. Johanna and her mother and brother longed for any details Louisa could give them.

That’s as much as we know about the facts, but Heidi imagined Louisa’s and Johanna’s correspondence and friendship growing.

When Louisa needs someone to stay with her parents while she travels, she asks Johanna. Johanna is eager not only for something new and different, but delighted to meet her friend in person and visit the town so steeped in literary talent. Johanna had written some poems that she hoped to work up the courage to show Louisa.

While in Concord, Johanna meets the Alcott’s neighbor, Nathan Bancroft. Louisa cautions Johanna against Nathan, but she doesn’t have any specific details to warn against. After Nathan and Johanna marry, however, Johanna discovers another side to him.

The modern timeline also takes place in Concord. Taylor’s mother had abandoned her. The family of her best friend, Victoria, took Taylor in. Though Taylor appreciates the Bennetts’ kindness, she doesn’t quite fit in. Though she and Victoria rejoiced at becoming real sisters, the situation feels awkward.

Both girls enjoy writing and attending a young writer’s camp at The Orchard House. One of Taylor’s most treasured possessions, one of the few things she has left from her childhood, is a beat-up copy of Little Women.

Though Taylor never quite feels like family, she and Victoria work out their differences. At least, they had until Victoria unexpectedly betrays Taylor.

Taylor packs up her things and drives to the other side of the country. She becomes a famous author, writing under a pen name. She keeps her distance until eighteen years later, when she learns that her adoptive mother has cancer. She goes back to Concord, intending to stay for a short while. She and Victoria take tentative steps to at least be civil. Victoria would like to explain and make amends, but Taylor’s not sure she wants to hear it.

Victoria, who now works at the Orchard House, invites Taylor to speak at the young writer’s camp. Then she shares with Taylor some poems by a woman named Johanna Bancroft that were unearthed in the schoolroom. As the sisters try to unravel the mystery of who Johanna was and how Louisa knew her, they learn some things about themselves and each other as well.

I took a chance on this book when I saw it on a Kindle sale back in April. I had never heard of this author, but the story sounded intriguing. Plus the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge was coming up, and this would be a good choice for that.

I’m so delighted I took the chance. I enjoyed both timelines and felt for both Johanna and Taylor in their trials.

I also liked the quotes from Louisa at the beginning of every chapter. One favorite was, “All the philosophy in our house is not in the study; a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and scrubs.”

Though I wouldn’t call this book full-out Christian fiction, there were references to forgiveness, faith, and yielding to God.

I’m happy to recommend this book, and I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Since this is the only book I am reading for Tarissa‘s LMA challenge, I’ll let this serve as my wrap-up post as well.

Daughters of Northern Shores

Daughters of Northern Shores is the sequel to Joanne Bischof’s Sons of Blackbird Mountain (linked to my review).

Picking up in 1894, four years after the first book, youngest Norgaard brother Haakon has fled his family and gone to sea after betraying his family’s trust. He wrote just a brief note to them when he left and has not written since. They don’t have an address for him. He has lived far from the morals he was raised with. One particular woman who was only a good friend makes him wonder if life could be different for him, if he could settle down with a family. But first he must go home and face those he wronged.

Back on Blackbird Mountain in Virginia, Thor and Aven had married and are expecting their first child. Business has gone well since Thor decided to quit making hard cider with his apple orchard produce after his grueling battle with alcoholism. Aven and her sister-in-law make apple pie fillings, applesauce, and other items for the local grocer. But Thor has a nagging pain in his side that is growing stronger. He had watched his father succumb to liver disease after years of alcoholism, so he knows the signs. But he has been sober four years—he thought he staved off affecting his liver.

To add to their troubles, their former neighbors, the Sorrels, cruel former Rebel soldiers and Klansmen, are back for revenge after the Norgaard brothers routed them in the last book. The sheriff has searched for them without success, but the Sorrel men know how to hide. Thor and oldest brother, Jorgan, try to attend to business while keeping their families safe and watching out for a Sorrel ambush.

I loved the first book so much, I was eager to continue on with the Norgaard family. I enjoyed this book just as much. Haakon was not my favorite of the brothers due to his personality and wrong choices in both books. But his desire to come back and apologize to his family starts him on the right path, and I warmed up to him as he slowly learned and changed.

A couple of my favorite quotes:

While words were potent, a man’s caring ran through deeper waters. It dwelled right there in what he was willing to do.

She moved as though wood being forced to bend to wind rushing in.

Both the major and minor characters are so well-drawn, and Joanne weaves together the various threads of the plot so well. Parts of the book were touching; other parts were edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. I also enjoyed the author’s afterword about how this book was not planned at first, and then didn’t go the way she expected. Originally she was going to have Haakon die at the end of the first book. I’m glad God led this way instead. I’m sorry to leave the Norgaards behind.

I listened to this via the audiobook nicely read by Amy Rubinate. I kept forgetting, while reading the first book, that Aven was Irish rather than Norwegian. So Amy’s adding an Irish lilt to Aven’s voice was pleasant in itself, plus a reminder of her heritage. Then, since audiobooks don’t usually contain the back matter of a book, I got the library edition to read Joanne’s comments about the story.

. (I often link up with some of these bloggers)

Sons of Blackbird Mountain

In Joanne Bischof’s novel, Sons of Blackbird Mountain, Aven Norgaard is newly widowed in 1890 Norway. She had long corresponded with her husband’s aunt in Virginia, who now invited her to come help keep house for “the boys,” Aven’s husband’s cousins.

But when Aven crosses the sea and arrives on Blackbird Mountain, she finds that Aunt Dorothe has died and “the boys” are grown men.

The three Norgaard brothers invite her to stay. Aven has no other prospects, so she does.

The oldest brother, Jorgan is steady and wise and soon to be married. The youngest, Haakon, is energetic and mischievous. The middle brother, Thor, is deaf. He’s also addicted to the alcohol the brothers produce with their apple orchard. His last attempt to wean himself off the hard cider ended in disaster. But he is kind and considerate.

Thor and Haakon both find themselves attracted to Aven. She had not come thinking about getting married again, she doesn’t want to come between the brothers.

There are so many layers to this story. Thor, Haakon, amd Aven each carry their own private pain. Then there are conflicts with their nearest neighbors, the Sorrels, who head up the local Klan and threaten the Norgaards’ longtime housekeeper and the youths they hire to help at harvest. The fact that the Sorrels own the deed to the Norgaard orchard creates extra pressure.

The author includes a brief preface where she explained a bit about ASL (American Sign Language). I had not realized that the deaf don’t sign every part of a sentence. But it makes sense that they’d streamline their words while signing. So when Thor jots a note (since Aven doesn’t know sign language yet), his sentences are mainly subject and verb with no articles, because that’s how he thinks. The author shared in her afterword how she became interested in sign language and the challenges of having a deaf character who can’t express himself in the usual ways.

All of the characters are nicely drawn, but Thor was the most intriguing. I don’t feel I am doing this book justice, but I enjoyed it very much. I had never read Bischof before, but I am eager to read more from her.

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

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)

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)

Book Review: A Song Unheard

A Song Unheard is the second of Roseanna M. White’s Shadows Over England series set during WWI. The series involves a group of young people who were orphaned or abandoned as children, found each other, and formed their own family. They support themselves by stealing, but they have a strict code to steal only from those who won’t miss the loss.

Willa Forsythe had found an abandoned violin as a child and discovered she could make it sing. She had a natural talent to play beautifully by ear.

She’s approached by the mysterious Mr. V., who gave a job to her sister, Rosie, in the previous book, A Name Unknown. Mr. V. has some connection with the British government, but they are not sure what exactly it is or whether it is in an official capacity. But he pays well. He wants Willa to travel to Wales and pretend to be an old school chum of a couple of sisters who are aiding a group of musicians from Belgium. They are trying to gather relief efforts for the folks back home. Her specific job: get to know acclaimed violist Lukas De Wilde and find a cypher that he carries with him. Lukas’ father, now deceased, had been a talented cryptographer. V. wants the cypher to aid Britain in the war.

Lukas is worried sick about his mother and sister. He had been shot in an attempt to find them and get them out of Belgium. He knew their home had been destroyed, but he didn’t know their whereabouts or status. His face and his father’s work were both well-known enough that he can’t risk going back to Belgium. Meanwhile, he tries to hide his injury and work with the orchestra while trying to figure out what to do.

He and Willa are intrigued with each other, but he’s a known flirt, so she doesn’t take him seriously. She knows they are from two different worlds, and he would never respect her if he knew what she was. But the more she gets to know him, the more she regrets that she will have to betray him. And unknown dangers lurk just beyond her awareness.

My thoughts:

I loved this book as much as the first one. The story, the history, and the characters were all wonderfully written. During the last few chapters, I wished I could set aside everything else just to find out what would happen.

One of the things I most appreciate about this author is that she is not afraid to be clear about spiritual matters. So many Christian writers are so subtle these days about the faith element in their stories that, unless you already understood what Christianity is, you’d never figure it out in their books. Roseanna proves that you can talk about Christianity normally and clearly without sounding preachy or strained or artificial.

The sister in the previous book had come to know the Lord. In a family of thieves, a conversion will necessitate some changes. Even though the sister is non-judgmental and still a loving part of the family, Willa feels a little betrayed. This is something that’s not often dealt with in Christian fiction, and I am glad Roseanna explored it.

Both of Willa’s parents had abandoned her, and she transfers her feelings about them to God. She felt He was someone who either wasn’t there or didn’t care about her. I loved her journey.

I listened to the audiobook read by Liz Pearce. I thought her narration was a little too blustery in the last book. But either I got used to her style, or her characterizations for this book were much more pleasant. At any rate, I enjoyed it and look forward to Book 3!

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

Book Review: A Name Unknown

In A Name Unknown by Roseanna M. White, Rosemary Gresham’s parents died when she was eight, and she found herself on London’s streets. Eventually she and similar children formed themselves into a makeshift family with the older ones taking care of the younger the best way they knew how: stealing. Rosemary’s many years of practice have honed her skill into an art, taking her from pickpocketing to mixing with and stealing from society’s upper echelons.

A mysterious Mr. V. asks Rosemary to do a job with the biggest payoff she’s ever seen: gain access to a Peter Holstein, a “rich bloke” who “has the king’s ear.” Holstein’s family roots are German. War is brewing with Germany. V suspects Holstein is a traitor and wants Rosemary to find solid evidence.

Fortunately, Holstein has just advertised for a librarian to organize his stacks of books and family papers, and Rosemary applies for the job.

Peter Holstein is aware that trouble is brewing over his name and associations. He is not in public much due to a stutter, but his absence is taken for aloofness. He has secrets of his own, but they don’t include espionage: he’s a best-selling author writing under a pseudonym. He prays God will guide him. Rosemary seems the answer to his prayers: hopefully she can help him find family journals and documents which will prove them loyal British subjects.

My thoughts:

I loved this book on many levels: the intrigue of Rosemary’s search and whether she’ll be found out; her prejudices about “rich blokes” being upended by what she sees in Peter; Peter’s frequent lapses into the work he’s writing and decisions over his plot; his awkwardness and trouble expressing himself orally; his efforts to live out his faith; her constant chatter and his need for quiet.

This is the first book in a Shadows Over England series, and I immediately bought the second book after finishing this one.

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