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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, takes place almost entirely within the walls of the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov lived there in 1922, when he was convicted as an unrepentant aristocrat, declared a Former Person, and sentenced to house arrest. He was moved from his suite to an attic storage room and told that if he stepped out of the hotel, he would be shot.

Believing that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them,” the Count determines to make the best of his.

There are worse places to be confined than a Grand Hotel. But confinement is confinement, and it strains the count at times. In one of the best pieces of “showing, not telling” I’ve seen, the Count has been inside for about a year when he feels a blast of cold air in a hallway. Searching for its origin, the Count finds himself in the coat room, where someone has just come in in from outside. He also notices the smell of wood smoke on the coat someone has just left behind. The coat room girl finds him a few minutes later, holding the sleeve of the coat. It was such a poignant moment, made all the more so by the fact that Towles didn’t explain, “He missed the outdoors and the smell of winter and wood smoke.” He left the scene as is for the reader to infer why the Count lingered, holding the coat sleeve.

The Count hits a low point, and I love the scene that switches his thinking. But mostly the book involves the Count’s activities, friendships with members of the staff, interactions with a nine-year-old girl, a famous actress, an American journalist, Russian officials, and various others who come through the hotel.

We learn what kind of man the Count is. He’s in his thirties at the beginning of the novel and his sixties by the end. At first he is quite charming but almost flippant. He’s almost unfailingly polite. As he tells a little girl who asks about the rules for being a princess, “Manners are not like bonbons, Nina. You may not choose the ones that suit you best; and you certainly cannot put the half-bitten ones back in the box.” He’s not without thought for others, as we see in remembrances of getting his grandmother out of the country before his arrest, his care of his sister, his sacrifice for a friend. But we also see how he grows as a person over the course of the novel.

The narrator also lets us in on what’s going on in the country and how it affects the Count even inside a hotel. This was a time of great change in Russia, after the revolution, spanning two world wars, famines, the Stalinist era, and more.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“A king fortifies himself with a castle,” observed the Count, “a gentleman with a desk.”

But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.

It was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone.

I also enjoyed a section where he talked about names in Russian novels—how difficult they are, and how several names can be used for the same person with nicknames, honorifics, etc. I smiled because I had thought that very thing when reading Russian novels.

This is not an action-packed, plot-driven novel (though the action picks up and becomes quite suspenseful in the last few chapters). It’s more of a quiet, thoughtful book. This doesn’t often happen, but I didn’t start another book for more than a day after finishing this one, just to sit with my thoughts about it a little longer.

Towles said he got the idea for the novel when, traveling for business overseas. He noticed some of the same people every time he visited certain hotels. He wondered if some of them lived in the hotel, and that started his thoughts around a character who did live at a hotel, but not by his own choice.

I loved Towles’ writing. One thing I especially liked was the way he took details of a previous scene that I thought was finished and brought them up again later. For instance, in an early scene, the Count has some fennel sent to his friend, the chef at the hotel restaurant. I got the idea that fennel was hard to come by, and the Count was a nice guy to get some, and he still had the connections to do so. But then the purpose for the fennel comes out in a much later chapter, a delightful surprise.

I normally avoid most current secular fiction because there’s almost always some language issues and/or sex scenes. I don’t recall many language problems–a couple of “damns,” one instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain (though the author sometimes told us someone did without subjecting us to the sound of it). There are a couple of sexual encounters, but no steamy, explicit scenes.

I enjoyed going down the rabbit hole of Towles’ web site for the book. He shares some information on the Metropol (a real hotel) and its history, interviews about the book, some questions he receives and their answers, a reader’s guide (though I’d advise not reading the latter two until after you’ve finished the book to avoid spoilers). The structure of the novel hadn’t dawned on me until I read the guide Towels’ mention of it n the guide: the first few chapters cover a day, then a couple of days, gradually increasing. Tthe middle covers years, and the last chapters hone in on days again. I was also surprised that one of the most-often asked questions concerned who the person was in the last scene with the Count. That person was always described throughout the novel with a particular adjective that’s also used at the end, so that was no mystery to me. I enjoyed learning what some of the scenes were based on.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Nicholas Guy Smith. He did a wonderful job giving each character distinctive  and apt voices.

Have you read A Gentleman in Moscow? What did you think?

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Book Review: Waves of Mercy

In Lynn Austin’s novel, Waves of Mercy, 67-year-old Geesje de Jonge is asked to write some of her experiences immigrating from the Netherlands for Holland, Michigan’s 50th anniversary celebration. She’s reluctant to delve back into the hardships and struggles of faith that accompanied her journey, but her son and neighbor finally persuade her to.

Meanwhile, young socialite Anna Nicholson had accidentally stumbled into a Chicago church that was unlike any she had known before, which stirred up questions about faith and God. But her fiance had not approved of this new church and forbid her to go back to it. Their disagreement was so severe that they broke up. Anna gets away to a hotel on Lake Michigan with her mother to think and recover. A storm on the way causes a recurring nightmare to resurface in which she and her mother fall into the sea during a storm.

On her long walks on the beach, Anna meets a young seminary student who tries to answer her questions. Her mother is no help at all, since she doesn’t think polite people talk about such things as religion. Her fiance wants to get back together, and her parents encourage their reunion. But Anna feels she needs to get some things settled in her heart first.

As the Amazon description says, “Neither Geesje nor Anna, who are different in every possible way, can foresee the life-altering surprises awaiting them before the summer ends.”

I enjoyed this book a lot. The Netherlanders had left their home to escape religious persecution arising from their wanting to pull away from the state church. America was a land of freedom and opportunity. They knew it would be hard to build a community from scratch, but they were willing to work for their and each other’s freedom.

However, they had no idea the difficulties and heartbreak that would be involved. Anna often struggled with despair, even rage. While I agree that we can be honest with God about our feelings, doubts, and questions, I disagree with Geesje telling someone who had suffered a loss, ““You have every right to be angry with God right now.” However, she does go on to tell this person, “No matter what, don’t ever stop trusting Him. I believe that God is as grieved . . . as we are.”

I enjoyed Anna’s story as well. She’s often tempted to give up her questions and go along with the pressure of her parents’ and fiance’s expectations. But something keeps propelling her forward.

The sequel to this book, Legacy of Mercy, continues Anna and Geesje’s stories. I’m putting it on my birthday wish list!

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Book Review: Castle on the Rise

Castle on the Rise by Kristy Cambron Castle on the Rise is the sequel to The Lost Castle novel by Kristy Cambron. I think they could be read as standalones. But I’d recommend reading both.

Laine Forrester travels to France to be the matron of honor at her best friend’s wedding. The castle setting and the events leading up to the wedding make it seem like something out of a fairy tale.

But a couple of events bring the fairy tale crashing into real life problems. For one, the groom’s estranged brother from Ireland, Cormac, shows up just before the wedding to ask him to come back to the Foley home for an urgent need.

Laine’s friend asks her to come along. Laine hasn’t told her of her own crisis and crossroads. Now doesn’t seem like the time. But the invitation is a perfect excuse to get away for a while with her adopted daughter, Cassie.

The Foleys have been bequeathed a castle from a customer’s will. They didn’t know her well and can’t figure out why she willed them a castle. Cormac’s father, Jack, just wants to call an auction house and sell everything. But Cormac feels he needs to find out what’s behind the gift. Laine’s father was an antique dealer, so she helps Cormac evaluate which items are of value.

This novel weaves together stories from three timelines, all revolving around the castle. One takes place in the 1790s during an uprising between the Irish and English. Maeve’s family owns the castle, but her father is immobilized in grief over the loss of his wife and son. So she has to take the reins. One of her first tasks is to deal with a wounded enemy.

Another strand of the story takes place during the 1916 Easter Rising. Issy’s family now lives in the manor house, but her brother goes against her father’s wishes to join the rebels. Issy feels compelled to join him, and her budding interest in photography helps document events.

As Laine and Cormac investigate, they discover more of the castle’s surprising past. They each take steps to overcome their own past wounds to be open to new possibilities.

I knew, of course, that the Irish had fought against English control at intervals. But I didn’t know many of the details. I enjoyed learning some Irish history through this book. But I also enjoyed the stories in each timeline and the obstacles each character had to overcome.

And often, whenever I cam to a stopping place, music from the Irish Tenors sprang to mind for the next little bit. 🙂

A few quotes:

[Sean] was of a sort to look far down a path—he always said, to see the good that could come of something God was crafting behind the scenes, one had to keep an eye out for it. And Issy needed that view at present because she failed to see it (p. 50).

The talk of luxuries went far deeper than a gift of fruit. Maeve knew that. Theirs were the longstanding divides between the rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, Anglo and Irish, even oppressed and free—for hundreds of years. They’d bled into the very earth beneath their boots, and it was tasked to her to either uphold or endeavor to change attitudes around them (p. 162).

Writers are the caretakers o’ history, Byrne. We document the livin’ and dyin’ of the human cause. But our pen, however noble, however well-intended, will always bleed the color of our convictions (p. 181).

I also enjoyed Kristy’s notes at the end concerning what led to her writing the novel, her research trip to Ireland, and the true historical details she included.

All in all, this is another great book by Kristy with three stories in one.

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