Book Review: Hidden Among the Stars

In Austria in 1938, Annika Knopf is the daughter of the caretaker of the Dornbach family’s castle in Hallstatt. She and the Dornbach’s only son, Max, have been friends since childhood. But now they are grown, and she has quietly loved him for a long time.

When Annika discovers Max is hiding treasures of their Jewish friends on the estate grounds, she wants to help. Max wants to protect her as much as possible, but the time comes when he must accept her offer.

Max has never seen Annika as anything but a good friend. He’s in love with Luzia Weiss, a beautiful and brilliant violinist with the local orchestra. The Dornbach and Weiss families have been friends for years. But as Hitler’s forces advance, it’s not healthy to associate with Jews like the Weiss family. Max loves Luzia still and looks for ways to avoid fighting for the Reich and to get Luzia and her family out of Austria before it’s too late. In the meantime, he brings Luzia to the family’s lake castle to hide and asks Annika to watch over Luzia.

In modern times, Callie Randall runs a book store with her sister. Her tumultuous early life, with rejection from both parents and and betrayal by her fiance, has turned her naturally introverted character into someone who enjoys hiding out and is afraid of . . . almost everything except her job and shop.

Callie’s sister gifts her an early edition copy of Bambi, and Callie finds within its pages a list of items in the same script as the book’s font. The name written in the front is Annika Knopf. Callie begins an Internet search, hoping to reunite the book with Annika or someone in her family. But Callie discovers Annika’s story may intersect with Charlotte, the woman who took Callie and her sister in and whom she loves like a mother. Callie yearns to find Annika and restore to Charlotte something of her lost history. But first she must find the courage to step outside her safe haven.

I had read several WWII-era books this year, and was determined to read something from a different time. I love stories from that era, but I was starting to get a little tired of it. However, when I read the description of Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson, I had to read it next. A main character with a personalty similar to mine, a bookstore owner, mention of several classic children’s books, a castle on a lake—all these drew me in. And I am glad. I think this might be my favorite of Melanie’s books so far—and that’s saying something, because I’ve enjoyed all I’ve read from her.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Nancy Peterson. Unfortunately, the audio version didn’t include any back matter that books sometimes have about the author’s inspiration for writing, historical research, etc. However, I did find that information on Melanie’s site here. There really is an abandoned castle in Hallstatt! I enjoyed hearing about Melanie’s trip there.

I’m pretty sure this will be one of my top ten books of the year. Highly recommended.

Unconditional

Unconditional by Eva Marie Everson is based on a movie by the same name, which in turn was based on true events.

Samantha Crawford loves her life, living on a ranch with her beloved husband, Billy, riding her horses, and writing and sketching children’s books.

Then tragedy strikes. Billy is gunned down in an alley in a poor part of town.

Samantha loses her belief in God’s love and goodness. She doesn’t write any more.

At her lowest point, Samantha encounters a child hurt by a hit-and-run driver. Taking the child and the child’s brother to the hospital, Samantha runs into one of the children’s neighbors—her best from from school, Joe Bradford.

As Samantha reconnects with Joe, she learns he has kidney disease. But he spends his time ministering to the children in his neighborhood. He and his girlfriend, Denise, provide after-school snacks, attention, affirmation, and encouragement. But Joe’s time is running out unless he can get a kidney transplant.

Observing Joe’s simple faith and ministry, Samantha’s heart starts to warm again. But she’s also driven to find her husband’s murderer, convinced that the police have given up on the case. And she thinks she just may have found him—in Joe’s neighborhood.

I had not heard of the movie, but picked up this book on a Kindle sale because I had enjoyed some of Eva Marie Everson’s books. I didn’t know when I started reading it that it was based on a true story. “Papa Joe” Bradford started Elijah’s Heart to aid at-risk children.

Finding out the story was true made it even more heart-warming and inspirational than it already was. In an interview, Joe Bradford says about 97% of film is true to his life and the Samantha character is a composite of different friends.

The movie used to be on Netflix, but isn’t any more. However, it’s online here and on YouTube here. I enjoyed watching it last night. The book uses scenes and dialogue from the movie, but includes more information. Here’s a trailer for the film:

Have you seen or read Unconditional? If not, I hope you do.

A Southern Season: Stories from a Front Porch Swing

I picked up A Southern Season: Stories from a Front Porch Swing because I liked the title and concept. Plus, I had read several books by one of the authors, Eva Marie Everson, and heard her speak at a writer’s conference I attended virtually.

The book contains four novellas written by different authors. Each story takes place in the South in different seasons.

the first is Ice Melts in Spring by Linda W. Yezak. Since her husband’s drowning, Kerry Graham had avoided the coast. But now she has been requested by a reclusive author to come and catalog the items the author is donating to the museum Kerry works for. As the author lets down her guard and shares from her life, Kerry finds they have more in common than she knew.

In Lillie Beth by Eva Marie Everson, Lillie Beth was overjoyed not only to fall in love, but to escape her abusive home life. After she married David, Lillie Beth lives with David’s Granny while he goes to Viet Nam. But David doesn’t come home: he is killed in action.

Meanwhile, a Dr. Gillespie comes to town to help and then replace the town doctor. Dr. Gillespie’s wife had died, and he feels God has abandoned him. As the doctor helps Lillie when Granny is dying, he sees Lillie Beth’s simple faith and strength of character.

In Through an Autumn Window by Claire Fullerton, Cate returns to her Memphis hometown after her mother passes away. Her brother perpetuates their sibling rivalry until the two of them face a common enemy.

In A Magnolia Blooms in Winter by Ane Mulligan, Morgan James is living her dream as a Broadway actress. It was harder to break in than she thought. While waiting to hear whether she got her first leading part, her mother calls her home. The man leading the Christmas play has been injured. Since Morgan wrote the play, and her mother is responsible for the man’s accident, her mother asks Morgan to come help out. Morgan finds unexpected joy in directing the play and helping other young actors. When she reconnects with an old flame, she struggles with the thought of giving up what she thought was a God-given dream to act on Broadway. But could God have given her that dream for a specific purpose and season?

I enjoyed all these stories. Some were sad, some were funny. All were poignant and hopeful. The title fit well: this was a good book for summer evenings.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

The Summer Kitchen

The Summer Kitchen by Lisa Wingate opens with SandraKaye Darden meeting a realtor at her Uncle Poppy’s house. Poppy had been tragically killed in a robbery just a few months before. The police had no new leads in his case. It was time to sell the house and move on.

The house was old and had not been well-kept due to Poppy’s advanced age. But SandraKaye can’t quite let it go yet. This house was a safe haven for her as a child when her mother’s mood swings and substance abuse were too much to bear. Though it doesn’t really make sense, Sandra decides to paint the kitchen cabinets. But she doesn’t tell her family or her pushy best friend.

Though outwardly Sandra looks affluent, she feels her world is crumbling. Her husband, a successful doctor, is rarely home. Neither is her youngest son, Christopher, who is struggling but won’t open up to her. And her oldest son, Jake, fled after Poppy’s funeral. Jake blamed himself: if Jake had been with Poppy, as he usually was that time of the week, perhaps Poppy would still be alive now. Jake’s car was found at the airport, and they suspect he went back to his native Guatemala, from which he had been adopted as a young boy.

As Sandra works in Poppy’s house, some of the neighborhood faces become familiar. The pre-teen wanna-be thugs who roam the streets. The disabled elderly lady. The kids who run around unsupervised. The family of Hispanic people across the street. And the teen girl who looks 13 going on 30.

The teen girl, Cass, lives with her brother, Rusty. Their mother died, and they didn’t want to live with “creepy Roger,” their mother’s boyfriend. So they ran away. Rusty, age 17, finds work to support them, and Cass tries to make ends meet in their cheap apartment. They lie about their ages so that social services won’t find and separate them.

One day when SandraKaye chases some young children from the dumpster, she realizes they were probably scavenging for food. She decides to bring peanut butter sandwiches the next day. That starts a regular routine. Cass begins helping, mainly in order to have access to those sandwiches. The two women form a relationship that changes both their lives.

I picked this book up on a two-for-one audiobook sale because I loved Wingate’s Carolina Chronicles series so much. This book, however, started extremely slowly. Then a crude reference and a bad word caused me to set it aside and listen to another book instead. I decided to come back to it later, and I am glad I did, because I enjoyed the latter half much more.

The slowness was not just the beginning plot. The narrators also seemed slow. The point of view goes back and forth between Sandra and Cass, and the story is set in Texas. I grew up in TX and don’t recall anyone there speaking as slowly as these narrators. It finally occurred to me to speed up the audiobook to 1.2. That helped a great deal without distorting the voices.

I was very disappointed to see the crude reference and bad word in one of Lisa’s books. I hope this doesn’t become a trend. Both were quite unnecessary. I got from the rest of Lisa’s description that the neighborhood Poppy and Cass lived in was seedy. There was no need to throw those elements in for realism or grit.

But I did appreciate SandraKaye’s realization that she didn’t have to retreat into a shell. It was good to see her world opening up to see the needs of others, not just as statistics, but as real people.

I especially liked how Sandra went from asking herself “Aren’t there programs to help these people?” to doing what she could personally.

I was also very satisfied with how the story ended. There were a couple of ways it might have that would have been nice but implausible. I think Lisa ended it the best way possible to be both realistic and gratifying.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Heaven Sent Rain

In the novel Heaven Sent Rain by Lauraine Snelling, Dinah Taylor is a scientist who started her own company of food supplements to improve health. Her job, her life, her all-white condo and wardrobe are perfectly ordered.

One day at her usual breakfast stop, she sees a small boy and his dog sitting out in front. They look shabby, but not dirty. Dinah offers to buy the boy, Jonah, breakfast, and he accepts. Then he’s at the same place the next day, and then every day thereafter. Dinah tries to find out his background, imagining everything from a drug-infested home to neglect. But Jonah evades her questions.

Then in the middle of one night, Dinah receives a frantic phone call. Jonah’s dog is badly injured. Can she help?

Dinah isn’t sure what she’s getting into, but she can’t refuse. Searching for an emergency vet clinic open that time of night, she takes Jonah and his dog in. They are met by veterinarian Garret Miller, who seems warm and kind toward Jonah and the dog, but icy toward Dinah.

As Dinah continues to help Jonah, she gets in over her head. As she, Jonah, and Garret interact, their lives change.

Most of the other books I’ve read by Lauraine were historical fiction about Norwegian immigrants. I didn’t think I had read any of her contemporary fiction, but then remembered I had read Someday Home a couple of years ago.

I loved the way Dinah’s story unfolded, with the author revealing just a bit at a time until the whole picture came into view. Garret is an enjoyable character, too, after getting past his initial standoffishness, which is explained later.

Dinah is not a Christian, having rejected her parents’ teaching and beliefs. The details of that situation are gradually revealed, too. Garret and Jonah are both believers, as is Dinah’s receptionist. But the faith element felt very natural and not forced.

I thought the ending wrapped up a bit too quickly, and I had a theological quibble with one sentence. But overall I really enjoyed the book.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Two Short Fiction Reviews

In The Sign Painter by Davis Bunn, Amy Dowell has fallen on hard times. Her husband died and she lost her home. Now she travels in a camper with her young daughter. After charges of vagrancy and the threat of having her daughter taken away, she has a lead on a job painting signs for a car dealership. She comes across a church with an extensive ministry to the homeless, including temporary housing.

Just as things are looking up, she faces a dilemma. While working after closing hours one night, she discovers a salesman has left a significant amount of cash on his desk. If she leaves it, someone could steal it. But if she takes it to keep it safe, would she be accused of stealing? Would her record make her seem all the more guilty?

Meanwhile, ex-policeman Paul Travers has been hired to help the church find the best way to deal with a nearby house overtaken by drug dealers. Some of the church folks are already wary of the kinds of people the homeless ministry brings in. Having drug dealers in the neighborhood might push them into closing down the whole ministry.

I’m used to a more exotic locale in Bunn’s books, so it was interesting to read a novel of his set in the US. I appreciated what he said in a interview at the end of the book. The story was inspired by a news item he saw about homelessness in Orlando. He wanted to show the hardships, but not stop there. “I wanted to focus on the rebuilding. To my mind, too much attention is given to the falling down, and not enough to the getting back up again. So The Sign Painter aims toward hope and healing—a new future for homeless families, but also a reminder about the help our communities may be able to offer.”

The story took a little different turn from what I expected. I enjoyed getting to know Amy and Paul. I appreciated the glimpse into the challenges of those who are homeless and those who want to help.

In Saving Alice by David Lewis, Stephen Whittaker had been in love with Alice in high school. When a car accident takes Alice’s life, Stephen and Alice’s best friend, Donna, comfort each other and eventually marry. They have a daughter named after Alice, Alycia, with whom Stephen has a special bond. But all these years later, Stephen still has nightmares about Alice’s accident.

Stephen is a stockbroker who nearly drove his company bankrupt with a bad deal. They avoided bankruptcy and are slowly making their way back.

But when Alycia turns twelve she wants to know more about her parents’ friend, Alice. When her relentless questions finally bring out the truth that her father loved Alice first, Alycia loses respect for him.

Stephen’s bad decisions and cluelessness lead to Donna’s leaving him. But just as things begin to look up in his job and his relationship with Alycia, everything comes crashing down.

I enjoyed the father-daughter banter, and some of the scenes were very well-done and drew out my emotions. However, a plot device in the latter part of the book fell flat to me. I can’t go into it without spoiling the story. But it didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the book and seemed too convenient. I liked the rest of David’s writing well enough that I’d try his other books.

David is the husband of Beverly Lewis, one of the first Amish fiction writers.

Though I reviewed these books together mainly because I read them one after the other, they do have similar themes getting back up and rebuilding after crises.

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)

The First Gardener

In The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones, Tennessee governor Gray London and his wife, Mackenzie, struggled for ten years to have a child. Now little Maddie is about to start kindergarten and Gray will soon be seeking reelection.

Then tragedy strikes. The whole state mourns with the family. But Mackenzie doesn’t seem like she’ll ever emerge from her grief.

Jeremiah Williams has been the gardener of the governor’s mansion for over twenty-five years. Each governor’s family has become special to him. He’s not sure how yet, but perhaps God will use him to minister to Mackenzie’s heart.

The main plot of this book deals with grief: the family’s, plus those who try to help them bear it. You could say a secondary plot is finding and following God’s leading. A subplot centers Mackenzie’s eccentric mother and her group of friends, which lightens the heaviness of the story in places.

Overall, I thought the story was good. You can’t help but sympathize with Mackenzie and her tendency to withdraw into herself. I didn’t care as much for the antics of the grandmother and her friends. I really liked the character of Jeremiah. There’s a twist about him at the end that I wasn’t expecting, though a few clues were sprinkled about. I also enjoyed the Southern flavor of the story.

But the book was marred for me by several unnecessary references. For instance, early on, after the grandmother’s friends leave her house, she takes off her clothes “just because she can” and does whatever she does in the house in the nude. Secondly, one of the grandmother’s friends is well-endowed, and mention is made of her breasts a number of times. And then Gray and Mackenzie are trying undergoing fertility treatments to conceive another child, and when “baby-making time” is upon Mackenzie, she drops by her husband’s office to take advantage of it. None of these is explicit, but they are unnecessary and unwelcome. I don’t want to know when or how often a couple has sex, and I certainly don’t need pictures in my mind of a naked grandmother or her friend’s bustiness. I looked up my review of another of this author’s books from several years ago and noted mentions of nudity in it as well. Since this seems to be a penchant of hers, I’ll avoid her other books.

And that’s too bad, because otherwise she writes a good, heart-warming story.

Book Review: The Invitation

In Nancy Moser’s The Invitation, four ordinary people in different areas of the country receive a mysterious, hand-delivered invitation to come to Haven, Nebraska, on August 1. The invitations didn’t list a host or organization name or any other information except a Bible verse about faith as a mustard seed and a drawing of a mustard plant.

One of the invitees was an ex-governor. The others were a TV news producer, and wife and mother in an unhappy marriage, and a single young aspiring writer. Some are curious, but most are dismissive of the invitation at first. There’s not enough information and it all seems too weird.

But one by one, events occur that convince them to go. And even though some arrive without an invitation—a homeless stowaway, a disgruntled husband, and a thief—they are all expected and planned for.

Some are confronted with issues in their lives—some more than others. Some are nudged to use their gifts and talents in new ways. The faith of all is tested. Lives are changed.

I can’t say much more than that without giving away too much of the story. It doesn’t take long to figure out who the ultimate host is and who the mentors in Haven are. Because the visitors to Haven are confronted to varying degrees,at times the mentors come across as more didactic than we usually see in fiction. But it works because of the nature of the story.

I don’t know if I have ever read a story quite like this. Nancy Moser says in her afterword that she’s never written a story quite like this. But this story was on her heart.

It would be nice in some ways if there was such a place to go (or send people . . . ) where someone could put their finger exactly on what was wrong in your life, tell you what to do about it, and tell you what your next step should be. It doesn’t usually work like that, though. God uses His Word and prayer and the ministry of the church to guide us in less direct ways. But, still, the premise makes for an interesting imaginative tale.

And I love Nancy’s main two takeaways: that God has invited each of us to participate in His work, and He uses people with faith as small as a mustard seed.

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