The Reluctant Duchess

The Reluctant Duchess is the second in Roseanna M. White’s Ladies of the Manor series.

Brice Myerston, the duke of Nottingham, was a side character in the series’ first book, The Lost Heiress. He was one of England’s most sought-after eligible bachelors, which he handled by being a notorious flirt to fend off serious advances from young ladies and their mothers. But he also had a close walk with God and uncanny sense of the right thing to do.

He finds himself in a knotty dilemma, though. His family has made their annual visit to Scotland to visit his mother’s family home not long after the death of his father. There, the Scottish laird, who has no use for Englishmen and has avoided the Myerstons all this time, asks the family to dinner. While there, the earl of Lochaber tries to set a trap for Brice to wed the earl’s daughter, Rowena. Brice steadfastly refuses at first. But then he realizes this is no title-seeking or money-grubbing ploy. Rowena is in serious trouble. Brice feels the Lord’s direction to protect her, and the only way to do that seems to be to marry her and take her back to England.

Rowena’s father has become harsh and distant since the death of her mother. Her fiance, Malcolm Kinnaird, seemed loving and kind at first. But his true colors came out when he forced himself on Rowena and became as controlling and as harsh as her father. Rowena hates that her father has set a trap for Brice, but she accepts his offer as the only way to escape.

But Rowena trembles at the thought of being a duchess in English society. And her fears come true when no one accepts her except Brice’s family and two of his closest friends. Rowena has been beaten down mentally and physically and has no confidence. She recoils from Brice physically and emotionally.

In addition to trying to discern how to help his new wife, Brice has another problem on his hands. He had offered to take and hide the rare treasure that had caused his friends, the Staffords, so much trouble (in the first book). But, though the main troublemaker had been killed, other dangerous pursuers are not giving up. And one of them is trying to entice Rowena into a false friendship.

This book had a bit of a rough start for me, with Rowena facing off against Malcolm, the knowledge that He had abused her, and a lot of yelling. In The Lost Heiress, even the villains had an air of gentility. In this book, even the Scottish nobility were quite rough around the edges.

But once I got into the story, I enjoyed it. Brice and Rowena had much to learn to trust each other, and each made many mistakes along the way.

The whole hidden treasures story line was as intriguing as any suspense novel. Besides the enemies Brice knows of, he discovers new unseen ones.

I think this could be read as a stand-alone story, but it’s a much richer experience to read both of them.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Liz Pearce. I thought she did a great job with the different accents, which added a lot to the story.

As always, Roseanna did not write a fluff piece with this novel. She leads her characters to an understanding of their need and God’s abundant grace in an organic and not a preachy way.

The Lost Heiress

In The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White, set in the Edwardian era, Brook Eden grew up as the ward of Prince Grimaldi in Monaco. But the circumstances of her real family are a mystery. When Brook was a young child, she and her mother were in a carriage accident. An opera singer came to their aid, and Brook’s mother asked the woman to take Brook, a packet of letters, and her necklace before she died.

Brook friend, Justin, thinks he has discovered her real family and makes the arrangement for Brook to meet them in Yorkshire, England. Brook’s father, Lord Whitby, and his sister know right away Brook is his lost daughter. It takes the rest of the family and the servants longer to accept her.

This happened fairly early in the story, leaving me to wonder where the conflict was going to come into the plot.

Well, there’s plenty of conflict. A distant cousin, Lord Pratt, is a predator who sets his sights on Brook as the heiress of the Whitby estate. He bribes a servant to spy on Brook and bring him information. Justin’s father dies, leaving him as the new Duke of Stafford. His responsibilities necessitate his traveling to his family’s holdings in other countries, leaving Brook vulnerable to Pratt’s machinations. Justin begins to feel more for Brook than friendship but doesn’t want to seem like he is only interested now that she is an heiress. He decides to wait. But when he returns, he and Brook clash instead of resuming their easy friendship. Unbeknownst to either of them, someone has been preventing their letters from reaching each other. Other suitors appear to have made inroads into Brook’s affections. And no one realizes the danger Brook is in from a possession she doesn’t even know she has until a near-fatal attack and a stunning betrayal opens their eyes.

Several of the main characters are Christians and learn to deal with broken dreams, new and uncomfortable circumstances, trust in God when He doesn’t seem to be near, and finding forgiveness.

In the author’s notes, Roseanna said she wrote the first version of this story when she was twelve, finishing it at thirteen! After nineteen years, nine books, and many rewrites, it was finally published as the first in the Ladies of the Manor series.

A story about a lost heiress finding her true home might seem like a fluff read. But I have found no fluff in Roseanna’s books. She brings so much depth into her characters’ personalities and struggle. I enjoyed this book very much and have already started the sequel.

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.

Just 18 Summers

Just 18 Summers by Michelle Cox and Rene Gutteridge is a novel that tells the story of four families.

Butch Browning’s wife, Jenny, has recently passed away, and Butch is in a fog. Jenny had taken care of so many things, especially their young daughter, Ava. Butch owns a construction company and feels the weight of responsibility much more than when he was just another worker. But at home, the most he can manage is pizza every night.

Beth is Butch’s sister, married with three children. Her oldest daughter is in college and her oldest son is heading there next fall. In the midst of distress over her emptying nest, her daughter throws the family a curve ball: she wants to quit college and get married . . . to the pizza delivery guy.

Tippy is Butch’s foreman, and he and his wife, Daphne, are expecting their first child. But Daphne has gone off the deep end in trying to do everything possible to protect their child: reading every book she can find, covering every corner with pool noodles, forbidding certain foods from their home, etc., etc. etc.Her obsession is affecting their marriage, and Tippy can’t fathom how they’ll cope when the baby actually comes.

Helen and Charles Buckley are Beth’s neighbors, and the wives of all these families attend the scrapbooking get-together that Jenny started and which currently meets at Helen’s home. Charles has an excellent job, and Helen is determined to provide their children the very best opportunities so they’ll never be deprived or embarrassed like she was growing up. But Charles’ business responsibilities keep him from being an active part of his children’s lives, and Helen’s driven and regimented schedule for her children misses their deepest needs.

One theme in this book is that parents have a relatively short time—just 18 summers–to form relationships with their children, make lasting memories, and be the primary influence to their children. It goes so fast. Though, of course, we still have a relationship and make memories even after our children leave home, we have the biggest hand in their training when they are young.

Another theme is that there is only so much parents can control. As children become old enough to make their own decisions, those decisions may not be in keeping with what the parents think best. As Daphne discovers, we can’t protect our children from every little thing. Though we seek God’s will and do our best, ultimately our children’s lives are in God’s hands.

The book illustrates both points with humor and poignancy.

Though Jenny seems to have been almost too good to be true, and though Ava seems more capable than a child her age would normally be, all the characters are realistic and enjoyable.

I don’t think I’ve ever read Rene before. And though this is my first book of Michelle’s as well, I enjoyed attending one of her workshops at a writer’s conference. That conference also held a “Lightning Learning” session–kind of like speed dating–where three or four attendees would go in groups to an author’s table, hear their words of wisdom for 5 minutes, then go on to another table when a bell rang. I remember Michelle’s table being particularly merry.

Michelle explains in notes at the back of the book that Just 18 Summers was originally a screen play written by herself, Marshall Younger, and Torry Martin, and they were seeking funding to make the movie. I don’t know if it was ever made—I couldn’t find any videos of it.

As I searched for Michelle’s web site, I discovered there is another Michelle Cox, also an author, who writes in a different genre. The Michelle Cox who co-wrote 18 Summers also writes devotional books based on the When Calls the Heart TV series.

Overall I thought this was a great, enjoyable book. Though it has a point to make, it’s not didactic or heavy-handed. Since my own children are “out of the nest,” I can “amen” the truths in this book.

Book Review: The Road Home

In Malissa Chapin’s debut novel, The Road Home, Cadence Audley has started a new life with a new name—for the second time. Her past has dogged her steps, but she’s determined to lead a quiet, peaceful life in Deercrest, Wisconsin. She’s found a good job as a barista with a great boss. Antique stores in the area fulfill her taste for vintage purchases.

On one such shopping trip, Cadence finds an old recipe box filled with hand-written recipes. Her coworker Googles the name written inside the box and found that the owner had lived in town. Thinking to return a valued heirloom, Cadence finds Fredonia, the middle-aged daughter of the recipe box owner. Fredonia had donated the recipe box in the first place and is not thrilled to see it again—or Cadence, for that matter. But, upon learning that Cadence likes antiques, Fredonia invites the younger woman to drive with her to Kentucky to help clean out her mother’s home.

Fredonia’s offer comes just in time, because Cadence’s past has caught up with her—again.

This is a split-time novel. The second timeline belongs to Ida Beale Evans, owner of the recipe box. She had been a banker’s daughter in Indiana when she married her sweetheart, Bud, and moved with him to his new pastorate in Kentucky. Though she enjoys life as a country preacher’s wife, she has one sorrow. Suddenly one night, her deepest desire is unexpectedly fulfilled—but to keep it will call for a lifetime of secrecy.

Though Ida is a Christian and Cadence is not, both women struggle with trusting that the truth will set them free. The truth seems like it will destroy them. But Cadence has come to the end of her road. Can she escape and start over yet again? Or must she face her past and its consequences, even though doing so means losing everything she holds dear? Can she trust the young preacher who tells her, “Your sin caused problems everywhere, but God is bigger than this. He’s big enough to help you live a new life” (Location 3415, Kindle version).

I enjoyed following the journey of both women and the truths they learned. I also enjoyed the sense of place in the book, especially the Kentucky sections. There was a nice mix of both funny and poignant moments in the story. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes from Ida Beale’s box. It was fun to learn on Malissa’s blog what inspired the pink Cadillac road trip in the book and to peruse her Pinterest board for the people and items that inspired or contributed to the story.

As of this writing, the Kindle edition is $2.99, but a paperback version is also available.

Book Review: Half-Finished

In Lauraine Snelling’s novel, Half Finished, two friends get fed up with all their half-done craft projects and decide to do something about it. One, Roxie, had heard about UFO clubs—not for discovering alien life, but for finishing UnFinished Objects, or projects in their case. They discuss the idea with a few other friends and decide on a time to meet together with each choosing one project to work on while they meet.

As word of the UFO club spreads, more people want in on it—because who doesn’t have unfinished projects of some kind. Soon there are morning and evening clubs at several different locations. Even some of the men get it on the meetings.

But the clubs grow beyond projects. Relationships form and people band together to help each other through the sorrows and joys they encounter.

Lauraine said in her afterword that the book was inspired by such a UFO club in her own town. And this story brought up fond memories of a group of women who did something similar in my early married days. We didn’t focus on unfinished projects—though that’s what they were. But it wasn’t a matter of projects that had been lying around for years. We were too young to have many like that. We just met to spend some time fellowshipping while working on our various projects. We’d rotate houses, and ladies would take turns bringing snacks. I always felt we were a little inspired by the sisters in the Little Women sequels, who would meet together and visit with each other while doing their mending. I was sorry to see our group disbanded after a while: I think some of the ladies felt guilty spending time working on crafts during the day.

The beginning of the book was hard to get into: it was very busy. There were so many characters, they and their families were hard to keep straight. Plus the pages seemed to be stuffed with unnecessary details. For instance, there was one paragraph all about one woman’s two credit cards and which she used for what and why she was using the one she did for a purchase that day. Unless something about the credit cards was going to come up later in the story, there was no need to know any of that, or even that she paid for the purchase with a credit card. I don’t remember seeing that kind of thing in any of Lauraine’s other books.

But once the narrative settled down into a few of the main characters’ stories, the book became more enjoyable. There’s Roxie, a widowed real estate agent and a founding member of the UFO club. She has a grown daughter, Loren, who lives with her. Fred and Ginny own a farm and share their bounty with others. Their son and his family live nearby, and they enjoy getting together often. Their granddaughter, Addy, is an expert cookie baker. Amalia is one of my favorite characters: she is widowed and sold her own farm to live in senior apartments. But, even though she couldn’t keep up with the farm alone, she’s still able-bodied and mentally sound. She spends her days helping out some of the other seniors with physical needs or her friends.

One of the themes of the book is that we’re all half-finished projects. We’re all in a state of growth. So we need to be patient with ourselves and each other, but we also need to keep growing and learning.

Book Review: The Nature of a Lady

In The Nature of a Lady by Roseanna M. White, Lady Elizabeth Sinclair prefers microscopes to ballrooms. She never feels she fits in with her peers. Her best friend is her maid, Mabena. Libby’s brother wants to marry her off to Lord Sheridan so she’s “taken care of.” Sheridan would at least tolerate her eccentricities. But is that she can expect out of life—toleration?

Libby decides to take Mabena on a summer holiday to the Isles of Scilly, where Mabena is from. While she’s away, Libby hopes Sheridan will see that they can’t possibly get married. She rents a cottage and discovers the previous occupant had also been named Elisabeth and had left suddenly with no explanation.

Then Libby begins receiving packages and notes that must be for the other Elizabeth. But one contains a cannonball, of all things.

Then a young man shows up at her doorstep demanding to know where his sister is. And this young man somehow knows Mabena.

Oliver Tremayne is a vicar and a gentleman, but most of the family’s wealth was spent on his brother’s illness. He’s exasperated with his sister, Beth. She was supposed to write him twice a week, but he hasn’t heard from her in two weeks. He’s afraid Beth’s absence is aggravating his grandmother’s dementia. He’d told Beth he’d stay away and giver her her freedom while on Holiday, but he has to make sure she is all right. Imagination his surprise, then, when someone other than his sister opens her door at his knock—someone he has met before, someone with Mabena.

Besides the mysteries of what happened to Beth and how everyone knows Mabena, other unexplained happenings include strange noises on one of the islands, a white figure, odd notations in an old book, pirate treasure, and past princes.

Meanwhile, Libby feels more at home in the isles than she has ever felt in her life. But can she ever convince her brother to let her stay?

One mystery to me: why the cover portrays Libby as dark-haired, when she’s repeatedly described as blonde and fair in the book.

I had never heard of the Isles of Scilly before listening to this book, and I enjoyed learning about them. The puzzles and mysteries in the book were intriguing, though I think I lost a couple of the threads before it was all over–probably a result of listening to the audiobook rather than reading the book, which made it harder to go back and trace some things. I liked the threads about being who God created you to be and the fact that science and faith aren’t enemies (though Libby seemed to accept evolution as fact, which I would disagree with).

I can’t say I enjoyed this story quite as much as Roseanna’s other books I’ve read, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. And I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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.

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