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)

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)