Friday, November 27, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

The month of November has been a tumultuous one in our household. My husband had an unexpected heart procedure done on the 10th, and is now recovering well, praise God. During that time, The Art of Racing in the Rain was the perfect book to take my mind away from my worries. I had postponed reading The Art of Racing in the Rain for months because dog stories always make me cry. The Art of Racing in the Rain was no exception.

But having said that, I hasten to add that Garth Stein’s novel about a race-car driver and his dog, Enzo, is one of the best books I've read in years. I've gone back through the novel more than once to reread my favorite portions. The Art of Racing in the Rain will stay on my shelf so I can read it again and again.

The story is told by Enzo, a dog who knows he has the soul of a human. Enzo and his master, Denny, have been together since Enzo's puppy days. The Art of Racing in the Rain follows their journey as Denny marries and adds a child to the family, all the while pursuing his dream of being a championship race-car driver. At turns humorous, poignant, and downright tragic, this book is an uplifting story of love and hope.

For sheer perfection in writing, Chapter 26 is an absolute delight. It brings the essence of Denny and Enzo into clear focus and thrills the reader with a behind-the-wheel look at techniques involved in auto racing. You don’t have to be a racing fan (I’m not) to love this book. The ending is nothing less than brilliant. This is more a love letter to a book than it is a review—that’s how deeply this story touched me.

Stein writes for the general market, so there are a few instances of profanity and sexual references. Nevertheless, I thoroughly recommend The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s a keeper!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tender Grace, by Jackina Stark

As Tender Grace begins, Audrey Eaton realizes she's locked herself into a grief shell following the unexpected death of her husband over a year ago. In an effort to get her life back, she decides to take a solo road trip to visit a destination she and her husband had always planned to experience together.

This is Stark's debut novel. She does a magnificent job of putting the reader into Audrey's emergence from her shell, one destination at a time. She leaves her home and family in Missouri and at first travels very short distances, hiding in hotel rooms and watching television. As the days progress she grows more bold, until she finds herself having some wildly unexpected adventures in her westward journey.

I loved the way the author used the Book of John, from Scripture, to illustrate Audrey’s return to faith and trust.

Tender Grace is a gentle story, written in journal form. This is one I could read again and again, just to enjoy the skill with which Stark portrays Audrey’s growth as a person. The realism in the book brought tears to my eyes more than once.

I thoroughly recommend Tender Grace.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George

If you've perused the Bookshelf tab on my website, you know I'm an Elizabeth George fan. Recently I finished her latest mystery, Careless in Red. The story is a little different than some of her earlier novels, in that all the action takes place along the Cornwall coast rather than in London.
The opening line is a grabber: "He found the body on the forty-third day of his walk." He is Detective Superintendent Thomas Lynley, who turned in his New Scotland Yard identification following events in a previous novel, With No One as Witness.
Happily for Lynley fans (I'm one of them), he's back in this book, having been dragged reluctantly into a murder investigation. George involves the lives of a dozen or so characters in a small village in Cornwall where everyone’s life is an open book (except the murderer’s). By doing so, Careless in Red becomes a novel in which a murder occurs, rather than a straightforward murder mystery. I loved how George took me into the character’s lives, worried me as to the outcomes, then in a satisfactory fashion wrapped up the secondary stories. The approach was a new one for her, at least concerning the number of sub-plots.
Careless in Red is general market fiction, so there is a bit of colorful language and some sexual situations. With her usual skill, George had me guessing until the final moments of the story. This isn’t a “stay up all night” book, because at 721 words, I missed several night’s sleep, not just one. I loved the story, but I have to confess prejudice. I read everything she writes.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Interview with Christina Berry

Today I'm welcoming Christina Berry to my blog. Her debut novel, The Familiar Stranger, was provided to me by the publisher for review purposes. Scroll down past this interview to my blog post of October 3 for my take on this story. (Hint: I loved it!)

Hi Christina! Thanks for stopping by. For starters, tell me about your novel.

The Familiar Stranger—formerly known as Undiscovered—is about a couple going through a really rough patch in their marriage. When an accident incapacitates the husband, their relationship must be redefined. Which would be a lot easier to do if BIG secrets from his past didn’t raise their ugly heads. Despite the upheaval, the choices they make involving forgiveness and trust might allow a new beginning. Or … they might not.
You can see the back cover copy and what other authors have said about The Familiar Stranger by going to

Your story had me staying awake late to see what happened next. How did you come up with your plot?

In the summer of 2006, two stories appeared in the newspaper. One was a huge, national story; the other a smaller, local-interest item. I wondered what it might look like if those two stories conceived a child. Boom! I had the entire plot for The Familiar Stranger. It will be interesting to see if readers can figure out which stories inspired the book.

Your female protagonist’s willingness to forgive certainly inspired me. But I’ve heard some Christian writers argue that fiction is first and foremost entertainment, and decry “agenda-driven” stories. What’s your opinion?

I say we're all writing with an agenda, whether we recognize it or not. Maybe it's to show what a godly romance looks like, maybe to draw attention to child abuse, maybe to attempt to understand why people are capable of such evil, or ... With this book, I felt called to share what God has taught me about forgiveness. That is definitely my agenda, which correlates with my tagline: Live transparently—Forgive extravagantly.
However, if the story is not presented in a highly entertaining way the agenda will never be accomplished because the reader will toss the book down if she gets bored. The real skill—and I am by no means saying I'm setting the watermark with my writing—is to so thoroughly wrap the story around the agenda that it becomes unrecognizable to the reader. I'd love to hear other’s opinions in the comments.

Readers, you can post those comments at the end of this interview. As a bonus, you’ll be entered in the October 31 drawing for one of ten copies of The Familiar Stranger. Be sure to leave your e-mail address with your comment.

On the subject of forgiveness, what takeaway value do you hope readers receive after reading The Familiar Stranger?

The recent changes in my life—losing my husband, facing finding a “real” job, selling my home—have done nothing but solidify what I hope to be the theme of the book and my life: Live Transparently—Forgive Extravagantly. If reading The Familiar Stranger makes even one man or woman be more honest with his or her spouse or delve into trust issues in a healthy way, I’ll consider it a success. Maybe there’s a hurting heart that can find a new path to forgiveness because of the story.

How long does it normally take you to write a book?

I can comfortably write a 90,000-word novel in four months. Fifteen hundred words a day is a pretty doable pace for me, and I could up it if I had a contract to fulfill that necessitated faster writing. Having a month or so to set it aside before doing edits is a wonderful thing.
Mom and I can write a very clean draft of a full novel in about three months. In the future, I’d love to be putting out 2-3 book a year, a combination of solo and co-written.

90,000 words in four months! That boggles my mind. You mention your mother—have you written together?

My mother, Sherrie Ashcraft, and I began writing in the summer of ’99. We figured the accountability of having a co-writer would make us actually do what we’d always dreamed of but never put action to. It took a long road of learning how much we didn’t know, tons of re-writing, brooding over rejections, making connections, pitching at conferences, and directional prayer to make our writing salable.
In the summer of 2007, when Mom was busy caring for her dying mother-in-law, I got the itch of a new story idea. Undiscovered was written by February 2008, edited by June, won second place in the ACFW Genesis Contemporary category, and was renamed The Familiar Stranger and contracted by Moody Publishers in October.
One decade from naïve first scribbles to debut novel!

Do you have any advice for other writers?

~Read craft books (I have a list of my favorites on the sidebar of my blog
~Write consistently
~Join a critique group
~Attend writing conferences
~By open to criticism. One always has room to grow!

Anything else you’d like to add?

I encourage readers to sign up for my infrequent, humorous newsletter. Back issues are available at

Thank you, Christina. Now tell us how readers can purchase your book.

Here are two links:
You can also have any bookstore order copies for you if they don’t have any in stock.

Readers, Christina’s giving away ten copies of her book this month. All you have to do is leave a comment at the end of this interview and your name will be entered in the drawing to be held on October 31.
Tomorrow (October 10) she will be visiting Lil Duncan at . Visit Lil’s blog to learn more about Christina and her novel.

Scroll down for my review.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Familiar Stranger, by Christina Berry

The Familiar Stranger, Berry's debut novel, opens with a scene between a couple whose marriage is obviously in trouble. Craig goes his way, Denise goes hers. Then she receives a phone call that changes the stakes from the everyday to stunning suspense.
Craig has been in a devastating accident, and when he wakes from a drug-induced coma he no longer remembers Denise or their life together. Berry ramps up the story from a domestic plot to page-turning suspense as one revelation about Craig’s past follows another. Betrayals, lies, and false memories all play into the mystery of their marriage.
Told from two points of view, we see Denise reel as she grapples with discoveries from Craig’s secret life. At the same time we share Craig’s bewilderment at finding himself part of a family he doesn't remember, and being accused of things he has no recollection of doing.
The Familiar Stranger moves quickly, and kept me riveted to the story when I should have turned off the light and gone to sleep. Berry does a masterful job of bringing all the plot points together at the satisfying conclusion.
I recommend The Familiar Stranger, and look forward to Berry’s next novel. Inspirational fiction has a new star.

Please stop by again on October 9. I'll be posting an interview with Christina.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Where in the World Are You? contest winner!

Thanks to everyone who entered my newsletter contest. Bob in Kentucky is the winner of the $15 gift certificate.
I loved reading all the entries from around the country and outside our borders. G'day to my Australian readers! Special greetings to friends in British Columbia and Alaska! I know, Alaska is part of our country, but it's fun to see how far my book traveled.
Hope you'll all be on the watch for the next newsletter contest, coming sometime during the holiday season.
If you're not currently receiving my newsletter, look over to the right at the end of this post to find the "Get the Newsletter" sign-up form. Enter your email address and click "Sign Me Up. " Easy as pie!


Monday, September 7, 2009

Riding Lessons, by Sara Gruen

Riding Lessons was Sara Gruen's debut novel. I'd never heard of it, but like most readers, had definitely heard of her later book, Water for Elephants (which I loved!)
Riding Lessons is an entertaining story about a former world-class equestrian, told from her point of view twenty years after her glory days. I seem to be on a horse kick lately, as I recently reviewed Deborah Vogt's Snow Melts in Spring, which also concerned horses.
Gruen's book takes a different approach, in that it's almost a love story between Annemarie Zimmer and the horse that took her to championship status. The novel opens with a brief flashback to Annemarie's youth, then drops the reader smack in the middle of her current life with one of the best introductory chapters I’ve ever read. By the time I reached Chapter Three I was glued to the pages with horrified fascination, the way you'd watch a train wreck.
Gruen did an amazing job of writing throughout the book, although at times I felt Annemarie’s behavior was a little over the top. I'd recommend Riding Lessons, with the caveat that if you loved Water for Elephants, you probably won’t like this one as much. But for a story about a woman and horses, it’s one of the most interesting novels you’ll ever read.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Promise for Spring, by Kim Vogel Sawyer

At its heart, A Promise for Spring is the story of two people who need to be reminded that God is not only in control, but that He is trustworthy.
Emmaline Bradford is a gently-reared Englishwoman who has waited five long years to join her fiance, Geoffrey Garrett, in Kansas. To her shock, when she finally reaches her destination she finds Kansas to be brown and barren and Geoffrey to be someone she no longer remembers. She wants to head back to England as soon as possible, but Geoffrey persuades her to wait until spring.
The details of farm life in what I imagine to be the late 1800’s (A Promise for Spring doesn’t spell out the date) are fascinating and true to life. Sawyer doesn't gloss over any of the hardships facing Emmaline. One tidbit in the book that I especially enjoyed was that one of Geoffrey's neighbors pronounces her name "Emmalion." For some reason that tickled me. As the story goes on, we see that Emmaline truly is a lion when it comes to facing down fearful situations.
Geoffrey's challenges in maintaining a sheep ranch are also well-researched and authentic. His forceful personality works for him as a rancher, but doesn’t win him Emmaline's regard at first. How they both resolve their difficulties kept me turning pages until I reached the satisfying conclusion.
Start with "Emmalion" and Geoffrey, add in two ranch hands and the above-mentioned neighbors and A Promise for Spring equals an enjoyable read. I recommend it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just One Look, by Harlan Coben

What can I say about a book by Harlan Coben? Exciting, page turning? Yes, but after reading one or two of his novels I find they're all cut from the same mold. It's like going to McDonald's for a meal. You know what you're going to get, so that’s why you go there.
Same with Just One Look. Having read a couple of other of Coben’s books, I knew this would follow a pattern. That’s why I picked it up—when I’m in the mood for a fun, escapist read, there’s no one like Coben to provide it for me.
The plot line of Just One Look concerns Grace Lawson, who discovers a mysterious photograph mixed in with her order from Photomat. (Remember film developing? This story has a 2004 copyright date.) The picture is of a group of young people, and one of them looks like her husband. Mystified, she shows him the photo, and that evening he disappears.
The fast-moving story follows Grace’s efforts to find him. The police think he simply left, as husbands sometimes do, and don’t take her concerns seriously. There are multiple plot twists, and one very creepy bad guy. Coben twisted this plot like the gears of a clock—it was impossible for me to put it all together until the last cog fell into place at the end of the book.
Just One Look is a great airplane read—you won’t notice how long you’re stuck in that uncomfortable little seat because you’ll be so busy racing through the story.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shadows of Lancaster County, by Mindy Starns Clark

The cover picture makes the story look like an Amish tale, but for the most part I'd call Shadows of Lancaster County a mystery/thriller. The plot concerns Anna Bailey, who fled Lancaster County to escape a painful past. She's in California making her living as a skip tracer when she receives a phone call from her brother's wife informing her that her brother, Bobby, has disappeared.

Anna realizes she has no choice but to go back and help find him.Even though she's disguised her appearance, it's not long before she's recognized as part of a notorious crime that took place when she was a teenager. Her search for Bobby takes her back into the Amish family of her sister-in-law, then draws her deeper into the mystery surrounding his disappearance. Following the trail her brother left, she’s drawn into the high tech world of DNA research and cutting edge gene therapy.

As Anna digs deeper, she begins to suspect that nothing is quite what it seems in the peaceful world her brother inhabited. Shadows of Lancaster County builds to an exciting climax, both in the current mystery of what happened to Bobby and in revelations about the crime of which Anna and her brother were accused eleven years earlier.

The fast-paced story has many moments of high tension, but it seemed to me that it peaked too soon. The last chapters read more like the denouement than a climax. This is not to say that I didn’t like the story. Clark’s sharp research into DNA and genetics gave a gripping air of authenticity to Shadows of Lancaster County. I recommend the book, and would love to hear from other readers as to their opinion of the way the story lines were concluded.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Harvest, by Tess Gerritson

A review of one of Tess Gerritsen’s novels may seem as though I’m straying from my original "debut author" theme. After all, to date Gerritsen has sold more than 15 million copies of her books worldwide.
Let me explain: In an interview in the September, 2008, issue of The Writer magazine, Gerritson shared that after years of writing romantic suspense, she got the idea for a thriller based on the idea of a black market for human organs. Like most writers, a conversation sparked the "what if" neurons in her brain, and the book that was originally called The Harvest was born. For Tess Gerritson, it was her debut into the field of medical thrillers.
Harvest features Dr. Abby DiMatteo, a surgery resident on a cardiac transplant team. She's an appealing heroine, with just enough quirks to take her beyond the typical woman-on-the-run genre that most thrillers seem to require. She and chief resident Dr. Vivian Chao, make a bold decision to direct a crash victim’s heart to a seventeen-year-old dying charity patient instead of a wealthy forty-six-year old woman. That decision and the way they carried it out was heart-stopping (pun intended).
But in the aftermath, another available heart suddenly turns up for the waiting woman. Where did it come from? Who was the mysterious "doctor" who delivered the heart to the transplant unit at midnight?
Harvest kept me breathless until the very last, and that doesn’t happen often. There were still surprises coming within three pages of the ending. If I had a star system of ratings on my blog, I’d give Harvest five big ones.
One thing I wish, though. I want another novel featuring Abby DiMatteo, so I can learn what happened to the characters after the story ended.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Snow Melts in Spring, by Deborah Vogts

Snow Melts in Spring is a story full of surprises. Vogts has spun an absorbing novel about a women veterinarian, an NFL football player, and an irascible old man. For a backdrop she uses the Flint Hills of Kansas, an area I've never visited, but after reading this novel I feel I've been there. Vogts' loving description of the land has given me a view of Kansas quite different from that depicted in The Wizard of Oz.
I love reading stories that inform as well as entertain, and Snow Melts in Spring fills that bill handily. The insider accounts of horses and veterinary medicine set this book apart from others I've read. I was especially entranced by Vogts' use of Gil McCray's football background. His point of view added a fascinating dimension to the novel.
The story begins when the main character, Mattie Evans, is called in to save a badly injured horse. Unknowing, she finds herself in the midst of a family conflict in which secrets and guilt must be played out before the heartwarming conclusion is reached. I must confess I had tears in my eyes when I read the ending.
Vogts has created memorable characters in an unusual setting. I recommend this book.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is the most enjoyable novel I've read in ages. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to it--the book has been on the best seller lists for many months, and deservedly so.
I finished it last night, and am tempted to turn it over and start again. The characters are so real that I'd like to visit the Channel Island of Guernsey and talk with their descendants to find out what happened to everybody after the story ended.
Authors Shaffer and Barrows constructed the book in the form of letters to and from writer Juliet Ashton in the year immediately following the end of World War II. By the way, you writers out there, don’t let anyone tell you World War II novels won’t sell. Give the story a setting and format as unusual as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and it will sell like, well, hotcakes, if not Potato Peel Pie.
The story starts when Juliet receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation. The story is at turns hilarious, fascinating, and heartbreaking. I had no idea what "occupation" really entailed until I read this book. The story itself is fiction, but the facts of the occupation and Nazi atrocities are all too true.
I can't recommend this novel strongly enough. As one of the characters writes, “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones.”
I bought the trade paperback version, but plan to purchase The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in hardback to add it to my library of special favorites.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"The Shape of Mercy" contest winner

Congratulations to Carly for winning the drawing for a signed copy of a beautifully bound ARC copy of The Shape of Mercy. Susan Meissner will be contacting you for your mailing address.
Thanks to all who participated in the drawing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Bell Messenger, by Robert Cornuke and Alton Gansky

The Bell Messenger was recommended to me by a visitor to my website. I've asked readers to share some of their favorite book titles with me, and Kay suggested I add The Bell Messenger to my library. I'm so glad I did. The story is a combination of historical fiction and contemporary action.
The authors, Robert Cornuke and Alton Gansky, have spun an intricate plot that revolves around a bible originally carried by a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. When the soldier is mortally wounded in action, he insists that the Union officer who shot him take the bible. “A dry rain cometh if you do not take the book,” he whispers.
In the story that follows, the bible eventually comes to a young man in 1980, and through his efforts the reader learns of the book's journey from a Virginia battlefield to a California railroad camp, into World War I, and across the sands of Egypt. Each life it touches connects with the life of the previous owner. Ordinarily I don’t like stories that use an object to connect decades, but The Bell Messenger manages to do so without feeling episodic.
A word to squeamish readers—the battle scenes are quite graphic. A little more so than I would have liked. However, the fascinating tales of the bible's owners more than make up for a little gore. At the end, Cornuke and Gansky tie the various sections together in a satisfying conclusion.
I recommend The Bell Messenger. I’d love to hear comments from others who've read it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Shape of Mercy, by Susan Meissner

The Shape of Mercy, by Susan Meissner, is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Meissner's protagonist, Lauren Durough, is from a wealthy family, which was one of the unique features of this story. The glimpses into Lauren’s privileged home life fascinated me.

Although raised with servants in attendance, Lauren yearns to be seen as an ordinary person, so she shuns a costly private college in favor of a state school. In a further endeavor to break away from her family's expectations, she takes a part-time job transcribing a 300-year-old journal for an elderly woman. The diary is an original account written by one of the young women accused during the Salem witch trials.

As the thought-provoking novel continues, Lauren is drawn ever more deeply into the story of Mercy Hayworth, the girl unjustly accused of witchcraft. The Shape of Mercy's theme is the harm done to ourselves and others by making judgments based solely on our own frame of reference. Lauren comes face-to-face with uncomfortable truths about herself as she tries to learn what happened to Mercy.

Meissner has done a masterful job of telling a story that unites the lives of two women born centuries apart. At the same time, she gave me an opportunity to consider parallels between Lauren's discoveries and my own tendencies to make snap judgments about people. The Shape of Mercy is a fantastic story on many levels. I highly recommend it.

Please leave a comment to have your name entered in the June 15th drawing for bound arc of The Shape of Mercy, donated by Susan Meissner. Be sure to include your email address in the comment so I’ll be able to contact you if you win.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Contest winner!

Thanks to everyone who entered my newsletter contest. Ann Johnson is the winner of the last two books reviewed on the blog--Enduring Love, by Bonnie Leon, and Age Before Beauty, by Virginia Smith.
For those of you who enjoy statistics, the results of the "Who was your favorite character in The Edge of Light" question are as follows.
Molly McGarvie received 67% of the vote;
Dr. Karl Spengler received 25%, and 
Betsy James (the slave woman) received 8%.
I was great hearing from all of you. Stay tuned for another giveaway coming up soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Age Before Beauty, by Virginia Smith

Virginia Smith's contemporary novel, Age Before Beauty, is a delight to read. The protagonist, Allie Harrod, is a new mother who undertakes a home-based business (the kind that involves house parties) to avoid having to put her baby in daycare. 
The scenes where Allie is obsessing about her new infant’s well-being are laugh-out-loud funny. Smith brilliantly displays her knack for humor writing in Age Before Beauty, the second novel in her Sister-to-Sister series.
Allie's struggles to keep everything together will resonate with any woman who has attempted to balance a job with her homelife. 
Age Before Beauty is an entertaining novel. Smith incorporates a heart-warming spiritual message smoothly into the plot, enhancing the story line, which isn’t always true of inspirational fiction. 
The attractive cover invited me to pick up the book. Once I began reading I was hooked. I believe you will be, too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A great read!

Enduring Love, by Bonnie Leon, is Book 3 in Leon's Sydney Cove series, and an exciting and satisfying finale to a compelling adventure. 
Enduring Love draws the reader into the Australia of the early 1800's. The settings are so realistic that I could feel the heat and dust of John and Hannah Bradshaw's sheep farm.
Even more, I felt the tension in the story as Hannah and John struggle against the reality of his first wife's reappearance in his life. How could she be alive when John had been told of her death years before? What would happen to Hannah and John's marriage in a time when divorce was almost never permitted?
Leon's book is filled with unexpected plot twists, humor, and the warmth of an enduring love. The conclusion had me racing to turn the pages.
If you've missed this series, I recommend you return to the beginning and read Books 1 and 2--To Love Anew, and Longings of the Heart. You'll find yourself transported to another time and place.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Amazon gift certificate winner and another contest.

I'm happy to announce that Linda is the winner of the contest on the Rose House blog. I'm waiting to hear back from her as to whether she'd like her gift certificate sent via email or through the Post Office.

Thanks to all who entered. 

Right now, there's another contest going on for readers of my novel, The Edge of Light. Let me know who your favorite character was and your name will go into the drawing for a free copy of the last two books reviewed on my blog as of the closing date of the contest, May 29.
Sign up for blog posts to see which two books you may win. 
The winner will be announced here on June 1.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In Search of Eden, by Linda Nichols

The cover illustration for In Search of Eden shows a little girl, her face partly hidden. Is she the one being searched for, or is she the one doing the searching? A compelling picture, and the reason I picked this book up. The story didn't disappoint me!
In Search of Eden is the story of Miranda DeSpain and her quest to heal the pain inflicted on her as a teenager. That quest takes her to Abingdon, Virginia, where she becomes part of a community filled with warm, believable characters. Those characters are so well-drawn that I spent hours thinking about their lives after I finished the book.
Nichols tells Miranda's story through several points of view. She handles this often difficult plot device masterfully. By getting to know the people Miranda meets, the reader not only learns what's in their hearts, but sees Miranda's many qualities as well--qualities Miranda herself fails to acknowledge. The many threads of the plot come together in a page-turning conclusion that left me smiling but sorry the story had ended.I liked In Search of Eden so much that I turned back to the beginning and read parts of it again. 
In Search of Eden won a well-deserved ECPA medallion of excellence. If you've read it, I'd love to hear from you. We can share our thoughts on the discussion questions, especially #9.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rose House, by Tina Ann Forkner

Tina Ann Forkner's second novel, Rose House, is an engrossing and worthy successor to her outstanding first book, Ruby Among Us. In Rose House, Forkner revisits La Rosaleda, a fictional town set in the beautiful Sonoma Valley of California.

I'd call the plot of Rose House "a mystery wrapped in an enigma," to paraphrase Winston Churchill. The main character, Lillian Diamon, is mourning the loss of her family when she finds herself drawn to the fabled Rose House in La Rosaleda. Forkner starts the pages turning right away, with a mysterious photographer who is spying on Lillian. From there the story spins out question after question. We walk in Lillian's shoes as she lives through her grief and confusion--each new revelation deepening the mystery of what happened to her family.

As always, Forkner evokes emotion with her skillful phrasing. One line I particularly loved has Lillian reflecting, "My house is worse than an empty shell. It is full and overflowing with what is missing."

The story is filled with a sense of menace. We share Lillian's doubts about whom she can trust. The reader is drawn further into Rose House to answer questions raised about each of the fully-drawn characters that Forkner introduces. As the plot lines converge, the book sweeps to a heart-stopping conclusion.

The characters became real to me--I'm still thinking about them. I loved the way this novel resolved. I had tears in my eyes when I read the ending.

I recommend Rose House!

Friday, April 24, 2009

On Agate Hill, by Lee Smith

I read an interview with Lee Smith in a writer's magazine last month, and was intrigued by her comments regarding On Agate Hill. So, I bought the book.The story is set in post-Civil War North Carolina. As readers of my book reviews know, I’m drawn to stories set in the Civil War period, particularly those set in the Confederate states. As someone who descended from a great-grandfather who fought for the Union, and who has lived her life on the west coast, I know very little of the effects of the war on the citizens of the southern states.

On Agate Hill is the story of Molly Petree, who is an orphan of thirteen when the book begins in 1872. Smith narrates Molly’s life through the use of diaries, letters, court records, and even sometimes song lyrics. It’s an unconventional method, but it serves this story well. By reading Molly’s words, and the words others write about her, the reader gets a fully dimensional view of an unforgettable heroine. The only drawback to this method of storytelling is the fact that when one of the sections ended, it created a natural place to stop reading and put the book down. But curiosity about what would happen to Molly next brought me back after those breaks.By the end of the story, I felt I had lost someone dear to me. Not a friend, exactly. More like an interesting relative who sends letters home telling of an exotic life beyond my imagining.

Molly’s life was far from exotic in the conventional sense. She never leaves North Carolina, but her life is ruled by her own definition of herself as a “bad girl.” Therefore, she doesn’t balk at challenging the status quo no matter where she finds herself. Smith has done a magnificent job of describing the beauty of North Carolina, especially the mountain areas. Her characters are all memorable—there aren’t any stick figures in this book.The privations of the reconstruction period following the Civil War are shown through Molly’s eyes in a way that makes them more real than melodramatic scenes could do.

On Agate Hill definitely falls in the category of literary fiction, and was written for the general market. Using movie ratings, I’d categorize it as PG-13. I recommend this book highly, especially for lovers of Civil War fiction.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Miss Fortune and Miss Match by Sara Mills

Welcome to Sara Mills' blog tour. This interview took place last week, the day before Sara's husband died of a heart attack on Tuesday. He was young -- 40 -- and I am grieved for Sara and her children. If you've considered buying one of these books, please follow the link at the end of this post to buy one or both of them.

Here's the interview with Sara, as conducted by Cara Putman:

Cara: Miss Fortune and Miss Match are delightful books set in NYC in 1947. Tell us how you got the idea for Allie and these books.

I got the idea for Miss Fortune in the middle of the night, when all good ideas come to me:
One sleepless night I was watching The Maltese Falcon and I started to wonder how different the story would be if Sam Spade had been a woman. She'd never have fallen for Miss Wunderly's charms and lies. She'd have been smart and tough and she would have solved the case in half the time it took Sam because she wouldn't spend all of her time smoking cigarettes and calling her secretary Precious.
The thought of a hard-boiled female detective got my mind whirling.
I paused the movie and sat in my darkened living room thinking about how much fun a female Sam Spade could be. Intrigued but not yet ready to dash to my computer, I changed disks and put on Casablanca (my all time favorite movie ever). The sweeping love story, a tale full of hard choices and sacrifice was what finally made the whole idea click in my mind. If I could just combine the P.I. detective story of the Maltese Falcon with the love story from Casablanca, and make Sam Spade more of a Samantha, I could have the best of all worlds.

Cara: These books are so good, I wish I'd written them. How did you set the stage to capture that gritty PI feel without being dark?

I find that a lot of PI stories are gritty and dark, focusing on the worst of the humanity, and while I wanted the Allie Fortune mysteries to be exciting and tension-filled I didn’t want them to be stark and hopeless.
One of the things I tried to do to counteract the darkness was to give Allie a multi-layered life. She has cases, relationships, friends and family, all of which I hope combine to make the stories textured, rich and full of life.

Cara: Allie is a character I'd love to have coffee with. What did she teach you while you wrote these books?

Allie was a great character to write. One of the things I learned from her was that human relationships (man/woman, mother/daughter, friends) are complicated and full of unspoken rules and expectations. Allie is a rule-breaker at heart and it complicates her life on a regular basis. One of the storylines I loved most is Allie’s relationship with her mother and how it grows and changes and how it’s shaped her.
Another dimension of Allie’s character that really taught me a lot was her willingness to do whatever was needed to help those she loves. There is no price on that kind of friendship and it’s a characteristic I’d like to see more of in myself. Okay I admit it, I’ve got a bit of a friend-crush on Allie. LOL.

Cara: One last question: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would that be and who would you take with you?

If I could go anywhere right now I’d head to Monterey, California (I’m writing a book set there right now) and I’d plant myself on the beach with a notebook, writing my story as the waves crashed. Sounds like my idea of heaven on earth. There’s something about the wind-shaped Cypress trees and the crash of the surf in Monterey that calls to me. I don’t know why, it just is.
Miss Fortune and Miss Match are available through

469260: Miss Fortune, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #1Miss Fortune, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #1

By Sara Mills / Moody Publishers

In 1947 Allie Fortune is the only female private investigator in New York City, but she's kept awake at night by a mystery of her own: her fianci disappeared in the war and no one knows if he's still alive. Until Allie finds out, she will have no peace. When there's a knock on her office door at four in the morning, Allie suspects trouble as usual, and Mary Gordon is no exception. Mary claims someone is following her, that her apartment has been ransacked, and that she's been shot at, but she has no idea why any of this is happening. Allie takes the case, and in the process discovers an international mystery that puts her own life in danger.

Meanwhile, the FBI is working the case as well, and she is partnered up with an attractive, single agent who would be perfect for her under other circumstances-if only she knew whether her fianci was still alive.

469270: Miss Match, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #2Miss Match, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #2

By Sara Mills / Moody Publishers

FBI agent Jack O'Connor receives a letter from Maggie, a woman he used to love, saying she's in trouble in Berlin. The FBI refuses to get involved, so Jack asks Allie Fortune to help him investigate. Allie and Jack pose as a missionary couple who want to bring orphans back to the United States.

A child finds important documents that everyone in the city - Soviets and allies alike - want for themselves. Maggie refuses to tell Jack what the documents are, saying if things go wrong, they are better off not knowing. Through the course of the search, Allie's past is brought back to her, half a world away from home.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

According to Their Deeds by Paul Robertson

I bought this book because the back cover blurb said that the protagonist, Charles Beale, owns a rare books shop. Any story about a bookstore owner must be good, right?
According To Their Deeds is beyond good—it is so much fun to read that I hated to see the story conclude.
If you, like me, enjoy playing with words, According To Their Deeds is for you. My compliments to Robertson’s editors at Bethany House for giving him the latitude to fill the story with puns, “swifties” (see page 69), and clever riffs on classic books. I can’t think of a time I simply enjoyed each page of a story for the subtle humor it contained.
And yet, don’t let me deceive you. According To Their Deeds is a complex mystery that that has one of the best opening scenes I’ve read in years. The plot had me guessing until the very end, but what kept me reading page after page was the cleverness of the writing. I came to look forward to the moments when Charles Beale would enter the shop and ask Alice, the clerk, if they’d sold anything. Invariably, she’d name a title and Charles would have an answering pun relating to the book’s content. As I said, I was sorry when the book reached it’s exciting conclusion, because I knew I’d miss the repartee that filled the chapters.
I heartily recommend According To Their Deeds, both as a mystery and just for fun. I plan to locate the rest of Robertson’s books and read them, too.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Shack, Part 3

I promised I'd tell you about Paul Young's amazing journey from warehouse employee to writing a bestseller. Here's the rest of the story: Once he and his associates realized they were getting nowhere with traditional publishers, they created Windblown Media to publish The Shack. Windblown Media is a two-man publishing enterprise, so he wasn't technically self-published (beyond the 15 Kinko's copies).

Young and his three friends pooled all their resources, maxed out credit cards, and in May of 2007 ordered a print run of 10,000 books. The printer sent 11,000 copies, all of which were only available through The Shack website at first. By June 2007 they were sold out, and ordered 20,000 more--and received 22,000! Three months later those were sold, and they ordered 30,000 more. You guessed it, they received 33,000 copies. By June of 2008, Windblown Media had sent out over a million books. To date, over five million copies have been sold worldwide.

At the time he spoke to Oregon Christian Writers in February, The Shack had spent forty weeks at the #1 position on the New York Times bestseller list.

Here are a few of Young's quotes worth remembering:
"Everything about the Father is love, at 100%, all the time."

"When fear shows up it is a gift showing us where we're not trusting God's love."

"A relationship with God is all about trusting Him."

You may think it's easy for him to say, look at the success he's had. But the message I carried away from meeting Paul Young and hearing him speak is that God's love is the message of The Shack. Paul knew that before he wrote the book.

Check out his blog at

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Shack, Part 2

At the end of February, I posted a blog of my review of The Shack. Since then it's been my privilege to hear the author, William P. Young, speak at an Oregon Christian Writers meeting. What a charming man, and what a story he has to tell!

For starters, he's never gone by the name "William." He's Paul Young to all who know him personally. He told of friends telephoning him saying, "Paul, you've got to read this book The Shack!" not realizing he's the William P. Young who wrote it.

Young calls himself "A roadie for the Holy Spirit." He says, "Two years ago nobody cared what I had to say about anything. Now I talk to thousands of people--and I'm as dumb as I was then!" He feels the best part of his new found celebrity is the opportunity to talk about Jesus to secular audiences. A week before he spoke to the Oregon Christian Writers, he was on "Good Morning America," and separately, given the keys to a city in Texas.

One of the things I enjoyed most about listening to Paul Young was the incredulity he displayed regarding his success. At one point he said he feels like he's on "The Truman Show," where everyone but him knows his life is really a TV program. He kept interjecting, "How goofy is this?" when he'd tell another story about his changed life.

In 2005, he prayed this prayer: "Papa (those of you who've read The Shack know that's Mackenzie's name for the Father--and Young admits he's Mackenzie), I will never ask you again to bless anything I do. Do you have something you're blessing? I want to be around you and be part of anything you have for me."

He wrote The Shack for his children and friends, and printed off fifteen copies at Kinko's. He senses God told him, "You give this to your kids; I'll give it to mine."

Young went on to tell us how the book grew from its Kinko's beginnings. Initially, he sent it to a friend to get some idea how to handle the email he was receiving from strangers who had read the Kinko copies. His friend called two other writers that he knew, and working together with Young, they organized the story into a clearer format. Once they felt it was ready, they queried 26 publishers--50% faith-based, 50% general market. The faith-based publishers said The Shack was too edgy--there was no market for it. The general market publishers said it had "too much Jesus to be marketable."

More next time--no one wants to read blogs that go on and on.

I'll tell you how these four men got the book into print, and some of the lessons he shared about God's unconditional love for his children.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dewey--The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

I picked up Dewey because I'd noticed that a number of my reading friends on Shelfari had it on their shelves. I love dog stories, being a confirmed "dog person." But we have a cat, too, so I thought I'd give him equal time.

The title, Dewey, The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, intrigued me. How could a small-town library cat, or any cat, touch the world?

Then I remembered "fup" (his name was never capitalized), the bookstore cat at Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon. For years, a "fup story" was featured at the close of every issue of Powell's Books News. A couple of years ago, when the sad announcement came that fup had died of old age in his basket at Powell's Technical Books, I cried. I emailed my daughter, who lives in Portland, and she cried, too. I posted a tribute to fup on Powell's blog, as did hundreds of other mourners from all corners of the globe.

So, remembering fup I can understand how his predecessor, Dewey, touched the world. When still a tiny kitten, Dewey was found shoved into a book return box on a freezing morning in Spencer, Iowa. Dewey's story is told by his "Mom," Vicki Myron, assisted by Bret Witter.

The reader sees Dewey grow and blossom from a kitten to king of the Spencer Library. Myron intersperses Dewey's story with the recovery and growth of Spencer after the depressed farm market of the early 1980's. (Remember Willie Nelson's "Farm Aid" concerts?) She also shares her own life experiences through the Dewey years, giving the reader a true sense of how Dewey touched the world, and, most especially, Vicki Myron.

Dewey, The Small-Town Library Cat is a touching story of the impact animals have on our lives.

I think I'll go pet my cat now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Shack

At the end of February, I'm going to attend the Oregon Christian Writers Winter Conference in Salem. The keynote speaker will be Willim P. Young, author of The Shack. To say I'm looking forward to hearing him is an understatement.

Some books I’ve read are just too good to put down. The Shack isn’t one of them. I mean that in the best possible way. This novel is so filled with life-altering concepts that I had to put it down from time to time to allow new ideas to sink in. William P. Young has written The Shack in such a way that it teases our imaginations to say “what if?”

In the acknowledgements, Young says most of us have a shack in our lives. Reading the story of what Mackenzie Allen Philips encountered will capture your thinking in ways you don’t anticipate. As a novel, per se, the story didn’t keep me up nights turning pages. There are places where my attention flagged from detail overload. But as a vehicle to better understand God’s love and grace, The Shack has given me thoughts to ponder for many nights to come. The book left me with a fresh feeling of confidence about God’s unconditional love for me.

I am “especially fond” of The Shack.

After I return from the conference, I'll share some of Young's comments with you.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

William Henry is a Fine Name

Author Cathy Gohlke's William Henry is a Fine Name is one of the best books I read in 2008. It's one I read during the holiday season, so am late in posting my review because of snow, rain, holiday activities, and, well, you know.

William Henry is a Fine Name is the story of two thirteen-year-old boys who have been friends all their lives. It's set in the antebellum (I love that word!) period in Maryland. Robert, who is white, sees his life as peaceful while the black William Henry knows about the evil that surrounds them in those abolition vs. slavery times.

Late night mysteries involving Robert's father threaten their family. Events move forward rapidly, forcing Robert to recognize firsthand the cruelty and injustice of slavery--the South's "peculiar institution."

Gohlke does a superb job of showing us the South of 1859 through the eyes of an adolescent boy. She doesn't rely on trite stereotypes to tell this suspenseful tale. Every character, black or white, is fully fleshed out.

The final sixty pages are so intense I laid awake thinking about them for a long time after I finished the book. I thoroughly recommend William Henry is a Fine Name, both for Gohlke's storytelling and for the clear-eyed look she provides into our nation's sometimes shameful past.

William Henry was the deserving winner of the 2007 Young Adult Christy Award. Don't let the "young adult" tag stop you. I'm a tad older than "young adult," and this book held me in its grip from first page to last.

I recently finished reading the sequel, I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, which picks up Robert's life after the start of the Civil War. It's another winner for Gohlke.