1. The Ringmaster's Wife by Kristy Cambron
Completed: January 5, 2017
Review: This is the story of two women who's lives were changed by the Ringling Brothers Circus of the 1920's. Both had to find the courage to take a step of faith to make their dreams come to life. Mabel was a young woman who left the comfort and familiarity of the farm she was raised on to head to the big city. Taking a cigar box filled with clippings of her dreams she is working towards those when a stranger comes into the restaurant she is working at and talks her boss into allowing her to escort him around the Chicago World's Fair. Mabel at first has no idea who he is but later learns he was none other than John Ringling. Meeting again in another city they eventually marry. Mable is popular amongst the circus crew and performers for her quiet kindness and strength.
Rosamund Easling is a young lady who is raised in the wealthy parlors of her English Earl father. He beloved brother lost his life in WWI and Rosamund misses him dearly. She finds solace in barebacking riding with the precious horse her brother had given her. But when her parents are forcing her into a marriage to another wealthy man and selling the horse to a man who is buying it for the Ringling circus in America, Rose is heartbroken. When Colin sees her riding Ingenue he sees her potential as a performer and invites her to America with the horse. Rosamund agrees and sneaks off with Colin on a boat to America leaving her parents a note. Intending on returning eventually, Rose's life is changed when she encounters not only the fame and bright lights of the circus world but also the life of a type of nomad during show season and the harsh competitive nature of it.
I enjoyed this historical fiction novel that highlights the early life of the circus.
The story is told from the viewpoints of the two women and goes back and forth between them. Though of both women's stories are centered in the 1920's Mable's starts of a bit earlier on the timeline. There was a small issue for me in that a couple of times as the two women's stories started to intertwine that the timeline jumps got a little confusing and I did have to backtrack to the the beginnings of chapters to find out what year I was in.
Mable was the real life wife of John Ringling. She was known for her wisdom and kindness and her John built an amazing estate in Florida where they wintered in the off season but also had amazing parties whose invitations were coveted by both performers and the public. Rosamund and Colin are fictional characters added to the real life story of Mable and it makes for a good read. It was interesting how Mable came from humble farming beginnings and rose up to be wealthy and Roseamund started very wealthy and chose to leave it and start from the bottom in the circus. I thought the author did a wonderful job of conveying what the circus culture of the time would have been like. How hard they all worked together and were like family and yet there was a competitive dynamic in some of the relationships. A good clean read
2. Black Ice by Linda Hall
Completed: January 17, 2017
Review: Lenore Featherjohn is the owner of a local bread and breakfast in the town of Fog Point. It's the middle of winter and the town is experiencing a phenomenon that hasn't happened in a long, long time where the water is so frozen that it is breaking and forming statues. As such, she is busy in her B&B what with all the news people here to report on the event. Then one day she finds a young teenager whom no knows dead by her back door. The very back door that leads downstairs where her grown sons live. As she has done all their lives, in an effort to protect them from being accused, Lenore moves the body to a snowbank on the side of the driveway and put the hands in a prayer position. But now the "Snow Angel" is causing a whole slew of other problems as people come to pray and hope that the spot will heal them of their ills. May and Jake, the town's private detectives, get involved when May's name and phone number turn up in the dead girl's pocket. As tensions rise clues seem to point to the local minister's daughter knowing more than she is letting on.
I picked this up in a used book store not realizing it was part of a series, even though it said series right on the cover. Oh well. But I recognized the name of the author and thought I had read some of her books before at some time. I thought I'd read it now because we were in the midst of our own winter, icy time. It is a mystery that is filled with lots of suspense which is what kept the pages turning for me but not quite to the point where I was staying up late because I just couldn't put it down. There was a few story lines happening and sometimes it was just difficult to sort out and remember who everybody was. (I think maybe if I'd read the 1st book first that would have helped?) I found the aspect of people flooding to the spot the girl had died to get healed a little too far of a stretch for me. But the actual mystery and how it tied into the epilogue was very interesting. She also delved into the topic of loss of faith through the character of Amy. Amy grew up in a good Christian home, went to Christian schools and university, married a minister, did all the right things but somewhere along the way she had a loss of faith, or maybe she never really did have any but now in the midst of everything happening with her daughter, husband and the mystery girl she is coming face to face with her own crisis. Maybe because this is a series and will further be dealt with in another book, I thought this story line didn't wrap up for me. I'll have to check out the others in the series. I really thought the author did a wonderful job in exploring how some behaviors in people actually are hiding a deep hurt that they themselves don't even know how to define. An interesting detail is that some of the story is set in a little town here in central Alberta called Barrhead. I don't think I've come across a book that had an Albertan town as a setting. Bonus for that! All said it was an enjoyable read but not one that blew me away.All said it was an enjoyable read but not one that blew me away.
3. Because You're Mine by Colleen Coble
Completed: January 20, 2017
Review: Alanna is at a great place in life. Having had a tough childhood, she is now married to the love of her life and they are expecting their first child. Her Celtic band, of whom she is the lead and her husband is the drummer, is taking off and tours are selling out all over the United States. But then tragedy strikes when her husband is killed in a car explosion and his best friend is severely injured who cause turns out to be a bomb. As she deals with that and tries to get her life back together a new threat comes in that her father in law threatens to take away the baby if Alanna does not live the life he dictates. Her manager gives her an escape by offering her a marriage of convenience to save the child from the father in law. It all seems too good to be true but when she moves into the historical home of her new husband things start to happen that are endangering both Alanna and the unborn baby. Are they accidents or is someone trying to harm her too?
This story had a bit of everything. It's a contemporary mystery thriller. It isn't my absolute fave from this author but I still enjoyed the book and it still held enough for me to keep the pages turning and was a solid tension filled read. It was a bit of a darker and creepier story than most of her mysteries and there were things about it that I loved but there were a few things that left me with a few questions.
The basic story was really interesting to me as we walked through the heartache of what Alanna deals with in the aftermath of the accident and then finding out it was a bomb that killed her husband. Her and her husband's love was sweetly written and it was nice to see marriage positively portrayed even amongst the music industry. The story touches upon struggling with one's faith and anger towards God after a tragedy though I would not really call this an overtly Christian novel and I would have liked to have seen that explored a bit more. I loved the Irish theme woven into it through the main characters. It is mostly set in Charleston, South Carolina but does go back to Ireland a bit. I enjoyed the Irish brogue because it wasn't overly done and didn't leave me googling definitions of words or phrases as other books have done when they use another language. As Alanna's background is unfolded reading of the "travellers" or Irish gypsies was interesting too. I did think some of the story parts were a little rushed and left me with questions and would have like to have seen those fleshed out a bit better and though I guessed parts of the story about 3/4 of the way there was more to the story that kept me going right until the end.
4. Delilah - Treacherous Beauty by Angela Hunt
Completed: January 28, 2017
We all know the basic story Samson and Delilah. But the bible itself gives a very little background to the infamous woman who brought Samson, the judge and strongman of Israel, down. In this retelling, Angela Hunt has written the story of a young girl who's mother marries a Philistine business man and takes them from their home in Egypt to his home in Gaza. Though her stepfather is loving and kind to her mother and herself, Delilah's stepbrother is another story. Cruel and vindicitive, he takes every opportunity to make Delilah feel unwelcome. When her stepfather dies suddenly only a few months later, Delilah's life changes for the worst as her stepbrother sells her mother as a slave and turns her into his prisoner, severely abusing her. But Delilah is determined to make an escape and find her mother and buy her back so they can make their way back to their homeland. Easier said than done, but an opportunity presents itself and Delilah grabs her chance. But she must go without her mother as she has nothing. When some Jewish traders take pity upon her and offer her help she goes with them vowing to someday return for her mother. In her travels she comes across the legendary Samson, in the years to come knows she must turn to him to help her with her plans. But she doesn't count on actually falling in love with the strongman and it all comes to a head when she must make a choice between love and ambition and revenge.
I really liked this story of Delilah. Who has not wondered what was her story was and how she could do such a thing? Not much historical or biblical fact is found about Delilah other than her betrayal of the mighty Samson. But what in her past would bring her to a point that would make her go down in history as one of the greatest betrayers of all time? Angela Hunt has imagined a young foreign girl viciously hurt by the circumstances of her life and trying desperately to put her life back together so when she sees opportunity she takes it. She has taken the premise that "human nature demands that we rationalize our actions" (author's notes: pg 341) and woven both the motivations of Delilah and Samson through that. The time of the judges of Israel and Samson's background was interestingly woven into the story and I learned a few things about that time and how women were treated. The story is told in alternating chapters both from Delilah and from Samson's points of views. And the same as with the building of the other biblical character's in this series, the author stuck close to the biblical story and to human nature and worked out from there. Again it is to the reader's advantage to read the author's notes at the back that explain how the story was built.
5. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Completed: February 9, 2017
Review: In 1913, a 4 year old girl is found all alone on a dock in Australia by the Hugh, the dockmaster. All she had was a little white suitcase with some clothes and a book of fairy tales. When they couldn't find her family, Hugh and his wife Lil, take her in, name her Nellie as loved and raised her as their own daughter, never telling her about her past. Now she's all grown up, engaged to be married and about to celebrate her 21st birthday. Lil has passed away, and against Lil's wishes Hugh feels he must tell Nellie the truth. As her world and her knowledge of who she is is set spinning, Nell breaks her engagement and sets herself on a quest to find who she really is. With nothing to go on except the book of fairy tales, she heads off to England in pursuit of who the author is. She never finishes her quest to find answers as her life takes another turn when she has to care for her teenage granddaughter. But after Nell passes away, her granddaughter, Cassandra, is surprised to learn Nell has left her a cottage located on the Cornish Coast. Not knowing anything about this from Nell before hand, Cassandra heads to England to deal with the cottage but finds she too is taken up with the mystery that surrounds her grandmother.
I loved this story. Though it is a hefty book at 548 pages, I found I couldn't put it down and finished it quite quickly. A family saga that spans 3 generations the story is told in the narrative of 3 people from the 3 generations: Eliza, Nell and Cassandra. It's a maze of a story, kinda like the maze in the garden mentioned in the title, but is worth it to reach the end. At first nothing seems to do with anything else, but the author brings it all together in lovely detail. It's a complicated story but I found the author just drew me in with her descriptions and her ability to really make me feel for the main characters. I mostly had a heart for Eliza whose story was heartbreaking and had me near tears quite a few times. The mystery of who Nell really is grows as the story progresses and though I had a small inkling of who she was I never would have guessed the circumstances surrounding her beginning years. Themes of identity, family history, friendship, family, entitlement, grief, loss, love and decisions affecting generations are all woven into the story beautifully. Though usually as a reader I tend to skip date/location notes at beginning of chapters for some reason, I would definitely suggest to make sure you take note of these as you read the story. It really helps to move the story along and keep the timeline straight in one's thoughts as you read. I gave this story a 10/10 because of the author's ability to draw me right in to all three women's stories and the involvement of my feelings the author was able to bring out.
6. The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry
Completed: February 22, 2017
7. Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner
Completed: March 3, 2017
Review: Kendra Kendra Van Zant arrives at an old English cottage in Cotswald, England to interview famous watercolor painter Isabel McFarland who is actually celebrating her 93rd birthday. Isabel is a survivor of the London Blitz but up until now has never talked about it so it was a bit of a surprise that Kendra's professor was able to secure an interview for her. As a visiting student at Oxford studying history, Kendra is writing a paper for the 70th anniversary of VE day with a chance for it to be published. Kendra firmly believes that information is only half the story of an event and personal experience of people involved is the other half. She's done her research and has her questions all lined up but before she can even ask any of them Isabel drops the bombshell that she is not even who everyone thinks she is. And so starts the story of 2 young sisters who lived in London at the time of rumors of war in the 1940's.
Emmy Downtree is only 15 but has her dreams all planned out. She has been drawing brides and bridal dresses and wants to design them. When she has a chance to work in a bridal shop she takes the job even though her mother is very opposed as she needs to help look after her much younger sister Julia while her mother does whatever she does when she is gone from them. But Emmy's ambitions and dreams come to a halt as London orders the evacuation of all children to foster families in the country side to keep them safe from the threat of bombs. Though she tries to fight it, Emmy is shipped off by train with her sister. But she is determined to make her once in lifetime opportunity a reality and sees only that she has no other choice and steals away in the middle of the night to make her appointment with a designer in the city. But this determination will have ramifications not only for her but for others in her life as well.
I loved this book. It grabbed me right from the beginning. As the story of the two sisters starts to build it was very easy to lose myself into the story. A portion of the story towards the back is told in letter and diary entry form and though this is a format that I usually really do not like in books it worked for me in this story. The author was really able to convey the terror and emotions of two young girls going through the Blitz as well as the adult characters and what they were going through. The long term ramifications of trauma were really presented in a believable and realistic sense. I really don't know a lot about the war as it affected England so I really learned a lot. I didn't even have any idea that children were evacuated out of London. As I was reading and the Blitz was happening I wondered what on earth the title had to do with the actual story, they seemed on opposite ends of a very large spectrum. But under the reader's guide author Q & A she poses the question "if there really are secrets to living a life that has happily ever after written all over it...and to being able to have everything you've always wanted". In the beginning both Emmy and Kendra seemed to have their p's and q's all lined up for that life. But as the story shows some things you just cannot control and it's the very choices during those times that may be the ones determining where your life goes.
Beautiful writing, realistic emotions, wonderful characters.
8. Keep Quiet by Lisa Scottoline
Completed: March 11, 2017
On the surface the Buckman's seem to be the perfect little family. Jake is a financial planner who's fairly new business is doing well. After having had a shocking lay off when he was an accountant he is finally back on his feet and moving forward career-wise. His wife, Pam, is also on a great career path. She is a appelate judge who loves her job and has just been offered a huge career opportunity. Their only child, Ryan is in high school and is on track to earning a basketball scholarship with his talent and good grades. The one thing marring everything is Jake's relationship with his son. When he started the financial planning business, he devoted all his time to making it successful and his marriage and relationship with his son suffered. Now after counselling his marriage is doing well but he needs to work out the relationship with Ryan. At Pam's suggestion he picks Ryan up from the movies so he can have some alone time with him and against his better judgement he allows Ryan to talk him into letting him drive the car. At 16, Ryan is quite capable but his partial license has time restrictions on it. But Jake wanting to keep the bonding open, thinks that the road they are on is deserted and therefore safe so after much pleading on Ryan's part he allows Ryan to take the wheel. Then the unthinkable happens and Jake makes the split second decisions to protect Ryan's future at all costs and convinces Ryan to keep quiet. But the life altering secret is eating away at both of them and it's events are threatening to blow it all up. One lie leads to another and before Jake knows it the plan to keep Ryan protected might be the very thing that will destroy them all.
This was a very fast paced story. The timeline is less than a week but so much happens within that timeline. There was much to like about this book. I liked the exploration of the father's role as provider and what happens when that is shattered. I also liked the exploration of father/son relationships and the idea of how far would a parent go to protect their child. I also liked the raw portrayal of guilt and shame and panic that Ryan is forced to live with and not reveal. The story never let up. That said, though, other than Ryan, I did not like the characters at all. Pam's character was what some call a helicopter mom, which in my circles is called a smother mother. She micromanaged Ryan so much that it was driving me nuts and I had to periodically stop and remind myself that Ryan was actually 16 in the story and not 8. She was also hypocritical. I wanted to shake Jake at times as he dug them in further and further and just wouldn't stop even though he could see the weight of the secret was eating Ryan up. I did like how this author though didn't hold back on the consequences of dishonesty. Sometimes you see characters rewarded and not really paying consequences for their moral failures but this story did not hold back on that aspect...and I liked that. For a reading group there would be much discussion opportunity on the various things brought out in this story.
9. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Completed: March 20, 2017
Review: From the Reading Group Guide Introduction (back of book):
"When piano progidy Norma Herr was well, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek help, Mira Bartok and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira's only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living.
At the age of forty, artist Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that leaves her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where her mother was living. When she received word that her mother is dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister traveled to their mother's deathbed to reconcile one last time. Norma gave them a key to the storage unit in which she has kept hundreds od diaries, photographs and momentos fro the past that Mira never imagined she would see again. These artifacts trigger a flood of memories and give Mira access to the past that she believed had been lost forever."
This book has been on my radar for quite awhile now and I finally got around to reading it. With the recent releasing of a schizophrenic man here in Canada who committed a horrible, unimaginable crime on a greyhound bus a few years back that shocked our nation, changed the lives of all those on the bus and was the direct cause of one of the first responders taking their own lives, I really felt the need to read this. I can pretty much say people here are totally dumbfounded and angry as he was given total freedom without conditions and let back into society because it was deemed the crime was committed during an episode and he's now "likely to stay on medication". This made me dig into my TBR pile and pull this book out hoping maybe it would bring some kind of understanding into the life of a person suffering from schizophrenia and how it affects those around them and to somehow justify or explain in my mind the reasoning behind the release of this man here in Canada.
Mira Bartok was told at her mother's funeral that "people have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you've been through". And even though for their own safety, Mira and her sister had no contact with their mother for many, many years and in fact, changed their names so she couldn't find them, Mira wrote a touching, heartbreaking account of their lives growing up with their mother. The book really let the reader into a glimpse of the harrowing struggle for both the schizophrenic sufferer and their families. And it also brought out how the loved ones can feel hostage to the illness and, in Mira's mother's case anyway, the system that was incapable of bringing help to their family in crisis. In order to protect themselves, they literally had to let their mother become homeless and living on the streets and in shelters. No family should have to make that choice. Mira's story also pointed out to me how memory can be affected by different things and even the one remembering as her and her sister sometimes had different recollections of the same event. There were also beautiful moments throughout the book where Mira makes the mother/daughter connections while caring for her mom. The moment when she was helping her mom in the hospital to walk from the bathroom back to bed and as they stood, her holding her mom up as her mom rested a moment leaning against her and the nurse came and asked if she was okay, and Mira realized she hadn't hugged her mom in 17 years was especially touching. Though at times the writing style bogged me down just a little bit as I tried to make connections in the points the author was trying to convey, this memoir was well worth the read just to gain some understanding of the struggles of those suffering severe mental health issues, to develop some compassion for them and their families and for those who are homeless, and an understanding of how the "system" works and lacks in actually being helpful and beneficial for those in this situation. And most especially to read about that mother/daughter connection in spite of the illness.
10. Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey
Completed: April 1, 2017
Review: Abel is a young boy who has got a tough go of it. Him and his single mom live in run down trailer while his mom works hard at a diner to make ends meet. There never seems to be enough money to be able to breath a bit. Abel has a disease where his bones break easily and it makes him look and walk differently and he endures bullying at school because of it. In an act of retaliation, Abel sets into motion events that will change his life forever.
Have you ever read a book where you just didn't know how you felt about it or what to say about it? Well, turns out this is one of those reads for me. The description sounded interesting, a bit out of the genres I usually tend to gravitate towards. Anything in the "magical" genre usually doesn't grab my attention, but I picked it up anyway because of the other aspects to the story.
After reading it, I would have to say I don't know if I would list this as Christian fiction, and by the barcode of the book neither is it listed as such but just as fiction. Has a smidge of faith element to it but I would definitely not call it a biblical based story. If I had approached it this way, rather than expecting more of a faith based read because of who published it, I think I might have enjoyed it a touch better. But I kept waiting for more of a biblical foundation to come through.
I found there were parts that captured me, where I couldn't put it down and then other parts that tended to the tedious side and I found myself skimming the pages. The friendship struck between Abel who was a young boy born to poverty, raised by a single parent and living each day with a disease that caused his bones to break very easily and the young adult who was mentally disabled was beautiful. How they supported each other was heartwarming and inspiring as goals of friendship. I had to really push past the name given to this character however, as I found it offensive to this day and age and my own sensibilities. The character was a simple-minded man because of events that occurred when he was small and he was called Dumb Willie by those who knew him. For the setting, I understood this and got that the attitude towards him was being established, but then to keep on referring to him as such through the whole story, even by his best friend, was really hard for me to get past, especially with my own experience working with mentally impaired children. The portrayal of brokenness and the different ways brokenness manifests in people's lives was also really well written. But the comparisons, or maybe the right word is references, of faith, miracles and magic just didn't sit quite right with me. This made the telling of the story just a bit too long for me but that could be because with this type of story, rather than relaxing and enjoying it I feel like I always have my discerning feelers up and working. Was it a bad story? No, but definitely not biblically based and just not what I was expecting and not quite my cup of tea.
11. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young
Completed: April 7, 2017
12. The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
Completed: April 17, 2017
13. The Memory of You by Catherine West
Completed: April 28, 2017
Review: When Natalie Mitchell was 13 she was involved in a tragic accident that took the life of her beloved twin sister. Since then she has been trying to get past it and move on with her life. Now working for her father, a very brusque and successful businessman, she has spent her life since the accident trying to please him and seemingly always coming up short. When her grandfather has a heart attack, her father sends her, against her will, back to the family owned vineyard with the purpose of shutting it down. As Natalie has to face her fears of returning to the place that forever changed her life, she also can't bring herself to say no.
I loved this story. It captured me right from the first pages and totally had my emotions invested into the characters all throughout the book. The setting is beautiful, the Sonoma wine valley, and the author's descriptions made me picture it clearly in my mind's eye. The two main characters are both dealing with tragic circumstances that have changed who they are and their struggles came across as authentic and well written. Right from the get-go I felt for Natalie's pain and vulnerability as the life-long struggle with the death of her sister so many years before comes back full force after a negative event in her adult life. As her life starts to spiral her father decides she should go back to the very place her pain began, her grandfather's home and winery, with the mandate to shut it down. Because her grandmother bequeathed her the majority of shares in the winery, Natalie hopes to see if she could improve on it and not close it's doors. But she must go against her father to that. And after spending her growing up years and her adult life trying to please her father, Natalie doesn't know if she has the strength to go against him. As she comes face to face with a combative, defensive and angry vintner, who just happens to be a crush from her childhood and who believes she is about to put him out of a job, you can't help but hope she can hold it together. I must admit I struggled a bit to like Tanner at first until his story started to unfold and you saw the place of pain he was operating from. The secondary characters were all nicely developed too. As the story peals back it's many layers it deals with loss, guilt, secrets, family dynamics, depression, facing the past and moving forward, forgiveness, faith and love. I found it multi-layered and rich with a satisfying ending.