Book Review: Freedom’s Song

Freedom’s Song
by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When an escaped indentured riverboat singer and a widowed homesteader with a young child to care for meet, they seem to have just what each other needs—she a place to stay and earn some money for a trip to her family in New York and he someone to care for his toddler so he can work. But will it be that simple, especially when a sinister force are lurking out there somewhere?

That synopsis doesn’t cover everything going on in this book, but it is the bulk of it. There are also the escaped slaves that Fanny travels with for a time, but since they are gone by around 30% of the way through the story and don’t have much of a conclusion, their part in the story feels a bit like it’s disconnected from the rest. In the end, I can’t help but wonder exactly why Sawyer chose to include them. I guess to add to the theme of “freedom” throughout the story, but it seems a bit heavy-handed at that point. None of that is bad, necessarily, and it does give the reader some early insight into Fanny’s character, so at least there’s that.

As for the main characters, Fanny and Walter, both of them seemed a little too “good.” Neither of them really had any faults that were brought out in the story, aside from the faux faults perceived only by themselves, that anyone with a more objective view would easily tell them they were silly for considering a fault. Walter was a little less confident than he’d once been, and I suppose Fanny doesn’t know how to be a homesteader, but it’s more endearing than anything. Both of them drove me nuts with the periodic mental berating over mistakes and bad choices that they thought must mean that God wouldn’t want to hear from them anymore.

There was also a 3rd perspective in this story, that of the riverboat owner who had indentured Fanny, as he tries to track down a singer to replace her. I don’t think his story really added to the book, and it culminated in a climax that was far too easily resolved. And speaking of Fanny’s indentured state, I think maybe the author should have spent some time going over some of the less-known and less-quoted parts of the Bible, like the book of Philemon.

Kim Vogel Sawyer does write very well, and I really enjoyed the glimpses at different parts of life and parts of the country in 1860 that were presented in this book. However, various parts of this book just didn’t sit right with me, though I’m sure that many other readers of Christian historical romance will be less bothered by what stuck out to me and will enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah, for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Pirate Bride

The Pirate Bride
The Daughters of the Mayflower
#2

by Kathleen Y’Barbo

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Twelve-year-old Maribel Cordova, daughter of a Spaniard with a questionable background, is brought by her father on a voyage across the ocean. When their ship is accosted by a privateer ship helmed by the infamous captain Jean Beaumont, Maribel decides she wants to be a privateer too. But Beaumont’s ship is not destined to remain unhindered, and Maribel is left with only her memories of her time on the ship until years later, when a series of events lead to a chance encounter between Maribel and the captain.

There was a lot going on in this book, which proved to be its downfall. I was really into the first part. Maribel reminded me of Anne from Anne of Green Gables, and I appreciated the friendships she so quickly cultivated. Several of the smaller side characters I really liked all the way through the story. However, it was difficult to see the captain in a sort of fatherly capacity to her, knowing that this is a romance story, and that based on the (just utterly terrible and confusing) synopsis of the book, this 12-year-old girl and the 20-something captain are going to end up falling in love by the end of the book.

Still, the captain was interesting, and I was curious to see how it would all play out. But then in part 2, we have developments in the captain’s life and developments in Maribel’s life that sort of coincide, but not really, and that end up bloating the story far too much. I think the book would have been better overall if the captain’s side of things was the focus. Add to that the lackluster development of romantic feelings between the two main characters, and the feeling I was left with at the end of this book was…”meh.” I did like it more than the previous one in the series, but I’m still hoping for better in the books to come.

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Book Review: Distant Stars

Distant Stars
by Kassandra Garrison

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian romance

After aging out of the foster system, a time during which brothers Will and Kane Rutledge ran away as often as they could, they decide to continue to stick together. And they decide that they need a fresh start, and that the best way to get it is to kidnap Hannah Cole, daughter of a wealthy man, and get a nice payday. But things start to go wrong from the first moment of this kidnapping, and the worst flaw in the plan is that Will didn’t expect himself to be so drawn to their victim.

The premise of this story is what drew me to it—a romance that begins as a kidnapping is intriguing to me, even while being a bit of a stretch in believably. But I knew it could be done and be a romance I would enjoy, especially under the banner of Christian fiction. The Christianity, though, is quite light and mostly involved with Hannah being angry at God for a fairly recent loss. Will has some early religious roots too, but I would have liked to see all of that drawn out a lot more, especially given the plot. Add to that the romance being mostly about physical looks (and smells…what does sunshine smell like, anyway?) for a while, and I didn’t really get into the romance aspect of the story much at all. Plus, I didn’t really buy Will’s softy act, for various reasons.

When I read a self-published book, it is my intention not to let things that a professional editor would help with affect my view too much. I’m not saying that there is no burden of responsibility here, but it’s harder for self-published authors. So while it did not affect my rating, I will at least mention that there were punctuation errors throughout this book, as well as other issues or confusions an editor would/should have caught. It can detract from the book for some, so let that be a warning.

On the positive side, the descriptions of the setting(s) made me feel like I was there, probably helped a bit by my own memory of a recent trip to a beach in the Dominican Republic, and I really like the depth to backstories the author came up with for the main characters. The story has a lot going for it, and I think that with some polishing and less tropes in the plot, it could be a sweet, enjoyable read. Given the way that others have responded to this book, it’s possible I’m simply not the right audience for it, so please check out other reviews at the link below if the book sounds interesting to you.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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Book Review: The Flatshare

The Flatshare
by Beth O’Leary

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Romance

To solve their individual money problems, Tiffy and Leon enter into an agreement to share his 1-bedroom flat, sharing even the bed. Leon works nights and Tiffy days, so they will each have the flat to themselves (Leon plans to be completely gone on weekends). What starts as a simple note about leftovers turns into a friendship between these two people who have never met, yet know details about each other due to sharing a bedroom.

Oh, my goodness, I’m not quite sure how to start this review. When I decided to read this book, I knew the premise was pretty outlandish, but I was ready to suspend my disbelief for a fun, light story. That’s not really what this is, but that isn’t even the issue, really. For one thing, there’s just too much going on in this book. Besides the developing relationship between the two MCs and their everyday lives they have to deal with, Leon has a brother trying to appeal a conviction, a personal quest to help one of the patients at the hospice where he works, and a girlfriend. And Tiffy has a stalker ex-boyfriend and the trauma from emotion abuse he inflicted on her to deal with. Though I appreciated parts of how Tiffy’s storyline went—first identifying the abuse and then trying to move on from it—I think the author didn’t really have room to treat something that serious as well as one would hope to.

Several of the pet peeves I’ve recently begun to identify in fiction reared their ugly heads in this story. The main one is when someone can mouth an entire sentence, and it’s perfectly understood by whoever they’re mouthing it too. Honestly, how easy is it, really, to understand if someone mouths more than “thank you” or “I love you”? And this happened at least 2-3 times. Another is the amazing ability a character has to know exactly what someone else is thinking, simply based on micro expressions on their face. We’re not talking two people who’ve known each other since childhood, but work friends. Both of these things, to me, are just lazy writing. And don’t even get me started on the fact that Leon is in a fairly serious-seeming relationship at the beginning of this book. I have never cared for that kind of scenario in romance.

Now for my last major gripe (and a warning to those who don’t like a lot of physical contact in books they read): The descriptions in this book, while not graphic by most standards, went way too far for my preference more than once. Besides, to me, a relationship does not need lots of physical interaction to be romantic. In fact, I prefer as little of it as possible, because then the author has to make sure that there is romance and chemistry in other ways, which are much more impactful, in my opinion. Nothing spoils a nicely budding romance in any medium of fiction for me than the couple jumping into bed as soon as they feel that it’s socially acceptable.

In the end, if only one of the side plots had been focused on, I might have enjoyed the overall story more, though it would still have been far from a 5-star read for me. I, personally, would not recommend this book to anyone, and I think this book effectively ends my desire to ever read a contemporary romance again.

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Book Review: The Mayflower Bride

The Mayflower Bride
The Daughters of the Mayflower #1
by Kimberley Woodhouse

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Mary Elizabeth Chapman, along with her father, younger brother, and other Separatists, prepare to sail to the New World aboard the Speedwell, companion ship to the Mayflower. On the latter ship, William Lytton is a carpenter looking for a new life in the New World, but before departure, he’s hired to keep an eye on the colonists and report back to the company that is financing the journey. When the two ships are funneled onto one, Mary Elizabeth and William have a chance to get to know each other, but the trip across the ocean will be long and difficult. And reaching the New World is just the beginning.

There was a lot going on in this book that never quite seemed to mesh into a coherent, interesting story. The main female character got on my nerves right away because even though her dad and brother, as well as her best friend and family, were going on the journey as well, she was unhappy and lonely. She’d somewhat recently lost her mother, which I get would affect her, but it was leaned into a little too much, given what she did have, and she spends a lot of time moping. Plus, later in the story, she made some stupid decisions that I really doubt a woman in her position would have made given the circumstances. Then when we meet the main male character, his story starts off ambiguously. The whole side plot about him “spying” for the Company was weak, and that was clear from the moment it started. I don’t understand the inclusion of that arc at all, nor the fact that the POV switched to a “villain” now and then that was part of that arc. The POV also switched to Mary Elizabeth’s little brother a few times, which also seemed unnecessary to me.

While the historical details of the voyage were interesting, most of the plot involving the trip to the New World and attempts to find a place to start their colony seemed fairly shallow. They were often viewed through the lens of the budding relationship between the two MCs, which I felt was portrayed in a way that was not likely very accurate to how it would have been for two people in their time period, especially with one of them being part of a religious congregation like Mary Elizabeth was. Personally, I don’t need the author to interject unlikely physical contact to add to the romance; for me, the mental aspect of a developing romance is much more important anyway. But their initial attraction was mostly physical, considering they were both instantly drawn to one another after an interaction that involved no real conversation.

As the book that kicks off a series of historical romance novels set in different time periods, I had hoped for a stronger start. This book, unfortunately, did not whet my appetite for the rest of the series. However, since the series has various authors, I still plan to continue on to see what the next one holds.

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Book Review: In Search of a Prince

In Search of a Prince
by Toni Shiloh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian romance

Content as a 25-year-old middle school teacher in New York City, Brielle Bayo never planned to move to an island off the coast of Africa and rule a nation. But that’s just what she’s asked to do when her mother informs her that she’s heir to a throne, and that the king, her grandfather, doesn’t have long to live. Uncertain about whether she can be a queen, or even wants to, she is then also faced with a requirement to marry before her grandfather dies, in order to be legally allowed to reign. It’s too much to handle alone, but maybe it’s a chance for Bri to learn to let God be in control.

This story shows that finding out you’re a princess isn’t always the fairy tale little girls might dream it to be. But it can be a blessing, especially if you can see God’s hand at work throughout. Though it takes Brielle a while to fully trust that “God’s got this,” it’s one of the biggest themes in the book. I’ll admit, it was a little disheartening to see the main character be reminded of God’s sovereignty often, and continue to be stressed and question whether she’s made the right decision. I also feel that she puts way too much stock in the world’s definition and view of love, which is more about passion, attraction, and the feeling of “falling in love,” even when she’s reminded that that’s not what love really is, especially from a biblical standpoint. Fortunately, another character was a lot more grounded overall, but I’m not sure it ever fully rubs off on Brielle.

I think the title of the book does an injustice to the story, as it focuses on Bri’s requirement to marry, and the romance side of the story, when there’s really so much more to it than that. Or at least, it seemed like there was trying to be more to it than that. Bri’s desire to help the people of her ancestral home, the fictional island of Ọlọrọ Ilé, to bring them into modern times, and to be the ruler God designed her to be, is the primary plot, with the romance a large side plot. And I liked that part of the story overall. The love interest (only not mentioning his name in case it’s a spoiler to anyone) was almost too good to be true, with only perceived faults that the reader can see aren’t really true. However, he was still one of my favorite characters.

Contemporary romance books are often less enjoyable for me, due in part to me feeling fairly detached from the modern world, and this was no exception, as dialog was very modern and full of slang (even from some of the Olorans). My bigger frustration with the writing, though, was the tendency for the main character and one major side character to talk almost solely in murmurs to each other for a good chunk earlier in the book. For one thing, it was a gross overuse of a single verb in a small space (seems like it should have been caught by editors), but for another…well, how often do people really murmur in normal conversation? It made me feel like there was just a lot of mumbling going on for a while, and was peppered here and there later in the book too. This is more personal preference, though; overall, the story was good, and I think most fans of contemporary Christian romance will enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Until Leaves Fall in Paris

Until Leaves Fall in Paris
by Sarah Sundin

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

Lucie Girard, American ballerina living in Paris, decides to quit ballet and buy the English-language bookstore run by her Jewish friends, allowing them to escape to America before Hitler’s noose closes around them. While she struggles to keep the store running with so many English speakers fleeing France or being interned, she discovers that members of the local resistance are using her store to pass messages, and she wants to help. Meanwhile, Paul Aubrey, widower with a very creative 4-year-old daughter named Josie, runs a factory that produces trucks for civilian use. Because he sells those trucks to the Germans, he’s seen as a collaborator by all of his friends, who shun him and his daughter. He can’t tell them about the work he’s doing to help the US military, especially after it grows into other work for the local resistance. When the time comes for American’s to flee or be interned as well, Paul and Lucie will have to trust each other in order to get themselves and little Josie to safety.

This book was beautiful and touching, heartbreaking and uplifting, and I don’t think I can say enough about how much I loved it. The symbolism of leaves and the color green is woven throughout the entire book in a way I enjoyed—not always subtly, but I still appreciated how the author built a theme around it all. I adored Josie and the relationship between her and Lucie, as well as Paul’s attempts to understand his daughter better. Josie and Feenee are a major highlight of the book.

It seems like it’s been a while since I’ve given a fiction book 5 stars, but this one deserves it. The two main characters are both likeable and interesting. The ballet angle was a new one for me, and while it’s not something I know much about, I really enjoyed reading about it. Paul’s integrity, even in the face of undeserved hatred, and the way he relies on God to help him through it, is wonderful. The relationship between the two builds in a believable way, without much angst, and it’s not the only focus of the book, all of which I appreciate. The first meet between these two is one of the best I’ve ever read.

Tension builds as the war ramps up, and the last third or so of the book is filled with pulse-pounding, tear-jerking scenes. I loved everything about it, and know without a doubt I will re-read this book in the future. My only real complaint is that Lucie and Josie’s names are similar enough in style and appearance that a few times I was confused about what was going on in a scene or who was talking. But other than that, this book has cemented Sarah Sundin as one of my favorite authors (a distinction I don’t assign easily). And though it doesn’t appear to be part of any series, it is clearly connected to Sundin’s previous release, When Twilight Breaks, as the two MCs from that book appear briefly in this one. And it appears that her next book, which I’m excited to read, will be connected as well! In case it’s not clear, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction from this time period in the Christian romance genre.

Thank you to Netgalley and Revell for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Merry Humbug Christmas

Merry Humbug Christmas
by Sandra D. Bricker

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas romance

Joss Snow has had enough of Christmas pageantry, so for the last few years, she and her best friend Reese Pendergrass have skipped the holiday together. But this year, Reese is newly engaged and spending a traditional Christmas with her future in-laws. Joss, left to go on her Bah! Humbug cruise alone, ends up on a 12 Days of Christmas cruise instead and Reese’s trip seems to take every bad turn possible. Will these two friends survive the holiday?

Technically this is written as 2 separate novellas, “Once Upon a Jingle Bell” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Deer,” each following one of the two friends through their holidays. The story is mostly cohesive, though; it simply tells the 2 main characters’ escapades one at a time. Each chapter starts with a line from a “12 Days of Christmas” parody invoking Murphy’s Law, which I liked. And Murphy’s Law comes in heavily, especially in the 2nd story. While normally the “everything that can go wrong will go wrong” trope annoys me, I enjoyed the book and even liked the 2nd novella more than the first.

One great thing about this book is that, even though it’s a Christmas book, it’s not as sappy as Christmas books so often are. On the other hand, it’s billed as a Christian book, but the Christian content is incredibly light. And there’s a lot of emphasis on physical looks in both relationships. If you’re not looking for a faith-filled story, though, this is a nice light-on-the-syrup Christmas read with some romance and fun.

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Book Review: Remembering Christmas

Remembering Christmas
by Dan Walsh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian, Christmas fiction

Rick Denton likes his life as a high-powered accountant, living how he wants, with very few responsibilities. But when his step-father, who he never much cared for, has a stroke on Thanksgiving weekend, his mother asks him to come to Florida and help out at the bookstore the couple own and run together. Rick agrees out of obligation, not expecting to stay more than a few days…which stretches on past what he expected. Rick isn’t sure he can handle much more of the people who frequent the store, and worse yet, they always seem to have great things to say about his step-father, who Rick always saw as an interloper. Is it possible there’s more going on here than he would have thought?

I kicked off my Christmas-season reading a little late this year, but this was a great book to start it off. The story was a little predictable, as Christmas stories tend to be (especially those that involve romance, which this one does), but it was still sweet. I teared up during a particularly emotional scene with Rick’s mom (Leanne) and step-dad (Art) at the hospital, because it reminded me of being in my dad’s hospital room after his heart attack, while we were waiting for them to be able to do surgery on him. And at other times, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if I were in Leanne’s place, where my husband was the one in the bed. It was well written, with Leanne’s perspective showing what a loving, long-term relationship can look like.

By the end of the book, I had a few issues, the most glaring being the incredible amount of typos and grammatical errors. I can’t believe this book was ever published by a traditional publishing house, as it seems to need a lot of polishing. There was also one moment that made me cringe a little, and later, I was surprised that no one in the story seemed to feel that Rick was trying to buy some of the characters’ love. But those things aside, I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a sweet, warm Christmas read.

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Book Review: Shadows of Swanford Abbey

Shadows of Swanford Abbey
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian mystery, romance

Tasked by her brother to present his manuscript to a well-known author, Rebecca Lane takes a room in the monastery-turned-hotel Swanford Abbey, where the author is also staying. And so is Frederick Wilford, an older man Rebecca once had a huge crush on. When the famous writer is murdered, Frederick, as local magistrate, is determined to find the guilty party, even if the investigation shines a light on secrets Rebecca is hiding.

As a Regency-era romance, the story here is pretty good. As a mystery, it’s only okay. My biggest issue is that it takes quite a while to really get going; so much of the first half is spent describing the abbey, hinting at things from the past that affect the present (which we won’t know more about until much later), and setting up the mystery around the murder, which doesn’t even occur until over halfway through the book. I don’t mind a mystery taking so long to get started if I spend that time trying to figure out who the victim might end up being, along with who the murderer will be, but in this case, the synopsis tells us who the victim will be. All of this led the book to feel slow for a while.

I mostly liked the characters. Rebecca had her issues in the story, mostly stemming from the task her brother insists she help him with, but this seems to lead her to not care at all about the societal conventions of her time or about her reputation. That leaves Frederick to be the most understanding man ever. He ends up having to help her in a lot of different ways, more times than I might normally prefer in a story like this, but it didn’t bother me this time, I think because it didn’t seem as contrived as it could have.

I raised my eyebrows during part of a scene that seemed to be straight out of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and found out while reading the author’s note at the end of the book that I was correct. She also mentioned other classics that she took some direct inspiration from, though those others I either haven’t read or don’t know well enough to have recognized the way she used that inspiration. Overall, I enjoyed the book and the characters and recommend it to fans of historical romance. Fans of mystery books may like it, too, if they’re not bothered by what I described above.

Thank you to Netgalley and Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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