Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: Bathsheba by Angela Hunt

Bathsheba: Reluctant Beauty (A Dangerous Beauty Novel #2)
By: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1696-1


The story of David and Bathsheba is arguably one of the Bible’s most notorious tales. It has all the trappings of a contemporary soap opera – love and lust, secrets and murder. And all of this drama stems from the unlikeliest of sources – the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), the shepherd boy turned king, David. To believers David is often viewed as an unassailable paragon of virtue, one incapable of willfully being led astray by another man’s wife. And so setting aside any other possible truth, Bathsheba is all too often cast as a seductress, a woman who willingly sought to seduce the king and make her husband a cuckold. Scripture provides almost no insight into Bathsheba’s feelings during this episode – other than to say she mourned Uriah following his death (2 Samuel 11:26) – and much is assumed in the echoing silence. In film and fiction, even in a cursory reading of scripture, it is all too easy and tempting to romanticize David and Bathsheba’s relationship, because the alternative is too hard to comprehend. It is easier to view both as equal partners in adultery, overcome by passion, but historical reality paints a very different picture of the fateful night David summoned Bathsheba to his palace. In a patriarchal culture where women possessed little to no agency, as a woman alone, her husband away fighting the king’s war, Bathsheba would have had little if any recourse when faced with David’s demand for her body.

Hunt is the first novelist I’ve encountered to portray the result of Bathsheba’s summons into David’s presence as a rape. This novel strips their meeting of any vestige of romance, forbidden or otherwise, and leaves readers with the unvarnished, unsettling truth that no man or woman, no matter how revered as a titan of the faith, is incapable of committing a horrific act. And in so doing, Hunt delivers one of the most powerful, heart-rending depictions of the cost of sin and the restorative power of forgiveness that I’ve ever encountered outside the pages of scripture. This novel is unsettling in the best sense of the term, a difficult, challenging read that has stayed with me long after I finished the final page.

Little is known of Bathsheba’s life before or after her entry into David’s household. But given that she is one of only five women mentioned (though unnamed) in the lineage of Christ (Matthew 1:6), it is safe to assume that she is included for a greater reason than simply as a token adulteress. As a tob woman (one of extraordinary beauty and sensual appeal), Hunt takes the liberty of positioning Bathsheba as a woman destined for greatness from birth thanks to a prophetic word from Samuel, claiming that she would be “’mother to a great man’ and ‘affect the future of Is’rael.’” But far from craving power, Bathsheba is passionately in love with her warrior husband, and thus the position she is put in when David claims that to which he has no right is extraordinarily untenable. For not only is she the survivor of an assault, the king’s actions strip her of the life she once expected and hoped to live.

One of the things I appreciate most about this retelling of Bathsheba’s story is Hunt’s effort to place both the initial act and its cascading effects within the broader context of David’s reign and the socio-political challenges he faced during his rule. Although David attempted to conceal his sin, like all such acts they are not committed in a vacuum, and its affects would be felt long after the prophet Nathan unmasked his secret to the entire court (2 Samuel 12). In 2 Samuel 11:3 Bathsheba is identified as the daughter of Eliam, and several chapters later in 23:34, Eliam’s father is identified as Atithophel, who is also as one of David’s advisors in 2 Samuel 15. Atithophel chose to back Absalom’s revolt, a tragic and bloody episode that fulfilled Nathan’s prophesy that “the sword shall never depart” from David’s family as a consequence of his sin (2 Samuel 12:10). It is no great stretch to imagine that David's attack on Bathsheba and Uriah should give birth to her grandfather Atithopel’s desire for revenge against the king who dishonored his family. It’s a twist of deliciously Shakespearean proportions, a tragic example of the consequences of David’s sin bleeding far past the edges of his personal life.

If David can rape Bathsheba – and make no mistake, his position left her with no choice other than to do what was required to survive, and choosing survival does nothing to make the act consensual – how then does one reconcile such an unflinchingly honest portrayal of David at his worst with the psalmist and penitent, from whose lineage came the promised redeemer? Within these pages Hunt explores the concepts of forgiveness and redemption, wrought to an extent far beyond that which this reader’s finite understanding can only hope to understand. For out of David’s worst choice and Bathsheba’s worst day, God in His infinite mercy brought redemption the form of Solomon, the son who would fulfill his father’s dream of building a permanent house of worship, and Jesus, the Davidic messiah who would fulfill the promise of seeing David’s throne established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

I’ve long loved biblical fiction for its potential to illuminate familiar scriptures in fresh ways, but rarely have I ever been quite as moved by a retelling as with this novel. David’s attack against Bathsheba seems insurmountable, but despite the sin, despite the reality that sin has consequences, woven throughout this tale of violence and heartbreak is an unmistakable thread of forgiveness birthed by a holy grace. David is redeemed and forgiven not simply because he was discovered and repented, but through Bathsheba’s forgiveness – and thus he loved her most “’because…[she] forgave the most.’” As Nathan reminds Bathsheba, “’no pain exists without purpose, no grief without comfort.’” Living out one’s faith when life is easy is an entirely different proposition from living it out when life cuts to the quick. Reluctant Beauty is a gorgeously-rendered reminder that God can bring forth breathtaking beauty as He births redemption from the ashes of our failings. Bathsheba’s story is a crowning achievement for Hunt, that rare novel that not only entertains and informs but challenges and edifies, cutting to the raw, hidden places where we hide our worst secret selves and reminding us that even there, even then, redemption is possible.

About the book:

One of the Bible's most misunderstood and misjudged women, Bathsheba comes to life in this new biblical reimagining from Angela Hunt. Combining historical facts with detailed fiction, this is an eye-opening portrait that will have you reconsidering everything you thought you knew about her.

After receiving God's promise of a lifelong reign and an eternal dynasty, King David forces himself on Bathsheba, a loyal soldier's wife. When her resulting pregnancy forces the king to murder her husband and add her to his harem, Bathsheba struggles to protect her son while dealing with the effects of a dark prophecy and deadly curse on the king's household.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: Esther by Angela Hunt

Esther: Royal Beauty (A Dangerous Beauty Novel #1)
By: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House


As one of only two books in the Bible named for women, Esther’s tale of bravery in the face of certain death has long fascinated with its Cinderella-esque storyline. Having studied this book fairly extensively, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming one has read or seen all possible iterations of Esther’s story. Reading Angela Hunt’s take on this tale has been a humbling reminder of how easy it is to fall into the trap of viewing the book of Esther through a modern, romanticized, and perhaps most critically sanitized lens. It is tempting to imaginatively posit Esther as a biblical Cinderella, a romance between a commoner and the most powerful ruler in the world. This romanticized view heavily informs film adaptations of the tale, which ultimately does a grave disservice to the scriptural account of Esther’s life. The contemporary view of romance would grant the woman agency, and filtering Esther’s story through such a lens diminishes the scope and potential impact of the account. This is Esther’s story, yes, but it isn’t her love story, and Xerxes was no godly, romantic hero. This is the extraordinary story of God moving on behalf of His people through the unlikeliest of vessels – a woman wholly subject to every whim of a capricious king, who chose to live by faith, though it threatened to cost her very life.

Hunt retells the book of Esther by alternating points-of-view between Hadassah, later Esther, and Harbonah, a eunuch serving as the king’s chamberlain. By alternating between a member of the harem and a eunuch, Hunt is able to provide an intimate glimpse of the inner workings of the Persian court, thus illuminating the true nature of court life along with its attendant rules and risks. Harbonah is based on a single reference in Esther 7:9, wherein he is named as the eunuch who brings the gallows Haman built for Mordecai to the king’s attention, thus sealing Haman’s fate after his ill-fated assault on Esther. Through Harbonah, Hunt strips away the glossy veneer of court life, revealing the seedy underbelly of forced castration and slavery that made the king’s rule possible. Harbonah also serves as the lens through which an unbeliever processes the events that raise Esther from obscurity to a position of power and influence, all while serving as a witness to the integrity of Esther and Mordecai’s faith.

The bulk of the story is told from Esther’s point-of-view, following her from her status as Mordecai’s ward with stars in her eyes and dreams of royalty to one of many wives and concubines fighting for the king’s attention and favor. By reminding readers of Hadassah’s youth (and corresponding levels of immaturity), Hunt strips the gloss of romance from Esther’s entry into the harem and the beginning of her relationship with the king. When one remembers that this isn’t the story of a savvy, mature adult woman navigating the dangers of court intrigue, but first the tale of a girl, thrust into a situation beyond her control, stripped of her ability to choose her fate, Esther’s success and steadfast faith in the face of life-threatening persecution are all the more remarkable.

It is all too easy to idealize Esther, to view her as a perfect specimen of womanhood who accepted her fate without question or doubt, fully surrendered to God’s will, ready to be used by Him to save her people. And while she is certainly a role model, failing to recognize the harsh reality of her situation does her a grave disservice – for recognizing the moments of horror and fear that surely accompanied her entry into the king’s harem makes her transformation into an influential queen all the more remarkable and inspiring. As the novel begins, Hunt positions Esther as a wholly relatable, beauty-obsessed teenager, dreaming of a king with no concept of life as a queen. Contemporary culture makes Esther’s story more relevant than ever, as differentiating between fleeting, transient glamour and a beauty of spirit that transforms from within is increasingly challenging in a culture of disposability.

Hunt’s unvarnished take on the realities Esther would have faced in the Persian court is an eye-opening glimpse into a culture wherein a woman’s value lay in her beauty, a commodity to be used and discarded at will. Women during this period had little personal agency, wholly subject to the dictates and provision of the men in their lives. That said, Hunt makes an important distinction between the comparative freedom Esther enjoyed as Mordecai’s ward, where her intellect was valued and her person treasured, compared to the harem where her every move is watched and every decision dictated by those serving at the king’s pleasure. As Esther learns all that glitters is not gold, but what makes her story resonate through the centuries since it was first recorded lies in how she faces her heartache and challenges, choosing to place her trust in a God bigger than her circumstances.

As a student of history, the story of Haman’s attempt to exterminate the Jews has always been of particular interest as a precursor to later persecutions faced by the Jewish people, from the pogroms to the horrors of the Holocaust. Haman’s narrative is a case study in how the repercussions of a decision can echo throughout history. There is no better example of this than the enmity between Mordecai, a descendant of King Saul (Esther 2:5), and Haman, descendant of Agag (Esther 3:1), the Amalekite king defeated by Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Saul’s decision to defy God’s instruction and spare Agag, thus enriching himself by claiming the spoils of the conflict, would bear near-disastrous consequences generations later in Esther’s day.

The more I encounter Esther through the pages of scripture, the more I am convinced that hers is a tale for this present age. For much like the girl who, torn from her home, hid her identity and became a queen, called to stand firm in faith that the God who placed her in the harem for such a time as this would not abandon her at the moment of crisis (Esther 4:14), so are believers called to live their faith boldly in an increasingly hostile world (John 15:19). With Esther, Hunt not only delivers an absorbing, thought-provoking read, but a clarion call challenging believers to live out their faith whole-heartedly. Hunt is one of the rare writers who, over two decades into reading her work, never fails to challenge, convict, and inspire. The Dangerous Beauty series is proving to be a crowning achievement in her oeuvre, a master class in the potential and power of biblical fiction written with integrity and heart. 

About the book:

When Xerxes, king of Persia, issues a call for beautiful young women, Hadassah, a Jewish orphan living in Susa, is forcibly taken to the palace of the pagan ruler. After months of preparation, the girl known to the Persians as Esther wins the king's heart and a queen's crown. But because her situation is uncertain, she keeps her ethnic identity a secret until she learns that an evil and ambitious man has won the king's permission to exterminate all Jews -- young and old, powerful and helpless. Purposely violating an ancient Persian law, she risks her life in order to save her people...and bind her husband's heart.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Delilah by Angela Hunt

Delilah: Treacherous Beauty (A Dangerous Beauty Novel #3)
By: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1697-8


The story of Samson and Delilah, the woman responsible for his downfall, is one of scripture’s most recognizable tales. Arguably Israel’s most colorful judge, the unbeatable strongman Samson is most often cast as a man of charm, cleverness, and large appetites. Delilah, the instrument of his ruin, is by contrast an amoral seductress, driven by love of coin and power, a woman who wields her sexuality as a weapon with as much skill as Samson’s legendary strength. While I stand firm on the infallibility of Scripture, over time I’ve come to realize that an examination of Judges 13-16 reveals troubling nuances all too often glossed over in cursory readings or adaptations of the text. If God’s anointed deliverer can murder thirty men in a fit of pique in order to win a bet (Judges 14:19), it’s clear that Samson’s legendary heroism as a darker, all-too-human side. For although God’s gifts and calling on an individual’s life are irrevocable (Romans 11:29), Samson’s life is a study in the redemption that occurs when God’s promises collide with an individual’s free will. And if Samson, God’s anointed, very flawed choice to realize  Israel’s redemption from the Philistines (Judges 13:5) is something less than the flawless, airbrushed hero of popular culture, then is it not also possible that the seductress Delilah has deeper, more nuanced tale to tell?

Women mentioned and given voice in scripture fascinate me, as socially they had little agency of their own within the patriarchal cultures in which they lived. However, each woman is hand-picked to represent a different facet of God’s grace and redemptive power, whether they are cast as heroines or villainesses. The more I study scripture, the more I recognize the dual importance of it as God’s timeless word as well as a documented snapshot of the time period in which it was written, setting down forevermore  God at work within a specific cultural, socio-economic point in history, illustrating truths that resonate to this day. In Delilah: Treacherous Beauty, Angela Hunt takes the biblical account of Samson and restores nuance, depth, and most of all, hope, to the story of a woman whose very name across the centuries has become synonymous with sin.

The Delilah within these pages is a woman for whom life has been a struggle to survive the choices of one particular man in her life determined to possess her body and break her spirit. Scarred by sexual and emotional abuse, those experiences inform her reaction to and interaction with everyone she encounters. Scripture itself is not for the faint of heart and neither is Delilah’s story, and although Hunt does not provide a play-by-play description of Delilah’s abuse, it is what’s implied that chilled this reader to the core. For a woman to be as coolly calculating regarding the fate of her supposed lover as Delilah is when negotiating with the Philistine lords (Judges 16), she has to have a visceral motivation behind her drive to dehumanize her relationship with Samson, thus allowing such a personal betrayal. This is the fully-realized woman Hunt creates from the bones of scripture, one who justifies betrayal in the name of survival, for having once survived her perpetrator’s attempt to reduce her to a faceless commodity, she is determined to never again experience such powerlessness.

Hunt alternates between Delilah’s primary viewpoint and Samson’s, where one commonality becomes clear: both Samson and Delilah were flawed individuals who all too often fell into the trap of rationalizing their behavior and choices. Samson is a successful judge who struggles being “set apart” as a Nazirite, keeping the letter of his commitment to God (never cutting his hair) while indulging in vices (women and drink) that cloud his moral compass and commitment to his mission. But despite his failings, God still used Samson to fulfill His will to act against the Philistines on Israel’s behalf. Similarly, as a dark-skinned Egyptian living in Philistia, Delilah struggles with feeling that both her heritage and her trauma have branded her as set apart. By making Delilah as a dimensional, nuanced character, Hunt sketches a portrait of a woman whose trajectory collided with God’s purpose for her life in spite of her unbelief…for above all her story is a tale of God’s redemptive power, both on behalf of His chosen people and those who would come to believe in Him as a result of witnessing God’s handiwork on behalf of those who believe.  

I love Biblical fiction for its potential – a well-crafted tale, authentic to scripture and the history of the time period can illuminate the biblical record with fresh clarity, bringing new life the participants immortalized in the record of the faith. Hunt’s Legacies of the Ancient River series, retelling the story of Joseph, was among the first of such novels to open my eyes to the genre’s potential, and some two decades later, her facility for the genre remains undimmed. This is a stunning reimagining of Delilah’s character and motivations, a tragic tale of abuse, lust, and revenge, redeemed by grace.

This book left me gutted. Hunt’s vivid retelling of Delilah and Samson’s relationship is storytelling at its finest, grounded in truth, taking the bones of scripture and breathing life into flesh-and-blood characters that are all too easy to look at as stories sketched large, in danger of losing humanity that makes their stories timeless and relevant. This novel positions afresh Samson’s role as a perfectly imperfect and flawed precursor to Christ, the promised redeemer not just for the Israelites, but all of mankind. And at last more than an seductress, Delilah is given an unforgettable voice, flawed, hurting woman struggling to regain her agency in a society that would see her stripped of power. A potent reminder of God’s unfailing mercies and ability to work His will in the midst of our worst failings, Delilah illustrates His promise of love, redemption, and wholly unmerited grace and favor.

About the book:

Life is not easy in Philistia, especially not for a woman and child alone. When beautiful, wounded Delilah finds herself begging for food to survive, she resolves that she will find a way to defeat all the men who have taken advantage of her. She will overcome the roadblocks life has set before her, and she will find riches and victory for herself.

When she meets a legendary man called Samson, she senses that in him lies the means for her victory. By winning, seducing, and betraying the hero of the Hebrews, she will attain a position of national prominence. After all, she is beautiful, she is charming, and she is smart. No man, not even a supernaturally gifted strongman, can best her in a war of wits.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Review: Learning to Ride by Erin Knightley

Learning to Ride (Sunnybell #1)
By: Erin Knightley
Publisher: BookShots


When an unexpected chance at promotion sent Madeline Harper to sleepy Sunnybell, Texas, to oversee the successful completion of her company's latest merger, the farthest thing from her mind was becoming involved with a local. Sunnybell was just a stop on her way up the corporate ladder, and one she intended to make the most of -- but she didn't count on a cowboy with a smoldering gaze making her forget every one of her rules of engagement. And when her anonymous hook-up turns out to be Tanner Callen, local celebrity, she becomes more determined than ever to sever the connection. After all, for a city girl like herself a relationship with a thrill-seeking country boy is a recipe for heartache. But Madeline is about to discover that when it comes to matters of the heart, her best-laid plans may be the only thing standing between her and happiness.

Having read (and loved) several of Erin Knightley's historical romance novellas, I was excited to see how she fared with her first contemporary release. For those looking to discover new authors, James Patterson's BookShots are the perfect vehicle -- short, fast reads that are priced to sell. Learning to Ride is basically a Hallmark made-for-TV movie waiting to happen (sans Madeline and Tanner's initial spicy hookup of course). I've always liked that Knightley's historicals fell in the "sweet" end of the historical romance spectrum -- passionate, yes, but not explicit. And while this is certainly tame by the standards of many romance releases, the hook-up conceit felt awkward. Knightley seems to be in uncharted territory here, and it shows, however she is quickly in her element as Tanner and Madeline are forced to navigate the fallout of their initial meeting, as their undeniable chemistry wars with their disparate life goals and worldviews.

While Learning to Ride is your typical opposites attract romance, it underscores an issue I often have with this type of story, whether in books or on film, and that is the idea that a woman with a career either isn't happy or doesn't have anything resembling a healthy work/life balance. All too often it is the woman who gives up the career or the lifestyle FOR LOVE and I ask you, where is the equity in that? Now I realize that I am completely overthinking Knightley's storyline here, and Tanner and Madeline are perfectly likeable characters...but the tropes of their romance frustrated me. City = bad, country = good, etc. -- for once I would LOVE to read a story that flips these tropes on their ear and gives us a romance where the devil-may-care, nominally employed man gives it all up to move to the city for his career-driven woman.

In fairness, Tanner is willing to compromise with Madeline on the city versus country issue, but it ends up being essentially lip service as it isn't necessary for their relationship to progress. Both Tanner and Madeline are perfectly nice characters, and their interactions possess some of the hallmarks that I've come to expect from Knightley's writing -- well drawn, multi-faceted individuals sketched with warmth and humor on the page. Although the storyline is symptomatic of some of my general frustrations with romance tropes (particularly in a contemporary context), this was an engaging summer read -- and should Hallmark or Lifetime ever elect to make this story into a film, I would watch the heck out of that (which I fully realize is a double standard as regards my toleration of certain tropes in text versus film). Make it happen, networks! Now I'm off to read more historical romance, wherein discussions of a woman's career goals would be anachronism at its finest.

About the book:

She never wanted to love a cowboy. . . .

Rodeo king Tanner Callen doesn't want to be tied down. When he sees Madeline Harper at a local honky-tonk and everything about her screams New York, he brings out every trick in his playbook to take her home. But soon he learns that he doesn't just want her for a night and, instead, hopes for forever. . . .

BookShots Flames

  • Original romances presented by JAMES PATTERSON
  • Novels you can devour in a few hours
  • Impossible to stop reading

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason by Susan Kandel

I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason (A Cece Caruso Mystery #1)
By: Susan Kandel
Publisher: Harper Collins


Cece Caruso, vintage clothing fashionista and lover of classic mysteries, should be in her element facing the looming deadline to turn in her sixth manuscript -- a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, lawyer, author, and mostly famously, the creator of Perry Mason. But her subject eludes her, and in search of inspiration to bring the object of her latest tome to life, she seeks inspiration from the "hard case" letters in his archives -- the incarcerated seeking his help. One case catches her eye -- Joe Albucco, convicted of killing his wife Jean on the night of their first anniversary. He claims he's innocent, and according to notations in Gardner's files, he remembered the inmate's name, but never followed through. If she can solve the case, the Gardner-related anecdote could be an inspired finish to her book. But unearthing the truth behind the decades-old murder case uncovers a web of conspiracy that threatens to make Cece's first investigative effort her last.

This book is total Ruth catnip: a vintage clothing and mystery loving sleuth? I am so in. The first installment of the Cece Caruso mysteries is an appealing mix of chick lit sensibilities sprinkled with classic mystery trivia, this time focusing on the classic pulp era that birthed Perry Mason. It's clear that Kandel loves her subject matter, as she peppers the narrative with facts and trivia from Erle Stanley Gardner's life and career. I loved the brief historical overview, as while I'm familiar with Perry Mason thanks to cable television re-runs, I knew next to nothing about the creator of the classic sleuth.

Cece possesses a likeable voice, and I really liked the focus on a more mature heroine (she's thirty-nine) with an appreciation for classic mysteries that rivals my own. While her running commentary is often slyly humorous, its occasional lack of focus left me skim-reading rather than wholly focused and absorbed by the prose. However, much is forgiven thanks to Cece's passion for vintage fashion and her affinity for classic novels and film...hers is a unique and fascinating career, one that is at once both wish fulfillment and the perfect vehicle around which to craft a quirky set of light mysteries.

I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason is a fun and diverting, if unevenly paced mystery offering. I really enjoyed the general mystery -- I love stories that involve decades of dark family secrets, ha! -- and the series concept has a lot of potential. I just wish more care had been taken with the pacing and plotting of the investigation. There is a lot of set up regarding the crime's history, exploring potential perpetrators and their motives, while the ultimate resolution takes all of two or three pages. But if, like me, you are looking for a frothy, mindlessly entertaining diversion, this cozy chick lit flavored mystery may be the perfect solution. I'm not in a rush to continue following Cece's adventures, but I enjoyed this offering enough to add book two to my Amazon wishlist...and as it has a Nancy Drew theme, at some point I expect I won't be able to resist it!

About the book:

I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason is the debut novel in a hip, sexy, smart and, yes, cozy mystery series with a great hook. Think Sex and the City collides with Murder, She Wrote.

All that writer Cece Caruso really wants to do is complete her biography of mystery legend Erle Stanley Gardner, find a vintage 1970s Ossie Clark gown to add to her collection, and fix the doorknob on her picturesque West Hollywood bungalow. Then a chance visit with a prison inmate who knew Gardner lands her right in the middle of a 40–year–old murder and another case where the blood is still warm. In fact, Cece finds the body. This brings her into irresistible contact with her inner personal sleuth and shows how crime and greed can reverberate through several generations of a single family.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review: The Perfect Weapon by Delilah Dawson

The Perfect Weapon (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
By: Delilah Dawson
Publisher: Del Rey


When mercenary Bazine Netal is hired by an anonymous client to retrieve a package in possession of an ex-stormtrooper, she expected a quick in-and-out mission with the promise of a sizeable award that would provide her covert lifestyle with a much-needed fresh infusion of funds. What she didn't count on was her teacher and mentor , the spycraft teacher Kloda, saddling her with a protege in need of training. Relationships are liabilities a woman in her position learned long ago to avoid, and with a competitor named Narglatch also on the hunt for the stormtrooper's case, on this mission she can afford no distractions. But as the mission goes south, betrayal comes from a quarter she never expected...a mistake that may just cost her her life.

This is an entertaining little glimpse into one of the most intriguing background characters who made an all-too-brief but impactful appearance in The Force Awakens. Dawson gives us the backstory of the coldly beautiful, detached bounty hunter responsible for alerting the First Order to the presence of BB-8 at Maz Katana's home on Takodana. Here, Dawson positions Bazine as something of a female counterpart to another legendary Star Wars fan favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett -- she's as intriguing and lethal as Fett, only with better fashion sense.

I wish Dawson had been allowed to develop this story into a full length novel. As it is, The Perfect Weapon is an entertaining slice of female-centric Star Wars action. I was reminded of the K.W. Jeter trilogy The Bounty Hunter Wars, original Expanded Universe tales that explored Boba Fett's actions between Episodes IV and VI. In the right hands this is a character with promise, refreshing removed from the machinations of the Force and surprisingly likeable given her lethal background.

While the plot and characterizations are a little thin, given the story's brief length, and the stormtrooper's case is a MacGuffin of the most wildly improbably sort, frustratingly important and maddeningly unexplained, I still enjoyed this brief introduction to one of the newest and most colorful characters in the Star Wars universe. I'd love to read more about Bazine, and I hope Dawson one day gets the chance to revisit this character and universe, as there is a lot of unexplored potential here and she shows a promising facility in constructing an engaging story within the Star Wars parameters. With Rey as the centerpoint of the new trilogy, it seems only fitting that a new female bounty hunter should capture the imagination of fans, and Bazine is a character whose further adventures I'd love to see explored either on film or the page.

About the book:

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens with this exclusive ebook short story set shortly before the events of the film, featuring a quick-witted mercenary who takes big risks for bigger rewards—and now faces the challenge that will take her to the edge.
There are plenty of mercenaries, spies, and guns for hire in the galaxy. But probably none as dangerous and determined as Bazine Netal. A master of disguise—and lethal with a blade, a blaster, or bare handed—she learned from the best. Now it’s her turn to be the teacher—even if schooling an eager but inexperienced recruit in the tricks of her trade is the last thing she wants to do. But it’s the only way to score the ship she needs to pull off her latest job.
An anonymous client has hired Bazine to track down an ex-stormtrooper and recover the mysterious package he’s safeguarding. Payment for the mission promises to be astronomical, but the obstacles facing Bazine will prove to be formidable. And though her eager new sidekick has cyber skills crucial to the mission, only Bazine’s razor-sharp talents will mean the difference between success or failure—and life or death.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: Pros and Cons by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Pros and Cons (Fox & O'Hare #0.50)
By: Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
Publisher: Bantam


Pros and Cons is the second e-book novella to introduce the unlikely crime-fighting duo of Special Agent Kate O'Hare and Nick Fox, incorrigible con man. Set three years after The Shell Game, where Kate first encountered Nick, both the biggest break of her career and her biggest obsession, this short story gives a bit more insight into Kate's character. Sure, she's something of a walking chick lit cliche, from her junk food habit to her complete lack of personal style, but she's dedicated to her job and not above appreciating the Nick's flair for the dramatic...or his devilish charm and good looks. While the central con here is -- if possible -- even more ridiculously over-the-top, it encapsulates what I like most about this series -- the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously at all. These stories are pure and simple entertainment from start  to finish, sprinkled with good-natured (often cheesy) humor and a flair for the theatrical. These stories are sheer fun, the perfect escapist antidote to summer's mind-numbing heat!

About the book:

Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg have teamed up for a dynamic new series featuring an FBI agent who’s on the hunt—and a master con artist who’s enjoying the chase. The con is on in this eBook original short story that’s a triumphant prequel to The Heist.

FBI special agent Kate O’Hare has made it her mission to nail international con artist Nicolas Fox. When she discovers his plot to plunder a venture capitalist’s twentieth-story Chicago penthouse of all its cash and treasures while the self-proclaimed “King of Hostile Takeovers” is getting married, Kate is 85 percent—okay maybe 92 percent—sure that she’s finally going to bag Nick Fox.

Problem is, first Kate has to convince her boss, building security, and maybe even herself, that wedding planner Merrill Stubing is actually Nicolas Fox. Second, she has to figure out how to corner and capture him without disrupting the event of the year. And third, what’s going to happen once O’Hare finally gets her hands on Fox? It’s going take a pro to catch a con before the fireworks over Lake Michigan go off.

Review: The Shell Game by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Shell Game (Fox & O'Hare #0.25)
By: Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
Publisher: Bantam


When I decided to read The Heist by Evanovich and Goldberg, I didn't realize that Nick Fox and Kate O'Hare's first adventure was preceded by a few prequel e-book only novellas. The Shell Game is a breezy, entertaining, fast-paced introduction to the adversarial relationship at the center of this series, between a suave, elegant, likeable trickster and the by-the-book FBI agent determined to take him down. The plot is thin, but as a fan of caper stories and films I'm not really here for an intricately plotted mystery; rather, I want breezy banter and outlandish adventure -- and on that score, Evanovich and Goldberg deliver. This is a thoroughly entertaining read that does a fantastic job of introducing Nick and Kate and the professional rivalry that makes them the unlikeliest of crime-solvers. The perfect lunch break-length read, The Shell Game is a diverting introduction to Fox and O'Hare's entertaining shenanigans, a world thanks to its novelty (at least to date) I'll happily revisit.

About the book:

It was love at first con. Find out how FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare and con artist Nicolas Fox first met in this exclusive eBook original short story! 

Con man Nick Fox is after Garson Klepper’s golden Peruvian relics. For Fox, convincing Klepper to hire him as security for the relocation of the relics to the Getty museum in L.A. was easy. Problem is, Fox wasn’t planning on Klepper also enlisting the help of the FBI. Fox also wasn’t planning on being paired up with rookie special agent Kate O’Hare. She’s smart, she’s tenacious, and when she’s conned, she holds a grudge. Life for Fox and O’Hare will never be the same again.

The Shell Game is a prequel to the riveting series from Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Review: Love's Awakening by Laura Frantz

Love's Awakening (The Ballantyne Legacy #2)
By: Laura Frantz
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0-8007-2042-1


Elinor "Ellie" Ballantyne, just twenty years old and the jewel of her father's heart, flees finishing school and the matchmaking mamas of Philadelphia society, hungry for home and purpose. She is determined to shed some measure of her sheltered upbringing and embrace the Ballantyne steel of her heritage, vowing to make her own way in the world. But much has changed in her absence, and Ellie is ill-prepared for the simmering tensions between the pro-slavery and abolitionist movement, nor the depth of her family's involvement in the latter. However, the greatest danger may hail from the most unexpected quarter -- losing her heart to the son of the enemy -- the engmatic, and wholly unsuitable, Jack Turlock.

The rivalry between the Ballantynes and unscrupulous, whiskey-making Turlocks hails from Silas Ballantyne's early days in Pittsburgh, becoming further embittered when Isabel O'Hara, daughter of Silas's one-time friend and mentor, marries into the Turlock clan in a fit of pique when Silas chose Eden as his bride. And from that point, the die was cast: the Ballantynes respectable and virtuous, the Turlocks and their famed hell-raising ever a thorn in their -- and all respectable society's -- side.

Jack would like nothing more than to shed his family's unsavory reputation and start afresh. But ever aware of what he's seen and done, he was resigned to the burden of his familial heritage of violence and deceit, until a chance encounter with Ellie awakens feelings he'd long thought buried. Ellie's innocence and guileless acceptance of him as he is awakens in Jack the audacity to hope for a finer, better life. When his father and brother's plans threaten to destroy everything Ellie holds dear, Jack is left with a choice: the life he was raised to or faith in the God the Ballantynes claim and His promise of redemption.

While I like to stay current with favorite authors, it has been such a treat to lose myself in each successive installment of The Ballantyne Legacy without that pesky year-long wait between releases. Though the much-loved Silas and Eden are absent for half the novel, their presence is ever felt, underscoring Frantz's thesis of the heritage of faith, inherited through generations.

The Jack and Ellie relationship is not only one of my favorite tropes in romantic fiction -- adversaries to lovers -- but it is a gorgeously-wrought exploration of inheritance and choice. Colored with shades of Romeo and Juliet's warring families, Jack and Ellie's blossoming attraction is, at first blush, nought but an impossible dream. Separated by a gulf of familial rivalry and distrust, political ideologies, and most crucially, faith, here Frantz sketches a love story all the more memorable because of the transformative power of faith at its heart.

Love's Awakening has a two-fold meaning -- Jack and Ellie, certainly, but also the agape love of one human being to another regardless of race or creed. The sacrificial love those who claim Christ are called to live each day is woven throughout each page, as Frantz places her characters in the eye of the storm brewing over slavery. The Ballantynes and Jack participate in the early skirmishes between pro-slavers and abolitionists in Pennsylvania of the 1820's seeds of the great conflict to come later in the century that would rend the nation in two. As Jack quickly discovers, the Ballantynes' abolitionist efforts are a call to action, a study in the cost, danger, and rewards of putting faith in action.

Frantz has always delivered emotionally intense novels. Her heart-stopping romances are a hallmark of her work, as is her unparalleled ability to bring the past to life on the page, all on display here. But in Love's Awakening, in the final oact of Ellie and Jack's story she delivers her most action-packed epic yet. It is no exaggeration to say that my heart was racing as I breathlessly turned the pages, eager to see the finale unfold in all its high stakes, cinematic grandeur.

Like it's predecessor, Love's Awakening is a story of inheritance, both for good and ill. The Ballantyne Legacy is an unflinchingly honest study of faith and choice and the power of both to resound through future generations. A stunning romance, suspense, and heartbreak -- this is Frantz at her finest. I cannot wait to discover what's in store for the final Ballantyne installment!

About the book:

In the spring of 1822, Ellie Ballantyne leaves finishing school and returns to the family home in Pittsburgh only to find that her parents are away on a long journey and her siblings don't seem to want her to stay. Determined to stand her ground and find her place in the world, Ellie fills her time by opening a day school for young ladies.

But when one of her students turns out to be an incorrigible young member of the Turlock family, Ellie knows she must walk a fine line. Slaveholders and whiskey magnates, the Turlocks are envious of the powerful Ballantynes and suspicious of their abolitionist leanings. As Ellie becomes increasingly entangled with the rival clan -- particularly the handsome Jack Turlock, she finds herself falling in love with an impossible future. Will she betray her family and side with the enemy?

Masterful storyteller Laura Frantz continues to unfold the stirring saga of the Ballantyne family in this majestic tale of love and loyalty. This is the Ballantyne Legacy.

Note: This review was originally published August 2015.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Review: The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Heist (Fox & O'Hare #1)
By: Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
Publisher: Bantam
ISBN: 978-0-345-54305-9


Nicolas Fox has long been the bane of Kate O'Hare's life -- until she arranges to have him hit by a bus, leading to his arrest and -- at long last -- the end of his infamous career as a con man and thief. Post-Fox, she's forced to resign herself to a much less interesting (or challenging) professional career investigating the likes of serial copyright violations, until the unthinkable happens, and Fox escapes his FBI handlers en route to his arraignment. Although she's officially sidelined from rejoining the investigation by her boss, Kate can't let her nemesis go. She goes off the grid, determined to bring Fox to justice, only to be confronted with the most extraordinary offer of her career. Her bosses assign her to work as Nick's handler in a series of off-the-books operations, going after criminals the Bureau can't touch in an official capacity.

Following his arrest by the persistent (and alluring) Kate O'Hare, Nick unspools the biggest con of his life, trading jail time for five years' probation as an off-the-books FBI asset. With Kate's grudging consent to their unorthodox partnership, the two are assigned to bring down Derek Griffin, a notoriously corrupt investment banker who absconded with millions from his clients. But in order to find Derek, he first has to assemble a crew of rookies to help sell his audacious plan, and convince Kate that maybe, just maybe, running a con could be just as much fun as chasing the con artist.

When I stumbled upon this title a few weeks ago I couldn't resist the premise -- polar opposites on each side of the law working together to crack criminal cases in exotic locales around the world? I am SO IN. Fans of White Collar (may it rest in peace) will easily find a home within these pages, and Evanovich and Greenberg spin a breezy tale of audacious cons, exotic locales, and a dash of sizzling romantic tension. The Heist isn't a deep or profound read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is just the type of breezy, over-the-top, ridiculously fun caper that my heat-fatigued brain craved (summer is not, and never has been, my friend).

Kate is something of a walking cliche in that she is capable at her job but consumed by it, with zero work/life balance and completely oblivious to her appeal as a potential romantic partner. While in that respect she is a complete, one-note chick lit cliche, it's refreshing to see a female lead who is a capable professional with a great familial support system. In fact, Kate's father Jake, is a highlight of the novel, a retiree and former special ops veteran who gleefully serves as Kate's unofficial back-up while overseas performing unsanctioned extraordinary rendition missions. I love the fact that -- at least initially -- he's more excited and supportive of Kate's dangerous new line of work than she is herself.

A concept novel like this something of a con itself, and it only works if the characters involved can sell the over-the-top storyline. Therein lies the book's greatest success, as -- led by Nick -- the motley crew that assembles to take down Derek Griffin is deliciously humorous and engaging, gleefully owning their less-than-legal behavior. Nick's new team is a band of modern day Robin Hoods, and while Kate is far from a damsel-in-distress, she fills the Marian slot nicely, particularly in how she comes to enjoy working alongside Nick instead of chasing him, embracing the dance of the con rather than seeking to live within the rules she's always sought to uphold.

The Heist is a fun, breezy read, great for a few hours of summer escapism. I adore heist stories, everything from White Collar to Ally Carter's Heist Society novels. Nick and Kate's relationship and playful banter are reminiscent of other unlikely partners in crime, from Nick and Nora Charles to The Scarecrow and Mrs. King. This is the type of globe-trotting adventure I can't help but devour, and while it can be a little cheesy and very silly, I'll definitely read the subsequent installments in this series. If they live up to the precedent set in this volume, Fox and O'Hare's future adventures promise to be the perfect recipe for a bit of welcome escapism.

About the book:

Nicolas Fox is an international con man, famous for running elaborate sams on very rich and powerful people. He knows that the FBI has been hot on his trail for years -- particularly FBI Special Agent Kate O'Hare. But just when it seems that Fox has been captured for good, he pulls off his greatest con of all: He convinces the FBI to offer him a job, working side by side with O'Hare.

Their first assignment takes them to the streets of Berlin, the California desert, and remote Indonesian islands as they team up to catch Derek Griffin, a corrupt investment banker charged with stealing millions from his clients. Finding Griffin on his private island is going to test O'Hare's patience and Fox's skill. High-speed chases, pirates, and Toberlone bars are all in a day's work...if O'Hare and Fox don't kill each other first.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Review: Love's Reckoning by Laura Frantz

Love's Reckoning (The Ballantyne Legacy #1)
By: Laura Frantz
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0-8007-2041-4


Eden Lee longs to make a fresh start in Philadelphia, to escape her father Liege's temper and her sister Elspeth's selfish machinations. Her fiery hair and family reputation mask a quiet spirit that hungers after God, desiring nothing more than the freedom to exercise her fledgling faith freely. But before she can make good on her dream of escape, her blacksmith father's new apprentice arrives, setting into motion plans of marriage and familial expectations that threaten to derail Eden's closely guarded dreams.

Silas Ballantyne has plans of his own to head west once his apprenticeship is finished, dreams he is determined shall not be thwarted by his contentious master or his tempting daughters. However, Silas finds himself irresistibly drawn to Eden's sweet spirit in defiance of Liege and Elspeth's determination to ensnare the talented blacksmith in a web of deceit. As love blossoms between Silas and Eden, fostered by whispered stairwell meetings and exchanged scraps of scripture, the long-latent embers of jealousy between Liege's daughters ignite. When all they hold dear is threatened, Silas and Eden are forced to decide if their faith and love is enough to withstand the heartache that would see their hoped-for future destroyed,

It has been far too long since I've lost myself within the pages of a Laura Frantz novel. Reading Love's Reckoning was akin to water falling on dry land, a balm to my soul sorely in need of Frantz's craftsmanship and heart. The first installment in a multi-generational family epic, Love's Reckoning is replete with Frantz's trademarks: carefully-crafted characters, a heart-rending love story, and a nearly tactile sense of time and a nearly tactile sense of time and place. Within these pages, late 18th-century Pennsylvania springs to life with color and depth. If a novel is her canvas, Frantz paints with the skill of a master.

Here Frantz blends shades of the Cinderella story with a familial and romance dynamic reminiscent of the biblical saga of Jacob, Esau, Rachel, and Laban. Eden is a classic Cinderella figure, the family drudge who still maintains her sweet spirit. In less capable hands, seeing the abuse she endures at the hands of family members could have made her seem weak. But instead, Eden is an intricately wrought portrait of one who chooses again and again the sacrifice of kindness and belief with no expectation of reward (much like the recent live-action version of Cinderella). 

While Silas is cast in the role of prince/redeemer, both he and Eden's character arcs are colored with shades of Jacob's story (with Elspeth cast alternately as Esau and Leah, in the most extreme forms of that character archetype). Their journey is a fight for an inheritance beyond what the eye can see -- a twin legacy of earthly and spiritual favor. Theirs is a story of lives the enemy to all believers would see destroyed (John 10:10), of potential unrealized and dreams unfulfilled. But in the pain of circumstance, those dreams, once surrendered and yielded to the God who first planted them within their hearts, blossom into a gorgeously wrought illustration of redemptive promise (Joel 2:25).

For those who crave realism in inspirational fiction or wonder if it even exists, they need look no further than here for one such example. While Love's Reckoning is everything I crave in historical romance -- research, depth, passion -- within these pages lies a tale of emotional abuse, a physical assault, and shattered dreams. Frantz never exploits the very real heartache her characters endure, but within the framework of their circumstances sketch a story of hope and redemption with compassion and sensitivity. 

Authors like Frantz are why I believe so strongly in the possibility of inspirational fiction. This is a wildly entertaining tale, yes, epic in its scope and intimate in its emotional reckoning, a sweeping saga in every sense that term implies. But more than that, Silas and Eden's story is one of hope and a faith at times no bigger than a grain of mustard seed, and the ability of that faith in action to transform and redeem the most broken among us.

About the book:

On a bitter December day in 1784, Silas Ballantyne arrives at the door of blacksmith Liege Lee in York County, Pennsylvania. Silas is determined to finish his apprenticeship quickly and move west. But because he is a fast worker and a superb craftsman, Liege endeavors to keep in in Lancaster by appealing to an old tradition: the apprentice shall marry one of his master's beautiful daughters.

Eden is as gentle and fresh as Elspeth is high-spirited and cunning. But are they truly who they appear to be? In a house laced with secrets, each sister seeks to secure her future. Which one will claim Silas's heart -- and will he agree to Liege's arrangement?

In this sweeping family saga, one man's choices in love and work, in friends and enemies, set the stage for generations to come, This is the Ballantyne Legacy.

Note: This review was originally published August 2015.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review: Marlene by C.W. Gortner

Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich
By: C.W. Gortner
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062406064


Maria Magdalena Dietrich was born into a life of genteel poverty, her mother’s proud family connections brought low by her father’s early death and a subsequent – and ever-present – lack of funds. Destined for life as a concert violinist, as a teenager she chafes against the moral restrictions imposed by her formidable mother. For while Maria Magdalena loves the violin, she yearns for something more, a chance to explore the burgeoning opportunities both personal and professional promised by the siren song emanating from the decadence of post-war Berlin, where the moral fiber that once defined the nation crumbles with the fall of the Kaiser and the dawn of the fledgling Weimar Republic. It is within the decadence and hedonism of the cabarets and clubs of 1920s Berlin that Maria – now known as Marlene – finds the beginnings of her voice and image  as she strives to become an actress. A chance encounter with a mid-level studio executive lands her a coveted screen test, eventually leading to her breakthrough role as  Lola-Lola, the seductive cabaret girl who leads men astray in The Blue Angel. Her partnership with director Joseph von Sternberg makes her a star, and as the Dietrich legend rises, the lines between reality and glossy celluloid fantasy begin to blur. As her once-beloved homeland descends into the madness of National Socialism and her personal and professional relationships become fraught with tension, Marlene is faced with a choice. Will she crumble under the weight of the Dietrich mythos, tarnished by poor box office receipts and failed relationships, or will a second world war allow the inimitable artist one last chance to reinvent herself anew?

I came to this novel not out of any special affinity for Marlene Dietrich or her films, but rather as a long-time fan of both classic Hollywood and C.W. Gortner’s novels, hoping for some juicy insight into the filmmaking process at home and abroad throughout the 1930s and 1940s. To date my favorite Dietrich films are among those made at the twilight of her film career, particularly 1947’s Golden Earrings, which is pretty terrible (Dietrich is as un-gypsy-like as it gets!), but I love it anyway, and 1948’s SUPERB A Foreign Affair, directed by Billy Wilder. After finishing this deliciously dishy take on Dietrich’s rise through the first half of the twentieth century, I’m determined to correct the unthinkable oversight of being woefully unfamiliar with her filmography, particularly the collaborations with von Sternberg, which were so essential to the construction of her myth and legacy.

Gortner takes his time establishing the mood of Marlene’s youth, positioning her later on-screen reputation as an untouchable seductress along with her seemingly endless string of lovers as a natural expression of a rebellious teenager coming of age and embracing the moral and artistic freedoms afforded by the Weimar culture of the interwar period. I knew Dietrich had a reputation as something of a female lothario, but I had no idea how much and to what extent her amorous appetites informed her character and image. Through her various relationships with men and women, Gortner sketches a portrait of a woman who came of age in the cabarets of Berlin and whole-heartedly embraced the hedonistic spirit of the age. It’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to witness the cost Dietrich’s insistence on doing it “her way” wreaks on her familial relationships – but if love is a drug it was one to which even a master such as Marlene would prove vulnerable.

It’s fascinating to watch Gortner chart the rise of Dietrich’s film career, focusing most on her relationship with the man half responsible for its creation – director Joseph von Sternberg. Mercurial and obsessive, he helped Marlene tap into her on-screen potential, their collaborations the foundation of Dietrich’s screen image as a lethal siren. I loved the deep dive into the studio system from an actor’s perspective providing, fascinating – and salty – insight into the perspective of the actors and directors like Dietrich and von Sternberg, artists who chafed under the restrictions of the receipts-driven system that exerted absolute control over not only their creative choices but their appearance, relationships, and free time. This novel is a window into a forgotten world, one where both star and studio collaborated to present a very specific image to the move-going public, a type of image that seems nearly deified and unassailable compared to today’s culture of insta-celebrity and 24/7 news cycles. Today we see stars at their best and just as quickly, their worst, an image tarnishing before it even has a chance to truly shine. Marlene is a study in how such a construct came to be in this period, seen through the eyes of the occasionally crass, surprisingly home-cooking and cleaning housefrau who wanted to be famous actress…and then made it so.

I was fascinated by the final quarter of the novel, where we see the rise of Hitler and the advent of World War II through the eyes of an expatriate German. I had no idea just how much she did for the war effort on behalf of her adopted country, nor did I ever consider the backlash she must have faced in Germany for refusing to support Hitler’s rise to power. While I haven’t read enough biographical information to grasp the tension she surely must have felt, knowing her family lived under Hitler’s sway, within these pages I was reminded of a lyric from the musical Hamilton -- Hamilton’s challenge to Aaron Burr at the end of the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” in which he asks “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Not only is the sentiment appropriate to Marlene’s wartime experiences, as she is forced to confront the question of what do you do when faced with the unimaginable, the unfathomable, the horrifying…it stands true today, for what happens when silence is no longer an option?

I’m not attempting to suggest that Dietrich herself should be taken as some sort of role model for today (that is a role I feel sure she would have abhorred with every fiber of her bohemian being), but the questions of moral responsibility that she grappled with leading up to and during the war felt incredibly timely. In a world increasingly segmented, with weighty issues reduced to a sound bite, our stars even more idolized and dissected (and arguably, disposable vis-à-vis lasting value, entertainment or otherwise), Marlene is unexpectedly relevant. Through the lens of Dietrich’s wildly colorful life, Gortner offers up a thoughtful portrait of a woman whose controversial life is still enduring and relatable. Gortner honors the myth even as he deconstructs it to reveal the very human, flawed woman beneath. A fascinating study in celebrity, after this I can only hope that one day Gortner will turn his pen to other titans of early twentieth-century culture (such as Judy Garland or Bette Davis). Marlene is both a homage and an engaging dissection of celebrity culture, the perfect blend of dishy gossip and thought-provoking conjecture. In short, this is why Gortner is one of my favorite novelists. 

About the book:

A lush, dramatic biographical novel of one of the most glamorous and alluring legends of Hollywood’s golden age, Marlene Dietrich—from the gender-bending cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the lush film studios of Hollywood, a sweeping story of passion, glamour, ambition, art, and war from the author of Mademoiselle Chanel.
Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, Maria Magdalena Dietrich dreams of a life on the stage. When a budding career as a violinist is cut short, the willful teenager vows to become a singer, trading her family’s proper, middle-class society for the free-spirited, louche world of Weimar Berlin’s cabarets and drag balls. With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, seductive silk cocktail dresses, and androgynous tailored suits, Marlene performs to packed houses and becomes entangled in a series of stormy love affairs that push the boundaries of social convention.
For the beautiful, desirous Marlene, neither fame nor marriage and motherhood can cure her wanderlust. As Hitler and the Nazis rise to power, she sets sail for America. Rivaling the success of another European import, Greta Garbo, Marlene quickly becomes one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, starring with legends such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Cary Grant. Desperate for her return, Hitler tries to lure her with dazzling promises. Marlene instead chooses to become an American citizen, and after her new nation is forced into World War II, she tours with the USO, performing for thousands of Allied troops in Europe and Africa.
But one day she returns to Germany. Escorted by General George Patton himself, Marlene is heartbroken by the war’s devastation and the evil legacy of the Third Reich that has transformed her homeland and the family she loved.
An enthralling and insightful account of this extraordinary legend, Marlene reveals the inner life of a woman of grit, glamour, and ambition who defied convention, seduced the world, and forged her own path on her own terms.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: Anchor in the Storm by Sarah Sundin

Anchor in the Storm (Waves of Freedom #2)
By: Sarah Sundin
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0800723439


Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States finally enters the world conflict – and after the sinking of their destroyer, Jim Avery invites his fellow ensign and best friend Archer Vandenberg to use his remaining survivor’s leave to visit his family in Ohio, before both are called to service. As the only child of wealthy parents, Arch never enjoyed the benefits of a large, boisterous family – the teasing, camaraderie, and most of all, the sense of belonging. And since the sinking, Arch craves an anchor more than ever, as his brush with death has robbed him of the security and confidence he once held in his career. Jim’s sister Lillian could be just the distraction he needs from his shot nerves and shaking hands, but in a sharp departure from Arch’s normal interaction with members of the opposite sex, she refuses to give Arch the time of day. Despite her prickly demeanor, Arch finds himself irresistibly drawn to her independent spirit, sure that if he could win the affection of a woman like Lillian, he’d have finally found someone who could love him for himself and not his family’s wealth.

A childhood accident may have robbed Lillian of a leg, but since then she has worked to prove that her lack of a limb is no impediment to her ability to succeed, determined to be judged on her merits alone. And with a new job at a Boston pharmacy, she has no time for men who would seek to control her, especially golden men like Arch, whose looks and resources surely preclude an association with a broken woman like herself. Determined to make herself indispensable to her new boss, Lillian throws herself into her work, intent on proving her worth as a pharmacist in a male-dominated field. As the danger from U-boat attacks on the east coast escalates, so do issues of combat fatigue and nerves, a growing problem Lillian sees reflected in suspiciously large, regular prescriptions for Phenobarbital tablets. In spite of her decision to keep Arch at arm’s length, they are both equally invested in stopping the unchecked use of the highly addictive barbiturate. As the investigation deepens, the dangers rise and so do unexpected feelings for the handsome ensign. If a dangerous drug ring doesn’t derail the promise of romance, will Lillian and Arch’s past wounds blind them to the possibility romance between such opposites?

Anchor in the Storm picks up immediately following Jim and Mary’s story in Through Waters Deep, shifting the focus to the aristocratic Archer Vandenberg and his to date hopeless search for a woman capable of seeing beyond his family name and wealth, and loving him for himself – the man who desires nothing more than to forsake the privileged lifestyle his heritage entitles him to in order to serve his country. I confess that Arch’s rather neurotic views of women and money – no matter how legitimately earned – cracked me up a bit, as throughout this novel and its predecessor, I wanted nothing more than to remind Arch that  yes, you may be nice, but you are not all that and a bag of chips. *wink* That said, it was a joy to finally see him meet his match in Lillian, a woman who wants nothing to do with romance, choosing instead to focus on succeeding in a career in a male dominated field rather than risk her heart once again.

Both Arch and Lillian, though a study in opposites, are used to being judged on their association with items beyond their control – for Arch, his family name and wealth, for Lillian, her prosthesis, forever marking her body as not quite whole. I love how Sundin isn’t afraid to write characters that are not always nice and that can be, frankly, somewhat unlikable or frustrating – but one cannot help but lose oneself in such a raw, honestly sketched portrayal of the best and worst in human nature. While both Arch and Lillian have trust issues, Lillian especially grapples with the temptation to shut herself away from the world when hurt, and in so doing somehow prove “worthy” and capable of sustaining her hard-won independence. Her character arc is a study in the importance of relational community. Accepting help, admitting hurt, forgiving another – all those are marks of strength, but a strength that comes from the realization that in her weakness, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, there is strength through faith in God’s unfailing provision (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Once again Sundin focuses on the homefront war experience, this time using her own professional experience as a pharmacist to explore combat fatigue and addiction. Although the drug ring Lillian and Arch find themselves embroiled in is fictional, the medical and military view towards combat fatigue and its cause and treatment was just beginning to be understood during this time period. Through the lens of contemporary experience and understanding, in hindsight it is maddening to imagine that anyone could view one suffering from the condition with anything but compassion. Arch’s panic at the thought of being decommissioned due to his shot nerves is an almost palpable fear, a heart-rending representation of the fear that can choke a person when faced with losing the only life they’ve ever known or aspired to live.

While it took a bit longer for me to warm to Arch and Lillian’s characters (compared to Jim and Mary in Through Waters Deep), ultimately I found myself even more deeply invested in their character arcs and romance. Their happy ending feels particularly hard-won, as the trust issues that plagued them, isolating them behind walls of fear and doubt, were so raw and honestly sketched on the page, that I could not help but cheer them on their journey. And if I’m being transparent, Lillian’s character trajectory was particularly meaningful, challenging the temptation to let fear or pain rather than faith dictate one’s response to life’s often heart-breaking challenges. Sundin deftly parallels Arch and Lillian’s characters, from their issues with trust and snap judgments to how, through their varying physical challenges, each comes to realize that their circumstances are not pre-set markers of success or failure. Rather, when one seeks to live within the center of God’s will, those circumstances can be transformed from perceived punishments or burdens into opportunities for transformational growth. This is only my second Sundin novel, buther warmth and facility for the 1940s proves to be an irresistible combination, as Anchor in the Storm has set the bar gloriously high. 

About the book:

One Plucky Female Pharmacist + One High-Society Naval Officer = Romance--and Danger

For plucky Lillian Avery, America's entry into World War Ii means a chance to prove herself as a pharmacist in Boston. The challenges of her new job energize her. But society boy Ensign Archer Vandenberg's attentions only annoy--even if he is her brother's best friend.

During the darkest days of the war, Arch's destroyer hunts German U-boats in vain as the submarines sink dozens of merchant ships along the East Coast. Still shaken by battles at sea, Arch notices his men also struggle with their nerves--and with drowsiness. Could there be a link to the large prescriptions for sedatives Lillian has filled? The two work together to answer that question, but can Arch ever earn Lillian's trust and affection?

Sarah Sundin brings World War II to life, offering readers an intense experience they won't soon forget.

Note: This review was originally published on LifeWay's Shelf Life blog.

Belgravia Blog Tour Conclusion

Since I posted my review of Episode 7 of Julian Fellowes' Belgravia, the progressive blog tour celebrating this serialized novel's release has finished. In case you missed any of the installments, here is a recap of each episode's recap and review:

April 14 – Austenprose.com: Episode 1: Dancing into Battle
April 14 – Edwardian Promenade: Episode 2: A Chance Encounter
April 21 – Fly High: Episode 3: Family Ties
April 28 – Calico Critic: Episode 4: At Home in Belgrave Square
May 05 – Luxury Reading: Episode 5: The Assignation
May 12 – Risky Regencies: Episode 6: A Spy in our Midst
May 19 – Book Talk and More: Episode 7: A Man of Business
May 26 – Mimi Matthews: Episode 8: An Income for Life
June 02 – Confessions of a Book Addict: Episode 9: The Past is a Foreign Country
June 09 – Laura’s Reviews: Episode 10: The Past Comes Back
June 16 – Gwyn Cready: Episode 11: Inheritance

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this blog tour! While Belgravia started a little slowly for me, it quickly picked up momentum and the ending pay-off was well worth the wait!

Belgravia releases in hardcover next week, July 5th. As of the post, the pre-order price can't be beat, so if you've been waiting to check out Belgravia now is the time! Enjoy!