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!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: Gilt by Katherine Longshore

By: Katherine Longshore
Publisher: Speak
ISBN: 978-0-14-242619-7


The youngest daughter of a family of little fortune and less consequence, as a child Katherine “Kitty” Tylney was sent to live off the largess of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, until such a time as she should be fortunate enough to make a marriage – should her family deign to expend any such effort on her behalf. Alone and unwanted, the friendless girl was adopted by her more charismatic, and marginally less impoverished peer in the Duchess’s household – Catherine “Cat” Howard. Years pass, and Kitty comes of age in Cat’s shadow, ever loyal to her friend who has become increasingly determined to make her mark on the world, with an eye to escaping Norfolk for the treacherous, powerful court of Henry VIII. When Kitty finally gets her chance to follow Cat into the spotlight of court life, will the price of power prove demand too great a price for their friendship to survive?

I was in the mood for a soap opera, and as absolutely nothing beats the Tudor court for juicy scandal and drama – something Gilt’s lushly appointed cover promised in spades. This novel marks Katherine Longshore’s first young adult foray into Henry VIII’s glittering world, and she couldn’t have picked a more perfect subject than Henry’s infamous teenage bride, the ill-fated Catherine Howard. I’ve always rather thought Catherine must have been rather silly and immature, an opinion that seems to be supported by the historical record. She was certainly far out of depth as her end proves, her rise and ruin complete in just eighteen short months, her fate sealed by the confidence that consequences were for other people – an assumption that as undone many a person, teenage or not, throughout history.

Within the pages of Gilt, Catherine Howard is transformed from arguably Henry’s most inconsequential wife into a fully-realized, deliciously manipulative Mean girl, with stars in her eyes and venom on her tongue, fiercely determined to succeed and equally blind to the pride that would prove to be her downfall. But rather than choose Cat as her point-of-view character, Longshore smartly selects Katherine Tylney as voice and lens through which to view Cat’s rise and fall – as who better to relate Cat’s story than one who knew her best and lived it alongside her? The names and lives of those who served royalty are largely lost to time, as history typically preserves the detailed minutiae of those whos lives are instead writ large across history’s pages. Taking as her inspiration for Kat’s character the brief recorded testimony of the Katherine Tylney who testified at Cat’s trial, therein identified as one of the queen’s servants, Longshore re-imagines Kat as a long-time friend and companion of Catherine, and as such the perfect foil to the ill-fated queen’s temperament and trajectory at court.

How much is history and how much is supposition is up for debate, but Longshore has certainly done her research and her case for Kitty’s role in Cat’s life is a compelling one (Longshore’s author’s note his an informative and interesting glimpse into her research process). Regardless, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough as a stellar example of juicy, compulsively readable historical fiction. I devoured Gilt in a less than two days, a rare feat anymore for this reader – but more importantly than that, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the character of Kitty. She may be largely Longshore’s invention, but that said she’s a believable one, and a starkly honest sketch of a woman’s worth and prospects in the sixteenth century. Longsore doesn’t shy away from the sexual politics or attitudes of the day, but she isn’t gratuitous in the least. And given the recent outcry over the ruling in the Stanford rape case, it’s equal parts disheartening and maddening to read of Thomas Culpepper’s lechery and realize just how far we haven’t come in over four centuries as regards the issue of consent.

I absolutely loved the dysfunctional, occasionally toxic, sisterhood at the center of this novel. Cat and Kitty’s circle is completed by two additional alumna from Norfolk – Joan Bulmer and Alice Restwold (although their intimacy with Catherine pales in comparison to her friendship with Kitty). For all of the jealousies and petty squabbles that ran rife within a circle of four teenage girls, Kitty comes to realize the full value of that circle only when it has been irreparably broken by Cat’s arrest and trial. But even a queen’s ruin cannot dissolve all the bonds of such a sisterhood, as Kitty discovers in her most critical hour that it is Alice, she whom she liked and trusted least, perhaps knew her best, and in doing so orchestrated her unlikely path of salvation. In a world ruled by men, it will never cease to fascinate me to read stories of women fighting to determine their own futures.

Gilt is the perfect summer read – a lushly told, wildly entertaining historical romp. While grounded in history, Longshore gleefully embraces Catherine’s reputation as something of a witless flirt, hopelessly out of her depth at court, but with the added edge of calculating, biting selfishness. Cat is a mean girl on a power trip, which makes for a crazy entertaining, compulsively readable experience. I loved seeing Cat and the Tudor court through the lens of Kitty’s experience, as through her eyes, Longshore examines the cost of power and double-edged sword of secrets and friendship. Kitty’s ending isn’t wrapped in a neat bow as I expected, and I loved it all the more for that air of authenticity. With the far-off promise of possible romance and the hard-won chance at self-determination, Kitty’s story is a welcome, refreshing entry in the ranks of Tudor-set fiction, a world I’ll happily revisit.

About the book:

In the court of King Henry VIII, nothing is free -- and love comes at the highest price of all. 

When Kitty Tylney's best friend, Catherine Howard, worms her way into King Henry VIII's heart and brings Kitty to court, she's thrust into a world filled with fabulous gowns, sparkling jewels, and elegant parties. No longer stuck in Cat's shadow, Kitty's now caught between two men--the object of her affection and the object of her desire. But court is also full of secrets, lies, and sordid affairs, and as Kitty witnesses Cat's meteoric rise and fall as queen, she must figure out how to keep being a good friend when the price of telling the truth could literally be her head.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: Through Waters Deep by Sarah Sundin

Through Waters Deep (Waves of Freedom #1)
By: Sarah Sundin
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0-8007-2342-2


Following a childhood trauma, Mary Stirling’s primary goal in life became a concerted effort to remain as unobtrusive and unnoticed as possible – for pride in one’s self and accomplishments brings notice, and as her mother was always quick to remind her, pride comes before a fall. Now a secretary at the Boston Navy Yard, far from family and the memories that so rigidly defined her, she excels at her job, but is careful to do all she can to remain out of the spotlight. With war in Europe leading to an increasingly tense environment on American shores, rumors of sabotage between rival isolationist and interventionist political factions swirl around the Navy Yard. When a bottle of champagne at the latest launch – organized by Mary – is found to have been refilled with gasoline, the nebulous, rumored dangers at long last become a frightening reality. The ever-observant, always invisible Mary is perfectly placed to ferret out talk of sabotage – she goes everywhere and is remarked by no one. But as the pre-war tensions escalate, Mary’s amateur sleuthing efforts could bring her the kind of notice she never anticipated – the notice of a desperate saboteur willing to do anything – or hurt anyone – to achieve their aim.

Ensign Jim Avery welcomes the renewal Mary’s friendship when the one-time schoolmates reunite at the Navy Yard where Jim’s brand-new destroyer, the USS Atwood, is about to be commissioned. While he never viewed Mary romantically, instead preferring her best friend, the unattainable golden girl Quintessa, the more time he spends in Mary’s company the more he comes to appreciate her steadfast nature and quiet beauty. But just as he begins to realize the depth of his feelings, his orders send him out to sea and into danger, where a crude sabotage attempt is discovered. As tensions rise at home and abroad, the need to discover the saboteur at the Navy Yard increases as Jim and his fellow sailors face increasing threats from U-boats intent on stopping Lend-Lease convoys. The coming conflict forces both Mary and Jim to a crossroads, where each must decide whether or not they have the courage to face their fears and seize their chance at victory in life and love in the shadow of war.

The period leading up to and covering the second World War has long been one of my favorite areas of study, and film and fiction set during this period are guaranteed to pique my interest. As such Sarah Sundin’s novels have long been on my radar, but due to the ever evolving height of my to be read pile, I’ve yet to read her work until now. And, full disclosure, I totally picked this book to start with as I think the cover is stunning – that red dress! Swoon! Here Sundin dives into what has always been in my experience a relatively untapped market in historical fiction – stories set on the American homefront. Movies and novels covering this time frame are more often than not set in the action-heavy locations of the European or Pacific theaters of conflict. Happily, this first installment in Sundin’s Waves of Freedom series fills that gap, exploring the social and political tensions that regular citizens confronted on a daily basis, tensions Mary finds in one of its most extreme forms as sabotage and accusations fly around the Navy Yard.

Sundin’s characters are a delightful throwback, capturing the mannerisms and worldview of the time period with an authentic flair. While the nautical metaphors – such as Jim’s well-meant but ill-advised preference to “float” through life, thus avoiding accountability for decisions that could harm others, and both Jim and Mary’s reluctance to “make waves” either professionally or personally – wore thin as the novel progressed, one cannot fail to appreciate Sundin’s characterization, so critical in bringing the setting to vibrant life on the page. Mary and Jim, as well as their friends and colleagues, speak with the rhythms of the time period, their dialogue and worldview resonating as though it could have stepped straight from the pages of a 1940s-era Hollywood script.

I loved Mary’s character, even as I swung between heart-wrenching empathy regarding her self-confidence struggles and mind-blowing frustration at her seeming inability to ever stand up for herself. But that very tension is what made her such a compelling, relatable character, one I loved all the more for being a woman so wholly of her time. Despite her reluctance to ever step into the spotlight, I loved her hidden spunk, born of her passion for mysteries and an appreciation of the iconic – and always confident – sleuth Nancy Drew. Likewise, Jim is an everyman hero with a laid-back appeal reminiscent of the likes of a young Jimmy Stewart or Robert Taylor, all boyish charm and earnest heroism.

The friends-to-lovers trope has rarely been handled better, as Sundin deftly illustrates Jim and Mary’s respective maturation and slow-burning, simmering regard for each other slowly transform into the possibility of something more. It’s a bit rare for me to find swoon-worthy quotes in my much-loved inspy romances, but when Jim returns from his first deployment, eager to declare his feelings to Mary, and practices his opening gambit – “ever since we said good-bye, I couldn’t wait to say hello” – I was a GONER. That moment perfectly encapsulates why I love the romance of classic film and proves that Sundin must be, in that respect at least, a kindred spirit, able in that one rhythmic, heartfelt declaration to catapult Jim and Mary’s romance high onto my list of all-time favorites.

As the proud granddaughter of a Navy veteran, I loved the subject of Sundin’s latest series and couldn’t help but imagine a bit of my grandfather and grandmother’s wartime experiences alongside those of Jim and Mary (although to my knowledge they never encountered a saboteur! *wink*). Sundin spins her tale of life and love on the cusp of wartime with a compelling warmth and authenticity that speaks to both her affinity for her subject and her knowledge of the time period. I loved her focus on the homefront, particularly Mary’s – and her roommates – working woman status, hinting at the professional opportunities to come for women during the coming conflict.

Through Waters Deep is a thoroughly entertaining, engaging tale, a deft blend of history, romance, and a dash of intrigue. Sundin alternates points-of-view between Mary and Jim, which works for the most part – until one is left with a cliffhanger ending, to be resolved in the next alternating chapter. But setting aside that narrative issue, Mary and Jim’s story proved to be the perfect entry point into Sundin’s work. Her sense of time and place made the history-lover in me sing while her delicately-rendered romance made me swoon. Through Waters Deep is a beautiful story of second chances and bravery. I’m more eager than ever to catch up on Sundin’s backlist!

About the book:

It is 1941 and America teeters on the brink of war. Handsome and outgoing naval officer Ensign Jim Avery escorts British convoys across the North Atlantic in a brand-new destroyer, the USS Atwood. On shore, Jim encounters Mary Stirling, a childhood friend who is now an astute and beautiful Boston Navy Yard secretary.

When evidence of sabotage on the Atwood is discovered, Jim and Mary must work together to uncover the culprit. A bewildering maze of suspects emerges, and Mary is dismayed to find that even someone close to her is under suspicion. With the increasing pressure, Jim and Mary find that many new challenges -- and dangers -- await them.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Review: Counted With the Stars by Connilyn Cossette

Counted With the Stars (Out from Egypt #1)
By: Connilyn Cossette
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1437-0


The only daughter of a prosperous trader, promised in marriage to one of Pharaoh's handsome soldiers, Kiya enjoyed a life of privilege and favor...until the day her father's penchant for risky business ventures resulted in the loss of the family fortune. In order to prevent total ruin, and to save her beloved mother and disabled brother from complete ruin, Kiya's father sells her into slavery. Bound to serve at the whim of her new masters, in one stroke Kiya loses everything -- her family, possessions, freedom...her very identity. While her new master, Shefu, is kind, his wife Tekurah takes delight in reveling in Kiya's fall from grace, seeking every opportunity to humiliate the daughter of her one-time social equals.

But amidst the hardship and humiliation, Kiya finds a ray of light in friendship from an unexpected quarter -- a Hebrew and fellow slave, Shira. Despite the hardship of their shared circumstances, despite the abuses she's survived, Shira is never without hope, a seeming contradiction in terms that draws Kiya like a moth to a flame. When a terrifying plague hits at the very heart of Egypt, turning the life-giving waters of the Nile into blood, it's to Shira and her unshakable belief in her God's provision that an increasingly desperate Kiya turns, seeking answers. Mosheh (Moses), a legendary leader, has returned to the Hebrews. His presence stirs the Hebrew slaves' hope in long-held promises that their God would deliver them from Pharaoh, free them from the bondage of slavery, and establish his chosen people in their own promised land. As plague follows plague, everything Kiya once held to be true about her life and faith is shaken to the core. Yet when a chance comes to claim her freedom with the Hebrews, can she truly risk her future and cast aside everything she has ever believed in, and entrust her future to a God she cannot see?

Biblical fiction can be a tricky medium, for there is a fine line between illuminating the bones of scripture, breathing life and humanity into the God-breathed words recorded so long ago, and reinterpreting it wholesale through a fictional, modern lens. The best biblical fiction drives one to the scriptures. Cossette succeeds in breathing new life into one of the Bible's most familiar stories -- that of Moses and the Exodus -- by rather radically relegating Moses to a minor supporting role in her take on the familiar tale. Instead of following Moses through the scriptures, through Kiya's eyes Cossette allows readers to see the familiar events of the Exodus from the perspective of a character wholly unfamiliar with the prophecies, promises, and experiences of the Hebrew people that have led to the plagues and the impending journey to the promised homeland.

For those raised in the church like myself, it is all too easy to come to the scriptures -- or biblically-based stories or films -- entrenched and secure in my background and history of Judeo-Christian belief. But revisiting such a familiar tale through the eyes of a non-believer -- here represented by Kiya -- allows one to watch these earth-shattering events unfold as they occur, a valuable exercise in faith. It not only reminds one of the roots of one's beliefs, but for those raised or long-established in the faith, stories such as Kiya's are a powerful reminder of the transformational power of belief available to those who seek God and strive to live within his will. In western culture especially the Judeo-Christian worldview is so prevalent in some form or fashion it is easy to forget how radical and life-changing this belief system really is -- and whether or not one is raised on the scriptures, it is critical, I think, to never forget that and to remember it should never be taken for granted.

Compared to other biblical fiction on the market (such as Mesu Andrews and Angela Hunt), Cossette's debut offering lacks something of the tangible sense of time and place that other novels of this ilk possess. And Kiya's voice is occasionally too modern in tone to exist believably within this novel's time frame. That said, Cossette has an assured authorial voice that is sure to grow with future offerings, spinning a beautifully-rendered romance set against an epic biblical backdrop. As a romance it works on two levels, between Kiya and the God of the Hebrews and Kiya and Eben, Shira's older brother, the latter a romance of warring worldviews and cultural opposites. As a woman whose worth was always rooted in her position, once Kiya joins the Hebrew exodus she discovers the grace and unmerited favor granted under the Hebraic covenant available to her should she choose to accept it, mirroring the New Testament "grafting" of Gentiles and Hebrews into a shared covenant relationship with God that found prophetic completion with the coming of Christ.

Counted With the Stars is a refreshing addition to the biblical fiction genre, approaching one of the Bible's most well-known stories through the eyes of an unbeliever. Kiya's journey from skeptic to acceptance is sketched with honesty and compassion, as Cossette is unafraid to confront the honest, heart-rending questions that come with such a massive shift in one's focus and worldview. Kiya's story is a microcosm of the covenant relationship between God and His people woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Equal parts swoon-worthy romance and history lesson, Cossette's debut is an engrossing page-turner. Cossette's unique and refreshing take on biblical fiction makes Counted With the Stars a gorgeously-rendered, thought-provoking read. I cannot wait for the next installment in this series!

About the book:

Sold into slavery by her father and forsaken by the man she was supposed to marry, young Egyptian Kiya must serve a mistress who takes pleasure in her humiliation. When terrifying plagues strike Egypt, Kiya is in the middle of it all.

Choosing to flee with the Hebrews, Kiya finds herself reliant on a strange God an drawn to a man who despises her people. With everything she's ever known swept away and now facing the trials of the desert, will she turn back toward Egypt or surrender her life and her future to Yahweh?

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

Review: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

By: John Jackson Miller
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 978-0-345-54684-5


With the loss of his once-promising apprentice still a raw wound, Obi-Wan Kenobi retreats to the remote planet of Tatooine, charged with guarding the galaxy's hope of redemption -- young Luke Skywalker. But until that far-off day that Luke should finally meet his destiny, Obi-Wan determines to adapt to a life without the sense of community and far-flung driving purpose that he once knew. But despite his determination to remain unnoticed and unremarked, descending into obscurity even on a backwater planet such as Tatooine proves harder to accomplish than the one-time hero of the Clone Wars ever expected. With Luke delivered into the custody of his uncle Owen Lars for safekeeping, Obi-Wan -- now calling himself Ben -- determines to settle into the role of watchman some distance away, resigned to a life of watchful meditation. Getting drawn into the lives of the settlers in the area is the last thing he needs...

Dannar's Claim, a trading post, inn, and bar, operated by Annileen Caldwell and her children Kallie and Jabe is the center of life at The Oasis, the hub around which those brave souls attempting to eek out a living from Tatooine's harsh environment seek community and connection. Dannar's Claim also houses the Settler's Call, the brainchild of moisture farmer and entrepreneur Orrin Gault. The Call is a subscription alarm service, consisting of a fund managed by Gault that coordinates the community response to attacks on subscribers by Tusken Raiders. As the best friend of Annileen's late husband, the lives of the Caldwells and the Gaults are inextricably entwined. When Tusken attacks spike, led by the raider known only as Plug-eye, tensions spike between Annileen and her long-time friend, made worse by her son's insistence on joining Orrin's dangerous raids. As tensions between the settlers and the Tuskens mount, a reclusive stranger named Ben arrives, one whose secrets may hold the secret to the settlers' salvation...if he isn't destroyed first.

It's been YEARS since I read a Star Wars extended universe novel. I cut my science fiction-loving teeth on the likes of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, novels which captured not only the feel of the original trilogy, but were superb storytelling that -- long before Disney acquired Lucasfilm and announced plans to make new films -- opened new chapters and introduced new characters to the Star Wars universe. Thanks to Disney's reboot of the extended universe canon, the original extended universe novels that I loved are now no longer canon, but classified as "Legends." However, stories like Kenobi are stellar examples of these books at their best -- illuminating new facets and eye-opening possibilities in the lives of beloved characters like Obi-Wan whose screentime only provides tantalizing hints of their history and potential.

Ewan MacGregor's portrayal of a young Obi-Wan was a highlight of the uneven (to say the least) prequel trilogy, and portrayal heavily influences Miller's characterization of the Jedi Master in Kenobi. I've always viewed Star Wars, particularly Episode IV, as a western in space, and this novel takes the concept of a western space opera and turns it into a full-fledged, old-fashioned classic western epic. Obi-Wan -- now the hermit Ben -- is the retired Gunslinger who wants nothing more than to be left in peace. Orrin, the rancher-cum-robber baron whose once pure motives have been corrupted by a drive to consolidate power and succeed, while Annileen is the determined widow transformed into a businesswoman, one whose once-bright dreams have long laid dormant until the arrival of a stranger, the compelling and mysterious Ben.

Miller knows the story beats of a classic western, and therein lies the success of his exploration of the unknown chapter of Ben's life on Tatooine prior to the arrival of a blue and white astromech droid bearing a desperate plea from a princess. This novel is everything I never knew I wanted from a Obi-Wan-centric story,  everything I felt the prequels wasted with an actor of MacGregor's potential bringing a youthful Kenobi to life. Miller brings Kenobi to vibrant, three-dimensional life, delving into the insecurities, questions, and sense of failure he must have grappled with following Anakin's turn to the dark side. Here Miller explores if a man who once thrived on action, who was conditioned to never let a call for help go unanswered, adapt to the life of a hermit -- if such a withdrawal from a society in need is even possible.

I absolutely loved how this novel fleshes out not only Ben's character but the culture of Tatooine, a world that plays a critical role in the Star Wars universe as the home of Luke, the birthplace of Anakin, and the site of a rage-fueled massacre of Tuskens that sets Anakin on a galaxy-shaking trajectory, culminating in his transformation into Darth Vader. While Ben's characterization is a welcome addition to the extended universe, and the settlers are deftly sketched western mainstays, transplanted in space, its the characterization of the Tusken Raider culture that proves most illuminating. On film they are faceless, mindless bandits -- here the Tatooine natives have a culture, history, and drive, led by the formidable, fearless warrior Plug-eye, a Tusken with secrets that, if discovered, could reframe the Tuskens' age-old conflict with the settlers.

Kenobi is peppered with echoes of the films, from mentions of Jabba and the Lars family to suggestions of greater events unfolding in the galaxy as the Empire rises following the Jedi's fall. But putting the Star Wars references aside, Miller has delivered a cracking good western capable of standing beside classics of the genre by the likes of  L'Amour and Mulford. This is why I love science fiction, why I adore the Star Wars world -- Kenobi is page-turning adventure filled with compelling characters, explosive action scenes, intrigue, and a classic showdown between good and evil. For all the talk of destiny in the canon, for me Star Wars has always been a story of choice, of choosing light, of choosing to be the best version of one's self., and Miller taps into the timeless nature of that battle. I can only hope that Miller one day gets to revisit this universe, but if not, here he's delivered one of the most satisfying reads in this extended universe -- and if, like me, you can't help but view it as canon...who can blame you? This is a Star Wars (and westerns) at their best -- entertaining, thought-provoking, and just plain fun.

About the book:

Tatooine, the harsh desert planet on the edge of civilized space, is an unlikely place to find a Jedi Master in hiding. Known to locals only as "Ben," the bearded and robed offworlder shares nothing of his past and goes to great pains to remain an outsider. But when violence erupts between some of Tatooine's farmers and a tribe of marauding Tusken Raiders, Ben finds himself drawn into the conflict. It's a move that may reveal him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, hero of the Clone Wars, enemy of the Empire -- and endager his true mission as protector of the galaxy's last hope. But with blood unjustly spilled, innocent lives threatened, and a ruthless opponent unmasked, Ben as no choice but to summon Jedi wisdom and the formidable power of the Force.