Glimpses of Paradise (review)

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Glimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920sGlimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920s by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We first meet the main characters in Glimpses of Paradise, 17 year-old Doyle Lawrence (athlete and poet) and 16 year-old Zenobia (Zee) Miller (want-to-be movie star), in the spring of 1916 in Zenith, Nebraska. Doyle, fascinated by the unpredictable and colorful Zee, tells his brother later that evening that he’ll marry Zee someday despite what their lawyer father will say. For her part, though Zee senses his attraction, she wants only to be in the movies.

Their ways soon part. Doyle enlists in the army and goes off to war. Zee runs away from her straight-laced preacher father to chase her dream.

This historical tale by James Scott Bell (first published in 2005) explores many aspects of the years from 1916 to 1925—the war itself, the fate of returning soldiers, the rise of Hollywood’s popularity, and its seamy underside. Concurrent with these secular movements is a spiritual stream personified by the historical preacher R. A. Torrey (a preacher and Bible teacher who helped found Biola University). His sermons and writings play not a little part in determining Doyle’s and Zee’s fates.

I thoroughly enjoyed this substantial novel. I’ve read many of James Scott Bell’s books on the writing craft and it is interesting to see how he puts his advice into practice. His characters are complex and believable. His facility in describing action contrasts, in this book, with quiet moments like the one war-damaged Doyle experiences on returning home after combat:

“He found himself fixated on one brown leaf cloning to a branch. It looked stubborn, alone, like a solitary prayer unheard” – Kindle Location 1553.

What I appreciate most about this book, though, is its unequivocal Christian message, not only as explained by Dr. Torrey but lived out in the choices and destinies of his characters.

If you like fat, informative, and interesting Christian historicals, try this tome of Americana. It won’t disappoint.

Glimpses of Paradise is part of my own Kindle collection.
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Through the Deep Waters (review)

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Through the Deep Waters: A NovelThrough the Deep Waters: A Novel by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dinah Hubley is starting to attract unwanted attention and pressure from the after-dark visitors to her home, a Chicago bawdy house called the Yellow Parrot run by Miss Flo. That pressure ramps up a hundred-fold when, on her 17th birthday, Miss Flo tells her that her beautiful lady-of-the-night mother, Untamable Tori, is ill. Miss Flo threatens to throw both of them out unless Dinah can come up with $25 to pay for their keep—a huge sum in 1883.

Dinah is still too young to be a Harvey Girl, something she dreams about. She needs to be 18 to work as a server in one of the Harvey Eating Houses. So it seems there is only one way she can come up with the $25 and it is by giving in to Miss Flo’s suggestion. Author Kim Vogel Sawyer has Dinah pay a life-changing price to make her mother’s last days as comfortable as possible, in her novel Through the Deep Waters.

Dinah leaves Chicago after her mother dies to follow the Harvey Girl dream. But starting a new life isn’t as simple as moving away from Chicago. For though she finds a job in Kansas City, has a warm and caring roommate, even a young man whose kind ways give her hope for a secure future, everything is overshadowed by the dark secret she must keep.

The story is told through the viewpoints of Dinah, Ruthie her Kansas City roommate, and Amos Ackerman the idealistic and lonely chicken farmer who falls in love with Dinah’s innocent beauty and shy ways. Though I sometimes felt like shaking Dinah for her paranoid secrecy, the fallout when her past is revealed shows that her behavior is grounded in her savvy of the moral climate of her times. My favorite character was warm, bubbly Ruthie especially when Dinah’s unpredictable behavior tests what she professes to believe.

Dinah’s predicament drew me into the story from the start. The love triangle that develops is compelling. Though there were parts of the book where things go along too smoothly and I felt my interest lag, on the whole, strong characterization together with plot complications kept me engrossed.

Sawyer undergirds her themes of the possibility of a new beginning, the value of honesty, and the need for forgiveness with Scripture. This book is unabashedly Christian. Discussion questions at the end guide readers to work through the issues the book introduces.

Lovers of Americana and historical Christian romance will enjoy this book. I received Through the Deep Waters as a gift from the publisher WaterBrook Press via the Blogging for Books program for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Miner’s Lady (review)

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The Miner's Lady (Land of Shining Water #3)The Miner’s Lady by Tracie Peterson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chantel Panetta returns home from a year in Italy to find her sister Isabella has fallen in love with Orlando, a Calarco and a generations-long enemy of the Panettas. She soon finds herself in the thick of the feud when Issy asks her to cover for her and Orlando during their tryst, when Dante, Orlando’s older brother, comes in search of him.

The mining town of Ely, Minnesota is the setting of this historical romance by Tracie Peterson. It is peopled by colorful Italian immigrant families who move in contrasting social circles of the church and the gambling den. Their men folk risk life and limb in the iron ore mine while their women make lace, succulent pastas and pastries, and are generous with the coffee.

Perhaps not surprisingly Chantel and Dante become the real romantic subjects of this tale, with Dante’s father determined to keep their families apart. The love scenes are not what I would call edgy, though there are a few that might be considered PG 13.

Peterson deals in an outspokenly pro-Christian way with themes of forgiveness, family, and the need to trust God when trouble hits.

I found it hard to get into the book when I came across several early passages that felt like they needed more editing (e.g. Dante’s thoughts more detailed than natural thoughts would be, seemingly to give the reader background; an information dump about the particular kind of iron mined in the region that felt unrelated to the plot; and several passages that told instead of showed). However, once past those, the plot and characters captured me and I got carried away by the tale.

The Miner’s Lady is a romantic—and tasty—bit of Americana. The strong message of forgiveness adds value and a happy ending to this story with its shades of Romeo and Juliet.

I received The Miner’s Lady as a gift from the publisher, Bethany House (via Netgalley), for the purpose of writing a review. (Again, I struggled with the absence of all ‘ff’s in my Netgalley Kindle copy. It would be wonderful if they figured out how to fix this!)

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East of Eden (review)

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East of Eden - 1962 Edition

East of Eden – 1962 Edition

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This isn’t a proper review, just a list of things I noticed / liked / disliked about the Salinas Valley California family saga East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

The book started out like books written in the middle of last century do—slowly, with lots of description. But I didn’t mind as it was all grand, large-stroke painting. Though I do remember thinking, somewhere around page 50, I wonder when he’ll have all the furniture in place.

At the beginning I was confused over who was who. Steinbeck embarks on telling several family histories which, at the start, have no connection with each other. A family tree or a who’s who section would have helped.

There are some pretty dark characters. Kate / Cathy is incredibly evil and though her activities are mostly only hinted at, there was a point at which I wondered if I should / wanted to read on. I persevered and I’m glad I did.

I really enjoyed the way Steinbeck explored the theme of good and evil, whether we’re born pre-determined to be evil (with evil genes, so to speak) or whether we have choice. He riffed on the bad-brother, good-brother archetypes Cain and Abel, creating two sets of C&A brothers (Charles and Adam Trask; later Adam begets twins Caleb and Aron).

His character Liza Hamilton, wife of Samuel Hamilton is the most recognizably Christian of the characters. Steinbeck first portrays her in an almost Dickensian way:

“She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do” – p. 7 (1962, or thereabouts, edition).

However, by the end of the book she comes across as Samuel’s anchor, his true north. Steinbeck’s softening portrayal of her sheds a much more serious and sympathetic light on the faith aspect of the book than I expected when I read the beginning.

In closing, here are a couple of my favorite passages from this incredibly well-written book. The first is Samuel Harrison, talking to Adam’s servant Lee just before they name the twins. He is referring to Liza’s mother’s Bible and Bible use in general:

“’This one has been scraped and gnawed at,’ he said. ‘I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places they are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly’” p. 237.

The last quote sums up, in my mind, the book’s theme. It’s a passage in which the author stands back momentarily from telling his story and reflects:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught … in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence …. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” p. 366.

If you want to know more about East of Eden’s plot and characters, check the East of Eden entry in Wikipedia.

Oh, and here’s a gem from the yellowed old book I read. It’s in the forematter, on the right-hand page facing the copyright and printing editions information.

Note in East of Eden

Note from John Steinbeck to Pascal Covici

Thanks B., my son, for pressing me to read this grand classic novel!

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Trouble In Store (review)

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Trouble in StoreTrouble in Store by Carol Cox

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Melanie Ross is sacked from her job as a governess in Ohio, she decides to take the most appealing option available. She will move to Arizona to collect the belongings of her only relative, deceased cousin George Ross. Maybe her cousin’s friend, Alvin Nelson, will have work for her in the Cedar Ridge Mercantile that he and George owned.

However, when she arrives in Cedar Ridge, she discovers that Alvin has died too. Now his nephew Caleb Nelson, who claims to have inherited the store, feels quite capable of running it by himself, thank you very much!

But Melanie won’t be disposed of easily. She is sure that George meant for her to inherit his share of the business. With experience in shop-keeping and entrepreneurial instinct she is soon making changes in the Cedar Ridge Mercantile that bring in customers, even though Caleb tries more than one ploy to get rid of her.

A string of unwelcome marriage proposals for Melanie along with threatening notes, a dead body on the doorstep, rumors and suspicion concerning the Mercantile and its past and present owners kept me turning pages of this Carol Cox-authored novel even though some of the plot elements didn’t seem realistic. For example, why don’t Caleb and Melanie make more of the threatening notes found in the store? Instead of telling the marshal, they just destroy them. And why don’t they report a mysterious nighttime Mercantile intruder instead of shoving the incident aside as if it hasn’t happened?

Main character Melanie is a feisty, positive, warm though somewhat short-tempered heroine whose courage in the face of a lonely life won my sympathy. Perhaps predictably, widower Caleb and his small son Levi grow increasingly more likeable as the story progresses. I only wish Melanie had shown more warmth toward little Levi. She is quite critical of him, mostly correcting, nudging, and giving him looks—but then, she is a former governess.

Both main characters have a Christian faith. This faith anchors and guides them through hard times and pervades the book, though subtly.

An aspect of the writing I especially enjoyed was the author’s description of the Arizona landscape. Cox is obviously familiar with and loves the setting. Here is Melanie’s first impression of Cedar Ridge:

“Beyond the edge of town lay a vast landscape dotted with the sprawling cedars that must have given the town its name. Farther out, a line of trees bearing darker foliage meandered o(ff ) in an undulating line. And behind those trees hung a backdrop of tawny hills. Some of the pale brown slopes were adorned with more cedars, while others, streaked with pinkish layers, rose up in sheer cli(ff)s surmounted by a ridge of barren rocks. The e(ff)ect was absolutely breathtaking” – Kindle Location 859 (brackets indicate the missing ‘f’s in my review copy Kindle edition).

All in all, Trouble In Store is an entertaining Americana historical with elements of the wild west, mystery, suspense, romance and even a little slapstick—a good choice for a light summer diversion.

I got this book as a gift from publisher Bethany House for the purpose of writing a review. However, the NetGalley ebook version I received was full of typos. It seemed every ‘ff’ and often adjoining letters were missing from words. This led to a lot of guess-work and a bumpy reading experience.

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The Icecutter’s Daughter by Tracie Peterson (review)

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The Icecutter's Daughter (Land of Shining Water, #1)The Icecutter’s Daughter by Tracie Peterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Merrill Krause, the only girl in a family of boys, has fulfilled her promise to her dying mother and spent the last ten years taking care of her father and brothers. This has meant not only cooking and keeping house but also getting involved in the family business of raising draft horses and harvesting ice. The 21-year-old has had little time for the feminine pursuits of looking beautiful and batting her eyes at hopeful suitors (though she sure can cook up a storm). Visits to town (Waseca, Minnesota, 1895) and the not-so-subtle hints of Granny Lassiter and Merrill’s best friend Corabeth that she’s not getting any younger, only make her more aware of her lacks in the eligible young lady department.

Rurik Jorgenson appears in Waseca to help his ill Uncle Carl in his furniture-making shop. He meets Merrill at one of the ice-harvesting work bees, feels an instant attraction and it looks as if it will be full-steam-ahead to love for the two of them. That is until Rurik’s longtime friend Nils Olsson and his sister Svea (Rurik’s former fiancée) arrive in town. What follows is a drama of Shakespearean-type complications with Svea pressuring Rurik to reinstate their engagement, Nils coming on to Merrill, and Merrill’s father and brothers doing their customary hover over her affairs and suitors.

The likeable characters’ very human flaws keep them in trouble and I had a hard time putting this one down (though the story’s main complications resolved at about 90% through the book and the last 10% dragged a bit).

Author Tracie Peterson tells the story simply with lots of solid description of home, food, and community life—a great read for those who would enjoy the vicarious experience of life in an 1890s immigrant community (Merrill comes from German stock, Rurik from Swedish).

The book’s themes of love, loyalty, and the necessity of truth are firmly grounded in the Christian faith—a faith to which the main characters give lip and life service. Nothing edgy here but a good, safe read.

For an enjoyable romance that takes readers back to simpler, slower times, and gives a glimpse into a trade that has long disappeared in the dust of progress, The Icecutter’s Daughter is a fine choice.

(I received this book as a gift from publisher Bethany House for the purpose of writing a review.)

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