Full disclosure: I met the author at the Chanticleer Author’s Conference last year and we’ve become online friends. That doesn’t influence my review, however. This is my honest opinion.
Our modern world makes complexity out to be the be-all-and-end-all, and as a result life seems to get more and more complex by the day. Because of this, sometimes simplicity is refreshing, and that is one of many reasons why I truly cherished my time reading Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper by Sara Dahmen.
I mean no insult by calling the book simple. Rather, that is a compliment of highest regard. It’s easy to write flowery prose; spare language in which every word pulls its weight is much harder. More difficult still is using such prose to paint a picture of rough-and-tumble frontier life while avoiding cliché and giving the reader a viable sense of a bygone era in which life was slower-paced and values meant something. Ms. Dahmen does all this in spades and it’s easy to see why this book won the Grand Prize in the Laramie Awards for Western Fiction (sponsored by Chanticleer Reviews).
Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper is the story of Jane, a widowed, childless woman seeking a life away from her home and family after her husband’s death. In answering an ad for a housekeeper in the Dakota Territories, she sets her life on an unexpected course in which she encounters love, friendship, grief, prejudice and joy in the company of wonderfully drawn characters that range from a dusty cowboy to a wise Sioux widow. The plot is quietly powerful, as are the characters, all of whom evoke a strong sense of personhood and strength, remaining with you long after you’ve read the closing words of the book.
This is one of those sleeper books that has much more to it than one might think at first glance. More than just another work of historical fiction, more than a love story, more than a western – though it is all of these things – Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper is a story of patience and triumph over adversity through faith and steely determination, of allowing our lives to change and mould us into better human beings through trials and sorrow, and of treasuring the simple joys in life. This is a book not to be missed, one that will haunt you for weeks to come as you ponder the curious depth of plot and the bravery of its characters.
Sara Dahmen is a writer of true talent and rare gifts. I look forward to reading more from her.
I was lucky to review this book for the Historical Novel Society a few months ago and I LOVED it. Then I recently unwittingly entered a contest to win a copy (which I already have because I reviewed the book), so I decided to give away my extra copy to one of you. If you want to enter for a chance to win, please let me know in the comments below. I will choose a winner at random on July 15.
Here is my review of the book.
This dual time period story parallels the modern-day life of Lia, a historian writing her dissertation on the beliefs of the early 13th-century Cathars, and a conspiracy-style tale behind the 1208 historical murder of papal legate Pierre de Castlenau, an act of violence which sparked the religious crusade against the Cathars. Having moved to France to grieve the untimely death of her husband, Lia quickly learns that past and present aren’t as far removed as they may seem, and not all souls rest peacefully after death. The deeper she gets involved, the more Lia realizes history may not tell the truth of what happened to Castlenau and the Cathars; the real story may be far more dangerous, with the possibility of changing not only her own life, but also the history of the Church.
In Another Life grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go. The prose is rich and evocative, transporting the reader to rural France with an ease unusual for a debut author. The story is intriguing, weaving past and present in an ever-tightening braid that eventually dissolves the separation altogether, adeptly illustrating how the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation might play out in the real world. Lia is especially well-portrayed as the unwitting catalyst uniting two deaths, three men, and 800 years of history, while the male characters are slowly revealed as we learn their unlikely pasts and how they affect the present. Very highly recommended.
I’ve been talking about my own books so much lately, I decided it was time to talk about someone else’s. Lucky for me, I’m on a mailing list with Renee Lovins and had the opportunity to read her new book for review.
What’s not to love about Glass Hearts? It’s a modern-day Cinderella retelling with lots of heart and just enough sexual tension to keep you turning the pages. I read it in three days. And while that’s not a record (held by New Moon, read in less than 24 hours), it should give you an idea of how much I loved this book. When I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about the characters and when I could pick up the book again.
Ember, our heroine, is a recent college grad with a full scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Normally a risk-adverse woman, she decides to throw caution to the wind right before leaving and engage in a one-night stand with a guy she meets in a bar. The only problem is that tragedy keeps her from fulfilling her Paris dream. In a truly genius plot point, now she’s stuck with a brain-damaged-mom-turned-evil-stepmother and an ungrateful sister, both of whom she has to support with virtually no money.
Her one night stand doesn’t fair much better. Ring (also called Jordan), our Price Charming, sees his nearly completed master’s degree go up in smoke when his father dies, leaving a previously unknown legacy of debt and confusion. Ring quits school to help save his father’s floundering hotel with no idea how he’s going to get it done, only the conviction that he owes it to his dad and needs to do it on his own.
The estranged lovers meet up once again in a bakery where Ember works, cooking up some truly mouth-watering recipes (the author seriously made me hungry while reading it), and decide they need a “fail safe,” a relationship that will let them escape from their problems while not burdening the other with them. So they can hang out, have sex, and talk, but neither knows what is going on in the other’s life. I’ll leave the rest of the plot for you to uncover as you go, but trust that it involves a lot of ups and downs for Ember and Ring, a fairy godfather (of a sort the Brothers Grimm never imagined), a masked ball, and yes, a sort of glass slipper.
I truly fell in love with this book. It’s a feel-good story that defies the norms of the fairy tale (for example Ember is overweight, which is wonderful to see in a heroine) while still keeping with its spirit and giving creative nods to the iconic elements. The characters are great, the kind of people you want to be friends with. I also loved the theme that getting what you want of out of life takes hard work and effort –nothing is just handed to you–especially since the characters are of a generation known for its acceptance of entitlement.
This five-star book makes me anxious to go back and read the author’s first book, Ink Deep, a modern twist on Beauty and the Beast.
Have you read either of Renee Lovins’ books? If so, what did you think? Are you interested in reading this one? What other fairy tale retellings have you enjoyed?
I promised a more in-depth review of this book before I left for Sedona (which was amazing BTW), so here we go. First of all, the legalese: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Map of Heaven is on its surface the story of a Elizabeth, 34-year old woman facing her own mortality when she’s diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. This sounds depressing, but in reality the book is so much more. It is an uplifting look into the questions we all ask at some point in our lives: Why am I here? What am I meant to be doing with my life? What happens if I die without doing it?
Without giving anything away, the answer comes down to forming a relationship with God (by whatever name you call him/her/it) and using your talents for the good of others. Nothing on that road is easy, but it’s a journey we all have to take in course of living. And I believe these are lessons and thought provoking philosophical questions that will resonate with everyone, regardless of their current religious path.
This book is inspirational fiction and it helps if you are (or were at least raised) Christian due to an emphasis on the Bible and Jesus later in the book. But as I said, I don’t think you have to be to find solace in this story. The two main characters are both questioning the existence of God in the beginning of the book, so if that’s your situation, you won’t be alone. The book also contains some very interesting discussions on the intersection of science (especially quantum physics) and faith, as well as the role of faith in the modern world. While some reviewers have said they found these sections heavy and hard to read, I thought they were fascinating and they have given me much to mediate upon.
Another reviewer described it as a religious fairy tale, which is kind of true. I prefer to think of it as life with a slightly more direct God intervention than most of us usually see. (But I believe we all see God’s hand/hear his/her/it’s voice in our lives in different ways at different times.) It’s kind of like The Adjustment Bureau but with notes and dreams rather than maps of lives and Bowler hats.
I only buy hard copies of ebooks I review if they really stick with me and I believe I’m going to read them again. I knew after reading only a few pages that this one was going to change my life and immediately bought it upon finishing. I came upon the book at a critical time in my life when I was asking many of the same questions as the main character (sans brain tumor, knock on wood!) so it was like God was talking to me through it. While I don’t have any firm answers after reading it, I highly recommend it for anyone wondering about their place in this world.
I was so touched by this book that I bought another of the author’s books, this one a 60-day devotional for meditating on how you can work with God fulfill your dreams and your purpose in life. Just as certain people came into Elizabeth’s life at just the right moment in the book, I feel like Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson came into mine just when I needed her most. I hope that if you read it, you will feel the same sense of peace and assurance as I did. And even if you don’t, it’s still a beautiful story that had me tearing up (tears of joy and recognition) in the middle of the airport!
If you’re looking for a great end-of-summer read, I’ve got one for you. Mary Kay Andrews’ novel Save the Date is light, fun and downright infectious. (I LOVED this book!)
Florist Cara Kryzik is trying to keep her business afloat while recovering from a painful divorce and helping nervous brides have the most beautiful big day possible. She doesn’t believe in love anymore, but that doesn’t mean her clients shouldn’t have their happily ever after. While the bills and IOUs (especially to the bank of daddy) pile up, she finds out she’s got celebrity-grade competition for a wedding that could make or break her, on top of a complicated blooming romance with Jack Finnerty, a guy she met in soap-opera like circumstances. But when both of their exs return and the bride of the golden wedding goes missing, Kara realizes she may have to sacrifice everything she holds dear to pull things together.
Save the Date is definitely going on my Best Books of 2014 list. It doesn’t take long for the characters to feel like friends, or to become addicted to finding out what happens next. While some of the conflict is a bit contrived (but show me a love story that doesn’t have some of that), the relationship between the characters and the spot on southern wit make even those pages a pleasure to read. Plus, Andrews’ lush detail actually had me wishing I could open up my own little floral shop, and I don’t know the first thing about horticulture! It’s a fun world to get lost in, and that’s all I require of light women’s fiction.
I’m usually a historical fiction or fantasy reader, but I picked up this one (on audio) because I thought I’d read about it somewhere and my library had it available. I’m so glad I gave it a chance. In tone, it reminds me a lot of my own book, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. Neither book will change the world, but they are both happy, funny and charming. And sometimes, especially amid life’s craziness, that’s exactly what we need.
Does anyone have any recommendations similar to this book? I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the author’s books, but I’d love to find more authors like her.Please let me know your favorite light women’s fiction, chick-lit or romance (not too graphic, please) books below.
So Goodreads tells me that I’ve read around 50 books this year. And those are only the ones I bothered to track. If you count my research books, the number is probably closer to 80 (seriously, I counted). The good news for you is that I’m not going to review all of them, just a handful of my favorites.
Please note: These are listed in no particular order. Not all of these books were published in 2013; they are just ones I read this year.
1. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley – This was the first book I read by this author, who is now in my top five of all time. The Winter Sea is a historical time travel story that follows writer Carrie McClelland as she both writes her next book and uncovers family secrets. But this is no mere fictional tale; it takes on the idea that memories can be passed down through generations. It’s a great semi-gothic, semi-romance, but what really propelled this to the top of my list is Kearsley’s ability to describe what it’s like to be in the “writer’s trance” and feel compelled to write, something every writer will be able to relate to. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one.
2. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark – Juliet is the pen name of Carol Goodman (whose book Arcadia Falls could also easily have made this list) and is the first, and in my opinion the best, novel of the Fairwick trilogy. It tells the story of Callie McFay, a professor newly installed at Fairwick College, who experiences startlingly vivid (read: sexy) dreams after moving into an old house in the area. She soon learns that she’s not alone in the house, nor are all the residents of the town as normal as they first appear. Something supernatural this way comes. 🙂
4. Night of Cake and Puppets by Laini Taylor – This novella takes place during Taylor’s previous book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone (go read it if you haven’t already. It’s amazing!), and tells the story of the first date between Zuzanna and Mik, two of the supporting characters in the Daughter series. This story is sweet and full of whimsy and will leave you with a smile on your face and a renewed belief in magic and the power of love. This is one I plan to read over and over again.
5. Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers – This is the second book in Lafevers’ His Fair Assassin series, a YA trilogy I can’t recommend highly enough. The trilogy is about a convent of assassin nuns who worship the old gods (I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out) set in a fantasy version of medieval Brittany. The first book, Grave Mercy (also wonderful), told the story of Ismae; this is Sybilla’s story, which is much darker and fraught with danger. What has captivated me about this series is the mythology Lafevers has created. I find myself wanting to believe it is real. Why this books are classified as YA is beyond me (probably the main character’s age); they certainly don’t read that way to me and I recommend this series for readers of all ages.
1. Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era: Authenticating the Enemies and Allies of Britain’s Post-Roman Kingby Frank D. Reno – I read this book during my novel research this year and could have kissed the author – that’s how useful it was. Reno examines Arthurian legend and then lays over it the historical records of the time (such as they are) to try and determine who the historical figures behind the myths were. I used it especially to get the lay of the land in the years leading up to and after what I consider the Arthurian period. To me, this is a resource that is much undervalued in the study of who King Arthur may have been and the world in which he likely lived.
2. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – I read this book after seeing the Netflix series which is loosely based on Kerman’s experiences and I’m glad I did it in that order. Usually, I’m a book-first kinda gal, but in this case, it was fun connecting the fictional characters to their real-life counterparts. If you’ve seen the series, I’ll offer this word of warning, much of it is fictionalized, so don’t go into the book expecting the same thing. The book is tame by comparison, but it also offers an interesting perspective on our system of institutional justice and the power of the collective female spirit to support and thrive, even in the darkest of circumstances.
3. The English Housewife by Gervase Markham and Michael R. Best – I read this book while doing research for a Tudor-era book that is now on hold indefinitely, but I had to include it on this list. This is an actual instruction manual of all the things an English woman would have been expected to know in the early 17th century. Consider it a Renaissance Redbook. If you are interested in how people lived during that time, how they cured disease or even the elements and courses of a proper feast, this is the book for you. The information on their folk cures was so detailed, it made me want to injure my characters just so I could heal them.
4. The Tudor Housewifeby Alison Sims – This is an incredibly easy to read compendium of the elements of daily life during Tudor times. Unlike a lot of scholars, Sims makes this time period fun, while enlightening on subjects as varied as washing clothes, education, preserving food and how to brew beer.
5. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas – Mr. Mass is a well-known agent and this book is the result of his years of experience in the publishing industry. Unlike other “how to write” type books, this one goes beyond the basics, showing you how to take your writing to the next level and push yourself further in your creation of a plot with truly high stakes that the reader will care about. Maas doesn’t just want to teach you how to be a writer; he wants to teach you the elements that will make you a best-seller. I found this book very thought provoking and it is one I’ll turn to time and time again when plotting books.
And as a little teaser for next year, I’ll add that one of my favorite books of 2013 won’t actually be out until March 2014 in the US. It’s The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier, which I was fortunate to review for the Historical Novel Society. An in-depth review will be posted here as soon as the short version is published in Historical Novel Review.
Happy New Year, everyone. May 2014 bring you even bigger blessings and good fortune than this year did. I’m hoping to have lots of big news for you, so please stay tuned and as always, thank you for reading!
What were your favorite books of 2013? What should I add to my TBR pile?
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author, Jen Sights. We met through NaNoWriMo. But she did not provide the book to me or ask me to review it. I’m doing it because I want to.
Divided is the story of private investigator Elena Ronen. When she’s called on by a mother to find her missing teenage daughter, Courtney, it seems like run-of-the-mill case. It turns out to be anything but. Elana is pulled into a world of witches, covens and dangerous power plays she never knew existed. Along the way, she discovers her own power and meets Vittorio, a handsome fellow witch to whom she’s instantly attracted. As the case progresses, magic, fate, love and human machinations intervene to blur the lines between friend and foe, illusion and reality. Elena is determined to find out the truth and rescue Courtney, but doing so may cost her life and endanger those she holds most dear.
I downloaded Divided because I wanted to support my friend and fellow writer. Never in a million years did I think I’d finish it in a matter of days. I couldn’t put it down and spent way too many nights awake reading when I should have been sleeping. Jen does a great job of turning what could be a conventional urban fantasy plot on its head. She deals with magic in a way I’ve never seen before (and I’ve read LOTS of books with magic in them), plus the powers Jen gives to her witches and the mythology governing them are fresh and believable (I’m still waiting to discover mine). Her storytelling ability is evident in the way she uses the missing girl plot as a way of revealing the bigger story of Elena, Vittorio and the coven they could rule or may kill them both. And if you’re wondering about character development, let me just say this: I’d like Vittorio to leap off the page and kiss me (although sometimes his devotion gets a little cloying for me). I also yelled at the book (out loud) when something bad happened to one character, so Jen definitely got me to care about them.
While the book has some flaws and typos, Jen is a promising author and Divided is an excellent illustration of her talents. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Ravaged (which comes out September 26) and watching her grow both as a writer and in her career.
Have you read Divided? What did you think of it? What similar types of books would you recommend?
Forget 50 Shades of Gray. (No, I haven’t read it.) If you want novel that is well written, meticulously plotted and epic in scope, that will also get your blood pumping, read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. I don’t think it’s meant as erotica, and it’s certainly much more than that, but some choose to classify it that way. And that’s shame because they’re missing the bigger picture.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I read this book about six months ago, but it is amazing. I can’t begin to say how much I loved it. If you can get beyond the non-traditional sex scenes (you may not want to try these at home) in the early part of the book (they have mythological and plot purposes in the story, so they’re not gratuitous), you’re in for an amazing ride that will have you questioning who you should be rooting for until the very end.
Jacqueline Carey packs more intrigue and action into this book than most authors would have attempted in a series of three or four books. As such, keeping the players and the politics straight is difficult (people and places have foreign-sounding names that can be challenging to remember) but as long as you remember a few key characters, you’ll be fine. But the more you pick up, the richer the plot will be for you.
As an alternative history, it’s very interesting to see echoes of ancient Rome, the Picts, Irish, Anglo Saxons and others in the geography, history and characters. There are even a few who seemed to me to be veiled versions of mythological heroes such as King Arthur, Tristan and Fionn mac Cumhaill, to name a few. This is not to say Carey lacks in original characterization. On the contrary, she takes these archetypes and raises them to a whole new level, while making you truly care (and perhaps be smitten by) many of her original characters.
The writing and plotting of this book is superb. Everything happens for a specific reason (as it should in all books, but doesn’t always) and the connections between events is eventually made clear. Carey has a skill for descriptions and world building that makes you never want to leave. I could feel every movement of the journey and I’ll admit to spending a few hours reading when I would have been sleeping. As a writer, I appreciate the work it must have taken to create such an outstanding book. I feel like I will be a better writer in the future just for having read her writing.
If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that the ending left me wanting, which is natural for the first book in a series, but after all I went through with these characters I wanted more resolution. Carey was heading there, but then changed course and I can’t say I completely believed two of the character’s motivations in how the setup for the second book was accomplished. But, this book is so well-written that I may just have to sign up for the next installment.
Have you read Kushiel’s Dart? What did you think of it? Do you have any ideas for future “K” topics?