Where We Belong, by Lynn Austin

book coverPublisher’s Overview:

Join Two Incomparable Sisters on Adventures That Span the Decades And Cross the Globe

In the city of Chicago in 1892, the rules and expectations for Victorian women are strict, their roles in life limited. But sisters Rebecca and Flora Hawes are not typical Victorian ladies. Their love of adventure and their desire to use their God-given talents have taken them out of society ballrooms and delivered them to the Sinai Desert–and into the teeth of a sandstorm.

Accompanied by Soren Petersen, their somber young butler, and Kate Rafferty, a plucky street urchin learning to be their ladies’ maid, the two women are on a quest across the desert chasing rumors of an important biblical manuscript.

As the expedition becomes ever more dangerous and uncertain, all four travelers sift through memories and adventures of their past, recalling the events that shaped them and the journeys and providence that brought them to this very time and place.

First Thoughts:

I’ve enjoyed previous novels by Lynn Austin. I also like that this isn’t being marketed as a romance novel that happens to be historical.

My Take:

Sometimes, a novel will have an unexpected emotional impact on you. You’ll go through the motion of reading it – perhaps with a dislike of one of the major characters – but, when you’ve finished that final page, you’ll find yourself with a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat. Such was the case with me and Where We Belong.

Life is too short to deliberately pick up a book you know you won’t like. I expected to like Where We Belong, but the first part was dedicated to Rebecca and I didn’t like her. The novel is divided into four sections – each dedicated to a particular character – and the narrative within those sections jumps back and forth in time. Rebecca and Flora were raised by their widowed father, who didn’t appear to care about making them presentable for society until it’s almost too later. Young Rebecca likes to believe she’s acting as an adult, but I felt she came across more as a spoiled and selfish child. Her determination to have her own way continues into her adult years until something happens that turns her into a guilt-ridden woman trying to make up for everything in the past. She comes across as the main character, but the story doesn’t quite end with her. If it had, I don’t think I’d have been quite so emotional.

The storyline regarding Kate and Soren was something else entirely. While it has comedic value, this is where the notion of belonging really comes into focus. They’re teenagers lost in a desert wilderness, torn apart from everything they’ve known. They’re shown grace and, in return, come to realize what it means to extend that grace to others. I would’ve liked to known what happened to Kate and Soren as they got older.

This is a good novel and perhaps I would’ve loved it if Rebecca hadn’t been such an overwhelming force. There are some great descriptions of locations and events, such as the old cities of the Middle East and the Great Chicago Fire. The information about the documents at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, while informative, isn’t dry and lecturing. It’s fascinating to learn that the pivotal document Rebecca and Flora seek was actually discovered by two sisters on whom Lynn Austin based her characters. It’s just a shame I didn’t like Rebecca.

Thank you to Bethany House for my complimentary copy of Where We Belong, which I received in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read Where We Belong? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.

Excerpt

Publisher: Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing)

Publication Date: 03 October 2017

Page Count: 480

Read more on:   Bethany House’s Website   Lynn Austin’s Website   Agnes and Margaret Smith

Purchase on:   Amazon   Barnes & Noble   Books-a-million   Christianbook.com

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To Wager Her Heart, by Tamera Alexander

book coverPublisher’s Overview:

Set against the real history of Nashville’s Belle Meade Plantation and the original Fisk University Jubilee Singers ensemble, To Wager Her Heart is a stirring love story about seeking justice and restoring honor at a time in American history when both were tenuous and hard-won.

With fates bound by a shared tragedy, a reformed gambler from the Colorado Territory and a Southern Belle bent on breaking free from society’s expectations must work together to achieve their dreams—provided the truth doesn’t tear them apart first.

Sylas Rutledge, new owner of the Northeast Line Railroad, invests everything he has into this new venture, partly for the sake of the challenge. But mostly to clear his father’s name. One man holds the key to Sy’s success—General William Giles Harding of Nashville’s Belle Meade Plantation. But Harding is champagne and thoroughbreds, and Sy Rutledge is beer and bullocks.

Sy needs someone to help him maneuver through Nashville’s society, and when he meets Alexandra Jamison, he quickly decides he’s found his tutor. But he soon discovers that the very train accident his father is blamed for causing is what killed Alexandra’s fiancé and shattered her world.

Spurning an arranged marriage by her father, Alexandra instead pursues her passion for teaching at Fisk University, the first freedmen’s university in the United States. But family—and Nashville society—do not approve, and she soon finds herself cast out from both.

Through connections with the Harding family, Alexandra and Sy become unlikely allies. And despite first impressions, Alexandra gradually finds herself coming to respect and even care for this man. But how can she, when her heart is still spoken for?

Sy is willing to risk everything to win over the woman he loves. What he doesn’t count on is having to wager her heart to do it.

First Thoughts:

I love historical novels that mix fiction with real people and events. I haven’t read the complete Belle Meade series, but I received this book from the Fiction Guild based on my set preferences.

My Take:

It’s 1871. The Civil War is over and Nashville is slowly rebuilding. Railroads are becoming big business and competition is fierce. It is into this environment that Tamera Alexander has written a wonderful story that tugs at the heartstrings. Here is a tale of wealthy plantation owners and former slaves, and of new ideas and old ways that refuse to die. Alexandra initially meets Sy through her lawyer father, but their paths keep crossing and the inevitable (for this is an historical romance novel) soon happens.

This is a story where fiction meets fact. General Harding was a known Confederate who had a railroad line brought out to his plantation. Fisk University was founded in 1866 and housed in former military barracks, and they did have a group of singers who embarked on a tour to raise funds for the school. One of the more well-known singers, Ella Sheppard, becomes Alexandra’s room-mate in the book. Alexandra does take a few liberties in her writing: the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster mentioned in the book (which has a local connection to where I live in New York) actually took place in 1876, which means she cuts short the life of one famous person featured by some five years. What struck me most about the novel was the racism the singers endured on their tour. While we might expect problems to arise in the south, one scene describes how a hotel in Ohio refused to honor their reservation. It wasn’t the only one to do so and more than one night was passed on a railroad station platform.

To Wager Her Heart is a book that held my attention from start to finish. I loved the simple faith that many of the characters had, “Give me Jesus,” which came from one of the songs the choir sang. Give me Jesus and everything will be all right for He’s all I need.

Thank you to Zondervan and Fiction Guild for my complimentary copy of To Wager Her Heart, which I received in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read To Wager Her Heart? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.

Excerpt

Truth or Fiction

Publisher: Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing)

Publication Date: 08 August 2017

Page Count: 384

Read more on:   Zondervan’s Website   Tamera Alexander’s Website   Belle Meade Plantation

Purchase on:   Amazon   Barnes & Noble   Books-a-million   Christianbook.com

Lady Jayne Disappears, by Joanna Davidson Politano

book coverPublisher’s Overview:

Lynhurst Manor is a house built on secrets . . . and the arrival of Aurelie Harcourt might reveal them all.

When Aurelie Harcourt’s father dies suddenly, he leaves her just two things: his famous pen name, Nathaniel Droll, and his wealthy family–who want very little to do with her.

As Aurelie struggles to find a home with her father’s family and learn the rules of society, she relishes in his parting gift–the beginning of his last story. The story she always wanted to hear, about her mother’s mysterious disappearance from the home where she now lives. To complete the novel, she’ll have to extract clues from relatives–and one enigmatic houseguest–who often seem reluctant to give them up.

First Thoughts:

This sounds an intriguing title from a debut novelist. The back cover copy doesn’t mention the particulars of Aurelie’s father’s death, but retail sites state it was in a debtor’s prison. Having grown up in England, this is a familiar concept to me. York Castle Museum, which I visited on a recent trip back home, is partially housed in a former debtor’s prison. Charles Dickens wrote about them, using his remembrances of when his father was sent to Marshalsea debtor’s prison in London.

My Take:

On a dark and rainy night in 1861, Aurelie Harcourt is released from a debtor’s prison and picked up by a carriage sent by a mysterious aunt. This scene is described in Aurelie’s own words, casting her as a romantic and fanciful writer following in her author father’s footsteps. Yet she has no formal education and lacks the social graces required of her for her future. Her actions become a source of disparagement for her cousin who believes the younger woman should have no place in the family. It’s no surprise that Aurelie’s closest friend should be the family seamstress, who has secrets of her own.

An alternate perspective of Aurelie’s story comes from Silas Rotherham, a family friend. Here the narrative switches to third person and, while it reveals useful information, feels slightly out of place. I suspect this is because the prologue sets up the story as though Aurelie is telling it to a publisher. How would she know what Silas was doing and thinking while not in her company? More jarring to me, however, is the naming of the prison and how it is referred to throughout. In the book, it is called Shepton Mallet Prison in an area called Glen Cora and referred to as The Mallet. In actuality, there is a former prison in the town of Shepton Mallet, Somerset, and it was sometimes known to as Cornhill because of its location in town. Each time someone referred to Shepton Mallet, or The Mallet, in the book my mind went to the town whereas they meant the prison. This was a personal problem, however, and readers unfamiliar with the area will most likely not experience it.

Overall, Lady Jayne Disappears is a bit of a gothic melodrama. It contains mysteries in an imposing, brooding, mansion, and over the top characters such as Aurelie’s cousin and that woman’s daughter. There are several twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, and plenty of Victorian scandal. I did find the ending a bit too abrupt for my liking, however, and had a couple of questions for which answers were not to be had.

Thank you to Revell for my complimentary copy of Lady Jayne Disappears.

Have you read Lady Jayne Disappears? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.

Excerpt

Publisher: Revell (a division of Baker Publishing)

Publication Date: 03 October 2017

Page Count: 416

Read more on:   Revell’s Website   Joanna Davidson Politano’s Website   Debtor’s Prisons in England

Purchase on:   Amazon   Barnes & Noble   Books-a-million   Christianbook.com