Book Review: Under the Tulip Tree by Michelle Shocklee

Come back tomorrow for the character interview of Rena and Frankie!

Tyndale House Publishers, September 8, 2020, Pages:400, ISBN:978-1-4964-4607-7

The story begins with the stock market crash of 1929 when Rena Leland is about to celebrate her sixteen birthday. Because her father is a banker who mismanaged his assets, their lifestyle takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

For me, this beginning was slow. The real story gets going when we leap forward seven years as Rena, out of work at a newspaper office, takes a job with the WPA interviewing former slaves. (If you find the beginning slow, stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.) I knew about these slave narratives and have read a few of them. With all the stories and movies out there on slavery and the Civil War, readers might be tempted to think it’s all been done before. However, the author drew me in as Rena is engrossed in hearing the story of Frankie Washington, a woman who said God told her she couldn’t die until she told Rena her story. I was engrossed too. It kept me turning pages as the book is partly told in Frankie’s point of view from the past.

Uncomfortable at times (how can it not be?), readers are taken back to the horrors, the heartbreak, and the incredible endurance of those who lived through it. Frankie’s story takes place in Nashville before and during the Civil War. Frankie and other slaves are held in a contraband camp when the Union Army takes control of the city. She is allowed to work and be paid for washing officer’s clothing. During a battle she cares for injured soldiers. And then she is asked to do the same for the Confederate soldiers, something she struggles against, blaming them for all the pain and suffering she endured as a slave. How she deals with this and what she learns will also teach Rena some incredible lessons.

Rena feels regret for her family having owned slaves in the past, but she thinks all that is in the past. Then she realizes that between her mother objecting to the neighborhood she must visit for the interviews and her own anxious feelings when she travels there without a companion and is stared at, there is still a vast difference in the white/black culture and much mistrust on both sides. With the supporting characters of her grandmother and a handsome co-WPA worker, Rena learns things about the past that she never learned in school. More importantly, she learns about the life-long spiritual journey of the former slave, and this changes Rena’s outlook on her own life and on her family she previously had trouble tolerating, and also on the man who has been transporting her to Hell’s Half Acre to conduct the interviews. This transformation flows perfectly. It’s not rushed for the sake of the story or preachy at all. The ending held a surprising twist that will cause this story to stay in readers’ minds for a long time.

I really enjoyed this book, and having recently read Lisa Wingate’s The Book of Lost Friends, I found Under the Tulip Tree a fitting companion. Highly recommended.

Cindy Thomson, Novel PASTimes

I received a free advanced reader copy from the publisher with no obligation to review.

Book Review: An American Duchess by Karen Harper

I regret taking so long to read a book by Karen Harper. I have no excuse, but I suppose I was hesitant because I thought they were mostly romance and that’s not my usual reading choice. I’m not a huge fan of reading fiction about historical figures either, but there have been exceptions, so why not? I’m not sure why I hadn’t tried, like I said.

I met Karen Harper numerous times at Ohioana Book Festivals and events put on by the Historical Novel Society. We both lived in suburbs surrounding Columbus, Ohio. I had many conversations with her. She recommended one of her older titles to me, and even though I have yet to read that one, I plan to.

When I saw An American Duchess was available on audio at my library, I downloaded it. I remember sitting next to Karen at a panel on historical fiction at Ohioana in 2019. She talked about An American Duchess and lovingly patted the cover as she spoke. I know that feeling. The books you spent so much time on are your babies.

At first I was afraid I was right about the romance focus but I kept reading and as I did I realized a master storyteller was at work. Yes, Consuelo had a head full of romantic dreams and was even a bit shallow. At the start. Things changed for her and she grew stronger and wiser. We get to meet the young Winston Churchill and learn about how aristocracy changed in England before, during, and after WWI and WWII. (Yes, I was on the Downton Abbey bandwagon, so I liked this.)

The suspense as Consuelo and her second husband (no spoiler here as she is a historical public figure) are racing to leave Europe and flee the Nazis added another element to this novel that I didn’t expect.

I am glad I read it. There are many Karen Harper fans out there, but if you were like me and reluctant to try her books, wait no longer. There is a new novel out as well. Sadly, Karen passed away earlier this year. She was battling cancer, but I heard that it was this nasty 2020 virus that cost her her life. She’s left a great body of work written over many years. If you’re a Karen Harper fan, which book is your favorite?

Book Review: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate

  • 400 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (April 7, 2020)

I listened to the audiobook and I thought the voices were amazingly good. It reminded me of The Help.

I’ve become a fan of Lisa Wingate’s books, and this one did not disappoint. Moving between time periods to tell the stories of Hannie seeking to reunite with family in 1875 during Reconstruction in the South, and a young woman called Benny in 1987 who takes a teaching job in a poor rural area and struggles to make local history matter to her students. The story was inspired by ads that were placed with the help of a church by former slaves seeking “lost friends.”

The story is expertly woven and engrossing. At times I promise myself I’m not going to read any more stories about slavery and its aftermath, but then I find really good books and I’m always glad I read them. The Book of Lost Friends features compelling characters that I rooted for throughout the story. While there was a plot twist at the end that helped to explain the teacher’s motivations but seemed a bit convenient, it didn’t take anything away from the story that will touch your heart and help drive home the point that we absolutely must learn from history. Highly recommended.

Cindy Thomson, Novel PASTimes

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

book cover
Homegoing, a Novel by Yaa Gyasi, ©2016, Vintage Books.

My local bookstore recommended this book because I like novels about family legacies. I admit, this book flung me out of my comfort zone. I did not read this book because of what happened to George Floyd and the resulting riots. I had started it long before. It’s a difficult read, especially the chapters on the slave experience, so I read it slowly. It turned out to be a very timely read as it takes readers into the lives of several families and their hardships. For some the struggle was slavery, but for others it was something else. Some struggled against the elements as they eked out a livelihood from the land. Others try to overcome mental issues and the resulting shunning by their community. Some suffer physical abuse. The characters lead tough lives as they cope with the memories of their ancestors. We follow the descendants as some come to America and then struggle because of the color of their skin. This book was published in 2016. What it describes is certainly not new.

“The news made it sound like the fault lay with the blacks of Harlem. The violent, the crazy, the monstrous black people who had the gull to demand that their children not be gunned down in the streets. Sonny clutched his mother’s money tight as he walked back that day, hoping he wouldn’t run into any white people looking to prove a point, because he knew in his body, even if he hadn’t yet put it together in his mind, that in America the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.”

p. 260

It’s an emotional story that made me uncomfortable, but taught me a lot about the African-American experience.

Warning: there are some sex scenes and f-bombs. They are brief, but if you’re sensitive to that you should be aware.

The best part of this book, I think, is the ending. All the stories come together as two descendants meet and go together to Ghana. One has been before visiting her grandmother. The other has not. But both feel a connection as they face an inherent fear (one is afraid of water and the other afraid of fire, and by the end you understand why.) The characters express the idea that so much has been overcome by those who came before them that now they can be set free.

I think so much of what we know about history has been written by the white man. It’s refreshing to read another point of view, and certainly educational. If that interests you, read this book and be prepared to be changed.

“How many hours could he spend marching? How many bruises could he collect from the police? How many letters to the mayor, governor, president could he send? How many more days would it take to get something to change? And when it changed, would it change? Would America be any different, or would it be mostly the same?”

p.244

Cindy Thomson

Book Review: If I Were You by Lynn Austin

Publisher: Tyndale Fiction (June 2020)
416 pages

War changes people. We may be more aware of that today than in the past when many people tried to act as though it didn’t. WWII was one of the times when Americans returned home and vowed to leave it all in the past. However, as Lynn Austin says in her author’s note, that was not so easy for those living in England after WWII where war and devastation had landed on their doorstep. Reminders remained for years due to so many bombed areas.

This story is about the lives of two women who met as girls and became friends. It was a friendship that could not be in those days because they came from very different social classes. Eve Dawson’s mother was a lady’s maid and Audrey Clarkson was that lady’s daughter. But WWII changed British society, not to mention individual lives. Eve and Audrey became friends again during the war through the various ways they served their country and the losses and hardships they endured. No one was spared no matter how wealthy they might have been. In the process they learned just how strong they were. And then after the war events altered their lives once again and threatened to destroy their newfound faith in God.

I really liked how this novel was structured. It opens in 1950 with Audrey discovering Eve had impersonated her and taken over her life with the family of her deceased American husband. The mystery of how that could have happened and what they will do about it now that they are together again drives the story because going back in time we see Eve and Audrey as very tight friends.

I also loved the historical background and events, which is something you can always count on Lynn Austin to provide. If you liked the television series Land Girls, you will love this book. And I will say the book is better because it’s inspirational. We get to follow each girl on her spiritual journey during a time when no doubt everyone involved had his/her faith tested. Eve and Audrey are flawed characters, as we all are. They make mistakes, huge ones that affect not only themselves but many others. We can see how a web of lies can entrap someone, and what’s more compelling, when it seems as though the scenario cannot end well we learn with the character that there is always a new beginning for those who repent.

Historical novels that slip back and forth in time can be tricky to read. I’ve struggled with several. Sometimes the cast of characters is difficult to keep track of. Sometimes the motivations are confusing. Sometimes how the character changes because of the challenges he/she faces in each time period becomes disjointed due to flipping back and forth. Not so in this novel. It flowed so well and kept me turning pages.

I highly recommend this novel to those who enjoy historical fiction, and that’s everyone who reads Novel PASTimes.

I received an advanced copy free of charge from the publisher with no requirements for a review. All opinions are mine alone.

Known for the inspirational Celtic theme employed in most of her books, Cindy Thomson is the author of six novels and four non-fiction books, including her newest, Finding Your Irish Roots. A genealogy enthusiast, she writes from her home in Ohio where she lives with her husband Tom near their three grown sons and their families. Visit her online at CindysWriting.com, on Facebook: Facebook.com/Cindyswriting, Twitter: @cindyswriting, Pinterest: @cindyswriting and Book Bub: @cindyswriting.


Book Review: Into the Free by Julie Cantrell

There has never been a better time to go back and read novels that were released a few years ago. I recently did this by listening to the audiobook from the library of Into the Free by Julie Cantrell.

I’ve never read a book by this author before. I’ve been missing out. These characters will stay with me for a long time. Millie is a young girl at the beginning of the story so in that sense it’s a coming of age novel, but it’s so much more.

Set during the Depression and the pre-WWII years in Mississippi, Millie grows up with a father who beats her mother. She wants to help her mother and even once tries to stand up to her father, but it’s obvious there is nothing she can do. There are secrets Millie’s mother kept that are slowly revealed. Details about farms, horses, and rodeos bring the story to life. I have to add that narrator of this audiobook did a fabulous job. I can still hear her voice in my head!

Life doesn’t get easier for Millie, not even later when after tragedy hits her family and she goes to live with another family that seems like an answer to prayer. I love plots that are not predictable and that do not suggest the existence of a trouble-free life. There is always hope and this novel delivers hope so skillfully. The struggle to believe in God, characters who are shown to be false believers, and the sense of being supernaturally cared for that Millie experiences in many different ways throughout the story give this novel great spiritual depth along with some great lessons. I can see this as a great book club novel, and what’s wrong with going back to something older?

I recommend this novel if you haven’t already read it. I gave it 5 stars!

Known for the inspirational Celtic theme employed in most of her books, Cindy Thomson is the author of six novels and four non-fiction books, including her newest, Finding Your Irish Roots. A genealogy enthusiast, she writes from her home in Ohio where she lives with her husband Tom near their three grown sons and their families. Visit her online at CindysWriting.com, on Facebook: Facebook.com/Cindyswriting, Twitter: @cindyswriting, Pinterest: @cindyswriting and Book Bub: @cindyswriting.

Book Review: Sara’s Surprise by Susan G. Mathis

About Sara’s Surprise:

Sara O’Neill, works as an assistant pastry chef at the magnificent Thousand Islands Crossmon Hotel where she meets precocious, lovable, seven-year-old Madison and her charming father and hotel manager, Sean Graham. But Jacque LaFleur, the pastry chef Sara works under, makes her dream job a nightmare.Sean Graham has trouble keeping his mind off Sara and Madison out of mischief. Though he finds Sara captivating, he despises LaFleur and misreads Sara’s desire to learn from the pastry chef as affection. Can Sean learn to trust Sara and can she trust herself to be an instant mother?

My Review

A Sweet Holiday Romance Novella

Sara’s Surprise is a sweet romance which will capture readers with its lovable characters. Tenacious and kind, Sara O’Neill desires to become an independent and a successful pastry chef. She doesn’t expect the obstacles set in her way by her demanding and sought after boss, but new friends support her in her endeavors. Feisty little Madison Graham, who needs a mother, charms Sara. And Madison’s dad, Sean Graham, is the kind of man who is worthy of her regard. Their story, set during America’s Gilded Age in the Thousand Islands, will warm your heart this winter. A fun Christmas-time read, so snuggle down in a chair by the fireplace, sip a cup of hot cocoa, and enjoy!

 

Book Review: Forever, Lately by Linore Rose Burkard

About Forever, Lately::

1816, England
Julian St. John needs a wife. An oath to a deceased guardian must be kept. Miss Clarissa Andrews, a vexatious beauty, has dangled after him all season but he has no intention of choosing such a she-devil.

Maine, Present Day
Author Claire Channing is desperate to write a bestseller to save her failing career. She moves into her grandmotherʼs abandoned cottage to write the book, but a local resort baron wants to raze the place. Without the deed, the clock is ticking on how long she can stay. She thinks she’s writing St. Johnʼs story. But when she discovers an old prayer shawl and finds herself in his Regency world, she falls in love with him, a man she thought she invented! Miss Andrews, however, is also real—and she’d rather see Julian dead than in another womanʼs arms!  Claire must beat the clock to prevent a deadly tragedy, but can love beat the limits of time itself?

My Review:

A wonderful romp through the world of the Regency England through the eyes of a modern-day woman. Truly fun time travel by supernatural means rather than a time machine. The romance is poignant and sweet with both the hero and the heroine having to make tough choices. Julian St. John and Claire Channing seem to be meant for each other. The only thing that separates them is time! Author Linore Rose Burchard adds clever plot twists and dialog. It’s the kind of book worth reading a second time. I truly enjoyed it. Highly recommend!

Book Review: Waltz With Destiny by Catherine Ulrich Brakefield

51teoT5RTyLAs Hitler and his Nazis march across Europe…

The splendors of Detroit’s ballrooms spin Esther (McConnell) Meir around like a princess in a fairy tale Here she meets junior engineer Eric Erhardt. But will Eric abandon his playboy ways for Esther?

When war comes to America’s shores, Esther questions whether she has the grit to carry on the McConnell legacy. Meanwhile, Eric comes face to face with death when he’s drafted into the Army and shipped to fight in Italy.

Once again, war separates a McConnell woman from the man she loves as the Destiny saga reaches a page-turning conclusion.

Award-winning historical fiction author Catherine Ulrich Brakefield weaves fiction with real-life events to create this inspirational fourth book of the Destiny series.

My Review:

Catherine Ulrich Brakefield’s Waltz with Destiny is the crown jewel of the Destiny series!
Brakefield brings 1940s Detroit to life, along with the WWII battlefields of Italy.

Esther Meier, daughter of Ruby (McConnell) Meier, has a legacy of faith to live up to and an unsure future with war looming and her annoying attraction to a man who seems to flirt with every girl who glances sideways at him.

Eric Erhardt is studying to be an engineer but also wants to win his father’s approval. Handsome and talented, he can’t see it in himself. When he meets Esther at the Vanity Ballroom, he finds there’s something different about her with her faith and the way she conducts herself. She captures his heart like no other girl. Though love grows between them, both are afraid to admit it and commit themselves to the relationship, especially with the war in full swing.

Brakefield has outdone herself in bringing to life battles of WWII as seen through Eric’s eyes: the angst, fear, deprivation, bravery, death, and injury that surrounded the men of the United States Army. It’s a good read to remind us of the sacrifices of those that have gone before us that have maintained our freedom at sobering cost, along with God’s grace and answered prayer.

Yet Esther is never far from Eric’s thoughts while he is away. And while she is faithful to write encouraging words to him she wonders … should she wait for him? It’s worth reading to find out! You won’t want to put this one down!

Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

Historical fiction based on real historical people can be a tricky genre to pull off. I admire Callahan for taking on C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman. I knew little about her, and I expect that is the case for many fans of C. S. Lewis. She brought Joy to life while exploring her complicated relationships and her chronic health issues. I loved the way Lewis is shown as well, the way he depended on Joy emotionally and enjoyed their philosophical and theological discussions. From what I can tell, Callahan treated these historical people fairly. In the author’s note she explains how she did her research.

That alone is enough to give this book a high rating, but the writing is seller, captivating, and caused me to read this book quickly. I love a novel that pulls me in like that. If this was made into a movie, I think it would be better than the new one on Tolkien.

Highly recommended.