Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Stars Shine Bright, by Sibella Giorello (Thomas Nelson)


I preordered The Stars Shine Bright well in advance, because that's both a safe and advisable thing to do with a Giorello novel.  Think about that when the next one is on deck.

FBI Special Agent Raleigh Harmon is back with perhaps the most complex challenge--professionally and personally--to her troubled career and life thus far.  And that's saying something.

Someone appears to be fixing horse races at Emerald Meadows, Seattle's premier thoroughbred race track.  Raleigh goes undercover as the niece of horse-owner Eleanor Anderson, who has requested federal assistance in investigating a most irregular trend of events at the track.  Apparently, horses favored as winners suddenly falter, and long shots triumph, all in a disconcertingly consistent fashion.  Who's manipulating the outcomes?  Who has the most to gain from such a scenario?

Out of the starting gate, the Mob surges into first place on the list of suspects in the person of Salvatore Gigliardo, an owner and bookie at Emerald Meadows.  But not all the brightly shining stars align to support this notion, so Raleigh reins back her initial impressions in the face of steadily diminishing evidentiary odds that Sal is the true culprit--as convenient as that might be--since Sal's horses are as much victims as the other owners' steeds are.  Her probing, some of it sullied by the unorthodoxy that has her at odds with her FBI chieftains, reveals a surprising tangent to everything she thought and felt to be true.  What is it?  Sorry, I'm already on the verge of a spoiler, so I shall share no more.

The personal complexity focuses on her complicated relationships with not only the Bureau (and one fellow special agent in particular), but with her relatives, especially her mother, who is now under observation in a mental institution.  Enter DeMott Fielding, the fiancĂ© she's so studiously avoided in the prequel, The Mountains Bow Down, and Raleigh's inner turmoil noses into the turf like a drunken mudder.  Unlike in the prequel, however, at last we see Raleigh beginning to grow through her previously almost debilitating spiritual, emotional, and personal struggles. The prayers she lifted seemingly in vain before finally begin to bear fruit, prayers no longer short-circuited through eyes squeezed shut in agony, but filtered through up-lifted tears of submission.  Not only do the stars shine bright, but a singular light appears at the end of the proverbial tunnel for Raleigh.  Decisions clamoring to be made are attended to, and the results of those decisions begin to manifest in a most satisfactory way.

Add Ms. Giorello's most intricate plot so far to her phenomenally detailed research and inimitable writing voice, and you simply have a can't-put-it-down novel.  Note that I normally make a concerted effort to avoid the overused "couldn't put it down."  But sometimes it's just true.

Too little, too vague?  Sorry.  If you've followed Ms. Giorello's journey with Special Agent Harmon to this point, you'll get it.  If you haven't, back up and begin with The Stones Cry Out (a Christy Award winner), through The Rivers Run Dry, and The Mountains Bow Down, then on to this point of Raleigh's story.  It's well worth the ride.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jewel of Persia, by Rosanna White (WhiteFire Publishing)

If there's an Old Testament figure who has been novelized more than Esther, I'm not sure who it might be.  And I've read a few really good ones--even have another one queued up--but, honestly, none have been like Jewel of Persia.  Are you ready for this?  First, Esther isn't even the main character.  Second, the Biblically identifiable story doesn't even start until (according to my Kindle) the last ten percent of the book.  Wait!  Stick with me.  You'll be glad you did.

Ms. White has taken an extremely novel approach (okay, pun intended) to Esther's story.  She begins her tale with Esther as but a young child.  Her best friend and confidant, a few years her senior, is Kasia.  Now you've met the main character.

Jewel of Persia takes Kasia, a beautiful Jewess from the poor quarter of Susa, into the harem of King Xerxes.  She is believed to be dead by drowning, the cover story for her disappearance her father propagates when he disowns her due to the dishonor it would bring on the family.  Esther mourns her loss, unaware of the truth and the role it will play in her own life a few short years into the future.

As the story progresses, Kasia captures the king's heart by loving him as a man instead of manipulating him for favors as the king.  She also earns the distrust and resentment of the rest of the king's concubines and wives, including the now deposed Queen Vashti.  But all of this is part of the plan, part of Jehovah's preparation for the salvation of His people.  Hang on; we'll get there.

Ms. White takes us on an enthralling journey through the early years of Xerxes' reign, his costly victory over the Spartans at Thermopolae and his ill-fated clash with the Greeks at Salamis.  Beginning to sound like a war book?  Nope.  Ever at his side, Kasia provides the balance of support and reason to her husband only a woman of her caliber in love is capable of.  Through Kasia, Ms. White reveals Xerxes' personal trials, his mistakes, his uncertainties, in a campaign he felt compelled to launch for the honor of his father rather than out of his own ambition.  She also weaves with remarkable skill the scheming intrigue inherent to the court and even the family of the king of all kings, most of whom aspire him to be the god beyond the man he wants to be.  Stalked by Haman, who would see her dead, Xerxes' son, Darius, who would see her in his bed, and the demon-god Ahura-Mazda, who would see her influence utterly destroyed.  But none has any chance against Jehovah, who would see her preserved as a dutiful child of his and as an essential part of His plan to rescue His people from a future annihilation.

Thoroughly researched and artfully penned, Ms. White delivers a wonderfully romantic story that is both historically accurate, Scripturally sound, and emotionally satisfying.  Her characters display a genuinely believable depth and balance of virture and foible.  Most notable was the intricacy of intrigue and guile in the politics pervading both the palace and the harem Ms. White expertly embeds into the plot.  Actually, her peceptions were so cunningly portrayed, she began to worry me.  Has her husband read this?

Oh!  And yes, after all of this, Esther--remember her?--does get her day in the sun. :-)  And another, oh!  How on earth does Kasia figure into Esther's story?  Huh uh.  Ya gotta get the book.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, TBCN!

I'm honored to be associated with The Book Club Network, an online Christian forum that brings together authors and members of book clubs not just in the US, but overseas as well.  TBCN has been a great resource to connect readers and authors through chat, discussion forums, and special events. So...

...as a departure from my normal posts of book reviews, I'm featuring an interview with Nora St. Laurent, a co-founder of TBCN.  She discusses its history, philosophy, and the specials being offered during the month of August--namely, ten free books given away every day for the entire month.  Hint:  You don't want to miss this!

Here's the story in Nora's own words:

What inspired you start TBCN, Nora?

The Book Club Network was born out of a desire to share Christian Fiction authors with other book clubs, share book club ideas with other leaders and to encourage the authors who are writing such amazing books. The economy has been really tough for a few years and people are not parting with money like they used to. Through TBCN they can take their time and find the right book or win it. We have give away opportunities each month. ALL of our contests are from the 19th – 21st of the month.

I run two face-to-face book clubs, one at the Christian Book Store I work at and the other at the church I attend. It’s a position I never imagined I’d be in since I didn’t read for pleasure much before I started working in a Christian book store 11 years ago.

But since I love talking with people and the main thing to talk about in a book store is books I started reading Christian Fiction (publishers sent ARC copies to our store and I started checking them out) The first book that rocked my world and got me hooked in Christian Fiction was a book by Linda Nichols called Not a Sparrow Falls her next book did me in and I couldn’t stop talking about it.  At the Scent of Water was her next book that prompted me to contact the author and let her know how much her book touched my spirit.

After reading these two books and telling customers about these reads I had a reason to read. The books spoke to me because I wasn’t expecting it. It reminded me of the stories in the Bible. Jesus is the greatest story teller and He knew a story could change a life or prick our spirit and move us in a direction we never thought we’d go.

I tell you all that to say I’m dyslexic, and I have not been a fan of reading. Movies were more my thing. I could watch a movie of a book and have a lot more fun. Reading Christian Fiction changed my life in more ways than one. I wanted to tell everyone about the greatest book I read, and I’d do that at the book store. It was possible to talk about the new book I read and loved for about a month or more but when At the Scent of Water and Not a Sparrow Falls were not on the shelf anymore, I had to find some other books to talk about at work. I’m not a very fast reader, so discovering the next new book was a challenge. Would I get the book read before it disappeared from the shelf? How long do books live on a book shelf? The shelf life of a book was a mystery to me and still is.

I was whining to my husband Fred about my problem. How can I get the word out about great books for a very long period of time??? Being a man who likes to face challenges head we began to talk about how we could do this and the fact that I can’t read books fast enough to keep up with it’s shelf life at the store.

I also told him, as a book-club leader, I wanted to promote great books and share them with other groups. Not everyone has the advantage of working at a book store and see what new books hit the shelves each week. Another struggle I had was, if I had an author speaking at my book club, I wanted to share them with other book clubs in the area. How could I do that? Where are book clubs meeting?

Our answer to many of these questions and more was the birth of The Book Club Network - TBCN. Connecting authors to book clubs and readers to their books; it’s also a network of book clubs, as they post what they’ve read and how the meeting turned out.

It’s a place to find where a book club is located. We have a member map where you can find a book club near you. Message them and see if they are accepting new members. I envision it to be similar to be similar to the Weight Watchers program (don’t laugh J) you can go to a meeting anywhere in the country right? All you have to do is look on line and get connected. This is my hope for the future of TBCN.

Have there been any surprises for you at TBCN, anything serendipities? What benefits have you seen by bringing readers and authors together?

I’ve been encouraged and fascinated by our growth. I can see there were other people out there like me, wanting to connect with other book club members.

I’ll tell you what has surprised me is the author/reader interaction each month. This is something I didn’t foresee as I’ve watch the authors having a blast interacting with the readers and visa-versa. The beauty of this discussion is it’s there forever for all to read no matter when you join TBCN.

The authors have done a great job coming up with questions for reader to answer that give them a peek into their book – create interest and then the discussion helps book club leaders connect with the author. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of authors that want to be featured at The Book Club Network. It’s been a great thing.

The interaction with the authors is almost like having a book club meeting on line. It’s a huge benefit for both the authors who’ve wanted to ask clubs questions and readers who want to get to know authors. The authors are catching on. Our sponsors have loved the interaction as well. Members have told me that they love the author interaction from the 19th-21st as much as having a chance to win all these books. It’s hard to know if a book will be a fit for your group so these interaction times are helpful for that and so much more. Another thing I love about TBCN members is the fact they are not afraid to share what they think in a good way. I’ve learned so much and laughed out loud in some discussion where the questions lead to sharing funny moments.

My hope is that book club leaders and/or members participate in the discussions and make that book connection with the author and their book. I want TBCN to be a tool for them in picking out their books. Maybe invite the author to speak to their book club on the phone. It’s my hope. The discussion will be there forever. No worries about a books shelf live here atTBCN. So, everyone has time to get to know each other!! It’s a beautiful thing!

How can readers join in the anniversary celebrations?

It’s easy to sign up to be a member of TBCN. We ask a few questions for you to answer and for other information that helps us keep spammers and other information seekers out of the network. It’s also FREE. You have opportunities to win lots of books. For our BIRTHDAY BASH we are giving away 10 books a day and announcing winners once a week. You’ll have all week to enter the daily featured contests.

Do you have any other comments for my readers?

If you are avid reader this is the place for you to learn about the latest in Christian Fiction and interact with the author each month.

Are you a book club leader? Well this is the place for you to find your next book club pick. We’d also love for you to set up your book-club page at our site for others to see. It’s a place to share your latest featured book. Post pictures of your club and the field trips you’ve taken, the authors you’ve met and the book fun you’ve had. Learn from other book clubs that have already set up their pages.

Want to start a book club but felt it was too overwhelming? You can learn from other experienced book-club leaders, and you can start right away making your book club list!

Do you like to win books? This is the place for you. You’ll have a chance to get to know the authors and their books and read genre’s you normally wouldn’t. We’ve been giving away about 100 books a month, and for our birthday bash it’s going to be 10 books every day, starting August first. Winners are picked and announced weekly.

Thanks, Nora. You've got a great thing going and I'm excited about the future of TBCN.

THANK YOU! You’ve been a grand host to have me here and let me talk about The Book Club Network and our Birthday Bash!! I hope to see you there at TBCN www.bookfun.org

You are a Blessing!!

Nora :o)
The Book Club Network CEO
Well, that pretty much says it all.  Please take a look at www.bookfun.org and check out the doings!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dragon Wall, by Millie Samuelson (Stone Light Books)

If I had a heritage like Millie Samuelson's, I'd entrust its novelization to her.  What a legacy, and how equally great its preservation in Dragon Wall: A Great Wall Novel.

Those of you who had the pleasure of reading Ms. Samuelson's Hungry River will not want to miss its sequel.  A poignant, personal, and illuminating account of a slice of history so underrepresented in America, Dragon Wall takes us to early 20th-century China, through World War II and into the communist era under Chairman Mao.  All this through the eyes of Christian missionaries who labored tirelessly through persecution and personal loss to bring hope to the masses bombed by the Japanese and exploited by the communists.

What qualifies her to write such a tale?  She was there; indeed, she has written herself into the story as one of the fictional characters.  What a neat approach!  As in Hungry River, she punctuates her historical narrative with modern diary entries that provide a touching modern perspective in hindsight of the events she witnessed herself, the era she lived through, and the lives of those close to her who lived through it with her.  Juxtaposed with the thoughts and words of her alter-ego character, whose outlook is fresh and unvarnished by life experience, Millie's thoughtful retrospection through the journal enhances the reader's journey through a turbulent period of the last century in a country now just coming into its own.

For the historical enthusiast who enjoys the personal touch an author who lived and loved the story she writes brings, you have a winner in Dragon Wall.