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review 2019-12-14 19:43
Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen & Bruce Coville
Armageddon Summer - Jane Yolen

 

 

The world will end on Thursday, July 27, 2000. At least, that's what Reverend Beelson has told his congregation. Marina's mom believes him. So does Jed's dad. That's why they drag Marina and Jed to join the reverend's flock at a mountain retreat. From the mountaintop they will all watch the Righteous Conflagration that will end this world--and then they will descend and begin the world anew. But this world has only just begun for Jed and Marina, two teenagers with more attitude than faith. Why should the world end now, when they've just fallen in love? Told in alternating chapters from both Jed's and Marina's points of view, this first-ever collaboration between two masters of children's literature is a story about faith and friendship, love and loss . . . and the things that matter most at the End of the World.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Reverend Beelson tells his congregation that the world will end on July 27, 2000. He explains that 144 people will be "the chosen", the ones spared to rebuild the world, everyone else will die. Two members of the church --- Marina's mom and Jed's dad --- believe this so strongly that they are happy to relocate their families to the secret mountain retreat Beelson has set up for his followers. The reverend has everyone follow him up to a portion of state park that sits above their city in Massachusetts. They dub the area "Armageddon City". Beelson orders that the all educating will be done through monitored homeschooling and there will be no tolerance of drinking, drugs, caffeine or TV viewing. Not even consumption of chocolate is allowed.

 

Pure coincidence, I'm sure, *smirk*...the end of the world date just happens to be the same day Beelson's two week camping permit expires!

 

With all the violence, epidemics, and natural disasters running through the world, it's easy for the children to calmly follow their parents' lead at first. Marina wants to remain optimistic --- she can see some truth in her mother's beliefs -- but questions begin to flood her mind when she sees that the Beelsonite Believers mountain community actually ends up being a compound surrounded with barbed wire and electrified fencing, flanked by armed guards. Why does a "retreat" need a full patrol armed with automatic rifles?

 

JED >> You wouldn't think having a two-day lead would be that big a deal. But it was enough to give the people in the First Wave --- the Ten Families, they called themselves --- a major case of Attitude. Those of us in the Third Wave did get to look down on the people who came the next day, but by that time the major ego points had already been distributed. Besides, it was hardly worth the bother, since only eight people showed up on Day Four. Those eight meant there were 121 of us in all. I know because the Believers had put up a signboard where they kept track of how many people were on the mountain. I wasn't quite clear, yet, on whether we were worried about actually being able to get the full 144, or nervous about exceeding the limit. I also wondered what it would do to their math if I told them I didn't really believe. Would I only count as a fraction? Or even a minus number?

 

Marina and Jed eventually come together in mutual concern and skepticism over the whole situation, though many of their meet-ups have to be done somewhat in secret, since Marina's mother, Myrna, seems suspicious of any males hanging around her daughter, but especially has a sharp eagle eye on Jed. He gets a severe tongue-lashing one day when the two teens are seen just having a quiet, perfectly civil and platonic conversation!

 

But at the same time, Myrna herself becomes increasingly consumed with trying to catch the eye of the reverend. Over time, Myrna becomes a mother Marina doesn't recognize. When Marina's baby brother, Leo, comes down with a sickness that leaves him with feverish skin and diarrhea, it progresses enough for Beelson to give permission for a doctor "down mountain" to be brought in. Even after the doctor examines Leo and determines the kid has a severe case of dehydration requiring hospitalization, Beelson insists the boy cannot leave, treatment will have to come to him.

 

Jed, who has taken to calling the compound "Wicky Wacky LastChance, headed up by Rev. Beetlebutt", 100% believes his father has gone off the deep end, but agrees to move with him to Armageddon City only to ensure that his father remains safe until sanity is restored within the community. Even other children in the community take to giving silly names to things to show they are not entirely on board with Beelson's beliefs, but being dependents of their parents, they have no choice but to ride this craziness out. Chapters featuring alternating voices show kids describing the emotional shifts & rifts that begin to develop in these individual families as little by little more and more of the congregation begin to doubt the truth of Beelson's prophecy.

 

Yolen teamed up with Bruce Coville back in 1998 to write this piece of apocalyptic fiction. Being this many years out from Y2K, it may be a little quaint reading this type of story now. But time period aside, it still has power in the fact that there are still groups like the Beelsonites out there in the world today. Small though they may be, these groups and this type of mentality are still very much alive in pockets of the world. As violence, depression and a general sense of being lost in this world continue to be on the rise, there are still those Beelson-types out there who will happily swoop in and feed on the fears of the easily impressionable to create communities similar to the one described in this novel. Unsettling as that is, Yolen and Coville graciously incorporate humor here and there to infuse the heavier themes with a little levity now and then. They also do the reader the service of ending on a high note, with the idea that it's never too late to turn things around and rebuild.

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review 2019-11-21 17:42
All In by L.K. Simonds
All In - L.K. Simonds

Twenty-nine-year-old novelist and blackjack dealer Cami Taylor seems to have it all—but just underneath her confident exterior and newfound celebrity is a young woman in trouble. Cami’s boyfriend, Joel, wants to get married, buy a house on Long Island, and raise a family—a life that’s a million miles from Cami’s idea of happiness. Her therapist suggests compromise and trust, but Cami would rather bolt like a deer. Breaking things off with Joel, Cami launches herself on a new quest for happiness. But her pursuit of pleasure only takes her further from herself—and toward a harrowing new reality unlike anything she’s faced before.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

In her debut novel, L.K. Simonds introduces us to main character Cami (Camille) Taylor, who, on the cusp of thirty in the late 90s, has found professional success over the years as a blackjack dealer and published author with one best seller already under her belt. Cami's Long Island boyfriend, Joel, is more than ready to marry her and settle into domestic bliss; his only frustration with her is the emotional wall she tends to have up, blocking them from ever reaching that deepest level of emotional intimacy.

 

Cami's not even sure she wants to go as far as marriage. She's always valued her independence far too much. But she does love Joel, so she makes an attempt to work on her emotional wall by going to therapy. In the beginning, she hopes the gesture will appease him, but it soon becomes clear that her heart isn't in the therapy process at this stage in her life. Joel and Cami come to accept they just want different things in life and the nearly two year union quietly dissolves.

 

While splitting up felt like the right move, it still hurts to lose someone whose presence you've gotten so used to. She tries to dip her toe back into the dating world but the pickins' ain't great out there. Even when she thinks she's scored a maybe, things turn sour one night when he mentions his girlfriend, followed by "You didn't ask." UGH. It'd be super cool if it could just be an understood rule all the way around that if you're already in a relationship YOU DON'T GO FISHING FOR ANOTHER.

 

This little talk does wonders for Cami's already fragile mental state and she gets to reflecting on her former life, working casinos back in New Mexico as Leona Lingo (her birth name). She thought she'd finished with that era of her life, but feeling herself heading towards a dark headspace in NYC, she figures a trip back to her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona might not be such a bad idea. But "going home" just ends up being a safe space to binge on vices. By this point in the story I was reminded a little of that Charlize Theron movie, Young Adult.

 

Note: the mention of casino life does not factor largely into this story except through some of Cami's referenced memories.

 

More of the same isn't going to be enough. I can see that now. When I think about it, I realize it isn't strange at all to need new goals after having reached all the old ones. I should've seen this coming. I'm doing okay, professionally, and now I need to concentrate on feeding my soul. Just as soon as I figure out what exactly my soul needs.

 

Eventually Cami works her way back to NYC, where she has an unexpected introduction to distant relative Kate Davis. After a day spent getting to know each other, Kate invites Cami to a family reunion being held in Texas. This ends up being the start of a legit growing family bond between the ladies that will serve Cami well later in the story when she'll need all the support she can get after receiving some life-altering news.

 

Cami's main motivation for going to new places or meeting new people often seems to fall to "well, it'll be great material for the next novel." Though she's rarely in it to make new friends or grab life by the horns, she still grudgingly puts herself out there time and again. By doing so, life shows her (and through her experiences, the reader) that if one is willing to embrace experiences even halfway openly, the takeaway can be so much more than ever imagined. It's no different when Cami takes on Texas (even if she's inwardly laughing to herself about just how out of her environment she truly is). I did find it a little weird, though, her being flirty with Jake. Yeah, he's a distant cousin... but, still. Should be a pretty standard rule: don't hit on people at a family reunion!

 

Throughout the entire story, it's alluded to that there might be something off with Cami's health, but she drags her feet getting herself checked out. Finally, after a bout of sickness that scares her enough to finally make an appointment... the diagnosis the doctor comes back with... wow, I was not expecting the story to go that direction at all! Virtually nothing hints at it, save for maybe one scene. The reality check leaves atheist Cami pondering on God, life, all the big questions.

 

Cami as a character, well, she can be a tough one to bond with because she often reads emotionally flat. It makes sense, that's part of the character flaw in her that sort of sets her on this whole path. Still, it can make for frustrating reading when she comes off as so emotionless. But I don't think it's a matter of her being devoid of feeling, but more her being afraid to feel. Life experiences, the world at large... it's all left her with a lot of disappointment. You go through enough of that for long enough, you get to where it seems like the easier path to just numb your heart to any more stabs. As far as other characters, it seemed like each one has a quality to them that'll have you saying YES! I know someone exactly like that! So, bravo to Simonds on wonderful attention to character detail!

 

There is an understated lyrical quality to Simond's writing style that I ended up quite liking. It took me a little time to really get into this plot... but I'll admit I wasn't in the best mood the day I decided to start this one. Initially, I wasn't sure I was going to like Cami, but, if I'm being honest, it might've been because I was seeing more of myself in her than I liked LOL, some of the sides of me I'm not so proud of. But like Cami, I'm working on them in my own time and I'll get there, eventually.

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: BookCrash.com & author L.K. Simonds kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 
 
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review 2019-11-05 10:22
Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry
Becoming Mrs. Lewis - Patti Callahan Henry

 

In a most improbable friendship, she found love. In a world where women were silenced, she found her voice.  From New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan comes an exquisite novel of Joy Davidman, the woman C. S. Lewis called “my whole world.” When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy. 
In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.  At once a fascinating historical novel and a glimpse into a writer’s life, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.
Amazon.com
 

 

 

As the title hints, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a fictionalized look at the life of Joy Davidman, the woman who would eventually become the one and only wife of author C.S. Lewis, largely known for his beloved Chronicles of Narnia series. While the prologue briefly dips into Joy's childhood in the 1920s, the bulk of the story runs throughout the 1950s, finishing in 1960, the year of Joy's death. Her death would sadly inspire another classic work of Lewis', A Grief Observed, chronicling his mourning period. But let's focus more on how this unique bond came to be.

Callahan's story, as it pertains to C.S. Lewis (known as "Jack" by close friends), opens in 1950. At that time, Joy is Joy Davidman Gresham; her husband, Bill Gresham, also a writer (Lewis was Joy's second husband). The story informs the reader that for years Joy has been struggling with her husband's alcoholism and philandering ways. But she does her best to stick things out for her sons. She also admits that during this first marriage she considered herself an atheist, until one night when her husband wouldn't come home, called home hinting that he was having suicidal thoughts. In desperation, Joy falls to her knees in prayer, not entirely convinced it will do anything but just needing to latch onto some shred of hope. In a moment that spans less than a minute but also feels like ages, Joy is convinced she's having a connection with the Holy Spirit. For the next three years, she seeks out every book she can get her hands on to try to find answers to what she experienced. Her newfound passion for theology brings Lewis' works into her hands. Nothing gives her peace like his non-fiction essays on philosophy and religion. She particularly moved by The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

By this time, the Greshams are still struggling to regain a healthy marriage, so Joy decides to write to Lewis to ask his advice on some of the questions plaguing her. She's ecstatic when she receives a reply back! So starts a friendship in letters, because it turns out there's a comfort in Joy's letters that Lewis didn't realize he so strongly needed. Joy being a poet and novelist herself, as well as having some theological pieces of her own recently published... well,the two can't deny they might have stumbled upon kindred spirits within each other.

This correspondence carries on over the course of years, Lewis in England, Joy in The States. Lewis makes several offers for Joy to come visit him and his brother at The Kilns, their personal residence. Having struggled with health problems all her life --- low thyroid, lung and kidney infections, chronic fatigue --- her body eventually declines to the point where Joy feels an escape to England might be just the thing to turn her health right. With her physical troubles being worsened with her stressing over her books not selling as well as she'd like and the arrival of her cousin Renee, moving in with two more kids in tow, Joy increasingly feels more sure that England is the place to take a breather from everything, focus on her health and work on finishing some writing projects that will bring in some much needed money for the family. So England also becomes a quiet "research trip" for her WIP novel about King Charles II.

While Joy doesn't stay with Lewis on those early trips to The Kilns (she's still a married woman for most of the book, after all), she does visit with the Lewis brothers quite often. It becomes pretty evident, the longer one reads into the story, that the Gresham union is largely being held by a sense of duty and history rather than much remaining love and friendship. They might have pet names for each other, but Bill Gresham (in this story) often speaks to Joy with a thinly veiled demeaning, patronizing tone to his words. Though she's a published author with a number of professional accolades (Callahan's historical note at the end points out that the real Joy graduated college at 15!), he still insists on going about as if HER writing is a hobby, his work the real breadwinning stuff. When Joy and Jack first speak, right from the get-go she has an instant sense of being valued and acknowledged. Even just as friends, Lewis is constantly praising Joy's work and values her opinion as an industry colleague. When Lewis says to Joy, "Our friendship is big enough even for the sorrows." --- that's a HUGE statement!

The connection works great as long as it doesn't go beyond the boundaries of strictly friendship --- philia, as Lewis refers to it. That's not to say they both don't feel more. Both are definitely aware of intensified feelings as the years pass. But there's plenty working against them, in Lewis' mind. He doesn't love Joy's confession about her meeting and getting involved with Bill when he was still with his first wife, but Lewis can brush that off as a "I didn't know you then" moment. But even after Joy's divorce from Bill is finalized, Lewis still hesitates to have ANY bodily contact with Joy, not so much as a brush on the arm most days, because now she is a divorcee, which is frowned upon in Lewis' church. They eventually find a way through these confusing feelings, the turnaround largely brought about by Joy's cancer diagnosis shortly after she and Lewis decide to marry (the first time around, it was essentially a green card marriage, solidified later with a second ceremony).

This does seem to be one of those stories you have to dedicate some time to --- there's a lot of themes covered and it doesn't always move terribly fast, but I was never bored! The early chapters hit the heavy topics early on: the prologue briefly referencing child abuse, the first chapters past that bringing up alcoholism, PTSD, abuse, suicidal tendencies... spouses who have these things and the spouses caring for them. Early in Part 3 there is also a scene of spousal abuse when Joy confronts Bill once and for all about his infidelities and he attacks her for it.

While the topics of philosophy and religion, references to Lewis' nonfiction Christian essay collections, etc do get somewhat heavy at times, much of the story is more about the various roles and difficulties a woman has to navigate throughout the course of her life. Much of Joy's story seems to be a woman's 30+ year journey towards addressing "daddy issues", as some might call it these days. There's a father she works so hard to please, but who is so quick to backhand her over a B on a report card, of all things! In that moment, something breaks in her and her path from that point on becomes an obsessive drive to prove to everyone that she is worthy of love and admiration. Her story is also one of a woman's aggravating struggle to be taken seriously by the medical community. Every complaint she takes into a doctor's office --- nausea, fatigue, leg pains, heart palpitations --- is regularly dismissed as rheumatism, middle age, "lady troubles".... until the day she loses the ability to walk and a doctor says her body is riddled with cancer that's probably been growing in her for at least seven years!

Those of you drawn to this book for the sheer "bookish" aspect, Callahan delivers on that front as well. You'll see plenty of literary figures pop into the story, from Lewis's good buddy JRR Tolkien... he wrote something people are always raving on about, what was that.... :-P .... mention of Joy having lunch with P.L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins stories), has a doctor consultation with a doctor who happens to be Graham Greene's brother... there's even a funny discussion where Joy is having a chat with friend Dorothy Heyward, whose husband wrote the book Porgy & Bess that was later turned into the famous stage production. Dorothy mentions how she did much of the work on the stage adaptation but for a time her contributions went largely uncredited. The fact itself -- not exactly laughable --- but the ladies have a little commiserating chuckle about their similar circumstances when Joy is at a particularly low point.

In the end, Joy's story made me that much more grateful to be in a solid relationship these days, deeply rooted in honest friendship. Having been on the other end of the spectrum myself --- having experienced a previously unhealthy cohabitation like Joy did --- I can tell you it makes all the difference to one's soul to find a centered sense of being within a cozy, supportive relationship where your partner doesn't guilt trip you for health issues beyond your control or accuse you of being lazy or self-indulgent when you have days where the energy just isn't there no matter how hard you try, someone who encourages your passions and professional pursuits, rather than feel threatened by them.

I'll close on saying that Callahan was also successful in not only motivating me to pick up some of these still-unread copies of Lewis' essays parked on my shelves but also in checking out Joy's works, which I'll admit, I was largely unacquainted with prior to diving into this story.

* Discussion guide included in the hardback edition

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.
 

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review 2019-11-05 10:11
A Stranger at Fellsworth (Treasures of Surrey #3) by Sarah E. Ladd
A Stranger at Fellsworth (A Treasures of Surrey Novel) - Sarah E. Ladd

In the fallout of her deceased father’s financial ruin, Annabelle’s prospects are looking bleak. Her fiancé has called off their betrothal, and now she remains at the mercy of her controlling and often cruel brother. Annabelle soon faces the fact that her only hope for a better life is to do the unthinkable and run away to Fellsworth, where her estranged uncle serves as the school’s superintendent. Upon arrival, Annabelle learns that she must shed her life of high society and work for her wages for the first time. Owen Locke is unswerving in his commitments. As a widower and father, he is fiercely protective of his only daughter. As an industrious gamekeeper, he is intent on keeping poachers at bay even though his ambition has always been to purchase land he can call his own. When a chance encounter introduces him to Annabelle Thorley, his steady life is shaken. For the first time since his wife’s death, Owen begins to consider a second chance at love. As Owen and Annabelle grow closer, ominous forces threaten the peace they thought they’d found.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Annabelle Thorley's once well-off family fell into financial ruin not long ago due to her father's involvement in an embezzling scheme. Shortly thereafter, Annabelle's father dies and her fiance breaks off their engagement. The fates of the Thorley estate and Annabelle's future now in the hands of her cold-hearted brother, our leading lady fears she'll soon face being muscled into an unsavory marital "understanding" with the odious, elderly (but wealthy) Cecil Bartwell. 

 

When an evening's festivities turn violent, a frightened Annabelle (after being struck in the face by her brother for refusing Bartwell's advances) makes the choice to flee to Fellsworth school where her uncle, long estranged from the family, serves as superintendent. Escorting her on her journey is widower father Owen Locke, a gamekeeper for the estate of Stephen Treadwell. Locke and Treadwell had attended the same party as the Thorleys that night. Having spoken with him earlier, Annabelle felt a certain level of safety and comfort around Owen, enough to request his assistance in ordering her a carriage to take her to Fellsworth. As it turns out, Locke is good friends with her uncle, so he decides to join her on her journey to ensure no more harm comes her way. Also in attendance is Annabelle's lady's maid, Margaret Crosley. 

 

Once at Fellsworth, Annabelle does a quick catch-up with this uncle she's only met one other time in her life (as a little girl) and then gives him a rundown of the events that led to her suddenly arriving on his doorstep. Thankfully, her uncle is kind and understanding, even offering her a teaching position at the school so she may have means to restart her life. He also offers Crosley a position in the school's kitchen (since, as a teacher now, Annabelle would have no need for someone to formally dress her). While grateful for the opportunity, Annabelle does struggle with the transition of a life of servants and luxury to being working class herself. But she dedicates herself to earnestly learning the ropes and soon has the admiration and respect of most anyone she meets (with the exception of a few sour characters). Meanwhile, Owen spends much of the story on or around the grounds of Fellsworth --- where his daughter attends school --- doing his gamekeeping work, made more challenging after being tasked to locate and break up a suspected poaching operation. Owen is looking to purchase Kirtley Meadow estate for himself and his daughter, and tracking down the criminals in this case could be the key to him finally nailing down ownership of the place. 

 

As with Dawn at Emberwilde (Treasures of Surrey #2), the plot in A Stranger at Fellsworth also involves suspected criminal activity going down under the cover of forest. Much of the novel proves to be a sweet if rather safe kind of story. It's pretty evident early on who the "bad guys" are going to be. It's also the standard, glowy Christian Fiction historical romance which means you can pretty much count on things ending on a HEA with MCs. Even so, the characterizations are done well for the most part, the relationships (and the history there) decently thought out and entertaining. Though, as you might expect with a novel of this type, there's only minimal interaction between our male and female MCs before the reader is struck, suddenly and unrealistically, with exchanged confessions of deep love right before story's close.

 

There was one point in the story where one character describes the details of a situation / relationship as "perfectly adequate", which is kind of the feeling I was left with after finishing this closing book to this series. Overall, it was, truthfully, "perfectly adequate".... it's just a shame that the mystery / tension portions of the plot came out so underdeveloped. 

 

** Discussion Questions guide provided in the paperback edition

 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2019-10-24 16:28
Dawn at Emberwilde (Treasures of Surrey #2) by Sarah E. Ladd
Dawn at Emberwilde (A Treasures of Surrey Novel) - Sarah E. Ladd

In Regency England, Isabel will discover that the key to unlocking the mystery of her past may also open the door to romance. But first she must find it—in the depths of Emberwilde Forest. For as long as she can remember, beautiful and free-spirited Isabel has strained against the rules and rigidity of the Fellsworth School in the rolling English countryside. No longer a student, Isabel set her sights on a steady role as a teacher at the school, a safe yet stifling establishment that would enable her to care for her younger sister Lizzie, who was left in her care after her father’s death. The unexpected arrival of a stranger with news of unknown relatives turns Isabel’s small, predictable world upside down, sweeping her and her young charge into a labyrinth of intrigue and hidden motives. At her new family’s invitation, Isabel and Lizzie relocate to Emberwilde, a sprawling estate adjacent to a vast, mysterious wood rife with rumors and ominous folklore—along with whispers of something far more sinister. Perhaps even more startling, two handsome men begin pursuing Isabel, forcing her to learn the delicate dance between attraction, the intricate rules of courtship, and the hopes of her heart. Isabel never dared to dream that love could be hers. Now, at the edge of a forest filled with dark secrets, she faces a fateful choice between love and duty.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Isabel, a former student at the Fellsworth School, now wants to set herself up for a long teaching career there so that she might comfortably provide for her half-sister, Lizzie (different mothers). With both their parents gone, Isabel is now Lizzie's appointed guardian. Just as Isabel is trying to recommend herself for a long-term teaching position, she receives a letter from a previously unknown aunt, inviting Isabel to come and live at Emberwilde, the family estate. 

 

This aunt, Margaret Ellison, does write in her letter that Isabel is welcome "whatever the circumstances" (of her present situation). Isabel presumes this means that Lizzie is also welcome. Though Aunt Margaret is noticeably taken aback by the surprise addition of Lizzie, she stays true to her word and lets both girls settle in to their new rooms at Emberwilde. Margaret's daughter, Constance, is actually thrilled to have the extra companionship!

 

Isabel quickly notices that the Ellisons -- Margaret and her husband, Charles --- appear to be the epitome of privileged; meanwhile Isabel and Lizzie arrived to the house with little more than the two dresses each Fellsworth school supplied them. The girls are expected to swiftly turn themselves into ladies of high standing, but they've been working the worker bee life so long it's difficult to shake the instinct to make oneself useful. 

 

While trying to find a sense of balance in this new world, Isabel attracts the eye of two potential suitors: First there's Mr. Bradford, one of the escorts on her trip to Emberwilde Hall and the superintendent of the orphanage sponsored by the Ellisons; his competition is lawman Colin Galloway. Serious in temperment, Galloway is also a respected land owner in his own right, being the owner of Darbenton Court. Due to a devastating fire years before that killed his parents and all his siblings, Galloway lives the low-profile life in a boarding house while he builds up the funds to renovate the family estate. For some time now, Charles Ellison has been urging Galloway to take a wife and reclaim the life and title he was destined to have. These pleas were largely falling on deaf ears until the day he first spots Isabel. Galloway and Bradford have actually known each other since boyhood and Galloway is quite familiar with some of the less impressive pieces of Bradford's character. Knowing what he knows pushes Colin to keep Isabel's whereabouts on his radar at all times. 

 

Lots of mystery, secrets and scandals worked into this plot!

 

*How long before word gets out that the Ellisons are living beyond their means and Charles is struggling to "keep the lights on" (in early 1800s terms, that is)?

 

*Emberwilde Forest --- legend has it that the woods behind the estate are swarming with the ghosts of gypsies killed in a skirmish when previous generations of Ellisons tried to drive them out.... but is the forest truly haunted or are the stories just a front criminals continue to perpetuate to keep a lid on their illegal activities going down out there?

 

* Galloway seems like a good dude, but MAN, does Mrs. Ellison have a beef with him! It seems she blames Colin for the death of her eldest son, when the guys went off to war together, Colin returning home but not the son. Now Mrs. Ellison uses this history and her bitterness to justify forbiding Isabel to associate with him.... will they ever get around this? (You know hearts will find a way!)

 

While maybe not ALWAYS the most exciting story, it is sweet and infused with enough innocent mystery to make this a lovely, easy read. Ladd builds enough doubt around Bradford's character to keep one wondering for most of the story and Galloway certainly has a degree of swoon-worthiness to his quiet, steady self. There's also throwback elements here and there to classic Gothic and Regency lit... a touch of Wuthering Heights, what with our MC finding a chance to rise above orphanage background. Also, in terms of the romance triangle --- there's flashes of Gaston vs The Beast or even Wickham vs Darcy (from Austen's Pride and Prejudice), one could argue.

 

While all the books in this series are set in Surrey. England in the early 1800s or so, there's not too much else linking the characters between the books (not so far as I can see, anyway), so these can easily be enjoyed as stand-alone novels.

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

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