I enjoyed this author’s portrayal of the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign. I must confess I am quite ignorant of the details included in her story; the difficulties within family relationships and the influence that Sir John Conroy (unsuccessfully) sought, and Lord Melbourne won.

This book was fast moving for me and piqued my interest in the time period and Queen Victoria herself. I didn’t realize how young Victoria was when she initially came to the throne. Her governess, Baroness Lehzen, helped to steer her but being German herself, did not totally comprehend the details of Parliament and duties of the monarchy. Victoria must learn quickly, and she did become adept at judging motives and procedures, although not without making some errors in judgment.

When her most trusted advisor Lord Melbourne resigns, the Queen must appoint a new prime minister. The Duke of Wellington himself has advice for her:

“If I might say so, ma’am, I think you will find Sir Robert to be a most able fellow … You may not want him, but the country needs Peel.”

Victoria resumed her pacing. Everything she had heard about Sir Robert Peel suggested that he would not be at all congenial.   Emma Portman had told her that he had no greater vice than calculus and disapproved of waltzing. How was she expected to be comfortable with a man who took no pleasure in life?”

My only regret is that I read the book after watching the television series. The dramatized version is close to a word-for-word rendition of the author’s writing.

Goodwin creates realistic, believable characters during the height of England’s international supremacy. I am looking forward to reading biographies about this admirable Queen now, due to Daisy Goodwin’s skill.

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The Summer of the Barshinskeys

The Summer of the Barshinskeys

When the Barshinkeys, a Russian emigrant family, move into the small English village where Sophie Willoughby lives, life begins to change for her family.

“I still do not really understand what drew the Barshinskeys to us and even stranger, what drew us to the Barshinskeys. They were little better than tinkers, we were ‘peasant gentry.’ They were poor, dirty, but free; we were well fed, comfortable but confined tightly within our barriers of respectability. Sometimes I think our fascination for one another began because of that particular summer – I look back and remember everything bathed in a golden haze, and it is not just the magic memory of childhood that makes it so. I have spoken to old men and women about that summer of 1902, and it was a good summer, a strange one, when wild geese flew across the skies every evening, when there were bumper cops of wild strawberries…”

The story takes us through Sophie Willoughby’s growing up years but changes perspective with the characters of Edwin, her brother, and Daisy May, the more stable member of the Barshinskey family. As war begins and then the Russian revolution, the changing fortunes of each family member comes into play and the author does a great job of involving the reader into the hardships and triumphs of the characters.

Edwin is on the road to success and following his dream of becoming a train engineer when suddenly he jettisons everything to pursue an infatuation with Galina, Daisy’s unstable, unpredictable sister. Offered a position on a steamship, he berates himself at first but then finds strength and hope as he considers the end result of his drastic choice:

“He would survive the stokehold – of course he would survive. He was young and strong and if he pulled himself together and stopped wallowing in self-pity he could achieve whatever he wanted. It was a hard work, hideous work, yes, and he was condemned to loneliness because he was ‘different’ from his fellow stokers. But did that matter? Wasn’t it much better that he should be apart from them, free to follow his own pursuits, to see Galina whenever he could? And in his mood of rising hope and determination he knew he would do whatever he had to, follow whatever path was necessary to continue seeing Galina…”

Throughout this sad story, Edwin has this hope that his love is going to change Galina. Hope on, hope ever… sometimes just simple faithfulness, perseverance and goodness *can* evoke change. But there are also instances where it does not. Human nature is not a toy, a plaything we can manipulate like dolls into behaving according to our wants and wishes. Life has a way of interfering with the most carefully thought out plans, and in this novel, a world war and revolutionary upheaval is going to have a radical effect on all of Edwin’s plans.

“The Summer of the Barshinskeys” was a long, emotion-building epic that kept me reading, even though there are many sad situations and hardships portrayed. We hope, so hope, with Edwin that Daisy’s sister Galina will mature and cast aside her promiscuous and self-centered behavior. Is there hope for Galina to become all that Edwin dreams of? We cheer Daisy May as she ventures into unknown territory, the vast land of Russia, seeking to rescue Edwin and Galina caught within the throes of suspicion and the Russian revolution. We suffer along with Sophie when Ivan is drawn to her older sister and doesn’t seem to notice her.

There are times when the author’s lyrical writing carries the reader into a place and time that is forever gone, and conversely there are moments when we want to take a character by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into them. What a story! A story of a lost England and the effects of war on two vastly different families that intertwine throughout the years of a turbulent period in Europe’s history.


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The Scarlet Thread

The Scarlet Thread

I picked up this book off my shelf and thoroughly enjoyed the re-read as it’s been a few years and I’d forgotten much of it.

Not an easy novel to classify, “The Scarlet Thread” is part contemporary, part Christian, and part historical fiction with two story lines. Much of the book is taken up with the story of Sierra Madrid, the contemporary character whose marriage is struggling. When her mother gifts her with a journal from one of her ancestors, Sierra realizes that her problems are not new ones and that there is a way back. This ambitious novel takes the reader back into the years of Westward Expansion when settlers were offered free land to settle Oregon.

I remember reading this book and feeling that the author had given too much slack to Sierra’s husband, Alex, but this time around, I was able to get more out of the story and the author’s attempts to ‘humanize’ the characters’ motives. Both times I read it, I loved it. I love historical fiction regardless, and the author did a wonderful job of making the struggles along the pioneer trail real to the reader.

“James found a carved bed and chopped it up for fuel. I could not help but wonder who slept in it. It was such a grand headboard with leaves and vines. What a shame to burn such a costly thing, but we have to eat and need a fire to cook over.”

This is not a ‘everything always turns out roses’ kind of Christian fiction; rather, it addresses the very real problems and dilemmas present in life, whether in the early 1800’s or currently for today. We are still confronted with illness, personal safety, wrong choices, selfish disregard for others, conflicts within family relationships, and the list goes on. The author never glosses over these issues, nor does she pretend to instruct the reader, but lets her characters live out the consequences of the decisions they make. Both Sierra and her husband Alex have choices to make; some are regrettable and destructive to the stability of their lives and others are understandable. The reader is caught up in both their story and the story of Mary Kathryn, Sierra’s relative who has much to endure in her own life, and this novel is a definite page turner as both characters struggle to make sense of their world.

“Aunt Martha kissed me and took off her cross necklace and put it on me. It is the pretty one with amethyst stones I admired when I first come to Galena after my father cast me out. She has worn it every day of her life since her papa give it to her on her fourteenth birthday. She said – I want you to have it in memory of me. Let it remind you I am praying for you every day. She said – God is with you, Mary Kathryn Farr, and don’t you ever forget it.
I was not comforted.”

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A Vicarage Family

A Vicarage family: A biography of myself

‘A Vicarage Family’ left me with mixed feelings. Best classified as autobiographical fiction, this is Noel Streatfeild’s story with some embellishments, as the author couldn’t possibly know the inner thoughts of her schoolteachers and household staff. However I found it a fast read and I was quickly caught up in Victoria’s plight.

The middle child of a poor vicar’s family, Vicky is forever making resolutions to improve herself and forever failing to keep them. Her older sister Isobel is a gifted artist and every attempt is made to encourage her artistic talent. Victoria’s younger sister, Louise, beautiful and spoiled, is comfortably predicted for an early marriage and lots of children. The only person who seems sympathetic to Vicky’s feelings of being ‘left out’ are her cousin John who visits and stays with the family on holidays.

Vicky has a lively and creative nature and is forever seeming to land herself ‘in the soup’. Expelled from her grammar school, she is transferred to another girls’ school with hope of improving both her scholastic record and in her character.

There are poignant and entertaining anecdotes of this young family mixed with the stories of summer holidays that seem to be mostly endured due to incessant rain and lack of funds for entertainment. However, there are also bright spots like the Christmas holiday traditions:

“Their mother always decorated the tree and they were never allowed to see it until the candles were lit. That year the tree stood in the small annexe to the drawing-room – a perfect place, because there were curtains which could be drawn back when the tree was to be seen in all its glory. That year there were about fifteen waifs and strays, mostly women, all rather shy and sad while they drank tea and ate Victoria’s birthday – now the Christmas – cake.

When the tea was cleared, Annie and Hester joined the party, and soon everyone was circling the tree singing ‘The first Nowell’ and then ‘Good King Wenceslaus’, with John singing the King’s verses and Victoria the page’s. Then came the time to strip the tree. The majority of the parcels were for the family of course, but no one was allowed to feel left out, so there were plenty of little gifts for the guests.”

Vicky’s headmistress at her school despairs of her as do her teachers, but Victoria’s grandparents provide support and understanding just when she needs it most. The family cook Annie takes Victoria under her wing and champions her, even personally caring for her when the entire family suffers through an epidemic of influenza. Vicky finds she has a talent for writing and directing plays, but her attempts at self-improvement seem to her to be frustratingly slow. However by the end of the story Victoria finds that she has grown up, partly due to the harsh circumstances of the war.

I found that I wanted to continue on with the story and will be definitely looking for a copy of the next book in the series.

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The Edge

The Edge

Tor Kelsey, orphaned at a young age, was brought up by his aunt. His aunt loved to go to the racecourse, so Tor is very familiar with horses, racing, and has a wide, versatile knowledge of personalities. Although he is left a huge inheritance and will never have to be concerned about finances, he decides to take employment in security for the Jockey Club, and so the mystery begins.

If Tor seems a little mature and confident for his age, that is simply ‘par for the course’ in this Dick Francis novel. All of his heroes are bigger-than-life (although not offensive), assured, and have a variety of rare and admirable talents. Tor himself, rather than enjoying an affluent lifestyle, decides that in order to keep his integrity, he needs to keep himself busy. Tor wants to maintain his self-respect; a rare quality in the indulgent (“I have my rights!”) thinking of today.

“It isn’t so easy,” I said slowly, “and don’t laugh, it really isn’t so easy to be able to afford anything you want. Short of the Crown Jewels and trifles like that. Well… I don’t find it easy…I’m like a child loose in a sweet shop. I could eat and eat… and make myself sick… and greedy… and a jelly-fish. So I keep my hands off the sweets and occupy my time following crooks. “

Julius Filmer has already been acquitted in the murder of a stable boy, after threatening and deterring several witnesses for the prosecution. The Jockey Club has learned that Filmer has purchased tickets for the train through Canada that will be making several stops at racecourses along the way, and his purposes are deemed to be neither innocent nor virtuous.

“In the context of ten thousand years, I thought, what did Filmer and his sins matter? Yet all we had was here and now, and here and now was always where the struggle toward goodness had to be fought. Toward virtue, morality, uprightness, order: call it what one liked. A long, ever-recurring battle.”

Tor’s problem is to discover where Filmer is going to strike next, and so he is given the assignment of catching him ‘in the act’. The problem is that no one seems to know what that particular act will be, and Tor has to be both vigilant and ‘invisible’ to the passengers. Tor is a genius at finding creative solutions for blending into his environment and the reader is entertained by his quick-thinking and inventive disguises.

The plot is complicated with an entertainment-style staged mystery for the passengers, something that I did not always follow (to be honest), and at first felt superfluous. However the author demonstrates his clever plotting when further on in the book, Tor creatively uses the actors in the mystery-play to expose Filmer and bring him to justice (something I must admit caught me by surprise!)

Although not my favorite from the author so far, this novel was more low-key than others of his, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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If I Gained the World

If I Gained the World (Second Chances Collection, #4)

Lenore has a toddler-age son, Scott, and she is still waiting for Daniel, Scott’s father, to marry her. When she presses him and he hesitates too long, she decides she can no longer wait… and so she leaves. The amazing thing is that Daniel lets Lenore walk away with their son and does nothing about it.

Do such men exist? (oh yeah!) In this story, it’s going to be a long hard road for both of them. Lenore is suddenly left with the responsibility to find a new home, a job, and a way to take care of their young son. When she comes across a neighbor willing to help and he in turn points her to his church family, she is (understandably) cautious.

“Lenore raised her eyebrows. She had never known church people to be empathetic. Mostly they had seemed to want to get her to do something, be something, or believe something. None had been curious, at least about her.”

However, as Lenore tests the waters and begins to get her feet up under her, realizing she can survive with the help of these unknown well-meaning Christians, she begins to have hope once again: “Yesterday she had been lying in the bed, too sad to move, and here she was – employed, her dark apartment feeling more like a home, cupboards full, son happy and loved. She saw again how one thing could lead to another and how much could depend on just one person’s actions… She felt as if a life was being offered to her, held out in the same hand that had misted this evening, had set those mountains in place, had carved the channel for the bay beneath her.”

When Daniel reappears in her life, there is no quick all-is-well-lets-be-happy-now solution: “She wondered if forgiveness was more like peeling an onion than breaking an egg. That had been top-layer forgiveness. This would be deep forgiveness, boring down to the bedrock, to the taproot, to the core of who she was and what Daniel had done.”

Daniel has his own journey to make as he finds success, loses it, and finds it again. It took me a long time to empathise with Daniel Monroe’s character and understand his selfishness! It is obvious that Daniel’s life goals do not include simply a home and family, and he continually wants more. But as he begins to hit the reality of the baggage that ‘success’ brings, there is a lot for him to question. Daniel in desperation starts to question his motives, and he remembers his childhood growing up in a coal mining community. Could there be more to life than material possessions and the acclaim of a fickle crowd? “He lay there in the borrowed bed and thought of his uncle George, his cousins. The mundane work they did. The small acts of faithfulness they performed every day – getting up, going to work, coming home, playing with their children, listening to their stories, going to bed. Then getting up to do it again.”

As other reviewers have mentioned there are lots of references to Christianity, but this novel is done in a fresh, personal way, without seeming contrived or ‘preachy’. Rather, the author works through the lives of each character and their heart issues, probing, examining, and illustrating to the reader the real-life struggles that sometimes have no easy answers. Scott goes through a period of teen rebellion. Some of the characters struggle with substance abuse, promiscuity (not graphic), and life-threatening illnesses. And yet the author holds out that even in the midst of tragedy, there is hope.

Can it be possible that even our failures can be used and redeemed in our lives? “Too much of a coincidence to be believed, and yet it was exactly the way God worked. She had seen it happen again and again. He wove lives together and apart, bringing one home, taking one away, working His tapestry, creating His picture from the raw mistakes and false starts of their lives.”

I read this somewhat lengthy (400 pages!) novel in just over two days, as I just couldn’t put it down. Reading this book has made me grateful. Thankful that I have a home and family, that I have never been abandoned, had to raise my children on my own, or (knock on wood) suffered through cancer surgery. And thankful that, even in the darkest places, there is a road back.

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A Rush of Wings

A Rush of Wings (Spencer Family #1)

Noelle St. Clair is fleeing her life as a pampered, sheltered ‘rich kid’ and has nowhere to go. Unable to use her credit cards or cell phone (she doesn’t want to be traced), she places two thousand dollars in cash in her backpack with some toiletries and a couple of changes of clothing and gets on the bus, headed out of Long Island and for points West.

Ending up on a ranch in Colorado (the only decent place available to rent in the small town), Noelle’s life is about to change… but it is going to be a long time before it changes for the better.

I liked this book because it doesn’t give quick, happy endings. Life is a struggle and often filled with mistakes and pitfalls and can also be threatening. Memories can overwhelm emotion (we are frail human creatures) and take over reason. Noelle needed to find a place of safety but the two brothers, Morgan and Rick, who offer it to her, are vastly different. With her past, how can she ever come to resolution in her own heart, much less trust anyone else’s?

“Something had made her run away, something gave her a jaded eye, caused the panic attacks, the fractured images. Even if she couldn’t remember what, she recognized the effects. Broken trust was not easily fixed, and the only way she knew to be safe was to trust only herself.”

I read this book quickly on my kindle and it kept me going! There are a couple of chapters I would have left out, (not because they were graphic or upsetting), that I considered unnecessary to move the story along.

I enjoyed experiencing Noelle’s decisions, her mistakes, her slow coming-to-grips with life, and the hesitant approach to belief in a God who would allow evil in a treacherous world (something that seems to be a common stumbling block for many).

Morgan and Rick Spencer are brothers who were raised in the same home and yet one is a fervent Christian, and the other (definitely!) not. The author does not shy away from depicting family conflict or differences but she does portray Christianity in a fresh, believable manner. Rick, who seems so mature, has a faith crisis that is neither shallow nor implausible.

Life is hard, and sometimes almost impossible, and it is so refreshing to read a story that doesn’t try to whitewash the questions with pat answers that gloss over the hard places.

“The sadness was still deep inside her and the knowledge that she might never recover what she’d lost as a five-year-old child. But she no longer faced it alone.”

I got a little impatient with Morgan’s character but it was helpful to realize later that his actions were a front to his own pain. There are so many different facets to how we handle the experiences of life, and the author is able to creatively address how individual we truly are.

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