Melissa Brown

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After inviting readers into a small world of everyday people with his first novel, A Little Hope, Ethan Joella sets his second novel in a similar ​community​, one full of folks whose uniquely challenging lives eventually intertwine. 

A Quiet Life is indeed quiet, in that there’s no cross-country adventure or mysterious plot, just a snowy Pennsylvania winter and endless ruminations. It is quiet in the way of ordinary life, yet even this small domestic sphere contains shocking moments of tragedy and chaos. A dead wife, a missing little girl, a murdered father—difficult losses and sudden fractures swiftly disrupt previously enjoyable ​lives. But in the time it takes to have a few drinks at a bar or stop at a gas station, love can be found, friendships discovered and hope renewed. 

Once again, Joella’s characters are as real as they come. With an observant eye and poetic sensitivity, Joella captures poignant moments and intense feelings, leaving the reader with a sense of recognition and comfort. There’s widower Chuck, who receives daily visits from his well-meaning friend Sal. Grieving 20-something Kirsten might be falling for both her divorced boss and handsome co-worker, and distraught mother Ella waits in agony for any news after her ex-husband took their daughter and disappeared. 

As these stories come together, Joella extols what is common to all of humanity: We need each other, both in celebration and in mourning. One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply “I’m here,” and this is the level of profound connection that Joella evokes without ever straying into cliche.

A Quiet Life reminds readers that all of us are “victorious in a small way for having lived.” 

One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply “I’m here,” and this is the level of profound connection that Ethan Joella evokes without ever straying into cliche.
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How do you discern whether a vivid dream is a holy vision or just someone’s own desire? Haven, the latest novel from celebrated Irish Canadian writer Emma Donoghue (The Pull of the Stars, The Wonder), hinges on a monk’s ascetic dream of an island set apart for God’s glory. 

Artt, a famed traveler and scholarly priest, selects timeworn and experienced monk Cormac and an awkward young monk named Trian to sail west and establish a new community for Christ. Their trinity seeks a place far from civilization and temptation, since Artt plans to withdraw from the world entirely. 

Finding two remote islands after a week’s journey fills Artt with zeal and confirms God’s call upon him. But as Artt intones early in the novel, “Monkish life is one long war against the devil.” As he leads his two reluctant followers in an increasingly erratic and unyielding manner, questions abound: Will this haven be a true refuge? Did Artt hear God rightly? Or has he lost his way?

Inspired by the true history of an early Christian monastery founded on Ireland’s Skellig Islands, Haven explores the mix of superstition, lore, faith and basic need that accompanies humanity on a mission. As in her hit bestseller, Room, Donoghue’s powers of description expand small, confined spaces until they contain worlds of universal depth. 

Haven sensitively considers hubris, humility and selfishness, who God is and how he might interact with his creation. Artt, Cormac and Trian grapple with this relationship as they face hourly trials in a new world that’s as solid and real as it is mysterious. Much of the action takes place in the hearts of these men, so the story’s pace is a slow, intriguing burn, building enjoyably until a somewhat jarring climax and disappointing denouement. Shock-value shift aside, Donoghue’s talent for storytelling captivates. 

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Haven captures the gulf that can grow—especially during times of hardship—between what we say we believe and how we live.

Inspired by the true history of an early Christian monastery founded on Ireland's Skellig Islands, Emma Donoghue's Haven explores the mix of superstition, lore, faith and basic need that accompanies humanity on a mission.
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A Ballad of Love and Glory rides the waves of war and the bloom of lovers’ passion, intertwining real events of the Mexican-American War with a vividly imagined relationship between a forlorn Irish immigrant soldier and a grieving Mexican curandera, or folk healer.

In her fourth novel, Mexican American author Reyna Grande explores a little-known aspect of the Mexican-American War. After the annexation of Texas in 1845, hostilities between the United States and Mexico approached a boiling point due to a land dispute near the Rio Grande. At the time, foreign-born soldiers, primarily from Ireland, Germany and Italy, made up nearly half of the U.S. Army. After the American invasion of Mexico, many of the soldiers deserted the army in favor of Mexico’s cause as they resisted further land takeover and domination by the U.S.

In Grande’s detailed and well-researched novel, Irish Catholic immigrant John Riley, who is based on a real figure, deserts the U.S. Army in 1846. Enticed by the promise of better treatment, more pay and acres of land, John joins the Mexican Army, leading a growing battalion of deserters under Saint Patrick’s banner. They become known as the San Patricios.

Meanwhile, after Texas Rangers murder her husband, Ximena Salomé uses all the healing skills her grandmother taught her to bring comfort and relief to the many soldiers felled by each brutal battle. Her fate becomes inextricably bound with John’s while saving the life of one of his fellow soldiers, and in time, longing leads them to each other’s arms.

Grande’s novel highlights the abuses that American immigrants suffered at the hands of Yankee soldiers, in addition to the atrocities of war and all the maddening political and military machinations that go along with it. Although A Ballad of Love and Glory lags in pace or falls into cliche at times, it also often excels at making history palpable and real, not dry and unimpassioned but lively and full of the emotions the people of the past surely felt.

A Ballad of Love and Glory lives up to its title as it pays tribute to the heroism of everyday people called upon to defend their honor as well as their lives.

A Ballad of Love and Glory lives up to its title as it pays tribute to the heroism of everyday people called upon to defend their honor as well as their lives.
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“Life, this up and down life” is on full, multifaceted display in Ethan Joella’s debut novel. A Little Hope begins with a family facing one of life’s greatest tests: a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer within white blood cells. Greg Tyler and his wife, Freddie, are caught up in worry and fear. How do they tell their daughter, Addie, that Greg is sick? What will the next looming doctor’s appointment reveal? The calendar year may be sliding into fall and then winter, but it is just the beginning of a long, unknown road that neither of them wants to take. And they are not the only ones questioning and wrestling. They are so very far from alone.

The small, fictional town of Wharton, Connecticut, is a well-connected community of characters who feel like people you know or people you could be: mothers and sons, wives and husbands, lovers and friends, parents and those soon to be. The cast of characters—Freddie and Greg, Ginger, Luke, Iris, Alex and Kay, Suzette, Damon, Ahmed, Darcy—are honest as they move through the vagaries of love, illness, infidelity, death or disappointment as best they can, searching for a foothold in the midst of all that is happening. Their unceasing thoughts and fickle feelings all strike a familiar and fully human chord.

Joella’s poetic side shines in his moving but never maudlin novel. He captures loneliness, sadness, happiness and anger in all their fleeting hues. He has created a truly intertwined world around the Tylers, portraying their neighbors truthfully yet kindly. From beginning to end, A Little Hope finds the grace of the everyday and homes in on the surprises (both heavy and light) that each day can hold.

Life is both painful and hopeful, but in Joella’s world, it is blessedly more of the latter.

Life is both painful and hopeful, but in Ethan Joella’s debut novel, it is blessedly more of the latter.
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At its best and most engaging, Christian fiction wrestles with issues of belief in a way that resonates with the reader, encouraging self-reflection and growth. These three novels present life in full, shining a light on its heartaches but also its opportunities for redemption and renewal. The truths the characters in each story learn, oftentimes painfully, can be applied to readers’ own journeys of faith.

In The Sky Beneath My Feet, Lisa Samson introduces us to Beth, a mother of two teenage sons and wife of a men’s pastor at a stereotypical megachurch.

Beth’s first-person narration, filled with questions and stream-of-consciousness shifts that at times resemble journal entries, indicates that all is not well. Beth is looking for more and not finding it. Her husband Rick is, too, but he’s decided to spend his one-month sabbatical from church duties holed up in the shed behind their house waiting to hear from God, rather than go on the beach vacation that Beth envisioned.

Left alone to navigate the challenging lives of her sons and her own heart’s questions, Beth struggles to reconcile who she was with who she is. As in her novels Quaker Summer and Embrace Me, Samson assembles a motley cast of supporting characters for Beth to interact with on the way to finding God and herself again. I alternated between laughing and cringing at Beth’s onslaught of unexpected encounters: from watching an eccentric artist neighbor use Rick as her muse for a church mural, to joining up with peace marchers, to rescuing a girl from a drug overdose in an inner-city halfway house.

Besides entertaining the reader, Samson does an excellent job of relating the feeling of being stuck in place with the wheels spinning—something both believers and nonbelievers can relate to. As the novel draws to a close, Rick and Beth find themselves where they were desperately seeking to be, though it wasn’t achieved through their efforts after all.

SOUTHERN CHARM

Denise Hildreth Jones’ Secrets Over Sweet Tea revels in its Southern setting of Franklin, Tennessee. Much like her popular Savannah from Savannah series, this book is peppered with endearments and occasional outlandish “Southernisms” that will make anyone who’s spent time in the South—including this native Alabamian—feel welcome. 

Southern charm aside, the pain Jones’ three main characters are dealing with is real and universal. Grace, an early morning news anchor, is devastated by her broken marriage. Zach, a divorce lawyer, has lost direction and meaning in his life—and risks losing his twin daughters and wife because of his costly attempts to fill those voids. And Scarlett Jo, the lively pastor’s wife who loves to get up close and personal with everyone she meets, seems like the most open book of them all, until her secret surfaces at last. Jones unfurls each person’s story one piece at a time, revealing the fractures in her characters’ lives, the friendships they build and the steps they must take to reclaim their hearts.

As an author’s note attests, Secrets Over Sweet Tea grew out of a time of great pain and a journey to healing in Jones’ personal life. Her characters’ lives are not neatly sewn up or perfectly polished (as is too often the case with inspirational fiction), another reason to appreciate this redeeming story.

CHANGED BY GRACE

One Sunday by Carrie Gerlach Cecil also has a Southern setting—and is also partly drawn from the author’s experience. The story’s broken protagonist, L.A. socialite Alice Ferguson, is struggling to adjust to life in Nashville following a one-night stand with a Southern doctor that results in pregnancy.

Agreeing to have Burton’s child, and to move in with the good doctor, uproots Alice from a lifestyle of drinking, drugging and reporting on celebrity exploits via her online tabloid, Trashville. With her new husband on call more often than not, Alice turns to her neighbor Tim, a former pro football player turned pastor. Boredom and a hunger for his wife LeChelle’s fried chicken are her initial reasons for striking up a friendship with this conservative couple, but it becomes something more. Eventually she accepts Tim’s invitation to church, and we learn more about Alice’s past, via flashbacks, as she alternately smirks at and soaks up the worship service. 

Cecil writes in a fast-paced style that cuts from scene to scene like a movie, rifling through the fragmented memories of her displaced protagonist and bringing them into focus. (Her previous novel, Emily’s Reasons Why Not, became an ABC television series.) Pop-culture references abound, and Alice’s biting commentary is always at the ready. At times, the snark is a bit much, but as Alice sifts through her past, she starts to respond to the pain she’s bottled up and lets her façade slip. Cecil writes movingly about believing and trusting in God in prose that will touch the reader as the message sinks deep into Alice’s heart. This is a riveting story of profound change. 

At its best and most engaging, Christian fiction wrestles with issues of belief in a way that resonates with the reader, encouraging self-reflection and growth. These three novels present life in full, shining a light on its heartaches but also its opportunities for redemption and renewal. The truths the characters in each story learn, oftentimes […]
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Belief in a higher power has been part of the human experience across time and cultures, and it can permeate fiction as well. In a small town or during a world war, within both romantic attachments and friendships, Christian faith forms the framework and the core of these inspirational stories.

Set in Holland during World War II, Snow on the Tulips finds Cornelia de Vries and her 20-year-old brother, Johan, swept up in the action as Dutch Resistance fighters push back against Nazi occupation.

Cornelia has sworn to keep Johan from being rounded up to fight for Hitler, but protecting him becomes more difficult when the conflict enters her home in the form of a half-dead Resistance fighter named Gerrit. He’s a threat to their carefully constructed neutrality—and to her heart, long shuttered since her husband’s death on their wedding night.

In an adventurous tale that reads like a movie script, Liz Tolsma weaves faith in seamlessly, moving the reader with her characters’ convictions to create a captivating debut novel. Their heartfelt prayers show that faith can grow even in times of unspeakable hardship and fear.

GOTHIC CHARM

The first in a planned trilogy, Jessica Dotta’s Born of Persuasion blends all things Gothic and romantic into a winding tale of intrigue in early 19th-century England.

The fortunes of young Julia Elliston, orphaned after her mother’s suicide, depend upon the charity of men. Some may be villains and others saints—but the novel is slow to reveal who is which.

Julia’s position in society is fragile, and her naiveté and vulnerability contrast sharply with the novel’s foreboding setting and the hazy motives of those she meets, including her mysterious guardian and the brooding, charismatic Mr. Macy, who seems to know all but shares little. Julia has been betrothed since childhood to Edward, who complicates matters further when he takes orders to become a vicar—Julia’s father was a well-known and ardent atheist who passed his beliefs on to his daughter.

Though verbose at times, Dotta’s style is clearly influenced by the Brontës, and manages to keep the reader engaged through every twist and turn.

A SOUTHERN JOURNEY

Competition for oil-drilling rights collides with an eclectic artists colony’s vow to hold onto their land in Sweet Olive, a Southern tale by Louisiana author Judy Christie.

Camille Gardner finds herself exiled (in a manner of speaking) to Sweet Olive, Louisiana, after botching a previous job for the oil company owned by her uncle. It’s painfully near the town where her father left her and her mother behind years before, never to return—a fact that brings this old hurt to the surface.

Christie writes in an inviting, colloquial style, full of great turns of phrase that make her characters’ speech feel true to life. It’s Camille’s job to get these artists to sign over the rights to drill on their land, but once she meets them and sees their work, she’s drawn in. As Camille falls for the beauty around her—and the lawyer who opposes her at every turn—the journey leads her somewhere surprising.

A LOVE THAT LASTS

A sweet story of enduring love and faithfulness, Forever Friday by Timothy Lewis shares the unique romance of Pearl “Huck” Huckabee and Gabe Alexander. For decades, Gabe sent his beloved a weekly postcard inscribed with a simple poem extolling his devotion.

Lewis, a playwright, paints a convincing portrait of the couple, and their voices are spot-on and beautiful. Seeing their relationship evolve on paper is almost like watching it unfold in real life. Hope and faith are the hinges of all their plans, from the night they meet and fall instantly in love in 1926 and through the years as they grow old together.

The narrative moves between Huck and Gabe’s relationship at different stages and 2006, when Adam Colby discovers the postcards while handling their estate sale. Colby studies the archive, hoping to find healing after his divorce. As he immerses himself in their story, he begins to find his way.

While the religious thread of the story is kept in the background, the love between Huck and Gabe is the heart of Forever Friday, and their steadfastness, though fictional, will inspire.

Belief in a higher power has been part of the human experience across time and cultures, and it can permeate fiction as well. In a small town or during a world war, within both romantic attachments and friendships, Christian faith forms the framework and the core of these inspirational stories. Set in Holland during World […]
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Failure and sin, redemption and healing form the backbone of these five novels, much as they do in the Bible that inspires writers of Christian fiction. From thrilling mystery and longed-for relationships to tests of will and heart, these works of fiction highlight God’s grace to man—who desperately needs it.

In Billy Coffey’s The Devil Walks in Mattingly, past misdeeds haunt a husband and wife in a way that blurs the line between the real world and something beyond. The sleepy town of Mattingly, Virginia, recalls Flannery O’Connor with its glimpses of the grotesque and supernatural. In this small town—prone to gossip and an inability to let bygones be bygones—the past and the present collide when heinous crimes are committed and an evil is let loose.

Coffey introduces his readers to Jake and Kate Barnett and their shared demons, centered on a boy named Philip McBride. A third party, a shadowy figure named Taylor, emerges broken from the backwoods that have borne witness to the whole shameful story. Soon the events of 20 years ago press their weight on Kate, Jake and Taylor, and sweep new victims into the arc of pain.

The story unwinds slowly and with a convincing voice that draws the reader deep into the unexplainable. The evil that wreaks havoc on Mattingly shakes many out of their stupor and awakens them to the possibility of forgiveness. Extricating themselves from the darkness of the past will mean bravely forging headlong into it.

FOLLOW YOUR CONSCIENCE
“It’s Andersonville. Men die for no meaning.” Such is the overwhelming impression felt while reading Tracy Groot’s The Sentinels of Andersonville, which focuses on the evils both within and without the infamous Civil War prison. Yankee soldiers died by the thousands in squalid conditions that Groot describes with a deft accuracy, interspersed with historical accounts and journal entries from men who died and men who lived.

A privileged but well-meaning Southern belle named Violet Stiles discovers the shocking abuses at Andersonville. Aided by a possible suitor named Dance Pickett and a Rebel soldier named Emery Jones, who had to deliver his newfound Yankee friend to the prison, they form a society to bring the horrors to light. Their hometown of Americus, Georgia, is not far from Andersonville, but its residents wish to remain removed from the goings-on there, even when confronted with the sad reality. Groot ably captures the despair of prisoners and soldiers alike, as well as the divided emotions of the Southern townsfolk, who have lost sons to the cause and hate the Yankees but want to be “good Christians.” When told of the appalling cesspool that is Andersonville, many won’t believe, others believe but won’t act, and still more focus only on the technicalities and red tape involved. Groot truthfully renders the struggle between patriotism and Christ’s call to help the suffering regardless of their affiliation.

THE CALL OF THE PRAIRIE
As in her previous “prairie romances,” Janette Oke highlights the timidity as well as the growing perseverance of a young protagonist making her way in the rough world. For Where Courage Calls, Oke shares the authorial role with her daughter, Laurel Oke Logan, and the two relate a tale that is as much about family relationships (those born and those made) as it is about faith.

Elizabeth “Beth” Thatcher has embarked on a journey to teach school in the Canadian mining town of Coal Valley, far from the shelter and comfort of her family home. The story reads like Beth’s journal as she encounters obstacles in her new community—having all her belongings stolen at the train station, being treated as an outsider, struggling with illness and uncovering the threat hidden in the woods around her new home. Her growing love for the children she teaches as well as the town’s maligned Italian immigrant workers fuels her to meet the many challenges of frontier life. Eventually her mistakes give way to truly following the call of Christ as she endeavors to improve her pupils’ lives. Readers of Oke’s previous books, which include the best-selling Love Comes Softly series, will find much to enjoy in this new novel, filled with her familiar balance of just the right amount of romance and mystery.

VIRTUAL SEDUCTION
What if you could create your perfect friend? One who literally was always available? That’s the driving question behind John Faubion’s suspenseful tale of the seductive power of technology, Friend Me. The fictional Virtual Friend Me software takes email or social networking sites and goes one better: allowing users to create the friend or companion they seek.

Scott and Rachel Douglas, parents of two, succumb to the software’s promise. Given her husband’s long hours at work, Rachel needs someone she can talk to, so she re-creates the best friend she lost to cancer. Scott sees what the intriguing new software offers his wife, and, in a life-altering decision, chooses to create a female friend. Unsurprisingly, things take an intimate turn. Little do Rachel and Scott know that Melissa Montalvo, the woman behind the cutting-edge software, has taken a personal interest in the couple. Convinced that Scott is the perfect man for her, the unhinged Melissa begins a systematic effort to break them up by any means.

The twists here are numerous, and the revealed details of Melissa’s backstory grow more disturbing. Though the characters are somewhat sketchily drawn, their dissatisfaction and mistakes lead them plausibly down a very wrong road. Will they be able to change course before it’s too late?

NO SIMPLE DEATH
Amber Wright runs the Amish Artisan Village in Middlebury, Indiana, a collection of shops where people come to admire a simpler way of life, buy handicrafts and enjoy the unique culture, charm and cooking. It is not a place where people die mysteriously. Yet as Murder Simply Brewed opens, one of her store owners, Ethan, dies in a way that is ruled natural at first. Until, that is, odd and threatening events occur and curious clues start piling up. Prophetic verses from the book of Daniel are found scrawled in blood-red paint, along with other offerings meant to frighten.

To uncover the truth, Amber and her begrudging, widowed neighbor, Tate, follow the trail. Soon, everyone from the man’s wife to his co-workers and mentally unstable sister becomes a suspect. Vannetta Chapman keeps the action suspenseful, and the who-done-it mostly unpredictable as her Amish and English characters work together to solve the mystery. Out of even such dreadful circumstances come moments of grace: between Amber and her Amish employee Hannah and between Amber and Tate, who had each given up on love.

Failure and sin, redemption and healing form the backbone of these five novels, much as they do in the Bible that inspires writers of Christian fiction. From thrilling mystery and longed-for relationships to tests of will and heart, these works of fiction highlight God’s grace to man—who desperately needs it.

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The centuries may differ, but the faith remains the same. From present-day America, to an Atlantic crossing in the 1700s, to a newly established 19th-century Seattle, these three inspirational novels show that while circumstances may vary, the need to trust in God does not. 

In Christa Parrish’s fifth novel, Still Life, photographer Julian Goetz is shooting a magazine story and, while on assignment, meets young Ada Mitchell. Hosea-like, Julian responds to God’s call to marry Ada, the daughter of a militant religious “prophet” and founder of a secluded community.

Soon after their marriage, as Ada is still trying to find her place in the new world, Julian dies in a plane crash. Katherine Walker, unhappy in her own marriage and pursuing an affair to the detriment of those she loves, gave up her seat on that plane for Julian—and now she must face her reasons for doing so.

For Ada, Julian’s loss is both a death and a rebirth. Without him, she must navigate life outside the brownstone they briefly shared. Her journey to a life of her own is guided by five photographs he took—and brings her into contact with Evan, Katherine’s son.

Christy Award winner Parrish deftly guides the reader through the past and present of all her characters. She has a gift for imagery—for capturing, like a camera, all that a scene can hold. Her writing is poetic as she plumbs the angles and emotions of tragedy. As we witness the pangs of Ada’s indoctrination and wounds made by Katherine’s mistakes, Parrish reminds us that even in a broken world, there is still life worth living. Still Life is a story of starting over with the pieces that are left and building more than there was before—mercifully, by God’s grace.

AMISH AT SEA
Persecuted for their beliefs, followers of Jacob Amman in Germany undertake an arduous sea voyage to a new world aboard the Charming Nancy in 1737 in Anna’s Crossing. Though she was reluctant to make the voyage, Anna König was selected because of her ability to speak English.

There are tensions between the Amish and the others on the ship. Bairn, the ship’s Scottish carpenter, begrudges the presence of these Peculiars, as he calls them. Having them on board stirs up his ire—and something else long buried. Curious 9-year-old Felix, whom Anna is tasked with watching over, adventurously explores the ship, his exuberance giving the story its energy. The crew, and the Amish and Mennonite passengers, must deal with deprivations, death, storms and a pivotal encounter with a slave ship.

Author Suzanne Woods Fisher is known for evoking the Amish experience, and the hardships and lurking dangers of the Atlantic crossing are brought to life here as well. She draws from historical fact: A ship of the same name set sail with Amish aboard from Rotterdam to Philadelphia in 1737, in what was one of the first significant Amish crossings to America.

Anna’s steadfast trust in God is sorely tested over the months-long journey, yet she still makes strong arguments for trusting Him during those trials. These arguments slowly begin to reach Bairn, whose resistance to faith in Anna’s God is thoughtfully rendered. The touch of romance and many plot twists in Anna’s Crossing keep Fisher’s story entertaining as well as genuinely interesting.

SPOUSELESS IN SEATTLE
Two young women are at the center of best-selling author Tracie Peterson’s quaint story set at a training school for brides in late 19th-century Seattle, Steadfast Heart. Abrianna Cunningham and Lenore Fulcher make unlikely friends. Outspoken Abrianna cares for the city’s poor, while Lenore lives largely in a privileged world whose rules are dictated by society and her parents. Then Kolbein Booth arrives from Chicago to find his runaway sister, Greta, and changes the game for all three young people—as well as that of the matrons who run the Madison School for Brides. It appears that while suitors mingle with potential mates, more insidious affairs are being conducted in the city streets.

Meanwhile, Lenore experiences an awakening, Abrianna suffers a loss and Kolbein finds himself drawn to Lenore. As change swirls about them all, they must remember to find their anchor in God, trusting him for the best outcome.

Steadfast Heart has a sequel coming, and like any good first book in a series, it leaves just enough questions unanswered to make readers eager for the next installment. What this tale may lack in depth, it possesses in earnestness and the author’s desire for her characters to reflect a sincere growth in faith.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The centuries may differ, but the faith remains the same. From present-day America, to an Atlantic crossing in the 1700s, to a newly established 19th-century Seattle, these three inspirational novels show that while circumstances may vary, the need to trust in God does not.
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Vidya is a girl set apart in her time, growing up in a crowded tenement in 1960s Bombay, a place that does not value girls as it does boys. She chafes against men’s unwanted attention, and her dark skin makes her feel alienated by her own extended family. Her mother’s mysterious ways perplex her, and her father’s demands keep a distance between them. 

But Vidya’s restlessness is a gift, though it will take many years for her to understand and embrace it. As she journeys slowly into womanhood, she takes up a serious, devoted study of kathak, the storytelling dance that mesmerized her as a little girl. Her process of becoming forms the heartbeat of The Archer, and the narrative shifts from third person to first as she matures and claims her place in her own story.

Shruti Swamy’s visceral first novel after her critically acclaimed story collection, A House Is a Body, The Archer blends the corporeal and the spiritual in a story about what it means to be a woman and an artist. Swamy’s writing is transportive, precise and almost hypnotic, not unlike the controlled and expressive dance form that Vidya loves. The author’s perceptive and observant eye misses nothing, from a single ripening mango on a tree to the inner workings of a young female mind. In depicting Vidya’s interior world, Swamy captures both the dark side and long-awaited light of dawn, of discovery, of fulfillment. There is darkness, yes, but also “those dreams where you remember you could fly.” 

As Vidya maneuvers through worlds—home, school, women, men and dance, always dance—she discovers life. As a child, she “wanted to be marked, altered, changed. Split open,” and by the end of the novel, she is.

As a child, Vidya “wanted to be marked, altered, changed. Split open,” and by the end of Shruti Swamy’s novel, she is.
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When we ask questions about life, it’s often the why that most unsettles us: why bad things happen, why we didn’t get that job or marry that person—and when the time comes, why we die. Even though that last question kicks off The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, Marianne Cronin’s first novel brims with so much life.

Lenni Pettersson is terminally ill and perceptive in the way of 17-year-olds who've experienced more trauma than most people their age. She meets 83-year-old Margot Macrae in a memorable first encounter that turns comically conspiratorial: Lenni covers for Margot while Margot’s engaged in pulling something out of a large hospital rubbish bin. They’re both alone in the hospital, and each woman soon realizes that she’s found a kindred spirit.


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Captivated by Margot’s long and storied life, Lenni concocts a creative scheme. They will make paintings of pivotal moments from their lives, one for each of their combined 100 years, as a way to chronicle their stories and transport themselves away from the reality of hospital beds and surgeries. As they paint, their creative body of work begins to surprise them, as well as their fellow artist patients and excited art teacher, Pippa. With the encouragement of hospital chaplain Father Arthur and a favorite nurse, Lenni and Margot press on through memories both painful and breathtaking.

With love and tenderness on every page, this imaginative novel is a joy to read. British novelist Cronin captures all the emotions and desires of these two tenacious women as they relive their pasts in order to make something permanent and leave their mark. Her easy prose sings with real warmth, candor and humor.

Small in scope but large in humanity, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot illuminates the steadying force of a heartfelt connection. Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.

Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.
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Loosely based on true events—and the real people and animals that played a part—The Elephant of Belfast captures the turmoil of both a city and a young woman’s life during World War II.

S. Kirk Walsh’s first novel opens in 1940, just as German bombardment begins to threaten Northern Ireland. The Bellevue Zoo has welcomed a new elephant named Violet to its menagerie, parading the pachyderm through the streets of Belfast with all the pomp of a visiting dignitary. Onlookers are bewildered, but young zookeeper Hettie Quin finds a sense of purpose in the elephant’s presence.

Hettie’s older sister is dead and her father absent, and she tiptoes around the house she shares with her mother, Rose. Hettie wants to be taken seriously as the only female zookeeper at Bellevue, though navigating her terse boss and the physical demands of working with large exotic animals proves challenging. But Hettie steadily proves to herself that she is capable, even resilient, despite the nearly constant state of upheaval caused by her tense relationship with Rose, confusion about the opposite sex, the ever-present Catholic and Protestant divide and the threat of bombing raids.

When the Luftwaffe bombs start to fall in April 1941, caring for Violet becomes Hettie’s sole focus. In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, Hettie has Violet, and their relationship keeps the young woman from falling into total despair.

With such a unique premise, the novel remains engaging despite occasionally clichéd prose and a plot that gets bogged down in detail. Hettie’s grief and longing are palpable, her mounting losses real and tangible. Through heart-stirring scenes of violence and destruction in a city unprepared for the chaos of war, Walsh showcases a flair for description and emotion, and for rendering ordinary lives amid extraordinary circumstances.

In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, a young woman’s relationship to an elephant keeps her from falling into total despair.

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