My Top Ten Must Reads (Part 2) + Giveaway!

Here is Part Two of my Top Ten Must Reads that I’ve read between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016. If you missed the first five books in Part 1, you can read them here. Don’t forget to come on back and find out the rest of my picks for the year! You can find out more about each book by clicking on the title.

 

 

Lake House

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Sixteen year-old Alice Edevane’s baby brother Theo disappears on the night of her parents’ glittering Midsummer Party at their lake house in 1933, changing the family forever. Seventy years later, a police constable stumbles across the ruins of the Edevane lake house, and seeks the answers to secrets buried long ago. 

Kate Morton is one of the most gifted writers and storytellers I’ve ever read, and her latest, The Lake House, is no exception. I actually got this book in early December, and waited (very impatiently!) to read it until the end of the month when I had a week’s vacation, because a Kate Morton book is meant to be savored. Her beautiful prose and surrounding sense of mystery create an all-encompassing world that make it a tragedy to leave when the book ends.

Paper Hearts

Paper Hearts by Courtney Walsh

To save her bookstore from a new landlord, Abigail strings paper hearts with love notes from a mysterious couple that quickly catch the town’s attention. But when the hearts hint at tragedy, can Abigail find out what happened to the couple and save her store and her own heart in the process?

This book took me a while to get into, but I really enjoyed it once I did. The Valentine Volunteers, a group of old ladies in the town, were humorous and their attempts at matchmaking Abigail were fun. Abigail’s journey felt genuine, and the paper hearts are a unique idea I’d love to try with my husband someday (see the book trailer here!). *Note- Courtney Walsh has a “sequel” to this story, Change of Heart, also set in Love’s Park, Colo., and featuring the Valentine Volunteers, that came out last year.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Plain governess Jane Eyre falls in love with her mysterious and brooding employer, Mr. Rochester, with tragic results. 

Yes, I know it’s a classic, but I finally read Jane Eyre for the first time this spring. It was literally one of those moments when I thought “how did I never read this until now?” The first few chapters of Jane’s cold childhood are hard to get through, but her romance with Mr. Rochester, and eventual finding of herself are masterfully done. Bronte’s Jane is a heroine for the ages. This one is a classic for a reason.

Buried in a Book

Buried in a Book by Lucy Arlington

First in the Novel Idea Mysteries, Lila Wilkins accepts an internship at a thriving literary agency, but when a penniless aspiring author drops dead in the agency’s waiting room-and Lila discovers a series of threatening letters-she’s determined to find out who wrote him off.

Who doesn’t like learning more about the ins and outs of a literary agency? I really enjoyed the cast of quirky characters in this book, and any cozy that keeps me guessing whodunnit until the very end means they wrote a very good mystery indeed. Also, I feel many cozy mysteries tend to hit their stride in later subsequent books, but this one hit it out of the park as an establishing story.

Blue Castle

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

At 29, living with an overbearing mother and aunt, quiet Valancy Stirling decides to throw caution to the winds and live life on her own terms. Soon she discovers a surprising new world, full of love and adventures beyond her secret dreams. 

This is a re-read (that I’ve already re-read several times!), but it’s one of my favorite Montgomery novels, second only to the Anne series. While Montgomery excelled at stories about children, Valancy is decidedly not a child, and her journey from a repressed “old maid” to a woman in love and taking her life into her own hands is wonderful. Montgomery’s trademark purple prose is more evident in this story than many others, as it contains numerous beautiful expositions on nature that make me itch to explore the Canadian maritimes.  Also, only Montgomery could make the reader fall in love with a hero named Barney Snaith!

***BONUS GIVEAWAY!***

I’ve told you my top ten reads of the year, so what are some of yours? I started my reading list over on July 1, so I’d love to hear what your favorite books are! Leave a comment on either Part 1 or Part 2 (or both!) to win a copy of any of the 10 books on my list (reader’s choice). I’ll pull one winner on Friday, July 8.

 

The Backstory Dump

Did anyone else read The Baby-Sitters Club books? They were a series of books that were popular among preteen girls in the late 1980s/early 1990s that centered around seven junior high-age girls who loved to babysit and started a club so their clients could get a hold of them. Each book followed a certain babysitter, chronicling their adventures in babysitting and beyond.

The books were extremely predictable (but when you’re 10-years old, you don’t really care). The first chapter would introduce the main action of the story, while the second would always take place at a Baby-Sitters Club meeting, where the first-person narrator/babysitter would explain who the members of the club were, their personalities, and how the club came to be. It was as formulaic as H20, with the exceptions being what the club members were wearing at the time.

I mention all of this to illustrate a common writing mistake: the backstory/information dump.

Writing Mistake No. 2: The Backstory Dump

Tangled backstoryThink about the main character in a book you’re reading. When you started the first page, do you know everything about them? Of course not. Just like when meeting a real person for the first time, you usually only know a few things about them, primarily their name, and their general appearance.

Too many beginning authors (and I include myself in that bunch) want to let the reader know everything about the main character right off the bat: who they are, what they do for a living, what makes them angry, why they don’t like to eat broccoli (well, who does?), etc. So, those writers will commonly have what we call the “backstory” or “information dump.” They try to tell the reader everything about their character in the first few pages, rather than get on to the business at hand: telling the story.

I get it. You’ve been living with this fictional character, fleshing them out, and you want the world to know everything about them, because you want the reader to love them as much as you do. But just like when you meet a person for the first time, you don’t know their life story; you slowly get to know them, peeling back the layers of their personality and history.

In the murder mystery I’m writing, my main character, Mira, is a former cellist who, due to an accident, can no longer perform. This is an essential element to who my character is, and it’s not a secret to either the reader or the other fictional characters in her world. However, I didn’t want to dwell on the accident in the first couple of paragraphs of the story, so while I mentioned it, I didn’t go into great detail:

My left hand involuntarily curled into a half-fist. Grimacing at the tight tendons that prevented it from closing further, my fingertips brushed the thin white scar across my palm: the only physical remains of the accident three years ago. I felt the familiar mixture of sadness and anger flare up, but I tamped it down. No use dwelling on something that would never be.

jane-eyre-book-cover WEBAs my story unfolds, the reader will learn more about the details that led to Mira’s accident, and how it affected her life. But I don’t need to write about it in the first couple of pages. I’d rather the reader wonder what happened to her, why such a small scar could change her life, and how she is moving on from it.

I recently read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time. From Jane’s first person perspective, we meet Mr. Rochester, the moody, brooding master of Thornfield Hall. As Jane and Rochester’s relationship deepens, he tells her he made mistakes in his youth, and has been desperately seeking redemption. Not all of his faults are revealed at once, but through long conversations with Jane as she (and the readers!) fall in love with him.

Reading a nearly 170-year old classic for the first time is interesting, because I knew Rochester’s big secret long before I ever read the story (thanks, pop culture!). Knowing what was going to happen slightly dampened my enjoyment of the big “Ah ha!” moment, but for an audience reading the story for the first time, it would have been shocking and unexpected.

Jaen Eyre 2006 WEBJust think if Charlotte Bronte had made a rookie writer mistake and revealed that *spoiler!* Mr. Rochester already had a wife (albeit a crazy one) when he tried to marry Jane? We would think him a cad, and Jane foolish for falling in love with a married man. As it is written, readers have fallen in love with Mr. Rochester long before his past is revealed, making it too late to hate him for his actions. This approach made us sympathize with his plight, while we are also grieving with Jane. It also makes for one heck of a great story!

In short: don’t dump your character’s backstory all up front. Let your readers get to know them gradually, and they’ll enjoy the character that much more.

* As a note to this post, I fully understand that books that are part of a series tend to have some sort of information or backstory dump for new readers, which is common and acceptable. I intend to have Mira’s life-changing accident be mentioned up front in other subsequent novels (Lord willing!), but it won’t be the focus.

Not Your Average Romance

While straight romance reads may not be my favorite, I do like a a little romance thrown into stories. Even Steven James’ thrillers have small elements of romance. I enjoy stories with unique protagonists, stories in which the romance is secondary to the main plot, yet still vital. Below are a few of my favorites because of their uniqueness.

JANE EYRE (Charlotte Bronte) – I love the atypical heroine in Jane Eyre. Not the modelesque heroines we’ve come to expect in modern day stories, but someone plain, someone relatable.

A VOICE IN THE WIND (Francine Rivers) – Another unique heroine–Hadassah certainly wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but that’s what makes the attraction between Hadassah and Marcus Valerian so captivating.

THE MISTRESS OF TALL ACRE (Laura Frantz) – I could probably put all of Laura’s books on my favorite romance list, but I’ll stick to one and choose her most recent. Laura’s musical prose and her exquisite settings are enough to draw me in every time, so her multi-faceted characters and page-turning stories are like the cherry on top.

MY STUBBORN HEART (Becky Wade) – This introduction to Becky’s writing made me a forever fan. The story’s a bit edgier than your typical Christian romance, which is, naturally, why I enjoyed it so much. Her Porter series is also very good, but My Stubborn Heart remains my favorite.

DANCE OF GRACE (Stacy Monson) – The heroine is a one-legged dancer, and the hero is an ex-con. Does Christian romance get more unique than that? Seriously, that’s all I need to hear to know that this is a must-read romance.

Have you read any of these romances? What are your five favorite romances?

Inside the Cover

On January 21, 2009 a 47 year old woman stepped on stage, microphone in hand, at the Scottish Exhibition Conference Center in Glasgow, Scotland. The woman was certainly not someone you’d expect to see on stage: overweight, bushy eyebrows, frizzy, unruly hair. Certainly no Taylor Swift. Before she even opened her mouth to sing, the audience was laughing, snickering, rolling their eyes.

And then Susan Boyle sang.

How many of us, when we watched the Britain’s Got Talent YouTube video, reacted just as the in-house audience? As Simon Cowell and the other judges? With much shame, I raise my hand. Because Susan Boyle does not have what we define as outward beauty and grace, I pre-judged her as inferior, as an unworthy heroine.

Then, when she sang, God showed me how very wrong I had been. I saw past her face; I turned the pages beyond the cover, and heard tear-inducing beauty. The phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was meant for the likes of Susan Boyle. As a matter-of-fact, if you Google that phrase, Susan Boyle’s picture comes up.

So, what does that have to do with reading? Well, when I considered my favorite literary heroines from over the years, those I want to read about over and over again, I discovered one startling similarity: the heroines were all Susan Boyles. Plain.

Secret of the MansionAs a pre-teen and young teen, when everyone was in love with the ultra-beautiful and nauseatingly perfect Nancy Drew, my favorite heroine was the freckle-faced, sandy-haired, dungaree-wearing tomboy, Trixie Belden. In the series she is described as someone who is insecure about her appearance. But, when reading, Trixie’s looks didn’t matter. She was curious, daring, wise and imperfect. I could relate to her and that made for interesting story material.

Jane EyreIn high school I discovered a new favorite, and it wasn’t Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet. I much preferred Jane Eyre. Jane describes herself as physically-inferior: pale and small with irregular features. Others in the book say she is toad-like. Does that somehow ruin the story? Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? When we think of Jane Eyre, we remember her intelligent and candid exchanges with the grim Mr. Rochester. I relish their discussions as I watch two unlikely people fall in love.

A Voice in the WindAs an adult, I’ve added a new favorite heroine: Hadassah from Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind. It’s 70 A.D., Jerusalem is bloodied by the hands of Roman soldiers, and little Hadassah survives only to become a slave in Rome. By her Roman owners she’s described as “…an emaciated young Jewess who was ugly beyond words… ” But, what the reader sees is someone with amazing faith and courage. Like with Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, you relish Hadassah’s candor with handsome and arrogant Marcus and witness the birth of real love–love that sees beyond the face and into the true heart of the person.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these three literary figures are my favorite heroines. Their likability isn’t based on the luck of DNA, but on quality of character. These are characters with whom I can identify because they’re really just like me … and you … and 98% of the people whom you pass by every day. It’s in their circumstances, they become extraordinary.

What I find curious is that all too often in the world of inspirational fiction, outward beauty reigns. Think about the novels you’ve read lately. How many of the heroines (or heroes) have been physically plain? Don’t you find it interesting that modelesque beauty is almost a requirement of Christian fiction? Why do we place so much value on appearance?

God certainly doesn’t. In 1 Samuel 16:7, when Samuel is at Jesse’s home seeking Israel’s new king, Samuel is told, “’Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Even in Isaiah 53:2b, Isaiah prophesies about Jesus, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

So, why as readers do we require physically beautiful characters? (Please notice, while I’m pointing one finger at you, three are pointing back at me.) I don’t have an answer, but I do know it’s something to ponder. And I anticipate the day when Christian fiction matures and the reader looks inside the human cover and sees the heart of heroines and heroes who deserve to win.

To Name A Few Titles …

For a reader, there is no better subject than books, so when this topic came up, I was ecstatic. But, being I’m limited to 600 words, I’ll just mention a few.

Now, how do I narrow it down?

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On My Bed Stand

Do I just talk about the books currently on my bed stand? Let’s see, I’m reading Ends of the Earth by Tim Downs. Downs writes fascinating suspense with a forensic entomologist as his lead. That means the hero deals with bugs on dead people. Ewww. As I said, fascinating. Oh, and I’ve already read The Familiar Stranger, the debut novel by Christina Berry. It’s a story of love, forgiveness, & new beginnings. The rest of the books you see pictured, I’ve yet to read, and that pile doesn’t include the thirteen books I have on the library waiting list. As you can see, I make very good use of our public library.

Perhaps I should talk about the books I grew up with. First, there was the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. I read all the Nancy Drew books, but Nancy was just too perfect. I preferred Trixie Belden, a teen tomboy and amateur detective. My daughter prefers them as well. (Her friends, too.) And, of course, I read Tolkien and Lewis. I don’t usually care for fantasy, but I loved The Lord of the Ring series (and the movies). But, do I really want to talk about that? Let me think …

My Favorites
My Favorites

Oh, I know! I can tell you all about my favorite authors: I love the literary prose of Charles Martin, W. Dale Cramer, Athol Dickson, Ann Tatlock, & Christa Parrish.  Amy Wallace’s romantic suspense is leaps above Dee Henderson (And I loved Henderson’s O’Malley series). As far as favorite titles, I’d recommend Scared, by Tom Davis, for everyone. It’s about AIDS in Swaziland. Once you read it, you’ll realize how blessed we are in America. A Season of Grace by Bette Nordberg is a poignant story about a family dealing with homosexuality and AIDS. A Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers, is one I’ve read several times, about a Christian Jew in Rome after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  All of those books are permanently on my bed stand.

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Minnesota Writes

Hmmm. What else? Oh, yes. Being from Minnesota, I love to support area writers. Vince Flynn writes riveting geo-political thrillers. They’re not Christian, but when I’m done reading, I feel hope for the world. Sharon Hinck is a writer who refuses to be pigeonholed. This award-winning author has written mom-lit, fantasy, & contemporary fiction, and she does them all well.

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Thrillers

One of my favorite genres is suspense. Steven James’ Patrick Bowers thrillers are probably the best in the Christian market. He combines spellbinding suspense with solid character development, and underscores it all with a subtle faith message. The only thing bad about his books is that I always have to wait a year for the next one to come out. I also love Mel Odom’s NCIS series, and Jason Elam & Steve Yohn’s Riley Covington thrillers. (Think professional football plus international intrigue.) Captain Jeff Struecker (Black Hawk Down fame) and Alton Gansky joined together to write an impressive special ops suspense novel. All of the above thrillers combine complex plots and deep characters to create stories you can’t put down, and they achieve this without the sex and cursing found in the general market. They’re books you can actually give your teen.

Oh, and not to forget, the upcoming debut novels by Lorna Seilstad, Shannon Vannatter, and …

What? 600 words already?  I didn’t even get to mention Jane Eyre. Maybe next time …