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Monday, July 19, 2010

Heart of Stone by Jill Marie Landis

Title: Heart of Stone
Author: Jill Marie Landis
Publisher: Zondervan (March 2010)
Softcover; 320 pages
Genre: Historical Romance
ISBN# 978-0-310-29369-9

The Author

Jill Marie Landis is a New York Times Best Seller author of more than twenty novels and a recipient of The Golden Heart as well a RITA Award. Heart of Stone is the first book by Jill that I have read, and I’ll start my review by saying I plan to read two more of her novels set in Glory, TX: Homecoming and The Accidental Lawman.

The Review

Heart of Stone is the first volume in the Irish Angel series. I like the cover and the title is appropriate to the main character, Laura Foster, and the way she has learned to cope with her past experiences. Laura is not necessarily hard-hearted, though she is definitely careful and reserved in her relationships.

At 320 pages (which includes a sample of the second book, Heart of Lies) there is plenty to the story. The only time I felt like skimming was near the end and that was just because I was anxious for a certain something to happen and wanted to get to that part, not because the story was dragging.

I have a love/hate relationship with the romance genre. It takes a certain amount of skill to create romantic tension without rushing things, yet keep the readers attention while drawing developing the story into a novel-length tale. Because Jill writes with an experienced, balanced style, the pace of her storytelling made it more believable and realistic, which is sometimes hard to find in a romance book.

Heart of Stone takes place in fictional Glory, Texas, in the year 1874. Jill’s characters help make the little town of Glory come to life. The point of view, in third person, switches between Laura Foster and Reverend Brand McCormick, the love interest. The switches were clear and I never wondered who’s head I was in.

The main character, Laura, aka “Lovie Lamont” was a strong woman who did what she had to do to escape from the horrible life she was forced into at only eleven years old. She was determined and had a perspective on life that could only come from having seen the worst of it. Laura established a new life for herself in Glory, where everyone accepted her as the distinguished widow, Mrs. Foster. No one knew about her past and her secret seemed safe until a previous acquaintance arrived, threatening to ruin everything Laura had worked to build. She had no expectations toward marriage, but Laura had friends and a successful boarding house that she would surely lose if anyone discovered who she really was.

Reverend Brand McCormick was my favorite. A widower with two precocious young children, he was the perfectly imperfect hero. Strong but gentle, confident yet humble, he had a true concern for all around him, not just for those in his flock. After his wife’s death, Brand’s children were pretty wild, despite the help of Brand’s sister, Charity. It seemed that Laura had a way of bringing out the best in the kids, though, and she played an important role when Brand’s own past caught up with him.

The characters in Heart of Stone were realistic, imperfect people who had made mistakes but were doing their best. The secondary characters like Jesse Langley, Sam & Janie (Brand’s children), Hank & Amelia Larson (The Accidental Lawman), and several neighbors helped make Heart of Stone an enjoyably believable story.

My Favorite Part

After a life-changing event, Brand pulls Laura close and holds her for comfort. It’s a simple embrace but oh-so-nice.

A Quote

“The ribbons of her hat trailed from her hand as she walked with him to the front steps. She may have been through the worse life had to offer, but she’d never been a coward. She drew herself up and refused to let Brand walk away thinking they had any kind of future together.”

Heads Up

There's no swearing that I can remember and very little violence. As far as sexual content, it’s pretty obvious what Laura’s life entailed prior to her escape to Glory, but it doesn’t go into detail. Also, Brand was a bit wild in his youth before becoming a reverend. The romance is nice but never goes beyond kissing, and even that is free of gratuitous detail. This is a book about finding forgiveness, but it never gets preachy.

Rating: 4 stars/5

Would I-
  • read it again? yes
  • recommend it? yes, especially to those who love historical romance, though even readers who usually don’t care for historical romance might enjoy it
  • read more books by this author? I’m looking forward to reading several more

FTC FYI: I received a free review copy that did not affect my review.

Below is an essay written by Jill Marie Landis about the beginnings of her Irish Angel series:

Stitching a Series Together

“I love this part of a quilt - when all of the fabric selections, pattern decisions, cutting, making of blocks, laying out of the top, the borders, all of it, starts to come together as you begin to sew the blocks into a TOP. For me, it's one of the best parts.....seeing everything that you've thought about, and worked on, coming together...” -Natalie Barnes, Beyond the Reef

So began a recent email from a dear friend and quilt designer, Natalie Barnes. Over twenty years ago, Nat inspired me to begin quilting again and I like to think I inspired her to start a fledgling quilt pattern company, Beyond the Reef, which has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.

As I read her email, I noticed that her thoughts on how a quilt comes together are not unlike the experience of writing a novel. A writer’s initial ideas about characters—deciding who will people the pages of a book and finding just the right setting for them—is much like choosing the pattern and fabrics for a quilt.

In the case of historical novels, choosing the right the time period is like deciding on a quilt’s background fabric. Background fabric, borders, and the individual pieces for the patchwork blocks each play an integral part.

So it is with writing. Designing, cutting and fitting patchwork pieces together is like weaving a plot by fitting together scenes and chapters. In writing, the real magic takes place after the rough draft is finished and inspiration continues during the editing process. Somehow the story comes together the way a quilt does during the final stitching and binding until, at long last, it’s finally whole.

Just as a quilter will often pause to rummage through her stash of fabric hunting for just the right piece to compliment her quilt, so too does a writer search through her reference library until just the right snippet of information catches her eye.

While I was working on HEART OF STONE, my 2Xth novel, (Zondervan, March, 2010) that special, inspirational piece of information came in the form of two words: Irish Channel.

HEART OF STONE is the first book of the Irish Angels series. It’s about a fallen woman named Laura Foster and is set in the fictional town of Glory, Texas, in 1874. The historical romance follows Laura through her trials and tribulations as she seeks redemption from a life of shame and finds love along the way.

Though primarily set in Texas, I opened the book in New Orleans in 1853 to give the readers a glimpse into Laura’s childhood. Before I started hunting for the perfect details to texture the setting, I had preconceived notions of the characteristics of New Orleans that most people share. I pictured the French Quarter with its brick buildings and balconies sporting decorative iron grille work. I saw secret gardens behind stucco walls, could almost smell the cafĂ© ‘a lait, taste the Creole cooking, picture duels under the oaks at dawn.

I planned for Laura to have been orphaned when both her parents died. She was from an impoverished family living with their aunt and uncle in a run down house somewhere in New Orleans. While searching for an exact location, I came across the history of the Irish Channel neighborhood where emigrants escaping the famine settled near the docks. Most were so poor they had no money to go any farther. Many sought work at the wharf.

Before that time I was completely unaware that New Orleans had, from it’s very beginning, a large Irish population. In fact, in the mid-1800’s, there were more people of Irish ancestry than any other group, even French, in the city. I later learned that Irish brigades fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and that a wealthy Irishman donated the land for City Park where those duels under the oaks were fought.

From mostly rural backgrounds, impoverished Irish newcomers farmed themselves out as day laborers hired to dig canals around the city. It was work many slave owners refused to risk having their valuable “property” engage in. Too poor to escape the city when yellow fever hit in 1835, thousands of Irish died.

History and research provided the plot element that orphaned Laura Foster. When I added three sisters to her back story, HEART OF STONE suddenly became more than a tale of a fallen woman starting over in Texas. It was about a former Irish orphan from Louisiana searching for her long lost sisters.

I pictured where the girls had lived and the conditions they survived. Each of my Irish Angels would grow up to become determined, independent women who triumph over their very different upbringings and each definitely deserved a book of her own.

For me, that one small detail, the name of a neighborhood called the Irish Channel, stood out like a vibrant swatch of patchwork that repeats itself in a quilt. It was an unexpected find that echoes through four stories about four resilient women, the thread that ties the series together.

Jill Marie Landis is not only a quilter, but in her “spare time” she dances the hula, plays ukulele, raises orchids and tropical flowers in her Hawaiian garden and loves to read through research at the beach.

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