When I read inspirational romances, I tend to stick with authors who used to (or still do in some cases) write for the secular market. I figure the odds are better for me not getting preached at. And for the most part, with this first book in her Irish Angel series, Jill Marie Landis does a good job of not beating me over the head with the God stick.
Heart Of Stone tells the story of Laura Foster, a woman desperate to hide the tragedy and scandal of her past. Robbed of her childhood, and separated from her three sisters, Laura has settled in Glory, Texas, where she runs a boardinghouse (women and families only thankyouverymuch) and is passing herself off as a wealthy widow. The problem is that Laura is one fine bit of muslin. Even if single women weren't scarce, she's the sort of gal that garners attention. She's gotten quite a reputation for turning down marriage proposals, but for some reason that doesn't stop Reverend Brand McCormick from calling on her. Laura knows she has to turn him away. For her own sanity and for his own reputation. If her secret ever got out, he would be ruined in town, and the man is not only a reverend, but has two small children to think of.
The central theme of this story is forgiveness. It's a wise move on the author's part, because the concept of forgiveness is not solely a Christian one. I don't care who you are or what you believe, all of us have something in our pasts that we're not proud of. All of us have felt shame at one time or another. Here the author runs with that theme, illustrating that through faith, many people do find the forgiveness and freedom from guilt that they so desperately want and need. Also, it helps tremendously that the author doesn't heave all this on the heroine's shoulders. Brand isn't exactly squeaky clean either. He found God after surviving the Civil War, and has worked hard to change his life, live by Christian principles, and raise his two children after his wife dies. He's a good man. A strong man. And just the sort of man that Laura needs.
The "God Stuff" is actually fairly subtle for most of the book. Brand's a preacher, so obviously there are moments where he is in reflection or prayer - but it's never heavy-handed or overly preachy. I never felt like the author was trying to convert me. That being said, the "God Stuff" does get more pronounced at the end, and also a tinch annoying since the theme of forgiveness is extended to Laura seeking it. Color me crazy, but I felt the woman had nothing to apologize for. Period. What happened to her started when she was but a child, and as she grew to adulthood, she took one of the extremely few options available to her to build a new life for herself. Of course, we're talking 19th century America here. It's not exactly a shock, or historical inaccurate, that women with Laura's past were often wrongly "blamed" for it. Heck, that crap (sadly and all too often) still goes on today.
The writing here is crisp and straight-forward, although on occasion some "telling" creeps in (over "showing") and the author takes a moment to Series-Info-Dump in the second chapter (while the start of a new series, this book is loosely connected to two previous releases). Also, there were moments where I wanted more of Laura's and Brand's past to be explored, but I'm not sure how well such sordid details would play to the inspirational reading crowd. I'm a bit of a tragic angst junkie in romances, and I couldn't help but want the author to dig a little deeper below the surface.
For readers looking for a tender and sweet romance, this is one I can easily recommend. I know countless readers who have turned to inspirationals not because of the Christian message, but because they're looking for "cleaner" reads. If you're such a reader, Heart Of Stone is a book that should scratch that itch. The "God Stuff" isn't too terribly heavy (granted, I realize this is subjective as heck), and the premise of the series (four sisters separated by tragedy) is certainly compelling. I know I'm anxiously awaiting the rest of the series.
Final Grade = B
Contest Alert! I'm giving away a copy of Heart Of Stone! Sorry folks, this one is only open to U.S. and Canadian peeps, and the winner will be chosen randomly from comments left on this blog post. Contest will end on Wednesday, March 17.