Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Review: Lady in Waiting by Susan Meissner

Apologies for the lack of review on Monday; I had an essay due at noon and updating my blog was unfortunately neglected. 

Love is a choice you make every day.
Content in her comfortable marriage of twenty-two years, Jane Lindsay had never expected to watch her husband,  rad, pack his belongings and walk out the door of their Manhattan home. But when it happens, she feels powerless to stop him and the course of events that follow Brad’s departure.

Jane finds an old ring in a box of relics from a British jumble sale and discovers a Latin inscription in the band along with just one recognizable word: JaneFeeling an instant connection to the mysterious ring bearing her namesake, Jane begins a journey to learn more about the ring—and perhaps about herself.

In the sixteenth-century, Lucy Day becomes the dressmaker to Lady Jane Grey, an innocent young woman whose fate seems to be controlled by a dangerous political and religious climate, one threatening to deny her true love and pursuit of her own interests.

As the stories of both Janes dovetail through the journey of one ring, it becomes clear that each woman has far more infl uence over her life than she once imagined. It all comes down to the choices each makes despite the realities they face. (Waterbrook Press, September 2010)

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 (Good)

I chose to listen to this novel on audiobook based on my love of dual-time narratives and how much I'd enjoyed The Shape of Mercy by the same author. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more, had I not read The Shape of Mercy, but I'm afraid I couldn't help but compare the two novels. My biggest issue is simply that the modern-day narrative in Lady in Waiting is never directly related to the historical narrative. While the modern protagonist in Meissner's other novel actually connected with the historical protagonist through reading her diaries, Jane doesn't find out who owned the ring until about three-quarters of the way through the book in Lady in Waiting. I think this is what bugged me most about this book. While the reader knows so much about Lucy and Lady Jane Grey, modern-day Jane knows very little about the owner of the ring, even towards the end of the story.

I found myself preferring the historical side of the narrative in this book, if only for the fact that it progressed a lot faster than the modern story. At times it really felt like modern Jane wasn't achieving anything in the early sections of the story, just sitting around and brooding about her situation. Thus, the story of Lucy and Jane was much more appealing initially. It wasn't really until towards the end of the story when Jane decides to take control of her life and make an effort in her marriage that I really felt connected to the growth she had made as a character. 

It's hard to say whether this book was as compelling as other dual-time narratives or The Shape of Mercy since I listened to it on audiobook while cooking and cleaning, so it wasn't the sort of situation where I felt I could put it down and read another book if I wasn't enjoying it. I tend to follow through with an audiobook, and ultimately, I'm glad I did so with Lady in Waiting. It might have taken a while for the contemporary story to get interesting, and it was hard to care about both Janes equally, since their individual stories were told in such large chunks that I was liable to forget about the other character for a while. I do wish that their stories were more connected, and that Jane had discovered more about the ring earlier in the story and had more growth of character at an earlier stage. But despite this, Lady in Waiting was still an interesting story, and I liked the lessons the reader could learn from both of the protagonists' lives. Perhaps I was just getting stressed out with the cartons of chopped tomatoes that refused to open this morning while I finished this audiobook, but I felt that the letters at the end of the story were a bit superfluous. I know they were intended to show how the ring had been forgotten for so long, but I'm not sure if they were entirely necessary. Despite this, I'd still give the book 3.5* and will be looking out for more Meissner novels. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Review: Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Harlequin, January 2013
RATING: 4 out of 5 (Very Good)

Tiffany Cheung hightailed it out of the small town of Everville, New York as soon as she had the opportunity. For years, she’s been trying to make a name for herself in publishing, attempting to put her English degree to good use in Manhattan. But when she loses her job and can’t pay the rent on her apartment, her only option is to move back in with her parents. Her family is embarrassed by the way Tiffany’s career has worked out, but they’re delighted that she’s available to help out at the family diner. Tiffany is not so pleased at this prospect, and when the opportunity arises to tutor her high school crush’s son in English, she immediately accepts.

Tiffany hadn’t realised that Chris Jamieson had returned to Everville, let alone that he’d dropped out of college when his girlfriend got pregnant. Now Chris is a divorced, single-parent attempting to make his dad’s farm into a profitable business venture. Chris doesn’t want to project his lost dreams on to his son, but he can’t help but wish Simon would make of his life than he did. Tiffany tutored Chris in high school, and he hopes that she’ll help Simon make his way through summer school unscathed.

What neither of them expects is for the spark Tiffany and Chris had in high school to be reappear, especially considering that Tiffany has no plans to stay in Everville permanently. Given that Chris is tied to his farm, is there any hope for their romance to last beyond this summer?

Back to the Good Fortune Diner immediately grabbed my attention when I was flipping through the publisher’s catalogue, even though I’ve only dabbled in the Superromance line once before. It might not be obvious from my profile picture, but I’m Anglo-Indian, and I’m always pleased to come across a mixed-race heroine in the romance genre. The fact that Tiffany was Asian-American was enough to inspire me to read this book, and it helped that I’m a big fan of small-town stories and reunion romances.

Tiffany is actually the second Asian-American heroine I’ve encountered this year, since I read Camy Tang’s Sushi for One? back in January. Both novels featured single women nearing the age of thirty and struggling with their families’ projections for their futures. I have to say that I related to Tiffany more so than Lex, the protagonist of Sushi for One? Admittedly, I didn’t think I’d have a lot in common with either woman, given that I got married at the age of twenty and that my Indian family has managed to avoid pigeon-holing me into the traditional career route of doctor/lawyer/minister. But as Back to the Good Fortune Diner progressed, I realised that I had more in common with Tiffany than I initially thought, and I’m sure I won’t be the only reader who is pleasantly surprised by the message in this novel.

Several reviewers have commented on the fact that Tiffany isn’t always the most likeable heroine, and I commend Vicki Essex for taking this risk. Even if I disagreed with some of Tiffany’s actions, I didn’t want to shake her for making such silly decisions because I could understand her reasoning. Tiffany is scared of taking risks, and constantly has her defences up, a throwback to the bullying she experienced as a child. Although the bullying I experienced at school wasn’t linked to my ethnicity (given that my skin is more akin to that of a vampire than my Indian grandfather) I, too, would be shocked if someone who had looked down on me at school suddenly wanted to go on a coffee date. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile our past memories of a person or a place with the present-day reality, so I didn’t blame Tiffany for the way she acted at certain points throughout the novel. I’m sure that anyone who has had trouble fitting in—whether for issues of race or not—will be able to relate to Tiffany’s problems in Everville.

Despite their different racial backgrounds, Tiffany and Chris’s families have a lot in common, mainly their constant projecting of ideas about their children’s futures. This is something I’m so, so thankful that I never experienced, but I didn’t stop me from sympathising with Tiffany and her brother, Daniel, or Chris and his son, Simon. I appreciated that Vicki showed that parents having visions of their children’s futures isn’t limited to any specific ethnic group, and your race doesn’t determine how you deal with parental pressure. Tiffany and Daniel had very different responses, with Tiffany running away to Manhattan and Daniel attempting to align his life to his parents’ vision. On the other hand, both Chris and Simon get defensive about their respective parents pushing them towards a certain future, which causes a lot of tension in their family.

I hadn’t realised that the Superromance novels contained sub-plots, so Daniel’s story was a pleasant surprise. It did take me a while to warm up to Daniel and his dilemma over introducing his non-Asian girlfriend to his family, and admitting to them that he might not want to run the family business when his father retired. Initially I didn’t care much about Daniel and just wanted to get back to Tiffany’s story, but he grew on me as the novel developed.

I realise that I’ve not actually discussed much about the romance yet, which might seem odd given that this is a romance novel. The theme of fitting-in and Tiffany and Chris’s character growth is tied tightly to their romance, with all of the elements depending on each other in order for their relationship to survive. I suppose you could say that their romance is typical of small-town stories where one character returns and discovers that the sparks are still there despite not having seen each other in years. Personally, I like those sorts of romances, and I appreciated that what was keeping Chris and Tiffany from admitting that they wanted their relationship to last was actually their own fears and misconceptions about the future.

This was wrapped up in what I felt was the major theme of the novel—Do you really know what you want? Sometimes we think something is the best path for us in life because it makes the most money, or because it fulfils our parents’ dreams for us, or because it validates our university or career choices. Or sometimes it’s simply because it’s the safest route. I know I’ve been guilty of this lately, and it’s taken me a while to admit to friends and family that I want to devote the next few years of my life working on my writing, rather than getting further qualifications or taking a safe job. Tiffany and Chris’s fears really spoke to me, and I have a feeling that they’ll hit a chord with other readers as well.

There isn’t a lot that I disliked about this novel, but if I had to pin-point anything, I had a couple of issues with the secondary characters. As I mentioned before, it took me a while to warm up to Daniel, but it was quite the opposite with Chris’s father, William. Regardless of how completely un-politically correct he might be, he seemed pretty realistic at the start of the novel. However, he had a complete turn-around later in the book when someone confronted him about his treatment of Tiffany, and I didn’t find it terribly believable, given how adamant he had been about his earlier beliefs. Perhaps if his change of character had been more drawn-out I would have bought it. I also wish that Simon’s conflict had been resolved more. He seemed a little forgotten in the rush to conclude Tiffany and Chris’s romance.

My small issues with the secondary characters are honestly all I can criticise about this novel, which has been a wonderful introduction to the Harlequin Superromance line. If you like romances that feature dynamic characters, believable conflicts and appealing settings, this is definitely a line to check out, and I highly recommend starting with Back to the Good Fortune Diner.

Disclaimer: This is a mass-market romance and contains three, brief sexual scenes, as well as a few instances of foul language.

Review title provided by Harlequin.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Review: Sushi for One? by Camy Tang

Lex Sakai's family is big, nosy, and marriage-minded. When her cousin Mariko gets married, Lex will become the oldest single cousin in the clan. Lex has used her Bible study class on Ephesians to compile a huge list of traits for the perfect man. But the one man she keeps running into doesn't seem to have a single quality on her list. It's only when the always-in-control Lex starts to let God take over that all the pieces of this hilarious romance finally fall into place. (Zondervan, August 2007)

RATING: 3 out of 5 (Good)

I've been wanting to read one of Camy Tang's novels for a while now, simply because there aren't a lot of non-Caucasian protagonists in Christian novels. This might sound like an odd complaint coming from the whitest girl on the planet, but I'm actually 1/8th Indian and have always thought of myself as Anglo-Indian. 

That said, I did struggle to relate to Lex at the start of this novel. I might have a big Indian family, but we don't have the same stereotypical pressures that you'd imagine--instead of a doctor, lawyer and a minister, my grandparents ended up with a nurse, a graphic designer and a musician. And I don't think they mind! As for Lex herself, she and I have very little in common. I am the least athletic person in the world, and had horrible flashbacks of primary school volleyball games while reading this book. I might be clumsy, but I'm nowhere near as bad as Lex, and I couldn't relate to her complaints about being too skinny because my struggle is that my figure is far more curvaceous than that of the average white British woman. And of course, I'm not a thirty-year-old single woman living at home. I'm a twenty-one-year-old married woman renting a house with my husband. 

But I can definitely see how this book would resonate with women in Lex's position. At times it seemed like she had a lot going on in her life, but the issues she faced were typical of single women of her age in today's society, particularly when it came to struggling to buy her own home when her salary at work was cut, and navigating the dating pool. I never really saw much of the dating scene, having married the first guy I dated in college, but it did not sound fun from this book. Even if I couldn't relate to her situation, I could definitely sympathise.

I initially thought this was going to be a fun chick-lit novel about a woman hunting for her ideal man in an attempt to appease her grandmother, but it ended up being a lot more deep than that. The spiritual side of the novel seemed light, but towards the end I began to realise that Lex's desperate search for what she thought was her perfect man had a lesson to teach anybody, single or married. Taking matters into your own hands can be dangerous, and sometimes we do this simply because we don't want to ask God for help and receive an answer we don't like. Whether you're waiting for a boyfriend or a job or a miracle, it's difficult, and sometimes that forces us to make rash decisions and rush into situations we know very little about. This was a definitely a message I needed to hear, since my husband and I are currently looking for a new house, while waiting to hear back from an editor about my manuscript. It's tempting to leap into something, but sometimes it really is best to wait.

Despite my initial worry that I wouldn't find anything to relate to in this book, I was pleasantly surprise by the universal message that came out of Lex's man-hunt. Although I find Lex's big, crazy Asian family a little intimidating, I would rather like to read more about them sometime, even if just for the descriptions of the food. My husband and I probably cook Asian food more often than we eat traditional British meals, so that was definitely one of the appeals with this book. I might not be rushing out to buy the next book in the series, but it will certainly be going on my wishlist. Camy Tang definitely brings something new to the chick-lit market, even if some aspects of this book felt a little over-the-top at times.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Book Review: Threads of Grace by Kelly Long

Thomas Nelson, February 2013.
RATING: 4 out of 5 (Very Good)

Seth Wyse has longed to court widow Grace Beiler ever since she arrived in their Pennsylvania community, but his imaginings of their life together are nothing like the reality. When Seth discovers that a clause in Grace’s husband’s will means that she may have to relinquish custody of her autistic son to her harsh brother-in-law, Seth knows he has to help her in any way he can. Grace isn’t so keen on marrying the young, charismatic Seth, but she’ll do anything to keep her son safe. But each of them brings secrets into their marriage of convenience; for Grace, this means the truth about her first marriage and her husband’s brutality, and for Seth, it is his forbidden love of painting. Grace is scared to let herself fall in love with Seth, and Seth knows he needs extra care when it comes approaching his new wife. Together, they must figure out how to forge a life together, and protect Grace’s son, Abel, from his uncle.

Having read the second Patch of Heaven novel back in March 2011, it was a long wait for Threads of Grace. I will start out by saying that I didn’t enjoy the third instalment in the series quite as much as the previous two. I’m not sure if this is just because I didn’t connect with Grace quite as well as Sarah and Lilly—the heroines of the previous two novels—or simply because my reading tastes have changed a little. Either way, Threads of Grace was still a very enjoyable read. It felt a bit shorter than Kelly’s previous novels, but in all honesty, this could just be because I gobbled it up in less than twenty-four hours.

One of the things I so admired about Kelly’s second novel, Lilly’s Wedding Quilt, was that it was one of the first Amish novels I’d come across that explored some rather edgy or taboo topics. Two years later, I’m pleased to see that more authors are delving into previous unexplored issues (teenage pregnancy in Beth Wiseman’s His Love Endures Forever and infidelity in Kathleen Fuller’s Faithful to Laura are two recent examples). But as with Lilly’s Wedding Quilt, I was pleased to see that Threads of Grace addressed some contemporary issues that are just as relevant to the Amish as they are to us Englishers, and without sounding preachy. Grace’s abusive marriage was dealt with incredibly sensitively, and I found her hesitance in her relationship with Seth rather realistic considering her past experience of marriage. Those who have autistic friends or relatives will be pleased with how Grace’s son, Abel, is depicted, and I know that the descriptions are realistic because Kelly has openly talked about being the mother to autistic children. One thing that I know I can rely on with Kelly’s writing is that she doesn’t sugar-coat the Amish lifestyle, and she depicts her Amish characters as men and women who struggle with very similar issues to those of other faiths and lifestyles.

What surprised me most about this novel was that it featured yet another marriage of convenience. As Kelly has shown in Lilly’s Wedding Quilt and her novella in the An Amish Love collection, she’s great at rendering realistic contemporary marriages of convenience, but I didn’t expect to come across two plots a similar vein in the same series. Despite this, I enjoyed reading about Grace and Seth’s gently blossoming love for each other. Although I didn’t connect with Grace as well as I did with Lilly, I appreciated being able to witness her slowly coming to trust Seth. The scenes in which Seth and Abel interacted were particularly heart-warming, but I did wish we’d had more insight into Seth’s struggles and flaws. Although the details about his love of painting and Grace’s dilemma over whether she should allow her husband to teach her son to paint were interesting, his love of painting seemed to be his only major flaw. He seemed just a bit too perfect, especially considering what we knew about his wild past.

My biggest gripe with this novel probably has to be the subplot about Grace’s younger sister, Violet. Violet follows Grace out to Pennsylvania when her parents die in an accident, and Seth’s family invites her to live with them. Initially Violet seemed to have a lot of potential, but something about her storyline just fell flat and didn’t resonate with me or grab my interest. At Seth and Grace’s wedding, Violet spots an attractive young Amish man and makes it her mission to make him fall in love with her. She spends the rest of the novel pursuing this young man and convincing him to court her. The storyline never really concludes, so I have to assume that it’ll be picked up again in the next novel, but all in all, it really felt like it was just filler for in between the sections about Seth and Grace. I wish I could say better things about this part of the novel, but I just never found it terribly interesting.

Although I felt that certain aspects of this novel could have been improved on to make Threads of Grace a more compelling read, it was still worth the two-year wait. Fans of realistic Amish fiction will be pleased at the way the novel explores the issues of spousal abuse and autism, and Grace and Seth’s sweet romance is sure to warm every romantic’s heart. I hope this is a series that Kelly plans to continue, and will be keeping my eye out for her next offering.

Review title provided by Thomas Nelson.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Book Review: Family Blessings by Anna Schmidt

Her four stepchildren are thrilled when they learn an ice cream shop will be opening in their small Amish community. But widow Pleasant Obermeier isn't so pleased. Spending time with handsome shop owner Jeremiah Troyer is too much for a woman who's only ever been wounded by love. And now he wants to use her baking skills in his shop? Out of the question A harsh childhood left Jeremiah convinced that family life wasn't for him. Yet something about the Obermeiers moves his heart. If he can win Pleasant's trust and learn to trust himself, then he may gain the ultimate blessing--a lifetime of love. (Love Inspired, October 2011)

RATING: 3 out of 5 (Above Average)

This was a nice, easy read, but I didn't find it quite as compelling as the first book in the series. Part of my problem might just have been that I finished Love Comes to Paradise by Mary Ellis--which I absolutely adored--right before I started this book, and nothing really would have lived up to Love Comes to Paradise. I liked the unique details in the story, such as Jeremiah's ice-cream shop and the historical context of the depression and how it affected the Amish community. It was also interesting to find a book that acknowledged that abusive relationships can exist among Amish communities, even if it was sad that the community knew how Merle was treating his family and never had intervened. But ultimately, the romance itself wasn't as engaging as others I've come across in the Love Inspired Historical line, and I felt that the final conflict just stretched the story out rather than adding to it. I have enjoyed reading the Amish Brides of Celery Fields series and would quite like to find out what happens to Greta and Lydia, even if Pleasant's story wasn't as interesting as Hannah's. Ultimately, this wasn't the sort of book that gripped me, making it very easy to put down, but it was still a relaxing read and a solid addition to the LIH line.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Review: Love Comes to Paradise by Mary Ellis

Harvest House, February 2013.
RATING: 5 out of 5 (Near Perfect)

Nora King has made a lot of mistakes in life, but she’s determined to start over again. Her move to Paradise, Missouri is partly influenced by this decision, but also motivated by the hope to meet the handsome and charismatic Elam Detweiler again. Nora fell for Elam back in her sister’s Amish community in Maine, but Nora has changed since then, and Elam’s wild antics don’t seem to have the same appeal that they did back in Maine. Now that she’s immersed in helping her friend, Emily, run her bakery, Nora feels like she’s been given a second chance at life—especially when Lewis Miller arrives in Paradise with the intent of courting Nora. Lewis held a candle for Nora back in Maine, but Nora hadn’t been interested in life in his tiny, conservative community. But Lewis in Missouri sounds like a recipe that could work out for both of them, if only Elam would stop interfering. But can Nora be honest with Lewis about the events that caused her to leave her home community in Pennsylvania? Or will a series of drastic occurrences in Paradise cause her to worry that God is finally sending his wrath to punish Nora for her transgressions? As the Paradise community attempts to make sense of their current difficulties, Nora also has to figure out whether she can truly forge a future with Lewis, or if her past has spoiled her chance of happiness.

Mary Ellis is fast becoming one of my favourite Amish authors, not just because of her skill at creating believable characters and rendering realistic Amish communities, but also because of how challenged and uplifted I feel when I read one of her novels. Although the cover of Love Comes to Paradise might sell itself as a predictable romance novel, I was encouraged to find that Mary had decided to tackle several unconventional topics within her latest volume. 

Although Love Comes to Paradise is the second novel in the New Beginnings series, it is set in an entirely different community from its predecessor, and enough is summarised about Nora’s past to allow new readers to delve straight into this novel. That said, I would recommend the first book, Living in Harmony, if only for the fact that I found the novel equally compelling and challenging. One of the aspects of this series that I think will be of particular appeal to avid Amish fans is that each novel is set in a new location, starting in Maine, then heading to Missouri, and moving on to Kentucky in the third book. Considering how many Amish novels are already on the market, it’s difficult to come up with unique concepts, but the idea of sisters settling in different states following the death of their parents is definitely one that will appeal to fans of the genre.

Nora’s story is one that I’m sure will strike a chord with many women, and I applaud Mary for being willing to discuss a slightly taboo topic and admit that even Amish women struggle to remain pure before marriage. Nora fell in love with a boy in her home community and let their relationship go too far, and now feels tainted by her past. Some Christians—even Amish ones—can be quite unforgiving of past mistakes of a sexual nature, and I truly felt for Nora as she was torn between her desire to fall in love and marry an honest man, and her feelings of not being good enough for a man like Lewis. Mary handles this topic sensitively and realistically, concluding Nora’s character arc in an altogether satisfying manner. It’s often a cliché in the Christian market for a girl who allows her relationship to go too far to either end up pregnant, or to reform her pushy boyfriend into a good Christian and marry him. But this isn’t the way it always works out in real life, and I appreciated that Nora’s story showed that there is always redemption and grace available for those who make mistakes.

One of the “Pros” I listed for this novel over at The Christian Manifesto was that it acknowledged that even the Amish are flawed human beings. This aspect of the book isn’t limited to Nora’s chequered past, but extends to a minister in the Paradise community. To begin with, I thought that the portrayal of this character was rather typical of Amish fiction, given that bishops, deacons and ministers are often shown to be strict and unyielding when it comes to change or errors made by members of their congregation. Instead, I was treated to a challenging lesson about God’s wrath and mercy, and how we can often read situations the way we want to, rather than seeking God’s advice and interpretation. Both Solomon, an Amish minister, and Emily, the friend whom Nora is staying with in Paradise, interpret a series of natural disasters in their community to be a sign of God’s disapproval of their sins. In particular, Solomon fears that the damage to their crops and their community suggests that God does not want them to interact with Englishers on a regular basis. Emily comes to agree with this belief, having researched the history of their Amish ancestors in Missouri and found it worrying. But Emily takes this belief in God’s wrath further, fearing that her struggle to conceive is God’s punishment for mistakes she made in her past. We often have a tendency to see the worst in every situation, and sometimes this can extend to believing God causes bad situations to occur as a reaction to our mistakes. Considering that some authors can paint the Amish as being perfect in their faith, it was a nice change to see Amish characters—including a minister!—struggling and stumbling in their attempts to understand God and the world around them. 

I can’t wrap this review up without commenting on how endearing the secondary characters in this novel were, particularly Nora’s friends Emily and Violet. Even though Emily is technically Nora’s hostess, she doesn’t shy away from speaking the truth, and her twisted and snarky sense of humour made for a great rapport between the two women. Violet immediately grabbed my attention in the first chapter of the book, not only because she reminded me of another hilarious character who is determined to succeed despite her ailments (Sarah in the Casson Family series, a must-read for all preteens!). Violet had such a vibrant personality, and although she never pushed Nora out of the limelight, I do wish she’d get a whole novel of her own, or at least a novella or short story so we know how she’s getting on in life. It was encouraging to read about how a disabled woman managed in an Amish community, and I loved the friendship between Nora and Violet.

If you like your Amish fiction to be a bit more edgy and to address situations that can affect anyone, Amish and English alike, then you won’t be disappointed by Love Comes to Paradise. Traditional readers of Amish fiction will also be pleased by the plentiful descriptions of baking and Amish scenery, along with Nora’s love story. Love Comes to Paradise marks the third of Mary Ellis’s novels that I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I’m only sorry that I didn’t discover her earlier. Providing a unique voice and a deft skill in crafting realistic characters and engaging stories, I hope that it won’t be long before Mary Ellis receives the recognition she deserves. 

This novel has been nominated for The Christian Manifesto's 2013 Lime Award for Excellence in Fiction!

Review title provided by Harvest House.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Review: The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury

Molly Allen lives alone in Portland, but her heart is back in Franklin, Tennessee, where five years ago she walked away from a man she cannot forget, a rare sort of love she hasn’t found since.

Ryan Kelly lives in Franklin and spends plenty of time at The Bridge—the oldest bookstore in historic downtown Franklin—remembering the long hours he and Kelly once spent there.

Now, Ryan and Molly’s favorite bookstore is in trouble. For thirty years, Charlie and Donna Barton have run The Bridge, providing the people of middle Tennessee with coffee, conversation, and shelves of good books—even through dismal book sales and the rise of eBooks. Then in May a flood tore through Franklin and destroyed nearly every book in the store. By Christmastime, the bank threatens to pull the lease on The Bridge and is about to take the Bartons’ house as well. Despondent, Charlie considers ending his life. And in the face of tragedy, miracles begin to unfold. (Howard, October 2012)

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 (Average)

I apologise in advance, because this review ended up turning into an article about my experience with reading Karen Kingsbury novels. It prompted an interesting discussion about conversion experiences over on GoodReads, if anyone is interested.

Although I'm a reader, writer, reviewer and historian of Christian Fiction, I've barely read any novels written by Karen Kingsbury, who is apparently "America's #1 Inspirational Novelist". Part of this, I believe, is because I discovered Christian Fiction through the Amish and Historical genres, and have only just started to branch out into contemporary novels. Although, technically, Karen was one of the first Christian authors that I read, long before I was truly aware of the scope of the Christian Fiction genre. I read another of her Christmas novellas, Sarah's Song, back in 2009. It was what I would describe as an easy read, a sweet story for Christmas, but not one that particularly stuck with me after I'd finished it. 

But I was prompted by many of my online friends who were big fans of KK to try one of her full-length novels, and checked Like Dandelion Dust out of the library early in 2012. Unfortunately, I wasn't terribly bowled over by this book either, although it is one of the books that her fans typically cite as being among her best works. Like, Sarah's Song, this novel was an easy read, but as much as I liked the concept of the story, I found it very preachy. I love reading novels about how Christians struggle with realistic, contemporary issues and how this challenges their faith and how their faith strengthens them. But I'm not a big fan of conversion stories, partly because I don't get the same kind of encouragement from reading about previously unbelieving people coming to Christ as I do from reading about people who are already Christians (like myself), but partly because I feel like some of these books present an unrealistic idea of what conversion is really like. A lot of emphasis is placed on the moment of conversion, both in Christian Fiction and in many Christian denominations, and this is something I've never had as I grew up in a Christian home and probably made a personal commitment to Christ when I was about seven. But my husband didn't grow up in a Christian family and didn't become a Christian until he was at university. Neither of us can pinpoint the specific time or date when he became a Christian, because the growth of his faith was a gradual experience, that came about through attending church, praying and becoming friends with other Christians. He has a very strong faith, but there was no dramatic conversion moment in his life. I'm sure that some people do have a "conversion moment", and I know that some of these people won't believe my husband's faith is genuine because he came to believe in Jesus gradually, rather than having one giant moment of repentance. I don't doubt that he repented of his sins as he came to believe in Jesus, but I feel like a lot of Christian novels put pressure on people to have a great conversion story, which isn't always the case. 

But despite my struggles with Like Dandelion Dust, I endeavoured to give KK another try, especially since my local library system stocked several of her books, which is unusual in the UK. One of my friends from my hometown mentioned that her local library had stocked The Bridge, so on the off-chance that my library had done the same, I looked the title up and was surprised to find that they'd ordered three copies for our region! Since I'm a firm believer in giving an author at least three tries - especially when she's been as influential to the Christian Fiction genre as KK has - and since my library actually owned her latest release, I decided to reserve a copy and give her another shot.

My first surprise when this book arrived was at how large the font was. I don't have brilliant eyesight, and unless I'm reading from my Kindle, I normally have to wear my glasses when I read. This wasn't the case with The Bridge, and I actually felt self-conscious reading this book on the bus as I was sure the people across the aisle from me could read my book because the font was truly that large! My husband commented that the book looked like a children's book because of the font, and I know what he means. So although this book technically has 232 pages, I think it would probably be more like 150 if the font was a more typical size. Factor in the Acknowledgements, and the blank pages between each chapter, this book isn't that long, even for a novella. Even so, the story felt a little padded-out.

The first 100 pages focus on the backstory of the four characters - Molly, Ryan, and Donna and Charlie, who own the bookshop. Ultimately, I actually found Donna and Charlie's story the most interesting, mainly because I found their pain of losing their bookshop more compelling than Molly and Ryan each reminiscing about their time at college seven years ago. I struggle with stories that focus on characters who have been kept apart for years due to miscommunication and the dreaded Big Misunderstanding, which is honestly my ultimate least favourite plot device. I know that some people will rationalise Molly and Ryan's separation by saying that they were young and immature and only at college, and people their age make mistakes. If that helps more mature readers to enjoy this book, I'm glad for them. But as a college student who got married, wrote a book, became the Fiction Editor of a Christian e-zine and managed a household while finishing up her degree, I can safely say that we're not all like that. Because of our differences, I struggled to relate to Molly and Ryan simply because I would have handled their situation so incredibly differently. But because miscommunication and misunderstandings are such commonly used catalysts in romance novels, I have to assume that I lot of people make mistakes like Molly and Ryan, and therefore a lot of readers probably can relate to them a lot better than I did. 

After the first 100 pages passed and the entire backstory for the novella had been summarised, the story actually got started. Before this point, I was so tempted to give this book 2*, and I actually had to push myself to keep reading. It really just didn't grab my attention. But once the story got started, I actually rather enjoyed it. It's predictable and everything gets tied up neatly in a little bow at the end, but it was a sweet, heartwarming Christmas novella, and I can see the appeal of that. There's not a lot to say about the actual plot, as you know everything has to work out well in the end - it's a Karen Kingsbury Christmas novella, after all! But I do wonder how many people would struggle to get past the first 100 pages of backstory and actually get into the plot itself. 

This story was cute, but very forgettable. And from the reviews I've read, it seems like this isn't actually a typical KK novel. So where do I go from here? I've read a couple of Christmas novellas and one of her standalone books (which are apparently her best works) and I'm still not overly impressed with KK. I feel like I want to give her yet another chance, to see if something does speak to me. She's obviously touched the lives of a lot of readers with her "Life Changing Fiction" (I'm sorry, but who trademarks that kind of phrase? It seems a little odd!) but I've yet to find any of her books much more than sweet, easy reads. I'd like to be able to just catch a glimpse of what makes her such a popular writer with Christian women. As it stands, this book didn't really do that. 

Any recommendations?