Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Where Hearts are Free - Golden Keyes Parsons

The odds are stacked against Bridget and Philippe reuniting. But God has a plan for them if they'll only believe.

It’s 1687, in the burgeoning town of Philadelphia, and for seven years, Bridget Barrington has watched with growing affection as Philippe Clavell worked as an indentured servant for her father, a wealthy landowner.

Her father rejects her request for Philippe to be a potential suitor as he has none of the qualities Mr. Barrington hoped for his daughter's future husband, the least of which is a respectable income.

Heartbroken, Bridget accedes to her parents’ wishes and gets engaged to a man she does not love. However, Bridget's husband-to-be does not love her, but only her wealth.

But there's always light in the midst of darkness for those who have faith. This stunning historical romance concludes the gripping Darkness to Light series.

The love that Bridget and Philippe have for each other is not respected by their society, she being the heir to a promising plantation and he a mere indentured servant. Philippe is well aware that their relationship cannot go anywhere, so when he is offered his freedom in return for separation from Bridget he leaves the Barrington estate without a second glance. But little does he know that this will plunge Bridget into a marriage of convenience to a disreputable man. Will Philippe discover this in time to rescue her from the clutches of her husband-to-be? Will God provide a way for these star-crossed lovers to be together? 

This lovely historical romance definitely surpassed my expectations! I'm a history geek and a romantic at heart but I will admit that the blurb sounded a bit cheesy, even for my standards. However, once I was a third of the way into the story I became entirely immersed and didn't want to put it down. I wanted to find out whether Bridget and Philippe would ever get together, and if Edward would be outed for being the scoundrel that he truly was. I will admit that it took me a while to warm up to Bridget and I would have preferred more interaction between the couple before they were separated to fully convince me of their love for each other. Because of this, it took me a while to be come completely interested in their conflict, but by the end of the novel I definitely thought that it was worth the read.

This is the third in a series about a noble Huguenot family from France who escape Catholic persecution during the 17th century, but it can easily be read as a standalone book. And as I've studied this particular period of history at university I can say that Parsons has clearly done her research and produced an authentic novel. Bridget's marriage of convinience, I felt, was particularly appropriate for the period and the conflicts she encountered were probably quite common for a woman in her situation. I was also impressed that the author dared to deal with the historical conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and did so without favouring either side. This is an issue that few authors dare to attempt in the Inspirational genre, for fear of offending people, but Parsons was incredibly delicate yet honest with her examination of the topic. I will caution that this is definitely a Christian novel, and the characters frequently seek God's guidance and pray to him in difficult situations. I thought her portrayal of faith was excellent, but non-Christians may find this unappealing.

I would definitely read more from this author and I'm interested in the rest of the Darkness to Light trilogy. This is more than your typical inspirational historical romance, dealing with some difficult situations and a time period that's not commonly featured in romantic novels. If this is a genre or topic that you're interested in then be sure to put Golden Keyes Parsons on your wishlist! 8/10

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Remembering the Babysitters Club

Although I was a nineties kid and a noughties teen, I, like hundreds of thousands of girls across the globe, was affected by the work of Ann M. Martin. Her Babysitters Club series was first published in 1986 and sold over 176 million copies worldwide. Although I also gobbled up Sweet Valley and Nancy Drew stories, it was the world of preteen babysitters that truly enchanted me. My dad used to moan at me for reading books that weren’t particularly educational or enlightening, but I’d have to say that I’d encourage my own daughters to read this series. 

While so many young teens read about gossiping, stealing boyfriends, buying clothes and joining the popular crowd, the adventures of Kristy, Mary Anne and their fellow sitters focused on having slumber parties, looking after younger siblings, making friends and discovering new talents. Even though the girls did have crushes on boys and go shopping at the mall, there is more to life for the BSC. Kristy coaches a softball team, Mary Anne loves to read and knit, Claudia takes art classes, Stacey is a Mathlete, Dawn cares about environmental issues, Mallory writes stories, Jessi is a ballerina and Abby plays soccer. And of course, they all love to babysit! 

The focus on babysitting, I believe, shows how much the girls care about their families. Kristy always jumps at the chance to babysit for her stepsiblings, Karen and Andrew. Sure, Claudia always moans about her oldest sister, Janine, and Mary Anne resents her father’s over protectiveness of her, but they love them really. The girls have fights with their parents and siblings and friends but ultimately they always work things out. Even when Stacey makes friends with the popular crowd and leaves the club for several books, she returns because she does care about her old friends. Friendship is the basis of the club – there is no bitching, back-stabbing or gossiping here. Sure, the girls argue, but only as much as a normal group of a friends; a group that has foundations in more than just fashion and boys. 

As a teenager, I was definitely a Mallory. I had glasses and braces at the age of 11 and always felt rather dorky. I wore rather outrageous outfits that I'm sure looked hideous on me, just because I was trying to be "cool" like my older friends. But I also loved to read and write tons of stories. Now I think I'm more of a Mary Anne - I'm a bit conservative, sometimes shy, have a steady boyfriend and love both books and cats! This was the wonderful thing about the BSC - there was always a girl that you could relate to. There was even a boy babysitter, Logan Bruno, to appeal to the male audience (as well as Shannon, another extra sitter who wasn't mentioned quite as often). I actually knew one boy who liked to read these books!

Thinking of boys and the BSC reminds me of the time that my friends and I tried to start a Babysitters Club Fan Club. There were four of us who loved the books - three ten-year-old girls and one boy in the year above us. We made badges out of cardboard and safety-pins and wore them on our school uniforms, probably causing everyone to make fun of us. We tried to have club meetings at school and I vaguely recall being allowed to meet in the library at break time, so I suppose our teachers must have been happy that we were appreciating some form of literature. We even had three newsletters - two of them word-processed on our dad's computers and one laboriously hand-written and copied several times. Alas, the club failed after a while. But the amazing thing was that at least five kids who had never read the books wanted to be part of our club just because it sounded like fun. Clubs have always had some sort of appeal, which explains the popularity of the Babysitters Club. From the Sleepover Club to the Unicorn Club, children have adored uniting because of a common interest. And while me and my friends weren't old enough to babysit (we may have been almost the same age as Mal and Jessi but this was 2001!) we formed a fan club for the books that we loved the most.

The Babysitters Club still unites people all over the world - there are websites where fans blog, snark and generally chat about their favourite children's book series.  Just check out the list of book blogs that I follow and you'll find a few there. The love of the Babysitters Club series did not end when the final book was published in 2000. In fact, ten years later, Ann M. Martin released a prequel to the series, The Summer Before, which I read earlier this year and was incredibly satisfied with. The girls were exactly as I remembered them and Ann hasn't lost her touch after all these years. Although the books were ghostwritten as the series picked up popularity and thus slightly lost their Ann-touch, I still enjoy them as they contain the typical BSC values of friendship and families first, and also the general craziness of thirteen-year-olds who are allowed to babysit! 

I'd never allow a preteen to babysit my kids - nor would I allow my kids to babysit until they're at least sixteen! But this doesn't dampen my love for these wonderful books. Yes, they can be unrealistic, and yes, caricatures appear with more frequency as the novels became ghostwritten. But these books inspired me and made me happy when I was a dorky, Mallory-like child. And today, while I'm balancing John Milton's Paradise Lost and Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, I may find myself turning to Mallory's Mystery Diary or Claudia and the Genius of Elm Street to cheer myself up!

Check out Babysitters Club Week at Bri Meets Books.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Rachel's Top Ten Holiday Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish

Each week they post a new Top Ten list that one of their bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish will answer. Everyone is welcome to join. All they ask is that you link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out other bloggers lists! If you don't have a blog, just post your answers as a comment. Have fun with it! It's a fun way to get to know your fellow bloggers. Don't worry if you don't have ten or if you have more than ten! Post what you can!

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott This was one of my favourite books as a child and I try to reread it at least once a year. I don't always manage this, but I always make sure that I watch the film over the Christmas holidays! Although the book doesn't focus primarily on Christmas there are several Christmas scenes throughout and it just has a lovely, family-orientated, wholesome feel that is perfect for the Christmas season.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery This is another book that doesn't focus on Christmas but has wonderful values in it that I always associate with the season. Another childhood favourite!

3. Christmas with Anne: and Other Holiday Stories by L. M. Montgomery This is a wonderful little collection of stories that I read last Christmas and adored. Two of the stories come from the "Anne" novels but he rest are taken from newspapers and magazines that Montgomery wrote for. The stories focus on events surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year. The themes can be rather same-y but I'd recommend reading one every few days for the month of December and it'll definitely get you in the mood for Christmas and cheer you up! 

4. A Simple Amish Christmas by Vannetta Chapman I read this a few months ago as a review book for Abingdon Press and loved it! I'm a fan of Amish fiction, romances and Christmas stories so this was perfect for me. Check out this review to find out more.

5. Grace by Shelley Shepard Gray This is another recent read with a wonderful message and Christmassy setting. Check out the review for more information if you're a fan of Amish romances and happily ever afters.

6. Akin to Anne: Tales of Other Orphans by L. M. Montgomery You may have guessed who one of my favourite comfort-read authors is! I just think that Montgomery suits the holiday season perfectly with her sweet stories and wholesome values. This is a collection of stories about orphans who either get reunited with family members or make their own new families. Plenty of happy endings and will definitely put a smile on your face. Click here for more information. 

7. The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows I read this around Christmas 2009 so for that reason will always associate this book with Christmas. I do think it suits the season as it's an easy read and made me smile a lot. Juliet, the main character, reminded me a lot of Jo March so perhaps that's why this book reminds me of Christmas.

8. White Boots by Noel Streatfeild One of my favourite children's authors, although I didn't read this book until 2008. As I read this over Christmas I, again, associate it with that season but I'm fairly certain that it was also set in winter. Anything by Streatfeild is perfect for the holidays, much like Alcott and Montgomery.

9. Forever Rose by Hilary McKay McKay is a severely underrated kids author who I absolutely adore. This is the fifth book in her Casson Family series but you could easily pick it up and read it as a standalone novel. This book is partly set over Christmas and I loved the angst that Rose had because her class teacher hated the holiday season.

10. Mallory's Christmas Wish by Ann M. Martin Indeed, I was a massive Babysitters Club fanatic as a child and this book has always stuck with me because it was one of the first I ever read. Incidentally, I will be blogging about the BSC later today - check back sometime this evening!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Effi Briest - Theodor Fontane

Unworldly young Effi Briest is married off to Baron von Innstetten, an austere and ambitious civil servant twice her age, who has little time for his new wife. Isolated and bored, Effi finds comfort and distraction in a brief liaison with Major Crampas, a married man with a dangerous reputation. But years later, when Effi has almost forgotten her affair, the secret returns to haunt her, with fatal consequences. Considered to be Fontane’s greatest novel, Effi Briest is a humane, unsentimental portrait of a young woman torn between her duties as a wife and mother and the instincts of her heart.

I'm afraid that reading this immediately after Madame Bovary may have influenced my opinion on this book. It was impossible not to compare the two, and I definitely prefer Emma to Effi. While I felt sorry for Effi, pushed into marriage to a much older man when she was barely a child, I couldn't help but find her selfish and immature. Even her husband refers to her as a "spoilt young woman"! I'm sure that Effi had motivations for her actions but I never really felt like I understood them; Fontane didn't really get inside her head the way that Flaubert did with Emma. Although this novel offered a fascinating insight into late 19th century German aristocratic society I found it difficult to connect with the characters in comparison to other novels I've read from the period. I sympathised with their plight at being victims of the society in which they lived, but I never got to know them well enough to really care about them. There were, however, some wonderful descriptions of the scenery. I have the feeling that Fontane is better at describing locations than he is the emotions of his characters. 7/10

Monday, 15 November 2010

Shout out for Amish fans!

Many of my followers will be aware of the Fans of Amish Fiction group at GoodReads. (If not, get over there!) We discuss our favourite authors and books from the genre and discover new ones, as well as discussing a book together each month. We've even been fortunate enough to have the wonderful authors Marta Perry and Barbara Cameron join in with our discussions! At the moment we're reading Barbara Cameron's debut novel A Time to Love, which I reviewed a few months ago. From my experience, the authors in this particular genre are incredibly generous both with their wealth of knowledge on the subject and their desire to bless us with books! As an example of this, I'd like to direct you to a giveaway that author Gayle Roper is holding at my friend Jodie's blog All Things Amish. Jodie is a fellow GoodReader who has just started blogging about the Amish, aiming to provide all the essential information about the genre on one website. I encourage you to check out the giveaway and read the interviews with Gayle! 

I'd also like to give a little shout out to my fellow Amish GoodReads bloggers: Camille, Diane, Brenda, Lorie, Kristy, Jodie, Liz and Sam. Check out their blogs; you may discover some excellent new books.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A Celebration of the Simple Life - Wanda E. Brunstetter

Join Brunstetter in celebrating the simple life of the Plain People! Pairing devotional readings and Scripture from the KJV with her original poetry, this gift book encourages you to reflect on your attitudes, responsibilities, and Christian duty in light of the Amish philosophy of simplicity. A breath of fresh air for those under stress! 

Such a lovely little book, I only wish I could have held the real thing rather than an eBook. This is a wonderful devotional that I know I'd love to own. There are over thirty reflections under the headings "Attitude", "Responsibility" and "Christian Duty" on subjects such as "A Humble Attitude" and "Responsibility to Fellowship." Each reflection includes a poem from Wanda Brunstetter, a Bible verse, a note from Brunstetter relating the scripture to an example in the Amish lifestyle and a small prayer. This is all completed with absolutely stunning photography that will simply take your breath away; I simply cannot emphasise enough how beautiful these pictures are. Although I'm not a fan of Brunstetter's fictional work, she does have a wealth of knowledge about the Amish and I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the Amish or loves reading novels about them or anyone who just wants to simplify their life. This would make the perfect gift or stocking filler as it isn't particularly large or expensive. I only wish I'd known about this when I was making my Christmas list! 10/10

Many thanks to Barbour and NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review this book.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Long Time Coming - Vanessa Miller

Faithful Christian Deidre Clark-Morris is a professional career-minded woman with a loving husband and beautiful home, but no children. Kenisha Smalls has lived in poverty her entire life and has three children by three different men. After learning that Kenisha has inoperable cervical cancer, the relationship between these two women becomes a catalyst of hope, leading them both to a place of redemption and healing.

When Deirdre and Kenisha first meet it seems like they have nothing in common, but circumstances conspire to bring them together and build a surprising friendship. Deirdre is a high school principal with a lovely husband, but she's depressed because a medical condition has left her unable to have children. Kenisha is scraping through life as a single mother on benefits, having birthed three children to three different fathers, and has just been diagnosed with inoperable cervical cancer. Deirdre initially stereotypes Kenisha, thinking that it's impossible for such a woman to be a good mother, but she finds herself drawn to her son, Jamal. When Jamal calls Deirdre for help when his mother becomes ill, she begins to see Kenisha for who she really is and finds herself called to help her. But it may well be Kenisha who ends up helping her... 

This is the first book I've read from the author, and also my first foray into the African-American genre. As far as I know, we don't have any race-specific genres in Britain, and although I've read some excellent books by black authors such as Dorothy Koomson and Malorie Blackman, I know that they don't specifically aim their books at a certain race. For this, I'm quite please as I doubt there's anyone out there aiming books at someone who is half Scottish, three-eighths English and one-eighth Indian! However, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and truly don't think that you have to be African-American in order to read it.

This book will really pull at your heartstrings, as would any story about someone in their twenties dying of cancer. I really felt for Kenisha and her anguish at leaving her children without a mother. Although there were a few moments where I had tears in my eyes, I wouldn't say that this is a depressing book. The way that Kenisha and Deirdre helped each other deal with their problems was incredibly uplifting. Each of them made judgements about the other but were able to overcome these in order to become friends and support each other. The character dynamics in this story were excellent, and Kenisha's children were adorable. I always find that children brighten up a story!

I did have a few problems with this book, namely in the last third. Although I really enjoy Christian fiction, I felt that a lot of this story focused on Deirdre trying to convert Kenisha and in some places it almost came across in a "Bible-bashing" manner, where Deirdre felt that conversion was more important than simply being there for her friend and letting God shine through her actions. I'm a firm believer of showing Christ to people through the way you speak and act, and waiting for them to ask you questions, rather than trying to talk about God all the time. This was mainly present in the last third of the book, and although it didn't make me dislike it, I do feel that it brings my rating down a bit. I also found the epilogue incredibly cheesy! I do like a happy ending but this overdid it a bit.

Although I felt that this novel had its faults, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone looking for unconventional Christian fiction. Kenisha isn't your typical heroine, but she's incredibly endearing and you'll find yourself rooting for her to let go of the past and to find peace with everyone in her life. I found it more difficult to relate to Deirdre as I felt that she'd caused so many of the issues she had in her life, but it was excellent seeing her grow as a character, and watching her overcome stereotypes and judgements in order to become friends with Kenisha. I also appreciate that the author felt brave enough to deal with so many popular issues in our society - drug addiction, single-parenthood, alcoholism, poverty, death, cancer, street crime, infertility - and that she did so in a tactful manner. So many Christian novels focus on "safe" topics, so I admire Vanessa Miller for stepping out of the mould. Definitely an author to watch! 8/10

Many thanks to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review this book.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Jewel Box - Anna Davis

Grace Rutherford is the one and only Diamond Sharp, the 'It' girl of 1920s London, whose weekly newspaper column delights readers with tales of her nightly escapades: the dinners, the dancing, the hairdos, the fashion, the men... 

Caught up in the glitz and glamour of the day, Grace begins a passionate affair with charming, flirtatious American author Dexter O'Connell. Soon, though, she finds herself falling for John Cramer, the charismatic neighbour her widowed younger sister adores. Irresistibly drawn to both men, Grace discovers that they are bitter enemies. As she becomes tangled up in the mesh of secrets and lies that binds them together, she must try to find out which man, if either, she can trust.

From a glance at the cover this appears to be yet another chick-lit novel, so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be much more than that. Set in London in the Roaring Twenties when women were just starting to gain independence and freedom, this is the story of Grace, a "modern woman". She's the daughter of a Suffragette, still unmarried at the age of 30 and one of the lucky few to have a professional job as a copywriter. Grace is also the secret author of a society column in a newspaper, and spends much of her time visiting nightclubs and restaurants and advising women on what to wear, how to do their hair, where to eat out and how to do the Charleston. Yet deep down, Grace yearns for more than this. Flashbacks reveal that she and her sister were once in love with two brothers who went to fight in the Great War, the war that changed everything. Grace has resigned herself to looking after Nancy, her widowed sister, and Nancy's children, but the appearance of two very different men makes her question the life she's living. Dexter O'Connell has a bad reputation with women, but Grace is convinced that a little romance won't cause any trouble. But her fling could risk her chances with John Cramer, a solid and responsible journalist whom she could actually spend her life with...

This is a novel about betrayals, mistakes, putting others first, heartbreak, the Great War, women's rights, responsibilities, selfishness, hidden affairs, family secrets, risk-taking and so much more. Yes, Grace finds herself torn between two men, and she cares a lot about clothes and make up and, like any chick-lit heroine, jumps to all the wrong conclusions and tries to run away from her problems. If you're looking for something entirely original, then this may not be the book for you. But for me, the wonderful setting and the complex backgrounds of the characters in this novel made this into more than just chick-lit. There were some great twists and turns that I didn't see coming and I could really relate to Grace, a modern and independent woman who really does wish that she had a man by her side, but just keeps making all the wrong decisions. If you enjoy chick-lit with a difference or just a fun view of London in the 1920s then I'd definitely recommend this novel. 8/10