Sunday, 22 May 2011

Seaside Cinderella - Anna Schmidt

The tranquility of Nantucket Island offered poor but proud Lucie McNeil refuge, a place to dream about a better life. Her quiet existence as companion to an elderly couple was a blessing for the tragedy-haunted Irish immigrant. But all that changed when her employers' handsome, elegantly attired son stepped ashore. For she recognized him instantly as the owner of the Boston factory where a terrible fire had scarred her forever. She knew she should hate Gabriel Hunter, yet she could not. She found herself drawn to the caring soul she sensed behind the ruthless facade he showed the world. And she could not help dreaming that such different people a poor servant girl and a wealthy merchant prince might somehow make a life together.

It took a while for me to truly get immersed in this story, but by the end I was glad that I'd read it. I think this is partly because the romance between the main characters didn't really start until halfway into the book, but once this happened the pace picked up and I began to enjoy it a lot more. This was a simple story, and I'll admit that while the characters didn't have a lot of depth I did come to relate to them on some level. I loved the setting of Nantucket, which sounds like a lovely place, and the secondary characters of Emma and Jonathan. In places Emma's romantic tales seemed a bit over-the-top, but they provided a nice background to the events in the story. I would have to say that the last two or three chapters of this book are what push it from a 6/10 to a 7/10, as at this stage the emotions between Lucie and Gabe finally seemed real and I could understand their difficulties. In some ways Gabe's actions at the end of the book were a bit predictable and slightly unrealistic, but I was pleased that the solution to their problems wasn't something that I'd expected. All in all, this was a sweet, uncomplicated little romance which provided me with much needed entertainment while relaxing after my exams. The characters weren't quite as fleshed out as I'd like, but I enjoyed the refreshing change of setting and plot from many romances I've read lately. I'll be looking out for more books from Anna Schmidt and more from the Love Inspired Historical line. 7/10

Jasper Jones - Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones has come to my window. I don't know why, but he has. Maybe he's in trouble. Maybe he doesn't have anywhere else to go. Late on a hot summer night at the tail end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on his window. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the regional mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charlie. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie eagerly steals into the night by his side, terribly afraid but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him through town and to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery. With his secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is pushed and pulled by a town closing in on itself in fear and suspicion. In the simmering summer where everything changes, Charlie learns to discern the truth from the myth, and why white lies creep like a curse. By turns heartbreaking, hilarious, tender and wise, Jasper Jones is a novel to treasure.

I wasn't sure what to expect of this book but in the end I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the lyrical, descriptive style that it was written in and being inside the head of thirteen-year-old Charlie was incredibly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the banter between him and his best friend, Jeffrey. My only main complaint would be that the plot seemed to get forgotten for large chunks of the text and while I enjoyed every second of this book, I couldn't help but think that it went off on tangents and forgot the mystery around which the plot was meant to centre. And while I was quite happy with the outcome of the story, it seemed a little bit rushed. Overall, I loved the narrative and the characters, but the plot could have done with a bit more tightening up. Also, the cricket match completely lost me as I've no idea how the game works! 8/10

I'll be posting a few shorter reviews in the upcoming weeks for books I've read but don't need to write full-length reviews for. But I still enjoyed them, so I want to review them to some extent.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What the Heart Sees - Kathleen Fuller

Fans of Kathleen Fuller will be delighted to discover that three of her novellas have been repackaged into one volume. The stories, which previously appeared in An Amish Christmas, An Amish Gathering and An Amish Love respectively, are romantic tales of young Amish men and women discovering and rekindling love and healing past hurts.

In A Miracle for Miriam, Miriam must reconcile her memories of Seth, the boy who teased her as a teenager, with the young man he has become. Seth is in for a culture shock, returning to his Amish family after he was seriously injured in a car accident. But his near-death experience has made him to rethink his life, causing him see everything in a different light – including Miriam. In order to pursue a relationship with her reformed would-be-suitor, Miriam has to learn to forgive and let go of past grudges, or miss out on the chance of falling in love.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, especially as it was the first time I’d read about an Amish woman who was insecure about her appearance. It made me rethink my expectation that all Amish are able to focus purely on inner beauty. After all, everyone strives not to be vain and to focus on what cannot be seen, but our human flaws cause us to be concerned with the physical. Miriam’s self-consciousness combined with the hurt she had experienced as an impressionable teen made her a very relatable heroine. Seth also had his own difficulties, regarding the injuries he suffered in a car accident, but he’s such a gentleman that it’s impossible not to fall for him. While I did struggle to believe that one isolated incident – Seth had only teased her about her looks on one occasion, so it wasn’t as if she experienced repeated bullying – would cause Miriam to be so self-conscious about her appearance, I did find it refreshing to read about an Amish woman who struggled with insecurity and low self-confidence. Those who think that the Amish are romanticised will be pleased to find such a realistic and character-driven story.

Amanda is surprised to discover that her childhood best friend, Josiah, has returned from Indiana to fix up his old family home in A Place of His Own. But she’s shocked that Josiah doesn’t want her company, and is keen to sell his old house and leave Paradise as soon as possible. Slowly, Amanda begins to draw Josiah out of his shell and make him face the long-buried wounds that are still causing him pain. Can this healing process rekindle their friendship, and maybe even spark embers of love?

While I found Amanda and Josiah’s story to be the weakest in the collection, I did end up enjoying it once it really got started. Unfortunately, I felt that the plot didn’t really begin until several chapters in, which can be annoying in such a short novella. Other reviewers have commented that they think A Place of His Own would be stronger as a full-length novel, and I’m inclined to agree with them. There was so much potential and a lot of unexplored areas in this novella, so I think Kathleen was just restricted by her word count. And while I warmed up to Josiah after a while, I really struggled with the character of Amanda, who no matter what she said or did, still seemed very two-dimensional and shallow. I hope that readers don’t judge Kathleen based on this story, as it’s still a good effort and is sandwiched by two other excellent stories.

The last novella also shares its name with the collection, What the Heart Sees. This story is my favourite out of the three, and tells the tale of a prodigal son who returns to the Amish for his sister’s wedding and ends up befriending a blind girl. I was fortunate enough to read this story earlier in the year, so please check out my review of An Amish Love to read my thoughts on it.

I’ve yet to read any of Kathleen Fuller’s full-length novels, but if her novellas are any clue, I’m sure they’re an excellent addition to the Amish genre. Although I enjoyed each of the stories in this collection, I think their weakness is that they share very common themes. Seth, Josiah and Chris are all returning from the English world, and all three of the women are late into their courting years and worried that they’ll never find love. I’m sure these novellas worked very well in their original collections, but bound together I felt that they were rather repetitive with their tortured heroes and insecure heroines. This is a storyline that Kathleen does very well, but after reading it three times I couldn’t help but wondering if I should have left a larger gap between reading each of the novellas. I do recommend this collection, especially if you’re a fan of Kathleen Fuller, but I’d suggest spacing your reading of these stories. 8/10

Review title sent courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Red Siren - M. L. Tyndall

Having seen first-hand the devastation that her older sister's arranged marriage brought on her family, Faith Westcott is desperate not to let the same thing happen to her or her younger siblings. But her sea-faring father is convinced that the way to keep his daughters safe is to marry them off as soon as possible. Faith strikes a deal with him; if she can raise enough money through her "soap making" business to support her and her two sisters, they don't have to find husbands. Little does her father know that Faith is secretly the infamous lady pirate, The Red Siren, and will soon have enough funds to keep her and her sisters safe for a long time. That is, until her father assigns pirate-hunter Dajon White to be their guardian while he's away at sea. Will Dajon discover her secret before she's able to raise enough money? Or will Faith change her mind about swearing off marriage forever?

Putting aside the awkward smile of the cover model, the absurdity of Faith being able to hide her pirating from her entire family, and the fact that the hero is called Dajon - which I swear, I read every single time as "Dijon", like the mustard - I actually ended up loving this book. When I read the blurb and looked at the cheesy cover, I thought that, at best, it would be a bit of fun escapism. But when I started reading, I was hooked and dreaded having to put it down. I'm a massive fan of romance novels, historicals in particular, and although the plot is a bit outlandish this book does have all the great components for a romance novel. And, to be honest, a lot of romances are a bit unbelievable, so why complain about female pirates?

Faith is your typical head-strong, stubborn heroine who thinks that she knows everything about the world and doesn't need a man to hold her back. She's feisty, and while I could never be as confident and brash as she is with her friends and family, I could admire her desire to protect her family and ended up really connecting with her. She's surrounded by a cast of wonderful secondary characters, from her strict father to her younger sisters - one rebellious, one pious - to the servants that try to keep an eye out for the Westcott girls. I'll admit that, after reading a few reviews of this book, I had to admit that the characters were a bit caricatured in places, but I really didn't notice this while I was reading the book, so it didn't spoil my enjoyment at all. I was particularly enraptured by the relationship that Faith had with her sisters, especially the rebellious Hope, who features in the next book in the series. This is a family you can really relate to and have an instant connection with, making you want to sit down and devour all three books in one sitting.

Despite his bizarre and rather distracting name, Dajon is a hero that all women will fall for. He has a troubled past, and is determined not to get involved with women in case he ends up hurting them. He's smarting from issues with a father he can never impress, and hopes that his career will eventually get him the attention he desires. But he also manages to reign Faith in and help her through the difficulties in her life, particularly her relationship with God. Faith and Dajon have great chemistry, the sizzling kind that isn't often found in Christian novels. Nothing inappropriate happens, obviously, but I do appreciate it when authors show the attraction between a couple.

My only real complaint - aside from the cover and Dajon's name - would be about the spiritual aspect of this book. While I enjoy hearing about a character's struggles in their Christian life alongside the regular plot of a novel, I like it to be more subtle and integrated. Here, sometimes it came across as really preachy, and I felt that in places it completely took away from the main plot. In a way, it almost felt like Grace had to get her relationship with God perfect before she was allowed to have a relationship with Dajon, which really isn't how it works in real life. We're all human, we're never perfect when it comes to spiritual matters, and God would never deny us happiness just because we struggle. I wouldn't say that this completely spoiled the book for me, as I loved the rest of it, but the heavy-handed approach to spiritual matters does make me drop a star from it's rating. However, I will say that I loved the section where some sort of spiritual presence protects Hope - very cool, not something you typically read about in romance novels!

While there were a few things that I disliked about this book, I did love reading it and can't wait to get on to the rest in the series. This novel has a wonderful blend of romance, historical detail, adventure and mystery, and is packed full of characters that you won't want to say goodbye to. M. L. Tyndall is definitely an author to look out for. 9/10

The Outsider - Ann H. Gabhart

Having joined the Shaker community of Harmony Hill as a child, Gabrielle has always felt content with her lifestyle and never questioned returning to the outside world. According to her Sisters and Brothers, Gabrielle has been blessed with the gift of visions, which often give her disturbing and chilling foresight into events that have yet to happen. When one of these visions helps her to locate a Brother who has been harmed in a barn fire, a doctor is required to visit the community on a regular basis to aid his recovery. Gabrielle's encounters with young local doctor, Brice Scott, call her to question the life she is living and whether it is truly God's plan for men and women to act as siblings. The community begin to doubt Gabrielle's loyalty to their faith, and when Brice is ripped away from her to tend to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, Gabrielle's commitment to her fellow Brothers and Sisters is tested as they place her under vigorous supervision. Will Brice return to rescue her, or will Gabrielle choose to remain in the life she has become used to?

Being an avid fan of books about the Amish, I was intrigued when my Amish Fiction book club decided to read a novel about another Plain group - the Shakers. I'd never heard of these people before, and as I investigated further it appeared that they were very different from the Amish. I say "were" because the Shakers have nearly entirely died out, with only a few members remaining. While they believed, like the Amish, in coming closer to God through hard physical work and tending the land, the majority of the principles of their faith could not be more different. The Shakers believed that they should live a life of celibacy because marriage is a sin, men and women were entirely separated in their communities, and when families joined the children were taken away from their parents. This alone was enough to make me feel uncomfortable, and hope that Gabrielle would be able to escape the community. This is the main difference that I found between reading Amish and Shaker fiction - I always hope that the characters in Amish fiction will either convert or remain with their faith, whereas I felt that the Shakers were a cult and hoped that Brice would take Gabrielle away from her community.

Because of the limitations of her community, Gabrielle spent very little time alone with Brice, and due to this this their relationship felt quite shallow. I really wish that they'd spent more time together so that I could have felt entirely convinced of their love for each other. Since they spent so much time apart - especially after Brice left to go to war - I almost got the feeling that Gabrielle was attracted to Brice purely because he offered her a means of escape, and was a symbol of all that the outside world represented. Thus, I found myself wondering, is this actually a romance novel at all? In places it felt more like a historical novel, which I don't mind as I love historical fiction, but it was definitely marketed as a romance, so other readers might be a bit disappointed at the lack of contact between Gabrielle and Brice for a large portion of the book.

Another complaint would have to be the treatment of the Shaker worship and Gabrielle's visions. I felt that this aspect was very vague and I was never sure whether the author was suggesting that the songs, dances and visions that Gabrielle had been blessed with were fake or from Satan. If this was what she was trying to convey, I feel that it could be misleading and could make some people to believe that such things never come from God. While I think that a lot of what the Shakers believed was definitely not scriptural or from God, I do believe that he can speak to people through worship and visions, so I wish that the Gabhart had been more precise in the message she was trying to convey through the presentation of Gabrielle's gifts.

This was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot about the Shaker faith and the War of 1812. If you're a fan of historical fiction and want to read something slightly different, I'd definitely recommend this book. But don't be tricked into thinking that this is an Amish romance - the Shakers are very different from the Amish, and I personally felt that the romance aspect was very minimal. Despite that, this was a very compelling book and I plan to read the others in the series at some point in the future. 8/10

Monday, 9 May 2011

Lady in the Mist - Laurie Alice Eakes

Having seen one too many young men disappear into the mist on British ships, Tabitha Eckles has resigned herself to a solitary life. As a respected midwife, she’s the one woman in her town who can walk unaccompanied in the middle of the night without having rumours whispered about her. Unfortunately, her comfortable and quiet life is interrupted during one of these long, midnight walks. Returning from a birthing that went terribly wrong, Tabitha finds herself alone on the beach in the company of a mysterious English man, whom Tabitha suspects may be involved in the press-gangings that have been becoming ever more present in their peaceful costal town. But it’s not long before Tabitha discovers the identity of this mysterious yet charming young man – he’s Domonick Cherrett, an English gentleman who has fallen from grace and is now indentured servant and butler to Tabitha’s mayor. Knowing that an indentured servant would never be allowed to wander the beach at night, Tabitha remains suspicious a she pursues a friendship with Dominick, who has reasons of his own for wanting to become involved with the town midwife. Soon these two unlikely friends become embroiled in more mysteries than they expected – and an unexpected romance begins to bud between the spinster midwife and indentured English nobleman. Matters are complicated further when Tabitha’s long-lost fiancĂ© returns from the sea and Dominick finds himself struggling over whether he could go home to his family with Tabitha or if he should leave her to her simple life in America – or whether he actually wishes to return to England at all. Can Tabitha and Dominick put aside their preconceived ideas about love and rank and – more importantly – learn to trust each other?

It’s always wonderful when you start reading a novel with the hope of being entertained and distracted from your busy life, only to be blown away by the discovery of a new favourite author. Laurie Alice Eakes’s novel had that exact affect on me, and I can’t verbalise how pleasing it is to uncover a gem of a story like this one. I came to this book with no idea what to expect, knowing very little about midwifes or the post-revolutionary war years in the United States. It was fascinating to learn about this period in American history, and although I never felt overwhelmed by the neatly intertwined historical detail, I do feel as if I’ve been enlightened somehow and will definitely be looking out for more books set in this time period.

It was particularly amusing to read a novel in which the Brits are the “bad guys”, being British myself. Yet despite the reservations that Tabitha and her friends had about the British, she had excellent chemistry with Dominick Cherrett, the typically ridiculously handsome and wittily charming British hero, whom even I fell in love with despite my reservations on minor royals thanks to studying at the University of St. Andrews. Their relationship is initially based on mutual distrust and suspicion, as the two of them try to deny their feelings for each other due to their very different backgrounds. The indentured noble who falls for the spinster midwife was a refreshing and original twist on the traditional plot of the prince falling for the servant girl.

The spiritual lives of the characters play a fairly large part in the book, as Dominick comes to terms with the corruption he found in the traditional English Church, and Tabitha learns to trust God despite the many grievances she and her family have suffered over the years. While I was particularly interested in Dominick’s struggles – which instead of being with God, were with the Church – I will admit that I felt that the focus on their spiritual struggles sometimes took away from the main plot. I occasionally found myself skim-reading the sections where Tabitha and Dominick talked about their thoughts on God, particularly towards the end of the story when it could have come close to detracting from the climax of the action. This may be a matter of personal preference, but I felt that the spiritual aspect needed to be more integrated so that it didn’t feel as if it was interrupting the plot. However, this is a minor issue that didn’t impinge on my enjoyment of the novel.

Laurie Alice Eakes is definitely an author to keep your eye on in the genre of historical fiction, and I’m looking forward to reading more from the Midwives series. She truly knows how to set the atmosphere of the period and create an excellent chemistry between her characters. Dominick and Tabitha are by far one of the most unique couples I’ve encountered in my reading of historical romances, and they were surrounded by a wonderful cast of minor characters, particularly the servants with whom Dominick worked. I hope that Laurie chooses to revisit these characters at some point, but if not, I’m sure that her next group of characters will be just as engaging. 9/10

Review title sent courtesy of Revell.

If my review has made you want to get hold of this book and read it for yourself, pop over to The Christian Manifesto and enter yourself for the chance of one of three copies!