Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Promise of an Angel - Ruth Reid

When her younger brother falls off a barn while in her care, Judith can't help but feel guilty for not keeping a closer eye on him. So she's relieved when a mysterious, English stranger tells her not to worry and that her brother will walk again. Throughout the tiring journey her family take to keep the farm running while waiting for hospital updates on her brother, this stranger continually appears to encourage Judith's hope in God and her brother's recovery. But when she tells her friends and family about this man, whom she believes is an angel, she's surprised to be met with animosity. No one believes that this angel exists, instead thinking that she's created another one of her stories or is going mad over her grief and guilt. Even Levi, the man she hoped to marry, makes fun of her suggestion that she has been convening with angels. The only person to believe her is Andrew, the son of the bishop, who could destroy his relationship with his father if he was seen conversing with Judith about celestial beings. Accused of telling lies and fostering false hope in her younger brother by talking about healing, Judith is close to being shunned by her community. Can she ever convince anyone that there really is an angel watching over her?

When I heard that an Amish book about angels was being released, I was initially a bit sceptical. Even an avid fan of Amish fiction like myself is starting to wonder when the market will become fully saturated, and the synopsis of this book sparked the thought that perhaps publishers were pushing the boat a bit too far in an attempt to maintain the genre's popularity. Fortunately, I was entirely wrong! This was one of the best Amish novels I've read in a long time and I would not have known that this was Ruth Reid's debut novel. She brings something entirely new and refreshing to the full-to-bursting genre, yet also had something about her writing that reminded me of Beverly Lewis, the original Amish author.

The hostility that Judith received from her community for her belief in angels and miracles could have been set amongst any Christian group, making this a novel that transcends its genre. Those wary of Amish fiction may be persuaded to read this book in order to understand the problems that a church or community can face when its leaders deny principles that are scripturally sound. I'm sure that many readers of this book will have experienced or heard of situations where healing or miracles have been dismissed as non-existent, or only being present in Biblical times. It's hard to hang on to your faith when experiencing such adversity, especially when you know in your heart that what God and his Word say are true. Judith's difficulties in her Amish community represent this so perfectly. She hangs on to her belief that God will heal her brother and allow him to walk again, despite her family and friends trying to convince her that it is God's will for him to lose the use of his legs.

Not only do Judith's family turn against her, but also Levi, the man she had been planning to court when she came of age. While I immediately dismissed Levi as being unworthy of Judith's time, I can remember being a teenager and hanging all my hopes on a boy whose faults I just couldn't see. Any woman who remembers the pains of teenage heartbreak will sympathise with Judith's anguish when Levi makes fun of her belief in angels and continually embarrasses her in front of friends and family. Her younger sister makes matters worse by continually flirting with Levi, despite her parents' warnings that she's too young to court. It was strange to see such mean-spirited, selfish behaviour from an Amish teenager, but Ruth seems intent on breaking down any stereotypes about the Amish! Martha and Levi's behaviour eventually reaches a stage where Judith can take it no more and decides to wash her hands of Levi. His cousin, Andrew, has been becoming increasingly angered by Levi's mistreatment of Judith, yet it takes her a long time to trust him after the attitudes she has been met with by Levi and other members of the community. The relationship between Judith and Andrew is slow to develop, but his unconditional trust in her was heart-warming.

I would encourage all readers of Amish fiction, and those who have been tempted to read the genre but have been put off by the typical, romantic plots, to look out for Ruth Reid's Heaven on Earth series. If The Promise of an Angel is anything to judge by, it looks like she's going to become a favourite amongst Amish fans. 10/10

Review copy provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

Beyond All Measure - Dorothy Love

Daughter of a prosperous Bostonian family, Ada Wentworth never thought she’d find herself travelling south with all of her worldly belongings packed into a single trunk. But when her family fell on hard times and she found herself orphaned and penniless, Ada was forced to take up a position as a companion to an elderly woman in the flourishing town of Hickory Ridge, Tennessee. Despite her reservations about residing in the South so soon after the end of the Civil War, Ada needs to escape Boston. She doesn’t plan to put down roots in Hickory Ridge, merely stay there long enough to acquire money to start her own millinery business and support herself through the talent that her dying mother taught her. But soon Ada finds herself swept up into the daily life of this small town, and even coming to care for Lillian, the aging woman who isn’t ready to let go of life just yet. As she and Lillian slowly come to live with each other’s faults and forge a friendship, Ada also opens up to Lillian’s nephew, Wyatt, who also plans to leave Tennessee as soon as possible, dreaming of starting a farm back in his native Texas once his lumber mill becomes prosperous enough. Both Ada and Wyatt know that it would be inconvenient to become too attached to each other, but events conspire to bring together. Particularly when someone appears to be targeting Ada and Lillian. Is it the Klan, concerned about Ada’s treatment of the local African-American community, and keen to make the Northerner leave their town? Or is someone jealous of Ada’s relationship with Wyatt, the most eligible bachelor in Hickory Ridge? Just when Ada starts to think about settling in the town she’s come to feel at home in, disturbing occurrences make her wonder if she’s really welcome there at all.

As soon as Ada stepped off the train in Hickory Ridge I knew that I was going to enjoy this book. Dorothy described the town so vividly that I could imagine every shop and house. Once the scene was set, the inhabitants of the town were added to the picture, creating a wonderful backdrop for the story. There aren’t a lot of books where I can really engage with the setting as I did in Beyond All Measure, and it’s definitely a sign of a good author to be able to evoke the feel of a place without detracting from the plot of the novel.

It took me a few chapters to warm up to Ada, whose background and reasons for moving to Hickory Ridge remained mysterious, but once the friendship between her and Lillian developed her story made for an engaging read. Ada’s ambitions to open a millinery shop and support herself made her a very unique character, in a period when women mainly desire marriage and families, and the descriptions of her hat-making were fascinating.

The relationship between Ada and Wyatt is slow to develop, and hindered by Wyatt’s scepticism over how much Ada truly cares for Lillian. Believing that Ada is prioritising her hat-making business over looking after his aunt, Wyatt initially has no desire to develop any sort of relationship with Ada. But despite this, the two end up bonding over their fondness for the aging Lillian and the fact that they’re both technically outsiders in Hickory Ridge, with neither of them planning to remain in the town once Lillian has passed away. Their relationship brought up interesting questions about compromise and what you would be willing to sacrifice for the one you love. While I initially felt that the growth of their relationship was a bit disjointed and perhaps got sidelined by other events in the novel, there was a conversation between the two of them at the end of the novel which injected a lot of realism into their romance and really evoked what I feel a loving relationship is about.

Alongside her developing romance with Wyatt, Ada encounters problems with the Klan, who are keen to evict the local black population and claim their land for themselves. Ada upsets them when she tutors a mulatto orphan and is seen fraternising with other people from the black settlement. Some of the locals already dislike her because she’s from the North, and she doesn’t improve her reputation by her attitude towards their African-American neighbours. I felt that Dorothy was able to paint a realistic picture of post-Civil War Tennessee without making it seem as if all Southerners were racist slave owners, but also without falling into the other trap of every character being a secret abolitionist and everyone embracing racial equality. Instead, she created a believable image of the occupants Hickory Ridge: some were members of the Klan, some merely wanted the land that the black community lived on, and others were apathetic. Ada herself, while wanting to help Sophie to get an education in spite of the difficulties her mixed-race parentage caused, did not express any other feelings about abolition or racial equality, which I felt was quite realistic.

I read this book well over a week ago, and in hindsight I’d have to say that what stuck in my memory most was the way that Dorothy painted a picture of the town and its inhabitants. She certainly has a way with describing locations and allowing them to interact with her characters. But I can’t help but realise that although I can clearly remember the setting, the characters and the subplot about Sophie, I’m struggling to recall the details of Ada and Wyatt’s romance. Even as I was reading the book, it felt disjointed in places and it didn’t seem to flow entirely naturally. I did thoroughly enjoy this novel, but I feel that it is strongest in its descriptions and characterisations, but perhaps a bit lacking in the romance department. However, this is Dorothy Love’s debut, and when that is taken into consideration, I think it’s an excellent into the historical fiction genre. I hope that her writing continues to improve as she creates more tales about Hickory Ridge. 8/10

Review copy provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Time to Heal - Barbara Cameron

Yet again, Barbara Cameron manages to blend modern day war conflicts with the peaceful Amish life in the second book in her Quilts of Lancaster County series. Having encountered Jenny, the heroine of A Time to Love, while recuperating in a veteran's hospital, Christopher heads to Lancaster County in search of the Amish countryside that Jenny described so vividly to him. Unsure of where life will take him next, Christopher is content to rest on Jenny and her husband Matthew's farm, far from the horrors of war and the harsh treatment he received for reporting a fellow soldier for mistreating a civilian. He finds a kindred spirit in Hannah, Matthew's sister, and the two build an unlikely friendship. But when a series of attacks on the farm make Christopher think he's still being punished for turning in his old comrade, he begins to regret bringing his troubles to Lancaster County, particularly when Hannah might get hurt. Will Christopher run from his past, or place his trust in God and believe that he has brought him to Lancaster County for a reason?

Barbara is a refreshing voice in the Amish genre and her second "bonnet" novel is just as strong as her first. Fans of the series will be pleased that Jenny and her new family feature heavily in this novel, and that Hannah gets a story of her own. As with A Time to Love, a wounded soldier falls for an Amish local on a visit to Lancaster County, and, as can be expected, this creates a lot of culture clashes. While I'm not always a fan of the conversion-to-the-Amish storylines, I do find it quite believable that someone who has witnessed the horrors of the war zone first hand would turn to a rural, old-fashioned, pacifist society for solace and fall head over heels in love with it. When Chris arrives on Jenny’s doorstep, desperate to talk to her about his worries, it’s clear that he sees her as a the key to his problems – but instead, he finds freedom in the beauty of God’s nature while working on the farm. Barbara has clearly done her research into military court cases and PTS, making Chris a very realistic character with whom readers will instantly connect and sympathise.

The relationship between Chris and Hannah was fun to read, and it was sweet to witness their friendship slowly developing into something more. Both of them tried to fight any feelings of attraction, and it was particularly amusing to see Jenny and her grandmother, Phoebe, pushing both of them forwards in their relationship. While some Amish novels portray the Plain people as being hostile to outsiders, Barbara’s characters were entirely welcoming to Chris, even entertaining the idea of an outsider developing a relationship with Hannah. Hannah is not your typical “Amish miss”, as Chris remarks on several occasions, but her desire for a husband and family is one that all readers of romantic fiction will be able to understand.

However, I have to admit that something didn’t sit right with Chris’s decision to stay in the Lancaster County. While I felt it was convincing when Jenny made the same decision in A Time to Love, the fact that she had visited her Amish grandmother every summer as a child made her conversion to the faith so much more understandable. I felt that Chris was drawn in by nothing more than the allure of escaping the modern world and, of course, Hannah. While I can’t condemn him for appreciating how freeing the Amish lifestyle appears to outsiders – I’m sure all readers of this genre are equally guilty – I felt that there was no sign of Chris having made a spiritual connection with the Amish way of life. It seemed almost as if Chris was considering converting only so he could be with Hannah, and I find it hard to imagine that he would be making the same decision if a girl wasn’t in the picture. I have a feeling that this is something that more critical readers of Amish fiction might take issue with. If you can suspend disbelief and get wrapped up in the romance of this novel, this issue is very minor, but it is a point that remained in my head days after I’d finished the novel.

If you’re a romance fan who wants a subtle change to your Amish fiction, A Time to Heal is the book for you. Blending modern day issues into the lives of the Amish, Barbara Cameron brings context to her fiction, and a contrast between the Plain folk and the war zones of the Middle East that will make the lives of her Lancaster County residents even more appealing. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by Chris’s final decision, it didn’t spoil my reading experience and I was still thoroughly pleased with the conclusion to Hannah and Chris’s romance. 9/10

Review title provided courtesy of Abingdon Press.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Fairer than Morning - Rosslyn Elliott

The lives of farmer’s daughter Ann Miller and indentured apprentice Will Hanby collide in the first novel in the Saddler’s Legacy series, igniting early nineteenth century Pittsburgh with adventure and romance. When Ann travels to Pennsylvania with her father and younger sisters, she doesn’t expect to experience anything more exciting than travelling on a boat and shopping in a busy city. But as she and her sisters embark on their trip to visit their father’s business associate in Pittsburgh, Ann begins to realise that they’re being followed. But why would anyone wish to stalk her father, a mere saddle-maker and travelling preacher? It is only when she sees her father arguing with their mysterious stalker that Ann begins to wonder whether her father is doing more than preaching on his trips away from the family farm. But when Ann arrives in Pittsburgh, a chance encounter with saddler’s apprentice Will takes her mind off her father’s troubles, as she sees someone riddled with abuse and physical and emotional turmoil at the hands of a merciless master. Ann vows to help Will and enable him to escape from his life of neglect and maltreatment. Will himself has long given up on plans to leave his master, and has settled for living out his indenture, but gradually finds himself retreating into his pain-riddled mind, no longer able to see any beauty in the world. Will Ann be able to rescue him, or is he beyond redemption?

Expecting another standard historical romance, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rosslyn Elliot combined various elements into her novel that aren’t commonly found in Christian historical fiction. While romance did have a part to play in the story, I felt that it was secondary to the development of the characters and other aspects of the plot. This is definitely a book for those who like their historical romances to delve deeper into the contemporary issues of the period and witness characters engaging with them.

Ann struggles with the same problems that many young women in her position in the period would have encountered, particularly that of a suitor who appears to have lost interest. And just when he begins to pay more attention to her, Ann finds herself given the opportunity to escape to Pittsburgh with her family, where she will decide whether to pursue the path of marriage or wait until her motherless sisters are older before she leaves the family farm. I found Ann to be a very relatable character, although she is younger than I typically prefer my heroines to be.

Will was a slightly more distant character, and while I praise Rosslyn for allowing her readers to witness the true brutalities that mistreated apprentices suffered, I didn’t feel quite as connected to him as I did to Ann. Will suffers greatly under his master, not only physically but also mentally, and he retreats into dark places in his mind in order to escape his abuse. More sensitive readers may feel uncomfortable in a few places in this book, but I did feel that the details were necessary in order to express the truth of the characters’ situations.

I would have to say that the aspect of this novel that I felt wasn’t quite as developed was the romance between Ann and Will. Perhaps this is an error in the marketing, as I got the distinct impression that this book was a romance, yet the characters didn’t meet each other until over a third of the way into the novel, and even then they barely speak to each other. Ann is courted by two other men; a suitor from her home town and a man that she encounters while in Pittsburgh. While Rosslyn clearly made the first beau unappealing, so that the reader would root for Will instead, I actually quite liked the second one, especially when he fought to protect Ann’s honour. While Ann evidently dislikes the idea of a man fighting on her behalf, I really felt that any attacks on the second suitor were a bit weak, up until the end of the novel when he makes a derogatory remark about belief in God. For a decent part of the novel, when Will was going through his dark period and engaged in an act which would make any Christian romance reader dislike the apparent hero, I actually found myself wondering why the author had made a secondary character so appealing at a point in the novel when Will was making himself less attractive. I may be in the minority with this opinion, but the romance just didn’t develop in the way I’d prefer. Will did eventually redeem himself and the romance between him and Ann gently develops, but not until close to the end of the novel.

Despite my qualms about the romantic aspect of this novel, it is still a wonderful story about redemption and freedom, exploring so many issues that I’ve not yet encountered in Christian historical fiction. Rosslyn Elliot’s debut already sets her apart in the genre, and I encourage historical fans to look out for her work. I fear that her novel may merely have been marketed wrongly, in which case, those expecting the hero and heroine to encounter each other on the first page and swoon because of their passion-filled chemistry may be disappointed. This is not merely a romance peppered with history, but a character-driven novel that will enlighten even the most dubious of readers. 8/10

Review title provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Head in the Clouds - Karen Witemeyer

After a would-be-suitor turns out to be less than suitable, Adelaide Proctor heads to Texas following an advertisement for a governess. Both Gideon Westcott and his five-year-old ward, Isabella, immediately take a liking to the less than conventional young governess, who, despite seeming to be in a perpetual dreamland, is the only person who is able to make Isabella laugh and smile. Gideon is in awe that someone has managed to make Isabella open up and learn to enjoy life after the death of her mother, and his admiration for his governess causes him to entertain the idea that maybe, someday she may be more than an employee. However, fate conspires to bring them together far sooner than they'd both planned as they have to work together to protect Isabella from her uncle, who plans to claim the child in order to gain access to her inheritance.

The beautiful cover alone was enough to inspire me to read this book, and I'm so thankful that it enticed me into buying it. While I'll admit that the synopsis doesn't make this story particularly stand out from the myriad of Christian historical romances flooding the genre right now, Karen Witemeyer brings something new and refreshing with her characterisation. I loved the way that Adelaide used imagination and games to bring Isabella out of her shell, and her manner of continually comparing her situations to fairy tales made me smile. I also spend far too much of my time with my head in a book, romanticising and daydreaming about what adventures I may encounter, so Adelaide was the perfect heroine for me. She was a very relatable character, from her desire for a husband and family and her failed attempts at finding the right man to her endearing relationship with Isabella and her devotion to her.

This book had the perfect blend of romance and adventure, with neither overshadowing the other. As Gideon and Adelaide attempted to protect Isabella from her uncle, their relationship deepened and they realised how much they cared for each other. There was only one tiny moment in the scenes where Adelaide and Gideon were defending Isabella when I felt matters had got a little over-the-top, but overall I felt that the adventure was portrayed realistically. The tender romance between Adelaide and Gideon was so sweet to read about, yet flashes of passion were hinted at in a way that was entirely appropriate yet showed the depth of Adelaide and Gideon's love for each other. The final scene at the end of the novel where Gideon and his father return to the women on the ranch is one of my favourites, and truly showed how much Adelaide and Gideo had come to love each other over the course of the book. There was nothing really unusual or unique about the romance in this book, yet it was still one of the most beautiful and realistic stories I've read. I believed every moment of their blossoming relationship, and it made me smile at each milestone the couple passed. Nothing out of the ordinary, but just as a real love story should be.

Karen Witemeyer certainly knows how to create a compelling and enjoyable story. Full of adventure, romance, tender caresses, passion-filled glances, caring family members, cruel villains, secondary characters and plenty of imagination, Head in the Clouds had everything I look for in a good historical romance. Karen has made a well-worn plot entertaining through her skilled characterisation and story-telling and this definitely won't be the only one of her novels that I'll be reading. 10/10

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Too Rich for a Bride - Mona Hodgson

Ida Sinclair has no intention to find a husband when she moves to Cripple Creek, the town where her sisters, Nell and Kat, discovered true love and settled down to start their families. Instead, Ida is keen to make a name for herself in the business world, working for the infamous Mollie O'Bryan. Mollie might have some practices that Ida's family disapproves of, but Ida is impressed by her achievements in a profession dominated by men. But despite her attempts to immerse herself in the world of business and to ignore the matchmaking efforts of her sisters and her landlady, Ida finds herself torn between the affections of two men. Colin Wagner, a successful lawyer, and Tucker Raines, a preacher who has returned to Cripple Creek to help out with his ailing father's business, find themselves drawn to the feisty, independent Ida. But will Ida tear herself away from her new job long enough to notice the attentions of these two men? And if she does, how will she know which man is right for her?

Although I've not yet had the chance to read the first book in the Sinclair Sisters of Cripple Creek series, I can honestly say that this is a series you can jump right into and feel at home with. Mona has an excellent way of creating a family unit around her main character, not only with Ida's sisters and their husbands, but also the wonderful matchmaking landlady, Miss Hattie, who became a second mother to the girls when they moved to Cripple Creek, and eventually Tucker Raines. At the end of the book we briefly meet the youngest Sinclair sister, Vivian, and Tucker's sister, Willow, who I hope will feature in the next book in the series. These are definitely characters that you don't want to leave after one book, and I may even go back and read Two Brides Too Many.

While I loved the cast of characters in this book, I have to say that the plot wasn't the strongest one I'd encountered in a historical romance. Ida's desire to be a businesswoman was definitely unique, and I loved that Mona showed her readers that you can have both a career and a family. I have to admit that I really have no idea how stocks work, so I was slightly lost during the sections where Ida and Mollie discussed their work. There was a sense of mystery surrounding Mollie and her work and her relationship with Colin Wagner, and although I was happy with the outcome of this little mystery the climax came very suddenly and almost out of nowhere, and left me feeling that there hadn't been enough of a build up to it. Although I realise that the mystery was essential in Ida choosing between her two beaus, it seemed to get side-lined slightly in order to focus on the romance.

Like most romance readers, I could figure out who Ida was going to choose from very early on in the book, but this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story. I loved seeing the relationship between Ida and Tucker developing, and their difficulties in overcoming the boundaries that they were certain were between them. I actually feel that I related to Tucker a lot more than Ida, and maybe this is because I'm not so confident and career-driven as Ida is. Tucker also had an interesting back-story, which gently unfolded as the plot developed. I did find the conclusion of Tucker's problems with his family to be a bit sudden and perhaps a bit too convenient, but otherwise I'd have to say that he was my favourite character in the whole book.

Too Rich for a Bride isn't one of my favourites out of the historical romances I've read so far this year, but it's definitely a sweet, enjoyable read. As this is only Mona's second addition to the world of historical romances, I can definitely see her writing improving in the future and maybe even coming to rival some of the stars of the genre. If you're a fan of historical novels set in the era of westward expansion, but wish your heroines were a bit more self-sufficient and interested in more than just romance and babies, then Too Rich for a Bride is definitely one to check out. 7/10

Review title provided courtesy of Waterbrook Press.