Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Still reviewing, but not here!

Apologies for the unannounced hiatus that has occurred over the last few months. I'm afraid that the busyness of getting married, submitting a novel to a publisher, getting a promotion and starting my final year of university has meant that I don't have enough time to update my blog right now. I hope to rectify this once I've graduated in June, but until then I'm afraid you'll have to pop over to The Christian Manifesto if you'd like to be kept up to date with my reviews. I became the Fiction Editor at TCM back in August, and this has taken up a lot of my time. As much as I love reading and reviewing books, I have to admit that I'm now spending a lot of my time answering emails about books!

But never fear, I have written a few reviews recently. Here are some links to pique your interest:

An Amish Holiday by Cynthia Keller
A Simple Autumn by Rosalind Lauer
A Wreath of Snow by Liz Curtis Higgs
The Rancher's Secret Wife by Brenda Minton
A Change of Fortune by Jen Turano

You can also follow my reviews on Twitter, and read about my latest endeavours in writing, reading, cooking and studying on Facebook.

I truly hope to get my blog back up and running again in 2013, but amidst the mess of my very busy life, a few things have to be pushed to the side in order to deal with immediate needs -- mainly, graduating from university -- and my blog appears to have been one of them.

If you'd like to contact me, you can email me at rbrand(at)thechristianmanifesto(dot)com. I am still writing reviews, but I'm limiting myself to three per month for 2013. But I am always happy to forward any unfulfilled solicitations on to the other reviewers at TCM if I'm unable to review a specific title.

Thank you for your patience, and hopefully my blog will re-emerge at some point during the summer of 2013!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

A Season of Love - Amy Clipston


PROS: Good conclusion to the series; ties up loose ends from previous books; relatable characters make you invest emotionally in the story

CONS: Katie’s father is over-bearing and can be difficult to read about

Newly baptised into the Amish church, Katie Kauffman longs for the love that her two best friends have found. When everyone around her seems to be growing up and getting married, Katie is staying the same. As much as she enjoys working for the family bakery alongside her grandmother and her cousins, she’s the fifth wheel to Lindsay and Lizzie Anne and their boyfriends whenever they attend youth gatherings, and she’s known for a long time that none of the boys in their district are going to interest her. But her loneliness starts to dissipate when she meets Jake Miller, a Mennonite carpenter who is helping her grandfather build new cabinets for the bakery. Jake’s mother was once Amish and left the community to marry someone outside their fold, but Jake has always felt a kinship to his grandparents’ faith. As innocent as their friendship is, Katie’s father forbids her to spend time with Jake and warns her of the consequences of forming a relationship with someone outside their faith. Katie doesn’t want to be shunned, but she can’t help but feel a connection to Jake, and a series of situations conspire to bring them together. Misunderstandings about the circumstances of her relationship with Jake cause Katie’s relationships with her parents to disintegrate, and Katie isn’t sure if she can ever find happiness. She knows that she cannot be with Jake, but she can’t help but care for him. Can she learn to let go and love someone of the same faith, or will something drastic have to occur in order for her and Jake to finally be together?

The conclusion to a popular series is always tricky. Do you choose to go out with a bang, or to quietly wrap up all of the storylines with a happy ending? I often find that while I enjoy the final book in a series, I don’t love it as much as the others, often just because tying up all of the loose ends doesn’t always make for a terribly compelling story. When it comes to the conclusion of the Kauffuman Amish Bakery series, Katie’s story wasn’t quite as complex as some of the other Kauffman books, but I was impressed with the way that A Season of Love managed to conclude several ongoing plot-threads without detracting from Katie’s story. I appreciated being able to learn more about Rebecca’s pregnancy, Lindsay’s blossoming relationship with Matthew, and Jessica’s non-relationship with Jake, as well as the details about Lizzie Anne and Samuel.

While Katie’s story occasionally takes the backseat so that we can catch up Lindsay and Matthew or other members of the Kauffman family, I never lost interest in her storyline. Like Lindsay, the protagonist of A Life of Joy, Katie is one of Amy’s younger heroines and is barely out of her teen years. To some of the more mature Amish readers, reading about such a young protagonist might not be so appealing. Even I was surprised to read about an eighteen-year-old contemplating marriage and planning her future...until I remembered that I got engaged at nineteen and will be married before my twenty-first birthday, so I have no right to complain about Katie. Although my upbringing and life experiences are very different to Katie’s, I could relate to the position she was at in her life and her desire to get married and start a family and be done with her dating years. I could even slightly relate to her father’s disapproval of her boyfriend, Jake. While my dad never forbade me to see Simon, he didn’t pay him a lot of attention when we first began dating. No boy is going to be good enough for daddy’s little girl, although Katie’s father definitely took a more extreme approach to this idea.

For me, Katie’s father was the biggest stumbling block in A Season of Love. On the one hand, his treatment of Katie made me really angry and I rooted for her to stand up to her father and call him out on how unfair he was being. A fictional character that can get me this riled up is definitely a sign of a talented author. But I can also see why a character like Robert Kauffman can be discouraging to read about. Stubborn father-figures are pretty prevalent in Amish fiction, and Robert is at least the second I’ve come across in Amy’s books alone. In fact, when I try to recall books containing supportive, caring Amish fathers, the only one I can think of is Laura Hilton’s Patchwork Dreams. Considering how many Amish books I’ve read in my lifetime, this is evidence that fathers like Robert Kauffman are unfortunately more common than they are not.

Considering how unrelenting and stubborn Robert was throughout the whole of A Season of Love, his turn-around towards the end didn’t seem entirely convincing, and he didn’t apologise for everything he’d said and done to Katie. I was glad that Katie reconciled with her father, but I did struggle to read about a girl, almost the same age as myself, who was under her parents’ rule and unable to speak up and defend herself even though she was a legal adult. I know that this is the way that the Amish community works, but I did wish that Katie had had more of a backbone and stuck up for herself rather than running off to cry in her room whenever her father shouted at her. To put it simply, I have mixed feelings about the conflict between Katie and her father. I loved that it got me so emotionally invested in the story, but I also felt uncomfortable reading about such an overbearing and narrow-minded father figure.

The end of a series has to have a happy ending, but thankfully A Season of Love didn’t overdo the happiness. I loved the way that Amy managed to get all of the principal characters from previous books into the final scene together without it seeming too contrived. The final chapter of A Season of Love was a brilliant conclusion to the Kauffman Amish Bakery series, and as much as I’m looking forward to whatever Amy’s writes about next, it’s a little sad to say goodbye to these characters who were one of my first introductions to Amish fiction. Even if you only pick up A Season of Love to find out how the cliff-hangers at the end of A Life of Joy are concluded, you can’t help but care about Katie Kauffman and sympathise with her desire to find the love and her frustrations over her family situation. Despite my struggles with Katie’s father I did really enjoy reading this book, and I will be anxiously awaiting the arrival of Amy’s next Amish novel in winter 2013.

Review title provided by Zondervan. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Skip Rock Shallows - Jan Watson


PROS: Heroine is a doctor in a period when this was uncommon; easy and relaxing read; engaging secondary characters and setting

CONS: Took a while to get interested in the story due to slow pace; story often skips large periods of time; romance wasn’t convincing

Despite her fiancĂ©’s disapproval, Doctor Lilly Corbett decides to spend the first six months after graduating from medical school in Boston interning at a rural coal camp in Skip Rock, Kentucky. While her beau, Paul Hamilton, can’t understand why anyone would want to leave the city where he spent most of his life, the part of Kentucky that Lilly grew up in wasn’t all that different from Skip Rock. But no matter how similar an upbringing she had, nothing can prepare her for the reception that awaits her in Skip Rock. The miners believe that a woman in the mines is bad luck, and even the women are reticent to accept her as a trained medical professional. The doctor she was meant to be training with has died just days before she arrived, and to begin with, Lilly can’t wait for her internship to be over. But as she spends more time caring for the people of Skip Rock – setting broken limbs, birthing babies, trekking across rivers for house calls and even stitching up a cow – Lilly becomes accepted as a member of the community, especially when it is revealed that she has relatives there. As she develops a fledging relationship with the mysterious Joe Repp, who bears a striking resemblance to a boy Lilly grew up with, and makes friends with many of the inhabitants of Skip Rock, Lilly can’t help but want to stay in this town and help these people. When she’s offered the chance to remain in Skip Rock after her internship finishes, Lilly has a difficult choice to make – does she do the sensible thing and return to Boston to marry the reliable Paul, or take her chances on Skip Rock and a man with a fake name who is in the town under false pretences?

Considering how many historical romances are released by the CBA every year, you’d think that I’d get bored of this genre, or that authors would run out of original ideas. I’ll admit, every now and then I read a book that seems just a little bit too similar to something I’ve already read, but novels like Skip Rock Shallows prove that authors are not running out of steam when it comes to making their characters unique. Yes, a female doctor has been done before by Mary Connealy, but Doctor in Petticoats and Skip Rock Shallows couldn’t be more different. If Skip Rock Shallows reminded me of anything in particular, it was the writing of Janette Oke. The plot was very slow moving, and not as structured as more recent historical novels, often moving from one episode to another rather than having a particular arc or direction it was heading in. While this isn’t a style of writing that I’m particularly fond of – I prefer more structure to my novels – it did make for an easy, relaxing read. If Oke’s continued popularity has anything to suggest, a lot of readers will be pleased that Skip Rock Shallows contains some of the elements of the older novels in this genre. While I wasn’t aware that Skip Rock Shallows was part of a series until I started reading, I didn’t have any trouble getting to know the characters, and necessary details from other books are summarised without detracting from the current story. I don’t think that you have to read the other Copper Brown novels before starting Skip Rock Shallows, but I’m definitely intrigued to see whether they have the same relaxed pace as this book.

The pacing of the Skip Rock Shallows did make it hard to for me to really become involved in the story to start with. This was an incredibly easy novel to read, but it wasn’t the sort that grabbed my attention within the first few chapters. Initially, it was very easy to put down, and the story didn’t really becoming gripping towards the end of the novel when a mining accident occurred. That said, I did enjoy reading about Lilly’s house calls and the people she met in Skip Rock. All of the secondary characters were engaging and none of them felt like cardboard cut-outs, as can often happen when an author introduces a lot of background characters. I also enjoyed reading about the setting of Skip Rock, and while I found it difficult to imagine the mines, Lilly’s explorations of the wildlife were much more visual. Skip Rock definitely felt real to me by the time I finished this book

Sometimes I found it hard to grasp how Lilly’s character was developing, mainly because the story would skip several weeks or months at a time. While the reader was always told how long had passed since the last chapter, I wasn’t particularly fond of this style of storytelling. It often meant that we were told how friendships had progressed during that time and I sometimes felt that I was missing out on witnessing certain developments. Lucy’s relationship with Joe was similarly treated. They engaged in a couple of conversations – even Lucy and Paul spoke more over the course of the novel, and he spent the majority of it in Boston – and then a few chapters later were declaring their love for each other. (This is a romance novel, so I’m not spoiling the plot. If you don’t know that Lucy and Joe are going to fall for each other from reading the synopsis, you’re probably not too familiar with this genre). I liked Lucy and I liked Joe, but I just wasn’t convinced by the progression of their relationship. There were hints that they’d known each other as children and that meeting again made them fall in love, but I just didn’t buy it. It was far too much “love at first sight” for my liking. I’m afraid the way the romantic aspect of this book was approached was its biggest downfall for me. I wished that Lilly and Joe had spent more time together and really convinced me of their love, but ultimately, I didn’t find their professions of love genuine and this stopped me from really caring about whether they’d get together by the end of the book.  

If you’re looking for a book that will grab you from the first page and keep you gripped with suspense and anticipation, Skip Rock Shallows definitely isn’t the one for you. Rather, I’d say this is a good book to read if you know you can’t commit to reading more than a few chapters at the time. It’s easy to put down and later reimmerse yourself in Lilly’s doctoring and explorations of Skip Rock. Lilly’s profession, as well as some of the more unusual characters in the town, were what made this novel really stand out for me, and why I’d recommend it in spite of my personal opinions on the writing style. While I was disappointed in how rushed Lilly and Joe’s relationship was, Skip Rock Shallows is still worth reading for the mining and doctoring details and the secondary characters. 

Review title provided by Tyndale.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Long Way from You - Gwendolyn Heasley


PROS: Good character development; “fish out of water” coming of age story; total escapism

CONS: Open ending might disappoint some readers; not quite as compelling as her first novel

Kitsy Kidd has never been on a plane and doesn’t own a passport, but she’s spending this summer in New York City, attending a program at a prestigious art school. She’s always dreamed of becoming an artist, but the closest she’s got in the little town of Broken Spoke, Texas is doing her friends’ make-up before prom. This summer offers her the chance of a lifetime, but New York has plenty of temptations that often seem far more appealing than remaining safely within the walls of her art school and working on her pottery and drawings. Before she knows it, Kitsy’s wearing her friend Corinne’s outfits, attending parties with an aspiring actress and hanging out at the band practice of a boy who seems to appreciate art the way she does. At times, it’s easy to forget Broken Spoke, the stresses of her unconventional family and the stability of her boyfriend, Hands, even when she’s not immersed in her artwork. When she returns home after four weeks, will she still be the same Kitsy? Will she be able to look at Broken Spoke through the eyes of an enlightened New Yorker and still see the beauty in the small town she’s been running away from?

Kitsy Kidd was the enthusiastic, peppy cheerleader who befriended stuck-up Corinne in Gwendolyn’s debut novel, Where I Belong. I was a little sceptical of reading a book about Kitsy as, while she was nice, she didn’t seem to have a lot of depth in Where I Belong. But after the first few chapters of Kitsy’s story, I had to admit that I’d misjudged her and that there was far more to her than the pom-poms suggested. The hints that had been dropped about Kitsy’s family life in Where I Belong were expanded on, and it was heart-wrenching at times to see how Kitsy stretched herself between school, art, cheerleading, her boyfriend, holding down a part-time job and looking after her younger brother, all because her mother wasn’t terribly reliable. I was rooting for Kitsy to enjoying being a teenager during her time in New York, and although I enjoyed her character development, I didn’t want her to grow too much; it seemed like she’d already had to do too much growing up in Broken Spoke.

Like Corinne in Where I Belong, Kitsy is a total “fish out of water” in her situation. She’s come from a small town where she knows everyone to New York City. The complete reversal of Corinne’s situation was a lot of fun to read, and I could relate to Kitsy better that Corinne as I have a similar upbringing. I grew up in a village which has exactly two shops, and our school is so small that once you reach the age of eight, you have to get a bus to the next town. Moving to St Andrews was a culture shock to me, and it “only” has a population of 16,000, so I’m pretty sure I’d be just as bewildered as Kitsy was in Manhattan. And since I’ve never visited New York (or been outside Europe, for that matter) I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of all the places Kitsy visited. Gwendolyn really made Kitsy’s explorations of the city come to life, especially her trips to MOMA. Even if you’re not an artist or an art historian, I’m sure you’ll find it fun being inside Kitsy’s head and seeing how she interprets art. I can’t say I’m such a fan of modern art as Kitsy is, but both her visits to MOMA and her art classes piqued my interest. Perhaps those who grew up in New York might not be so interested in the descriptions of Central Park or Kitsy’s adventures on the subway, but I have a feeling that seeing the city through Kitsy’s eyes, rather than those of someone who grew up in a city, would make for an interesting read, even for a native New Yorker. Since I used to fantasise about visiting New York as a child – because that’s where my favourite author (and Gwendolyn’s!), Ann M. Martin, lived – A Long Way from You was blissful escapism.

While I thoroughly enjoyed A Long Way from You and will definitely be adding Gwendolyn to my list of “comfort read” authors, I was torn over the ending and the way Kitsy’s relationship with Hands was dealt with. Like Where I Belong, this novel had a fairly open ending. In a way, I appreciated that Gwendolyn doesn’t go down the route of neatly tying everything up in a bow, with the boy of your dreams tossed in for good measure. The endings to both her books have emphasised that your story does not end when you’re a teenager, and you still have a lot of growing up to do. As someone who read far too many romance novels as a teenager and had unrealistic expectations of meeting my perfect guy when I was fifteen, I could have done with some of Gwendolyn’s books back then. But as a romantic at heart, I did really like Hands, and I like to think that he and Kitsy stayed together despite their different dreams. Some readers might interpret their relationship differently, which is the good thing about the lack of conclusion to this book. I’m one of those people who like things to be tied up neatly, so I’m torn between wanting Kitsy to have her perfect ending and not wanting teenagers to have unrealistic expectations of high school and relationships.

Gwendolyn’s second novel is definitely a bit deeper than her first, dealing with a dysfunctional family and a teenager who has taken too much on in life and needs to escape for the summer and explore who she is. I didn’t find it quite as compelling as Where I Belong, but I definitely enjoyed it. Kitsy is an endearing character, and even if you’re familiar with Manhattan, you’re sure to enjoy seeing it through Kitsy’s eyes. While I felt quite torn over the open ending, I’m sure everyone will imagine the continuation of Kitsy’s life differently, and as such, take something different out of their experience of reading A Long Way from You. I still can’t decide if this novel had a specific message, and every time I think about it I come up with a different lesson. I’m not sure whether Gwendolyn’s next novel will follow up another reoccurring character from her first two books, or whether she’ll introduce someone entirely new, but either way, I’ll definitely be reading it.

Disclaimer: There were a few instances of underage drinking in this book, but Kitsy was very responsible with what she drank. A few of her friends smoked, but she did not partake. There are suggestions that one of the reasons that Kitsy’s mother is neglectful is because she drinks too much, but this situation is dealt with very tastefully. There is one brief illusion to a sexual situation between two secondary characters, but nothing graphic.

Review title provided by publicist.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Love in Disguise - Carol Cox


PROS: Plot is entirely original and unlike anything already present in the genre; perfect blend of romance and mystery

CONS: Spiritual sections felt disjointed and didn’t add much to the story

When Ellie Moore finds herself alone and jobless in Chicago after spending her whole life working for the theatre, she has no idea where to look for work. All she has is a trunk full of costumes and her skill at putting together an outfit. When she overhears two men discussing their need for a new female operative for their detective agency, Ellie can’t help but wonder whether her knowledge of costumes and disguises might be able to help her gain such a position. After much convincing and a new persona as the elderly Aunt Livinia, Ellie makes her way to the small town of Pickford, Arizona, where she is to meet an experienced detective who is to play the part of her niece, and help her catch the thieves who are stealing silver from the nearby mines. But along the way, Ellie receives news that her partner is unable to make it to Pickford. Desperate for work, Ellie decides to continue on to Arizona and solve this mystery on her own. But as endearing as Livinia is, she isn’t able to make the right people talk. Ellie really needs someone to play the part of Jessie, the attractive and flirtatious niece of Livinia. She couldn’t play both parts...could she? With all the effort of keeping track of her two personas, Ellie finds herself becoming more confused about who she really is, especially when Jessie catches the eye of handsome mine-owner, Steven Pierce. Between balancing the two characters of Livinia and Jessie and attempting to catch the silver thieves, Ellie may just have forgotten to guard her heart against potential suitors...

The common thread that I’ve spotted in reviews of this book is that it is a lot of fun to read, and I completely agree with that sentiment. The premise of Ellie switching between two different personas in order to solve a crime not only made for an original and compelling story, but also a very entertaining one. It was the premise of the novel that drew me to Love in Disguise in the first place and it definitely lived up to my expectations. While there’s a mystery running through the entire book and a sweet, if slow to develop, romance between Ellie and Steven, it was Ellie’s character-switching that kept me reading. Could she really keep her ruse up? Would she ever forget which character she was playing? Would anyone figure out that neither Livinia nor Jessie existed? Not only did this situation create a fair amount of suspense, it was also pretty amusing to read about Ellie’s attempts to play two entirely different characters. I found myself grinning and giggling at several points throughout the story, and it was very sad to say goodbye to these characters – not just Ellie, but also Livinia and Jessie, who almost seemed as real as Ellie. 

Unlike some historical novels that contain a hint of mystery, I didn’t solve the mystery before the protagonist. But I wasn’t at all disappointed at this. Ultimately, I just wanted Ellie to catch the thieves and prove that she could be a good detective; I didn’t really mind who ended up being cast in the role of the bad guys! But although the mystery wasn’t always at the forefront of my mind while I was reading this novel, I did appreciate the climatic ending. It was nice to see Ellie using the wits that she had developed over the course of the story, and a couple of hints that had been dropped earlier in the novel finally made sense and aided the characters as they apprehended the thieves. Fans of romantic suspense and mysteries may be disappointed that Ellie’s attempts to catch the thieves aren’t as developed as they would be in a pure mystery novel, but I felt that Love in Disguise had the perfect blend of history, mystery and romance to keep fans of all three genres entertained.

The romantic element to Love on Disguise wasn’t as central as I thought it would be, considering that the word “love” is in the title, but the slow progression of Ellie and Steven’s relationship seemed appropriate for their situations. Steven was preoccupied with protecting the interests of his mine and Ellie was too wrapped up in being both Livinia and Jessie to consider the possibility of her connection with Steven turning into something more serious. I found Ellie’s reaction when she realised that Steven was falling for Jessie to be very realistic. Her dilemma over whether she was leading Steven on and whether it was fair to continue spending time with him was very heart-felt. Did he really love her, underneath her disguise? Or would he be disappointed once she took off her wig and revealed how different she was from Jessie? Even if Ellie’s situation in this book was entirely fanciful, the “Does he really like me for who I am inside?” issue is one that any woman can relate to.

I came very close to giving this novel full marks: I loved the concept, the characters, the suspense and the romance. But what holds me back from giving Love in Disguise five stars is the spiritual aspect of the novel. While I liked Ellie’s commentary on her church experiences and her reception of the pastor’s sermons, some of the other scenes that were intended the show the development of Ellie’s relationship with Jesus just didn’t flow with the rest of the novel. The one where she devoted her life to Jesus seemed to almost come out of nowhere, and I wished there had been more development on Ellie’s spiritual life. She seemed to have almost no concept of faith at the start of the book, and while there was a smattering of comments on her growing relationship with God over the course of the book, it wasn’t enough to convince me that Ellie had suddenly come to a complete understanding of God’s love for her by the end of the novel. The spiritual sections of the novel were so brief that they could easily have been removed entirely from the novel and not changed the flow of the story. While I do think that the spiritual elements of Love in Disguise could have worked if they had been better integrated into the main storyline, I couldn’t help but wonder if by choosing to write a salvation plot into the story, Carol had missed out on the great possibility for exploring the struggles that a Christian detective faces in having to lie and deceive others as part of their work. That is a story that I’d definitely like to read. 

Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the spiritual aspects of Love in Disguise, I didn’t find fault with any other aspect of the novel. From start to finish, this book had me hooked and I hated having to put it down for any reason. Not only does Love in Disguise contain the perfect blend of character development, mystery and romance, it’s also entirely original and unlike anything I’ve come across in this genre. And although I appreciated the originality of Love in Disguise, I can’t help but hope that Carol gets the chance to write another novel about a female detective. If she does, you can be certain that I’ll be one of the first to get my hands on it.

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Sixty Acres and a Bride - Regina Jennings


PROS: Unconventional heroine; engaging secondary characters

CONS: Conflict between hero and heroine is fairly weak; awkward pacing, particularly at the start of the novel, which makes it hard to get into the flow of the story

After the tragic death of her husband and father-in-law in a mining accident, Rosa Garner follows her mother-in-law, Louise, to their family home in Texas. Having met and married Mack in Mexico, Rosa isn’t prepared for life in Texas, and the people of Plum Creek aren’t prepared for her foreign clothing or behaviour. But before she can figure out how the locals want her to act, Rosa has to help Louise pay off the taxes on their family home. The task facing the two widows is momentous, and they have little chance of meeting their goal before their home is bought up by their neighbour, who has his sights set on Rosa more so than her home. Their only hope is in Weston Garner, a fellow widower and relative who might just be able to help the women pay their debts. Can Rosa stoop to begging a strange man for help before it’s too late? And can either of them handle the ramifications of the agreement they make?

The biggest compliment that I can give Sixty Acres and a Bride is that it reminded me of Kim Vogel Sawyer’s writing, which makes me hope that Regina has what it takes to someday be as popular as Kim in this genre. Regina’s setting and secondary characters made me feel involved in the story, just as some of Kim’s novels have. But Regina also brings something new to the genre – namely, the character of Rosa, who was a welcome change from the more typical heroines. I honestly struggle to think of a time that I’ve read a Christian romance novel set in this era where the heroine is Mexican. I adored the descriptions of Rosa’s clothes, and if they look anything like the ones pictured on the front cover of this novel then I’m quite envious. However, I can also see why Rosa stuck out so much in Texas, and her initial mishaps were both amusing and touching to read about.

But as with Kim's books, Sixty Acres and a Bride just didn't have that little extra spark that pushed the story up into the "Loved it!" category for me. While my emotions got very riled up at the character of Mr Tillerton and his treatment of Rosa, and the general animosity that met Rosa when she first arrived in Plum Creek (I can’t be the only one who thought of Little House on the Prairie every time the town’s name was mentioned, right?) I also got pretty annoyed with the way that Weston and Rosa could have figured out their difficulties if they’d actually talked to each other! These are two very different sets of emotions to experience when reading a book. The first set is good, and the ability to make a reader get so involved in a story that they start feeling angry on behalf of a character is a talent that I greatly admire. But getting annoyed with the characters because you’re fed up with them continually making a mess of things isn’t so good. I didn’t mind the conflict between Rosa and Weston initially, but after it dragged on I started to get a bit fed up as it could have been resolved so easily. This may be just be a matter of a personal preference, since I’m the kind of person who doesn’t let an issue go undiscussed for more than five minutes. Perhaps those who share Rosa and Weston’s stubbornness will be able to relate to this situation better. 

Aside from the weaknesses in the conflict, my only other issue with Sixty Acres and a Bride was the pacing. It’s hard to describe what bothered me about it, but something just felt a little bit “off” about the pacing and I found it particularly hard to follow the plot at the start of the novel. There were several places where I got confused as to whose thoughts and feelings were being described and I had to backtrack to see whether or not the perspective had changed. After my initial difficulties with this novel I was able to settle into it better and struggled less with the pacing as the story developed, but it was a bit off-putting to begin with. If you’re just about to start this novel, I will say that it’s worth the read, so don’t let any confusions at the beginning of the story put you off. 

As long as it took to get to the conclusion, I was pleased with how everything worked out, and I was sighing with relief when Rosa and Weston finally confronted each other about their feelings. The conclusion was particularly satisfying, and made me hopeful for Regina’s next novel. I’m wondering if she may revisit Molly in the future, as she was a secondary character that I found particularly interesting. Despite her scheming tendencies I did feel quite sorry for her as nothing ever seemed to go her way. And if not Molly, I hope that Regina’s next heroine is just as unconventional as Rosa.

While I do have my personal qualms with the conflict and the pacing of Sixty Acres and a Bride, I’m sure that these are issues that will be smoothed out in subsequent novels. For a debut, Sixty Acres and a Bride definitely shows potential, particularly as Regina brings something new to the genre. As much as I love to read Christian historical fiction, the genre definitely needs to be shook up every now and again, and I hope that Rosa’s story does just that. I also love that the cover of Sixty Acres and a Bride is branching out from some of the more typical covers in this genre. As pretty as some of them are, they do get a little repetitive after a while, and I really felt that this cover reflected Sixty Acres and a Bride as well as Rosa’s character. Hopefully both this novel and its cover are a sign of good things to come from Regina Jennings.

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Short-Straw Bride - Karen Witemeyer


PROS: Original twist on a well-worn storyline; confident and quirky heroine; endearing romance between a newly married couple that contains just a pinch of edginess

CONS: None!

No one has stepped on Archer land in years – no one, that is, except Meredith Hayes. Having stumbled on to forbidden territory in search of her lunch pail as a child, Meredith met the mysterious Travis Archer when he had to rescue her foot from a bear trap. She’s never forgotten that day, and not just because of the limp she was left with following her accident. Travis remained her idealised hero even after she entered womanhood, and when she overhears a plot to burn the Archers off their property, Meredith knows that she has to warn Travis and his brothers. But her good deed isn’t appreciated by her uncle and aunt, who insist that Meredith marry one of the Archers when the fire forces her to remain overnight on their property. To Meredith, the possibility of being forever united with her hero, Travis, is a dream come true. But does Travis view their union in such a positive light? Or is he merely marrying Meredith out of feelings of duty and responsibility? Meredith is determined to make their marriage one worth fighting for, and to convince Travis that picking the short-straw wasn’t a mistake.

I’ve yet to discover a Karen Witemeyer novel that I’ve not loved, but I approached Short-Straw Bride with a little bit of trepidation. Could Karen really keep up her previous standards? Will she run out of original plots? Thankfully, my fears were unfounded and Short-Straw Bride not only met but far exceeded my expectations. I’d have to say that it rivals Head in the Clouds for its place as my favourite of Karen’s novels. Although I think Karen’s books may a slight formula to them – perhaps in the pacing or the number of action scenes – this really wasn’t evident when I was reading Short-Straw Bride. While I could definitely see some similarities to her earlier works, the plot of the novel was entirely original and Meredith was a refreshing new heroine. The romance between Meredith and Travis reminded me of those written by some of my favourite romance writers – Kelly Long and Mary Connealy in particular – and while it was different from some of Karen’s earlier romances, it definitely took her writing in a positive direction.

I love marriage of convenience stories, and you’d think that considering their prevalence in the historical romance genre that authors would eventually run out of ways to twist this plot into something new. While Meredith and Travis’s arrangement – borne out of Meredith spending the night with a man while unchaperoned – is one I’ve come across before in this genre, I loved the spin that Karen put on this story. The concept of the four brothers living on a ranch and barely having any contact with women made Meredith’s presence all the more interesting, especially as all the brothers were jumping at the chance to marry her. The brothers definitely made the story more interesting, especially in the early days of Meredith and Travis’s marriage when neither of them knew how to treat each other. Short-Straw Bride had more to it than just the romance between the hero and heroine. Meredith, an outsider, had a thing or two to teach Travis about the image he was projecting of the Archer brothers and their land, and it was particularly touching to see him breaking down the walls – both physical and emotional – he’d put up to protect his family from the outside world. Each of the brothers had their own personality and I enjoyed seeing how Meredith’s presence on the ranch helped them to understand their own strengths and get the courage to pursue friendships and work arrangements outside the bounds of their property. 

The romance was still a big element in Short-Straw Bride, so there’s no need to worry that secondary characters might encroach on what is an incredibly touching and romantic love story. While I wasn’t always entirely convinced by Meredith’s childhood adoration of Travis and the idea that Travis fell for Meredith as soon as she reappeared on the ranch, their relationship was built on so much more than these initial moments. I enjoyed witnessing them coming from the awkward early days of their marriage into a relationship based on trust and commitment. Meredith’s worries about whether Travis was rejecting her by not sleeping in the same room once they were married were very real and heart-felt, and I could completely understand her pain over this aspect of their relationship. Likewise, Travis being torn over whether he should be a gentleman and court his new wife or pursue the more physical aspects of their relationship was very well presented. A lot of marriage of convenience stories skip over the transition from a chaste romance to a couple engaging in their “marital privileges”, so it was a nice change to see Karen exploring this aspect of a couple’s relationship. The awkwardness over how to discuss such things with your new husband and trying to seek womanly advice on a ranch full of men also created some amusing moments, which made the romance a well-rounded mixture of humour, emotion and a little bit of edginess. The conclusion to the novel and the romance was very satisfying, and while some readers may find themselves blushing a little, I’m sure plenty of married readers will be pleased to see Meredith and Travis endorsing those aspects of marriage that God intended married couples to enjoy. 

Even if I did speed through Short-Straw Bride at a record-breaking pace, I think I’d still struggle to find any faults with it on a slower, second read – which may happen, as this book is definitely worth reading again. It pushed all the right buttons, from the twist on a well-worn plot to the engaging secondary characters to the touching and realistic romance. While Short-Straw Bride is quite different from Karen’s previous novels, it contains many of the trademark elements that readers are familiar with, particularly Meredith, the confident and slightly quirky heroine. Short-Straw Bride will satisfy many historical romance readers, and I imagine that those who have yet to discover Karen Witemeyer will be hunting down her backlist as soon as they turn the final page in this endearing love story. 

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Epic Fail - Claire LaZebnik


When Elise Benton’s mother gets a job offer from a prestigious private school in Los Angeles, the entire family gets uprooted. Elise and her sisters couldn’t be more out of place at Coral Tree Prep where they’re surrounded by the children of famous celebrities, and the green minivan that their mother makes them drive doesn’t make fitting in much easier. Juliana is fortunate enough to snag the attention of the attractive, yet surprisingly down-to-earth, Chase. Elise finds herself being dragged along to social events in order to make Chase’s buddy, Derek Edwards, feel like less of a third wheel, but Elise and Derek don’t exactly hit it off. Derek is the son of one of Hollywood’s most famous acting couples, and he’s constantly paranoid that people are only interested in him because of his fame. Elise couldn’t care less, but his attitude puts her off, particularly when he kicks up a fuss over her friendship with Webster Grant. She just wants Derek to leave her alone so that she can choose her own friends at Coral Tree, but this guy just won’t let up. To make matters worse, her mother, the principal, keeps disciplining Chase’s annoying younger sister, and Elise’s own sister, Layla, is meddling in affairs that a fourteen year old should know nothing about. Is Elise’s time at Coral Prep going to be an epic fail?

Here’s a rather amusing anecdote: Claire LaZebnik was the first “grown up” author that I read as a teenager. I read Same As It Never Was (or Olivia’s Sister, as it’s titled in the UK) when I was thirteen and had exhausted my library’s supply of Sweet Valley University and Point Horror novels. I recall really enjoying her novel, but my library sadly never got any more of her books. I’ve now finally made it out of my teen years (I turned twenty in September) and apparently, Claire has started to write Young Adult fiction! It seemed appropriate that I do a reversal of my initial experience with Claire’s work and take a dip into her foray into teenage fiction. Plus, this book was incredibly cheap on Kindle and it was advertised as being a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – how could a penny-pinching English Literature student resist a deal like that?

As shocking as it may sound coming from an English major and a romance reader, I actually only read Pride and Prejudice for the first time last year. The story wasn’t entirely fresh in my mind, however, so I had to occasionally keep looking up the character names on Wikipedia, as I was curious to see who Webster Grant and Chelsea were modelled after. Epic Fail didn’t exactly follow Austen’s original to the letter, and missed out the character of Mr Collins almost altogether, but I don’t think it could have made a compelling high school novel while accurately mimicking Pride and Prejudice. I’m not a massive Austen fan, but I have enjoyed most of her novels, and I would consider Epic Fail to be an original and successful adaptation. But I’d also say that one of Epic Fail’s best characteristics is that it can be read without any prior knowledge of Austen. It isn’t riddled with links to Pride and Prejudice that would alienate a potential reader, so jump right in if that’s what’s been holding you back. 

As I came close to finishing this novel, I was very tempted to give it full marks. The only thing that holds me back marks is that Layla’s storyline felt very unfinished, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen to her, Weston and Campbell. It stopped me from completely enjoying the incredibly sweet concluding scene with Elise and Derek. I'm holding out for the hope that this means there will be a sequel about Layla. I’m particularly interested to see whether Claire follows up some of the secondary characters in this novel, especially Derek’s sister Georgia, who was introduced towards the end of the book. Even if Elise and Derek weren’t to feature in a later novel, I’d still be interested in reading it as I think some of the tertiary characters had real potential.

However, I do have to complain about the title. It has no relation to the story whatsoever, other than that Elise herself makes two or three mentions to something being an “epic fail”. I get the feeling that the publisher wanted to use what they thought was typical teen lingo in order to get the attention of their target market. But from what I’ve see of reviews, many teen readers have also bemoaned the fact that this phrase has very little to do with the story. 

Epic Fail was an incredibly cute, fun, touching read. I was cautious about reading a teenage romance as I never had much of a love life as a teen. I devoured many Meg Cabot novels and books about the Sweet Valley Twins, which set me up for a bit of a disappointment when I got older, when I realised that it was very unlikely I’d meet a guy in high school who remotely resembled any of my fictional heroes. But I felt that the relationships in Epic Fail, both those between Derek and Elise as well as Chase and Juliana, were very well written. The characters acted their age, unlike some teen protagonists who either seem younger or older than they’re meant to be, and it was encouraging to see the mistakes that occur through the inevitable teenage miscommunications. Despite all the wonders of texting, emailing and vid-chatting (which even I’d never heard of), these characters still managed many a misunderstanding, which echoed my own teen years all too well. I’d like to think that Epic Fail accurately reflected the behaviour of teenagers, which should be appreciated by teens and adults alike. I really hope that there’s a sequel in the works, or maybe even another modern Austen adaptation. 

Disclaimer: There are a few instances of bad language. While there are brief instances of smoking and use of alcohol and drugs, all of the principal characters are disapproving of such behaviour. There are some vague hints at how far one character's relationship is going physically, but nothing descriptive and what is considered “far” is up to the reader’s interpretation. A secondary character is revealed to have been taking photographs of girls in various states of undress, but this topic is dealt with very sensitively.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Arms of Love - Kelly Long


PROS: Contains Kelly’s trademark edgy romance; good presentation of PTSD; presence of visions and the Holy Spirit is very encouraging

CONS: Initial introduction to the characters feels rushed; a lot of sad events occur at the start of the novel; spiritual message is a bit overwrought

The American Revolutionary War was a time of a great loss, and not just for those who fought for freedom. Lena Yoder’s father has been imprisoned for refusing to give up his livestock for the war effort, and not soon after this her mother dies in childbirth. Alone with just her younger siblings, the only place Lena can think to turn is to her childhood friend, Adam, whom she had always hoped she would someday marry. But Lena’s mother was fearful of the hold that Adam’s father held over him, and made Adam promise not to marry Lena until he was sure Lena would be safely out from under his father’s influence. Adam cannot tell Lena this, but he does know that he would not make a good husband to Lena at present. Continually wrought by troubling dreams, Adam is permanently unsettled, and wants nothing more than to gain freedom from the memories that haunt him. The only way he can see fit to do this is in bearing arms and fighting for the patriot cause. Lena is appalled at Adam’s desire to fight, and turns for solace and stability in his older brother, Isaac. Adam must reconcile himself with the troubling memories that haunt him and with his own desire for freedom before he can begin to fight to win back the love of Lena.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Kelly’s next book ever since I finished her contemporary romance, Lilly’s Wedding Quilt. But although Lilly’s Wedding Quilt made my list of favourite novels for 2011, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Arms of Love. While a few authors have attempted Amish historical fiction recently and handled the combination well (Murray Pura, Anna Schmidt, Lori Copeland and Virginia Smith), none of them have gone as far back as the eighteenth century, and I wasn’t entirely sure how a novel about the Amish during the American Revolutionary War would turn out. I didn’t enjoy Arms of Love as much as Kelly’s contemporary romances, but I do think that this book is a good start to her Amish Beginnings series and breaks new ground in Amish fiction.

It took me a while to get into this novel, and I’m not sure if that’s just because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time and was up to my ears in exam revision. The beginning of Arms of Love is incredibly sad, and wracked with numerous tragedies – a father is imprisoned, his wife dies in childbirth and a new widow loses her home. Throwing Adam and Lena’s troubled love into the mix made my initial reading of this book quite depressing, and I kept putting it down so that I could read something lighter. I don’t think that all readers will find this book as sad as I did, and perhaps if I read it at a later date, when I didn’t have so much on my plate, I would enjoy it more. I didn’t really feel like I become properly involved with the story until about halfway through the novel, when the plot pacing really began to pick up and I felt like I’d got to know the characters better. When I first met Adam, Lena and their families there was so much going on that I almost felt like I’d been thrown into the middle of a story that already in progress and that I’d missed some essential details. But by the middle of the book I’d settled into the lives of the eighteenth century Lancaster Amish and felt that I could accurately keep up with their troubles.

Arms of Love isn’t all sadness and tragedy; it contains a good helping of romance and a little bit of humour. One of my favourite scenes is probably one around the middle of the novel, in which Adam tells his brother that he won’t have any time to study or work when he has a wife because she’ll want to do is kiss him all day long. The exchange between the brothers was amusing, and really brought the characters’ personalities to life for me. I really enjoyed watching Adam and Isaac’s friendship develop, almost as much as I appreciated the romance between Adam and Lena.

One of my favourite aspects of Kelly’s writing is how her romantic scenes are just a little bit more edgy than most Amish authors’, showing the importance of physical as well as spiritual and emotional attraction in a marriage. The cellar scene was the one that made me really start to care about Adam and Lena, when I found myself rooting for them to get together, even though Lena was then engaged to Isaac. I won’t say any more than that, but any true romance fan can’t help but root for Adam and Lena after reading the all important cellar scene. Kelly hasn’t neglected her trademark of edgy romance, even in the eighteenth century.

I have to admit that I found Adam far more interesting to read about than Lena, and what made me keep reading this book, even during the tough scenes, was the desire to find out what was behind his disturbing dreams. I don’t know a lot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I found the portrayal of Adam’s struggles to be very realistic. Since PTSD wasn’t properly recognised until around the time of the First World War, it made me wonder how men like Adam were treated by society at this time, which made him all the more endearing.

On the topic of dreams, I also loved the way that Kelly incorporated the Holy Spirit into her novel, through visions and healings. It seems that writing about the Holy Spirit in Christian fiction is just as hard as presenting the physical love between a husband and wife. Kelly manages both in this novel, and I was really impressed by the way that she wrote the scenes containing healings and visions. Nothing felt forced, and I definitely got a sense of the characters’ faith in God. However, I will say that I felt that the message of “God is for us” to be a bit overwrought. I liked how Ruth, the non-Amish wet-nurse, mused over this statement as she came deeper into her faith with God, but as I got further into the novel so many characters were quoting this passage that I wanted to ask them if they actually knew of any other verses in the Bible. It fitted Ruth’s storyline, but at times the statement was made to the extent that it no longer seemed comforting and just became repetitive.

Although I have my qualms about some aspects of this novel, Arms of Love is an encouraging start to Kelly’s historical series and I hope that further Amish Beginnings novels are of a similar fare. Readers might be put off initially by the introduction of so many characters at the start of the novel and the presence of so many sorrowful events, but I would encourage readers to persevere, as this novel is definitely taking the time to read. Kelly doesn’t shy away from edgy topics, from romance to spiritual issues, and her presentation of both in this novel reflects what I’ve come to expect from her writing. I hope that other readers are similarly pleased and challenged by Arms of Love.

Review title provided by Thomas Nelson.

Friday, 11 May 2012

By the Light of the Silvery Moon - Tricia Goyer


PROS: Interesting take on the parable of the prodigal son; really captures the essence of what it was like to be onboard the Titanic

CONS: Hero and heroine fell in love too fast for it to be believable; some characters were underdeveloped; preachy in places

Amelia Gladstone and Quentin Walpole are both looking forward to making a new start in America, and the first step in their journey is taking a trip on the Titanic. But while Amelia’s ticket has been paid for by a potential suitor hoping to meet her and her aunt when they arrive in America, Quentin is thrown off the ship when he attempts to sneak onboard. Amelia can never ignore a need, but she doesn’t imagine how her life will change when she hands Quentin her spare ticket. Not only is this trip the start of a whirlwind romance with Quentin, but Amelia’s discoveries about her new friend help her to reunite him with his long-lost family, who are also onboard the Titanic. Soon Amelia is swept into the life of the first class passengers on the ship, dancing and dining with Quentin’s older brother, Damian, while Quentin struggles in deciding whether or not he should reintroduce himself to his family. And if he doesn’t, is he worthy of Amelia’s time and love? But very soon, Amelia and Quentin will have much harder problems to deal with, ones which could tear them apart for ever.

When looking at this spring’s new releases, it almost seems as if every publisher in existence was trying to put a Titanic novel on the shelves. When it came to deciding which book I wanted to read to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic, By the Light of the Silvery Moon was an obvious choice, as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of Tricia’s previous novels. But while I had high hopes for her writing and storytelling abilities, I was a bit cautious when it came to fitting a love story into the short space of time from the Titanic leaving Britain and coming to its sad demise only a few days later.

Ultimately, I was very satisfied with By the Light of the Silvery Moon. I came to care about the characters and could feel my heart thudding during the scene in which the ship sank. I can’t even begin to mention the amount of detail that Tricia put into the descriptions of the cabins, dining rooms, clothing and food onboard the Titanic. Tricia definitely did a lot of research into what it was like travelling on the Titanic and I could easily imagine many of the scenes that she described. But I feel that there were some aspects of the characterisation and romance that felt a little underdeveloped, which is only natural when you’re trying to fit so much into such a short space of time.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I’m just not a big fan of love-at-first-sight stories. I kid you not when I tell you that the first time I saw my fiancĂ©, I turned to my friend and said “He looks a bit weird, doesn’t he?” We did not have a fairytale romance, and I’m okay with that – real life is not that perfect. But a romance onboard the Titanic is definitely going to be along this vein, which I anticipated when I started reading this book. I had to try to make myself forget that Amelia and Quentin had only known each other for a few days when they described the strong emotions that they felt for each other. Ultimately, I did enjoy reading about their relationship and was rooting for them in the end, but I didn’t find how quickly they fell for each other to be entirely plausible.

When it came to Amelia on her own, I did really like her character, even if she seemed a bit too perfect at times. I was worried that Amelia didn’t have any flaws, until her aunt challenged some of Amelia’s notions about love and marriage. I had to be similarly challenged about my romantic ideals a few years ago so I could definitely relate to this part of the book. The section in which Amelia mused over her dilemma over whether to settle for someone stable, like her potential suitor in America, or risk her love on someone who has made a lot of mistakes in their life, like Quentin, was one of the most realistic and touching scenes relating to Amelia and Quentin’s relationship.

While I did like the fact that Quentin and Damian’s story was a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son – although I’ll admit, it took me a while to realise the inspiration behind this part of the plot – I wish that Damian’s character had been developed further. I knew that he was the villain of the story but I wish that Tricia could have delved deeper into what made him such a hateful person. There were some hints of jealousy and rivalry between the brothers, and bitterness because Damian associated their mother’s death with Quentin, but these hints weren’t developed enough to let me see Damian as a truly believable character. Although Damian managed to redeem himself in the end I still felt like something was missing from his part of the story.

When it came to the spiritual aspects of By the Light of the Silvery Moon, I liked the idea of Quentin learning that he needed to forgive himself in order to restore his relationship with God, but I wasn’t so keen on the execution of this part of the plot. The scene in which Quentin finally talked to God and asked for forgiveness was just a little bit too cheesy for my liking. Some of the spiritual sections of this book, particularly the conversations between Amelia and Quentin, were realistic, but others verged on too sermon-like. I was actually surprised at the way that Tricia dealt with the spiritual issues in this book as the spiritual aspect of her Big Sky series was what made me love it so much, but her approach in By the Light of the Silvery Moon seemed entirely different. I also have to mention that I’m honestly convinced that every single character that Amelia came into contact with on the Titanic was a Christian. Even in 1912, I didn’t see this as at all realistic. Please correct me if you find a character in By the Light of the Silvery Moon that doesn’t have some sort of relationship with God, but this is the way that it seemed to me when I was reading this book.

Ultimately I found By the Light of the Silvery Moon to be an enjoyable love story set onboard the Titanic. As far as I could tell, the details about the ship and its sinking were accurate and really made the story come to life. Tricia’s strengths definitely lie in her ability to research and recreate a scene.. While I did struggle with how quickly Amelia and Quentin came to fall for each other, this may just be a matter of personal taste, and I’m sure that some romance readers won’t let this deter them. By the Light of the Silvery Moon didn’t quite live up to some of Tricia’s previous novels, namely in the character of Damian and the heavy-handedness with the spiritual sections of the novel, but  those looking for a romantic, dramatic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic won’t be disappointed.

Review title provided by Barbour.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Where I Belong - Gwendolyn Heasley


PROS: Protagonist goes through a realistic transformation and endears herself to the reader; novel has some hilarious moments in it; realistic open ending to the novel

CONS: Moral of the story is presented in a rather cheesy manner; questionable presentation of body image

Corrinne Corcoran returns from another successful shopping trip at Barney’s to hear the worst possible news from her parents: not only has her father lost his job, but the family’s entire savings have been embezzled. Her father has been fortunate enough to get another, less well-paid job, but it’s in Dubai and he can’t take the family with him. So Corrinne, her mother and her brother are being shipped off to their grandparents’ house in the tiny town of Broken Spoke, Texas. No more shopping sprees, no more credit cards, no elite boarding school and definitely no chances of hooking up with hot, rich upperclassmen. Instead, Corrinne will be spending her days in a town where there’s only two places to eat and nowhere to shop, where Rodeo Queens still reign and everyone cares about whether or not the high school football team wins the championship. As Corrinne adapts to sharing her bedroom with her mother, getting driving lessons from her estranged Grandpa and eating mountains of carb-filled pancakes every morning she slowly comes to appreciate some aspects of life in Broken Spoke. Kitsy, the perky cheerleader, becomes her friend and she hits it off with a hot wannabe rocker, Rider, when she starts working at the stables. But when Corrinne's old best friend, Waverly, plans a trip to Broken Spoke, Corrinne is forced to evaluate how much she truly enjoys her new life, and whether she wants to take any part of it with her when she eventually returns to her old life in New York.

I am honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed Gwendolyn’s debut novel. I usually preface my reviews of Young Adult books by saying something along the lines of “I'm not a teenager anymore, and I don’t normally enjoy teenage novels, so I may not be the best person to be reviewing this book”, but now I have to admit that, okay, maybe I have become a fan of Young Adult fiction. It’s been a long time since I used to eat up the latest Meg Cabot novel as soon as it was released, and maybe it was due to an overdose of teenage fiction that I swore off it when I was sixteen, but Where I Belong has seriously convinced me to give this genre another try.

This is yet another case of me being suckered in with a pretty cover. I saw that this book was selling for £1.99 on Kindle and decided to download a sample in case the book lived up to its gorgeous cover. I’m currently working my way through Oliver Twist and a surprisingly depressing Amish novel and definitely needed a light read, so when I found myself relaxing as I read the sample for Where I Belong I decided to take a chance on it. And I’m really glad I did. This book had me grinning away at the antics of Corrinne and her new friends in Texas. It was just what I needed at this time in my life.

I did find myself wondering whether or not I would have appreciated this book so much as a teenager. I’ve read some reviews from younger readers who got fed up with Corrinne’s ignorance and self-centred nature. But one of my favourite books as a teen was Legally Blonde purely because I found Elle's actions so hilarious, so considering that, I reckon that I would have enjoyed this book just as much as a teen. There were a few times when I found Corinne's comments a bit annoying - namely the remarks about her dress size (a fair few below mine, and I’m by no means fat) and her initial hatred of all foods that she deemed fattening (I am the Baking Queen in our house and addicted to pinning recipes on Pinterest) but other than that, I found her a very endearing character. For all her talks of drinking wine and staying out all night, she was still very innocent and naive. Sure, she knew her way around New York and could keep up with the “in” trends far better than anyone I know, but she didn’t truly understand how friendships and relationships and families worked until she moved to Texas. I enjoyed watching her character grow, and until she did mature, she was just utterly hilarious to read about. I never thought I’d enjoy reading about a rich, privileged teenage girl from Manhattan, but it happened!

Unlike some readers, I liked the open ending of the book. Perhaps some people would have liked more of a romantic conclusion, a confirmation that Corrinne was going to end up with the right guy and live happily ever after. But I found it quite nice that while Corrinne had grown as a character and developed over the course of the novel, the end of the book wasn’t the end of her growth. She’s still a teenager, after all. It’d be interesting to read the companion book about Kitsy and discover what happens to Corrinne after Broken Spoke.

I only have a couple of real gripes with this book. One of them was the scene in which Corrinne’s grandmother and mother recounted how they’d come to deal with their differences and reconcile with each other. I found it really cheesy and it didn’t seem at all realistic. Perhaps if they’d let their comments drip out little by little it would have worked, but it basically came across almost like a speech or a sermon, as if Corrinne was finally being told the big message of the entire book. The scene could have been a lot subtler and still made its point.

I also found some of the comments about dress sizes a bit disconcerting. If I remember rightly, Corrinne is a size 4 at the start of the novel, and she comments at the end of the book that she’s dropped a dress size due to all the work she’s been doing at the stables. I know that there are some women who are naturally stick-thin, but I didn’t like the idea of Corrinne’s weight loss coinciding with her finding contentment. To some readers, this might give the wrong impression and suggest that Corrinne’s happiness was linked to her unnecessary weight loss. In fact, I don’t think it’s entirely natural for someone of Corrinne's age to be dropping sizes. Teenagers are constantly growing, and it would be more realistic for Corrinne to go up a size. I don’t know many women who stayed a size 2 after they hit puberty, so Corrinne’s dress size isn’t exactly representative of most teenage bodies.

Aside from the slightly cheesy scene with Corrinne’s mother and grandmother and the questionable presentations of body image, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I've now joined the ranks of grown women who read Young Adult novels, and will definitely be seeking out more books in a similar vein to Where I Belong. If Gwendolyn can make me enjoy reading about a stuck-up teenage fashionista then I have high hopes for her next book, A Long Way from You, which is about the adorable Kitsy attending art school. If you’re tempted by this beautiful cover and not typically a reader of Young Adult novels, I would encourage you to give this book a try. Where I Belong is the perfect relaxing, feel-good read...and it may even make a Young Adult convert of you! If you’re already a fan of Young Adult fiction then I can’t see how you could be disappointed by this wonderful story.

Disclaimer: There was one instance of swearing in this novel and a couple of suggestions that Waverly was engaging in a sexual relationship. There were several instances of underage drinking, although Corrinne never seemed to have more than one drink at a time.