Monday, 26 March 2012

Evelina - Frances Burney

READ: MARCH 10 - 25, 2012

'Lord Orville did me the honour to hand me to the coach, talking all the way of the honour I had done him! O these fashionable people!' 

Frances Burney's first and most enduringly popular novel is a vivid, satirical, and seductive account of the pleasures and dangers of fashionable life in late eighteenth-century London. As she describes her heroine's entry into society, womanhood and, inevitably, love, Burney exposes the vulnerability of female innocence in an image-conscious and often cruel world where social snobbery and sexual aggression are played out in the public arenas of pleasure-gardens, theatre visits, and balls. But Evelina's innocence also makes her a shrewd commentator on the excesses and absurdities of manners and social ambitions - as well as attracting the attention of the eminently eligible Lord Orville. Evelina, comic and shrewd, is at once a guide to fashionable London, a satirical attack on the new consumerism, an investigation of women's position in the late eighteenth century, and a love story. 

Although this took me a while to read due to other reading commitments, I enjoyed this book vastly. I may be in the minority, but I definitely prefer Burney's humour and romance to Austen's! Although the epistolary style can sometimes interrupt the flow of the story, there were times when I didn't want to put this book down because I needed to find out what would happen to Evelina next. My English tutor claims that there aren't any authors prior to Austen who can create realistic characters with psychological emotions, but I honestly found Evelina to be far more of a believable and flawed heroine than Elizabeth Bennett, who I truthfully believe to be the first unflawed Mary Sue! I laughed at Evelina's etiquette errors, particularly when it came to ballroom rules, and wanted to shake Clement Willoughby by the neck whenever he preyed on Evelina and interfered with her growing relationship with Orville. I got annoyed with Orville's jealousy over Macartney, and wished that Evelina had the ability to tell Orville the truth about her situation. I found Evelina to be far, far more of an engaging and relatable character than any of Austen's heroines, and I felt sufficiently satisfied with her happy ending, no matter how long it took to reach it, and how many times it seemed so far out of her grasp. 

My only real complaints with this book would have to be that sometimes the humorous scenes between secondary characters began to drag, especially those near the end of the novel between Mrs Selwyn and the gentlemen who were visiting Mrs Beaumont. These scenes often started out being quite amusing, but they went on for pages and pages with no purpose other than to provide entertainment, and didn't succeed in moving the plot along. Captain Mirvan's scenes were similar, and while the one with the monkey was funny to begin with, the way it developed (and I don't think the issues between Lovel and Mirvan were ever really concluded?) just made it even more bizarre. Especially since this scene occurred so close to the conclusion of the story. Perhaps I was missing out on some of the humour of the period (although the notes at the end of the Oxford edition of the book are extremely useful, and I'd recommended readers to make use of these as much as possible) but I found some of the humour a bit tiring. 

Despite my displeasure with some of the humour in this novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has to be my favourite text so far in my class on the Development of the Novel. Although I'm up to my ears in necessary reading for university, for reviews and from recommendations from friends, I would love to read more of Burney's work in the future. Since this is her first novel, I would love to see how her writing develops. While I was initially cautious at reading a novel from 1778, since I had grown quite tiresome of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which is not much earlier than this novel, I found Burney's writing incredibly compelling, her characters most engaging and capable of developing their own voices and personalities, and her plot seemed far more structured than that of other novels from the period. If you're at all intrigued by this novel, do take the time to read it, for I think you will find it worth the time it takes to read. I think this would be of particular interest to fans of Austen, and I would be intrigued to hear what die-hard Austen fans think of this book. Personally, I've never been a great lover of Austen, although I do enjoy her novels, and I find it interesting that Burney is so much lesser known although she writes of similar subjects, in what I think is a much more engaging manner.  

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A Wedding Quilt for Ella - Jerry S. Eicher

READ: FEB 14 - MARCH 09, 2012

Ella Yoder's wedding with Aden Wengerd and the building of their dream house is set for June. But when Aden is suddenly taken from her, Ella begins to doubt God's love.

When her family pressures her to marry the new young bishop, Ella asks for six months to heal from Aden's death. Meanwhile, Aden's brother, Daniel, helps Ella build her dream house based on a drawing by Ella's sister, Clara and now incorporated into Ella's wedding quilt.
Can healing come through a house? A quilt? A community?
This book took me a long time to read, partly because I had a lot of other books to read for university that I had to finish by specific deadlines, and partly because this book just didn't grip me. For the most part, it was a quick and easy read. While the speech sometimes seems stilted and forced, it wasn't too badly written, so it wasn't as if I was stumbling over awkward prose. A few of my friends adored this book, while others found it difficult to enjoy. I tried not to start this book with a bias, but considering the views of some of my friends I expected that I wasn't going to like this book. So I was surprised to find that I could actually relate to Ella at the beginning of the story. I'm engaged to be married in four months and honestly, I could understand Ella's pain at her situation - she was not yet a wife, yet she's lost the man she was meant to marry. Does she still get the respect of a widow? Do others lessen her pain because she was never truly Aden's wife? This part of the story was probably the most believable and relatable section for me. I actually struggled to read it as I didn't want to think about what I would do if I lost Simon before we were married. It's just too painful to think about. I think Jerry Eicher captured Ella's distress quite well at this point.

But ultimately, this was the best part of the story. After this, the book moved along very slowly, often focusing on every day events that didn't lead anywhere. Although Ella wrote in her diary about how she was coping with her loss, I never felt like I really got inside her head after the funeral. Apart from the first part of the book, I didn't really connect with any of the characters. Everything felt surface-deep and some of the characters (especially Dora) seemed to change personalities to fit the situation they were in.

My biggest problem with this book is the presence of superstition and the way that everyone thinks that there will be a series of three deaths, and that this is God's Will. As another reviewer has noted, this book gave a really negative image of God. While a lot of Amish novels discuss the issue of God's Will, they never put God across as so harsh as it came across in this book. Whenever anyone begins to question the reasons for the deaths, their parents or church elders tell them that it's sinful to question God's ways and that he obviously meant life to turn out this way. I'm sorry, but this is not how I interpret God's will, nor how a lot of other Amish novels have approached it. Bad things happen in life all the time, but I believe that because God has given us free will, these bad things are the consequences of our own actions, not God playing puppet-master and reaching down from heaven to senselessly kill people because they're not conforming to God's will. I would say that God does have a plan for our lives and when bad things happen we need to trust that he will help us get through the situation and that something good will come out of it, but if my fiance suddenly died, I would not believe that God had had killed him because we weren't meant to be together. Seriously, if I were in Ella's situation and everyone was telling me that, actually, it must not have been God's will for me to marry this man - I would lose trust in God. Also, the fact that everyone talked about God's will all the time meant that they never seemed to voice any opinions of their own. No one ever consoled Ella on her loss, they just staunchly told her that it was God's will and she would get over Aden's loss in time. And don't even get me started on the superstitious "Things come in threes" aspect of the story. I don't know why the author used this concept as it didn't seem fitting with the Amish belief system. It displayed a lack of trust in God, in my opinion. Everyone was scared constantly that they would be the next death. God does not want his people to live in fear of when he will next strike someone down. So, I'm sorry to those who did like the pattern of threes in this book, but I really struggled with the "theology" of God put across.

On a lesser note, Eicher switched between actual German and what appeared to be German written as it would be pronounced by the characters' accents throughout this book. As someone who reads a lot of Amish fiction and speaks German, this bugged me. I have to assume that "Da Huh" was "Der Herr"? And so on. But then later in the book he had a character speak an entire sentence in regular German, so I'm not sure why he chose so spell some words in this weird phonetic manner. If you don't speak German this probably won't spoil your reading experience, but as I knew what the characters were actually saying it bugged me.

I really do want to rate this book higher, but I have to admit that if I hadn't bought this book for my book club discussion I probably wouldn't have finished it. Now that I have finished it, I am intrigued to see how Ella's life turns out, but I won't be rushing to buy the next book. I'd borrow it if it was in the library or if a friend leant it to me, though. Ultimately, I finished this book, but I had to make myself pick it up and read it, rather than turning to something more interesting. I think the story of a young Amish woman recovering from the death of her beloved could have great potential, but the characters weren't engaging enough, the story focused on a lot of unnecessary events that lead nowhere, and it ended up becoming a story about a hateful God who made his people superstitious and fearful. If this book had been about how Ella's trust in God had brought her through her period of sadness then maybe I would have enjoyed it more, but this was not the case. The start of this book really did have some potential and I wish Eicher had continued to focus on Ella's emotions more as I did feel emotionally invested in the story for a time.

Others have really enjoyed this book, so check out their reviews as well. This definitely seems like a marmite book - you either love it or hate it. I was somewhere in between to begin with, but ultimately this is one of those books that could have made it to the "okay" rating but ultimately was just a bit disappointing. It gets 4/10 from me.

Friday, 23 March 2012

A Sentimental Journey - Laurence Sterne

READ: MARCH 05 - 06, 2012

A Sentimental Journey is a novel without a plot, a journey without a destination. It records the adventures of the amiable Parson Yorick, as he sets off on his travels through France and Italy, relishing his encounters with all manner of men and women-particularly the pretty ones. Sterne's tale rapidly moves away from the narrative of travel to become a series of dramatic sketches, ironic incidents, philosophical musings, reminiscences, and anecdotes; sharp wit is mixed with gaiety, irony with tender feeling. With A Sentimental Journey, as well as his masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, Sterne forged a truly original style and established himself as the first of the stream-of-consciousness writers. 

This is probably my first dud of 2012. This short, unfinished novel had a few scenes in it that grabbed my attention but was otherwise rather uninspiring. Sometimes I just had absolutely no idea what was going on in this book, whereas at other points the story had some real potential and looked like it was going somewhere - and then it would jump to something else entirely and that thread of the story would be lost. 

According to my lecturer, this book had a lot of literary illusions to other travelogues, novels and classical literature. I'm probably missing a lot of these references, but it seems that perhaps without this prior knowledge there isn't a lot to appreciate about the actual story? Yorick gets into some mildly amusing situations and there are some moments of irony that can't be missed by any readers, but otherwise this is just the unfinished tale of a man's travels across France and into Italy. It was mostly readable (although there were some times that I had to go back and reread chapters as the sequence of events was difficult to understand) a but I didn't find the story or the protagonist terribly compelling. I think that's the problem - there is no real plot and the author is trying to do something in terms of literary criticism, rather than focusing on telling a story. Perhaps I'll appreciate this book more after my tutorial, but I just don't think this is for me.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Distant Shores - Kristin Hannah

READ: FEB 09 - 21, 2O12

Elizabeth and Jackson Shore married young, raised two daughters, and weathered the storms of youth as they built a family. From a distance, their lives look picture perfect. But after the girls leave home, Jack and Elizabeth quietly drift apart. When Jack accepts a wonderful new job, Elizabeth puts her own needs aside to follow him across the country. Then tragedy turns Elizabeth’s world upside down. In the aftermath, she questions everything about her life—her choices, her marriage, even her long-forgotten dreams. In a daring move that shocks her husband, friends, and daughters, she lets go of the woman she has become—and reaches out for the woman she wants to be.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I thought it would end up being a 8/10, but the ending pushed it up to a 9. I loved how it showed that you can rediscover who you are deep inside and invigorate your life without giving up your marriage or family. Yes, Elizabeth made mistakes in letting her family take over who she was and lost herself in the process, but she was able to reawaken herself without giving up her husband and daughters. My only real difficulty with this book was that Jack and Birdie didn't exactly have a "normal" family life, and while I'm sure many couples go through similar struggles, Jack's job and fame presented a lot of issues that other families wouldn't have to deal with. Plus, I'm really not a sports fan at all, and I found a lot of the aspects of his work to be pretty pretentious. His job alienated me a little. Otherwise, I thought that the book was a very realistic presentation of what can happen to a couple once their children have left home and they realise that they've forgotten why they got married in the first place. I didn't find this at all depressing, as one might expect since I'm getting married in five months. It didn't make me scared for what might come in twenty years time. Instead, it encouraged me to pursue my hobbies and talents and not let them get pushed aside. Even if my main dream in life is to be a wife and mother, children don't stay in the home forever and I wouldn't ever want to end up like Birdie, married for twenty-four years yet having no idea of who she is. And while I want to encourage my husband's own dreams and aspirations, I learned from Jack and Birdie that it's important to have a balance; Jack's dreams cost Elizabeth hers, and this isn't at all fair. As you can see, this book was very thought-provoking, even for someone who is in no way in a similar situation to Elizabeth. This was my first Kristin Hannah novel and I imagine that it'll stay with me for a while. I'll definitely be reading more of her novels.

On the narration for the audiobook: Amazing! The narrator managed to give each character distinct voices without being over-the-top about it, and I'm not sure how they managed it, but at certain parts of the recording the audio company had used affects to make it sound like someone was talking down a telephone line or shouting from a different room. It definitely brought the characters of this novel to life. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Song of My Heart - Kim Vogel Sawyer


PROS: Good moral lessons; sweet romantic story 

CONS: Secondary characters seem caricatured; mystery isn’t much of a mystery; romance is a bit predictable 

Sadie Wagner would do anything to help support her family financially, but her true dream is to sing. When a job opportunity opens up in the small town of Goldtree, Kansas and comes with the possibility of being able to sing in an opera house, Sadie can’t help but think that God has answered all of her dreams. Her initial experiences of working at the mercantile in Goldtree and singing in the luxurious yet bizarrely-located basement opera house run incredibly smoothly, and there’s the added bonus of the new sheriff, Thad McKane, who always seems to be around to lend a hand. Sadie has no idea that Thad has been hired specifically to track down the bootleggers who are manufacturing and selling illegal alcohol and could potentially destroy the town’s reputation. Thad’s struggling to find a lead, but it looks like the crime could be more closely tied to Sadie than either of them expect. When Thad starts to get an inkling of what’s truly happening in Goldtree, both of them are tested. Sadie has to decide how far she’s willing to go to support her family, and Thad begins to question what calling God has truly placed on his life; is he meant to be preaching or protecting? 

I’ve only read a couple of Kim Vogel Sawyer’s novels, but I can already tell why she’s so popular in the Christian historical fiction genre. While I’ll be the first to admit that she tends to follow what some would call “predictable” romantic plots, her novels never fail to entertain and always leave me feeling content. Song of My Heart is the epitome of the “feel good” novel. I knew where the romance was going from the first page and figured out the mystery early on, but that didn’t make me want to quit reading. I still wanted to see how the characters reached their inevitable happy ending. A good novel isn’t all about the conclusion, but rather the journey that the characters take to reach this ending. After all, if this wasn’t the case, then why would publishers continue to publish romance novels? 

Although I enjoyed reading about Sadie singing in the opera house, I’d have to say that my favourite character in Song of My Heart was actually the hero, Thad. Sadie didn’t really have much to overcome as a character, but Thad certainly had a lot to deal with. His tough childhood led him to believe that he should be a preacher in order to atone for his father’s sins, and he glorifies the work of ministers. I was cautious initially about this storyline as I do think that a lot of Christians feel that they should be called to work in ministry, and that being a minister or doing mission work is more important to God than being a doctor or a high school teacher. Thad is just as confused about this. He enjoys working as a sheriff, and really feels productive in helping people out around the small town of Goldtree, but it takes him a while to realise that perhaps this is the job he’s been called to, and not the traditional sense of “ministry”. I was really pleased with the way Kim approached this topic, as I thought for a while that this might be another book that glorified church ministry above all else, but Kim very tactfully demonstrates how different occupations can equally bring glory to God. She doesn’t belittle the work of ministers, but nor does she suggest that being a minister is more worthy than being a sheriff. I’m sure Thad’s lesson will strike a chord with many readers and make them consider what God has truly called them to do. 

While Song of My Heart has a strong hero and an endearing heroine, the secondary characters felt quite caricatured at times. Initially I found them quite amusing, but after a while the humour seemed to wear off. Melva and Shelva, the sisters who run the mercantile, were two characters that I particularly found more annoying than amusing by the end of the book. I think that all of the side-characters did have the potential to be engaging, but the traits that made them stand out became too exaggerated to truly be realistic. And if believability is what you’re looking for, you may find the mystery aspect of this novel a bit disappointing as well. I’m not sure about other readers of this novel, but I certainly figured out who was behind the illegal alcohol as soon as his character was introduced. I didn’t mind this too much as none of the other characters in the novel knew who was behind the illegal activity, so it was entertaining to witness the mystery unfolding around them. 

While Song of My Heart isn’t one of the strongest historical novels I’ve read, it won’t disappoint in providing Kim’s signature blend of romance, mystery and endearing protagonists. Long-term fans of Kim Vogel Sawyer will definitely be satisfied with this offering, and even if the romance and mystery were a bit predictable, this book is sure to put a smile on your face. 

Review title provided by Bethany House. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Pamela - Samuel Richardson

READ: FEB 06 - 20, 2012

One of the most spectacular successes of the flourishing literary marketplace of eighteenth-century London, Pamela also marked a defining moment in the emergence of the modern novel. In the words of one contemporary, it divided the world "into two different Parties, Pamelists and Anti-pamelists," even eclipsing the sensational factional politics of the day. Preached for its morality, and denounced as pornography in disguise, it vividly describes a young servant's long resistance to the attempts of her predatory master to seduce her. Written in the voice of its low-born heroine, Pamela is not only a work of pioneering psychological complexity, but also a compelling and provocative study of power and its abuse.

When I finally finished this book I truly felt like I'd achieved something. It's certainly not Richardson's longest work, but in places this book just dragged on and on. I found it particularly tedious towards the end when Pamela had resolved all of her issues with Mr B., his family members and the servants and there honestly wasn't anything else to happen in the book, other that have every secondary character compliment Pamela on how wonderful she was. The first Mary Sue? Perhaps. 

Predictably, I was disturbed that Pamela agreed to marry Mr B. But after my lecture on this book I began to reconsider the way in which I'd read into both the main characters and wonder whether a) Mr B.'s "rape" attempts had really been serious (particularly considering his reaction to Pamela's fit in the scene where he dresses up as a maid) and b) Pamela is truly a reliable narrator, or if she read into things wrongly or exaggerated. Plus, she must have actually had some feelings for Mr B. before she received his letter, otherwise she wouldn't have returned to him. I don't think she's a stupid girl in any way, but perhaps just a bit young and naive, causing her to present events in the letters to her parents in a skewed view at times. So while their marriage initially shocked me, it also made me think quite seriously about the way this book is read by a twenty-first century audience, and the ways in which our perceptions of this book warp our perspective of it. I knew what was going to happen to Pamela - but the eighteenth century audience didn't. 

This book had a lot of food for thought about class relations and romantic relationships in the eighteenth century, as well as the changing face of fiction. But it was also quite tedious in places, and repetitive. My entire seminar class bemoaned the number of times that Mr B. hid in a cupboard in order to spy on Pamela. This book is long, over 500 pages, and the repetitive nature of the scenes and conversations can simply make the story drag on. Trust me, if you need to read this for a class - give yourself two weeks to read it in. I gave myself a week and didn't manage it, partly because I was ill for two days and couldn't focus to read anything more intellectually stimulating than a Sweet Valley High novel, but even if I hadn't been ill it would have taken me more than a week. At the start of the book you'll be like, "I can read 100 pages a day, this is pretty compelling and entertaining." Then you get to Volume II and realise that 200 pages of the novel focus on Pamela and Mr B. AFTER they get married, in which there is exactly ONE conflict. And seriously, that conflict actually dragged on longer than necessary. A classmate told me to look forward to the conflict in Volume II since the start of the volume is pretty uninteresting, but by the time the conflict had been going on for quite some time I was honestly getting bored with it. 

I did quite enjoy this book when I started it, but given the points I've mentioned above (Pamela's perfectness, the tedious nature of many of the scenes, the length of the novel itself) it isn't one that I'd particularly recommend, unless you're interested in eighteenth century fiction or the development of the novel. It provides a lot of good discussion points, but isn't the book for you if you're looking for an entertaining classic akin to Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. I'm sure I'll be musing over this book for weeks to come, but I did have to force myself to finish it, so I'm rating it 6/10.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Secrets - Francine Pascal

READ: FEB 11 - 12, 2012

Beautiful and ruthless, Jessica Wakefield is determined to be chosen queen of the fall dance at Sweet Valley High. If she can win the contest, she's sure to win Bruce Patman, the most sought after boy in school.
The only person standing in Jessica's way is Enid Rollins. When Jessica discovers the truth about Enid's past, she knows the crown is within her grasp. She doesn't care that Enid is her twin sister Elizabeth's best friend—or that revealing the secret may cost Enid both her reputation and the boy she loves.
Only Elizabeth can save Enid from Jessica's vicious gossip—but can she stop her scheming twin in time?
Another one that I didn't read as a teenager. This one didn't have nearly as much drama as the first book, or maybe it was because most of it surrounded Enid and not the Wakefield family that I didn't find it quite so fun. It was also a good 60 or so pages shorter than Double Love, which made it shorter than some of the BSC books! I didn't realise the SVH books didn't have a standard page-length. 
As usual, this book revolved around Jessica being jealous over the possibility of someone (Enid) getting something she had her eye on (being crowned queen of a high school dance) and scheming to get it, and ultimately upsetting a lot of people in the process. Most scheming goes on in this book in a sub-plot as Lila (jealous that her dad is spending all his time with a young teacher and not her) spreads a rumour that her French teacher is having an affair with a student. But everyone gets what they deserve in the end as Jess is forced to dance with Winston, as he is crowned king of the dance, and Lila has no date as Ken realises she initiated the rumour about Ms Dalton. Nothing is really concluded about Ms Dalton so I hope that's cleared up in later books, it would be horrible to have that sort of rumour on your academic record!

An entertaining enough book while I was ill in bed, and plenty of cute scenes between Liz and Enid and Todd to combat Jessica's scheming. Oh, to be semi-innocent in 80s Sweet Valley! There's a strange mixture of sweet naivety in these books with Liz and Enid having pillow-fights and baking cookies, versus Jess drinking wine at Lila's party and cars parked at Miller's Point with steamed up windows. Plenty of hints at what teenagers really do, but no explicit details. Looking forward to reading #3! 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Double Love - Francine Pascal

READ: FEB 11, 2012

Will Jessica steal Todd from Elizabeth?

Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are identical twins at Sweet Valley High. They`re both popular, smart, and gorgeous, but that's where the similarity ends. Elizabeth is friendly, outgoing, and sincere — nothing like her snobbish and conniving twin. Jessica gets what she wants — at school, with friends, and especially with boys.

This time, Jessica has set her sights on Todd Wilkins, the handsome star of the basketball team — the one boy that Elizabeth really likes. Elizabeth doesn't want to lose him, but what Jessica wants, Jessica usually gets... even if it ends up hurting her sister.

I have a truly terrible confession to make. While I consider myself a Sweet Valley fan, have joined a LiveJournal fan club for the series and own the much-awaited sequel, I had never read Double Love until last month. I read Sweet Valley books in the early 2000s, when most of the early books in the series were out-of-print or just not stocked at my local library. So as a result, when I graduated from the Babysitters Club on to the Sweet Valley series I ended up reading the horrible 90s add-ons, such as Jr. High and Senior Year, and the reissues of the later books in the SVH series, where the twins work as au-pairs in France and get jobs at a fashion magazine. Not REAL Sweet Valley, I know. So when I read Sweet Valley Confidential last year, I felt horribly guilty that I considered myself a fan and had never read the original, early-80s books. So I bought a used, 3-in-1 collection of the first three books from Amazon Marketplace. And there it sat on my shelves until yesterday, when I was stuck in bed all day with a stomach bug and really could not face reading any more of Pamela. So, instead, I devoured this book. 

I kind of expected that I might hate this book. I've read some Babysitters Club books recently that I missed out on as a child and they just don't measure up to the ones that I have nostalgic memories of. While Double Love isn't going to make it on to my list of favourite Sweet Valley books of all time, I do wish I'd had the chance to read it as a teenager as I'm sure that I would have loved it. SO MUCH DRAMA! Especially for such a short book. It follows the typical pattern of all the SVH books: Jessica schemes to get something, Elizabeth takes ages to figure out what she's done and then tricks her into some lame revenge plot. Of course, being thrown into a swimming pool makes up for spreading lies about your twin sister and accusing a boy of attacking you! Jessica pretty much gets away with murder in these books. But I can so see the appeal. What girl hasn't dreamed about having a twin sister? Or, if you're not American, isn't this the perfect image of what every teenager imagines American high school to be like? 

I know that these books gave me totally unrealistic ideas of high school when I read them when I was 11, and convinced me that life just wasn't worth living if you didn't have a boyfriend. But they're a lot of fun and it's kind of sad that teenagers today don't have a similar series to be obsessed over. Sure, I'd rather my daughter was ploughing through the entire works of Louisa May Alcot than Francine Pascal, but if these sorts of books actually get teenagers interested in reading then I'm not going to complain. They do have some sort of moral values, the 80s references (Liz having a typewriter on her desk!) are brilliant. I don't think the updated versions will be anywhere near as good. So, for nostalgic fun I'm giving this 7/10. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

READ: JAN 15 - FEB 08, 2012

Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor's warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love. 

I was really enjoying this to begin with but I got a bit bored halfway through and while it did pick up again, the ending was so sudden and everyone was happily married off in a way that didn't seem in keeping with the tone of the story. I was really hoping that Elinor would get together with someone else, who had been constant throughout the story and seemed like a good match, so I was surprised and a bit disappointed with how the book ended. This is Austen's first published work, but I'd have to say that I probably even prefer Northanger Abbey to this, and that's the first novel she ever optioned to a publisher and was not in a finished state when it was eventually published in 1817. I'm still not sure how I feel about this story. I loved the social satire, which was even more prevalent in S&S than it had been in P&P. But Elinor was the typical cardboard-cut-out Austen heroine who had no flaws and reformed everyone around her. Marianne was much more interesting, mainly because she was so inherently flawed, but even she was reformed in the end, along with Willoughby. If everything hadn't been so perfect and if there had been different pairings I would have enjoyed this book more, but as it is, I'm giving it 7/10.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Like Dandelion Dust - Karen Kingsbury

READ: JAN 31 - FEB 03, 2012

Jack and Molly Campbell enjoyed an idyllic life in their small hometown outside Atlanta with their adopted 4-year-old, Joey. Then they receive the phone call that shatters their world: a social worker delivers the news that Joeys biological father has been released from prison and is ready to start life overbut with his son. When a judge rules that Joey must be returned to his father, the Campbells, in a silent haze of grief and utter disbelief, watch their son pick a dandelion and blow the feathery seeds into the wind. Struggling with the dilemma of following the law, their hearts, and what they know to be morally right, the Campbells find that desperation leads to dangerous thoughts. What if they can devise a plan? Take Joey and simply disappear....LIKE DANDELION DUST.

It's not often that I say this about Christian fiction, but this book was just too preachy for my tastes. I proudly say that I'm a born-again Christian and lover of Christian fiction, but the way that the Christian aspect was woven into this story came across as forced and unrealistic in places. I really wanted to enjoy this book as I'd read glowing reviews of it and cried when I'd watched the movie trailer. I've only read one of Karen Kingsbury's books before, a Christmas novella, and while I'd found it incredibly cheesy I'd blamed that on the shortness of the book and the subject matter. Kingsbury is massively popular in the Christian genre, and while a lot of her storylines appeal to me I just haven't got around to reading any of her other books until now. But when I noticed that this one was in my local library catalogue I requested it and was determined to read it over my intersemester break. The plot really did have a lot of potential, but the way that Kingsbury went about the spiritual parts of the book really left a bad taste in my mouth, and there were a couple of other part of the story that bugged me. 

I didn't hate this book but I didn't particularly like it either. Comparing it to other novels in the Christian market, it's a pretty average story. It could have done a lot more with the subject matter, but unfortunately I found that most of the book revolved around the main characters coming to believe in Christ and not their custody battle for their adopted son. Conversion stories always rub me wrong, especially ones like this that don't seem entirely believable. And in all honesty - I'm already a Christian, and I don't need to read books about other people coming to Christ in order to remind me of Christ's saving grace and how I'm sanctified through my belief in him. I much prefer reading books about Christians who use their faith to overcome difficulties. So perhaps my distaste for conversion stories is why I wasn't so keen on the subject matter of this book, since all three main characters came to Christ during the book. Joey's sections were the most believable, to be honest. And very cute. But his parents' sudden belief in God didn't entirely convince me. 

I also got annoyed at the ways that Beth and Bill kept trying to witness to Molly and Jack, who were clearly uncomfortable with it, and that they wouldn't change their methods of showing their friends Christ's love for them when they realised that their friends just weren't in the right place for receiving God's good news. Sometimes the best way to witness to someone is to show God's love through your actions (especially if the people in question are uncomfortable with you talking openly about God), not preach the gospel every five minutes and refer to everything in life as "God's will". I was particularly annoyed when Beth told her son to share his toy because "That's what Jesus wants". She never explained WHY Jesus wanted people to share their belongings, just that that was how life was. One day, this little boy is going to grow up and go to high school, and when someone asks him why he will or won't do anything, all he'll be able to say is "Because Jesus says I should" and when questioned further he'll realise that he doesn't know WHY Jesus commands such things. I've seen so many children grow up to be disillusioned with the church because their entire lives are ordained by "This is what the Bible says we should do" without any deeper understanding of why God wants us to do such things. 

I fully admit that my uncomfortableness with the preachy sections of this stems from personal experience, but I imagine I'm not the only one who cringed when Beth brought God or church into every conversation with her sister even though it was pushing her brother-in-law away from them. Especially when she prayed for God to show himself to Molly and Jack in his own way, and then continued to pressure them about church and talked about God all the time rather than waiting for Molly to make the first step. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but something just didn't sit right with me in this book. I don't believe that this is the way that God calls us to witness to people, nor did I think that the way Bill and Beth brought church or God into every conversation or thought seemed realistic of Christian behaviour. A lot of what they said felt forced. 

But the same can be said for the non-Christian sections of the book, the ones that dealt with Joey's custody battle. So many times, Molly would be discussing something with Jack or thinking something over and then the text would include a phrase along the lines of "Suddenly, she realised that this would never work out." or "Suddenly, it all became clear to her." or "Suddenly, she completely understood Jack's point of view." Molly had a lot of moments of sudden clarity in this book, and every time she had one of these moments it jerked me out of the flow of reading and forced me to examine the style of writing that Kingsbury used. It's very simplistic, but not in a particularly bad way. But sometimes her simplistic style of writing also utilised simplistic writing devices, such as Molly's moments of clarity, which always came to her suddenly, when she needed them most, and about two lines after she'd been struggling with the issue. I wouldn't have minded if this came up once or twice but this was used frequently throughout the book and really irritated me as it never seemed entirely realistic that two sentences after she'd been worrying about something she'd be able to immediately discern the root of the problem. To be honest, this device was just weird. I'm not sure why Kingsbury constantly used it. 

I realised early into the book that I was meant to be convinced of Beth and Molly's strong friendship, which was constantly reinforced by flashbacks to their childhood and references to special events that they'd shared. These kept being brought up over and over, but when Molly and Beth were actually together, even early on in the book before the Joey situation came up, I didn't see any evidence of this relationship. They both seemed uncomfortable since their husbands didn't get on very well and Beth's faith seemed to have distanced them. And since their friendship was such a vital part of the plot, I think the fact that I wasn't convinced of their relationship stopped me from appreciating other parts of the plot. 

This book wasn't all bad. It definitely gets a star for wrenching my heart during the sections with Wendy and Joey. Wendy was the most convincing character in the entire book (even if I wasn't sure why she was so certain that she would take Rip back when he came out of jail, the social worker was clearly keen to help her there). Her love for her son that led her to want to protect him even though she was desperate to be a mother really touched me, and I even shed a tear in places. I felt much stronger emotions regarding Wendy than I did Molly, which I don't think was Kingsbury's intention. Wendy and Joey were definitely my favourite characters in the whole book, and I also liked Allyson, the social worker who understood the injustice of the situation but felt that her hands were tied. 

I have a lot of bones to pick with this book, and I can understand why some Christians swear off Christian fiction because of its preachiness if this is the sort of book they've read. This book had a lot of potential, even with just focusing on the stories of the two mothers and the decisions they had to make to protect their son. I'm not suggesting that Molly, Jack and Joey's coming to believe in Christ should have been taken out of the book, just that it could have been more subtly woven into the story. Likewise, other elements of the story telling could have been toned down, and others (like Molly and Beth's friendship) needed more work to be convincing. 

I imagine that I'm going to be offending a lot of Karen Kingsbury fans with my review. I totally came to this book with an open mind, but within the first five or so chapters I knew that it was too preachy for my liking. But I persevered as a lot of my friends enjoy her books, and I did enjoy this novel on some level, but sadly not as much as I'd hoped. But I'm not giving up on Kingsbury, and I plan to try another of her books in the future. If you have any recommendations of other Kingsbury novels that don't have such an overbearing message and don't feature conversion scenes I'd much appreciate it! Overall, I'd give this book 6/10 as I did enjoy the main story even if other factors took away from this enjoyment at times.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Words Spoken True - Ann H. Gabhart


PROS: Unconventional father figure; excellent historical detail; perfect portrayal of romance and chemistry between the hero and heroine

CONS: Romance relies too much on the premise of “love at first sight”

Adriene Darcy has worked alongside her father in the printing room for his newspaper since she was a young girl, and now that she’s of an age to be married, she would still rather be setting type than attending balls and society functions. But her father has different ideas, and when the son of one of Lousville’s most prestigious families asks for her hand in marriage he readily agrees, without Adriene’s consent. Adriene has no desire to be married off, especially to Stanley Jimson, who isn’t as safe and gentle as he initially appears. The only other person determined to keep Adriene from marrying Stanley is Blake Garrett, the editor of the rival Lousville newspaper. He doesn’t trust Stanley, and even if Adriene is the daughter of his rival, Blake can’t deny the attraction he feels for her. When the actions of the Know Nothing party stir up political unrest at the local elections Adriene and Blake are thrown together, as Adriene’s father ends up in the middle of the chaos and Blake’s newspaper office is attacked by those who oppose his political beliefs. Can they, and their respective newspapers, survive the tumult ripping Louisville apart?

Prior to Words Spoken True I had only read one novel from Ann H. Gabhart, and that was The Outsider, the first book in her Shaker series. I’d initially expected that The Outsider would be a standard romance novel, in a similar vein to Amish fiction, and was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the historical detail that the book contained.  While some people may just read historical romances for the old-fashioned style of courtship and relationships that they present, I prefer my historical novels to actually contain some history. Words Spoken True certainly lived up to the expectations that The Outsider had set and satisfied the historian in me. The novel had the added bonus of detailing several aspects of the printing process which I had studied about the previous semester at university, so I can vouch that Ann has done her research in this department.

This is certainly not a book for those who want their historical novels to give a couple of passing references to outdoor toilets and wagon trains and little more, but neither is it alienating to those of you who aren’t studying for your undergraduate degree in History. The issues that Words Spoken True discusses regarding the Know Nothing party and immigration are ones that I imagine every American reader has some basic knowledge of from high school history, and if not, Ann briefly outlines the issues discussed in a foreword to the book. But the authenticity that the novel evokes is worth the attention to detail in Words Spoken True, which helps the reader to become invested in the political rivalries that play out throughout the novel.

I was slightly surprised to find that Ann presented Adriene’s father as a follower of the Know Nothing ideology who was scornful of immigrants, as it didn’t fit the typical image of fathers that is put forth by historical romances. In a way, it was a pleasant change to have a father who wasn’t a hundred-percent supportive of his daughter, nor a model, politically-correct citizen in the twenty-first century sense. While my father never tried to marry me off to the son of his business partner, I’ll admit that he isn’t perfect, and sometimes the parents in historical romances do seem a little too perfect in the way that they support their children. Especially in a period when women were still seen as somewhat of a commodity, it’s probably quite realistic that Wade Darcy didn’t agree with his daughter staying home and working at the family business forever and wanted to see her married by a certain age. And the fact that he supported the Know Nothing party reminds readers that those who shared such beliefs weren’t necessarily monsters; a trap that it is far too easy to fall into when we’re viewing events in hindsight.

Romance fans need not fear, for the romantic aspect of this novel isn’t neglected amidst all the historical detail and political unrest. I did feel that the romance between Adriene and Blake was a bit slow to start, and that because they spent so little time together initially it seemed like their relationship relied too much on the “love at first sight” idea. Personally, I’m never a fan of “love at first sight” romances and prefer relationships that blossom slowly over time to those that are hastily jump-started due to intense chemistry. Adriene and Blake’s relationship did do a sudden jump forward partway through the book, but it was actually at this point that I started to really like their relationship. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that the way that Ann portrayed the romance and chemistry between Adriene and Blake reminded me of the edginess of the relationship between the newly married couple in Kelly Long’s Lilly’s Wedding Quilt. There’s nothing at all inappropriate or explicit in Words Spoken True, and I commend Ann for portraying a loving yet intense romance with an appropriate amount of sexual tension. Although I was initially sceptical about Adriene and Blake’s relationship, this part of the story more than made up for it.

While I’m not a fan of romances which rely on the concept of “love at first sight” and do wish that readers had been given more time to see Adriene and Blake’s relationship developing, I found that the more I thought about this book after I finished it, the more I loved it. Not only was the historical detail of Words Spoken True well-researched, but it propelled the story forward with each event and made for an unconventional but incredibly engaging romance. If you like the history in your romance novels to be more than just a backdrop and to subtly weave in and out of the plot, then Words Spoken True is definitely the novel for you. The combination of the depth of the historical detail and the edginess of Adriene and Blake’s relationship gives me high hopes for Anna’s forthcoming novels.

Review title provided by Revell.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Heart's Frontier - Lori Copeland & Virgnia Smith


PROS: Unusual blend of Amish culture in a wild-west historical setting; unconventional ending; amusing secondary characters

CONS: Romance is fairly predictable; heroine constantly gets into trouble and needs rescuing

Emma Switzer never wanted to leave Apple Grove to live with her aunt, but she wouldn’t have wished having their wagon stolen by thieves partway into their journey in order to prevent her from leaving. Stranded in the prairie with her father, grandmother and younger sister, Emma struggles to have the faith to believe that they will find a way out of this situation. When her family stumbles across a trading settlement and finds a rugged cowboy thrown at their feet, her father is convinced that God has sent this man to help them. Emma can’t help but think, “The Lord might have cleaned him up first.” But first impressions can be deceiving, and as Emma and her family travel along side Luke Carson’s cattle drive to the nearest town she finds herself increasingly drawn to the young cowboy. Her father disapproves of their growing relationship and is keen to get her back to their Amish settlement, where there are no such temptations. Could an Amish woman and a trail boss ever set aside their differences for the sake of love? Or are there too many aspects of their disparate lifestyles keeping them apart?

Sometimes, you just need a book that puts a smile on your face and makes you feel relaxed and content. The Heart’s Frontier was such a book. The novel also had the added bonus of being a mixture of Amish and historical fiction, two of my favourite genres, and a blend that is slowly becoming more popular. Anna Schmidt has written about an Amish boy who runs away with the circus in the 1920s, while Murray Pura has tackled the treatment of the Amish as conscientious objectors during WWI. Joining this sub-genre of Amish fiction, The Heart’s Frontier features an Amish family who are robbed of all their belongings while travelling across Kansas to stay with relatives, and end up relying on the help of a cowboy leading a cattle drive across the country. I wasn’t so much sceptical of a wild-west Amish novel, but rather intrigued. I do enjoy western historicals, but the difficulty with writing about the Amish in the late nineteenth century is that they don’t have the barriers of electricity and technology to set them apart from those around them. It was interesting to see how the authors tackled the less overt differences that made them stand out; namely, the modesty of the women’s clothing, their temperance and non-violence, and obviously, their commitment to God in all things.

Unlike some romance novels, I didn’t feel that The Heart’s Frontier had a plot with a distinct start, middle and end. As Emma’s family travelled across Kansas with the cattle drive the characters and their relationships with each other also went on a journey, and the novel depicted how their attitudes towards each other changed over the course of the novel. While there were a few distinct incidents throughout the novel that moved the plot in one way or another, it felt more character-driven than plot-driven. The secondary characters provided a lot of amusement, particularly with the clash of Amish culture against the attitudes of the men on the cattle drive. There were plenty of moments that almost made me laugh out loud, from Emma’s grandmother’s constant stream of proverbs to Emma learning to lasso a cow. All in all, it was a gentle, relaxing read, and although Emma and Luke didn’t have a lot of personal hurdles to overcome, I enjoyed witnessing how their friendship developed. Because of the conditions under which their romance blossomed – chaperoned by Emma’s father, grandmother and the entire cattle drive, as well as Emma being Amish and used to strict courtship traditions – the focus was more on the two of them getting to know each other and included far more wistful glances and gentle touches than passion and chemistry.

I did feel that their romance bordered on being of the “love at first sight” sort, which is not a favourite of mine. However, considering the circumstances in which the story is set and the genre nature of the romance, it did suit the novel. There are many variations of Christian romance novels, and there are some that are definitely aimed at more mature, married women. This is not one of those, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Heart’s Frontier to a young teenage girl. It’s a very sweet romance and ridiculously squeaky clean; the hero and heroine don’t even kiss until the last chapter. And while I do prefer the edgier romances that dare to show the passion a couple can feel for each other, there are times when a sweet romance is entirely satisfying. Yes, The Heart’s Frontier was rather predictable, but the mesh of historical and Amish elements definitely made the well-used “forbidden love” storyline into something original. I didn’t mind the predictability of the romance so much as I did the fact that Emma was continually getting into trouble – being kidnapped or dragged away by a rampaging cow or trampled by a herd of cows – and needing to be rescued by Luke. Each time something happened to her, Luke would rescue her and they’d realise how much they cared about each other. I wouldn’t mind this so much, but it was used at least three times throughout the novel and I kind of wished the authors had used different ways of bringing Emma and Luke together. But the unexpected ending more than made up for the predictable elements in the story. Amish romances involving outsiders have a tendency to end the same way, so I was pleasantly surprised at the way Lori and Virginia chose to conclude The Heart’s Frontier.

The Heart’s Frontier takes a well-used romance of forbidden love and turns it into something new by having its Amish heroine fall for a rugged cowboy. The predictability of the plot is made up for in the unique period and setting of the story, as well as the amusing antics of various secondary characters. While I wouldn’t place the first book in the Amish of Apple Grove series among my favourite Amish or historical novels, it was a very enjoyable reading experience and I would definitely consider reading the next book in the series. I imagine that those who are fans of Amish fiction and western historicals would enjoy this mesh of the two genres.

Review title provided by Harvest House Publishers.