Monday, 30 April 2012

The Pursuit of Lucy Banning - Olivia Newport


PROS: Unusual setting and time period that really come to life on the pages; good portrayal of the struggles women faced in society at this time; heroine has aims other than finding a husband

CONS: Readers may have to look up some details on the time period if they aren’t so familiar with it

Lucy Banning was born into a privileged family and has never had a need gone unmet in her entire life. But while she may live on the prosperous Prairie Avenue in Chicago, she has a heart for those who are not so fortunate. Much to her mother and fiancé’s chagrin, she spends the time that should be spent planning her wedding helping at a local orphanage. Her family would be even more upset if they knew that she was attending Art History classes at university, but this is one secret that she’s determined to keep. Lucy will not allow herself to be restrained into the position that society and her family demands that she mould to, and she becomes all the more restless as talk of her upcoming marriage to family friend, Daniel, begins to dominate her life. She cannot bear the thought of a life spent with Daniel, no matter how much she cares for him as a friend. But breaking off her engagement and living the life she wants to lead – helping the needy, furthering the cause of women and attending university – is not as easy as she thought it would be. Lucy faces many unexpected challenges as she makes the necessary changes to her life, including an unlikely friendship with a housemaid and the possibility of a blossoming relationship with a young architect who is definitely not of her class. Can she risk all that she has for those that understand the desires of her heart?

I have a terrible confession to make: I requested this book purely based on the front cover, and I was determined to read The Pursuit of Lucy Banning even before I knew what the novel was about. And after having now devoured this novel, it seems rather amusing that it was Lucy’s gorgeous dress that drew me to the cover, when she spends a lot of the novel wearing simple clothing as she doesn’t want to stand out at the orphanage where she works, or in her classes at the university.

By the time I got around to starting this book, I’d actually forgotten what it was about, and could only remember the pretty cover. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was far more than your standard historical romance novel. While The Pursuit of Lucy Banning is set in nineteenth century America – an incredibly popular time period and setting for Christian historical romances – it’s set at the very end of the century, amidst the growth of the metropolis and of industry. The streetcar has been invented, and there is talk of some crazy contraption called a Ferris Wheel. While I know a fair amount about the history of Britain in this period, my knowledge of American history at this time is much more basic, so I did have to look up the Gilded Age and the World’s Fair, the latter of which is the focal point of this novel. Don’t let this put you off – a brief glance at Wikipedia was enough to make the details in this novel fall into place for me. And there are a lot of details; Olivia has evidently spent a lot of time researching all of the build up to the World’s Fair. The city of Chicago really comes to life in this novel, and I could really picture the busyness of the streets full of carriages and streetcars. The Pursuit of Lucy Banning shows that there is far more to late nineteenth century America than all the novels about homesteading and prairie life would have you believe. If Little House on the Prairie really isn’t your thing, then perhaps The Pursuit of Lucy Banning is the sort of novel you should be checking out. I never thought I would be so captivated by a novel set in a city and surrounded by so much industry and technological development, but something about Chicago in this period was both exciting and romantic.

While the title suggests that this book revolves entirely around Lucy, this isn’t exactly the case. The majority of the novel does focus on Lucy’s struggles with the role which society and her family expects her to fulfil, she’s also joined by the wonderful character of Charlotte, a maid in the Banning household. Having read Julie Klassen’s The Maid of Fairbourne Hall last month, as well as studying a fair amount about Victorian domestic servants at university, I was thrilled to discover that Olivia had chosen to explore both sides of the Banning household. The world of service is literally that; an entirely different world. I loved the interplay between Lucy and Charlotte as they become confidants. Despite their differences in class, Lucy and Charlotte were both visual representations of the restrictions placed upon women in this time period by an intrinsically male-dominated society.  

Daniel, Lucy’s fiancé, represented this masculine, controlling society. While I was initially sceptical about the almost villainous turns that his character took, I couldn’t help but care for Lucy and fear for the control that Daniel exerted over her life. It took me a while to understand that he wasn’t being a brainless menace, as some villains are, but simply taking advantage of the control that any man had over a woman in this period. This image was powerful but also understated. I have to say that it was the development of Daniel’s character that could have really influenced my impression of this novel. I’m not keen on characters who seem to be overtly villainous with no redeeming qualities, but Daniel wasn’t like this. His controlling character developed slowly, and the turn that it took at the end of the novel really endeared me to this book. Olivia didn’t slip into stereotyping, and also managed to teach some contemporary lessons about mental health.

Along with the society commentary about women and mystery surrounding Daniel, there’s also an element of romance in this novel, although it isn’t the focal point. Much as Lucy’s aims in life aren’t centred around falling in love, this novel doesn’t focus primarily on her love life. Despite this, I did enjoy the way that Lucy’s relationship with Will developed. She didn’t swoon or spend hours pining over him, but they clearly cared deeply for each other. Perhaps some romance readers will be disappointed that Lucy isn’t more enamoured with Will, but I found their relationship to be very realistic. It was nice to read about such a simple relationship that was complicated by external events, rather than misunderstandings or confused emotions.

Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to read a wonderful book and then discover that the author has an entire backlist that I can dip into. With The Pursuit of Lucy Banning this isn’t the case, and I’m very impressed that this is only her debut novel. Exploring a time period and setting that is entirely new to me, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning had just the right blend of historical detail, mystery and romance to keep me gripped. The more I think about his book, the more I realise that I really can’t find any major flaws with it. I genuinely didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did, and I’m sure that other readers will be similarly pleased by this original debut novel.

Review title provided by Revell.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Messenger - Siri Mitchell


PROS: Isn’t scared to give gritty details about this period of history; heavily researched; gentle and not overbearing romance and spiritual details; realistic protagonists

CONS: Ending is rather abrupt and left me wanting more

Quaker Hannah Sunderland has strictly followed her faith’s decision to avoid taking sides or arms in the Revolutionary War, even when it means that her family are forced from their home when it is commandeered by the army. But when news reaches her that her twin brother, who joined to Colonial cause, is in prison, she cannot ignore his needs. Her desire to help her brother brings her into contact with Colonial spy, Jeremiah Jones, a war veteran who lost his arm in the Seven Years War. They couldn’t be more dissimilar in their beliefs and lifestyles, but the common ground of needing access to the local prison – for personal and political reasons – binds them together. Hannah soon finds herself acting as a spy and attempting to stage an escape from the prison, but must keep her actions secret so that she doesn’t upset her fellow Quakers. But no one can ignore the amount of time she is spending with Jeremiah, and even Hannah cannot claim that theirs is only a business arrangement. As Hannah becomes more involved in the Colonial cause and is made aware of the dire conditions that the soldiers are living in, she cannot help but think that those of her faith have made a mistake in choosing to ignore the needs of these men. Can she reconcile her Quaker faith with her desire to help her brother and his fellow soldiers?

Recently I heard that popular Amish fiction author Suzanne Woods Fisher would be writing a historical series about the Quakers of Nantucket. In light of this discovery, and the recent release a romantic novella collection from Barbour, entitled Quakers of New Garden, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Quakers would soon to be joining the quaint tales of Amish, Mennonites and Shakers (although the latter aren’t particularly quaint, in my opinion) that have become so popular in the last few years. Siri Mitchell’s novel does not join the ranks of these stories. The best way to describe The Messenger is to say that it’s a gritty historical novel; it does not shy away from the uncomfortable details of life in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, and doesn’t attempt to gloss over any unsavoury details that wouldn’t usually appear in a Christian historical romance. There’s nothing inappropriate or particularly graphic, but if you prefer your historical novels to present the brighter side of life, then perhaps a novel about a Quaker woman breaking soldiers out of the squalor and filth of a war prison isn’t the novel for you.

The history in this book felt incredibly real, and I wasn’t surprised to read in the author’s note at the end of the novel that many of the events in The Messenger were based on true stories. I’ve always preferred my historical novels to been enriched by their historical detail, rather than peppered with a few brief references to historical-sounding items or clothing, but I’m also the first to admit that it’s hard to get the right blend of story-telling and history into a novel. On the one hand, if you focus too much on the plot, you risk ending up with a story which could honestly be set in any time period if it weren’t for a few references to chamber pots and a war gone by; on the other hand, you could alienate readers by overpowering your story with unnecessary details and retelling of contemporary events that mean absolutely nothing to the non-historian. Siri does it just right, intertwining the essential historical details with Hannah’s spiritual struggles and her budding relationship with Jeremiah. The story and its historical period naturally can’t be separated, but the details never come across as a history lesson either.

Prior to reading The Messenger, I read a review from a friend who mentioned that the book didn’t have quite enough romance to satisfy them. Everyone has different levels of romance that they hope for in a novel, and for me, it often depends on who the characters are and what seems appropriate for their stage in life or the period they live in. I really didn’t know what to expect from a Quaker and a crippled war veteran who runs a pub, although I can assure you that I probably couldn’t have come up with a more unlikely couple if I’d tried. Ultimately, I thought that this novel had just the right amount of romance in it. Considering how reserved and standoffish Hannah could be, and Jeremiah’s insecurities about his ability to appeal to a woman in spite of his missing arm, the gentle growth of their relationship seemed entirely appropriate. This isn’t a novel full of passion and swooning, but there were some really touching scenes that showed how the characters had grown to care for each other without the need for any physical declarations of their love for each other. The development of Hannah’s faith was similarly displayed, never overtly preaching at the reader and gently intertwining her questions about her beliefs with the plot of the novel in a way that seemed entirely relevant.

I recently read an online interview with Siri in which she stated that she likes to take a specific time period or historical event that people claim they’d never want to read a about, and write a compelling novel to convince them otherwise.  Honestly, I never would have imagined a novel about a Quaker spy during the Revolutionary War, but she pulls it off. I can’t wait to see what Siri comes up with next. Ultimately, my only slight disappointment with The Messenger was in the ending. The book really sped up towards the conclusion, which made the open ending seem all the more abrupt. I turned the page expecting another chapter or at least an epilogue and felt a bit frustrated that the ending really was so open. It was optimistic, and not in an unrealistic manner considering all that the protagonists had been through, but ultimately it was up to the reader to decide where Hannah and Jeremiah’s relationship would go and what was going to happen to them next. While part of me wants to commend Siri for bravely giving her readers such an open ending, another part of me was just a little bit frustrated that the conclusion was so inconclusive.

Coming into the genre of Christian fiction a bit late in the day, I’ve sort of dived head first into the plethora of historical and Amish romance novels, grabbing wildly and often missing out on some of the genre’s best authors. When I finished this novel I found myself wondering how I could have been reading Christian historical fiction for two years and not yet discovered Siri Mitchell. The Messenger is an example of all that is good about this genre, and makes me proud to say that I endorse Christian novels. Believable characters, realistic spiritual journeys, heavily researched historical detail and a gentle and understated romance make The Messenger a novel I highly recommend to historical fiction fans.

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Monday, 23 April 2012

My Stubborn Heart - Becky Wade


PROS: Quirky, humorous style of writing; relatable heroine; realistic spiritual journeys; great supporting characters

CONS: A few minor details may irritate or alienate certain readers

Kate Donovan has been praying for her future husband since she was in the fourth grade, but now that she’s thirty-one and still single, she’s starting to wonder whether she should buy a couple of cats and be done with it. A trip to renovate the old family home, Chapel Bluff, in Pennsylvania with her grandmother provides Kate with a well-needed break from the monotony of everyday life. She’s looking forward to spending some quality time with Gran and having a look at the old antiques, buried inside Chapel Bluff. She’s not expecting that their building contractor would be the stunningly handsome Matt Jarreau, former NFL hockey legend. Matt gave up his sporting career when his wife died suddenly from brain cancer, and isn’t much of a talker. But Kate doesn’t give up easily, and soon Matt’s crawling out of his shell and participating in family meals and poker nights. Kate believes that her job in Redbud is done when Matt finally begins to discuss his wife and come to terms with moving on with his life. She certainly doesn’t think that her time spent with Matt could ever make it beyond the friend stage – but that’s just what happens. But as her time in Redbud draws to a close, Kate begins to question whether she was right in developing a relationship with Matt when he still has so many demons from his past that he needs to battle. Is there any hope for Kate and Matt, for a skinny social worker with a penchant for antiques and a former hockey legend with a lot of skeletons in the closet?

If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you’ll know that my usual forte is historical or Amish romance. While I ate up plenty of chick-lit novels in my teen years, I’ve never been one for straight-up contemporary romances. Perhaps it’s because I’ve occasionally mused over my own romantic experiences and thought, “Wow, my life would make an incredibly boring romance novel!” I’ve dated one guy in my entire life and nothing particularly exciting has happened in our relationship, and I actually hope that nothing novel-worthy happens once we’re married. Most people’s lives aren’t anything like a book, thankfully. But we all want something a bit more exciting when we escape into the world of fiction, and perhaps that’s why I prefer historical or Amish novels to contemporary ones – they’re nothing like my life. Thus I began My Stubborn Heart a little cautiously, unsure of what I was getting myself into.

My other worry with My Stubborn Heart – beside it being totally outside my comfort zone – was that I wouldn’t be able to relate to the heroine. After all, what has an almost-married, curvy (not quite Christina Hendricks, but my hips do like to compete) twenty-year-old university student got in common with a single, skinny thirty-one-year-old social worker? I always have this fear with older, single heroines that I’m not going to be able to relate to them in any way, but this fear was completely unfounded when it came to Kate. She may have had more life experience than me (except in the wedding planning department) but I immediately fell in love with her down-to-earth sense of humour and brutal honesty when it came to all things in life – the dress sense of her grandmother’s best friends, her angst over her bra size or her belief that man’s role on earth is to empty the rubbish bins. Young or old, I’m sure any woman will be able to appreciate Kate on some level. As well as her wonderful personality and attitude towards life, I also loved her desire to do good, which ultimately fuelled her relationship with Matt. She saw someone hurting and wanted to help him. Her attraction for Matt wasn’t motivated by anything selfish. I honestly wish I could be more like that.

When it came to Matt, I appreciated that he didn’t completely follow the alpha male stereotype. I’m not one for muscled, dark, brooding heroes – my fiancé is a computer scientist, so he’s the pale, slightly skinny type who definitely doesn’t spend two hours in the gym every day. While I got a bit fed up with the descriptions of Matt’s toned figure or muscled chest, I did like the way that Becky handled his grief over the loss of his wife. Matt’s struggles with his past seemed realistic and his spiritual journey blended in nicely with his emotional difficulties. None of his actions seemed manufactured or forced to fit in with the romantic or faith aspects of the novel. On the other hand, I did find that Kate’s spiritual struggles at the end of the story didn’t quite fit with the vision I’d had of her throughout the novel. She seemed like a pretty firm Christian with a solid faith in God, so the changes that briefly occurred at the end of the book didn’t convince me. This part of Kate’s faith was also slightly glossed over and almost felt like it’d been thrown in to make a point, and definitely needed to be developed further to be truly believable.

Other than my slight qualms with Kate’s spiritual journey, I didn’t have any major issues with the plot of My Stubborn Heart. It was a fairly conventional storyline, but the quirky narrative style and realistic characters made me forget how many times this plot has been done before. The secondary characters of Kate’s grandmother and her friends definitely gave this novel some of its originality, and Velma in particular definitely got a few laughs out of me. However, there were a few, very minor plot details that niggled at me that I feel I should mention. I found it amusing the first time that Kate’s friend, Theresa, mentioned that she had a crush on Matt, but this was mentioned every time that Theresa appeared in the book and I found it a bit disconcerting that a married woman would make such a fuss over another man. It stopped being funny and ended up being a little bit sad. My other difficulties were with aspects of the story that I felt might alienate certain Christians; namely Kate taking yoga classes and celebrating Halloween. I know plenty of Christians who won’t participate in either activity, and for this reason I would have avoided mentioning either of them just to be on the safe side and not alienate any potential readers. I didn’t mind the yoga so much – it could easily have been aerobics or Zumba, considering how little it was mentioned – but I felt a little awkward during the Halloween scene, considering my personal convictions on the “holiday”.

Ultimately, my issues with My Stubborn Heart are fairly minor, and may even verge on nit-picking. It’s hard to rate a book from a genre I don’t normally read, but even I can tell that Becky Wade’s debut in the contemporary romance market is going to be a big hit with its usual readers. Becky has a strong voice that readers are going to love, and her novel is full of characters with well-developed personalities. This combination of factors grabbed me from the first page and made it very hard for me to put this book down. Contemporary romance won’t be taking the place of Amish fiction in my life, but it may have made a convert of me already. For that, My Stubborn Heart can take all the credit.

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Sunrise Point - Robyn Carr (Virgin River #19)


PROS: Strong heroine who cares about her children; endearing secondary characters

CONS: Relatively predictable romance; inconclusive sub-plot; includes an awkwardly-phrased sex scene

Nora Crane is desperate for a full-time job that will support her and her two small children. Abandoned by her drug-addicted boyfriend, who was eventually imprisoned, she’s stranded in Virgin River and is thankful to at least have a roof over her head. She’s being relying on the kindness of the residents of the town, and as much as she appreciates the help from the local minister and her neighbours, she wants to make it on her own. But convincing Tom Cavanaugh to take her on as one of his seasonal apple-pickers isn’t easy. He doesn’t believe that the slight, single-mother can do the hard work, and only offers her the job at the insistence of his grandmother, Maxie, who sees a lot of herself in Nora. Soon Nora is spending every day at the orchard, and soon feels like she’s part of Tom’s family. Tom can’t help noticing Nora’s unfortunate situation, and while he doesn’t want to get involved with a woman so young yet so worldly-experienced as Nora, he can’t help but lend a hand every now and then. He has his eye on a woman far more sophisticated than Nora, but when secrets from his apple-picker’s past begin to surface he finds himself becoming more involved in her life. Can he truly stay away?

A friend recommended the Virgin River series to me sometime last year, but I hadn’t been able to find the first book in my local library and was daunted by the long list of books already released. Ultimately I became impatient as I received more recommendations for this series, so I did what any insane reader would do – started at #19.  While frequent readers of this series may be going into a full-blown panic attack right now, I can confirm that I didn’t have any major difficulties jumping into the series at Sunrise Point and that while there are references to characters from previous books, these didn’t alienate me or distract me from my reading experience. However, since I’ve only read Sunrise Point so far, I can’t guarantee that every book in the series can be read as a standalone, but I would hope that this is the case.

I’m a sucker for romances about single mums and dads, and the kids in this story weren’t simply there for “Aww!” factor as they are in some novels. Nora was such a strong character, in both her mothering instinct and her desire to make something of her life and to stop relying on the charity of others. While sometimes this made her quite stubborn, her commitment to finding a job that would support her two children made her an incredibly endearing character. Nora is a woman who made plenty of mistakes in her past and is likely to challenge readers’ assumptions about single parents and how they end up in these sorts of situations, just as she challenges Tom’s judgements when she initially interviews for a job at his orchard. Both Nora and Tom have a lot of personal issues to work through before they can reconcile their differences. In Nora’s case, she has to deal with some ghosts from her past that are holding her back in the present, while Tom has to decide whether he’s ready to settle down on his grandmother’s orchard, and whether his aspirations for his future are truly realistic.

While I enjoyed Nora and Tom’s romance, it is ultimately rather predictable, but the secondary characters were what made it stand out for me. Tom’s grandmother, Maxie is one of my favourite characters in Sunrise Point, and I can only hope that when I’m a grandmother I’ll be just as considerate and loving as she is. I initially thought that she’d turn out to be your typical old-fashioned grandmother, but her interactions with Tom’s potential girlfriend, Darla, proved otherwise. Darla is slightly caricatured, but I do know some women who would think spending over a thousand pounds on a pair of designer boots is reasonable, and plenty who miss out on the joy of good food because they’re too concerned about their weight. Maxie’s witty remarks about Darla’s laziness and eating habits made me laugh out loud in several places, particularly when she suggested to Tom that she should mow the lawn and give Darla the grass cuttings for lunch. Darla’s attitude in general provided plenty of amusing moments in the story, and while I never believed that she was a true rival for Tom’s affection, she created a couple of bumps in the road for Tom and Nora, as well as some light entertainment.

Sunrise Point is a gentle, light romance, and I was surprised by how slow moving it truly was. I don’t read a lot of contemporary romance, mainly because I prefer the old-fashioned values of historical or Amish novels, but the structure of this novel allowed time for both Tom and Nora to develop personally as they got to know each other better, long before they decided to embark on a relationship. The best way to describe their relationship is “sweet”, and it brought many a smile to my face.

To readers who typically read Christian fiction, I must warn that there is one sex scene in this novel, and a couple of references to sexual urges. I read a fair amount of general market fiction and some of my favourite authors include sex scenes in their novels, although most of them tend to focus on the emotions of the characters during the act, not the physical act itself. Sunrise Point’s sex scene was definitely more physical, and some of the descriptions were pretty cringe-worthy, including the awkward reference to the female character becoming “as limp as a noodle”. Generally, I skim-read sex scenes just in case there is some crucial dialogue or internal thoughts as to the relationship between the characters, but in this case, if you don’t care for sex scenes, I’d recommend just skipping this scene altogether. You won’t miss anything important to the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to the Virgin River series, and while I was initially a bit bemused by the subplot revolving around another resident in the town, I expect that his story will be continued in a later book in the series. This isn’t a series where you can pick up one book and not end up wanting to read the ones that come before or after it, and I guarantee that fans of contemporary, small-town romances will get caught up in the lives of the residents of Virgin River, just as I did. Sunrise Point is a great induction into this series, and I won’t be forgetting Nora’s stubbornness or Maxie’s wit any time soon.

Review title provided by Mira.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Need You Now - Beth Wiseman


PROS: Approaches difficult issues respectfully and realistically; relatable characters

CONS: Some storylines and characters could have been developed further; one character took an unpleasant turn

For Darlene Henderson, life in Round Top, Texas feels much more safe and secure than it did in Houston. Her teenage son has been removed from the rough crowd he was spending time with in the city, and she and her husband are making plans to renovate their old farm house. Darlene’s so comfortable with her family life that she’s given up being a stay-at-home mum and started working at a school for disabled children. So she’s entirely unprepared when a series of catastrophes hit her family. Her seemingly perfect teenage daughter is revealed to have been self-harming for quite some time, a secret her brother was keeping from their parents. No one understands the enormity of what Grace has been going through, least of all Darlene. Her husband, Brad, is determined to sweep this situation under the carpet and deal with it without any outside help that might damage the reputation of their family. Brad’s reaction stuns Darlene, and his insinuations that Grace wouldn’t have been so destructive if Darlene spent more time at home drives an unexpected wedge between them. To complicate matters further, the father of a child at her school is starting to pay Darlene a lot of attention, at a time when she most needs someone to lean on. Darlene is struggling to stay strong and make decisions about Grace without the support of her husband, and needs all the help she can get to stay away from the open arms of another man.

Having recently become a fan of Beth Wiseman’s Amish fiction, I couldn’t help but be intrigued when I heard that she was releasing a contemporary novel, and a non-romantic one at that. Contemporary women’s fiction is a genre that is slightly lacking in the Christian market. There are some writers who approach this genre very well, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone who can rival Barbara Delinsky or Diane Chamberlain in their complex plots and family dynamics. While Beth’s debut into this market didn’t excite the same reactions in me that Barbara’s most recent instalments have, I will admit that it was incredibly compelling. I devoured it in two days straight, and I honestly think I need to go back and reread the last few chapters as I was struggling to keep my eyes open at the end, but determined not to go to sleep until I’d finished the book!

I didn’t have any major expectations for Need You Now, as I imagined it would be very different from Beth’s Amish fiction. But she has lived up to her trademark of complex, realistic characters with believable struggles, even in a contemporary setting. I was even more impressed by the way that she approached her teenage protagonists. Some brilliant authors have let me down in their portrayal of teenagers – notably, Jodi Picoult’s The Pact, which I repeatedly wanted to throw across to the room when I read it as a sixteen-year-old – but Beth does not join their ranks. While I never suffered to the extent that Grace did, I did struggle with unexplained feelings of depression throughout my teen years, which has now been diagnosed as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Even now, I can’t put my emotions from this stage of my life into words. Somehow, Beth has managed to explain how overwhelmingly confusing teenage depression can be, making Grace an incredibly relatable teenage character. Grace’s older brother, Chad, was equally realistic, although I felt that Beth could have developed his character a little more. There are hints that Chad is possibly going to head down the wrong route, like he did in Houston, and although he makes some positive choices towards the end of the novel, his character never had the depth that Grace’s did. Likewise, I did mostly enjoy the storyline about their neighbour, Layla, but she sometimes felt a bit caricatured. Her relationship with Darlene was very touching, but I think the fact that this novel attempted to focus on so many different characters meant that some of them – particularly Layla and Chad – were a little neglected and didn’t seem quite as fleshed out as Darlene and Grace.  

Some readers may find it difficult to read about the struggles Darlene and Brad’s relationship faces, and the temptations that Dave presents her with. Need You Now illustrates how dangerous a seemingly innocent relationship can become when it starts to provide that which your marriage cannot. I will admit that I got a bit annoyed at Darlene towards the end of the novel. She overhears a phone conversation with her husband and makes several assumptions, but takes a long time to confront him about it. I know that this is probably the way that many women would react, but I’m not that kind of woman. But although I couldn’t relate to Darlene in this particular incident, I will say that for the majority of the situations she found herself in, I could emphasise with her. I do wish that Dave’s character had taken a different turn. He was painted so sympathetically at the start of the novel – a widower with a challenging daughter who just wanted to find love again – but I felt he almost became somewhat of a villain, and Darlene the victim. Of course he was wrong in coveting a married woman, but if Darlene can be forgiven for her mistakes, so can he. I wanted some hope for Dave at the end of the novel, but there wasn’t any. Perhaps Beth will write another novel about Dave’s redemption?

Beth’s debut into the contemporary market is strong, and hopefully a sign of better things to come. Her characters are just as realistic and relatable as those in her Amish novels, and she continues to address controversial issues that some authors shy away from. While perhaps the number of topics that come up in this novel might seem a little overwhelming – self-harm, adultery, death – the novel ended on a hopeful, uplifting note. I think the only major pitfall of Need You Now is that the novel has a large cast, and some of the characters seemed less credible than others. A few characters could have benefited from some further development, but perhaps this had to be sacrificed for the sake of the main storylines. But hopefully this is something that Beth can improve on in later novels, of which I’m sure there will be many. Fans of Beth’s Amish fiction will likely enjoy this foray into a new genre, and those who can’t bear to pick up a novel with the bonnet on the front will now also get the chance to enjoy Beth’s challenging yet uplifting stories.

Review title provided by Thomas Nelson.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Maid of Fairbourne Hall - Julie Klassen

READ: MARCH 27 - 29, 2012

To escape a scheme to marry her off to a dishonorable man, Margaret Macy flees London disguised as a housemaid. If she can remain unwed until her next birthday, she will receive an inheritance, and with it, sweet independence. But she never planned on actually working as a servant. And certainly not in the home of Nathaniel and Lewis Upchurch--both former suitors.

As she fumbles through the first real work of her life, Margaret struggles to keep her identity secret when suspicions arise and prying eyes visit Fairbourne Hall. Can she avoid a trap meant to force her from hiding?

How on earth have I not discovered Julie Klassen before now? I'm typically drawn more towards American, prairie historical romances but Julie is an excellent writer, regardless of what time period her novels are set in. Such attention to detail! This might put some readers off, but being a budding historian myself this appealed to me massively. I'm now seriously considering writing about Victorian servants for my dissertation, as Julie made the subject far more interesting than I initially expected. 

I will admit that I was initially a bit wary of Margaret as she seemed quite stuck-up and snobbish at the beginning of the novel. But it was wonderful to see much she grew over the course of the novel. Sometimes it's worth starting out with a dislikable character in order to make the character's growth more interesting. As well as the strength of historical detail, I also adored the originality of the secondary characters - none of them seemed like cardboard cut-outs, which is something that often occurs when a novel is swimming in secondary characters, as this one was. Helen, Hudson, Lewis, Betty, Fiona - they were all believable and endearing in their own ways. 

I suppose you could say the romance was pretty standard for a historical novel, or complain that the hero and heroine didn't spend much time together, seeing as she was pretending to be a servant and he was the master of the house. Somehow, this didn't detract from the story for me. The mystery of Margaret's disappearance and Nathaniel's fears about his ship and his brother twisted around the romance and drew it out without making the reader get impatient. I thoroughly enjoyed all the twists and turns Margaret and Nathaniel had to wade through before they were able to reveal their true colours to each other. The ending was sweet, simple and very satisfying. 

I think the best way to describe this book is to say that it's comforting. It's spring break and I'm attempting to catch up on all the reading I've got behind on this semester at university, and I picked up this novel in the hope that it would bring a nice 30 minute break from all of the eighteenth century literature I'm wading through. Three days later, I've just managed to put the book down! It was the perfect time to read this book as well - amazingly, it's been 20 degrees celsius for three days straight in Scotland in March. I've spent most days lying on a blanket on the grass outside my house or taking advantage - for once - of the fact that we live a minute's walk from the beach. This was an excellent beach book. I will definitely be getting hold of more of Julie's books this coming summer! So to those who regularly read regency romances - and I do believe that this is my first - this story might not be so special or original, but it was just what I needed at thi
s point in my life. It was immensely comforting and satisfying.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Fiddler - Beverly Lewis


PROS: Will appeal to those who daydream about visiting Amish country to experience peace and contentment; interesting details about Amelia as a violinist 

CONS: Predictable plot; too much head-hopping between points of view means that the reader never connects with any of the characters; not as deep or complex as her previous novels 

Amelia DeVries is living a double life – she’s a world-famous concert violinist who occasionally sneaks away from her overbearing father to play at more relaxed fiddling events. After being caught by her agent after one of her secret performances and pressured to sign on for a classical European tour, Amelia takes off on a more scenic route home through Pennsylvania. Finding herself stranded with a flat tire and no cell phone reception, she comes across Michael Hostetler, an Amish man who has left his family and is temporarily living in a cabin in the woods. They connect when they realise that they’re both running away from their real lives. While Amelia waits for her car to be fitted with a new tire, she visits Michael’s Amish community, Hickory Hollow, and finds an unexpected sense of peace and contentment. When she finally decides to return to her home in Ohio, she can’t help but take a little bit of the Amish lifestyle with her, and use her newfound faith in God to help her make some difficult decisions about her musical career. Will these choices eventually bring her back to Hickory Hollow and Michael? 

Like most fans of Amish fiction, I got started with Beverly Lewis. Over ten years since she entered the market with The Shunning, Beverly still remains a good “starter” author for those just getting into the Amish genre. She has a good grasp of the quirks of the Amish lifestyle and consistently creates engaging characters and storylines that bring readers back to her with each series she writes. As such, I had high hopes for The Fiddler, the first novel in the Home to Hickory Hollow series, especially as it returns to the community that featured in The Shunning. Sadly, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with this most recent novel. I may not have read all of her books, but those that I have read I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and The Fiddler did not live up to Beverly’s usual standards. If I have to be entirely honest, this didn’t even feel like a Beverly Lewis novel. The overall plot was pretty predictable and lacked the drama and engaging characters and complex family struggles of her previous books. 

I will concede that while The Fiddler is relatively predictable, it does not completely follow the formulaic Amish plot of the English woman who falls in love with an Amish man and his lifestyle and then converts to the faith. Amelia doesn’t convert to the Amish faith – how could she, being a musician? – but she does experience a stupendous amount of peace and contentment as a result of spending a couple of days among the Amish, and makes a connection with God during her trip. That’s not to say that all Amish romance are uninteresting because they contain many similar elements, but I didn’t feel that The Fiddler really did anything particularly unusual with its characters, setting or storyline to make it stand out from the plethora of Amish novels already on the market. Considering the novels I’ve previously read by Beverly Lewis, many of which delve into the theological implications of the faith while continuing to develop relationships between characters and their families, The Fiddler fell a little short. Rather than continuing on from the successes of the drama-riddled Heritage of Lancaster County series or the Abram’s Daughters series, I felt that The Fiddler was instead buying into every reader’s secret dream of visiting an Amish community and finding the signature sense of peace and simplicity that the Amish are so famous for. I’ll admit it, I’d love to do this someday – but I don’t imagine my experience would be exciting enough to write a book about. 

I wouldn’t have minded the simplicity of Amelia and Michael’s romance so much if it weren’t for the way that their story was told. While written in third-person point of view, The Fiddler head-hopped between Amelia, Michael and Michael’s mother. Even if Michael’s mother had been taken out of the equation – a good move, I believe, as her perspective added very little to the novel – the frequency at which Beverly jumped from one character to another made it very hard to make any connections with them. I’d just be starting to get inside Amelia’s head when suddenly the perspective would switch to Michael, or his mother, and I’d lose what little I had grasped of her personality and emotions. Sometimes it seemed like each character was only given ten or so paragraphs before the book switched to the next character, not even enough to truly establish the scene. Despite the predictability of the plot, I honestly think it could have been strengthened if the storytelling had been stronger and hadn’t jumped around so much. A standard romance can make itself into something more exciting simply with the addition of colourful, realistic characters. Amelia and Michael had the potential to be more than cardboard cut-outs, but as I never truly got the chance to experience their emotions and inner turmoil, I can’t say that they were as engaging as the protagonists in other Amish novels I’ve read. 

The Fiddler certainly has some potential, particularly coming from an established novelist like Beverly Lewis. The premise of a young woman finding peace in Amish country and re-evaluating her life as a result of her experiences will certainly grab the attention of many Amish readers, and the depth of research that Beverly has undertaken in order to make Amelia’s musical talents appear authentic certainly brought that aspect of the novel to life. Unfortunately, this is where the novel’s strengths end, and The Fiddler doesn’t measure up to Beverly’s previous books. I genuinely missed the depth of character development that I’d experienced in earlier novels, and I struggled in my attempts to connect with Amelia and Michael due to the incessant head-hopping. The Fiddler is a gentle, sweet romance but ultimately rather predictable, and while newcomers to Beverly’s work may enjoy this novel, I’m afraid that many fans may be disappointed by the lack of depth and complexity. 

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Love on the Range - Jessica Nelson


PROS: Unique heroine; unusual subject matter for a historical novel 

CONS: Jumped point of view confusingly in the middle of scenes; action scenes were rushed 

As much as Gracelyn Riley hates to be separated from her best friend, Connie, she couldn’t be more excited about being shipped off to Oregon to stay with her Uncle Lou until the Spanish influenza epidemic calms down in Boston. Rumour has it that the infamous Agent Striker has been spotted not far from her uncle’s ranch, and if she can get an interview with him, this could be her big break into journalism. Gracie is tired of living under her parents’ control and a career as a journalist would allow her to avoid being married off to an unappealing society gentleman. 

Unfortunately her initial experiences at the ranch are unexciting, and Gracie spends more time scrubbing floors and helping to prepare meals than hunting for clues about Striker. The townsfolk in nearby Burns won’t say a word about Striker, and the only interesting aspect of life with Uncle Lou is his neighbour, Trevor. Gracie isn’t entirely sure what Trevor’s relationship to her uncle is, but the scar on his face certainly makes him intriguing. She’s convinced that if anyone knows anything about Striker, it must be Trevor. But as their horse-riding lessons progress into something far deeper, Gracie has to figure out where her heart truly lies. Up until she met Trevor, she was convinced that she’d leave Oregon as soon as the flu epidemic was over and she had an interview with Striker, but now she’s unsure. But her attraction to Trevor doesn’t stop her poking her head into places where it doesn’t belong, and sooner or later, she finds herself involved in a situation that’s far more dangerous than she ever expected to find on a ranch in Oregon... 

I’m particularly fond of strong heroines, but they’re not as easy to come by in historical romances as you might expect. Often the archetypal romance heroine is the kind that continually needs rescuing or is prone to fainting at the drop of a hat. I’d like to say that Gracelyn was sort of a mixture between a strong heroine and the typical romantic heroine, but she’s not quite that straight forward. She seemed very strong at times and was incredibly sure of herself and what she wanted to do in life, but at the same time she was only twenty, and still quite vulnerable and naive. While she wanted nothing more than to travel around Oregon on a horse, hunting for Striker, she didn’t realise what a dangerous position she was putting herself in. Headstrong, but not always wise in the ways of the world, Gracie was a very appealing heroine, the kind that I cared about but was also quite proud of in places. It’s not often that I find this mixture in historical novels, especially category romances such as the Love Inspired line that Love on the Range is part of. 

The characterisation in this novel isn’t the only thing that made it stand out for me. Love on the Range happens to be the second novel set in 1918 that I’ve read in 2012, and while the subject matter and plot of Jessica’s novel are very different from Murray Pura’s The Wings of Morning, both of them made me realise what a precarious time period it was to live in. Not only was the First World War on the verge of ending, but the country was being destroyed by a horrible Spanish flu which many of the returning soldiers caught when they returned home. Technological changes were taking place, some of which hadn’t yet reached Uncle Lou’s ranch in Oregon, such as a telephone, which separated Gracie from her friends and family in Boston. It was also a difficult period for women, who were starting to wear trousers and work in factories due to the necessities of contributing to the war effort, but other women were determined to put an end to this liberalisation once the war was over. Gracie struck me as a woman stuck between two worlds, protected by her conservative upbringing yet determined to embrace all of these new possibilities that were opening up for women, particularly by wearing trousers and writing articles for a newspaper. 

While I loved the plot and characterisation of Love on the Range, I did struggle when it came to some of the structural issues when it came to the story telling. As with many romance novels, Love on the Range was written in third-person point of view but did show the hero and heroine’s perspective on matters. I definitely prefer novels that show the hero’s point of view to those that don’t, but I felt that Jessica “head-hopped” between Gracie and Trevor a bit too much for my liking, it could become quite distracting when it occurred in the middle of a scene without me realising it. One minute Gracie would be talking and I’d get a snippet of her internal thoughts, but then three lines later I’d realise that the thoughts I were reading were actually Trevor’s, and that the perspective had changed without me noticing. Incidents like this jerked me out of my reading experience and I often had to reread the whole page before I got caught up in the story again. My other minor issue regarded the action scenes, which definitely broke the monotony of the typical historical romance, but sometimes sped by so fast and were resolved a bit too easily and conveniently for my liking. One of them went by in such a flash that I had to go back and check that I hadn’t missed anything vital. For the most part, my issues with the structuring of certain scenes didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel too much, but they did occasionally interrupt the flow of reading. 

It’s incredibly encouraging to come across such an unusual storyline and protagonist in a debut novel, particularly one in the Love Inspired category romance line, where authors have a smaller number of pages in which to tell their story. Love on the Range will appeal to long-term fans of historical romance, particularly those who are looking for something a bit different that pushes the usual boundaries. While the scene progression of the novel didn’t always flow as well as it could have, I’m confident that this is something that Jessica will be able to improve on in her next novel, which I’ll be keeping my eye out for. 

Review title provided by author. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Beyond Hope's Valley - Tricia Goyer


PROS: Satisfyingly wraps up the series; compelling sub-plots about secondary characters; continues the challenging spiritual thread from previous books 

CONS: Novel has much a slower start than previous books in the series; most of the book takes place away from the series’ original setting of Montana 

After living in Montana with her family for some time, Marianna Sommers has finally decided to return to her Amish community in Indiana and marry her childhood sweetheart, Aaron Zook. Ben Stone, the English man that she fell for in Montana, is pursuing his music career, a sure sign that they aren’t meant to be together. But even though Marianna always thought that returning to Indiana and marrying Aaron was the right thing to do, she can’t help but miss Montana and the friends and family that she left behind. Her every move is watched by her Amish neighbours in Indiana, who are convinced that she’s becoming too liberal and worldly in her time away. Worse, none of them understand the new connection she’s made with God. As Marianna helps her brother and his girlfriend prepare for their wedding and the birth of their first child, she wonders whether what is right for Levi might not be what is right for her. Is it really God’s plan for her to join the Amish community and marry Aaron, even if they aren’t as a close as Levi and Naomi? Haunted by her mother’s old romance with an Englisher, Marianna doesn’t want to bring similar hurt to her family by leaving the faith, even if it means having to hide her true beliefs. But is this truly what God wants for her life, or just what she feels obligated to do? Will the reappearance of Ben change her mind? 

I only discovered Amish fiction a couple of years ago, but I quickly became a fan of this rapidly-expanding genre. Plenty of established Christian authors are starting to dip their toes into the waters of Amish fiction, including B. J. Hoff, Lori Copeland, Kathryn Cushman, Mindy Starns Clark and, as you can see, Tricia Goyer. I have to admit, I hadn’t read anything by Tricia Goyer before I picked up Beside Still Waters in 2011, but I was immediately sucked in by her compelling plots and challenging spiritual messages. Beyond Hope’s Valley was on my “must read” list for 2012. I’m pleased with how Tricia decided to end the series, although I’m holding on to the hope that she revisits Marianna in future books. This final instalment was almost impossible to put down in places, and I became quite emotionally invested in the lives of the characters. I got angry at the nosy women in Indiana for their judgemental attitudes, felt spiritually challenged alongside Marianna, cheered Ruth on when she stood up to a man from her past, and felt incredibly proud of Levi for stepping up into the role of husband and father that had been placed before him. 

That said, I didn’t feel quite as wrapped up in the story and characters as I had in the previous two books. Beside Still Waters and Along Wooded Paths had totally blown me away and definitely made my list of top ten reads for 2011, so maybe I was setting myself up for a little disappointment. My qualms with this book are small, but I will voice them: I felt that the plot was a bit slow to get started, and a good twenty-percent of the book seemed to be spent setting up events that were to come. Having now finished the book, I kind of wish that that some of that space could have been shifted to the end of the book, so that we had more time to spend with Marianna and her chosen beau! The ending came quite quickly (and no, I’m not telling you who she chooses!) and as cheesy as I often find epilogues, I really wanted one this time! I also missed the Montana setting, since nearly the entire novel takes place in Indiana, or following Ben around on his tour. Tricia describes Montana so beautifully in the other books in the series and I hope that she chooses to set another series there as it made a great backdrop for these novels. 

But what Beyond Hope’s Valley was lacking in terms of setting, it made up for in the development of secondary characters. I really felt that Tricia delved further into the emotions of Ruth, Marianna’s mother, and her brother, Levi. Whole passages of this novel are told from Ruth’s perspective, and while I was initially sceptical about what her point of view was going to add to the novel, the inclusion of Ruth’s experiences heightened my sense of the family dynamics and cleared up some underlying issues that I’d been mulling over throughout the series. Ever wondered what difficulties Marianna’s parents had before they moved to Montana? Or why Ruth wasn’t keen on Marianna’s friendship with Ben? Now you’ll find out. While Tricia doesn’t dwell on Levi’s perspective so much as she does with Ruth, it was encouraging to see how much he’d grown since the first book in the series, and the scenes between him, Naomi and their child were really touching. We’d been given a teaser that included Levi at the end of Along Wooded Paths and I can tell you that this scene was just as good this time around, and made Levi even more endearing to the reader. Maybe it’s been too long since I read the previous books in the series, but I honestly felt that Tricia had developed her secondary characters a lot more in this book. I’m looking forward to her next Amish series, and even if she doesn’t revisit these characters (although I kind of wish that Levi and Naomi would get their own book), the strength of her character development makes me hopeful for what’s to come. 

Beyond Hope’s Valley is a satisfying conclusion to the Big Sky saga, and has the kind of ending that makes you sigh with relief and let out the breath you’ve been holding for the last couple of pages. Unlike some romantic series, I honestly didn’t know who Marianna was going to choose until I was almost at the end of the last book. I think that’s what makes this series so appealing; the characters change and develop so much over the course of the books that you can’t predict how the series will end. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following Marianna on her journey to come closer to God and ultimately discover the man that she’s destined to be with. I’d like to think that I’ve grown along with her. The Big Sky series sticks out from the plethora of Amish novels in that it not challenges the readers’ perceptions of the Amish way of life, but it also challenges their own faith. Although Tricia likes to shake things up a bit by addressing certain conflicts within Amish theology, I can honestly say that I come out of these books not wondering whether the Amish are living their lives in a way that is pleasing to God, but whether I’m living my life appropriately. These aren’t books about pleasant young Amish women who like to bake and go on buggy rides with their beaus, but stories of real people struggling with the issues that we Englishers also have to deal with. There’s still romance in this book, but I’d be hard pressed to call this book predictable. If you’ve been intrigued by Amish fiction but you’ve been put off by the pastel coloured covers, this series would be a good place to start – but do begin with Beside Still Waters. This is not a series that can be read out of order, but Beyond Hope’s Valley is well worth the wait in getting there. 

Review title provided by B&H Publishing.