Thursday, 21 June 2012

A Season of Love - Amy Clipston


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review title provided by Zondervan. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Skip Rock Shallows - Jan Watson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review title provided by Tyndale.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Long Way from You - Gwendolyn Heasley


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review title provided by publicist.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Love in Disguise - Carol Cox


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Sixty Acres and a Bride - Regina Jennings


PROS: Unconventional heroine; engaging secondary characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review title provided by Bethany House.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Short-Straw Bride - Karen Witemeyer


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

CONS: None!

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

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

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

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

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

Review title provided by Bethany House.