Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Review: Sushi for One? by Camy Tang

Lex Sakai's family is big, nosy, and marriage-minded. When her cousin Mariko gets married, Lex will become the oldest single cousin in the clan. Lex has used her Bible study class on Ephesians to compile a huge list of traits for the perfect man. But the one man she keeps running into doesn't seem to have a single quality on her list. It's only when the always-in-control Lex starts to let God take over that all the pieces of this hilarious romance finally fall into place. (Zondervan, August 2007)

RATING: 3 out of 5 (Good)

I've been wanting to read one of Camy Tang's novels for a while now, simply because there aren't a lot of non-Caucasian protagonists in Christian novels. This might sound like an odd complaint coming from the whitest girl on the planet, but I'm actually 1/8th Indian and have always thought of myself as Anglo-Indian. 

That said, I did struggle to relate to Lex at the start of this novel. I might have a big Indian family, but we don't have the same stereotypical pressures that you'd imagine--instead of a doctor, lawyer and a minister, my grandparents ended up with a nurse, a graphic designer and a musician. And I don't think they mind! As for Lex herself, she and I have very little in common. I am the least athletic person in the world, and had horrible flashbacks of primary school volleyball games while reading this book. I might be clumsy, but I'm nowhere near as bad as Lex, and I couldn't relate to her complaints about being too skinny because my struggle is that my figure is far more curvaceous than that of the average white British woman. And of course, I'm not a thirty-year-old single woman living at home. I'm a twenty-one-year-old married woman renting a house with my husband. 

But I can definitely see how this book would resonate with women in Lex's position. At times it seemed like she had a lot going on in her life, but the issues she faced were typical of single women of her age in today's society, particularly when it came to struggling to buy her own home when her salary at work was cut, and navigating the dating pool. I never really saw much of the dating scene, having married the first guy I dated in college, but it did not sound fun from this book. Even if I couldn't relate to her situation, I could definitely sympathise.

I initially thought this was going to be a fun chick-lit novel about a woman hunting for her ideal man in an attempt to appease her grandmother, but it ended up being a lot more deep than that. The spiritual side of the novel seemed light, but towards the end I began to realise that Lex's desperate search for what she thought was her perfect man had a lesson to teach anybody, single or married. Taking matters into your own hands can be dangerous, and sometimes we do this simply because we don't want to ask God for help and receive an answer we don't like. Whether you're waiting for a boyfriend or a job or a miracle, it's difficult, and sometimes that forces us to make rash decisions and rush into situations we know very little about. This was a definitely a message I needed to hear, since my husband and I are currently looking for a new house, while waiting to hear back from an editor about my manuscript. It's tempting to leap into something, but sometimes it really is best to wait.

Despite my initial worry that I wouldn't find anything to relate to in this book, I was pleasantly surprise by the universal message that came out of Lex's man-hunt. Although I find Lex's big, crazy Asian family a little intimidating, I would rather like to read more about them sometime, even if just for the descriptions of the food. My husband and I probably cook Asian food more often than we eat traditional British meals, so that was definitely one of the appeals with this book. I might not be rushing out to buy the next book in the series, but it will certainly be going on my wishlist. Camy Tang definitely brings something new to the chick-lit market, even if some aspects of this book felt a little over-the-top at times.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Book Review: Threads of Grace by Kelly Long

Thomas Nelson, February 2013.
RATING: 4 out of 5 (Very Good)

Seth Wyse has longed to court widow Grace Beiler ever since she arrived in their Pennsylvania community, but his imaginings of their life together are nothing like the reality. When Seth discovers that a clause in Grace’s husband’s will means that she may have to relinquish custody of her autistic son to her harsh brother-in-law, Seth knows he has to help her in any way he can. Grace isn’t so keen on marrying the young, charismatic Seth, but she’ll do anything to keep her son safe. But each of them brings secrets into their marriage of convenience; for Grace, this means the truth about her first marriage and her husband’s brutality, and for Seth, it is his forbidden love of painting. Grace is scared to let herself fall in love with Seth, and Seth knows he needs extra care when it comes approaching his new wife. Together, they must figure out how to forge a life together, and protect Grace’s son, Abel, from his uncle.

Having read the second Patch of Heaven novel back in March 2011, it was a long wait for Threads of Grace. I will start out by saying that I didn’t enjoy the third instalment in the series quite as much as the previous two. I’m not sure if this is just because I didn’t connect with Grace quite as well as Sarah and Lilly—the heroines of the previous two novels—or simply because my reading tastes have changed a little. Either way, Threads of Grace was still a very enjoyable read. It felt a bit shorter than Kelly’s previous novels, but in all honesty, this could just be because I gobbled it up in less than twenty-four hours.

One of the things I so admired about Kelly’s second novel, Lilly’s Wedding Quilt, was that it was one of the first Amish novels I’d come across that explored some rather edgy or taboo topics. Two years later, I’m pleased to see that more authors are delving into previous unexplored issues (teenage pregnancy in Beth Wiseman’s His Love Endures Forever and infidelity in Kathleen Fuller’s Faithful to Laura are two recent examples). But as with Lilly’s Wedding Quilt, I was pleased to see that Threads of Grace addressed some contemporary issues that are just as relevant to the Amish as they are to us Englishers, and without sounding preachy. Grace’s abusive marriage was dealt with incredibly sensitively, and I found her hesitance in her relationship with Seth rather realistic considering her past experience of marriage. Those who have autistic friends or relatives will be pleased with how Grace’s son, Abel, is depicted, and I know that the descriptions are realistic because Kelly has openly talked about being the mother to autistic children. One thing that I know I can rely on with Kelly’s writing is that she doesn’t sugar-coat the Amish lifestyle, and she depicts her Amish characters as men and women who struggle with very similar issues to those of other faiths and lifestyles.

What surprised me most about this novel was that it featured yet another marriage of convenience. As Kelly has shown in Lilly’s Wedding Quilt and her novella in the An Amish Love collection, she’s great at rendering realistic contemporary marriages of convenience, but I didn’t expect to come across two plots a similar vein in the same series. Despite this, I enjoyed reading about Grace and Seth’s gently blossoming love for each other. Although I didn’t connect with Grace as well as I did with Lilly, I appreciated being able to witness her slowly coming to trust Seth. The scenes in which Seth and Abel interacted were particularly heart-warming, but I did wish we’d had more insight into Seth’s struggles and flaws. Although the details about his love of painting and Grace’s dilemma over whether she should allow her husband to teach her son to paint were interesting, his love of painting seemed to be his only major flaw. He seemed just a bit too perfect, especially considering what we knew about his wild past.

My biggest gripe with this novel probably has to be the subplot about Grace’s younger sister, Violet. Violet follows Grace out to Pennsylvania when her parents die in an accident, and Seth’s family invites her to live with them. Initially Violet seemed to have a lot of potential, but something about her storyline just fell flat and didn’t resonate with me or grab my interest. At Seth and Grace’s wedding, Violet spots an attractive young Amish man and makes it her mission to make him fall in love with her. She spends the rest of the novel pursuing this young man and convincing him to court her. The storyline never really concludes, so I have to assume that it’ll be picked up again in the next novel, but all in all, it really felt like it was just filler for in between the sections about Seth and Grace. I wish I could say better things about this part of the novel, but I just never found it terribly interesting.

Although I felt that certain aspects of this novel could have been improved on to make Threads of Grace a more compelling read, it was still worth the two-year wait. Fans of realistic Amish fiction will be pleased at the way the novel explores the issues of spousal abuse and autism, and Grace and Seth’s sweet romance is sure to warm every romantic’s heart. I hope this is a series that Kelly plans to continue, and will be keeping my eye out for her next offering.

Review title provided by Thomas Nelson.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Book Review: Family Blessings by Anna Schmidt

Her four stepchildren are thrilled when they learn an ice cream shop will be opening in their small Amish community. But widow Pleasant Obermeier isn't so pleased. Spending time with handsome shop owner Jeremiah Troyer is too much for a woman who's only ever been wounded by love. And now he wants to use her baking skills in his shop? Out of the question A harsh childhood left Jeremiah convinced that family life wasn't for him. Yet something about the Obermeiers moves his heart. If he can win Pleasant's trust and learn to trust himself, then he may gain the ultimate blessing--a lifetime of love. (Love Inspired, October 2011)

RATING: 3 out of 5 (Above Average)

This was a nice, easy read, but I didn't find it quite as compelling as the first book in the series. Part of my problem might just have been that I finished Love Comes to Paradise by Mary Ellis--which I absolutely adored--right before I started this book, and nothing really would have lived up to Love Comes to Paradise. I liked the unique details in the story, such as Jeremiah's ice-cream shop and the historical context of the depression and how it affected the Amish community. It was also interesting to find a book that acknowledged that abusive relationships can exist among Amish communities, even if it was sad that the community knew how Merle was treating his family and never had intervened. But ultimately, the romance itself wasn't as engaging as others I've come across in the Love Inspired Historical line, and I felt that the final conflict just stretched the story out rather than adding to it. I have enjoyed reading the Amish Brides of Celery Fields series and would quite like to find out what happens to Greta and Lydia, even if Pleasant's story wasn't as interesting as Hannah's. Ultimately, this wasn't the sort of book that gripped me, making it very easy to put down, but it was still a relaxing read and a solid addition to the LIH line.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Review: Love Comes to Paradise by Mary Ellis

Harvest House, February 2013.
RATING: 5 out of 5 (Near Perfect)

Nora King has made a lot of mistakes in life, but she’s determined to start over again. Her move to Paradise, Missouri is partly influenced by this decision, but also motivated by the hope to meet the handsome and charismatic Elam Detweiler again. Nora fell for Elam back in her sister’s Amish community in Maine, but Nora has changed since then, and Elam’s wild antics don’t seem to have the same appeal that they did back in Maine. Now that she’s immersed in helping her friend, Emily, run her bakery, Nora feels like she’s been given a second chance at life—especially when Lewis Miller arrives in Paradise with the intent of courting Nora. Lewis held a candle for Nora back in Maine, but Nora hadn’t been interested in life in his tiny, conservative community. But Lewis in Missouri sounds like a recipe that could work out for both of them, if only Elam would stop interfering. But can Nora be honest with Lewis about the events that caused her to leave her home community in Pennsylvania? Or will a series of drastic occurrences in Paradise cause her to worry that God is finally sending his wrath to punish Nora for her transgressions? As the Paradise community attempts to make sense of their current difficulties, Nora also has to figure out whether she can truly forge a future with Lewis, or if her past has spoiled her chance of happiness.

Mary Ellis is fast becoming one of my favourite Amish authors, not just because of her skill at creating believable characters and rendering realistic Amish communities, but also because of how challenged and uplifted I feel when I read one of her novels. Although the cover of Love Comes to Paradise might sell itself as a predictable romance novel, I was encouraged to find that Mary had decided to tackle several unconventional topics within her latest volume. 

Although Love Comes to Paradise is the second novel in the New Beginnings series, it is set in an entirely different community from its predecessor, and enough is summarised about Nora’s past to allow new readers to delve straight into this novel. That said, I would recommend the first book, Living in Harmony, if only for the fact that I found the novel equally compelling and challenging. One of the aspects of this series that I think will be of particular appeal to avid Amish fans is that each novel is set in a new location, starting in Maine, then heading to Missouri, and moving on to Kentucky in the third book. Considering how many Amish novels are already on the market, it’s difficult to come up with unique concepts, but the idea of sisters settling in different states following the death of their parents is definitely one that will appeal to fans of the genre.

Nora’s story is one that I’m sure will strike a chord with many women, and I applaud Mary for being willing to discuss a slightly taboo topic and admit that even Amish women struggle to remain pure before marriage. Nora fell in love with a boy in her home community and let their relationship go too far, and now feels tainted by her past. Some Christians—even Amish ones—can be quite unforgiving of past mistakes of a sexual nature, and I truly felt for Nora as she was torn between her desire to fall in love and marry an honest man, and her feelings of not being good enough for a man like Lewis. Mary handles this topic sensitively and realistically, concluding Nora’s character arc in an altogether satisfying manner. It’s often a cliché in the Christian market for a girl who allows her relationship to go too far to either end up pregnant, or to reform her pushy boyfriend into a good Christian and marry him. But this isn’t the way it always works out in real life, and I appreciated that Nora’s story showed that there is always redemption and grace available for those who make mistakes.

One of the “Pros” I listed for this novel over at The Christian Manifesto was that it acknowledged that even the Amish are flawed human beings. This aspect of the book isn’t limited to Nora’s chequered past, but extends to a minister in the Paradise community. To begin with, I thought that the portrayal of this character was rather typical of Amish fiction, given that bishops, deacons and ministers are often shown to be strict and unyielding when it comes to change or errors made by members of their congregation. Instead, I was treated to a challenging lesson about God’s wrath and mercy, and how we can often read situations the way we want to, rather than seeking God’s advice and interpretation. Both Solomon, an Amish minister, and Emily, the friend whom Nora is staying with in Paradise, interpret a series of natural disasters in their community to be a sign of God’s disapproval of their sins. In particular, Solomon fears that the damage to their crops and their community suggests that God does not want them to interact with Englishers on a regular basis. Emily comes to agree with this belief, having researched the history of their Amish ancestors in Missouri and found it worrying. But Emily takes this belief in God’s wrath further, fearing that her struggle to conceive is God’s punishment for mistakes she made in her past. We often have a tendency to see the worst in every situation, and sometimes this can extend to believing God causes bad situations to occur as a reaction to our mistakes. Considering that some authors can paint the Amish as being perfect in their faith, it was a nice change to see Amish characters—including a minister!—struggling and stumbling in their attempts to understand God and the world around them. 

I can’t wrap this review up without commenting on how endearing the secondary characters in this novel were, particularly Nora’s friends Emily and Violet. Even though Emily is technically Nora’s hostess, she doesn’t shy away from speaking the truth, and her twisted and snarky sense of humour made for a great rapport between the two women. Violet immediately grabbed my attention in the first chapter of the book, not only because she reminded me of another hilarious character who is determined to succeed despite her ailments (Sarah in the Casson Family series, a must-read for all preteens!). Violet had such a vibrant personality, and although she never pushed Nora out of the limelight, I do wish she’d get a whole novel of her own, or at least a novella or short story so we know how she’s getting on in life. It was encouraging to read about how a disabled woman managed in an Amish community, and I loved the friendship between Nora and Violet.

If you like your Amish fiction to be a bit more edgy and to address situations that can affect anyone, Amish and English alike, then you won’t be disappointed by Love Comes to Paradise. Traditional readers of Amish fiction will also be pleased by the plentiful descriptions of baking and Amish scenery, along with Nora’s love story. Love Comes to Paradise marks the third of Mary Ellis’s novels that I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I’m only sorry that I didn’t discover her earlier. Providing a unique voice and a deft skill in crafting realistic characters and engaging stories, I hope that it won’t be long before Mary Ellis receives the recognition she deserves. 

This novel has been nominated for The Christian Manifesto's 2013 Lime Award for Excellence in Fiction!

Review title provided by Harvest House.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Review: The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury

Molly Allen lives alone in Portland, but her heart is back in Franklin, Tennessee, where five years ago she walked away from a man she cannot forget, a rare sort of love she hasn’t found since.

Ryan Kelly lives in Franklin and spends plenty of time at The Bridge—the oldest bookstore in historic downtown Franklin—remembering the long hours he and Kelly once spent there.

Now, Ryan and Molly’s favorite bookstore is in trouble. For thirty years, Charlie and Donna Barton have run The Bridge, providing the people of middle Tennessee with coffee, conversation, and shelves of good books—even through dismal book sales and the rise of eBooks. Then in May a flood tore through Franklin and destroyed nearly every book in the store. By Christmastime, the bank threatens to pull the lease on The Bridge and is about to take the Bartons’ house as well. Despondent, Charlie considers ending his life. And in the face of tragedy, miracles begin to unfold. (Howard, October 2012)

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 (Average)

I apologise in advance, because this review ended up turning into an article about my experience with reading Karen Kingsbury novels. It prompted an interesting discussion about conversion experiences over on GoodReads, if anyone is interested.

Although I'm a reader, writer, reviewer and historian of Christian Fiction, I've barely read any novels written by Karen Kingsbury, who is apparently "America's #1 Inspirational Novelist". Part of this, I believe, is because I discovered Christian Fiction through the Amish and Historical genres, and have only just started to branch out into contemporary novels. Although, technically, Karen was one of the first Christian authors that I read, long before I was truly aware of the scope of the Christian Fiction genre. I read another of her Christmas novellas, Sarah's Song, back in 2009. It was what I would describe as an easy read, a sweet story for Christmas, but not one that particularly stuck with me after I'd finished it. 

But I was prompted by many of my online friends who were big fans of KK to try one of her full-length novels, and checked Like Dandelion Dust out of the library early in 2012. Unfortunately, I wasn't terribly bowled over by this book either, although it is one of the books that her fans typically cite as being among her best works. Like, Sarah's Song, this novel was an easy read, but as much as I liked the concept of the story, I found it very preachy. I love reading novels about how Christians struggle with realistic, contemporary issues and how this challenges their faith and how their faith strengthens them. But I'm not a big fan of conversion stories, partly because I don't get the same kind of encouragement from reading about previously unbelieving people coming to Christ as I do from reading about people who are already Christians (like myself), but partly because I feel like some of these books present an unrealistic idea of what conversion is really like. A lot of emphasis is placed on the moment of conversion, both in Christian Fiction and in many Christian denominations, and this is something I've never had as I grew up in a Christian home and probably made a personal commitment to Christ when I was about seven. But my husband didn't grow up in a Christian family and didn't become a Christian until he was at university. Neither of us can pinpoint the specific time or date when he became a Christian, because the growth of his faith was a gradual experience, that came about through attending church, praying and becoming friends with other Christians. He has a very strong faith, but there was no dramatic conversion moment in his life. I'm sure that some people do have a "conversion moment", and I know that some of these people won't believe my husband's faith is genuine because he came to believe in Jesus gradually, rather than having one giant moment of repentance. I don't doubt that he repented of his sins as he came to believe in Jesus, but I feel like a lot of Christian novels put pressure on people to have a great conversion story, which isn't always the case. 

But despite my struggles with Like Dandelion Dust, I endeavoured to give KK another try, especially since my local library system stocked several of her books, which is unusual in the UK. One of my friends from my hometown mentioned that her local library had stocked The Bridge, so on the off-chance that my library had done the same, I looked the title up and was surprised to find that they'd ordered three copies for our region! Since I'm a firm believer in giving an author at least three tries - especially when she's been as influential to the Christian Fiction genre as KK has - and since my library actually owned her latest release, I decided to reserve a copy and give her another shot.

My first surprise when this book arrived was at how large the font was. I don't have brilliant eyesight, and unless I'm reading from my Kindle, I normally have to wear my glasses when I read. This wasn't the case with The Bridge, and I actually felt self-conscious reading this book on the bus as I was sure the people across the aisle from me could read my book because the font was truly that large! My husband commented that the book looked like a children's book because of the font, and I know what he means. So although this book technically has 232 pages, I think it would probably be more like 150 if the font was a more typical size. Factor in the Acknowledgements, and the blank pages between each chapter, this book isn't that long, even for a novella. Even so, the story felt a little padded-out.

The first 100 pages focus on the backstory of the four characters - Molly, Ryan, and Donna and Charlie, who own the bookshop. Ultimately, I actually found Donna and Charlie's story the most interesting, mainly because I found their pain of losing their bookshop more compelling than Molly and Ryan each reminiscing about their time at college seven years ago. I struggle with stories that focus on characters who have been kept apart for years due to miscommunication and the dreaded Big Misunderstanding, which is honestly my ultimate least favourite plot device. I know that some people will rationalise Molly and Ryan's separation by saying that they were young and immature and only at college, and people their age make mistakes. If that helps more mature readers to enjoy this book, I'm glad for them. But as a college student who got married, wrote a book, became the Fiction Editor of a Christian e-zine and managed a household while finishing up her degree, I can safely say that we're not all like that. Because of our differences, I struggled to relate to Molly and Ryan simply because I would have handled their situation so incredibly differently. But because miscommunication and misunderstandings are such commonly used catalysts in romance novels, I have to assume that I lot of people make mistakes like Molly and Ryan, and therefore a lot of readers probably can relate to them a lot better than I did. 

After the first 100 pages passed and the entire backstory for the novella had been summarised, the story actually got started. Before this point, I was so tempted to give this book 2*, and I actually had to push myself to keep reading. It really just didn't grab my attention. But once the story got started, I actually rather enjoyed it. It's predictable and everything gets tied up neatly in a little bow at the end, but it was a sweet, heartwarming Christmas novella, and I can see the appeal of that. There's not a lot to say about the actual plot, as you know everything has to work out well in the end - it's a Karen Kingsbury Christmas novella, after all! But I do wonder how many people would struggle to get past the first 100 pages of backstory and actually get into the plot itself. 

This story was cute, but very forgettable. And from the reviews I've read, it seems like this isn't actually a typical KK novel. So where do I go from here? I've read a couple of Christmas novellas and one of her standalone books (which are apparently her best works) and I'm still not overly impressed with KK. I feel like I want to give her yet another chance, to see if something does speak to me. She's obviously touched the lives of a lot of readers with her "Life Changing Fiction" (I'm sorry, but who trademarks that kind of phrase? It seems a little odd!) but I've yet to find any of her books much more than sweet, easy reads. I'd like to be able to just catch a glimpse of what makes her such a popular writer with Christian women. As it stands, this book didn't really do that. 

Any recommendations?

Friday, 15 February 2013

Review: The Three Day Rule by Josie Lloyd & Emlyn Rees

No phone. No electricity. Snowed in with your family. Welcome to one hell of a Christmas.

When the Thorne family gather for the annual Christmas festivities - the arguments, jealousies and long-held enmities that make every family Christmas so special - they think they've only got to endure each other for three days, and then they can return to normality.

But then the snows come, along with the ninety-mile-an-hour winds and the plunging temperatures, and the Thornes get cut of with only each other for support, or to blame. It promises to be a Christmas like no other...

Get to know the family you're never going to forget. (Arrow, November 2006)

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars (Above Average)

I debated between a 3 and a 3.5 for this book because I did really like the way some characters developed (Kellie and Michael), but others just seemed two-dimensional and over-the-top (mainly Taylor and Elliot). In all honesty, it's a rather forgettable storyline, and not quite as interesting as the synopsis made it out to be. In places it was truly quite depressing - particularly Stephanie's storyline - but I was pleased with the way that certain situations worked out in the end. Sometimes chick-lit novels glorify extra-marital affairs, and I was worried that would happen here, so I was pleased with how human Kellie seemed and how she came to realise the truth of her situation. 

From the books I've read previously by these authors, it seems like they like inserting rebellious, angsty, sexually-active teenagers into their novels, and the same can be said for this book. I did appreciate how Michael grew over the course of the book, even if I wasn't so keen on him at the start, and his sub-plot was a bit of a typical "coming of age" storyline. Taylor, however, just seemed a bit barmy! I really could not figure her out, and at the end of the novel she just seemed completely insane, far beyond the spoilt, rich teenager she was meant to be.

All in all, it was an easy, quick read with some heartfelt moments, but there were a lot of characters to keep track of and, inevitably, a couple that I just couldn't relate to. I did like the setting and the growth that some of the characters made, but I won't be rushing out to read another book by these authors. I think I appreciated them a lot more when I was a teenager!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Review: The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow by Olivia Newport

Revell, January 2013.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

Housemaid Charlotte Farrow has managed to hide the existence of her child from the Banning household and their staff, mainly due to the help of Lucy, the Banning’s daughter. But now Lucy has left home to travel with her husband and a family emergency has forced Charlotte’s childminder to return her son to her at no advance notice. With no idea how to hide Henry from the other staff in the Prairie Avenue house, Charlotte allows them to come to the conclusion that the child was abandoned in the garden because the mother knew of Lucy’s charitable work. Charlotte struggles to keep up this facade as the Banning family decides what to do with the child in Lucy’s absence. But soon her infant son’s presence in the house isn’t Charlotte’s only problem, and the reappearance of Henry’s father forces Charlotte to reassess her present situation and make some hard decisions about her son’s future. Will Archie, a fellow servant, and his political connections be a help or a hindrance to Charlotte’s situation? Can she allow herself the opportunity to fall in love while she faces so many pressing dilemmas?

I’d like to start my review with an amusing story about my reading experience of The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow. It appears that my Kindle edition of this book is glitched, as I left the book at the 50% mark last night, under the impression that the book still had a way to go even if the chapter I was reading at the time seemed to be wrapping up quite a few things. I was honestly intrigued about where the novel was going to go from there, as so much had already taken place. Today I picked my Kindle up again, read a couple of pages and found myself at the Acknowledgements and Author’s Note! Evidently, something went wrong in the conversion of this book and 47% of it is blank. I basically read an entire novel in one afternoon! I believe that’s a credit to Olivia Newport, as this book was obviously so engaging that I didn't realise quite how much of it I read in one sitting.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book since I read the first book in the Avenue of Dreams series, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning, back in April 2012. The only change in my reading experience between these two books is that I discovered Downton Abbey a couple of months ago. My husband and I devoured the first two seasons in a couple of weeks while studying for our end of semester exams, and I can tell you, these books are a Downton Abbey addict’s dream. Although this series is set in Chicago towards the end of the nineteenth century, there’s a similar exploration of relationships between servants and masters, and the two separate worlds that they live in. Having studied a fair amount about the position of servants in Victorian Britain while at university and watched Downton Abbey, I find the topic fascinating, and particularly liked Olivia’s portrayal of the relationships between the below-stairs staff, especially the cook, butler and Sarah, the latter of whom I’m hoping will reappear in another book. 

Although the romance between Charlotte and Archie isn’t as central as those in other historical novels from this period, I appreciated the insights into Archie’s interest in the changing face of politics and the treatment of workers. It was interesting to hear about new opportunities opening up for working class people, jobs that would take them outside the service lifestyle and give them more independence, such as factory and clerical work. Although I’m not a scholar of this particular time period in United States history, it appears that Olivia has researched this topic quite thoroughly, as her depictions of political events and the staff’s treatment of Archie’s views seemed realistic.

As for Charlotte and Henry, I really felt for her struggle to care for her son without bringing her true relationship with him to light. Regardless of whether her son was born inside or out of wedlock, it was impossible for a woman with a child to hold down a steady job in this period, particularly one in service. Charlotte truly does have a dilemma: if she reveals her relationship to Henry, she’ll lose her job and have no way to provide for him, but if she lets another servant care for him, she can continue to earn money and hopefully eventually be able to find another childminder for her son. Charlotte has to temporarily let go of her son in order to build a life for him. I actually got a little emotional reading about her struggle, and how she forced herself not to go to her son even when she desperately wanted to, for fear of giving herself away. When she eventually makes an incredibly difficult decision that she believes is in Henry’s best interests, I may have shed a tear or two.

The storyline about Henry’s father, which propels Charlotte into acting to protect Henry more than ever, wasn’t quite what I’d expected. But when I thought about it, I really can’t remember what we discovered about Charlotte in the previous book. She was a bit of a mystery in the first novel in the series, and the revelations in The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow make her all the more an intriguing character. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are several scenes towards the end of the novel that made it very hard to put the book down. I was only a little disappointed with the outcome of the situation, finding it a little bit too convenient. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that I do wish that some Christian historical novels would delve into the topic of divorce, rather than conveniently getting rid of a husband through another method. There are times, particularly when it comes to abusive relationships, where divorce is the only possible outcome, but I’ve rarely seem it explored in Christian fiction. I know that it’s not an ideal solution to a problem, but if more books explored the topic, perhaps it would be easier for modern women to openly discuss their marital problems. Furthermore, discussing divorce within different historical contexts would make for a rather interesting novel. I did appreciate that Olivia touched on it a little in this novel, and allowed her characters to discuss it as an option.

My only other complaint about this book would be that the ending felt a little rushed. Initially, I thought this was because when I originally finished the book, I didn’t realise how close I was to the end of the book due to my glitched Kindle conversion. But I did go back and reread the last chapter and it seemed like an awful lot was wrapped up and concluded. I did wish we’d been allowed to see a bit more of Charlotte and Henry’s new life, but hopefully that’ll be touched on in the next book in the series. While I have a feeling that the third book will explore the life of Sarah, another servant in the Banning household, I would also like to see more of Emmaline, Lucy’s aunt.

Although The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow didn’t capture me quite as much as the previous book in the Avenue of Dreams series, it still had a thoroughly compelling storyline.  Fans of the series will be pleased to encounter a similar mixture of romance, suspense and upstairs-downstairs relationships, all within a well-researched historical context. The 1893 Chicago Exposition makes a fascinating backdrop for this series and I can’t wait to see what Olivia Newport comes up with next.

Review title provided by Revell.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Book Review: Virgin River by Robyn Carr

WANTED: Midwife/nurse practitioner in Virgin River, population six hundred. Make a difference against a backdrop of towering California redwoods and crystal-clear rivers. Rent-free cabin included. 

When the recently widowed Melinda Monroe sees this ad she quickly decides that the remote mountain town of Virgin River might be the perfect place to escape her heartache, and to re-energize the nursing career she loves. But her high hopes are dashed within an hour of arriving: the cabin is a dump, the roads are treacherous and the local doctor wants nothing to do with her. Realizing she’s made a huge mistake, Mel decides to leave town the following morning. 

But a tiny baby, abandoned on a front porch, changes her plans...and a former marine cements them into place. 

Melinda Monroe may have come to Virgin River looking for escape, but instead she finds her home. (Harlequin Mira, March 2007)

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 (Excellent)

Whether you're a devoted romance reader or simply someone who trawls book websites for recommendations, it's hard not to have come across Robyn Carr's Virgin River series. This book has over 6,700 ratings on GoodReads, and they vary drastically. I was unsure as to whether I'd enjoy this book or not, given that some people were addicted to the small town of Virgin River while others claimed that Mel was too much of a Mary Sue and that they grew tired of the midwifery tales. Me? I'm pretty squeamish when it comes to blood or sick, but not babies, so I wasn't worried about that element. I can see why women who aren't determined to settle down and have a family would struggle to relate to some of the characters in this book, but this book suited me perfectly.

Mel's story captured me right from the start of the novel. I like to say I grew up in the country, but the little Scottish village I grew up in is a far cry from Virgin River. Stick me somewhere with no public transport and a falling apart cabin and I'd struggle just as much as Mel. Given how many people find escapism in Amish fiction, I'm sure a lot of women dream of finding peace in a small town and come across the same issues Mel did. But there's more to Mel than just her mistaken belief that life in the country is easier. Maybe I was just PMS-ing, but I got a bit emotional when she thought about her late husband and the horrible event that took him away from her. The loss of her husband and her struggle to conceive felt incredibly real, making it impossible not to sympathise with her.

If anyone was a bit too Mary Sue-ish in this book, it's probably Jack, Mel's love interest. Jack runs the town's bar and ends up being Mel's first real friend in Virgin River. Jack has his own baggage from his time in the Marines, but the way that he was always there for Mel and always had the right thing to say occasionally felt a bit too perfect. That said, I did love the way that their romance blossomed out of their friendship. Even though I didn't fall in love with my best friend (although we became best friends after dating for a while) this is probably one of my favourite ways for relationships to develop in romance novels. Mel and Jack have seen each other at their worst and still fall in love.

Even if you're not a big fan of romance, the small-town setting and the inhabitants of Virgin River might well convince you to stick with this series for the long haul. There's the grumpy old doctor who is convinced he doesn't need any help from Mel, the two women who run the corner shop, the teenage boy who helps out in the bar and the numerous women who come to Mel for help with their babies. The one sub-plot that stuck with me long after I finished reading this book was the one featuring Ricky, the teenager who Jack employs to help serve food in the bar. He lives with his grandmother and Jack sort of becomes a father figure to him, but isn't completely prepared to deal with a teenage boy with hormones running rampant over a local girl. Although I'm not a massive fan of teenage romance sub-plots in my romance novels, I thought Ricky's relationship was a very realistic portrayal of how hard it is for teenagers to hold back from taking relationships too far, and how hormones and emotions sometimes push sensible logic out of the way. I have a feeling Ricky will appear in later books, so I'm intrigued to see where his story goes.

The one thing that I don't love about Robyn Carr's novels is her sex scenes. Although I prefer to read novels completely devoid of sex scenes, I don't mind them if they're brief and dwell more on the emotional connection between the characters (such as Barbara Delinsky's more recent novels) than the physical descriptions of body parts, simply for the fact that I find a lot of sex scenes awkward and laughable. Plus, romance novels have a habit of romanticising sex and making every sexual encounter between the hero and heroine perfect, which isn't how it is in real life. I think this book had a total of three sex scenes, which can easily be skipped over. And for those who prefer to avoid profanity, there were a few instances of swearing in this book. 

Despite the perfect sex scenes and Jack's occasional Mary Sue behaviour, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I love small-town settings and happy endings, so Virgin River was the perfect fit for me. I know that some of the events in this novel might have worked out better than they would have in real life, but sometimes we need a bit of escapism, and that's what Virgin River is for me. I'm now working my way through the audiobook of the second novel, Shelter Mountain, and I imagine I'll be hunting down the rest of the series in the near future. I highly recommend this series for fans of small-town stories and contemporary romance readers. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Review: Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life (So Far) by Ann M. Martin

Pearl Littlefield’s first assignment in fifth grade is complicated: She has to write an essay about her summer. Where does she begin? Her dad lost his job, she had to go to a different camp—one where her older sister Lexie was a counselor-in-training (ugh!)—and she and her good friend James Brubaker III had a huge fight, which made them both wonder if the other kids were right that girls and boys can’t be good friends and which landed one of them in the hospital. 

And there’s much, much more on the list of good and bad things, as Ann Martin takes this appealing character into new adventures through which young readers will see that good or bad, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. (Feiwel & Friends, October 2012)

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

My only major complaint about this book would have to be that the title really doesn't relate to the book. Although Pearl does discuss good and bad things about her life, the book focuses on a single summer - not her entire life - and the phrase in the title never comes up in the novel, as the title of the first book did. Other than that, this book was a wonderful sequel to Ten Rules for Living with My Sister, with a slightly more mature Pearl who has a better understanding of the world and the dynamics in her own family. 

I think a lot of preteens will be able to relate to Pearl's struggles with being old enough to see the problems her family is facing, but not being old enough to help out, as her teenage sister can. I could see how Pearl had matured from the last book, but she still had some little quirks and mannerisms that made me realise how young Pearl still is. I think Ann M. Martin accurately captured the way that ten year olds speak and think, and there were many phrases that made me want to laugh out loud. Others weren't so funny, but were still touching, like when Pearl's father loses his job and the first thing Pearl wonders is whether this means he'll have more time to play Boggle with her. She understands what losing his job will mean for the family and their finances, but as a child she's still happy that her dad will be around more to play games. This section of the book, and many others, felt so honest and realistic. 

As in the first book, I loved the dynamics between Pearl and Lexie, and although they weren't quite as amusing as in the prequel, it was touching to see Pearl comforting Lexie when her boyfriend broke up with her and Lexie protecting Pearl from bullies at camp. I don't have a sister, but the presentation of their relationship seemed fairly realistic. 

I loved the way that Pearl's love of art was continued from the first book, but developed out of making posters for her door into designing her own notecards and stationary. I often wonder how many kids can really relate to all the sewing and knitting in Ann M. Martin's Main Street series, but general art is something that I imagine more kids enjoy doing. 

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. When I finished Ten Rules for Living with My Sister I had immediately wished that Ann would write a sequel, but I didn't imagine it would happen. I stumbled across this book on Amazon purely by accident about a week before the novel was due to release and it was a lovely surprise to learn that I could read more about Pearl and Lexie. Obviously these books have been a big success. Publishers Weekly described Pearl and Lexie as a modern-day version of Ramona and Beezus, and perhaps that is part of the reason why I like these books so much. I'm so glad that Ann M. Martin is continuing to write children's books. Having grown up with the Baby-Sitters Club books, I hope that Pearl and Lexie and the Main Street books will appeal to my daughters, if I have any. But who knows, maybe Ann will have another series by the time my kids are old enough to read chapter books? Highly recommended to girls aged 8 - 10. And I'm sure plenty of adults will enjoy Pearl's antics as much as I did. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Review: The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen

Bethany House, January 2013.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

Emma Smallwood has grown up in her father’s academy for boys, and has witnessed the school’s gradual descent into failure following her mother’s death. Determined to help her father get back on his feet, Emma takes matters into her own hands and writes to the parents of one of her favourite former pupils, hoping that they’ll offer to send their two youngest sons to her father’s school. She’s surprised when the recipient of the letter, Sir Giles Weston, responds with an offer for her and her father to move to Ebbington Manor in Cornwall to tutor his youngest sons. Emma doesn’t expect her father to accept the offer, but he decides that a change of scenery might be good for them. 

Emma is secretly hoping for the chance to meet Philip Weston again, having long held on to fond memories of their time together at the academy. She’s not so keen to run into his older brother, Henry, given the pranks he used to play on her as a child. But Henry has matured far beyond Emma’s wildest dreams, and she’s surprised to find herself far more interested in the older Weston brother, especially given her prior feelings towards Philip. 

Life at Ebbington Manor definitely isn’t as straight-forward as Emma anticipated. The younger Weston brothers talk of a ghost, and Emma would normally dismiss such talk, if it weren’t for the mysterious noises she hears at night and the distinct feeling that someone visits her room while she’s sleeping. The presence of Lady Weston’s ward, Lizzie, is unexplained and the girl appears to be hiding something. Even more mysterious are Henry’s attempts to build a warning tower to bring aid to the ships that are often wrecked during storms along the Cornwall coast, and the reaction this brings from local wreckers, some of whom seem too involved in the Weston family’s affairs. 

Can all of these circumstances create a suitable environment for Emma and her father to recover from her mother’s death, and possibly form new relationships? Or is their visit to Cornwall far less simple than they anticipated?

Not being quite as obsessed with Jane Austen as some women, I never felt the desire to pick up a Regency romance until my book group chose to read Julie Klassen’s The Maid of Fairbourne Hall back in March. After devouring the novel in a matter of days, I immediately realised my mistake in avoiding her novels for so long, and have been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Tutor’s Daughter ever since. Although I didn’t love this novel quite as much as Julie’s previous book, I still immensely enjoyed it, and may have stayed up long past midnight to finish reading it.

What I appreciated most about The Tutor’s Daughter was Julie’s ability to make all of the characters come alive, regardless of how small a part they played in the novel. I noticed this when I read The Maid of Fairbourne Hall, and was pleased to discover that she continued her manner of developing characters in the lives of the Weston family and their friends. Although a few characters may initially seem a little villainous, their motivations were revealed as the novel developed. I particularly appreciated the way that Henry’s feelings about his stepmother were put across and this made me sympathise with him all the more. Even the younger Weston brothers are given distinct personalities, which makes the revelation towards the end of the novel all the more surprising. 

I don’t want to go too far into the details of the plot, but I will say that the plot twists weren’t easily anticipated. Sometimes the suspense in a romance novel isn’t as dramatic as it could be, because you know the hero and heroine are going to get out of their perilous situation and be married by the end of the novel, so you don’t have to worry too much about them. This wasn’t so much the case with The Tutor’s Daughter, and even though I knew that the hero and heroine would somehow find a way to be together, there were still several points in the novel where my heart was pounding and I was worried that they wouldn’t live to see the next morning. It makes me sound rather silly, as if I’d forgotten how romance novels work, but I’ll defer responsibility to Julie’s wonderful writing. 

I’d also like to credit Julie for making Cornwall come alive and inspiring me to put it on my “Must Visit” list. Since I’m one of the few readers of this novel who actually lives within driving distance of Cornwall, I probably should visit it someday. Interesting unintentionally, this is the second novel I’ve read in the last few weeks that was set in Cornwall, and both books made the location seem far more fascinating than any school history lesson or friend’s holiday stories have in the past. As always, Julie includes her snippets from history books or local newspapers at the start of the chapter, detailing Cornwall’s history and facts about shipwrecks and tutoring in the period. These details are also scattered throughout the novel as Emma investigates Cornwall’s history. The history might not be as detailed as other historical novels, but there’s enough to get a feel of being in the fictional Ebbington Manor in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century.

The one factor that holds me back from giving this novel a higher rating is actually Emma herself. As fascinating at the details about Cornwall and shipwrecks were, along with the development of the minor characters in the novel and their motivations, I didn’t actually feel like I got to know Emma all that well. She wasn’t a terribly distinct character, compared to some romantic heroines, so it was very easy to imagine yourself in her place and feel as if you were visiting Ebbington Manor and trying to figure out the family’s secrets. I think this is good, to a certain extent. But it wasn’t until close to the end of the novel when Emma began to make some changes in her life that I realised that this was the first real sign of character development that I’d witnessed. Emma does have some flaws, but I felt like they were abandoned a little in the development of the main plot. It was very easy to place myself in Emma’s shoes and see Ebbington Manor through her eyes, but I didn’t relate to many of her conflicts or flaws. At times, I actually felt like it was easier to relate to and sympathise with Henry, given his many relational and moral conflicts.

Likewise, as well as I felt that Emma’s spiritual conflict was handled, it wasn’t the most inspiring conflict. I seem to have come across a spate of novels recently where the main character’s spiritual journey simply focuses on them reclaiming their lost faith. I did feel that Emma’s journey was the most realistic presentation out of those I’ve come across lately, so I’ll credit Julie with that, but I do wish that authors would be a little bit more creative when it comes to the spiritual side of their novels.

Although I wasn’t quite as enthralled with The Tutor’s Daughter as I was with The Maid of Fairbourne Hall, I will freely admit that my issues with the novel are fairly minor. Julie’s long-standing fans are sure to be pleased with this latest offering, and any Christian historical romance fans who have not yet picked up a Julie Klassen novel are definitely missing out. 

Review title provided by Bethany House

Monday, 4 February 2013

Book Review: Accidentally Amish by Olivia Newport

Escape the helter-skelter of the modern culture and join software creator Annie Friesen, hiding at the home of an Amishman. With her high-tech career in jeopardy, Annie runs from fast-paced Colorado Springs—and straight into the hospitality of San Luis Valley’s Amish community. There she meets cabinetmaker Rufus Beiler, and the more time she spends with him, the more attracted she becomes. When Annie finds she shares a common ancestor with Rufus, she feels both cultures colliding within her. But is her love for Rufus strong enough for her to give up the only life she’s ever known? (Barbour, October 2012)

This was Fans of Amish Fiction's January book group choice, over on GoodReads.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

I think that if it weren't for the historical storyline, I probably would only give this book 3.5*. While the contemporary storyline was a good mixture of Amish, romance and suspense, the writing and characters weren't as strong as in Olivia's first novel, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning. It does seem as if historical fiction is where she's stronger, at least for now. 

That said, there were plenty of elements that I appreciated about this story. This is the second series I've read that's set among the newer Amish settlements in Colorado, and it's definitely interesting to read about how different Amish groups live depending on their regions and farming opportunities. Olivia lives in Colorado, and she was able to evoke the feeling of the small towns and Amish communities in her area. 

The city that Annie worked in never felt quite as real, and neither did her job. Mainly, I believe this is because my husband is a computer programmer and the descriptions of Annie's jobs seemed incredibly vague given my knowledge of the subject. But for those who don't deal with software engineering on a regular basis, the descriptions of her work might not be so vague. 

As for the romance, it was slow moving, but that's because this is the first book in a series. Given that there are so many Amish romances where an English character's conversion to the faith feels rushed, I appreciated that the book didn't end with everything neatly tidied up. As confident as Annie was about making changes to her life, I think she still has a long way to go and I'm interested in reading more about her. As strange as it might seem for a computer programmer to become interested in the Amish lifestyle, I got the impression that Annie got far more involved in the business world than she intended and no longer enjoyed her job, so the changes she made at the end of the novel made sense.

I also liked the sub-plot about Rufus's sister, Ruth, and I hope that the next novel delves more into the family dynamics and Ruth's attempts to reconcile with her family while still becoming a nurse. I felt like her story was a realistic portrayal of someone who left the faith before baptism for educational reasons, and I appreciated this change from the usual stories about people who leave to "explore the world". Ruth kept much of her faith while studying nursing.

The storyline about the construction company wasn't really resolved, which was a bit disappointing, but I'd be interested to see how that panned out, even if I preferred the other storylines. I had mixed feelings about this sub-plot as I wasn't sure what kind of message it was giving about justice, retaliation and turning the other cheek. I'm intrigued to see where it goes.

Ultimately, I liked the contemporary storyline, but at times the historical plot caught my attention more. I haven't read many stories about Amish settlers in the eighteenth century, so the story of Annie and Rufus's ancestors was fascinating. It really captured just how difficult life was for new settlers, if they made it through the long journey. Jakob's struggle between sticking to his faith and wanting to remarry was very heartfelt, and although the novel focused far more on the contemporary storyline, I still became attached to the historical characters. I hope that Olivia continues their storyline, or at least focuses on some other ancestors, in the next book.

I ended up writing a lot more about this book than planned, so obviously it touched me more than I realised. Ultimately, I didn't enjoy this book as much as The Pursuit of Lucy Banning but it was a compelling and original story. For those who like dual-time narratives of a lighter fare, this would definitely suit. I might not have connected with Annie as much as some Amish heroines, but this novel definitely brings something a little different to the genre. I'll be looking out for the second book in the series later this year.