Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Fine Art of Insincerity - Angela Hunt

Ginger, Penny and Rosemary Lawrence are all in denial. Ginger is convinced that she knows how to make a marriage work, despite the fact that her husband of twenty-seven years has started getting changed in the closet and hasn’t kissed her goodbye in weeks. Her younger sister, Penny, believes that the perfect way to deal with the lack of romance in her life is to move on to a new man, and is on the hunt for her sixth husband. And Rose still hasn’t recovered from the loss of her unborn child two years previously, but would rather leave this world than ask for help. None of them are aware that they’re heading down the wrong path, and it will take a weekend at their grandmother’s house to teach them new lessons about life, love and marriage. As the memories of the summers spent with their seven-times married grandmother resurface, the girls come to terms with the legacy that their beloved Grandma left them and wonder what they can learn from her life. As the weekend progresses, these three sisters soon discover that they have more to worry about than who gets Grandma’s piano. While Penny is having second thoughts about the new man in her life, a bombshell is dropped on Ginger’s perfect marriage and in the midst of it all, the two of them suddenly realise that something isn’t quite right with their baby sister. Is it too late for these women to realise how blessed they’ve been in life, and that some things are worth fighting for?

From the synopsis and cute cover, I assumed that this would be a light, chick-lit novel. But within a few chapters, I realised that the Lawrence sisters had much deeper issues to deal with than the average chick-lit heroine. I was quickly enveloped into the lives of this dysfunction group of women, all of whom had a lot to learn about love and marriage. Despite probably being her polar opposite, I found Penny the most relatable character. I loved her sassy, Southern flirtations and I could identify with her yearning to be loved and romanced. Although I hope that in twenty-seven years times I’ll be living a similar life to Ginger, living in a nice house in suburbia after having sent my kids off to college, Ginger’s “perfect” marriage didn’t feel right at all and I found myself hoping that she’s be taken down a peg or two and stop judging her sisters long enough to sort her own life out. While I longed for someone to notice that Rose was struggling, I found it hard to identify with her. Maybe it was her obsession with her dog – although I love my cats, I’m really not an animal fanatic – or simply the fact that I found her sections hard to read because of the strange choice in font, but I didn’t feel like I connected with her particularly well.

As the novel progressed, I came to understand the intriguing and heartbreaking legacy that the Lawrence women had received from their family. Their father, mourning the loss of his young wife so soon after the birth of his third daughter, had sent his daughters to live with their grandmother every summer because he never truly recovered from their mother’s death. And the sad truth behind their grandmother’s seven marriages, and insights into the life of a woman who had so many husbands snatched away from her in wars, in an age when women were vulnerable without a man’s protection. This book contained some really fascinating and heartfelt family dynamics. It probably has a thing or two to teach all of us about the true inheritances our families have given us.

Inspirational women’s fiction is slowly growing on me, and while I wouldn’t class this novel among my favourites I did enjoy reading it. The eclectic blend of characters made for a compelling read and I didn’t want to put this book down when I got to the final chapters. I’m a bit disappointed that I never truly felt that I connected with the characters, but that wouldn’t stop me from trying another of Angela Hunt’s books in the future. This is one that I’m sure fans of deeper chick-lit and women’s fiction would appreciate. 7/10

Review copy provided by Howard.

Sweet Valley Confidential - Francine Pascal

It’s been ten years since the Wakefield twins graduated from Sweet Valley High, and a lot has happened.

For a start, Elizabeth and Jessica have had a falling out of epic proportions, after Jessica committed the ultimate betrayal, and this time it looks like Elizabeth will never be able to forgive her.

Suddenly Sweet Valley isn’t big enough for the two of them, so Elizabeth has fled to New York to immerse herself in her lifelong dream of becoming a serious reporter, leaving a guilt-stricken Jessica contemplating the unthinkable: life without her sister.

Despite the distance between them, the sisters are never far from each other’s thoughts. Jessica longs for forgiveness, but Elizabeth can’t forget her twin’s duplicity. Uncharacteristically, she decides the only way to heal her broken heart is to get revenge. Always the ‘good’ twin, the one getting her headstrong sister out of trouble, Elizabeth is now about to turn the tables...

Despite having read some really critical reviews of this book, I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. My opinion may be affected by the fact that I devoured this novel while drugged up on paracetamol and ibuprofen while I was battling a virus, but during my period of illness it kept me entertained, and that's what's important.

I'm a bit of an odd Sweet Valley fan - I started reading the books in 2000, when I was nine years old, with SVJH. I moved on to SVH, SVSY and SVU when I was 11, although my library's SVH collection was pretty poor considering this was the Noughties at that stage. As a result, I don't think I ever read any of the original, pre-100 SVH books. (Of course, I have since bought a collection of the first 3 SVH books from Amazon, much to my fiancé's amusement). So I grew up with the Wakefield sisters who lived in a world where alcohol, mobile phones and the internet existed. I never read about date rapes and high school sororities and (many) kidnappings. Perhaps if I'd grown up with the original Wakefield twins, I'd be more upset. But as it is, I'm only nineteen myself and this book provided a nice little nostalgia kick for me, back to the early Noughties when Sweet Valley Junior High covers were sporting Sketchers and catchphrases like "Whatever!"

This book is pure escapism. Yes, it's pretty awful. Pascal forgets some pretty major plot points (even I remembered that Mr Fowler's first name is George, come on!) and killing off Winston and barely mentioning Lila were pretty lame. Not to mention the number of times that Jessica says "like" and "so" because apparently Pascal thinks that's how twenty-seven year old women talk. This book is definitely not without its faults, but I didn't read it expecting to uncover a literary classic. If you're looking for a fun escape from real life and don't mind the author messing up some plot points and some cheesy dialogue, then this is the book for you.

Like others reviewers have said, this is like logging on to Facebook and finding out what your old school friends are up to. Even I, who graduated high school less than two years ago, can see the appeal in this. It's always a interesting to look through my "Recommended Friends" and discover that four people who dropped out of my high school already have kids, or that the guy from my primary school who was super geeky and awkward now has a really pretty girlfriend. Revisting the Sweet Valley girls is like looking up old classmates on Facebook, and Pascal is, for the most part, realistic. Todd does not have an amazing career in sport, instead writing the sports column in a local newspaper; Liz is struggling to make a career in journalism and is barely earning anything; Jessica has a job for a cosmetics company; Lila still has lots of money but an unhappy marriage, and so on. Some parts I didn't find so believable, such as Steven coming out as being gay, which wasn't even hinted at in the other books. Or the fact that no one had any kids! Sure, people are starting families later now, but particularly in somewhere like Sweet Valley where stay-at-home-mums aren't so uncommon, you'd expect one or two school friends to have started a family by the age of twenty-seven. But then again, how realistic is it to have nearly everyone move back to Sweet Valley? Especially people who have graduated from university and are trying to pursue a career?

As for the Liz/Todd/Jess storyline, it came of well in some places and not so in others. I could buy Todd and Liz not ending up together because even I remember them being on-again/off-again for the entire franchise. I wasn't so sure about Jess falling for Todd, but I liked the fact that even ten years later, the sisters are still fighting over a guy. As for Liz and Bruce getting together, it was a nice idea but it happened so quickly and didn't have enough build up or hinting towards it. I kind of wished she got together with the playwright from New York, but I guess Pascal wanted her to end up with someone from Sweet Valley. Also, the sex scene at the end was horrible. I walked into my bedroom one day to find my fiancé sheepishly looking through my copy of SVC, saying "I was looking for sex scenes. I only found one and it was awful," and I was inclined to agree with him. Please, even Mills and Boon have less cheesy sex scenes.

It's hard to describe how I feel about this book. It was a fun escape back into my childhood, and I'm looking forward to reading some of the original books. I'll admit that this book was pretty awful, but I did really enjoy reading it, so I'm going to give it 7/10. I think I set the bar on my expectations really low, so my surprise at how much fun I had reading this bumps up my rating.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Kilmeny of the Orchard - L. M. Montgomery

When twenty-four-year-old Eric Marshall arrives on Prince Edward Island to become a substitute schoolmaster, he has a bright future in his wealthy family's business. Eric has taken the two-month teaching post only as a favor to a friend -- but fate throws in his path a beautiful, mysterious girl named Kilmeny Gordon. With jet black hair and sea blue eyes, Kilmeny immediately captures Eric's heart. But Kilmeny cannot speak, and Eric is concerned for and bewitched by this shy, sensitive mute girl. For the first time in his life Eric must work hard for something he wants badly. And there is nothing he wants more than for Kilmeny to retum his love.

This was such a sweet, quaint little novella. Definitely not Montgomery's best work, but it put a smile on my face and was a quick read. A typical romance, in which the career-driven hero who isn't searching for love falls for the mute girl purely because of her beauty and innocence. Yes, it's shallow, but remember that this was published in 1910! Sadly, because of the predictability of the story and the obvious racism expressed towards the adopted Italian son, I don't think that this story will fare very well in the 21st century. While it was a nice escape from the real world, the only truly outstanding parts of this novella were the descriptions of the scenery. Even when using a tired and overused plot, Montgomery is able to make it her own with her signature descriptions of Prince Edward Island. I'd recommend this book to serious fans of Montgomery, but warn that it isn't a patch on the Anne books, or even her short-stories. Don't come to this book expecting too much and you'll find yourself pleasantly surprised, and you'll hopefully close the book with fond feelings towards old-fashioned romances and even more of a desire to visit PEI! 7/10

This book can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg and various other sources to be read on Kindles and other digital reading devices. Personally, I recommend because it's user-friendly and easy to navigate.

Plain Perfect (Daughters of the Promise #1) - Beth Wiseman

A search for peace in Amish country proves anything but simple for a woman on the run from life...and herself.

On the rolling plains of Lancaster County, PA., Lillian Miller is searching for her grandparents' house...and so much more. After years of neglect and abuse, she's turning to a lifestyle of simplicity among the Amish to find herself.

As she discards the distractions of her former life, she befriends the young boy working on her family's farm and his attractive widowed father, Samuel Stoltzfus. Despite Lillian's best efforts to the contrary, her feelings for Samuel--and his for her--deepen. Will Lillian find her faith in Plain living, or will she be forced to return to her former life?

With so many other Amish books that I own and need to read, I hadn't thought about checking out the work of Beth Wiseman until a friend leant me this book. Picking it up one evening when I was feeling under the weather and wanting to read a "real" book rather than something on my Kindle, I found myself pleasantly surprised. I almost devoured this book in an entire evening, unable to put it down. Lillian was a hilarious character, constantly putting her foot in her mouth whenever she claimed that she wanted to find "peace" amongst the Amish, and insisting that she'd manage fine because she knows how to cook! I loved that Beth had created such an unconventional, flawed heroine. Even though I couldn't entirely relate to her problems (nor her immaturity, that on any other character would have annoyed me) I wanted to keep reading about her because she was so entertaining.

The other characters in the novel were incredibly endearing, from the vastly different grandparents - the grandfather who saw the good in everyone and spoke his mind, and the grandmother who was still hurting from the loss of her daughter - to Samuel and his sweet son - who couldn't help but hope that Lillian would become his new mother. I even liked Lillian's "rival", who ended up being her friend. It was sweet to witness Lillian and Samuel unintentionally falling in love with each other, showing the readers how people from such vastly different backgrounds can find comfort in each other.

While I can sometimes be wary of conversion-to-the-Amish plotlines, Lillian's visit to Lancaster County made sense in that her mother had left the Amish as a teen, and both of them had subconsciously yearned to return there. I would have to say that Lillian's acceptance of the Amish ways wasn't entirely convincing, and that's why I'd give this book 9/10 rather than 10/10. At one point, she questioned why Amish women should be subservient to their husbands and she wasn't satisfied with her grandmother's answer - but this was never brought up again. I personally feel like Lillian would have needed a lot more convincing to join the Amish lifestyle, especially when it came to accepting "God's will" about bad situations. This is probably the part that I had the most difficulty with in this book. Even as a Christian, I don't believe it's "God's will" for bad things to happen - but I do believe it is His will for good things to come out of bad situations. But calling the death of a young woman from cancer "God's will" suggests that God intended for her to die - and I don't think this is the way it is at all. Lillian struggled with this also, but she seemed to finally accept it in the end but it was never really explained. I felt like too much was spent dwelling on the idea of "God's will" and it left me feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Despite my minor struggles with this book, I did really enjoy it. When a sudden tragedy struck Lillian's family near the end of the book I actually had tears in my eyes, which made me realise how attached I'd become to these characters. While the plot may have been rather predictable, the characters were far from conventional and I'd definitely recommend this book to fans of Amish fiction of the likes of Amy Clipston, Barbara Cameron, Vannetta Chapman and Kelly Long. I'm excited to get on to the next book and see where Beth takes our characters next. 9/10

Friday, 15 April 2011

Baby Bonanza - Maureen Child

Twins? The startling revelation that his affair with Jenna Baker had produced two little boys was almost impossible to grasp. Tycoon Nick Falco had never considered himself the settling-down type, yet now that fatherhood had been thrust upon him, he was determined to give his sons his name. But their mother wasn't about to let him back into her least not without those three little words Nick had never, ever said.

Right now I'm trying to immerse myself in books that I don't care about too much so that I can dip in and out of them easily while I work on coursework. "Baby Bonanza", a free download from the eHarlequin website, is one of these books. I'll admit, I ended up enjoying this a lot more than I expected. I planned to read the first few pages to have a giggle then delete it from my Kindle, but it was interesting enough that it kept my attention and I read 20% in one sitting. Unlike the Harlequin Presents books that I'd read previously, and wrongly assumed were similar to Silhouette Desire novels, there were only two sex scenes and they were surprisingly well written. I don't generally read books with sex scenes, but these I felt were at least realistic and made sense in the context, rather than being thrown in in order to fill a quota. While the hero was the typical alpha male that I never warmed to in the slightest, I did like the heroine who could stand up for herself and didn't need Nick in order to get on in life. That said, most of the book focused on attraction and not on developing relationships. While Nick claimed he loved Jenna, I never saw any signs of it and I wondered whether their relationship could survive without the sex. So, this was a good in-between book that was a quick and easy read, but I won't be rushing out to read anything else from the Desire line due to the lack of character and relationship development. But if you enjoy romance novels with plenty of passion, desire and attraction then this is definitely the book for you. 6/10

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mine is the Night (Kerr #2) - Liz Curtis Higgs

Elisabeth and Marjory Kerr arrive in Selkirk stripped of their titles and riches, in desperate hope that a distant relative will take pity on them and offer them her home. Entering Annie’s one-room lodging, the former Ladies Kerr find themselves building a new life that could not be further from the one they lived in Edinburgh, before their men were taken from them in the Jacobite Rebellion. While Marjory learns to be a housekeeper, a job she once employed another woman to do for her, Elisabeth picks up her needle and is determined to provide for her mother-in-law and cousin with the skill that God has blessed her with. Soon, her quick needle propels her into Lord Jack Buchanan’s home, where she finds herself outfitting his new maids for a very handsome income. Unable to shake off the remnants of her noble life, her stature and speech quickly bring her to the attention of Jack, in whom she finds a kindred spirit and new friend. But Elisabeth knows that she could never pursue a relationship with a man of such standing, for fear that he might bring her family back to the attention of King George and Lord Mark Kerr, who are determined to wipe out anyone who aided the Jacobite cause. Have she and her mother-in-law truly escaped the worst of their troubles? Can Elisabeth trust the Lord enough to believe that he can bring joy back into her life after all of her losses?

Having read Here Burns My Candle not that long ago, I found myself surprised by the much lighter, happier tone to its sequel. That’s not to say that the characters didn’t have their trials and struggles; after all, this is eighteenth century Scotland and no one exactly breezed through life, least not noble women who had lost their titles to the Jacobite cause. But if you’re expecting something akin to the heartbreaking events that occurred in Here Burns My Candle, you’ll be relieved to hear that the Kerr women finally receive their much awaited happy endings. While I did occasionally feel that life was drifting along a bit too smoothly for these women, especially in light of so much suffering in the previous book, on the whole I felt that Mine is the Night was a perfect example of how God can take a life that’s been near destroyed and make it whole again.

As with her previous novel, Liz has clearly done her research, and I honestly believe that I got an authentic feel of eighteenth century Selkirk and what it was like to be a single woman in this period. Although I would class this novel as a historical romance, the historical detail is essential to the novel and not merely an added extra. From Elisabeth’s occupation as a seamstress to trips to the market to the dilapidated state of the church to the inner workings of Jack’s home, Liz has got every detail perfect. Even if you’re not an avid reader of romances, this novel is worth reading in order to understand the trails of eighteenth century life and the difficulties met by women who had to support themselves and their families. There are some fascinating sections at the back of the novel on Liz’s research on Selkirk, which I’m now determined to visit – after all, I’m one of the fortunate readers who actually lives in Scotland!

While the prequel focused mainly on the relationship between Elisabeth and her mother-in-law, Marjory, I would consider Mine is the Night to be more of a conventional historical romance. Although we witness the women interacting, the majority of the novel focuses on the development of romantic relationships: between Elisabeth and Jack, Annie and a local man, and Marjory – whose relationship I will keep secret as it’s too sweet to spoil! Jack’s wooing of our heroine is just as it should be in a romance novel and I adored reading the development of their relationship. Jack isn’t usually the type of hero that appeals to me, but he and Elisabeth were clearly perfect for each other and Jack fits his role just right. Those of you who bemoaned Elisabeth’s troubled relationship with Donald in the previous book will find this one a refreshing, pleasant change.

In a way, amongst all the blossoming relationships and luscious landscapes of Scotland, I did miss the action and drama of Here Burns My Candle. I’d have to say that I didn’t love Mine is the Night quite as much as its predecessor, but I still fell in love with it for entirely different reasons. I was so pleased to see all of the characters recovering from their devastations and finally receiving their much deserved happy endings. On the whole, this is a wonderful story and the perfect example of how God can bring something brilliant out of a bleak and hopeless looking situation. Even days after I’d finished the novel, I found myself dwelling on the times that God has brought me out of dark times and blessed me abundantly. I hope that other women find themselves similarly uplifted by the lives of the Kerr women. 9/10

This book was generously provided by Waterbrook in return for an honest review.

Look out for a contest to win this book next week at The Christian Manifesto!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Wrangler in Petticoats (Sophie's Daughters #2) - Mary Connealy

Beth McClellan's little sister, Sally, has grown up a lot since the debut title in the Sophie's Daughters series and is about to have a romantic adventure of her own. After her party is attacked on their journey to visit Mandy, another McClellan sister, Sally finds herself the sole survivor of the brutal ambush. Sally is fortunate enough to be rescued by Logan McKenzie, an artist who lives in the wild mountains of Montana. She's nursed back to health by Logan and his Indian housekeeper, Wise Sister, and finds herself challenged by the idea of a man who makes his living through art, not hard labour. Wary of unconventional men after Mandy's marriage to gold-miner Sidney brought her nothing but trouble, Sally tries to ignore the feelings she has for kind, considerate Logan. But once they find themselves on the run from the men who killed the rest of Sally's travelling party, Sally can't help but see admirable traits in the man who sets out to protect her. Could she really spend the rest of her life with a sensitive man who prefers painting to hunting? Maybe he's the perfect match for a woman who carries a gun and refuses to ride side-saddle...

Mary Connealy is fast becoming one of my favourite historical novelists. Her romances are full of feisty heroines, excellent one-liners and lots of action. While I didn't warm up to Sally as much as I did Beth, this was still a very enjoyable read.

Sally is probably the most unconventional woman you'll find in a romance set in Montana in 1882: she wears trousers, doesn’t ride side-saddle and is a better shot that most of the men in her hometown in Texas. If you thought a female doctor was an unusual character in Doctor in Petticoats, I'm sure you'd admit that a female wrangler is not the norm either. I found Sally to be a bit more stubborn than Beth, but maybe this is because her story wasn’t quite as comic as Beth’s. With Doctor in Petticoats, I found myself drawn into the story by Beth’s sarcasm and wittiness, whereas Sally was quite arrogant and immature in her demands for Logan and Wise Sister to leave her alone and let her make her way to Mandy’s. Of course, this can probably be attributed to her youth, as she is a lot younger than Beth. She became a more endearing character as the plot progressed, and I came to realise that her dismissal of Logan stemmed from her fear of ending up in an unhappy marriage like Mandy. Despite her lack of conventionality, Sally worries and frets over the biggest decision any romantic heroine will make – who shall I marry?

I’ve always been more fond of Beta heroes than Alpha males, and Logan fit the bill quite well. While I wasn’t pleased by how easily nature and his art could detract his attention from Sally (although I’m sometimes tempted to unplug my fiancé’s computer when he’s not paying attention to me!) he was incredibly sensitive to Sally’s needs and didn’t mind her crying when she was in pain or worried about her sister. As Sally herself witnessed, it’s not often that a man can handle a woman becoming incredibly emotional, so that fact alone made me admire Logan. I also found the details about his art incredibly fascinating, particularly as the author suggested that he was dabbling in expressionism, an art movement that I've studied at university. I’ll admit that those who are less knowledgeable when it comes to the art world might not be interested in Logan’s work, but I’m sure most readers will be able to appreciate the descriptions of the scenery that he paints.

Other than Sally’s stubbornness, my only other complaint would have to be that the romance is slow to develop. I was more than halfway through the book before I really felt that Sally and Logan became interested in each other, and while I appreciated the time that the author gave the characters to develop independently, I felt that the romance suddenly escalated at this point and felt a bit rushed. Of course, I was very happy with the outcome, but the development of their relationship did feel like it was compressed into the latter half of the novel, which wasn’t ideal. For this reason, I’d have to say that I preferred the first novel in the series, although this wouldn’t in any way put me off reading the last book, which focuses on Mandy’s story.

During the second instalment in the Sophie’s Daughters series Sally McClellan comes to learn a lot about herself and her thoughts on love and marriage with the help of the sensitive artist who becomes her rescuer. Fans of Mary Connealy and wild west romances won’t be disappointed by this novel, and it’s sure to make your heart pound and put a smile on your face. 8/10

Many thanks to NetGalley and Barbour for providing a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Love on a Dime - Cara Lynn James

Lilly Westbrook wishes she could do something productive with her life than simply being the "lady of leisure" that society demands of her. Bored with attending endless balls, she embarks on a secret double life as dime-novelist Fannie Cole. But while Lilly derives joy from enriching the lives of her readers through her moralising tales, she knows that she would destroy her family's reputation if anyone found out that a lady of high society was secretly penning dime-novels. But with society's gossip tabloid threatening to reveal her identity and her old beau, Jackson Grail, planning to buy her publishing company, Lilly knows that she can't keep her career a secret for long. Can she wrench herself away from her attempts to hide her alter-ego long enough to realise that Jackson isn't back in her life by chance, and let herself fall in love with him all over again?

Despite the mixed reviews I've read of this book, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. While it was clear how the story would end right from the start, the unique idea of a society woman being a dime-novelist over-shone the predictability of the plot. I really liked the character of Lilly and watching her relationship with Jackson grow. This was a sweet romance, and I don't think they even kissed until the last page, but it seemed appropriate for the time period. Likewise, Lilly's dilemma over whether she should settle for a "content" marriage with Harlan was one that I'm sure a lot of women in the late nineteenth century struggled with. I really got a sense of the time period when I was reading this novel, and I didn't feel that any of the characters were caricatures. It was interesting to see the secret life of Lilly's sister-in-law, Irene, come to the surface, and it explained her earlier bizarre behaviour. I hope to see these characters appear again in later novels in the series.

The first book in the Ladies of Summerhill series may be rather predictable, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the perfect light read for fans of historical romance who are looking for a twist on the usual storyline. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series. 8/10