Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Protector (Families of Honor #2) - Shelley Shepard Gray


Following her mother’s death, Ella Hostetler plans to make a fresh start and start living life for herself rather than those around her. Having auctioned off the family farm to Loyal Weaver, she moves into a flat in town and starts her job as a librarian. But Ella can’t seem to break the ties with her past as Loyal keeps trying to involve her in the renovations he’s making to her old house, and her landlady, Dorothy, starts warning her against making changes in her life. Although Ella had previously thought she was destined to be an old maid, having missed her youth due to caring for her mother, Loyal’s attention suggests otherwise. But Dorothy seems less than pleased by this new development, warning that Loyal is nothing but trouble. Is Dorothy’s possessive and controlling behaviour rooted in something more than a desire to protect Ella? And is there finally a chance for Ella to find love in her new friendship with Loyal?

The second book in the Families of Honor series was very slow to start, and I struggled to get into it. It wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I felt it really got started and finally caught my attention. Ella isn’t your typical romantic heroine; instead of pining after the hero and bemoaning the lack of love in her life, she was quite independent and content to live in her little flat and work at the library. I appreciated that she didn’t fall for Loyal immediately and was content to just be friends with him. Their romance was the kind where a friendship slowly turned into something more and one day they suddenly realised how much they cared for each other. This was a refreshing change from the other Amish romances I’ve read lately.

The relationship between Ella and Dorothy was quite disturbing, and initially I wasn’t sure where it was heading. In places Dorothy’s possessive control over Ella made her seem a bit caricatured, especially as her behaviour isn’t fully explained until later in the novel. However, it was interesting to read about a friendship riddled by jealousy that wasn’t rooted in something as simple as a feud over a boy, but a long-term hurt that had never been let go of. I’ll admit that this storyline still seems a bit bizarre to me, even after finishing the book, but it wasn’t something that I’d ever seen featured in an Amish novel so Shelley gets credit for trying something new.

If you’ve read the first book in the Families of Honor series, you’ll be pleased to get the chance to catch up on the characters from The Caregiver. Loyal’s Uncle John features throughout the novel, now working at the local coffee shop, and we witness him trying to choose between two very different women, one Amish and one English. Mattie and Graham, who will be the focus of the final book in the series, pop in and out of the story and give us the chance to see how Mattie is recovering from her chemotherapy. Lucy and Calvin also appear a couple of times, as well as Katie, the youngest sibling in Calvin and Loyal’s family. A few chapters in the book are told from Katie’s perspective, which took a while to get used to but was a nice touch. My only complaint with Katie would have to be that, on occasion, her speech did not sound like that of a five-year-old. Sometimes Shelley captured her voice just right, but at other times Katie would utter a sentence that seemed far too mature.

While I wouldn’t class Shelley Shepard Gray as one of my favourite authors of Amish fiction, I’ve also never read a novel by her that I’ve disliked. She’s an author who manages to consistently produce entertaining and enjoyable novels. Although I don’t always connect with her characters as strongly as I do in other Amish novels, her books contain all of the elements that fans of this genre are looking for. If you’re a fan of Shelley Shepard Gray, you won’t be disappointed with this addition to her Families of Honor series.

Review title provided courtesy of Avon Inspire.

Something Old (Plain City Bridesmaids #1) - Dianne Christner


Nineteen-year-old Katy Yoder is looking forward to cherishing friendship and the single life when she moves in to a renovated Dawdi house with her best friends, Lily and Megan. Katy is satisfied with her lot in life, working as a cleaner for various local families, and isn’t quite ready to settle down and get married just yet, unlike many other Mennonite girls her age. Still suffering from the hurt she experienced when her long-term boyfriend, Jake, left to join the English world, Katy would rather not entertain thoughts of dating anyone else until she’s sure that she’s completely over Jake. But her simple little world is soon disrupted when Jake himself returns to the church, not looking any worse for wear from his worldly adventures and keen to help get involved in rebuilding the church hall – a project which Katy is also participating in. No matter what she does, Katy can’t seem to avoid Jake, and his constant presence makes her wonder whether she can ever get over their past relationship. Jake is keen to pick up where they left off before he went to university, but Katy doesn’t want to settle for “damaged goods”, especially after seeing his English ex-girlfriend. Can Katy put aside her judgements of the English world and accept Jake for who he is now, ignoring his past transgressions?

As a fan of Amish fiction, it was fascinating to read about a Mennonite community and learn about how different – or similar – their way of life is. The mentions of electricity and cars came as a surprise initially, but some similarities remained, such as prayer kapps and the distrust of the internet. But as much as I enjoyed learning about a new way of life, I did struggle to view the Mennonite lifestyle through the eyes of Katy. She had a very narrow-minded perspective of the world, to the extent that any form of dancing was a sin and drinking alcohol immediately brought about drunken and lewd behaviour. As someone from a church which engages in dancing as a form of worship and who appreciates a good Shiraz, naturally I was a bit bemused by Katy’s black and white view on life. It’s particularly interesting to note that I’m nineteen myself, and have been living away from home for two years and am engaged to get married next year – a lot of similarities to Katy. But despite these connections, I still found her outlook on life to be very narrow-minded and judgemental, and her attitude towards her relationship with Jake very immature. I’m not saying this as someone with a wealth of life-experience who can view events in hindsight, but as someone who’s actually at a very similar stage in their life to Katy. To be honest, if I came across someone like her in a class at my university, I wouldn’t be rushing to become friends with her, particularly if she was going to call me a sinner when I attended a dance class or went to the pub.

That said, Katy does redeem herself. It just takes a very long time for this to happen. In a sense, this is a coming-of-age story, where Katy slowly comes to realise that her attitudes are wrong and gently matures throughout the course of the story. I’m not sure whether this book is being marketed for the adult or young adult range, but I definitely think it would be better suited for girls in their mid-teens, perhaps 14 – 16 year olds. If I, at nineteen, struggled with Katy’s immature behaviour, I’m not sure how someone my mum’s age would react. Maybe they’d have more patience, or maybe they’d be even more frustrated! But as Katy’s attitudes were very typical of a teenager – I’m sure I probably shared some of her limited world-views as a fifteen-year-old – this is probably a book that would appeal more to the young adult market. There are a lot of life-lessons to be learnt from this book, about everything from friendships to living to arrangements to relationships with parents to boyfriends to job-hunting. The friendship between Katy and her house-mate Lily is very typical of the ones I remember from high school, and would probably be easily recognised by girls of this age.

The romance between Katy and Jake was all over the place, and one of those ones that could have easily been made more manageable if the two of them sat down together and talked and actually listened to each other. One pet peeve of mine in romance novels is when everything blows up in a relationship because of a Big Misunderstanding that could be cleared up if the characters slowed down long enough to talk it over. I’m afraid this book had a few BMs in it. Naturally, these BMs can be attributed to Katy’s immaturity, but this doesn’t negate how irritating it was for me as a reader. As pleased as I was that Katy eventually got the guts to talk to Jake about his time “in the world” and forgive him for his mistakes, I couldn’t help but wonder if the book would have been more interesting if Jake had truly rebelled in his time at university and Katy had had to come to terms with Jake truly being “damaged goods” in her eyes. As it was, Jake had merely gone to a few parties, drank a few beers and shared a couple of kisses with one girl. Katy spent a lot of the book worrying about whether Jake had still remained pure in his time at university, and I know from personal experience that a lot of nice Christian girls end up marrying guys who did far worse than Jake in their rebellious periods, so I think the book might have been more interesting if Katy had bigger and more serious relationship hurdles to overcome. Alas, the issue of remaining pure until marriage and then marrying someone who never considered the importance of purity in their youth has yet to be covered in any book I’ve read. But back to Katy – naturally, as this series is titled Plain City Bridesmaids, the book ends in a wedding. Despite my misgivings about the BMs scattered throughout their relationship, I am happy that our hero and heroine put aside their preconceived ideas about relationships and accepted each other for who they are. I just with that the book hadn’t suddenly jumped to a wedding, as I felt that Katy and Jake’s relationship was still quite young and immature, and they needed more time to make sure that they can actually remain a couple without blowing up again over a tiny issue, before tying the knot.

If it appears that I’m ripping this book to shreds, I do apologise. The problems that I encountered when reading this book aren’t to do with flaws in the plot or characterisation or even the writing itself, but the simple fact that this book seems to have been written for a younger audience. I’m sure a teenage girl would adore this book and understand Katy’s dilemmas, not finding her as immature and narrow-minded as I did. I would caution more mature readers to be aware of the very teenage feel of this novel, although those who love YA fiction probably wouldn’t have the same frustrations as myself. Despite my misgivings with this book, I will admit that I did mostly enjoy reading it, although I did want to take Katy by the shoulders and shake her several times throughout the story.

Review title provided courtesy of Barbour Publishing.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Spring for Susannah - Catherine Richmond


Heading to the barren and sparsely inhabited Dakota Territory as a mail-order bride for her pastor’s brother may not have been the most appealing plan for Susannah Underhill, but it was her only option. Following her parents’ deaths and a mentally and physically scarring incident that she’d rather not think about, the offer of marriage from Jesse Mason was like an answer to a prayer – if Susannah still believed in God, that is. Homesteading is a far cry from the city-life Susannah is used to, but the skills learned from her veterinarian father help her to prove to her new husband that she is capable of surviving the harsh prairie life. But it’s going to take more than delivering calves to help Susannah open up to Jesse and let him see her true personality. Shy and previously resigned to being an old maid, Susannah is convinced that Jesse will never be satisfied with her, while Jesse himself just wishes that his new wife would talk to him and let him express his newfound love for her. Can their blossoming marriage survive grass-hopper plagues and snowstorms brought by the tough seasons of prairie life and bring them into a fuller and deeper love for each other?

I’m always a sucker for mail-order bride stories, so I was immediately drawn to this book when I first saw it being advertised, and it was made all the more appealing by the gorgeous cover. This novel had a few quirks that definitely made it stand out from the other historical romances dominating the Christian fiction market right now. I was particularly fond of the little prayers at the start of each chapter, expressing how Jesse was feeling about his marriage to Susannah. While I never felt that I completely got inside Jesse’s head the way that I did with Susannah, I really appreciated the little insights at the beginnings of the chapters. I also enjoyed the way that Susannah would talk to the family dog about her feelings and worries. To some this may seem like a plot device, designed purely to pass information on to the reader that hadn’t come up in normal conversation. But I found that it actually worked really well and illustrated how nervous Susannah was about talking about such matters with her husband, and how she yearned to have someone to discuss her problems with. Sadly, life on the lonely prairie yielded only a dog as a companion, at least until Susannah’s Swedish neighbour leant to speak English.

The secondary characters in this novel are wonderful and really come to life. I was reminded a lot of the cast of the Little House on the Prairie TV show, but not in a plagiarising way. The entire book struck me as a mixture between Little House on the Prairie and a Janette Oke novel. Far more than your conventional romance, Catherine Richmond has packed her debut full of essential details about homesteading and farming in Dakota Territory during this period. The harshness of Jesse and Susannah’s life really resonated throughout the story, with the seasons and elements truly controlling their day-to-day lives. Spring for Susannah was as much about Jesse and Susannah falling in love as it was about Susannah finding herself and coming to terms with her new life. It reminded me a lot of Janette Oke’s When Calls the Heart, in which the romance became secondary to the main character’s personal development due to their separation. When a grass-hopper plague causes Jesse to leave his home with Susannah and head off to find work to support them, the focus of Spring for Susannah shifts to how Susannah manages to look after the homestead on her own and how this helps her to grow as a person as she waits for Jesse to return.

While I did find the detail that Catherine put into her writing fascinating – a sure sign that she had put a lot of thought and research into her novel – I will admit that I missed the conventional plot structure. Generally when I’m reading a novel I can easily detect the beginning, middle and end of the book, but with Spring for SusannahI didn’t feel that it had this structure, and in places I felt that the plot needed reigning in or was a bit strained. Initially I really enjoyed the mixture of romance and every-day-life events, but during the section of the novel where Susannah is on her own it felt a bit unstructured, flitting from one event to another without any sort of explanation. This final section just felt a bit too strained, and while we did get to witness Jesse’s perspective occasionally, these parts didn’t seem as detailed and sometimes felt a bit flat. I’ve read other reviews which have commented that the ending felt a bit rushed, and I’ll have to agree with this – I would have loved to have read a little more about Jesse and Susannah together at the end, after waiting so long for him to return.

Spring for Susannah is an excellent debut effort from Catherine Richmond, and she brings a lot of promise to the genre with her attention to detail and commitment to presenting a realistic portrait of a historical place and period. Her characterisations also bear evidence of her desire to bring realism and completeness to her writing, although I would have liked to have heard more from Jesse’s perspective in places. While the structure of the novel and the continual jumping from one event to another did irritate me on occasion, it in no way deterred me from enjoying this book. I hope to read more from Catherine in the future, and would definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, particularly those who are looking for something new in terms of both contextualisation and structure.

Review title provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson.