Monday, 31 October 2011

Kelly's Chance - Wanda E. Brunstetter


Life for Kelly McGregor is a daily drudge of driving her overbearing father’s mules along Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Canal. She dreams of one day owning an art gallery where her own drawings and paintings are on display. But these dreams don’t include marriage. . .not after seeing what her father has done to her mother. How then can Mike Cooper, a general store owner, make her realize he is different than her father and wants to support her artistic talent? Will Kelly learn that dreams can walk hand in hand with a love created by God?

Wanda E. Brunstetter is a very popular author in the Christian market, particularly when it comes to Amish and historical fiction, but I'm afraid I just don't see the appeal. This is the third book of hers that I've read and I must be missing something because I simply find her plots predictable and her characters one-dimensional. I feel like I'm being cruel, but there was very little that pulled me into this story and made me want to keep reading. I enjoyed learning about the canal and Kelly's painting, particularly the details of how she made her own watercolours. A few reviewers have commented that the canal descriptions were a bit confusing, and I suppose that if you weren't familiar with canals then they might be. I grew up very close to a town which still has canal boats on it today, and the good old British children's TV show "Rosie and Jim" also proved to be very educational on this subject, so I may not be your average reader. That said, aside from the inclusion of Kelly's hobby and occupation as mule-driver, there was very little that I felt was truly original about this book. Yes, I enjoy traditional romances, but this one felt rather flat.

There were a few occasions where I really felt I was starting to care about Kelly and Mike, but their conflicts never rang true. Kelly finally decided to let go of her preconceived ideas about men and marriage, but this was all very sudden at the end of the book, and it was never explained why she let go of them. Mike conveniently forgot why Kelly was hurt by her father, causing a Big Misunderstanding and argument between them, which was then cleared up about ten pages later. Their slow-moving romance seemed to culminate in a big explosion about twenty pages before the end of the book, and then everyone ever so conveniently got over their problems and lived happily ever after. It just seemed rather unbelievable. Not to mention that Kelly's distrust of men and marriage was never really explained, just vaguely related to her issues with her father. Yes, we are told that she doesn't want to marry someone just to get away from her father - but where's the shame in marrying someone for love, and happening to get away from her father at the same time? And while for the majority of the book Kelly insists that she wants to earn money so she can leave the canal boat, about two-thirds into the book she suddenly changes and says that she wants to use the money to open an art gallery. This seems to come completely out of nowhere, and seems a bit unrealistic for the time. And the epilogue was just ridiculously perfect, especially with Betsy and Kelly finally getting along and her father starting to turn to Christ. It felt unnecessary to try to wrap up every conflict in the book. Oh, and not to forgot the very unrealistic references to the Bible and God. I do enjoy the inclusion of everyday Christian values in my books, but nobody goes around quoting scripture, down to the verse and chapter, the way that these characters did. It all felt very forced, even to an avid reader of Christian fiction, almost as if the author was including verses in order to make the book more Christian.

I really did try to like this book, and while I enjoyed some of the historical details and the occasional cute snippets of Kelly and Mike's relationship, I can't say that I'll be able to remember much about this book in the days to come. I'll probably pass this on to my pastor's thirteen year old daughter, but I don't think I'll be recommending it to any of my friends. 

I chose to read this book as part of the August selections for the Fans of Amish Fiction book club on GoodReads.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Love Finds You in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania - Annalisa Daughety


Two women with nothing in common except the need for a friend and a fresh start. When Amish-born Lydia Ann Raber and Southern belle Caroline DeMarco discover a shared history of loss, the unlikely duo decides to open a gift shop in beautiful Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Lydia Ann is surprised to find herself drawn to handsome woodworker Simon Zook. When God offers her a second chance at love and family, will she take it? Or will the secret Simon harbors cause her even more heartbreak? For Caroline, love comes in the way of newspaper reporter Michael Landis. Their low-key romance is a dream come true for Caroline, a fugitive from an infamous past. Is Michael to blame when the paparazzi start hovering once again, or can Caroline trust him with her heart?

After finishing this book I was wavering between giving it a 6 or 7 out of 10. I ended up enjoying the romance between Caroline and Michael a lot more than the one between the Amish couple, which is very unusual for me as I'm not normally a fan of contemporary romances and Amish stories are normally my favourite! But sadly I never seemed to get to know Lydia Ann and Simon and in contrast Caroline and Michael had much more fleshed out characters. The story was very slow moving, mainly focusing on the developing relationships than events in the plot, but picked up in the last third. But then I also think that the ending may make me drop a star from this book's rating.

Both of the couples nearly broke up because one partner pretended not to be interested in the other in order to spare them from some huge tragedy. The first time this happened, I didn't mind, but when Caroline did the exact same thing as Simon (despite assuring Lydia Ann that she thought Simon had something else on his mind and didn't mean it, and had seen how Lydia Ann had been affected by Simon's treatment of her) it just didn't seem realistic in the slightest. Although everything was explained and wrapped up neatly in the end, I got a bit annoyed that the author had used the same plot contrivance twice, especially when it comes so close to being the typical romantic Big Misunderstanding, which I do so hate whenever it's used to create conflict between characters. If a problem can be solved with a quick conversation, it isn't really a problem at all.

Despite my complaints about the events towards the end of this book, I will admit that it was a fairly enjoyable, light romance. Caroline's story was the most interesting and was one of the most original parts of the story. She turned out to be a very easy character to relate to. I enjoyed reading about her developing relationship with Michael, and the conflict with his ex-girlfriend was written very well. My fiance has your stereotypical pyscho ex from hell - bringing up old nostalgia, causing a lot of cringe-worthy embarrassment at high school reunion parties, etc - so I could completely relate to Michael and Caroline's predicament! However, I just didn't relate to Lydia Ann and Simon in the same way. I never felt like I really got close enough to them. In a way, I feel like the novel would have been better if it had focused on Caroline and Michael and had the other couple as a much smaller subplot.

All in all, I did enjoy reading this book and it was a very relaxing, comfortable experience for me. I would definitely read more from Annalisa Daughety in the future, just to see what her novels are like when she doesn't try to split herself between two stories. After further thought, I think I'll rate this book 7 out of 10 as I did really enjoy Caroline and Michael's story, despite my earlier complaints. Maybe not the best Amish-themed romance novel I've read, but definitely a sweet story.

I chose to read this book as it was one of the September choices for the Christian Fiction Devourers group at GoodReads. 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

September: What else have I been reading?

As the summer holidays ended, I moved into my new flat in St. Andrews and got ready for my third year of university I'm afraid that my reading to a bit erratic. Here are the results! A bizarre mixture of children's books, non-fiction and romance novels.


With Dawn in California and Mallory out sick, the BSC is in big trouble. They have too many jobs and not enough sitters. Kristy's a wreck. When Jessi mentions that she has a friend at school who baby-sits, Kristy wants to try her out. Wendy seems like a good sitter. But is she good enough for the BSC? And is the Baby-sitters Club ready for a new member?

This was definitely one of the more fun BSC books involving Jessi. For some reason, her books just aren't always the most interesting, or discuss serious topics. Here, the BSC are struggling to fit in all their sitting jobs because Dawn has moved back to California, so they allow Jessi's friend, Wendy, to join the club. But Wendy doesn't like all the rules and is constantly turning up late. Fair enough, most eleven year olds wouldn't want to have to follow rules set by people only a few years older than them, but she also turns up late for a sitting job, which isn't good when a parent is relying on you. Eventually, Wendy decides that the club isn't for her but she and Jessi remain friends. The two sub-plots are that Margo has been caught shop-lifting (quite uncharacteristic, but interesting enough) and that the kids are making a video to send to Dawn. The video was really amusing and it was quite touching to see how much everyone missed Dawn. All in all, one of the better later-series BSC books. Sometimes the ghostwritten books can fall a bit flat, but that wasn't the case with this one. And there's also a bit lead up to the next book, in which Mallory has glandular fever, which is one of the books that I remember quite vividly. Also, what is with the bright yellow cover? I'm sure none of the other books have covers quite this garish. 

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READ: SEPTEMBER 7 - 9, 2011

Crystal Clark arrives in Colorado's Yampa Valley amid the splendor of a high country June in 1892. After the death of her father, Crystal is relieved to be leaving the troubles of her Georgia life behind to visit her aunt Kate's cattle ranch. Despite being raised as a proper Southern belle, Crystal is determined to hold her own in this wild land--even if a certain handsome foreman doubts her abilities. Just when she thinks she's getting a handle on the constant male attention from the cowhands and the catty barbs from some of the local young women, tragedy strikes the ranch. Crystal will have to tap all of her resolve to save the ranch from a greedy neighboring landowner. Can she rise to the challenge? Or will she head back to Georgia defeated? Book one in the Heart of the West series, No Place for a Lady is full of adventure, romance, and the indomitable human spirit. Readers will fall in love with the Colorado setting and the spunky Southern belle who wants to claim it as her own.

This one didn't turn out to be quite as interesting as it sounded from the synopsis, but it was a fairly entertaining and enjoyable historical romance. A plot that's been done many times before, but with a few tweaks here and there - mainly the details about Crystal having to learn how to run the cattle ranch and pay off her aunt's debts. The majority of the issues that kept the two characters apart involved a lack of communication, a major pet peeve of mine when it comes to romance novels, so that drops the rating a bit for me. However, I did love the descriptions of Colorado. Although I got bored during the sections about the cattle drive, I drank in the wonderful scenery. While the descriptions of Colorado flowed wonderfully, I did find that the author "head-hopped" a lot, jumping from one person's thoughts to another without any scene changes or paragraph breaks to show the change of perspective. While the whole book was in third-person POV, this still gave it a choppy feel and was quite distracting.

I think this is a good debut attempt from Maggie Brendan, and while I didn't find her book particularly original and think that she could work on her writing technique a little, I would definitely read more from her in the future as I think she has potential and I was intrigued by the teaser for #2 in the series. I'd recommend this book for Christian historical romance fans looking for a book they can rely on to provide them with all the facets that make a pleasurable reading experience. 

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READ: SEPTEMBER 9 - 11, 2011

Had her brand-new husband been involved in something shady? Before Caroline Hampton could confront him, he was killed in a car crash...or so it was claimed. Unsettling incidents--escalating in dange--warned her he could be very much alive. And so Caroline fled for the safety of her sisters' Amish country inn. But someone who suspected her--handsome police chief Zachary Burkhalter--was waiting for Caroline. Waiting for her to slip up. And watching her every move. Daring her to trust him with all of the truth.

I think I actually preferred this one to the first book, Hide in Plain Sight, and I could definitely tell how Marta's writing had matured since the initial novel in this trilogy. While I did have an inkling of who was behind the mystery in this one, the conclusion wasn't quite as sudden as in the first book, where the "bad guy" had given a big monologue that explained everything. The climax of Buried Sins seemed a lot more realistic and things were revealed gradually over the final chapters. Marta's definitely good at creating suspense and this was not a book that I wanted to put down, especially late at night! I'll admit that, hey, Love Inspired Suspense books aren't always entirely original and could seem a bit repetitive if you read a lot of them at once, but Marta always puts a unique spin on her romantic suspense novels. I loved the details about Caroline's jewellery and her passion for art, as well as the minor mystery surrounding the unusual quilt they found. It was nice to catch up with the rest of the Unger family again in this book. While I skipped #2 in the series I didn't feel like I'd missed out on anything as these are all technically standalone books. A very enjoyable read that kept me on my toes as I tried to figure out the mystery. Not my favourite romantic suspense novel but I'll definitely be reading more from Marta in the future.

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Stacey is accused of stealing a diamond ring. Can her friends solve the mystery of the missing ring and salvage Stacey's reputation?

I only read a couple of the mysteries as a child as I generally preferred the main series of books. So this was a newbie for me, and I did quite enjoy it even if it wasn't as good as the mysteries incorporated into the main series. Some of the later mystery books involve the BSC solving actual Nancy Drew style mysteries, but this one is about Stacey being accused of stealing a ring belonging to a babysitting client that was actually hidden by one of their pets. Fairly anti-climatic but believable. Maybe not really enough of a mystery to be taken away from the main series? But enjoyable nonetheless.

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The Baby-Sitters all want to be the first winner of the Sitter-of-the-Month contest, even though they promise not to compete against each other. Now Dawn is getting threatening notes and sinister phone calls from someone known only as Mr. X. Is winning the contest worth keeping the threats a secret?

I'm afraid that some bits in this book were just too unbelievable to ignore! The girls all get scary, intimidating notes left for them when they're babysitting but refrain from telling their parents - or even each other! - because they're all competing for a Sitter of the Month contest. I know that Kristy can be pretty competitive, but I'd think that people like Mary Anne and the younger sitters would be too concerned for the children's welfare to put a silly contest ahead of the children's safety. The contest was clearly just put in the story to stop them talking to each other. In the end, this book turns out to be another non-mystery where a kid was mucking about with the sitters because he was annoyed that they got him in trouble with his parents. Seems a bit long-winded (surely he'd just throw eggs or water balloons at them rather than creating threatening notes?) and unbelievable that his parents wouldn't notice him sneaking all over town. But kudos with the continuity as Mel has been featured in other books. Will be interesting to see if he shows up again. Overall, a decent story but I got annoyed at the ridiculous of it. 

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READ: SEPTEMBER 14 - 17, 2011

In the German community of Poetry, Texas, Belinda spies an opportunity. The tiny town is filled with loggers and railroad men in need of wives, so she sets herself up as a marriage broker. She writes little poems to be printed in newspapers all over the country and one by one, women begin to arrive in Poetry. There's only one problem: Belinda doesn't have a clue what she's doing and all the brides marry the wrong men! One client is particularly unhappy. Georg Kaufman, the local barber, has lost more than one prospective wife to Belinda's fumbled attempts. For some reason, she just can't seem to find Georg's “perfect match,” though it's not for lack of trying. Is there a poetic ending in store for Georg— and for Belinda herself?

I felt that this book had a bit of a slow start but picked up after the first few chapters when all of the brides began arriving. A nice twist on the typical mail-order bride story, and a lot of colourful characters filled the little town of Poetry! I liked the cute, poetry-related names that all of the shops had, and the poetry written by Belinda, Georg and Peter was quite fun. While I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book, it didn't really have that spark that made it stand out from other historical romances. It had some quirky characters and Belinda's job as a marriage broker wasn't one that I'd read about before, but all in all, Belinda and Georg's relationship was pretty standard for a romance novel. Perhaps not the most original historical romance I've read this year but definitely one of the more enjoyable. If you're looking for a novel that you can rely upon to provide you with all the elements of a good romance and a couple of quirks, then definitely check out this book. I'll definitely be looking out for more books from this line. 

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READ: SEPTEMBER 4 - 24, 2011

THE MITFORD GIRLS tells the true story behind the gaiety and frivolity of the six Mitford daughters - and the facts are as sensational as any novel: Nancy, whose bright social existence masked an obsessional doomed love which soured her success; Pam, a countrywoman married to one of the best brains in Europe; Diana, an iconic beauty, who was already married when at 22 she fell in love with Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British fascists; Unity, who romantically in love with Hitler, became a member of his inner circle before shooting herself in the temple when WWII was declared; Jessica, the family rebel, who declared herself a communist in the schoolroom and the youngest sister, Debo, who became the Duchess of Devonshire.This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary family, containing much new material, based on exclusive access to Mitford archives.

This was a fascinating book, and I'm now very excited about reading Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love for my Reading the 1940s course...and will probably checking out the other books by the Mitford girls from my university library. My only complaint would be that Pamela and Deborah felt a bit neglected, especially towards the end of the book. Maybe there just isn't much information about them, but it felt like they were pushed aside because they didn't lead such exciting lives. This was an incredibly fast read considering the 500+ pages, and although I put it down for a week or so as I was moving house, I jumped right back into it again this week. Very compelling writing, and the author managed to put across a very balanced view of the sisters, despite their varying commitments to Fascism and Communism, which could have forced some biographers to pick a side. Mary Lovell presented the girls with all of their flaws and positive attributes, without judging their political allegiances. I just wish we could have heard a bit more about Pam and Debo as I'm sure they also had interesting lives.

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Nestled between the ocean and the hills of Prince Edward Island is a road that leads to the house where a girl named Anne grew up, Green Gables, and to the wonderful place called Avonlea. In this second volume of heartwarming tales a Persian cat plays an astonishing part in a marriage proposal . . . a ghostly appearance in a garden leads a woman to the fulfillment of her youthful dreams . . . a young girl risks losing her mother to find the father she never knew . . . and a foolish lie threatens to make an unattached woman the town's laughingstock when an imaginary lover comes to town for real! Filled with warmth, humor, and mystery, these unforgettable stories re-create the enchanting world of Avonlea.

This is probably my least favourite of Montgomery's collections, although apparently these were stories rejected from Chronicles of Avonlea, which at least explains why some of them simply aren't up to her usual standards. Click here for an overview of my brief thoughts on each story after reading them, but to conclude I did thoroughly enjoy Aunt Cynthia's Persian Cat, The Materializing of Cecil, The Son of His Mother and The Education of Betty. Sadly, the others were rather lacking. Recommended if you're a serious LMM fan and enjoy short stories, but don't expect the same quality as in the first Chronicles

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Today's young women seem to be outdoing the male chauvinist pigs of yesteryear, applauding the 'pornification' of other women, and themselves. This is a world where simulating sex for baying crowds of men on shows like Girls Gone Wild and going to lapdancing clubs - as patrons - is seen as a short cut to cool. Ariel Levy says the joke's on the women if they think this is progress. She tears apart the myth of this new brand of 'empowered woman' and refuses a culture-wide obligation for women to act and look like porn stars. This terrifically witty and wickedly intelligent book makes the case that the rise of raunch does not represent how far women have come - it proves only how far women have left to go.

How wonderful to find a book that so exactly echoed my thoughts on so-called modern "feminism". While I do wish that the book had been a little more statistical and less based on anecdotes, there were some stories in here that were fascinating, such as the author's experience with Girls Gone Wild. I like to leave this book in strategic places around my flat so that my fiance's friends pick it up and ask me what it's about. This is a book that any woman needs to read - whether you're appalled at how little respect today's young women have for themselves and their bodies, or whether you yourself think that modern feminism has brought about sexual equality; you never know, this book may change the way you think. I originally started out highlighting my favourite passages in this book but had to stop as I wanted to just read it all the way through. I'll probably read again, highlighter in hand. I wish there were more women who shared the thoughts of Ariel Levy, but sadly the evidence is all around us to suggest otherwise. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

August: What else have I been reading?

Earlier this week I shared my summer reading from July, so today I'll be revealing August's version. Like the rest of the summer, I did most of my reading on my Kindle while travelling two and from work so I've only written short books of these books, but I'd still like to share my thoughts and recommend some great reads to you!

READ: AUGUST 8 - 9, 2011

Katy has always enjoyed life in her small Mennonite community, but she longs to learn more than her school can offer. After getting approval from her elders, Katy starts her sophomore year at the public high school in town, where she meets new friends and encounters perspectives much different than her own. But as Katy begins to find her way in the outside world, her relationships at home become restrained. Can she find a balance between her two worlds?

Loved this! Any preteen Christian girl would adore this book. I could totally relate to Katy's embarrassment at standing out from the crowd at her new school and her friendship issues. Although she's Mennonite, I think her struggles would appeal to many girls of a similar age. Definitely one I'll be recommending to friends with preteen daughters. I'll be looking out for the rest in the series. My only complaint would be that the issues with Jewel seemed to be wrapped up a bit too conveniently; I felt it might have been more realistic if everything hadn't gone smoothly at the birthday party. 

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READ: AUGUST 15 - 16, 2011

Carley Marek experiences culture shock when she visits her friend Lillian's family on their farm deep in Amish country. She'll get an article out of the visit--and maybe some of Lillian's newfound peace will somehow rub off on her. 

Just when Carley is getting used to the quiet nature of the Plain community, Lillian and Samuel's son falls ill. But the local doctor who can offer the most help has been shunned by the community and forbidden to intervene. 
As David's condition deteriorates, Dr. Noah determines to do whatever it takes to save the boy's life. Carley is caught in the middle--drawn to Noah, wanting to be helpful in the crisis--and confused by all their talk about a God she neither knows nor trusts. 
Carley must decide what in life is worth pursuing . . . and what to do when she's pursued by a love she never expected.

Beth Wiseman produces consistently good Amish romantic fiction. This is the second of her full-length novels that I've read, although I've also read a couple of her novellas, and I've yet to be disappointed. I felt that this one was a bit slow to start and I got irritated by how stubborn Samuel could be, particularly as I loved his character in the previous book and felt he'd kind of morphed into the generic Amish male stereotype. Samuel's mood eventually relaxed and the shunning disputes were somewhat alleviated throughout the book, which enabled me to enjoy this book a lot more. I actually got a bit teary-eyed in a few places (a bit embarrassing when you're having your morning cup of tea in the cafeteria at work!) and towards the end I was grinning ridiculously (while on the bus heading back from work, I tried not to make eye-contact with the woman next to me in case she thought I was raving mad). While I did have some reservations at first I ended up being really touched by this book. I particularly liked the fact that while this book features Amish characters and a romance, this isn't the typical "English woman meets Amish man and converts to marry him" plot. Carley and Noah were both Englishers who happened to have friends and relatives in the Amish community and therefore spent a lot of time with them. I also loved the introduction of Dana and Jenna to the story, and the chance to catch up with Lillian's family. I'll admit that I still feel that some issues weren't entirely dealt with - why should Lillian always follow her husband's requests even if she doesn't feel comfortable with them or doesn't agree with his views? Is it okay to bend the rules and disobey the Bishop? What should you do when you believe the Christian thing to do isn't what the Bishop is ordering? - but I hope that maybe these are covered in more depth in later books. I was planning to keep #3 in the series until later but I think I'll start it now as I'm on a definite Amish kick!

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READ: AUGUST 16 - 18, 2011

Young Amish widow, Sadie Fisher, leads a simple life in the quiet countryside of Lancaster County--selling Amish goods to a steady stream of tourists. Though it is a good life, lately she's wondered if it is God's will for her to remain without a husband and a family.Winters can be brutally cold and lonely in Pennsylvania, so Sadie rejoices when a renter signs up for a three month stay in her guest cottage. But when wealthy, impulsive Englischer Kade Saunders arrives, she isn't sure she wants him around that long. Sadie feels the stress of the bishop's watchful eye, expecting her to act in accordance with the Ordnung, the understood behavior by which the Amish live. To complicate things, Kade is soon surprised with sole custody of a child he barely knows--his five-year-old autistic son, Tyler.Sadie and young Tyler form an immediate connection. As she grows to love and understand this exceptional child, her feelings for Kade grow into something that both terrifies and exhilarates her. And while Kade seems to feel the attraction to her as well, their worlds couldn't be farther apart.Sadie must stay true to her Amish roots, but denying the love she feels is impossible. Could it be that God has the improbable in store for Sadie? And will she have the faith to step into a love bigger than she's ever dreamed possible?

I absolutely adore this series, and I think this is my favourite book so far. I got so involved in the lives of Sadie and Kade, it was almost as if I was experiencing events alongside them. Sometimes stories about Englishers who convert to the Amish faith feel a bit fake and forced, but Beth handled Kade and his conflicts very well, making it seem natural for him to settle into the Amish community and want to remain there. I got so annoyed at Sadie for not following her heart and trying to do what she thought the "right" thing was, even if it didn't make her happy! But I do love a book that connects with me emotionally and makes me get upset or angry with the characters and their actions. I can't wait to read the next book in the series, but unfortunately I borrowed the first three from a friend who bought the rest of her series on her Kindle. As the UK doesn't have Kindle-lending yet, I'll have to get hold of the books myself. I don't normally read books in a series one after another, but I just couldn't resist jumping on to the next book. Beth Wiseman is definitely becoming one of my favourite Amish authors. 

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READ: AUGUST 27 - 28, 2011

Kate's family life is never straightforward. Her parents have engaged a new French au pair, Belle, who is lovely but lazy and soon has all the local boys at her command. Kate's mum, struggling with young twins, appears withdrawn and depressed. Kate's boyfriend, Chas, has new problems of his own. In her new novel Meg Harper again displays her gift for pacy comic writing with a serious touch. We follow Kate's emotional roller-coaster ride through the latest batch of family troubles from which she emerges ultimately unscathed and a little wiser.

I loved these books when I was a preteen, so I had to buy this when I saw it in a charity shop. I didn't realise this series had four books in it, and while the fourth and final book wasn't quite as good as the first two in the series (or maybe I just prefer those because they have a nostalgic factor to them?) but it was still an excellent book. It was a nice change to read a British preteen book, with characters named Kate and Greg. Definitely one I'll be keeping for when I have preteen girls! This is a book that I think can be enjoyed by both Christians and non-Christians as the spiritual aspect is very light. Kate's mum is an unconventional vicar, and Kate herself is struggling to come to terms with her own beliefs, and whether what she believes is the same as what her mother teaches on Sundays. My local library used to stock the first two books in the series so they were able to be enjoyed even by people who don't have a personal relationship with God. Overall, a fun coming of age series.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck - Kathleen Y'Barbo


Making her debut into London society, Charlotte Beck receives more than she bargained for when she tumbles out of a window into the arms of Viscount Alexander Hambly. The American heiress and English noble find their lives forever entwined as a result of the night’s events, much to the dismay of both parties. Charlotte is known for her inappropriate antics, and while she’d like to escape from the expectations of her parents – a suitable marriage, home and family – by attending university, her father has other plans for her. Charlotte is to marry Alex, whom her father has a business proposition for. Although her father insists that she is not simply a pawn in a financial deal, and that he believes Alex is the perfect match for her, being the only man who can control her and make her stop talking, Charlotte is still unhappy with these plans. It is only when her father and her betrothed promise her that she may attend university before getting married that she agrees to the arrangement. But four years is not as long as she expected, and when she returns to her parents’ home she discovers that no one has forgotten her impending marriage, and there is no escaping it – unless she can convince her new husband to agree to an annulment. But Alex has not forgotten Charlotte and how amusing her teenage antics used to be. Without either of them realising it, Charlotte has already stolen his heart, and he is determined to show her exactly why she should remain married to him.

Charlotte is the sort of character will have you laughing out loud, no matter how restrained you try to be while reading this book. Her escapades – entirely inappropriate for a young woman of good breeding – were hilarious to read about, as were her interactions with Alex and his family. Alex and Charlotte have brilliant chemistry together, even if neither of them realised it to begin with. I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of this book, where Charlotte and Alex slowly get to know each other through Charlotte’s little accidents and near social suicides. They are certainly unusual characters for a historical novel, with Alex’s interest in astronomy and Charlotte’s painting skills being well thought out and described. In a way, Charlotte and Alex are two misfits in the world of courtship and balls, making them perfect for each other.

I also enjoyed the dual setting of this novel and reading about the characters experiences in both London and Denver. I’ve not read many historical novels written by American authors but set in Britain, so this definitely made a nice change. It was interesting to read about the differences between London and New York society, the debutantes, clothing of the period and expected etiquette for young ladies. The pieces of etiquette wisdom given at the start of each chapter are absolutely hilarious, as are Charlotte’s attempts to succeed in achieving them.

While I did love the characters, settings and events of the first part of this novel, I really felt let down by the latter part. As the second section of the novel begins, Charlotte returns from university to live with her parents pending her marriage to Alex. I’d been really looking forward to reading about Charlotte and Alex managing to adapt to married life, which I imagined would be a lot of fun to read about, giving their shenanigans in the first part of the book. However, in the four years that have passed between Part I and II of the novel, Charlotte’s character had undergone a complete transformation. I imagine that Kathleen simply wanted to show how Charlotte had grown up, but she had none of the spunk or ingenuity of the previous Charlotte. To be honest, most of the time she just came across as grumpy or selfish, and the chemistry between her and Alex was completely gone. Alex, on the other hand, was exactly the same as he had been in the first part of the book, which just succeeded in showing how entirely different Charlotte’s character was.

My other complaint with the second part of the book is that Charlotte suddenly has a fear of getting married, brought on by something mysterious that apparently happened to her biological mother during her marriage to Charlotte’s father, who is now remarried. This mysterious “something” had never before been alluded to in the book (or if it had, not enough for me to pick up on it) and seemed to come completely out of the blue. It was as if the author had felt that Charlotte needed a reason for her distrust of marriage, and threw this fear into the story in order to validate Charlotte’s behaviour. To make everything even more confusing, the whole issue is wrapped up two or three chapters after Charlotte’s fear is first revealed, when she has a discussion with her father and coincidentally just happens to come across a letter from her grandfather that explains everything. Then, of course, her fear is gone and she can stop being so harsh to Alex. Maybe if Charlotte’s misconceptions about marriage and the mystery surrounding her father’s first wife had been incorporated better into the story as a whole I wouldn’t have minded this part of the novel so much, but as it is I really felt that this part of the plot needed to be expanded in order for it to feel credible and not so rushed. On the whole, I think that the second section of the book needed to be at least fifty pages longer as all of the events felt a bit rushed and quite detached from the first part of the book. At times, it actually felt like I was reading an entirely different book.

While The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck began with a promising start, the section of the novel that focused on the actual marriage between Charlotte and Alex was a letdown. The chemistry between the characters petered out due to Charlotte’s change in personality, and events were rushed to their conclusion by the introduction of a mysterious and previously non-existent plot device that was over and done with far too conveniently. I’m afraid that I was a bit disappointed by this book, although more the second section than the book as a whole. Charlotte and Alex were originally wonderful characters, but their personalities seem to have got a bit lost along the way. Although I didn’t love this book, I would consider reading others by Kathleen Y’Barbo in the future as she creates great characters and families. Perhaps the difficulties I had with this book were not due to her writing but the four year gap between the two parts, in which much goes unexplained.

Review title provided courtesy of Waterbrook Press.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Beyond Hope's Valley by Tricia Goyer

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

And what am I eagerly awaiting? Despite the fact that my bookshelves (plus attic and various boxes under my bed) are bulging to the seams, and my Kindle is full of freebies and review books, there are so many 2012 releases that I can't wait for. Here's one of them:


After an extended stay in Montana, where Amish traditions are different than in her home state, Marianna Sommer returns to Indiana for two reasons, first to help her brother and his girlfriend prepare for a baby and their wedding. Second, to plan her own wedding to Aaron Zook — a marriage she’s been dreaming about ever since childhood. And yet, although she had missed the idyllic farms and families of her upbringing, Marianna is surprised that Indiana is somehow making her long now for Montana.

As months pass, secrets that were hidden in winter’s frozen grasp thaw and take on a life of their own. The truths about a child, about a past relationship, and about God’s plans are being revealed. Walking through a valley of questions, Marianna must hold on to hope as she decides where and with whom her heart truly belongs.

If you've not yet discovered this series from Tricia Goyer, start with Beside Still Waters immediately and I guarantee that you'll be as addicted to reading about Marianna's experiences in Montana as I am! I recently read the second book, Beyond Wooded Paths (so look out for a review soon!), which included an excerpt from the conclusion to the trilogy and I have to say, I am most intrigued to find out whether Aaron has some secrets he's been hiding from Marianna and how her brother and girlfriend manage with their upcoming wedding and baby. April 2012 is very, very far away though, so it'll be a while before I get the chance to read the final book in this compelling series.

What books are you looking forward to in the new year?

Double Take - Melody Carlson


How could two girls who look so alike be so different? When rich city-girl Madison Van Buren runs into her lookalike at a cafe in an Amish community in Pennsylvania, she begins to wonder how her life would have turned out if she's been born into the slow-paced country life of Anna Fisher. Stressed out by college choices, a possessive boyfriend, a needy best friend and her divorced parents, Madison sees Anna as an escape into a simpler way of life. Anna is tempted by the lure of freedom from responsibilities, and not having to constantly do chores and care for younger relatives. Living in New York would give her the chance to find her old boyfriend, Jacob, who left the Amish several years ago and hasn't been in contact. But switching lives turns out to be a lot more complicated than Madison and Anna imagined, and their plans for a carefree escape from their troubles doesn't work out quite as they expected. Both of them have something to learn about life, relationships and even God.

Those who read my reviews may have noticed that I’m not particularly interested in YA fiction. But when I saw that Melody Carlson, Queen of Christian Teen Fiction, was jumping on the Amish bandwagon (or buggy, as may be more appropriate) I couldn't help but request a review copy. And despite my doubts about how well Amish fiction would transfer to the YA market - particularly with a cover that's just a tad too cheesy for my liking - this is definitely one that I'd recommend. It took me a few chapters to adapt to Melody's style of writing and fit back into the mindset of a teenage girl, but once I found myself settled in the story, I didn't want to put it down.

Ignoring the plausibility of two girls looking so alike and just happening to run into each other, I loved the "Parent Trap" style plot of this book. Who hasn't wondered what their life would be like in a different place? As a British teen captivated by American TV shows and books, I used to daydream about attending an American high school like the fictional ones I was so familiar with. Like Anna, I believed my life would be so much more exciting away from home. But Anna soon finds that life in a city is much more overwhelming than she thought, and that it's not going to be easy finding Jacob in a city packed full of people. Plus, Madison's phone is difficult to operate, the TV shows seem mindless and none of Madison's clothes are remotely modest. She also has to deal with Madison's boyfriend, whom she ropes into helping in her search for Jacob, and an old friend of Madison's who immediately figures out that Anna is an imposter.

Madison, on the other hand, discovers that the "simple life" isn't as relaxing as it sounded. Making up some ridiculous story about how she hit her head on the ice while skating and has forgotten a lot of basic Amish life skills, Madison has to learn how to do basic chores like cooking and washing dishes, as well as looking after half a dozen cousins. Thankfully, Anna's aunt and uncle don't seem to think that there's anything weird about "Anna" and are just thankful for the help while the aunt, Rachel, is nearing the end of her pregnancy. There are some really touching scenes between Madison and Rachel, who isn't popular in her community because she isn't the best homemaker and seems to be slacking in a lot of areas that other Amish women relish in. Madison - who has never had to wash her own dishes before, let alone bake a pie or change a diaper - admires Rachel and helps the other women in the community to appreciate her “aunt” and help her in the departments where she's lacking. There's also a little romance between Madison and a local boy who helps on the farm. It's not entirely necessary to the plot, but shows how teenagers can get carried away by their romantic daydreams.

I actually ended up preferring Madison's Amish adventures to Anna's search for her old boyfriend, mainly because I felt that Madison had more to learn from her experiences. Anna gets a bit of a shock when she meets Jacob and discovers that he really has become an Englisher, and it shakes her teenage fantasies about her and Jacob ending up together, despite him leaving their community. I'm sure every woman can remember a time when they thought a teenage crush would turn out to be the man of their dreams, so Anna's story is quite easy to relate to, if a little bit anticlimatic. On the other hand, Madison does what many Amish fanatics fantasise about - convert to the calmer way of life. But what is there that’s calm about cow stalls, outhouses and home births? Madison experiences a serious culture shock that causes her to rethink her “real” life, and make some changes when she returns to New York. Her experiences with Rachel's family are quite amusing, but I don't know whether I would have reacted any better in her place. While Anna's situation was more relatable, Madison's definitely made for a more entertaining read.

Despite my usual wariness of YA novels, Melody Carlson may have actually made a convert out of me. This is definitely a book that I'd want my teenage daughter to read, if I had one, and is one to pass on to those younger sisters and daughters who try to sneak a peek at your Beverly Lewis novel. Amusing and very true to life, Double Take is one for both teenage girls and the older Amish fans, particularly those who like to fantasise about living the simpler life.

Review title provided courtesy of Revell.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Anna's Gift - Emma Miller


In the latest addition to Emma Miller’s Hannah’s Daughters series, Anna Yoder finds herself receiving a surprising marriage proposal. After watching all of her older sisters marry and leave the family home, Anna longs to be swept off her feet by a suitor, but believes this will never happen since she doesn’t have the pretty face or slim figure of her attractive sisters. So when handsome widower Samuel Mast asks her to marry him, Anna can’t help but wonder if he’s only interested in finding a mother for his children. As much as she enjoys spending time with Samuel and his children, teaching the girls to bake and cooking for his family, Anna isn’t quite ready to say yes. With the whole community speculating his proposal, she needs to know whether or not Samuel truly cares for her before she can make a decision. Soon, Samuel finds that he’s having to go through the motions of teenage courtship – and getting to know his potential bride a lot better!

Having read Courting Ruth, the first novel in this series, a couple of months ago I was pleased to have the opportunity to catch up with the Yoder sisters again. Although I skipped on to the third book in the series, I can’t say that I felt like I’d missed anything vitally important to the plot. As with all Love Inspired novels, Anna’s Gift is designed to be read as a standalone novel, although readers who are familiar with Emma Miller’s books will enjoy seeing brief appearances from previous characters. There are also some new additions in this book, as Anna’s younger sisters return from caring to their aging grandmother, and the sisters, grandmother and an elderly aunt return to Delaware to move into the Yoder home.

While I don’t think that I enjoyed Anna’s tale of courtship as much as Ruth’s, it was still a very sweet story. Anna was a very endearing character, and the development of her relationship with Samuel made a very fun read. This book had two of my favourite contrivances – snowstorms and children. When the community is struck by heavy snow while Anna’s mother is out of town, Anna finds herself spending a lot of time with her Samuel and his family, who are their closest neighbours. While normally an unmarried Amish couple wouldn’t be allowed to spend so much time together unsupervised (Samuel’s children and Anna’s learning disabled sister would not count), this set-up allowed for Anna and Samuel to get to know each other better before Samuel broached the subject of married to Anna’s mother. It’s not until later in the book that the have a proper courtship, which is a strange experience for both of them – Anna having never had a suitor before despite being older than the other courting teenagers, and Samuel having been previously married. It was interesting to read about a couple in such a situation, as few Amish romances have this set up of an older, widowed man marrying a much younger woman.

There were two very realistic issues explored in Anna’s Gift, the first of which related directly to Anna’s character. Not being slender like her sisters, Anna has always felt unworthy of a man’s attention, which is further proven by the fact that none of the boys in her community are romantically interested in her. So when Samuel expresses his desire to marry her, Anna can’t help but wonder if he just wants someone to cook, clean and look after his kids. After all, who would want her – practically an old maid, a bit larger than the other women her age and clearly been on the shelf for a while? Her aunt and cousins don’t make matters easier for her but continually suggesting that Samuel could never want her for who she is, making Anna more worried about whether she’s about to enter a marriage of convenience. While the concern over marrying someone for comfort rather than love is one often discussed in Christian novels – particularly historical romances – few realistically portray a young woman’s anxieties over whether her appearance makes her deserving of a husband. As someone who was always a bit too gangly and skinny as a teenager, with the added bonus of glasses and braces, I can sympathise with Anna’s worries over her looks, and I’m sure many other readers will find this makes her a relatable character.

The third book in the Hannah’s Daughters series also sees the return of Anna’s younger sisters, along with her grandmother and great aunt, opening up the floor to explore another very relevant issue – dementia. While it’s never overtly explained what illness Anna’s grandmother suffers from, or whether it is indeed Alzheimer’s, all of the women in Anna’s family have to adjust with their grandmother’s steady decline. From making inappropriate comments to strangers in the supermarket to believing that her son is still alive, she takes her toll on the Yoder family, particularly Hannah, who her mother-in-law is always finding fault with. I found the treatment of Anna’s grandmother very touching, especially seeing how the Amish make caring for their elderly relatives a priority in their lives. This part of the story will particularly resonate with anyone who has witnessed a family member struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and some of the grandmother’s escapades will definitely put a smile on your face!

Not all Christian romance readers are fond of the shorter, category novels from Love Inspired, but I do encourage fans of Amish fiction to give Emma Miller’s series a try – you might find yourself pleasantly surprised! Anna’s Gift would make the perfect stocking filler for the romance fan or an introduction to the genre for a teenage girl. I thoroughly enjoyed the latest instalment in the Hannah’s Daughters series and definitely hope to see more from Emma Miller in the future.

Review title provided courtesy of Steeple Hill at Harlequin. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Journey - Wanda E. Brunstetter


When the chance to work as a carpenter in an Amish community in Kentucky arises, Titus Fisher jumps at the opportunity. Always in the shadow of his perfect twin brother, Timothy, and watched like a little child by his mother, Titus feels it’s time to find where he belongs in the world. And since this offer follows his girlfriend Phoebe’s announcement that she still isn’t ready to join the Amish church, Titus feels that perhaps it would do him some good to be away from the ties he has back home in Pennsylvania. Soon he’s settling into the rhythms of life in Kentucky, despite the dilapidated trailer he lives in and his lack of a buggy, and he strikes up a good friendship with the Yoder family, who are employing him to work in their carpentry shop. But it takes him longer to warm up to Suzanne Yoder, an unconventional young woman who prefers being in the outdoors and woodwork to cooking and sewing. But Suzanne looks just like Phoebe, and Titus can’t help but look of Suzanne and remember how Phoebe broke his heart when she went to explore the English world. Will Titus’s memories of Phoebe put a rift between him and Suzanne, or will he learn to let go of the past and discover what God has planned for him in Kentucky?

I will advise that while I tried to start this book with an open mind, I’ve never been a big fan of Wanda Brunstetter. While she’s incredibly popular in the Amish genre, which contains many of my favourite books, I’ve yet to figure out what is so appealing about her books. While many of them contain standard romance plots, I often find her writing stilted and her characters lacking in personality. Despite this, I determined to give her works another try with The Journey, which many of my friends have praised. The plot of this novel, while being fairly predictable, did sound like it had promise, particularly with Suzanne being such an unusual character for an Amish novel.

Unfortunately I found it very difficult to enjoy this book. As with previous Brunstetter novels (On Her Own, Plain and Fancy and Kelly’s Chance, to name those that I’ve read) I found the dialogue very stilted and fake-sounding, as were the internal thoughts of many of the characters. This was particularly jarring as the majority of The Journey is dialogue. I would say that at least 80% of this book was dialogue, and while normally I love conversation-driven novels, there was barely any description at all. Books in the Amish genre really need descriptions of the scenery and day-to-day life to make them seem authentic. Sadly, The Journey was very lacking in this department and could really have been set anywhere, if for the occasionally Pennsylvanian Dutch word and mention of a buggy. The Penn Dutch speech was pretty irritating in that whenever a character said anything in Dietsch, another character would then repeat the same sentence back almost word for word so that the reader would understand what the word meant. This sounded incredibly fake, and happened too often for me not to notice.

The plot jumped around too much for my liking, leaping back and forth between Titus in Kentucky and his family back home in Pennsylvania, and occasionally over to Phoebe in California. It seemed really unnecessary to include Phoebe’s sections as they really didn’t add much to the plot, other than to show that she wasn’t enjoying herself in the English world. The scenes in Pennsylvania were much the same, and seemed to repeat a lot of what had happened to Titus in Kentucky as word of his new life spread to all of her relatives. More often than not, these sections ended up detracting from the plot rather than adding to it.

There were a lot of dramatic events in this book, far too many than is realistic. On several occasions characters are nearly run off the road in their buggies - by a motorbike, a horse and wild dogs - and if these events had been connected I wouldn't have minded, but they weren't! These three events were never given any sort of plausible explanation that linked to the plot, and seemed mainly to function to bring Titus and Suzanne closer together in the aftermath of their experience. The first two events I shrugged off, but I’ll admit that I nearly laughed out loud at the appearance of the feral dogs. There's also a situation surrounding some stolen money which is cleared up far too quickly and easily to be at all believable, and then is never mentioned again by any of the characters. It felt like the author kept trying to insert some sort of mystery into the book but then resolved the situations too fast to actually make the book mysterious. And don't even get me started on all the deaths and tragedies that occurred with this family – is it really possible for one family to suffer so many traumas? Some of them seemed quite unnecessary, and the way that the characters dealt with them seemed rather offensive to anyone who has lost a relative or a child.

I have a few minor complaints about this book which, coupled with my issues with the dialogue, plot-jumping and unrealistic nature of some of the events in this book, ended up taking away from what could have been a fairly enjoyable reading experience. Firstly, The Journey apparently follows on from another series of books as numerous references are made to Zach having being kidnapped as a child. Yet for new readers, this situation isn’t explained very well and left me feeling very confused. There’s nothing in the synopsis to suggest that this series follows another one, so new readers beware of this. I’d also like to caution that while this book is marketed as Christian fiction, the spiritual aspect is very minor. The characters only ever talked to God when they were in dire need of help, but otherwise never mentioned Him, which is particularly unsettling for a novel about the Amish where God is normally central to their community and way of life. There’s a semi-conversion scene towards the end of the novel, which is one of my pet hates in Christian fiction because it is so rarely done in a tactful and satisfying manner.

While I did not enjoy this novel, I have read several glowing reviews of it and would encourage potential readers to read those before making a final decision on whether to read The Journey. As much as I hate to write a critical review, this is my honest opinion and I think it necessary to share my views on a book from one of my favourite genres. I’ve read many wonderful new books from this genre that have released this year, and The Journey just doesn’t measure up to novels from newcomers like Kelly Long, Barbara Cameron or Ruth Reid. On a more positive note, fans of Brunstetter will probably enjoy this book as it’s much the same as her earlier novels, but this also means that readers who dislike her work will probably have the same reaction as I did.

Review title provided courtesy of Barbour Publishing.