Monday, 23 January 2012

The Shadow of Your Smile - Susan May Warren


PROS: Part of a series but each novel is a standalone; made me care enough about the characters that I cried during flashback scenes; unputdownable! 

CONS: There was a lot of drama going on for such a small, seemingly peaceful town; it seemed like this family had everything possibly going against them. 

Following a trauma that recently rocked their family, Eli and Noelle’s marriage is on the rocks. Eli has no idea what his wife gets up to when he’s out of the house, and now that he’s a retired cop he spends most of his time ice-fishing in order to avoid his family. Noelle is on the brink of making a decision that could tear her family apart when she’s involved in an accident that causes her to forget the last twenty-five years of her life. She wakes up in a hospital bed thinking she’s still at college, and she has no idea who Eli is and no recollection of their marriage or children. Eli realises that God has given him a second chance, the opportunity to get his marriage back on track. But can he make Noelle fall in love with him again before she figures out why their marriage went south in the first place? 

I make no secret of the fact that my guilty pleasure when it comes to novels is amnesia plots. Amnesia, snowbound and babies have to be my favourite romantic plot devices; but The Shadow of Your Smile isn’t exactly a romance novel. While Eli gets the chance to reromance his wife, this book also contains the stories of how Noelle’s family members and friends react to her amnesia; how it brings some of them together and pushes others apart. This novel reminded me of a modern day family saga, a Christian version of a Barbara Delinsky novel, where the reactions of family, friends and an entire town are detailed in relation to a dramatic event. In The Shadow of Your Smile we not only witness how Eli and Noelle come to reconcile their relationship, but also how their son, Kyle, a new cop, reacts to the incident that caused his mother’s amnesia and his relationship with his sister’s best friend, Emma. Emma’s mother is also heavily involved in the events in this book, as not only Noelle’s best friend but in her dangerously close relationship to Eli. 

I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy reading about a couple whose marriage had deteriorated after twenty-five years. I’m getting married in less than six months and I remember my experience of reading the first few chapters of Rob Parson’s The Sixty Minute Marriage, where I bawled to my fiancĂ© about how there were all of these horrible things that could go wrong with our marriage. Sometimes you’re just not in the right frame of mind for reading about a topic close to your heart. But in this case, I was able to enjoy The Shadow of Your Smile without panicking about the “What Ifs?” presented in the novel. While this book deals with a lot of tough topics, it’s also very easy to read. The problems that the characters encounter are very realistic ones and the characters are so down-to-earth and normal that they could be your next-door-neighbours. This was my first experience with the Deep Haven series but the town really came alive to me in this book and I think that the setting of this novel will make readers feel at home, whether this is the first book in the series that they’ve read or the sixth. 

That said, I did feel a bit disorientated when I first began reading The Shadow of Your Smile. It was as if I’d been dropped right into the middle of Deep Haven and Eli and Noelle’s lives. It took a bit of adjusting to get used to all of the relationships and histories between the characters, and there were incidents in Eli and Noelle’s lives that were vaguely mentioned several times and it took me a while to finally figure out what had happened to push them apart. I actually went online and looked up the other Deep Haven novels to see whether there had been a previous novel about this family and whether I was missing some important details about their lives. When I realised that all of the other books focused on completely different characters I started to wonder whether Susan had deliberately made The Shadow of Your Smile disorientating for the reader in order to make them sympathise with Noelle’s amnesia. To be honest, I was as confused as Noelle was in the opening chapters of the novel, and this made reading the book an even more interesting experience. As I figured out the missing pieces of Noelle’s life, so did Noelle. To any readers of the novel who may be confused to begin with, I urge you not to give up – this book is definitely worth all of the figuring out that you have to do! 

However, there were some sections of the book that I didn’t find quite so compelling. While Kyle and Emma’s romance was sweet and endearing, it was also rather predictable. It was a nice side-story but as much as I tried, I never could really relate to Emma. I also had an issue with the fact that Kyle and his and Emma’s fathers were all police officers and quite strong, manly characters; at times it seemed as if the author was trying to make working in the police force seem especially noble. While there are flashbacks and comments from Eli that stress that he doesn’t think that a career in the police is worth the harm is can bring to a family, at other times the book almost glamorized police work and placed it on a pedestal. I know a couple of police officers and do respect their work, but I got a bit tired of the fact that all of the main characters in the book who had jobs were police officers. And considering how small a town Deep Haven seemed to be, there always seemed to be a lot drama and crime taking place. While some of the events in the story were necessary to bring the plot to where it stood at the start of the novel, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the crime rate in Deep Haven was entirely typical. It was one of those experiences where you’re reading a book and find yourself wondering, “Could anything else possibly happen to these poor characters?” 

Despite my misgivings with the level of drama in this book, Susan May Warren also made me truly care about her characters. I finished reading this book on Christmas Day and was dabbing at my tears as Eli remembered his daughter’s accident. While this book had its flaws and didn’t have that special something that pushed its rating up to a 9 or 10, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read. And while I will admit that this was an easy novel to breeze through in a couple of days, it had so much food for thought. It’s not possible to come away from this novel without musing over some point or another. I will definitely be going back and reading more of the Deep Haven books, and encourage fans of family sagas and contemporary fiction to start with The Shadow of Your Smile and do the same. 

Review title provided by Tyndale House.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Merchant's Daughter - Melanie Dickerson


PROS: Well-researched historical detail; compelling storyline

CONS: Main character has no flaws

Annabel was once the daughter of a wealthy merchant, but when her father died her family was required to work for the local Lord, just like the rest of their neighbours. Having been forced by her mother to neglect her duties, Annabel fears what fate might befall her family when the new Lord takes up his position. The local bailiff offers to marry Annabel in return for paying off the family’s debt to the Lord, but Annabel cannot stand the thought of being married to such a despicable man, especially when he makes inappropriate advances on her in public. Annabel offers herself to servitude to the Lord so that she can repay her family’s debts without being forced into an arranged marriage. Much to her surprise, she finds a sense of freedom from working for Lord Ranulf, especially when he asks her to read to him each night from his Latin Bible. Having always dreamed off entering a nunnery so that she could study God’s Word, Annabel is thankful for this opportunity, especially coming from such a mysterious man. Rumours circulate about Ranulf, particularly relating to his eye-patch and scars. As Annabel and Ranulf spend more time together, she comes to understand that his past isn’t as disturbing as she’d thought, simply saddening. But Annabel is not entirely free from her troubles, and her relationship with Ranulf is rocked when her flight from an attack leaves him possibly charged with a vicious assault. Now even more unsure of her future, Annabel must trust in the God she has been coming to learn about in Ranulf’s Bible.

I’m always a little cautious whenever I read a book that’s aimed at a young adult audience, but the idea of a historical romance based on the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast appealed to me. I’m glad I took the plunge with The Merchant’s Daughter as I was utterly captivated from the first page and found it very difficult to put this book down. The medieval setting was perfectly described and as accurate as my historian’s eyes could tell. The story itself was compelling, not only because I wanted to keep reading to see how many similarities I could to the original Beauty and the Beast fairytale, but for the simple fact that Annabel’s plight was so real that I wanted to jump into the story beside her and help her escape her marriage to the bailiff.  

I have to admit, my knowledge of Beauty and the Beast mainly stems from the Disney film, so I had to do some research to see what the actual original tale was. But I can assure you that even if you’ve never even heard of Beauty and the Beast you’ll still be able to enjoy this story. The reason that fairytales are retold and adapted over and over is because the stories are so popular, in whatever form they take. I imagine that The Merchant’s Daughter is going to be equally successful, with both adults and teenagers alike. I couldn’t quite figure out what made The Merchant’s Daughter essentially a young adult novel, except for the length of the book and the fact that Annabel is a teenager. But since the term “teenager” didn’t exist until the 1950s and girls were generally considered to be old enough to marry and start families as soon as they hit what we would now consider their “early teen years”, Annabel has to deal with lots of adult conflicts. For this reason, I would say that this book would be suitable for older teenagers, those who are around fifteen or older. There is nothing too descriptive or graphic in The Merchant’s Daughter, but I think that Annabel’s story just might not hold the attention of younger teens.

I did find my interest waning slightly towards the end of the book when Annabel was attacked. While you’d think that I’d find the book even more compelling at this point in the story, this wasn’t exactly the case. My main issue with The Merchant’s Daughter was simply that Annabel seemed too perfect to be real. I like my heroines flawed and a romance is always made more interesting if the heroine has something personal to overcome in her own life as well as in her relationship with the hero. Sadly, this wasn’t quite the case with Annabel, and while she had plenty of stumbling blocks placed in her way by other characters, she had nothing personal to overcome that was holding her back from her own happiness. I’m not sure how a teenage girl would react to a character so perfect as Annabel. Personally, I was a bit irked by how perfect and flawless she was and I vouch that younger readers may react negatively as well.

While I did find the character of Annabel to be too perfect for my liking, her story was nonetheless compelling and I found the book difficult to put down in places. Both young adults and more mature readers of historical romance will undoubtedly enjoy The Merchant’s Daughter and I predict that Melanie Dickerson’s forthcoming books will be a big hit in the young adult market.

Review title provided by Zondervan.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Hannah's Journey - Anna Schmidt

Hannah's Journey by Anna Schmidt
#1 in Amish Brides of Celery Fields series

READ: JAN 17 - 21, 2012

What could bring an Amish widow and a wealthy circus owner together? Though Hannah Goodloe knew she'd violated countless unwritten laws, she had to visit the only man who could help find her runaway son. But when the enigmatic Levi Harmon agreed to take her on his train, the results were utterly unpredictable.

Levi never expected to find the embodiment of all he wanted in a woman in the soft-spoken, plainly dressed Hannah. And for Hannah, to love an outsider was to be shunned. The simple pleasures of family, faith and place to belong seemed an impossible dream. Unless Levi unlocked his past and opened his heart to God's plan.
I was initially rather sceptical of the premise of a story based around an Amish woman and a circus owner but this book turned out to be very compelling and enlightening with regards to life in 1920s Florida. The circus details were fascinating, particularly to someone whose only knowledge of circuses comes from Enid Blyton books, as was the information about the new Amish settlements that formed in Sarasota in this period. 
All the members of Hannah's family were very engaging and I can't wait to read Pleasant's story and see her get her happy ending. There were a few details that made Hannah's community different from those I've read about in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky, although this may also be because some small changes have been made to the Amish way of life since 1920.

One thing that made this novel stand out from other historical or Amish romances was that the story didn't end with Hannah and Levi deciding to get married, but followed them past their wedding day to several months afterwards. I won't give anything away, but I will say that Hannah and Levi have some personal issues to overcome regarding concerns over infertility and starting a new family in a second marriage. Initially I was unsure as to whether I enjoyed reading a romance that continued after the couple have been happily married, but Hannah and Levi's struggles were genuine and I really felt for them as they tried to overcome them together. I had a big smile on my face when I finished this book!

I've read one of Anna Schmidt's Love Inspired Historical novels before, Seaside Cinderella, and I think I prefer this one because the characters seemed more fleshed out and all had very distinct personalities, even secondary characters such as Lily and Gunther. Her writing has definitely developed with time and I'll be looking out for more of her books in the future.
I read this book for Fans of Amish Fiction's January Group Read.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

A Log Cabin Christmas

A Log Cabin Christmas by Margaret Brownley, Wanda E. Brunstetter, Kelly Eileen Hake, Liz Johnson, Jane Kirkpatrick, Liz Tolsma, Michelle Ule, Debra Ullrich and Erica Vetsch


PROS: Introduces readers to established authors and newcomers to the genre; perfect length of stories to read during the busy holiday season

CONS: Not ideal to read one story immediately after the other as the log cabin setting can get a bit repetitive

This endearing collection from Barbour follows on from the success of the previous year’s A Prairie Christmas Collection. Compiling short stories from popular and established authors in the historical genre as well as several newcomers, A Log Cabin Christmas features nine stories set in log cabins at varying locations and periods of American history. Ranging from typical homes built out of logs to log schools and stores and even a log church, the authors of A Log Cabin Christmas show readers how romance can blossom in every setting. Characters dream of living in log cabins, build homes from scratch and learn to overcome difficulties in this shared setting, across different locations and time periods at Christmastime in historical America.

As it is impossible to share my in-depth thoughts on all the stories in this collection I’ve picked out my ultimate favourites to share. While I didn’t have one outright favourite story in this collection, there were several that really stood out to me.

The Courting Quilt by Jane Kirkpatrick was one of these purely because it featured the most unique protagonists in the entire collection. Mary’s hair is prematurely white and as a result everyone believes her to be an elderly woman, and Richard was just as unusual with his different coloured eyes. This was more than just a straight-forward romance, featuring some humour in the fact that nearly all of the women in the story fell for Richard without him realising it. This was not a story that I forgot in a hurry and I’ll definitely be looking out for more from this author, who already has several novels under her belt.

A Log Cabin Christmas also introduced me to a newer, less-established author who I’m certain will soon become more popular in the inspirational market: Liz Tolsma. I adored Under His Wings, the story of a young woman, Adie, who lives with her father at a logging camp and finds herself having to rely on one of the other loggers for protection when her father is killed in an accident. This was a slow moving romance as Adie took a while to respond to Noah’s offers of help. This touching tale will appeal to fans of marriage of convenience stories.

My love of all things German may have biased me towards A Grand Country Christmas by Debra Ullrick, but even those who aren’t so familiar with the language and the customs will enjoy this sweet tale of orphaned Awnya being taken in by Amadeus and his family just in time for Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, especially as the protagonists had a lot of chemistry between them which made their quickly blossoming relationship seem all the more realistic. The sizzle in their romance reminded me a bit of Vickie McDonough or Mary Connealy and made a much appreciated addition to this otherwise incredibly chaste collection. Readers who appreciate stories featuring characters from other ethnicities will likely also appreciate the Mexican-infused The Dogrot Christmas by Michelle Ule which, despite having a very different type of romance from that in A Grand Country Christmas, reminded in my mind long after I finished reading it.

I must also mention Margaret Brownley’s short story, which is the first in this collection. I was introduced to her work earlier this year and was pleased to discover that I enjoyed her shorter works just as much as her full-length novels. Snow Angels contained all of my favourite components in a romance, from being snowbound in a cabin to the addition of cute children to spur on the relationship between the hero and heroine.

There were no real duds in this collection, and I’ve refrained from going into detail about some other excellent additions to this collection purely due to the constraints of writing a review that isn’t so long that you’ll feel like you’re reading my university dissertation. So I must briefly mentioned Kelly Eileen Hake’s Christmas Traps and Trimmings, which stood out because of the details about Mina’s English upbringing and the disaster that brought her and Sam together, but isn’t a favourite simply because ended a bit too abruptly to make me truly love it. Christmas Service by Erica Vetsch is also worth reading for the message it gives about ways in which to serve God that many young women are likely in need of hearing, but this same message ended up making the heroine difficult to sympathise with.

I did find Wanda Brunstetter’s The Christmas Secret and Liz Johnson’s A Star in the Night to be the weakest stories in the collection, for very different reasons. I’ve never been a fan of Wanda’s style of writing and this was still the case in The Christmas Secret, but I will admit that the plot was quite original and kept my interest. A Star in the Night was a sweet, gently blossoming romance but lacked any chemistry between the characters, especially as the author continually reminded the reader that the protagonists never spent time alone indoors together, which even in a historical setting felt a bit forced. I still enjoyed reading both of these stories despite their flaws, and it wouldn’t stop me from recommending this collection.

A Log Cabin Christmas is a collection to be savoured over a matter of weeks, not hours, and the length of the stories makes it easy to pick up and put down again during the busy holiday period. Historical romance readers will be pleased to see stories many popular authors in the genre featured, and to discover some new writers who will hopefully come to be just as admired.

Review title provided by Barbour Publishing.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Top Ten Books Read in 2011

Several of my favourite books from last year weren't actually published in 2011, but I still believe that they're all worth sharing. Without further ado, here are my favourite books of 2011, whittled down from the 135 total books that I read last year!

#10 - The Prodigal by Beverly Lewis

While many new authors of Amish fiction have emerged over the last few years, Beverly Lewis still stands out as one of the best novelists in this genre. 
See my review here.

#9 - Seek Me With All Your Heart by Beth Wiseman

The Land of Canaan series may turn out to be even better than Beth's first series.
Look out for a review of this book soon!

#8 - Plain Promise by Beth Wiseman

I got so involved in the lives of Sadie and Kade, it was almost as if I was experiencing events alongside them. 
Read my mini-review in this post.

#7 - The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid

Ruth Reid brings something entirely new and refreshing to the full-to-bursting genre of Amish fiction, and I would not have known that this was her debut novel.
Check out my full review here.

#6 - When Sparrows Fall by Meg Moseley

I was so captivated by this novel that I honestly could not find any faults with it.
Review coming soon!

#5 - Head in the Clouds by Karen Witemeyer

Karen Witemeyer certainly knows how to create a compelling and enjoyable story, and Head in the Clouds had everything I look for in a good historical romance. 
Read my full review here.

#4 - Along Wooded Paths by Tricia Goyer

The spiritual and emotional depths of Tricia’s characters are something that I’m particularly fond of.
See my review here.

#3 - Beside Still Waters by Tricia Goyer

New Amish authors need to make their work stand out from the crowd, and Tricia has succeeded in doing this through placing her characters in a new setting and a more liberal community.
Full review here.

#2 - Lilly's Wedding Quilt by Kelly Long

If there’s such a thing as edgy Amish fiction, Kelly Long is undoubtedly the queen of it.
Read more here.

#1 - Here Burns My Candle by Liz Curtis Higgs

No review I write of this book will ever be able to do it justice. 
See why here.

I hope that you all had such fruitful reading experiences as I did in 2011. Here's to another great year of reading!