Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A Life of Joy - Amy Clipston


PROS: Lindsay’s struggles are easy to relate to; breaks out of the mould of traditional romantic Amish novels; revisits characters from earlier books in the series 

CONS: Ending is very abrupt and leaves some unanswered questions 

Eighteen-year-old Linsday Bedford has lived with her Amish aunt and uncle in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania ever since her parents died in a car accident. While she’s settled into the Amish way of life and enjoys working in the family bakery and helping to care for her younger cousins, her older sister, Jessica, lives with a family friend back home in Virginia and is pursuing a college degree. Lindsay thinks that she’s settled in her new lifestyle, until her sister comes to visit and encourages her to experiment more in the English world that she grew up in and see all that she’s missing out on. As much as Lindsay enjoys life in Bird-in-Hand, she can’t help but wonder whether she’s letting her real parents down by not pursing a college degree and a career like her sister. So instead of taking baptismal classes with her friends, she spends the summer staying with Jessica’s legal guardians and caring their “Aunt”, who has broken her leg. But although the temptations of the English world are all around her, Lindsay feels uncomfortable wearing the typical beach clothes everyone in Virginia is wearing, attending rowdy parties with her old school friends and eating off paper plates in front of the television. As her old friends and neighbours question the way of life she’s been living with her aunt and uncle back in Pennsylvania, Lindsay also questions the route she’s meant to take in her life. Does God want her to be career-motivated like Jessica? Or is her contentment in Bird-in-Hand a sign that she’s meant to stay there? 

Next to Beverly Lewis, Amy Clipston was the first Amish author I ever read. The first book in her Kauffman Amish Bakery series appealed to me because it wasn’t a standard romance, but the tale of two orphaned English teenagers who came to live with the childless Amish uncle and aunt. A Life of Joy revisits these teenagers, who are now young women, and follows Lindsay as she figures out which path in life she’s destined to take. This novel differs from a lot of other Amish novels in that at least half of it takes place in the “English” world in Virginia, where Lindsay is staying with family friends. But despite the lack of buggies and prayer kapps, Amy has crafted an incredibly compelling story. There’s a little romance in the background of the story, kept alive through letters and phone calls between Lindsay and a male friend back in Pennsylvania, but the main body of the story deals with Lindsay finding herself. 

Any woman who has felt torn between the life God wants her to lead and that which the world and her peers think is best for her will be able to relate to Lindsay’s struggles. This book came at just the right time for me, so I may be a little biased in my review. I’ve known since I was a teenager that all I want to do in life is get married and have a family. I’d love nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mum; but right now the fact that I’m getting married this summer rather than pursuing an internship or searching for work experience bemuses my fellow classmates. I’m not driven like they are when it comes to career matters, but they don’t always understand this; just like Jessica doesn’t understand how her sister can enjoy baking pies and babysitting her cousins over going to college. I could completely empathise with Lindsay feeling pulled towards the English world even though she was normally content being Amish. Sometimes the pressures of friends and family make us feel like we’re not doing enough, just because we’re taking the path that most avoid. Reading about Lindsay’s search for the place she was meant to be and the role she was meant to inhabit truly encouraged me, and I hope it does the same for many other readers. 

This is the fourth novel in the Kauffman Amish Bakery series, and unlike some books in the Amish genre I don’t think it can be read as a standalone. That said, long-term fans of Amy’s novels will be pleased to revisit characters like Lindsay and Jessica, as well as their aunt and uncle, in this novel. Characters from the second and third instalments in the series also appear in the background from time to time, as do popular locations such as the bakery and furniture store. But just as this book follows on from earlier instalments in the series, the ending left me wondering if Lindsay and Jessica’s stories were going to be concluded in the fifth and final book. I turned the page on my Kindle expecting another chapter or an epilogue to find discussion questions and had to go back and reread the last paragraph, surprised at how abrupt the ending was. While it was optimistic for Lindsay, I couldn’t help but feel that Jessica’s story wasn’t finished yet, and there were some unanswered questions regarding Lindsay’s aunt and one of her friends. I do hope that Amy plans to answer these questions in the final book in the series, and since she’s announced that she’ll be writing a YA spinoff of the Kauffman Amish Bakery series perhaps this will revisit some of Lindsay’s teenage friends. 

The fourth novel in the Kauffman Amish Bakery series is just as delightful as those that came before it, and many readers will be able to relate to Lindsay’s struggles to discover her place in life. Long-term fans of the series will be pleased to revisit old favourite characters in A Life of Joy and will be left greatly anticipating the fifth and final instalment, A Season of Love

Review title provided by Zondervan.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Wings of Morning - Murray Pura


PROS: Well-researched historical detail; encouraging presentation of the Amish; gets the reader emotionally invested in the story 

CONS: None! 

It is 1917 and the Amish have not yet decided whether to ban the flying machines that are taking the country by storm. While they abhor the use of them as a weapon of war across on the frontlines of France, Jude Whetstone has been allowed to take flying lessons in Philadelphia and members of the Lapp Amish community are amazed at the tricks that his plane can do. But Jude is only intent on impressing one person – Lyyndaya Kurtz, a childhood friend whose parents do not approve of his flying. Being banned from spending time with Jude is bad enough for Lyyndaya, but when Jude and several other young men from their community are imprisoned for refusing to fight in the war taking place in Europe, Lyyndaya wonders if she’ll ever get to see Jude again. When Jude’s friends are mysteriously released from military prison on the same day that he volunteers to fly on behalf of the United States Air Force, Lyyndaya’s fears are confirmed as Jude is placed under the bann. But soon she has matters closer to home to worry about, as her sister and various other members of the community fall ill with the Spanish Flu. While continuing to write letters to Jude that she knows he won’t be able to read until he returns home, Lyyndaya helps the local doctor nurse her friends and family back to health. Meanwhile, Jude is quickly being lifted up in the ranks of aviation as members of the Air Force witness his flying abilities. But can he bring himself to kill? And even if he manages to survive the war without taking another man’s life, will he ever be accepted back into his community? And will they ever understand why he felt called to sign up? 

Just as with Ruth Reid’s The Promise of an Angel, I was doubtful as to whether this unusual blend of genres would work. And just as I was completely won over by the angelic characters in Ruth’s novel, I completely fell in love with Murray Pura’s take on the Amish during the First World War. The Wings of Morning wasn’t simply an attempt to break out of the typical mould of Amish romances by sticking the story in front of the backdrop of WWI. Murray’s writing showed that he’d researched not only military camps and bases, the treatment of conscientious objectors and the role that aeroplanes played in WWI, but the actual flying of these planes. I don’t claim to be an expert on early twentieth century flying machines but I’ve visited the Museum of Flight in East Fortune and listened to my dad talking about aviation enough to figure out that the descriptions given in this novel had to be based on research. I never thought I’d enjoy reading flight sequences but Jude and Lyyndaya’s descriptions of their experiences surprised me and made me think about what it would have been like to fly in one of the open-cockpit planes that were flown in this period. 

Murray presents us with a view of the Amish that hasn’t been overly explored before. Nowadays, we think of them as a religious group who have rejected many modern conveniences. But The Wings of Morning visits the Amish while they’re still trying to figure out whether or not to permit the use of electricity and aeroplanes, having recently banned the telephone and ownership of motorcars. The picture presented in this novel is not of religious leaders who wish to make life hard for their followers by rejecting the use of certain technologies, but of a group determined to preserve the bonds of family and community over convenience. The leaders of Jude’s community struggle to come to an agreement over how they should deal with his interest in flying and are unhappy when they feel they must shun him when he agrees to use his flying skills in the war in Europe. Murray definitely seems to have captured the essence of what we “Englishers” admire about the Amish, and while he doesn’t openly endorse their way of life, he presents the dilemmas and struggles that made them into the iconic people we see them as today. 

The biggest issue surrounding the shunning of aeroplanes is that they can be used as a weapon of warfare, and although the Lapp Amish community may be joyful when watching Jude flying his plane at their Fourth of July picnic, they are acutely aware that the aeroplane is a force that can be used for good and evil. Jude struggles with this dilemma also when he finds himself based in France. He does not want to kill, but how can he sit by idly as his friends are shot down by enemy planes? Murray does not condemn nor endorse pacifism, and I appreciated that he didn’t take sides on this issue. I found myself becoming increasingly wrapped up in Jude’s struggle and wondered how I would react in a similar situation. While ideologically I oppose to the concept of war, I don’t think I could suggest that my country should not defend itself if it were attacked. The Wings of Morning subtly discussed this idea, as both Jude and Lyyndaya serve their countrymen and without compromising their beliefs. 

I would class The Wings of Morning as a historical novel, but it does contain a romantic aspect to it. But because Jude and Lyyndaya are kept apart for the majority of the story it does not take on the conventional romantic structure that readers of Amish fiction will be familiar with. Jude and Lyyndaya are unable to receive letters from each other, but continue to write in the hope that when Jude returns from war he will be accepted back into the community and then they can read each others’ letters. I loved this device, as it kept the reader aware of the characters’ emotions regarding their relationship and gave them each a place to express their feelings about the wider situation of the war and the Spanish Flu. Of course, Jude and Lyyndaya get their happy ending eventually, but I felt it appropriate that the novel ended on a positive note considering all that they had suffered over the course of the book. 

The Wings of Morning crosses the genres of historical, Amish and romantic fiction and will hopefully appeal to readers of each of these groups. Murray Pura shows the beginnings of being a popular voice in inspirational fiction and I look forward to reading more emotionally stirring and well-researched depictions of history in the next volume in his Snapshots in History series. 

Review title provided by Harvest House Publishers.

Friday, 3 February 2012

An Accidental Woman - Barbara Delinsky

READ: JANUARY 28 - 31, 2012

Lake Henry, New Hampshire, is buzzing over the annual maple syrup harvest as well as the shocking revelation that longtime resident Heather Malone has been led away by the FBI, which claims the devoted stepmother and businesswoman fled the scene of a fatal accident in California years before. Poppy Blake, her best friend, is determined to prove Heather's innocence, while facing past mistakes of her own: she has never overcome her guilt from the snowmobile accident that killed her partner and left her paralyzed. Playing an unlikely role in both women's lives is investigative journalist Griffin Hughes, whose attraction to Poppy keeps him coming back to Lake Henry, even though he is secretly responsible for drawing the law closer to Heather. To redeem himself, Griffin sets out to solve the mystery surrounding Heather and becomes the key to freeing Poppy from her own regrets and showing her a rich new future.

Ah, typical Barbara Delinsky! Her books are such comfort reads to me, I always know that I'm going to enjoy the story no matter what the subject matter is. It's the way that she writes the development of her characters and their relationships with each other. I didn't connect with Micah quite as much as I did Poppy and Griffin, but I think this is because I wasn't entirely convinced by the way he rejected Heather from keeping secrets from him and then accepted her back so easily. Heather didn't have much character development of her own but was more of a catalyst for the events than how she dealt with her past. I wish there had been more about Cassie, as there seemed to be a lot of potential for a story about her and her husband their issues with her working too much. Perhaps some of this was covered in the previous book, Lake News, which I've yet to read as I'd forgotten that the books were linked. My only real complaint about this book would have to be that the Camille situation seemed to be revealed at the utmost convenient moment in the plot and that Thea took to Poppy a bit too easily, but perhaps that was natural for a teenage girl who is inquisitive about her past. Overall, another excellent saga from Barbara Delinsky. Whenever I read one of her books I wonder why I waited so long to read it! I must have at least ten of her books on my bookshelves so I'll have make an effort to read more of them this year. Perhaps one a month?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Chasing Mona Lisa - Tricia Goyer & Mike Yorkey


PROS: Very detailed descriptions of locations and events; authors seem to have done a lot of research 

CONS: Focus of the novel isn’t what is suggested in the title and synopsis; lacked any spiritual matter; too many main characters for the reader to connect with any of them 

Swiss Agents Gabi Mueller and Eric Hofstadler find themselves in Paris in the midst of its liberation from Nazi occupation and get swept up in the revolution occurring around them. Having thought that they were only travelling to the city to distribute medical supplies on behalf of the Red Cross, they’re soon informed that they’re required for a more important mission – rescuing the Mona Lisa before Reichsmarschall Göring gets his hands on the priceless painting. Along with Collette, an employee at the Louvre, and Bernard, her communist revolutionary boyfriend, Gabi and Eric set off across France in a race to get to the painting and transport it to a safe location ahead of Göring’s agents. Events don’t go entirely according to plan, and soon human lives are at stake as well as the painting, and Bernard has a hidden political agenda that not even Collette knows about. 

Chasing Mona Lisa contains far more than just the story of how the Mona Lisa was almost stolen by the Nazis. The downfall of the Nazi party and the corruption that existed among its ranks; the jubilation and dejection of French communists as they help to liberate France then realise that their efforts will not be recognised; the ways in which common men and women in France were manipulated into giving the Nazis crucial state secrets in order to protect their families are all presented in such a way that suggests that the authors had put a lot of effort into researching this novel. But as pleased as I was with the in-depth historical details that this novel contained, it took a while for the plot to shift its focus from the events unfolding in Paris in 1944 to the race to rescue the Mona Lisa. There’s no doubting that Tricia and Mike have done their research into the liberation of Paris, but I did start this novel thinking I was going to be treated to a detailed account of how Göring tried to steal the Mona Lisa. If I’d known that this book would have been so focused on other historical details I wouldn’t have minded, but Chasing Mona Lisa was definitely promoted as a novel about the Nazi’s attempt to steal the Mona Lisa. It’s not so much that I feel cheated; more that this book sells itself short as it contains far more than a potential reader could guess. 

It’s not just that the story is slow to start, since a lot does happen in the opening chapters. Gabi and Eric arrive in Paris when the city is on the cusp of liberation from the Nazis, and they and the other main characters encounter various events that would likely have been typical of Paris at this time. There are some excellent descriptions of particular sights in the city that made it all the more easy to visualise the experiences of the characters. But, and this is a big but when you consider the title of this novel, no one actually talks about stealing the Mona Lisa until a hundred pages into the book. I’d waited nearly a third of the novel for the painting to be more than briefly mentioned in conversation and was incredibly relieved when Göring finally reveals his master plan. Another slight flaw in this novel is that it jumps between the perspectives of all the major characters, including the Swiss agents, Collette and her boyfriend, Göring and another Nazi officer, and even the agents Göring pays to steal the painting. A lot of time is spent attempting to introduce these characters at the start of the novel but by the point the plot finally switches to the Mona Lisa I didn’t feel as if I really knew any of the characters, just that I’d spent a lot of time reading build up to what I presumed was the actual focus of the novel. 

I feel compelled to mention a couple of other aspects of the novel that didn’t sit quite right with me. These may merely be matters of personal preference, but I’m sure that other readers will have had the same reactions. I’m not big on violence, even if I’m reading a crime novel or thriller. Naturally, it’s hard to write about WWII without including instances of violence, but I felt that those featured in Chasing Mona Lisa didn’t have to be quite so graphic. In particular, there was one scene that involved garden shears that wasn’t terribly tasteful. The liberation of Paris was a tough time and regular men and women did have to defend themselves against rogue soldiers who were only thinking of themselves, but I wish that some of the descriptions hadn’t been quite so graphic. A good writer can depict the gist of a scene without resorting to blood and gore. 

On a similar vein, this book is marketed as a Christian novel from a Christian publisher, yet aside from a few fleeting and awkward references to Gabi’s father attending church and thinking of his congregation, I couldn’t find anything in the novel that made it seem more suited for Christian market over the secular one. I generally prefer my novels to have a subtle Christian message but sadly there wasn’t anything resembling one in this book. I suppose it could be considered Christian in the sense that it’s a “clean” novel – no sexual descriptions or foul language, although some readers may find the violent scenes unsettling. But other than that, I was a bit disappointed with the lack of spiritual matter, particularly as Tricia has shown herself to be very adept at delving into the spiritual lives of her characters in her Big Sky series. Again, this is a matter of personal preference and the story isn’t at all spoiled by the lack of spirituality, but I do believe it could have been enriched by it if the authors had wished to include the spiritual journeys of their characters alongside the physical journey they took to rescue the Mona Lisa. 

I had high hopes for Chasing Mona Lisa, and while I was slightly disappointed, I think this has more to do with the fact that the synopsis and title of the novel sell it for something less than it truly is. Tricia and Mike have crafted a highly-detailed novel that is about far more than just the Nazi’s attempt to steal the Mona Lisa, and historical fiction fans will definitely appreciate the image they depict of the liberation of Paris in 1944. Christian historical fiction fans, however, may find the novel lacking in any sort of spiritual matter, which raises the question of what makes a novel more suitable for the Christian market than the secular one. 

Review title provided by Revell.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Pacifist's War - Frances Partridge

READ: OCTOBER 25, 2011 - JANUARY 13, 2012

Francis Partridge's diaries are the record of a woman who not only participated in the lives of the legendary Bloomsbury group, but was the circle’s oldest surviving member until her death in 2004. At the outset of the Second World War, Ralph and Frances Partridge were both convinced pacifists. These extracts from Frances' war diary present an intimate and vivid picture of their life at Ham Spray in Wiltshire, a house they both adored and which became a place of refuge to many of the Bloomsbury circle, and numerous other waifs and strays of war. Frances Partridge's perceptively witty and lively account is held together by the thread of the Partridges' passionate concern and interest in the course of events, coupled with their belief that War itself was ethically unjustifiable.

I never thought I'd enjoy reading someone's diary so much as I did Frances Partridge's account of her personal experiences of WWII. This was such a compelling read and I found myself sympathising more and more with her as the war developed. She's a sensitive soul, and I imagine I would have experienced similar feelings to her had I lived through WWII. Frances made many profound statements, often without realising it, about the state of masculinity in WWII, how neutralised civilians became to the atrocities being committed throughout the war, and the blood-thirstiness of those who hadn't signed up to fight. There were so many quotes that I had to read out to my fiancé because they struck me as being so meaningful, both in the 1940s and in retrospect. Even if I don't end up writing about this book in my English exam I'm sure this book will stay with me for a long time, and is definitely one I'd recommend to anyone wanting a civilian account of WWII. 

We often think of civilians as those who worked as land girls or in factories during the war, and lived in great cities like London, and forget how the war affected those living away from the Blitz in the countryside, where they struggled to get out of the house due to petrol rationing and invited friends over for visits whenever they slaughtered a pig from their farm. While readers could turn their nose up at Frances moaning about how she had to do all the cleaning for herself when her hired help left to join the war effort, how many of us truly know what it's like to clean a house the size of hers, especially without modern conveniences? 

I'd be interested in reading her account of life after the war, and to see whether her and her husband's pacifism affected the way they were treated once peace was brought back to Britain. It was both fascinating and horrifying to see how adamantly against pacifism so many of their friends were, especially those who said that pacifists should effectively be exterminated. Where they not aware of the evils they claimed they were fighting against, and their hypocrisy? Anyone who is similarly anti-pacifism should definitely read this book. Unfortunately none of the three library catalogues I have access to has any more of Frances's diaries but I will definitely be keeping my eye out for them in the hope that I find them similarly moving.