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26 January 2015

Review: Like a Flower in Bloom by Siri MItchell

Victorian Botanist Seeks to Marry ...

Book Cover image: Like a Flower in Bloom by Siri MitchellMiss Charlotte Withersby is following the family tradition by being an acclaimed botanist, although she does wish she could get published under her own name rather than her father’s name. But life changes when her uncle suggests it’s time she married and her father agrees. She protests, but the unexpected arrival of Mr Edward Trimble, one of her father's correspondents, seals the deal. Charlotte will enter local society in search of a husband, and Mr Trimble will take over her duties. Charlotte agrees only because she believes her father will soon find Mr Trimble lacking, but her plans soon go awry.

Charlotte is one of those people with academic intelligence, but not a lot of understanding of the subtleties of human nature (she’s the Victorian equivalent of Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory). This makes for interesting reading, as Like a Flower in Bloom is written entirely in first person from Charlotte’s point of view, yet the underlying subtext made me, as the reader, suspect things which Charlotte had no idea about (and I was right). That’s exceptional writing.

I also found the minor characters fascinating, from the young lady determined not to marry to the widowed minister (a father of six), and the enigmatic Mr Trimble, who unintentionally takes Charlotte's life purpose away from her at the same time as displaying an uncommon knowledge of female dress and manners.

Overall, I really enjoyed Like a Flower in Bloom. I was ambivalent about Siri Mitchell’s last novel, because it seemed to be missing the “Christian” aspect of Christian fiction. Like a Flower in Bloom is much better in that respect, and while it had a slow start (too much character history and not enough present action—well, 1852 action, given it’s historical romance), it improved quickly once we had been introduced to all the main characters.

Image: Mt Cook Lily
There were a couple of language glitches at the beginning, but I didn’t notice any once I got into the story, because the characters captured my attention so much. It's obvious a lot of research went in to the writing of Like a Flower in Bloom, but this never detracted from the story (and, frankly, was easy to gloss over without losing the essence of the plot. I'm not a plant person, and the only plant reference I really understood was New Zealand's Mount Cook Lily ... and I've no idea how that would have looked after a sea voyage halfway around the world).

Recommended for fans of historical fiction.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Siri Mitchell at her website.

23 January 2015

Review: A Cry from the Dust by Carrie Stuart Park

Recommended for Suspense Fans

Gwen Marcey is a forensic artist currently employed reconstructing three skulls, remnants of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah. An act of vandalism and a ritualistic murder land Gwen in the middle of a criminal investigation, and she doesn’t know who to trust: it’s Utah, the evidence points to a group of militant Mormons—it seems most local law enforcement officials are linked to the church—and no one believes Gwen.

A Cry from the Dust is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the murder of 120 men, women and children by members of the Mormon church, is a real historical event subject to a real-life cover-up. This makes it ideal as the basis for a suspenseful contemporary crime thriller, as the secrets from the past and the events of the present begin to intertwine in a fundamentalist conspiracy that could lead to another act of domestic terrorism on the anniversary of the Massacre: 11 September.

The plot is complex, with seemingly small events gradually growing in importance. Gwen is a fascinating character: a woman with an unusual and intriguing professional background combined with a difficult personal background (cancer, divorce and a rebellious teenage daughter) which means people think she’s got mental health issues. She’s intelligent and brave, my favourite kind of heroine.

There was one thing about the writing that was slightly ‘off’, although I was more than half way through the novel before I worked out what it was. Most of the story is written in first person, from Gwen’s viewpoint, but there are occasional short scenes in third person viewpoint, from minor characters. I’m not a fan of mixing first and third person viewpoints, and while I’ve seen it done better I’ve also seen a lot worse. This was the only glitch in an otherwise excellent novel, and I look forward to reading more from Carrie Stuart Parks.

21 January 2015

Review: The Reconciliation Trilogy by Doris Elaine Fell

2015 Reading Challenge: A trilogy

I've taken up a reading challenge for 2015, to give me more variety in what I read (which will mean not everything I review here will be Christian fiction this year!):

The aim is to read and review one title per week, but this first book counts for three weeks, because it's a trilogy. My self-imposed rules are:

- Only books I've read in 2015
- I have to finish the book
- Each book can only count towards one challenge

Some will be easy to find; others harder. I'm looking forward to it!

The Reconciliation Trilogy by Doris Elaine Fell

Despite the title, which promises three "contemporary" novels, the individual novels in this trilogy were originally published fifteen years ago. I would have found it extremely helpful if the date had been signalled at the beginning of each book, as it took me a good portion of the first book to work out that it wasn't set in the present day (2014-ish). The novels were actually set in the late 1990's--a fact I only worked out with a reference to the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (which I know was August 1997, as I was living in London at the time).

I also found the writing style dated. There was a lot of telling, too many characters (and too few characters with any character), a lot of adverbs, awkward use of point of view (too much "she thought"), and too many italics (for an ereader--the italics might not be such an issue in a paper version). All three novels would have benefited from some serious trimming of excess verbiage, as this would have improved the pace. They would also have benefited by having fewer flashbacks, both flashbacks to previous generations and flashbacks to earlier points in the story.

Blue Mist on the Danube

Blue Mist on the Danube was nominated for a Christy award in 2000, and is easily the best novel of the three. However, it still suffered from too many characters, too many subplots, and too many flashbacks--which were especially confusing, as most of them didn't have dates either. There was also a subplot around art theft that fitted into the plot arc of the overall trilogy, but overloaded this plot to the point it distracted from the central themes of family relationships and forgiveness. Despite this, and the fact that it took far too long to get to the actual story, it was my favourite of the three books.

Willows on the Windrush

Willows on the Windrush had potential, but it took too long to show that it did, in fact, link back to the plot and characters in Blue Mist on the Danube (although there was the link in that the main character was adopted). Overall, it was best characterised as uninteresting. It would also have been better without the errors (e.g. riding stick, Cornwall forces--although there was later a correct reference to Cromwell--and "original" blueprints to a house that apparently predated blueprints by over 200 years).

It again had too many characters (one seemed to have two names, which didn't help), a plot that didn't ring true for me, and too little interaction between the hero and heroine to make the romance believable. It also didn't help that the big secret about Jonas's past was pretty obvious given I'd just finished Blue Mist on the Danube. I found myself skimming pages to get to something interesting. Skimming lots of pages. Despite this, the ending was still a predictable anticlimax.

Sunrise on Stradbury Square 

Sunrise on Stradbury Square was marginally more interesting, because it incorporated some minor characters from the previous two books, and reintroduced the art theft subplot. The main character, Rachel McCully, was suffering leukaemia, which should have engaged my attention and empathy. It didn't. I found myself struggling to read the book (rare for me), and I had little patience for the art thief: if he'd been a little less offensive, he could have had his heart's desire--and his marriage--simply by being polite to the in-laws.

Again, there were too many characters who diluted the plot, which seemed overly contrived in place (what doctor is going to recommend a seriously ill patient be driven five hours by car when she could be admitted to a local hospital and be transferred by ambulance if necessary?). It finished on a bad note with an unbelievable reveal of who was behind the art thefts.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. As you can tell, I wasn't required to write a positive review.