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30 January 2015

Review: Still Life by Christa Parrish

In Two Minds

I’m not sure what I think about this book. It had good points and not-so-good points, aspects which worked for me and some which didn’t. The story follows two main characters: Ada, whose husband has just been killed in a plane crash, and Katherine, who gave up her seat on the flight so Julian could get home in time to celebrate Ada’s birthday … and so she could spend another day with her lover.

The main character, Ada, grew up in a stifling fundamentalist sect (I’d hesitate to call it Christian, as it didn’t appear to offer any of the grace of the gospel, merely the fear of punishment). Her sections feel distant, which feels odd at first because we don’t really understand why she is distant, and why she seems to have no friends and know so little about anything. It’s hard to understand why, although this does become clearer as the story progresses (mostly through the use of flashbacks).

Still Life has an original yet intriguing plot with lot of interweaving between the two main plot lines. The characters are interesting, with more faults and idiosyncrasies than normally seen in Christian fiction—with the possible exception of Julian, who seems to be a candidate for sainthood. The Christian message was understated, yet definitely there, and the title was a play on words on several levels, which become clearer as the novel progresses.

All of these things usually combine to a book I love, yet I didn’t love Still Life. I’m not sure why not. I think it’s because I didn’t relate to Ada and I didn’t understand how she came to be married to Julian (and even when this became clear, I wasn’t convinced). Her voice was authentic to her upbringing and personality, but it made it difficult to truly engage with her, and therefore, made it difficult for me to engage with the story as a whole.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Christa Parrish at her website.

28 January 2015

Review: The Dandelion Field by Kathryn Springer

Excellent combination of coming-of-age and grown-up romance

Gin Lightly and her daughter, Raine, have been living in Bannister Falls for Raine’s senior year of high school, after their car died on their way to nowhere in particular. Now Raine has dropped a bombshell which might mean they are here for longer than planned …

I had a slight hitch with Ginevieve’s name at first. I thought it was an alternative spelling of Guinevere (pronounced something like Gwyn-ev-ere), yet her nickname is Gin. Yes, just like the drink. Any sympathy I might have had for Gin’s fictional mother giving her such an awful name went downhill when I found out Gin named her daugher Raine. Raine Lightly. Ouch. Mind you, I’ve known a couple of people in real life whose names were no better.

Anyway, what about the book? In a word, excellent. Unplanned teenage pregnancy isn’t an easy subject, and it’s not one that I’ve come across much in Christian fiction. The Dandelion Field dealt with it well, and I would hope that the supportive church environment Raine and Cody were in was typical (although I fear it isn’t). I particularly enjoyed the growing relationship between Dan and Gin, an unlikely couple at first introduction, yet a couple who deserve their happy-ever-after.

Besides the romance, I found The Dandelion Field a fascinating looking at the two women, Gin and Evie. Both were teenage mothers and are now single parents. The difference is Gin’s always been a single mother, having been dragged up by a single mother who kicked her out when she got pregnant and her boyfriend dumped her. She’s never been financially stable, but has done her best to give her daughter a love-filled upbringing, even if they did move around a lot trying to find something better.

Evie did everything “right”, in that she got married first. Her husband died, which at least left her financially secure enough that she’s living in a house with a car that runs reliably, and isn’t scraping for every dollar like Gin is. Yet she has her own issues, particularly that she’s never really moved on from being the widow who relies on her childhood best friend, Dan, to be at her beck and call. As a result, Cody hasn’t really grown up without a father figure: he’s had Dan and all the other firemen. Raine has had no one. Cody has been raised in church; Raine hasn’t, and for that reason Evie blamed Raine.

My one problem with The Dandelion Field is that some things were a little too perfect—Cody was the perfect guy (except for this one mistake), but even that he managed perfectly. He was supported by a perfect church, and perfect friends. Okay, they weren’t really perfect, perhaps just a little less flawed than normal people. In fact, the only imperfect Christian was Evie.

But this is Christian fiction, and a lot of Christian fiction presents an idealised view of the world. The Dandelion Field had the courage to venture out of the Christian bubble yet without crossing the line into “edgy” or “worldly”. And let’s be honest: we’re reading romance. We want a perfect hero, and The Dandelion Field offered two. It would be churlish to complain.

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Kathryn Springer at her website.

This book counts towards my 2015 Reading Challenge as a book published this year. 

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.