Monday, July 15, 2013

A Wedding for Julia, by Vannetta Chapman

Julia Beechy’s dream of opening an Amish café comes crashing down when her mother announces that she must get married to inherit the family home. At 37 years old, marriage seems almost impossible, but the alternative would be to lose her home and move far away from Pebble Creek. Since her mother’s health is rapidly declining, Julia needs to make a decision, but sees nowhere to turn. Then, Caleb Zook steps in. At 40 years old, his time to get married is also long passed, but he’s in desperate need of a friend and is moved by Julia’s sadness, uncertain future and a desire to protect her, so he offers Julia his help and asks her to marry him. Although Julia has her doubts at first, she sees no other way and accepts, much to the joy of her mom and the rest of their community. But Julia must learn to trust God, to trust that He knows what’s best for her, and to trust Caleb. As she sees her dream of opening the café becoming a reality, the worst storm that area has seen in one hundred years hits. Who and what will be left standing? Will Julia’s and Caleb’s relationship survive the storm and her doubts?

This is a character driven story in the sense that what kept me interested or intrigued was not the story per se; it was the characters. Julia is a beautiful and sweet character who is also very insecure, thinks less of herself and is very reserved. She always has her guard up, putting a wall between her and others, so she doesn't have many friends, and she doesn't think anyone cares about her. Caleb, on the other hand, is very friendly, outspoken and outgoing, but true to his Amish ways. Both are mature and very well written characters.

Caleb’s cousin, Sharon, who is introduced along the way, is a welcomed addition in a pretty lineal story. The inclusion of Sharon’s story and point of view brings a fresh perspective and an interesting twist. But it is in writing Ada, Julia’s mother, that the author’s attention to details shines. Each main character is a juxtaposition of another: Julia with her insecurities and doubts as opposed to Caleb, so sure of himself and of their relationship. Sharon with her teenage foolishness and carelessness as opposed to Ada, who’s so wise, so centered and so aware. Even Julia’s and Caleb’s relationship is put in contrast with the relationships of much younger couples.

To me, it was the characters that really drove the story and made it strong. Had the characters not been so well developed, the story would have not kept my interest because what I thought was the biggest conflict (as suggested by the title) was resolved too soon, in the first 120 pages or so, which made me wonder where the story was going, where was the climax or anticipation. It felt rushed, as if the first half of the book was overly edited and the author’s keenly written descriptions were taken out, which made for a first half that’s well written but lacks depth. Those first hundred pages lacked the attention to detail in the story that Mrs. Chapman has accustomed us to.

But the second half of the book is full of the beautiful, insightful prose that I love in Mrs. Chapman’s work. That’s when both stories, Julia’s and Sharon’s, interlaced flawlessly and smoothly and made for a very rewarding read. The different situations the characters faced in terms of their doubts, or loss of control, or desperate need to trust God and others were so well written the reader not only sympathizes with them but can also identify with them. And Ada’s accurate quotes from the Psalms, especially to Sharon, not only ministered the characters but me as well. She is a sweet, intuitive and wise character. However, Sharon’s story was left unfinished, which was a little disappointing.

I loved the way Julia’s and Caleb’s love for each other developed and grew. It was beautifully presented and very romantic for a couple under their circumstances. Although theirs is an arranged marriage of sorts, the way the characters handled the situation, with so much care, kindness and tenderness, very true to their ages, was very refreshing and lovely.

Finally, the introduction of characters from the previous books in the series, such as Miriam, Gabe, Grace, Aaron and Lydia, flowed very nicely. Although many secondary characters were from the first books in the series, I loved the fact that the author didn't feel the need to give each character’s back story. This book can definitely stand alone.

Beautifully written characters, great lessons in God’s faithfulness and wonderfully appropriate quotes from the Psalms are the reasons why these characters will stay with you once the story ends, which makes this book a great read.

4 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publishers through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Certain Summer, by Irene Hannon

Growing up with a near perfect sister and a mother who criticized her every move, Karen felt second class. She and her sister Val were complete opposites. While her sister was beautiful, thin, popular with the boys and talented, Karen was the brain, the studious one, bland, slightly overweight, and without a boyfriend. While Val stood up to their mother, firm and strong, Karen just wanted to please her, she dreaded her mother’s criticisms, and never knew how to confront her. As soon as Val could, she left town never to return again. Karen, however, took on the responsibility of taking care of their mother and never asked Val for help.

When their mother suffers a stroke, Karen, now divorced and raising a teenage daughter with her own set of problems, reaches out to Val for help. Now, Val must confront the secret she has been hiding, the reason she left and never looked back. And Karen must learn how to stand up for herself, how to be strong and have courage. The two sisters working together find common ground in which to build a new friendship and the closeness they both crave but never thought possible. And when an injured musician and a physical therapist enter the picture, new chances at love are given, secrets are revealed, and forgiveness, grace and redemption are extended.

After reading Irene Hannon’s Vanished, I had high expectations for That Certain Summer. And, although they are very different novels from very different genres, the author did not disappoint. Again, she gives us very good and likable three dimensional characters, intelligent, smart, willing to speak their minds and who act like mature adults. You will not see silly or childish misunderstandings or out of character choices. The author gives us true to life characters in familiar situations, which makes for a good reading experience.

The difficult family situation in which Karen and Val grew up, which has mold them and shape their outlook in life, is very common. Growing up with a mother who pit one sister against the other, who seemed to favor one over the other, naturally made them envy one another and grow apart. But as the story progresses it’s beautiful to see the two sisters grow closer, and find support in each other, not necessarily due their mother’s illness, but to the need each sister has for closeness, love, friendship and understanding.

Thanks to their new found friendship, we can see Karen grow stronger, feel sure and find strength in her faith and in the support of her sister. Val, on the other hand, does not benefit from it as much as her sister due to the secret she has been hiding since she was 17 years old. It was a little disappointing, not only because Val’s growth as a character comes towards the end, but also because the secret was too easy to figure out. Very, very early on, the reader knows it, but the author keeps treating it like a big, mysterious secret, which made its final reveal uneventful. The reader knows where the author is going, and how she will get there and it’s a bit of a letdown.

Of course, as most contemporary/romance fiction, some predictability is expected. We know where the romance is going, who each sister will fall in love with. But since it is such a nicely written book, we can enjoy the ride, watch them fall in love, and see them make the difficult decisions that will give them their happy ending. But going into the book with the expectation of it being somewhat predictable, I was hoping for the secret to keep me guessing and wondering.

The romance aspect of the novel is very sweet and endearing; all about the redeeming quality of love, how love can heal past hurts and give hope. However, I did not like the way Karen handled her falling in love after being divorced. One of the wonderful things we have in God is a second chance, but the author shies away from that until the story makes it completely safe to proceed. But it nevertheless had a nice, satisfying ending for both the romantic side of the story as well as the sisters’ relationship, which was in my opinion the story driving the book.

That Certain Summer is a nice story with a message of how forgiveness and God’s redeeming love and grace can heal us, strengthen us and help us move forward.

3.5 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The House that Love Built, by Beth Wiseman

Brooke Holloway is a single mom of two who lost the love of her life. Her son, Spencer, doesn’t want her to date, while her daughter, Meghan, wishes to have a father. But since she runs the family owned hardware store, Brooke doesn’t have time to date and doesn’t have dating on her mind, until Owen Saunders moves to town. Curious about the house he has moved into, a house with a decades old mystery, Brooke befriends him expecting, as he does, nothing but a simple, grown up friendship. But God has other plans, so as their friendship and their connection grow, hope is met, and faith is found, and they have a new chance at love, a new life and a complete family.

I wasn’t expecting much when I started reading this book. A little romance, a little mystery, a little entertainment, but nothing much. The author, however, surprised me in a very big way. 'The House that Love Built' is a beautiful story of forgiveness, second chances, starting over and letting go. I laughed, I was intrigued, I smiled, and I cried… a lot.

The main characters are very well developed, mature, not prone to dumb misunderstandings or childish outbursts. Brooke and Owen’s friendship seemed a little too quick to develop, but not unrealistic given the fact that they are immediately attracted to each other and the friendship is their cover up, their denial in action. Brooke’s children are very much aware of this, especially Spencer, and his interactions with them, how suspicious he is, is very believable, funny and very endearing, since it is obvious that he is still very much affected by the death of his father.

Both children were beautifully written, as well as the rest of the secondary characters. Rich in details, with very defined personalities, each secondary character adds to the story, keeps the reader interested and finds his/her way into the reader’s heart. This is possible because author Beth Wiseman’s sensitivity in her writing, which is palpable in almost every page. You don’t just read about these characters, you feel them, you know their pain, you care for them. The author tells their story in a very touching and tender way that moves your heart.

However, although the book was going great, I had cried my eyes out, and was set to give it 5 stars, the last 40 pages or so were too melodramatic, with a few too many coincidences. What began as a great book ended with an intensification in drama (with the introduction of Virginia, Owen’s ex-wife) that was unnecessary and which lead to a couple of too good to be true resolutions.

The mystery that intrigues Brooke, as well as Owen, his Uncle, and particularly Spencer (and me) is interesting but sometimes it was too far back in the story, as if the characters themselves had forgotten about it. Its resolution, however, was nice but also too convenient.

I loved how the stories interlaced, how one character led to the introduction of the other, how the story flowed, and the sensibility with which the author writes. The characters’ stories of forgiveness and letting go drive deep into the heart and give a sense of hope that stays with the reader. Even with a somewhat disappointing last pages, the book’s sweet and touching storyline of love, family, and God’s strength in the midst of our problems is enough to leave the reader satisfied.

4 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publishers through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.