Saturday, October 31, 2009

Northern Roses and Southern Belles

Six romance authors provide romance stories set during the United States Civil War.

Angel of My Dreams by Susan Macatee - I'm not a fan of the paranormal, but if you like this kind of thing, Macatee writes it well. Kyle, a civil war reenactor, is in the doldrums after his long-time girlfriend dumps him. An encounter on the "battlefield" with a nurse named Josie turns his life upside down. No one else seems to see her, though, and he wonders if he is losing his mind. Hypnosis and regression, as well as dreams, tell the story of Josie's romance with a Civil War soldier. Is Kyle being visited by a ghost? And if so, how can they ever be together?

No Decorum by MaryAnn Webber - The author creates a likable hero and heroine in Randolph and Juliet, but I'd have wished for a little more decorum here. Although free-spirited, the daughter of a pastor ought to show more respect for the "house of God," even if in reality that house is His people and not a physical building. That aside, Webber shows truth in how war both brings people together and also forces them apart, revealing the emotional heartache of separation and uncertainty.

Are You Going to the Dance? by Jeanmarie Hamilton - Again, we have likable characters in Lexie and Clayton, though I found the sexy front porch scene gratuitous. Lexie is a capable woman whose friendship with the Lipan Apache and distrust of Clayton's life-long friend, Al, causes conflict between her and the man of her dreams. When an Indian is injured by renegades, Lexie risks everything to rescue and care for him in secret. She yearns to trust Clay, especially when he makes it clear that he has serious romantic intentions toward her, but can she trust him with this?

The Colonial and the Cottontail by Jennifer Ross - This is my favourite story in the book and the only one with a Canadian connection. When Cole and the Confederate rebels rob the St Albans Bank, it's a short ride across the Canadian border to relative safety. After going their separate ways before a planned rendezvous, Cole learns that thirteen of his compatriots have been captured and realizes he's on his own in the British territory. A chance encounter with widow, Becca Taylor, and her son Thomas, provide him with the perfect cover while he tries to figure out how to help his imprisoned cohorts. Soon, however, he comes to care for the pair. Which must he follow - heart or duty? Ross has created well-developed characters and a fascinating plot line.

In the Shadows by Isabel Roman - This story tells the tale of Marion, a Union spy working in the south. Complicating matters is her attraction to Jack, a blockade-running southerner. Even though their feelings are mutual, she wonders what he'll do when he catches her eavesdropping on her aunt's neighbours as they make plans to kidnap key Union leaders. Will he protect or betray her? Roman, who tends to write more erotic material, "tried to add in a good hot sex scene, but it didn't fit with the story." That's fine with me - this well-written story was hot enough in spots, and it's more sexy not to reveal everything and allow the reader's imagination to take over.

Long Way Home by Caroline Clemmons - When Parmelia Bailey steals one of her own horses from the Union soldiers, she never expects to run into Darrick McDonald, the man who left town with her heart a few years earlier. Seems like Darrick's joined with the Yankees, while her brother Matt fights for the Confederates. Jeff Lawson, a dangerous renegade whose proposal Parmelia rejected, is also on the loose and threatening to harm the local townspeople. Parmelia is a strong and brave young woman, but she can't thwart him on her own, and she's too angry with Darrick to trust him or seek his help. Then Lawson and his men break into the Bailey home and kidnap Parmelia and her future sister-in-law. How can they escape without the aid of a rescuer? Clemmons has penned my second favourite story in this anthology, drawing likable characters and creating an exciting plot that finishes the collection on the right note.

For readers of historical romance who are not averse to the occasional erotic moment.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Here's the Story: surviving Marcia Brady and finding my true voice

by Maureen McCormick,
HarperCollins, 2008

Seems like every celebrity bio I read these days portrays a dramatic fall from the peak of fame into sex, drugs, and (sometimes) rock and roll. Maureen's tale is no different in this regard. Hugely recognized for her role as Marcia Brady on The Brady Bunch, Maureen struggled to separate herself from her character when the show ended after five seasons. Challenged to find suitable work, and falling in with cocaine users, Maureen sank into a deep pit of drug addiction, doing whatever necessary to feed her habit.

Halfway through the story, though, we come to a startling turning point and are suddenly in a different book. A life-changing experience, which I won't spoil for you by sharing, starts her on a better path. Though she continues to make questionable choices at times, she is blessed to meet and marry a wonderful man, whose commitment to their marriage is remarkable, considering how much Maureen tests it. Eventually she is diagnosed as bipolar and finds relief through Prozac.

Her book concludes with the words "And that's the story", but I know it isn't really finished. I look forward to hearing more about the life of this actress as her story continues.

By the way, for Brady Bunch fans, Maureen does discuss the show and relationships between cast members.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Good to a Fault

by Marina Endicott
Freehand Books, 2008

At 43, Clara Purdy's life is one of predictable organization and duty. Divorced years earlier, following a brief marriage, she lives alone in the house she shared with her mother, has worked for the same insurance company for twenty years, and faithfully attends church out of a sense of tradition.

All her routines change the moment she runs into the down-and-out Gage family. When she learns they'd been living in their car, and it turns out that the mother has a serious illness, Clara feels she must do something useful. She invites the father, Clayton, the three children, and their grandmother to stay with them while Lorraine remains in hospital. The rest, as they say, is history.

Beautifully written, with well drawn characters and a compelling story, this book took a little while to read, but was definitely worth the effort. I was a bit taken aback by developments in Clara's relationship with the good pastor, and am relieved that the author notes "that the parish and diocese described...bear no resemblance to any on earth." Otherwise, the one thing that irritated me was Father Paul's penchant for reciting esoteric poetry.

Winner 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Best Book (Regional: Canada); shortlisted 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize ; shortlisted 2009 Evergreen Award

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Tallest of Smalls

by Max Lucado,
illustrated by Maria Monescillo
Tommy Nelson, 2009

This rhyming picture book by well-loved author, Max Lucado, deals with the subject of self-esteem in children. How can kids know that they are special and significant when their peers may be telling them otherwise?

In the town of Stiltsville, those who are deemed worthy receive the opportunity to wear stilts. A poor, ordinary boy named Ollie, has never been chosen for this honor, though he longs for it with all his heart. At last the day comes when, by some miracle, Ollie's name is called. He is thrilled, until he comes crashing down. Only Jesus is able to make him understand that his true significance is not dependent on the assessment of others, but on what God thinks of him.

While this is a valuable concept for anyone to appreciate, I don't know that this story will convince children. The story seems contrived and the problem too easily resolved. The author also fails to maintain perfect rhyme, which makes it awkward to read in places. The illustrations are cartoonish and colorful, but somehow old-fashioned.

I am left with the same feeling I get from reading some Robert Munsch books: once you've made a name for yourself in the publishing world, anything you write - good or bad - will be put into print.

(This book was supplied by Tommy Nelson as part of their book review blog program:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Seaside Letters: a Nantucket Love Story

by Denise Hunter,
Thomas Nelson, 2009

I don't often read romance novels, but I've written a few short stories in the genre and feel it's important to read one once in a while. I doubt I could have made a better choice than Denise Hunter's Seaside Letters, third in a series of Nantucket love stories.

Sabrina Kincade's cousin and fiance betrayed her when they fell in love over a year ago. Hurt and humiliated, she fled from Florida and spent her honeymoon alone in Nantucket. When the "honeymoon" was over, unwilling to face her family, Sabrina found a job and somewhere to live on the island, determined never to let anyone access her heart again.

Enter Tucker McCabe, the man she serves coffee to every morning at a Nantucket cafe. Devilishly handsome and seemingly good-hearted, Tucker has fallen for a woman he's met online and wants Sabrina to help find her. The problem is, Sabrina is that woman, and she doesn't want to be found. Especially since she knows something about her past that Tucker must never discover. Can she pretend to search for Tucker's mystery woman and spend hours in his presence without letting her guard down? And what will she do if Tucker falls in love with someone else?

My biggest problem with the romance genre in general is that it sets women up to have false expectations of a man, and to have an incorrect picture of what love looks like in real life. I understand that it's "escape" reading, but escape reading can have dangerous real world consequences. That said, I like Hunter's expressed goal for the Nantucket series: "to show the love of Christ through the relationship of the hero and heroine." I think she achieves her goal well, and the reading guide questions at the end of the book encourage a deeper probing of this aspect.

Conclusion/confession? Denise Hunter has created a very readable book, with a well-developed plot line and three dimensional characters. I am going back to read numbers one and two in the series: Surrender Bay, and The Convenient Groom, and look forward to reading more of this talented author's work.

The Blue Umbrella

by Mike Mason
David C Cook/October 2009

What would happen if the world’s weather was controlled by one man with a blue umbrella? If your mother had been killed by lightning, would you trust him? This is the decision 10-year-old Zac Sparks faces in Mike Mason’s first fantasy novel, The Blue Umbrella, a superbly written children’s story with significant spiritual overtones.

When Zac Sparks’ mother dies, he’s sent to live in Five Corners with his cruel old Aunties. It isn’t long before Zac knows something strange is going on. Five Corners is populated with weird characters—a midget butler, a mute girl , a blind balloon seller, and a mysterious singer who is heard but not seen. Then there’s the Aunties’ father, Dada. Zac’s first encounter with Dada is so terrifying he faints dead away.

The one bright spot is Sky Porter, the proprietor of the general store across the street, a friendly soul who encourages Zac—when the Aunties aren’t looking—and shows him a kindness that is sadly lacking from his dismal life. But Sky isn’t what he seems either, and when Zac learns Sky’s amazing secret he realizes, to his dismay, that this wonderful man may have a very dark side as well.

Discovering that Dada is an evil magician who is intent on stealing the ultimate treasure, Zac knows many lives are at stake, including his own. With time running out, he must turn to the one person who might be able to help: Sky Porter. Can Zac trust him?

In the vein of Lewis and Tolkien, Mason has created a fantasy that will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, and The Chronicles of Narnia. You can watch the book trailer here.