Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Leaving a life of privilege to strike out on her own, Lauren Durough breaks with convention and her family’s expectations by choosing a state college over Stanford and earning her own income over accepting her ample monthly allowance. She takes a part-time job from 83-year-old librarian Abigail Boyles, who asks Lauren to transcribe the journal entries of her ancestor Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials.

Almost immediately, Lauren finds herself drawn to this girl who lived and died four centuries ago. As the fervor around the witch accusations increases, Mercy becomes trapped in the worldview of the day, unable to fight the overwhelming influence of snap judgments and superstition, and Lauren realizes that the secrets of Mercy’s story extend beyond the pages of her diary, living on in the mysterious, embittered Abigail.

The strength of her affinity with Mercy forces Lauren to take a startling new look at her own life, including her relationships with Abigail, her college roommate, and a young man named Raul. But on the way to the truth, will Lauren find herself playing the helpless defendant or the misguided judge? Can she break free from her own perceptions and see who she really is?

My source for book: Borrowed from friend
My Thoughts:
Prior to reading The Shape of Mercy, the subject of the Salem witch trials always left me feeling confused and uneasy, which I think stemmed from a lack of knowledge of what really happened. What little I knew was gleaned from over-sensationalized movies and tv shows that largely used the supernatural angle--no wonder the topic left me uneasy!

Lauren's transcription work with Mercy's diary is extremely interesting, as is her relationship with the mysterious owner of the diary. (I also liked the details on the condition of the ancient diary and the precautions taken to prevent further deterioration. But back to the review...) Lauren's struggles in her personal life to quit judging people based on perception ties in nicely with what happened in Salem, and it really makes you stop and think about how you look at those around you--family, acquaintances, and most definitely strangers. While Lauren is likeable and her part of the story is undeniably relevant, ultimately it was Mercy's diary that kept bringing me back and leaving me reluctant to put the book down.

Though Mercy is a fictional character--basically a story inside of a story, if you will--her diary seems extremely real, giving you a realistic feeling (and un-supernatural) glimpse of the events that happened in Salem. It's enthralling, yet horrifyingly tragic. As a character Mercy is captivating, and it's awesome how so much is communicated through her diary entries without actually being said. Her relationship with John Peter was lovely, and I so liked how his affection for Mercy was obvious not in words, but in caring actions.

Meissner's writing is exceptional; it's deep and thoughtful, while at the same time remaining easy to read. Initially I did feel that familiar uneasiness regarding Salem when I began the story, but the feeling slowly faded as I started to gain a more down-to-earth, less "hollywood" idea of the events. They were regular people, just like you and I, who were wrongfully accused of evil. In order to live they were required to "confess" their supposed evil ways--a lie some couldn't bring themselves to utter, no matter the consequences.

Overall, I am honestly glad to have read this novel. It's certainly not a "light" read, but it is extremely intriguing. I feel that I now have a much better grasp on the topic of the Salem trials, along with a reminder that things and people aren't always what they seem. Though you may have to be in the mood for a more serious novel to pick this one up, it is certainly one that I'd recommend.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Waiting For Morning by Margaret Brownley

Book Cover and Synopsis:
There is nothing Molly wouldn’t do for her teenaged brother, Donny. Blaming herself for the accident that left him wheel-chair bound, Molly has dedicated her life to his care. But in 1896, gainful employment for a woman is hard to come by. So when Molly learns that an eccentric rancher in Cactus Patch, Arizona, is looking for an heiress—someone to take over management of the ranch in exchange for future ownership—she jumps at the chance to provide a real home for her brother.

If she proves to have a knack for ranching and agrees to remain single for life, the ranch can be hers. Neither stipulation worries Molly. She’s resourceful and hardworking. And she gave up dreams of marriage long ago when she dedicated her life to her brother’s well-being.

However, Molly didn’t bank on meeting Dr. Caleb Fairbanks, the town’s handsome and charismatic young doctor. Caleb has a way with Molly that makes her nervous. But it’s how he is with her brother that really alarms her. Caleb sees past the wheelchair and genuinely likes Donny, but Molly fears he’s putting unrealistic ideas into her brother’s head. Falling in love with Caleb would threaten everything she’s worked for, even her brother’s future happiness.

But it could be the very reason God brought her to Last Chance Ranch.

My source for book: Review Copy via NetGalley
My Thoughts:
Margaret Brownley has done it again, masterfully crafting a story that is just downright entertaining! Molly, the heroine, is easy to like, and her former occupation as a saloon girl (a singer only!) serves as a great reminder to not judge based on perception or outward appearances. I quickly found myself rooting for Molly to overcome her difficult past and to succeed in building a life for herself and her younger brother.

Dr. Caleb is a good guy, but it was the little details about him that really made him stand out to me. I loved how he seemed slightly eccentric--and rather modern--by driving a "horseless carriage" far before they were commonplace. It sort of became his trademark, and I just couldn't help but enjoy the excitement that always surrounded his automobile. I also liked how Caleb took his dog everywhere he went.... it may seem like a small detail, and it's not even necessarily a "manly" thing to do, but it really added a nice touch to the flow of the story.

With the inclusion of Donny, Molly's wheelchair-bound brother, the story offers a unique and interesting look at the life of a handicapped person in the 19th century, which is a topic I haven't previously found in fiction before. Dr. Caleb has a wonderful forward thinking and cutting-edge air about him, which makes it exciting to watch as he tries to help Donny by teaching him how to care for himself despite his disability. I do have to confess that I grew a little weary of Molly's protests against Caleb's methods of treatment for Donny... however, these disagreements did add to the tension between Molly and Caleb, so I can see why they were included.

Overall, this novel is one that I really enjoyed. It's actually the second installment in the "Brides of Last Chance Ranch" trilogy, but in my opinion it far outshines the first novel and could easily be read as a stand-alone. Now, I can't end my review without mentioning Orbit, the little blind horse at the ranch, whose unique personality deftly pulled at my heartstrings. He was an unexpectedly great addition; you'd be surprised how much a blind horse can enhance a story! ;) If you're a fan of historical novels, Waiting For Morning is one that I would definitely recommend.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Thomas Nelson) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley

Cover and Synopsis:
Disgraced dime novelist Kate Tenney fled the city that banned her latest novel for the emptiness of the desert. Answering an ad to be "heiress" to a vast cattle ranch in the Arizona Territory, Kate hopes ranching turns out to be as romantic as she portrayed it in her novels. But what awaits her is a life harder than the one she just left. There is no room for mistakes on a working cattle ranch, and Kate is ill-prepared for her new life. She quickly learns that dawn comes early. But she is tenacious.

Having been abandoned by a string of men, Kate has no intention of ever marrying. But she didn't expect to meet Luke Adams, either. Luke awakens feelings inside Kate she doesn't recognize, and his steady presence is a constant distraction. She has only written about love in the past, never known it herself. But her feelings for Luke stand in the way of all she has to gain if she is chosen as the heir. Perhaps God brought Kate to the barrenness of the desert to give new life to her jaded heart.
My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
Having previously enjoyed several of Margaret Brownley's prior novels, I was anxious to get my hands on "Dawn Comes Early", especially since the desert setting sounded reminiscent of where I grew up. Unfortunately, the book was quite different from my expectations and I ended up being rather disappointed.

The quality of the writing is good, I have no qualms about that--it's just the characters and story that I couldn't connect with. I honestly can't put my finger on exactly what the main issue was, so perhaps it was just many small issues combined. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn't relate to the characters, and some of the things they did grated on my nerves. Top of this list would be the storyline revolving around Luke's aunts, which struck me as over-the-top silly.

As for Kate and Luke's relationship, I never felt much chemistry between them. They barely had any interaction before it was obvious feelings were developing, which made their "feelings" somewhat hard for me to believe. While they didn't blatantly seem un-suited as a couple, I just couldn't get excited about the two of them. I think Luke's repetitive thoughts about being un-educated and not good enough for Kate contributed to my feelings. Likewise, Kate's insistence of remaining single didn't scream romance, either. I do have to admit the last couple of chapters had a semi-cute way of bringing them together, but overall I fear Kate and Luke are a mostly forgettable couple for me.

Honestly, the book wasn't "bad"... it just felt a bit flat and fairly average. I normally read books of this length in 5 to 7 days, but this one took me about 10 days, simply because I couldn't keep focused on it. I think it's probably just a case of the reader and book not meshing well, but I have to be honest about my feelings. The good news is that I have already started the second book in the series (Waiting for Morning) and it is much more to my taste. The author hasn't lost her touch, but in my opinion Dawn Comes Early just isn't her strongest offering.

My Rating: 3 stars

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: How Sweet It Is by Bonnie Blythe

Book Cover and Synopsis:
"Embrasser" means to kiss in French. Delphine D'Arleux, traveling in Belgium for a candy-making class, doesn't expect to have the word demonstrated to her, especially by a stranger. Brad Larsen, an avowed chocoholic, knows he behaved badly by kissing the pretty French girl, but he can't quite regret his actions. Can he show Delphine that a longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul?

My Thoughts:
Stories about chocolate are usually just too sweet for me to pass up, and initially this one started out fairly fun. Though a bit unrealistic in spots, I still found it amusing to watch as Delphine tried to dodge and hide from Brad--a basic stranger who had kissed her on the street--and then ultimately ended up on a plane with a ticket purchased for her by Brad's parents!

I do have to admit that it seemed slightly odd for Brad--a guy--to be such a hopeless chocolate-lover...but this probably stems from the guys in my life being just "so-so" about sweets. Regardless of that, I found it quite interesting when Delphine tried to teach Brad about higher grades of chocolate and the fine quality differences. However, much to my chagrin, every time chocolate came into the scene Brad managed to end up with some on his face. I'm sure this is meant to be endearing, but I just wanted to give him a stack of napkins and tell him to clean up.

Despite a few nitpicks, I honestly enjoyed the first half of the story, but at roughly the half-way point things started to changed. Suddenly the plot's main focus seemed to be about Delphine and Brad both doubting and fearing their affection wasn't mutual. Even after they'd said "I love you" multiple times, they both still continued to wonder if the other was truly earnest in their feelings. This got rather old, and ultimately after so many repetitions of doubts and confirmed feelings, more doubts and more confirmed feelings, I was just ready for the story to be done so I could move on to something else.

Overall, I feel the story would be much stronger if it was shortened up and condensed, mainly in the latter half when the redundancy of doubts begins. If you're looking to try a book by Bonnie Blythe, instead of How Sweet It Is I would recommend checking out Claire's Not-So-Gothic Romance, which I found to be very entertaining from beginning to end.

My Rating: 3 stars