Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Match Made in Texas book review

A Match Made in Texas

A Match Made in Texas

In Dry Gulch, Texas, 1893, a young woman with a tender heart that longs to help those in need takes it upon herself to meddle in the affairs of three acquaintances who are in dire straits. Wanting to stay anonymous, she relies on unusual methods to hire men and women of good character who she thinks can solve the problems facing her “targets.” How was she to know that her meddling would turn into a cupid’s arrow? And what will she do when her friends turn the tables on her with a matchmaking scheme of their own?
Four novellas in one volume

My Review: 7/10

I think Novellas in this genre have a decent shot at being, well, decent. A lot of the things that I complain about when reading historical christian romances (such as: stereotypical characters, way too predictable plots, and drawing out the obvious in attempt to create tension and suspense thereby making the ending sweeter just to name a few) don't really have  the time to develop in a novella. If they do dip into any of these areas, it's easily forgiven due to consideration for length.

When I heard that this was being published and that Karen Witemeyer was one of the authors, I was very eager to get my hands on it. I don't know if I didn't read the plot synopsis very thoroughly or if it's not mentioned, but imagine my surprise when the opening line tells of an Archer's story. !!!! Yay! I thought to myself, cozied up in a blanket with a warm mug of cocoa and snow gently falling outside my window, "it's like Christmas again." Short straw bride was possibly the first book of this kind  that I really fell in love with, because of how different it was. I might have loved Stealing the Preacher even more. My only disappointment with this story is that I believe it's the last of the Archer tales (unless Ms. Witemeyer does something unheard of and writes more stories about them, focusing on their married life. I vote for this!) and I would have preferred a full blown novel to a novella. It's like getting a fun size candy bar instead of a King size.

Surprisingly, I liked  the second story even better. I've only read one other book in this genre featuring a blind woman and it was just awful. This one was very well done and interesting. A couple of parts were a tad melodramatic and cliche (but it's a novella! there wasn't time to flush these things out!) for my taste, but it was different. I didn't feel like I was reading a story I've read a thousand times before, even though I knew where it was going. Reading about how a woman in that time period might approach blindness was very interesting to me. I also liked how Clayton viewed his scars as if they were lit up with fire, yet everyone else noticed them, but were more struck by his good looks. Isn't that the truth? Our perception of ourselves is rather distorted and we often let our insecurities get the best of us. Anyway, I was very pleasantly surprised by this author. I'm going to have to look up some of her other books now.

The third story I was not particularly taken with. This is probably because extreme drama (fires, kidnappings, dirty dealings, really any kind of danger that directly and aggressively threatens a character's life/wellbeing) comes off as very cheesy to me. Rarely do I read a book with one of those events and think to myself, wow. Unless it's a sarcastic 'wow.' On the opposite end of the spectrum, I'm very impressed when daily activities and turmoils are portrayed very honestly and accurately (like Lawana Blackwell's Gresham series for example). Anyway, this story was set up to be more exciting with an unwanted aggressive suitor, potential insanity, frequent threat of being shot, trespassers with ill intent and fire. All of which rubbed me the wrong way. I did learn something though- I had not previously known that you could burn tea. I guess it makes sense since you can also scorch coffee. I just never thought about it before. It's amazing to me, the conveniences of modern life that we never even think twice about, which is one of my favorite things about reading historical fiction- being transported to another time and learning something new.

I almost did not read the last story by Ms. Connealy. I had attempted to read a book of hers before- one of the Kincaid Bride series- and it just was not my taste at all. But I felt it wouldn't be fair to ignore her in this review, nor mention something about how her style isn't my taste, without even giving it a try. So I resolved to take a few tentative steps into the story. My first thoughts were that the language didn't fit the period. But before I knew it, I was really into the story. What sets Ms. Connealy apart is that she allows her characters to have flaws and she allows them to be wrong. Some of the characters development happened too rapidly, but in a short story, an authors options are limited. I wonder how she would approach these themes in a full length novel. I also liked Hannah's resolve to marry a man of faith and how she acknowledged that the really only left one man in town. Her reasons for putting romance on the back burner (and Mark's giving her space) were genuinely good reasons. I actually liked the super fast pace. I feel like a lot of historical romances really drag out major changes and decisions, so the abruptness was refreshing, and also, probably accurate for the time. Life did happen in the blink of an eye. People, family members, did get sick, did die, did marry etc at a much faster pace, usually, than today. A couple other tidbits- I liked that Mark blushed and how their families blindsided them into a shotgun wedding.

There were a couple of things that, though they did not stop me from devouring the story, did take some of the glossiness off.
1. Hannah and Mark's character lines blur a little. They use the exact same phrases (someone moving like a locomotive, and "poor Marcus," "that poor girl," "his poor lip" etc) that sometimes made me feel like I was in the head of one person and not two.
2. Along the same lines, Hannah immediately realizes that Marcus is probably shy, as he acknowledges it to himself. And then, at the end of the story, she seems to have forgotten that and states that she thought he didn't like her and just went out of his way to avoid her. Maybe I misunderstood, but these thoughts didn't seem to match up.
3. Chapter 11- the declarations of love and feelings- was just not my taste. It was too over dramatic for me. I do believe that there are many different degrees of love and that feelings, once sparked and acknowledged can consume like a wildfire. So I'm not saying this would never happen, just that it's not the kind of love story that makes me smile stupidly all day, unless I get to see that story play out for a long while to come (like in Short Straw Bride for example).
4. And this is super minor, but I love historical romances because I like being transported, wholly, back to those times. It bugs me when it's half baked (characters having modern concerns, conversations, goals, opinions etc- like modern people plucked into a different century) and so any anachronisms stick out to me like a sore thumb. The biggest one to me was the conversation about kids at the end of the story. While it's true that not every family was a big one, people did not have control over the number of kids they had like they do today. Maybe the conversation was meant to be more cute than serious, but I just couldn't see it taking place.

I think this is the longest review I've ever written, but considering there were four seperate stories in one, it's not too crazy. All in all, this was a sweet collection of novellas, with my favorite being An Unforseen Match by Regina Jennings.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Godborn Book Review

The Godborn (The Sundering, #2)

The Godborn 

In the 2nd book of the multi-author Sundering series launched by New York Times best-selling author R.A. Salvatore, the shadow legacy of Erevis Cale lives on even as his old foe Mephistopheles seeks to stamp it out at any cost. Cale’s son Vasen—unmoored in time by the god Mask—has thus far been shielded from the archdevil’s dark schemes, alone among the servants of the Lord of Light who have raised him since birth.

Living in a remote abbey nestled among the Thunder Peaks of Sembia, Vasen is haunted by dreams of his father, trapped in the frozen hell of Cania. He knows the day will come when he must assume his role in the divine drama unfolding across Faerûn. But Vasen knows not what that role should be . . . or whether he is ready to take it on. He only knows what his father tells him in dreams—that he must not fail.

Enter Drasek Riven, a former compatriot of Erevis Cale, now near divine and haunted by dreams of his own—he too knows the time to act is near. Shar, the great goddess of darkness, looks to cast her shadow on the world forever. Riven has glimpsed the cycle of night she hopes to complete, and he knows she must be stopped.

At the crossroads of divine intrigue and mortal destiny, unlikely heroes unite to thwart the powers of shadow and hell, and the sundering of worlds is set on its course.

My Review of The Godborn by Paul S. Kemp:

7 out of 10

The Godborn is the second book of the Forgotten Realms-shifting Sundering series, following R.A. Salvatore’s The Companions. It follows Vasen, the son of Mask’s chosen, while the main plot resolves the thrice-split divinity of Mask and the world-engulfing threat of Shar’s Cycle of Night.

Paul Kemp is a talented writer. The settings are always well-described, both for sensory and mood; you feel yourself there.  This was perhaps some of the best setting writing I have read. I can see the Abbey of the Rose clearly, the mountain pass, the Sembian plains, Ordulin, Fairelm, etc. Incredibly well done. However, his characters never seemed quite deep enough to me overall. They were deep enough to make the story and scenes work, but not deep enough for the characters to be memorable or for me to care about them, with the exception of Sayeed (of all characters!). While others who have read Paul Kemp’s previous books might think there was enough depth, having never read any of his novels containing these characters before, I didn’t gain quite enough appreciation for them.

Though I didn’t feel enough depth for the characters, they were on the whole rather realistic. The nihilism of Rivalen, the power-crusted but not emotionally impregnable Telemont, the rage-driven Brennus, Vasen’s faith (this was especially good at times), the hatred but loyalty between the two plagueshifted brothers, and it goes on and on. All had realistic motives and were very human. That was another thing wonderfully done. But as I recount all the different characters here, I think I’ve found the reason I was never able to get emotionally attached. I think there were too many characters in this novel; it didn’t allow me enough time with any of them to truly develop an affinity for them. I did want to be fonder of Vasen, since I’m someone of faith and Vasen seemed to be the only main character who strove to bring light into darkness, but it wasn’t to be.

Speaking of which, this book was 95% darkness. This is perhaps another reason that I wasn’t carried away with it. I suppose it should be expected when the two divinities mainly at play are Mask and Shar, and one of the characters who holds a splinter of Mask’s divinity is an archfiend.  I suppose I don’t really blame Paul Kemp for this choice. The plot seems to fulfill its necessary place in the Sundering series. But still, while it didn’t make me like the book less, it did prevent me from liking it more.  I haven’t read his previous books, but there was talk of some characters who probably existed in his prior books and who would have likely counterbalanced the darkness. So perhaps not all his books are like this. If they are, then I would probably count it as a negative.

Finally, the overarching plot:  The most interesting plot was definitely with the plagueshifted brothers. I don’t want to give away any details, but this was a very interesting way to indirectly move events forward. It would have been too easy to move the plot forward directly, which is how the rest of the book seemed to proceed. So while the overall plot was definitely interesting in concept, it was mostly too direct. I feel like I could have read the events factually in a history book or one of the Forgotten Realms supplements (a chapter on how Mask’s divinity was restored into one and Shar’s Cycle of Night was defeated) and not missed much. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I think this storyline got part of its intrigue and suspense and drama from prior books by the author, and so didn’t stand as well by itself. That’s a shame, because this book is a standalone. It continues their story, sure, but it’s not part of a series with those previous books. Overall, this book felt like a conclusion without the beginning or middle.

Overall thoughts:  Paul Kemp’s writing ability is splendid, but I wasn’t as impressed with his ability to craft a story.  Those are two separate things. I would have liked to like this book more, but unfortunately I couldn’t. The plot was interesting in concept, but didn’t get much more interesting for having fleshed it out over a couple hundred pages. This is a shame, because it’s the type of thing I would read a high-level summary of and think “I would love to read the details of that!” In fact, that is how I felt when I got brief snippets of past events involving some of the characters—it made me want to read the previous books. However, given how I felt about this book overall, I’m not sure if I will make the effort to.

Jon Armstrong

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Touch of Power book review

Touch of Power (Avry of Kazan, #1)

Touch of Power (Healer #1)


Avry’s power to heal the sick should earn her respect in the plague-torn land of Kazan. Instead she is feared. Her kind are blamed for the horrifying disease that has taken hold of the nation. When Avry uses her forbidden magic to save a dying child, she faces the guillotine. Until a dark, mysterious man rescues her from her prison cell. His people need Avry’s magic to save their dying prince. The very prince who first unleashed the plague on Kazan.

Saving the prince is certain to kill Avry – yet she already faces a violent death. Now she must choose – use her healing touch to show the ultimate mercy or die a martyr to a lost cause?

my review: 7/10

The first 75% of this book was very good. I liked the concept of Healers and the fugitive point of view always intrigues me. I like Ms. Snyder's approach to fantasy and the way she always keeps the plot moving. I was moved by the concept of Avry healing by pulling the diseases into herself. Her willingness to mar her beauty for sake of others was a beautiful concept.

What kept this from being a 5 star book are a couple problems I had with the characters:

All of them are too black/white. If they are "evil" there is no goodness in them and if they are "good" there is no evil in them. There are no flaws. This just isn't really relatable and makes the characters and relationships a little flat. Avry with her pack of boys reminded me of snow white and her dwarves. and not in a good way.

But even worse to me is when seemingly intelligent characters start acting stupid. I found Avry's total lack of suspicion about Kerrick's feelings for her to be annoying. It really wore out my patience with the both of them. I don't believe that's how most people act- self denial. I think most people hope, if only in their private thoughts. I wish authors would stop using a misunderstanding about feelings as a way to keep the romantic tension going with a big unveiling at the end. It just makes everyone behave unnaturally and spoils the story.

Also I had a couple of plot issues: I'm not sure if it will be explained in one of the following books, but the Peace Lily's miraculous move wasn't very flushed out. Also Sepp's allegiance was super obvious, probably because he wasn't adored by Avry. Unfortunately with the black or white characters, this makes things painfully obvious when (I think) it's supposed to be a surprise.

And this is really minor but Tohon's language really aggravated me. He's, what, 25? What's with all the "my dear"s?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Magic Study book review

Magic Study (Study, #2)

Magic Study (Study #2)


With her greatest enemy dead, and on her way to be reunited with the family she'd been stolen from long ago, Yelena should be pleased. But though she has gained her freedom, she can't help feeling isolated in Sitia. Her Ixian background has changed her in many ways—and her newfound friends and relatives don't think it's for the better....

Despite the turmoil, she's eager to start her magic training—especially as she's been given one year to harness her power or be put to death. But her plans take a radical turn when she becomes involved with a plot to reclaim Ixia's throne for a lost prince—and gets entangled in powerful rivalries with her fellow magicians.

If that wasn't bad enough, it appears her brother would love to see her dead. Luckily, Yelena has some old friends to help her with all her new enemies....

 My Review: 6/10
** spoiler alert ** A solid 6/10 because I had as many problems with the story as things I enjoyed.

It's a page turner and the plot keeps moving enough to keep you interested. But it had been over a year (maybe a year and a half?) since I'd read Poison Study and to be honest, I remembered next to nothing of the first book (which I really enjoyed) probably because I had read Graceling around the same time and there were a lot of similarities. Anyway, I only remembered bits of Poison Study after Yelena would refresh my memory, and this probably kept me from getting annoyed that the storyline was so similar.

I like when mysteries and pasts are uncovered, so I liked the baseline for Yelena returning to her roots. I thought the release of her childhood memories was suspiciously uncomplicated, though.

The biggest problem I had was that the villains were all so one dimensional: sick, twisted evil maniacs who favor torture and rape. Evil exists in many forms and to many degrees and this just got old.

I still don't understand the commander. I just don't get it.

I appreciated Valek's presence, though I'll agree that his role was very limited. If I only had one night left with my soul mate, I don't think I'd spend it on sex and sleep, but hey that's just me. I still don't understand how he escaped the noose. Or how he is able to give all of his energy or whatever to Yelena. These are things I felt were shoddily explained at best.

I thought Cahil's sudden flip to jealous admirer and then back again to lethal, suspicious enemy was unbelievable. And why wasn't Yelena suspicious? He asks her to accompany him to a ball *what?* and then she's all, -freeze, taken aback- giggle, what do I wear? *I.Can't.Even.*

I agree with other readers that Yelena got herself into too many disasterous predicaments and frequently seemed to escape thanks to dumb luck.

I can't think of any specific thing that was well done. The one thing I can say, though, is that I don't regret reading it. I requested the book from my library and then read reviews and decided that when I got the book, I'd probably just return it; it sounded like it would be a waste of time. But I did end up reading it, and I'm glad. There were things that bugged me, but not enough to impede the flow of the story line, making me too frustrated or angry to get caught up in it. In the end, I just feel confused. I will read the last book because, although I have a bad feeling about it, I am interested in seeing what Yelena becomes.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Dancing Master book review

The Dancing Master

The Dancing Master

Leaving London, dancing master Alec Valcourt moves his mother and sister to remote Devonshire--but is stunned to discover that dancing is prohibited! He finds an unlikely ally in Miss Julia Midwinter, but her questions about his past are becoming harder to evade. Together, can they bring new life to this quiet village--and heal long-kept-secret scars? 
My Review:

When I heard that Ms. Klassen would be releasing a new book soon, I could hardly wait. She didn't disappoint. I so often found myself finding things that I loved about this book that I didn't want to forget to mention due to gushing that I actually took notes, which was a first for me. So! Onto my list:

The language- so beautifully and well done! So many novels of this kind try to get the language right and it just comes off unnaturally. The expressions and conversations really set the tone of the book and rather than constantly reminding me that this was a book written in the present day, it was easy to get transported back in time to the fictional but lovely early 19th century Beaworthy.

I loved the nods to Jane Austen. The book wasn't stuffed with them, but the occasional nod and wink had me smiling, from the resemblance of Lady Amelia to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and several lines that I know were taken from Pride and Prejudice directly, it added to the books charm.

The characters, oh the characters! I loved that Julia was flawed. It made her relatable and loveable. Despite some of the things she did that annoyed me, I too hoped for depth and was so happy to slowly get to know her better.

I loved that Julia came to love Alec slowly, naturally, and really because of his integrity and how he treated her with respect. What a wonderful message. In this genre, I've seen authors paint their characters simply without ever testing them and sometimes overlooking minor choices that don't uphold honesty and faithfulness etc. But Alec was always steadfast.

And Lady Amelia Midwinter. Ah. While she reminded me so much of Lady Catherine for the first half of the book, she blossomed in her own right, as a woman with a past, with feelings, with mistakes and with growth.

I also found someone to love in just about every single one of the supporting characters and there were a lot. That hasn't really happened to me since Lawana Blackwell's Gresham series. They are each distinctly their own. The only ones that bothered me were the Wilcox brothers, and not just because they were supposed to be antagonistic, but maybe because it seemed like they were dropped into the story simply for the purpose of being minor villains and they always had me on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But eventually, Ms. Klassen chipped away at my distaste for them as well by flushing out their characters. Resolving some of the antagonistic ways was just the cherry on top.

The mystery that surrounded several new characters as they were introduced and woven into the story was very well done. They were interesting and it all seemed natural. Just as I started to think I had figured something out, the story would twist and change, keeping me invested.

The romance- it was slow and wonderful. I loved that it was not necessarily the focal point of the story. While I normally hate switching back and forth from the two main characters points of view (where is the mystery? the butterflies?) this time it made sense. Alec had a separate story of his own to tell, as did Julia. They were not immediately obsessed with each other and the romance between them flourished in a beautiful way. The Christian themes were very well done and I loved the father-daughter messages there as well.

The plot was hardly ever predictable. The letter in the drawer left no easy answers; even knowing more than Julia, I was still confused. The only thing I could see ahead of time was the Mr. Valcourt/Mr. Valcourt confusion, which may have only been because of Alec's guilt in deceiving Lady Amelia early on.

A couple of other smaller things- the authentic period information at the beginning of chapters and occasionally sprinkled throughout helped keep the story flowing and was very interesting to a history-lover like me. I particularly loved the conversation between Patience and Julia starting on pg. 263. It was lively, intelligent, funny, but still honest. So often, women seem to give in to the need to say things that our friends want to hear instead of the truth that they need to hear. I thought Patience and Julia set a good example. Also, the cover art is just perfect- the expression on that girl's face- definitely Julia!

It takes a skilled writer to weave together so many detailed stories and infuse them with life. Ms. Klassen did so brilliantly. She made me fall in love with these people and so, this is a story that I will return to again and again.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Our home story: the beginning (Part 2)

Boy did I end on a cliffhanger. I've thought about this post many times over the last 4 months ( I cannot believe it's been that long). But I wanted to do it justice, so it kept getting tucked away for later. I'm sorry for the suspense, and I hope you'll accept lots of details and maybe even a few pictures as an apology.

When we last spoke on this subject, we had done the best we could and placed our future firmly in God's hands, resolving to embrace the outcome, whatever it may be. What happened next... was overwhelming.

We expected to hear by Tuesday night, but just a couple of hours after writing that post, we got a call from our realtor. She said, "I heard back from the sellers. They've picked you." I was dumbstruck. She continued with, "You will never believe this, but one of the other offers was for the same amount. And they picked you." I think that's when the tears started. I still can't believe it. Apparently a couple of the factors that went into the decision was our handmoney amount (we just wrote a check for what our realtor suggested, there was nothing else to it) and the type of loan we were going for (also by suggestion). We could plainly see that this blessing was not of our doing, but a gift from God. Naturally I jumped around a lot, crying and laughing and dancing and rejoicing. Jon called all of our family and friends, beaming as he told people, "So, uh, we got the house." My friend Shelby started screaming when I told her. That was pretty awesome. We spent the next few days in a blissful haze. We felt God's hands all over this and I was just floored. It was super intense and wonderful and I was too emotional to write about it.

Our house!

After that, we flew into a frenzy. We spent the next 6 weeks scheduling inspections, meeting with our mortgage rep, getting appraisals, meeting with electricians, picking paint colors, filling out paperwork and packing like crazy.

Our girls running around the backyard during one of our frequent visits to the house. Notice the mini vineyard to the left. I cannot wait for Spring!

After closing, we spent the next week frantically getting move in ready: removing asbestos, getting the carpets removed or cleaned, painting, moving, more electrical work and closing up the apartment.

last remnants in the living room

goodbye kitchen

last load of stuff before closing up the apt

Since November 1st, we've spent the last two months de-wallpapering, painting, unpacking, cleaning, building furniture, moving in new furniture, shopping for and hooking up appliances, fixing wall cracks, and adjusting to life in our new home. It has been insane, but the good kind.

Celebrating our first night at our new house with Lucianos pizza. All you can really see of the house is the er,  'charming' wall colors. The mint green of the entry way and lavender of the dining room and living room were the first things to go. Unfortunately, that bold basket-of-fruit wallpaper in the kitchen is going to be with us for a while.

Add to that the fact that we had been planning a family vacation to Florida and Disney for the last 4 years, to take place the first two weeks of December. It was awesome and crazy.