‘Love Inspired’ – Part 2

A while back my great-aunt passed away, and somehow my grandpa ended up with two boxes full of books.  Almost all of them are ‘inspirational’ romances published by Harlequin as ‘Love Inspired’.  At one point (not sure if you still can) you could subscribe and have a new book mailed to you every month.  Aunt Darby did just that, and now I’m in possession of somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 or so of these ‘Love Inspired’ titles.  Most of them are pretty cheesy but alright for a one-time fluff read.  I’m sure that I’ll binge through some of them periodically.  They’re perfect to grab out of the crate when I’m just looking for a quick, no-brainer book.  However, most of them will probably end up exiting this house after that one-time read, because they just aren’t worth the shelf space to me.  So if there’s one that sounds especially appealing to you… let me know, and I’ll be quite happy to mail you a gift!  ;-)

Here’s the next round of five for this project – the first five can be found here.

The Pastor Takes a Wife by Anna Schmidt

//published 2010//

This was a pleasant little story where single-mom Megan falls for the new pastor, Jeb.  There was actually a little bit of grit to this story that I liked, but I just wasn’t feeling the chemistry between Megan and Jeb.  I’m always annoyed when a story spends the majority of the time talking about why two people aren’t suited for each other – and then magically, at the end, they are!

Still, overall a nice little tale that was pleasant for a one-off read – 3/5.

A Mother’s Gift by Arlene James and Kathryn Springer

//published 2010//

This is actually two novellas in one volume.  The first, Dreaming of a Family, could have been an alright read, but Dixie was just over-the-top rude to Joel at the beginning.  I found it impossible to believe that an adult woman would say the things she said to a comparative stranger, especially making fun of his physical handicap.  It was just absurd.  2/5.

The second, The Mommy Wish, was better, but Julia of course has this deep, dark secret that if Nick knew about it, it would change his whole perspective of her, and she’s kept herself locked away and never goes out to see people and it’s been years of angst… and then the ‘terrible’ thing just really wasn’t that terrible.  I mean sad, yes, but worth years of agony?  Not remotely.  Still, 3/5 for an otherwise fun story that did have some nice moments.

Triplets Find a Mom by Annie Jones

//published 2012//

This one was so bad that I had to DNF about halfway through.  I just can’t put my finger on what wasn’t working with this story.  It was like chunks of it were missing.  The story wasn’t bad, but the writing was honestly just kind of terrible.  The characters didn’t make a lot of sense, and everyone was just sort of milling around.  The concept was engaging and the setting was nice, but it was just so random and abrupt that I couldn’t get into the story at all.  It was just…  I don’t know.  For instance, Sam is a widower and he has triplet daughters.  Polly meets these girls for literally like 30 seconds.  She sees them the next day, and knows which one is which, despite the fact that they’re identical.  Like, just because Polly herself is a twin didn’t make me buy the concept that she magically can tell these identical girls apart immediately.  Sam has this weird thing about dogs that made zero sense, so when Polly finds a stray, she is determined to find another home for it because she doesn’t want to ‘bother’ the girls…???  It was just stuff like that all the time.  It felt like something was going to happen, and then there is just some weird thing out of nowhere instead.

Close to Home by Carolyn Aarsen

//published 2009//

Probably my favorite out of the batch (although that isn’t saying much).  Jace and Dodie were a good couple, and I appreciated the way that some sensitive topics were handled well.  However, it took waaaaaaaayyyyyyy too long for Dodie to freaking TALK TO JACE.  Like ONE CONVERSATION is all that needs to happen, and it dragged out way too long before that took place.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the concept that Dodie was ‘wasting her life’ because she hadn’t gone to college or pursued a career.  As someone who did go to college but has not pursued a career, and has worked part time random jobs very contentedly my entire life, I felt vaguely insulted.  Guess what, gang?  A career isn’t the only way to find validation and purpose in life!  Anyway – 3/5.

The Marriage Mission by Pam Andrews

//published 2010//

This was actually a really pleasant, nice little story.  I liked Mac and Jenny a lot and thought they made a great couple.  However, I was so bothered by the message of this book.  I kept reading because I thought it would actually get resolved in the end – but it really didn’t.

Basically, Mac has been working in foreign missions throughout his adult life.  He has come stateside to a small West Virginia town to accept a year-long post at a local church while he recovers from an improperly-set broken ankle.  There is the possibility that the church will call him to stay on permanently, and there is also a possibility that the mission he’s worked for will call him to another foreign post.  Mac falls for Jenny almost immediately, and the feeling is mutual.  But then it turns into this whole angsty thing about Mac feeling like he can’t ‘impose’ on Jenny by dating her when he isn’t sure if he is going to go back overseas, and Jenny feeling like she isn’t ‘worthy’ to go with Mac if he does go back overseas, yadda yadda yadda.  And what bothered me was that neither of them ever acted like, I don’t know, that if they were a couple they would actually be a team and could work through these things together?!  It was also never explained why Jenny couldn’t go with Mac if he did go overseas.  I feel like basically all the missionaries I know are married, and not all of the spouses went to seminary?  It seemed like Jenny’s compassion, hard-working attitude, and general common sense would make her an excellent missionary’s wife.

In the end, it’s all resolved because Mac decides not to go overseas – which didn’t feel like real resolution to me at all.  Mac never had a conversation with Jenny about whether she would be open to going overseas.  The insistence on the either/or scenario meant that so much of the tension in the book felt entirely contrived.  So 2.5/5 for this one.

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Rumours and Recklessness // by Nicole Clarkson

Every once in a while those free Kindle books actually turn out to be nice…

//published 2015//

In this retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennett falls from a horse and is in a coma the day after the Netherfield Ball.  When Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy stop by, they are just in time to hear Mr. Collins announce his engagement to Elizabeth – even though he hasn’t consulted her on the subject.  Carried away in the moment, Mr. Darcy jumps in and says this is impossible as Elizabeth is engaged to him.  Although it sounds a bit implausible, Clarkson actually pulls off this scenario quite well.  Throughout the rest of the book, we still deal with all the prejudices of our favorite couple, but now they are in a situation where it is to their best interests to work through their differences together.

I really like variations where, instead of arriving at conclusions apart from each other as they did in the original (after the Hunsford proposal), they actually communicate and talk through things together.  Unequal Affections was another similar scenario, and another of my favorite retellings.  I appreciated that in this version Elizabeth still had plenty of sass, but wasn’t obnoxious.  The other characters stay true to form as well.

This is a clean version, which was also nice – no sneaking off for pre-marital snogging.  While there is tension there, it is presented in a way that didn’t make me embarrassed to read it.

Where the story bogged down a bit was a side strand with Darcy’s cousin Anne.  Lady de Bourgh is a bit over-the-top, and combining her with Caroline seemed a bit strange as well.  While it’s not a terrible way to take the story, it felt a little odd.

Still, all in all this was a pleasant surprise, and one that I recommend to anyone else there who, like myself, is strangely addicted to P&P retellings.

The Great Shelby Holmes // by Elizabeth Eulberg

//published 2016//

This book sounded like it could be super cute and fun.  A kid named John Watson moves into a new apartment building and becomes friends with the girl next door, Shelby Holmes.  Shelby is incredibly observant and considers herself a detective.  Together, they solve a mystery of a missing dog.

I liked the concept of a kiddie version of Sherlock Holmes, in this world where the original Sherlock obviously doesn’t exist.  Young Watson was a pleasant narrator, settling into his new life (which of course involves a divorce, because we aren’t allowed to write about children with two parents any more, unless those parents are either incredibly weird or gay).  He isn’t really sure that he wants to be friends with Shelby, who is kind of strange, but he doesn’t have a lot of other options, and soon finds himself pulled into her adventures.

So, like, I think what Eulberg was trying to do was portray a socially awkward kid (Shelby) and then have Watson kind of show her how to be a friend.  But all that really happens is Shelby is so obnoxious and annoying that I couldn’t hardly stand to read about her.  She is just flat rude, way beyond just being awkward.  Is she supposed to be autistic and I’m supposed to have empathy for her or something?  I have no idea.  I just couldn’t believe what an obnoxious know-it-all jerk she was 100% of the time.

What really blew my mind was that she wasn’t just that way with other kids – she’s consistently rude and condescending to every adult she meets, too, including her own parents.  And like – all the adults just go with it?  They let her boss them around and ask rude questions and give in to all her demands.  It was quite strange.  If Shelby had showed up in my life, I would have told her where to get off.  And if I had ever talked to my parents the way she talked to hers, I would have been grounded for weeks.

I realize that the original Sherlock isn’t completely likable.  He is also rather condescending at times and not always polite.  But he’s also an adult, not a nine-year-old.  I basically got to the point where I realized that I wouldn’t recommend this book to any of the younger readers I know, because there is no way I would want them to look at Shelby as a role model.  Even though by the end Shelby is doing slightly  better at ‘being a friend,’ it’s not like she ever actually realizes what a boor she is, or apologizes for being obnoxious.

At one point, Watson and his mom go to Shelby’s house for dinner.  Throughout, Shelby talks back to her parents, makes rude comments under her breath, and is incredibly sulky and annoying.  When told to eat her green beans, she first off refuses, and then shoves them all in her mouth at once and chews with her mouth open.  When she is given a piece of pie, she takes a bite and then spits it out because it’s sugar free.  For some reason, her dad refers to her as ‘Shelly,’ to which Shelby responds, “It’s Shelby, Father.  How many times must I remind you of that, especially since you have given me that designation?”  …So apparently her dad forgets her name regularly…???  Or is Shelly a nickname that she doesn’t like???  Throughout the evening, her rude behavior is met with only mild remonstrance from her parents, who are of course portrayed as rather slow, dense, and ineffective.  And afterwards, does Watson’s mom say, “Wow, there is no way I want this kid to be your primary influence in your new home!” ??  No, of course not.  She’s just like, “Oh, wow, Shelby sure is interesting!  ::nervous laughter:: ”

I also found it really hard to believe that Watson and Shelby were allowed to just meander all over New York City without telling anyone where they were going or when they would be back.  Watson’s mother gives him strict rules about where he can go, but he doesn’t pay any attention to them since he’s just following Shelby around.  On multiple occasions he finds himself places where he is uncomfortable or doesn’t know how to get home.  None of these things seemed like actions I would want a younger reader finding acceptable.  And even when Watson’s mom finds out that he went places he wasn’t supposed to, she just sort of shrugs it off because she’s glad he’s ‘making friends.’

I had trouble deciding whether a 10-year-old would have found the mystery of the book challenging.  I found it almost embarrassingly obvious, to the point that I started to worry that maybe Watson needs some help if he can’t put together the clues that Shelby is handing him.  Again, I know it’s traditional for the sidekick to be a little dense, but seriously.  The culprit actually explains the motive behind the dognapping but Watson doesn’t notice…

As I was reading this book, I found myself thinking a lot about the child-genius-detective that I grew up with, Encyclopedia Brown.  I even pulled out a couple of my old EB books to see if he was more annoying than I remember.  But no, Encyclopedia manages to be unfailingly polite and helpful, has normal friends, does chores without complaining, and is respectful to his parents and other adults.  His dad is the chief of police, and often presents Encyclopedia with the facts of a case so EB can solve them, which he always does in a way that does not imply that his dad is stupid.

All in all, I was completely turned off by Shelby as a character, which meant I didn’t enjoy this book at all, and would never recommend it to any of the younger readers I know.  I would never want them to think that Shelby’s condescending, rude, obnoxious behavior is in any way as acceptable as it was consistently presented.  Shelby is a know-it-all jerk who spends all of her time rolling her eyes, pouting, and being dismissive of other people’s opinions and thoughts.  There wasn’t a single moment of this book where I found her to be sympathetic or likable.  2/5 and not recommended.

Blind Spot // by Dani Pettrey

Chesapeake Valor #3

I received this book from Bethany House, which does not impact my review.

//published 2017//

Back in the spring, I received Still Life from BH and reviewed it; before I read that one I went ahead and read the first book, Cold Shot.  I would definitely recommend reading these books as a series, as I think they would be a bit confusing as standalones.  They focus on the same group of friends, and their relationships build and evolve throughout the series.  I actually went back and reread Still Life before jumping into Blind Spot, just to get myself back up to speed.

Overall, I like these books and am comfortable with the 3.5/5 rating I have given them all, including this one.  They are decent mysteries with an engaging group of characters, but really lack a solid focus within the story.

Throughout the second book, I found myself irritated as the main mystery was actually quite intriguing – but Pettrey kept veering off into this entirely unrelated mystery with these people who were smuggling terrorists.  In Blind Spot, the terrorist plot becomes the main one, but this time she kept flipping to yet another completely unrelated mystery about this guy who gets murdered.  The secondary mystery in both cases comes across as filler/padding/a way to keep other characters busy and involved, and the primary mystery suffers because of it.  Switching to the secondary plot throws off the pacing of the primary, and consistently feels like we are just killing time.  I really, really wish that Pettrey would just focus on the primary mystery, because in both books this could have been filled out and made a lot more intense.

In this book, there was also this weird situation where a guy gets murdered while a bunch of the characters on a retreat.  There is a possibility that instead of murder, it’s actually suicide and the dead guy killed other people before killing himself.  Yet despite the fact that all the main characters of the book knew this dead guy really well, and despite the fact that he may be a murderer, they are all allowed to process the crime scene??  This felt completely unrealistic (since they would have a strong motive for contaminating the crime scene to make sure the dead guy doesn’t get blamed for murder), and it’s weird details like that that throw off the overall groove of the story.

Even though I’ve been griping about it, I really did enjoy reading this book.  I like all of the characters and have enjoyed watching them come together.  Throughout the first two books, we find out bits and pieces about another good friend of theirs who disappeared several years earlier.  This whole plot comes back into play in Blind Spot, and left me really intrigued to find out how things are going to wrap up in the end.

I’m looking forward to reading the fourth book when it appears, and still intend to eventually check out some of Pettrey’s other books as well.

The Night Circus // by Erin Morgenstern

Even though I finished The Night Circus two weeks ago, I still am having a lot of feelings, and I doubt that this review will be very comprehensive.  It’s one of those books that is just too magical for reviewing.

//published 2011//

I feel like this book has been on my TBR forever, and when it came in the mail last month, I was quite excited to finally read it!

Recently, I decided to subscribe to receive a monthly book from Mr. B.’s Emporium of Books, because I really do love receiving book boxes, but the truth is that I don’t really read by ‘genre’, and the overwhelming majority of book subscriptions make you choose that way. E.g., I do read a lot of YA, but I don’t usually care for contemporary, angsty YA – I prefer fantasy/sci-fi YA instead.  But subscribing to a YA book box means I end up with contemporary YA, which is alright, but not really something I seek out.  (It’s how I ended up reading that book with the one-armed black skater boy hero a while back.)  All that to say, with Mr. B’s you actually fill out a (lengthy) survey about the books you like (and don’t), and I thought it would be fun to see if they managed to send books I enjoy – and The Night Circus was the first one I received!

This book was… gah, it was just plain magical.  Despite the fact that it involved a lot of ingredients I don’t usually like, I was completely and totally engrossed and did not want to put this book down.  As a general rule, I do not like present-tense narratives and I do not like books that rely on a dated header to tell you where you are in the story (e.g., ‘Associates and Conspirators – London, February 1885’), but this book used both and it only added to the magic.

The descriptions in The Night Circus were amazing.  I absolutely loved hearing about the different displays/acts in the circus.  Morgenstern created a definitive sense of place – the circus became its own character in the story, and it was amazing.  The introduction chapters written in second person should have been annoying, but instead were brilliant.  I was drawn into the story immediately by this method, as I stood waiting in line for the circus to open.

Pacing was excellent – just enough back-and-forth in time to keep the story building in a specific direction without feeling the whiplash of jumping around in time.  I fell in love with all the characters, even the ones I didn’t like.  The story unfolded with the precision of a perfectly-executed song.

For a while, I was nervous about the ending, but I shouldn’t have been, as that was perfect, also.

There were a few annoyances.  A character dies and I didn’t want him to, and Morgenstern has an aggravating tendency to drop French words and phrases throughout without bothering to explain them, even when they are an important part of the story.  But these are minor issues with a book that overall captivated me.

I am quite excited to add this book to my collection, and anticipate rereading it again in the (probably near) future.  All in all, a 5/5 read for me, and one of those few books that possesses genuine magic on every page.

NB – several reviews caused me to add this book to my list, and I’m not sure I have them all but among them – Stephanie’s Book Reviews, The Literary Sisters, Tales of the Marvelous, and The Penniless Bookworm.

Miss Billy trilogy // by Eleanor H. Porter

I’ve had Miss Billy’s Decision on my shelf since 2003, picked up in an antique shop simply because it was written by the author of Pollyanna.  However, I have never gotten around to reading it!  With the help of Goodreads, I discovered that this is actually the second book about Miss Billy, so I was able to purchase the first book, Miss Billy, on eBay inexpensively, and a Kindle version of book three (Miss Billy Married), as hard copies of that one were pushing the $30 range. (!)

All in all, this was was a pleasant collection, but nothing amazing, mostly because Billy wasn’t a super engaging heroine, and Porter did not do a particularly good job with story crafting – the characters just sort of mill around, especially in Miss Billy.

//published 1911//

The story opens with Billy’s aunt dying, leaving her alone in the world.  At age 18, it seemed to me like she should have been able to find a companion and live quietly until her majority at 21 (keeping in mind that these books were published in the early 1900’s), but instead Billy writes to a man she’s never met – a good friend of her father’s, for whom she was named.  William, a widower, lives in a rambling house with his bachelor brothers, Cyril and Bertram.  Each of the brothers has an odd quirk.  Cyril is a monk-like man devoted to his music (specifically piano).  William, since the death of his wife and infant son, focuses on collecting things.  Bertram is an artist famous for painting portraits of young women – ‘The Face of a Girl’.

Through a series of events, when the gentlemen receive Billy’s letter, they do not realize that she is female, and have no real idea how old she is.  They reluctantly agree to take in the waif, since she is, after all, named for William, but when Billy arrives in all her feminine glory, they are cast into disarray!  Of course, it turns out that Billy makes all of their lives brighter and better.  William finds an older female cousin to come live with them and be Billy’s companion/chaperone and everyone is getting along famously until William’s sister Kate (married and in her own house) tells Billy that the brothers used to be super happy until Billy moved in and threw off everyone’s groove.  Devastated, Billy takes Aunt Hannah and moves back to her home town.

The reason that the story was strange was because, first off, Kate is a jerk.  Throughout the next two books, she is the center of all mischief and miscommunications as she is incredibly meddlesome.  Kate’s interference with everything got a bit old after a while, especially since she was absolutely never apologetic, even when she wrecked havoc all around.

Secondly, Billy only lives with the brother for a couple of months.  During that time, her characters comes across more as someone who is 11 or 12, not 18.  She bounds through the house, is boisterous and enthusiastic, and doesn’t really do anything useful.  When she leaves with Aunt Hannah, she doesn’t really explain to the brothers that she isn’t planning to come back, and they spend the rest of the book being incredibly mopey and depressed, and years go by and they only see her a handful of times, as Billy takes off for Europe.  The amount of sadness and loneliness they feel seems incredibly disproportionate to the amount of time Billy actually lived with them.

//published 1912//

The second book is all about Billy deciding which brother to marry, of course.  It’s pretty obvious which one she loves, but Kate comes in with her interfering ways and almost ruins everyone’s lives, and then continues to complain, throughout the rest of that book and well into book 3, that Billy chose the wrong brother and that their marriage will never be successful because Billy didn’t take Kate’s advice and marry the brother Kate thought she suited!  I mean, a bit of sisterly advice is one thing, but Kate’s nagging was ridiculous.

Overall, though, the second book was probably my favorite.  It had the most story and the characters were better developed.

//published 1914//

In book three, Billy starts her married life and is quite happy, until she starts listening to other people/books/articles/etc.  This  book followed a pattern that got old after a while, wherein Billy latches onto some quirky bit of advice and then follows it obsessively.  E.g., she reads an article that says that young wives need to let their husbands basically ‘do their own thing’ and wives should continue to follow their own personal interests as well.  This advice made perfect sense, but Billy takes it to extremes by acting completely indifferent towards her husband (all while internally sighing at how much she misses him) and kind of blowing him off all the time, leaving him confused by a wife who no longer seems interested in spending time with him.  Of course, they always resolve things and are happy again – until the next time someone gives Billy some advice.

Then the baby is born, and the book took a decided turn for the worse.  I genuinely wanted to shake Billy, who became obsessed with the baby, completely ignoring her husband.  Constantly reading books on child-rearing, she insists on doing everything by the book and on the clock, with the baby receiving specifically allotted amounts of time for napping, playing, etc.  It was fine at first, but this dragged on for SO long.  What I really couldn’t believe was that Aunt Hannah didn’t step in and give Billy the talking-to she really needed.

In the end, I still wasn’t completely convinced that Billy had grasped the concept of balance.  While everything seemed to be going well when the story ended, I could definitely see Billy reading some other article and becoming just as annoying as ever.

These were perfectly fine and enjoyable books, with some delightful bits here and there.  But I just never really liked Billy all that well – she never felt like a very real person – and her tendency to obsess over one thing and really agonize over it got old for me.  A 3/5 for this little series, but it probably isn’t one I’ll reread.

Lodestars Anthology: New Zealand

Last year, I subscribed to a readers’ quarterly called Slightly Foxedwhich I love.  It’s just so delightful to read about books people love, not necessarily books that are ‘in’ or best sellers.  It’s a very friendly publication, and when they include an advertisement for another publication, Lodestars AnthologyI decided to give it a try.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I knew it was a travelers’ magazine of sorts, with lots of pictures.  But when I received my first issue, I was blown away by the amazing quality of this publication.  It’s half an inch thick, printed on matte (rather than glossy) paper, and it loaded with fantastic photography and artwork, plus tons of well-written and engaging articles.

Each issue focuses on a different country, and this – Issue 8 – stars New Zealand, which happens to be a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting.  And after reading LA, I want to go even more.  The publication does a really fantastic job of exploring all sorts of different aspects of the country – outdoor pursuits, out-of-the-way curiosities, restaurants, and town cultures.  I thoroughly enjoyed every page, and still find myself flipping through it.  It’s like a colorful reference book.

My biggest disappointment is that I can no longer purchase the first two issues, which are now out of stock – England and Scotland.

All in all, I’m quite looking forward to my next issue, and highly recommend checking out this delightful publication.

NB all pictures from LA’s website.