Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Woman's Place by Lynn Austin

publisher: Bethany House

I am a huge Lynn Austin fan. I think she is one of the best novelists in the market and this is yet more evidence that she has strength and conviction as a faith-based writer.

A Woman's Place follows four women: Helen, Jean, Rosa and Ginnie --- all working Rosie-the-Riveter jobs in Northern Michigan during the Second World War. Each represents a different type likewise a different strength of woman: Rose is a fiery new wife of Italian origin who leaves Brooklyn to settle with her strict inlaws when her husband is shipped overseas; Helen is a middle-aged teacher and heir to a large fortune ---the only lasting member of a large family. Her past love life is explored and carries more than one surprise. If Rosa is the free-spirit, Helen is, at first glance, the stick-in-the-mud. Jean is a fresh-faced woman--- just 18 at the start of the novel, who yearns to go to college against the wishes of her All-American jock boyfriend. Her friendship with Earl the foreman at her ship-building factory job is the highlight of the novel; Ginnie is a stay-at-home mom whose war-time employment she hides from her keeping-up-with-the-Jones's huband. Ginnie yearns to discover that her value lay outside the conformity of a housewife ensconced in appearances of domestic norms. At one point, she is assured that the dog is the only member of the household who holds any affection for her.

The novel begins with a snapshot of the quartet in their respective pre-war lives nicely developing characters who will grow into dear friends as the pages progress. When the attack at Pearl Harbour hits, their lives are uprooted and the narrative continually rotates to each perspective of women-at-war.

The novel is at times funny, heartbreaking and warm. A scene where Rosa accidentaly spikes the punch bowl with vodka intoxicating her mother-in-law's church women's group had me in stitches.

The structure of the novel also works extremely well. More and more I learn that structure is one of many of Austin's strong suits.

Structure and the development of complex themes and issues. The first, in this novel, being racial prejudice. Though an inadvertent victim of prejudice herself, Helen is quick to judge a German POW begging for her acceptance.... driving the consequence of bigotry close to home.

Earl and his factory workers become victim to acts of racial persecution when they stand up for a black female engineer and Jean discovers that hatred is sometimes harboured not a stone's throw from your front porch.

Above all, Austin tackles the established role of women: at home, at work and through a Christian lens.

Austin empowers women while allowing them to thrive in a domestic role. Her housewife, Ginnie, is not "tame", her middle-aged teacher is not silent and submissive and Rosa and Jean are in turn intellectual, passionate and strong: women who carve their own path----for whom life as a wife and mother is a result of choice and not standard trajectory.

I especially felt that Austin did not favour one type of woman; nor champion one choice. Instead she realistically provided four examples and let her readers discover the universal spark in each... no matter profession, ideal, family sitatuation....

With this, I expect every reader will discover a bit of each of this well-drawn quarted is housed in themselves.

Rebecca's Reward by Lauraine Snelling

publisher: Bethany House

Rebecca's Reward by Lauraine Snelling is a light ( almost juvenile at times ) historical about a young woman who has experienced countless sorrows---through which she picks herself up never abandoning her dream of opening an ice cream shop in Bismarck.

I have not actively read Snelling since I was in high school and she has stayed in her niche ----women of nordic origin: pioneering, struggling, finding love and deepening faith.

Snelling would do well to abandon the choppy, distracting dialect which plagues so many Christian novelists. She more than introduces the origins of her characters and this weak link detracts from her dialogue....

That being said, Snelling does have a good handle on dialogue: considering she uses full pages of it at a time ( most prominently in a scene between Rebecca and her female friends.... the eponymous "Daughters of Blessing" ).

I also really liked Gerald: Rebecca's romantic lead in a relationship is at first shrouded in friendship while Rebecca learns to believe in its ability to foster sterner connection.

One thing that particularly irks me about Christian historicals is the propensity to add extraneous birth or death scenes.... Rebecca's Reward is not an exception: a scratchy, whirlwind delivery scene is scrunched in by p. 60. I am also not fond of italicized prayers provided over-zealously. This novel boasts a few too many.

This is not Snelling's best. She is a competent writer, she just never quite hit the mark here.

The Inheritance by Tamera Alexander

publisher: Thomas Nelson

I initially wanted to write a scathing review of this book because it was certainly not my style and certainly not( as far as I could tell having read all of Alexander's other work) Alexander's style either. I almost want to go out on a limb and think that Alexander revised the initial form of this novel in order to have something to publish at Thomas Nelson for Women of Faith, but that is not a fair assessment since we cannot judge an author's intentions.

An author's note at the end of the book tells us that it was a revised story developed from one of her first attempts at writing. Oft rejected and having found success with her other series, Alexander shelved it... but the characters kept coming back to her.

I can easily say that the ingredients were there to make a escapist piece of romantic fiction, but they seemed to have been jumbled up somehow. So much so that I almost closed the book numerous times. It was, in my opinion, a step away from a Harlequin novel.

This, of course, was not appealing to me and I found some of the romantic strains woven into the narrative were less about love than physical lust.... not a bad thing, mind, if you are not working in the Christian field. So much was spent on the difficult passion ignited between Marshall Caradon and McKenna, that the characters did not express their views of the other's hearts.

As I thought more and more about this novel and how I found little enjoyment in it ( especially because I really liked Alexander's Remembered, Rekindled, etc., series and From A Distance--so much so I pre-ordered this month's ago), I realized that I am not the intended reader of this book.

This is a historical romance. I often tag Christian novels set in historical framework as "romances", merely because it always factors into the plot.... even if it is not the central theme. This book, however, is a romance novel..... a romance novel in the ilk of the Harlequin genre.

The more I thought about how it plays into its intended role, the more I found my initial distaste for the book mellowing.

If you are a romance reader you are going to love this novel. It has all of the formulaic elements needed to give you the satisfaction you search for. The characters are initially drawn to each other, have numerous obstacles to overcome and a bumpy ride toward happiness. Marshall Caradon is one-sexy-cop and if your pension for rugged terrain and men on horses informs your reading decisions then this is the book for you.

I thought Alexander could have followed up with her mention that McKenna's previous love had died in the line of duty....especially because widows and widowers and past loves and second chances are at the core of every one of her novels.

The theme of inheritance is interspersed throughout the novel ... in an unexpected way. It is not so much about the inheritance of money or property ( although that does factor ) as much as the inheritance of giftings and values.

I applaud Alexander for her knowledge of saddle-making. McKenna excels at it and this was a very "cool" job worthy of a tough woman!

For its intended audience, this is a sure-fire hit.

For those of you, like me, who like a little bit more quiet in your romance and passion, I highly recommend From a Distance: the first Alexander book I read and my favourite so far. The second in the series from which this book is derived will be published next month. I have pre-ordered it as well.

Happy Reading.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

publisher: everyone

"Christian fiction" now is made up of a thriving canon beginning with authors like Grace Livingston Hill, Janette Oke, Frank Peretti, etc., --- fiction that is constructed for the purpose of interweaving Christian values and concepts into fiction.

In the 19th century ( my niche and the subject of my degree), books were published with a high sense of morality: sunday school readers and children's verse and adult cautionary tales which drove homethe same bleak and brimstone ideas as predecessing days of chap books and loose pamphlets. In fact, as long as there has been print, I think we can safely say that Christians have tried to devise a way to spread the Gospel to the masses--- through the filter of the written word. Some parable, some philosophical, sermon, epistolary, Biblical commentary and history..... we Christians have a long written tradition to meet our thriving oral and musical one.

The wonderful thing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and living a lifestyle completely driven by Christian thought is your happily tainted eyes seem to find kernels of Christianity everywhere. You wear rose-coloured glasses that tip your mind's eye in a way privvy to any and all: symbolism, threads of grace, morality, Biblical reference, allegory, etc., that lead you back to the One who propels you forward.

Lucky for this Christian, I have the very great fortune of finding said Grace throughout my favourite era of literature.

Wholly conscious or not, the Victorians were steeped with Christian ideals and their literature is veritably drenched in it....

which brings me to the subject of Great Expectations: a novel where threads of Grace are far more prominent through my rose-coloured glasses than the romance between a blacksmith's apprentice and the cold Estella; the illusory value of riches and the Cinderella-yarn of a young man coming into his own. No, Great Expectations always brings me closer to God because it is, above all, a novel of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is first represented through Joe Gargery: narrator Pip's brother-in-law: a simple and good-natured blacksmith. When Pip is a child, Joe explains to him why he decided to marry Pip's harsh sister and take on a family not quite his own. He explains how he immediately thought of the orphaned Pip left to be raised by his sister and knew that he could find a place for both of them. Constantly reminded of the treacherous way in which his abusive father treated him and his mother, Joe is willing to atone his father's past wrongs by embracing Pip and his sister. Pip mentions looking up to Joe " in his heart" as he deciphers that he was the main reason for Joe's marriage to his cruel and abusive sister.

As Pip grows up and starts to visit Miss Havisham's, his view of Joe changes. The callous Estella: brought up to wreak havoc on the male sex, drives Pip with negative force. First, Pip develops a disdain for his life at the forge and Joe's work and for his home : a place once sanctified by Joe, as Pip recalls, but now a reminder of his shamefully low circumstance.

When Mr. Jagger's informs Pip that he is a young man of great expectations, Pip far too eagerly leaves Joe and new housekeeper Biddy to establish himself in London. On one occasion when Joe visits Pip in London, we see for the first time the ramifications of Pip's wealth and status. Pip treats Joe abysmally and Joe bears it like a saint. At the end of a tragically awkward meeting, Joe tells Pip inasmuch as it is a pleasure to see him anywhere, he knows that their social circumstances are severed. He cannot blame Pip for his treatment of him because he believes it is a relationship now welded by societal norms.

As far as his love for Pip ..... it remains unchanged. It even remains unchanged when Pip returns for his sister's funeral --- choosing the Blue Boar in his hometown as lodging rather than the home of his youth with widower Joe. Pip's airy promise to visit often prompts Joe to show unabashed affection. No matter how ungrateful Pip is, Joe will never scorn him or turn him away.

Perhaps the most Christianized ( if I may pen a word) segment of the novel occurs near the end. Pip has discovered the benefactor of his great expectations and been driven to near-ruin and heavy debt. All of his friends have deserted him and he lays deep in an encumbered illness... lugubrious prospects awaiting him when he awakes.

Joe, of course, becomes Pip's steadfast companion and nurses him through the illness. Further still, hardworking Joe ( for whom money and life are hard come by due to the nature of his occupation) has willingly paid all of Pip's debts; debts accumulated by money squandered on seeming propriety and wealth.

The second testament of unconditional love is not as innocent and pure as Joe's love for Pip. It is instead proven by Pip for the oft unworthy Estella. Pip first meets Estella when he is ordered to attend Miss Havisham at Satis House: an instrument for her masochistic amusement. Rejected by a man on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has brought up Estella as a mechanization of destruction. Estella, beautiful and proud, will break hearts and afflict the same suffering Miss Havisham endured.

Pip falls hard for Estella as a boy...perhaps for no other reason than that she represents a life so beyond the one laid out for him as a blacksmith.

In fact, all of Pip's actions ( good and not so good ) are borne of something relating to Estella. Estella first inspires Pip to rethink the way he was brought up when she scolds him for calling knaves "jacks". From there, Pip knows that his life at the forge will never be good enough for a girl of Estella's pedigree.

When Pip learns of his great expectations he becomes blinded by his (false) assumption that Miss Havisham is prepping him as a life mate for her ward, Estella. Pip's ingratitude toward Joe and his extravagant lifestyle and blatent snobbery burgeon out of Pip's need to make Estella love him.

While Estella is far from perfect: cold, callous, heartless and more stone than woman , Pip loves her unconditionally. Even when Estella becomes engaged to Bentley Drummle ( a suitor as hopelessly detached from emotion as she), Pip waits in the sidelines for a turn of events.

Unconditional love is a theme oft explored in theology, in Christian fiction, in the Bible and in secular fiction. However, its resonance as a Christian principle remains intact in a book published more than a century ago.

I think the conviction at the novel's core stems from Pip's treatment of Joe and Joe's treatment of Pip---good-hearted and true. In turn, Pip's steadfast love for Estella in spite of Estella's inability to feel warmth or care.

When Joe pays Pip's debts and refuses to hear anything about how they were accredited, I am always reminded of intrinsic Christian theology. There is nothing in the world that Pip can do that would make Joe love him less----- a continual reminder of Christ's sacrifice and his unconditional love for us.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Constant Heart by Siri Mitchell

publisher: Bethany House

And in this week’s This Christian Book Didn’t Suck segment, we have Siri Mitchell whose glorious foray into historical Fiction, A Constant Heart was pleasantly pleasantly received by this reader! I loved it! I did! I did!

I have to tell you, before Mitchell I could not think of one Christian author ( save the late Jane Orcutt) who could have done Elizabethan dialogue well. Most would have tried to get every third word or staved from it altogether. Not Mitchell. She wrote gracefully and with seeming effortlessness.

It is a beautiful historical with enough romance and intrigue and resonance of life as a courtier in the court of Elizabeth I to keep this picky reader titillated. No Courtier can love another woman save Queen Elizabeth I : not even his wife. And from this simple idea, Mitchell weaves her spell-binding and oft-poetic plot.

I have to admit I almost scanned this book on the shelf due to a.) my preconceived ( and obviously ill-founded) notion that a Christian writer could not broach the Elizabethan era and b.) due to the title ( which, surprisingly is strewn from a rather poignant moment in the development of a complex relationship between our hero and heroine).

This book is severely well-written: especially for its format. It criss-crosses from the perspective of the Earl of Lytham ( the flawed and human romantic lead ---expect a lot of dimension to characters here, even those in periphery ) and Marget his new and beautiful wife. I have never previously known this device to work well. Even in that now-pulp favourite “the Time Traveler’s Wife”, this is done forcefully and confusingly. Mitchell pulls it off with flair.

There is a Sir Walter Raleigh cameo …but not a stupid one. And, any moments where Elizabeth I plays into a scene are done surprisingly well, subtlely and without over-indulgence.

Impressively, the book is infused with historical accuracies without "a cut-from-this-source, paste here" feel that plagues so many writers of the genre.

The dialogue is spot on, the romance plot keeps you in “Elizabeth/Darcy will they EVER get together” mode and I learned a lot about the Elizabethan Era. Mitchell does a magnificent job of delving into the problem of face painting and the toxic ceruses and cosmetics that plagued Elizabeth and the women of her court.

On picking up this title I thought, due to the synopsis on the back, that it might be a romance of disparity of ranks: perhaps a lady of the court and a stable boy… and I was in the mood for that.What I got in its stead far exceeded my expectations.

There is nothing rash, crass or hasty here. Instead, we are given a thought-provoking expose of court life.

I had previously skipped Siri Mitchell's work because it seemed far too chick-lit for me. However, I hope she recognizes that she has found her niche.

You have all heard my treatise that I like one out of every five Christian novels I read ( and the other four are sometimes abysmal ). Siri Mitchell has leapt into my "Writers To Follow" list and I cannot wait to read more of her fresh and engaging prose.

One of the best Christian novels I have read this ( or any ) year.