Review: Amazing Grace

Amanda Book

Gentle Reader,

I grew up watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and reading Janette Oke books. Gentle “prairie romance” was, as now, considered a usually safe, family-friendly option. It’s not that my parents didn’t allow other things, but rather that they shielded me from things I didn’t need to be exposed to at the time. These unspoken lessons regarding entertainment have stuck with me, though I confess to not always heeding them.

My tastes have, of course, changed. I haven’t picked up a Janette Oke novel in more than a decade and I didn’t keep up with the many adaptions and spin-offs of her earlier works, such as the Love Comes Softly series of movies. I continue to enjoy historical books and shows (and always will), but I prefer plots with more grit and realism. I don’t want things to be tied up in neat, candy-colored bows all the time. I don’t want the obvious guy to always end up with the obvious girl. I don’t like that the characters are often interchangeable and the themes unchanging. But that’s the jam for some people. If I learned anything in working for a library district for 17 years, it’s that there’s a book for every reader – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So, dear reader, if gentle prairie romance is your thing, keep reading.

Amazing Grace, the first novel written by Amanda Longpre, unfolds within the context of a real event – the Panic of 1873. A lesser-known economic depression that began in Europe,

[t]he signal event on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, the country’s preeminent investment banking concern. The firm was the principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad and had handled most of the government’s wartime loans, using a widespread sales campaign backed by advertising to sell bonds to people who had never before owned securities.

United States History Pages

Colorado City banker Henry Bennett finds himself wiped out by this failure, which has widespread repercussions. Already disliked by the town’s residents, he becomes an outright enemy when he is forced to call in their loans. The reader is allowed to see that he doesn’t revel in doing so, but his neighbors and fellow businessmen are not privy to this inner struggle. Bennett is not, on the whole, an upstanding man, but Longpre steers clear of the “irredeemably evil rich guy” trope, which I appreciated.

The figurative noose tightens and soon Bennett is brought into confrontation with Marie Larson, a widow struggling to hold onto her farm. The grief is fresh and it is a matter of pride for her to keep what she and her husband worked for. Larson reacts badly to Bennett’s announcement, which makes him angry and you can imagine where that goes. This scene stands as a comment on pride, bad communication and the ways in which both move us to defensively lash out instead of listen.

Bennett and Larson are thrown together, which sets the rest of the story in motion. The action moves from the town to Larson’s farm, where Bennett has no choice but to lay low (with a cow named Ophelia for company). There’s a sort of riff on Beauty and the Beast as the two characters slowly but surely learn to trust each other.

It was at this point in the story that I began to find it difficult to relate to Marie. (That’s one of the oddest sentences I’ve ever written. Very meta). There seems to be nothing that she can’t do, except plow (though she does try). She is not entirely without flaws, but she is clearly one of the smartest, if not the smartest, women that Bennett has ever encountered. This didn’t feel right to me. Of course it’s not wrong for this character to be smart and skilled, but homegirl needed to be really bad at something to keep her grounded in reality. Nobody does everything that well.

Bennett finds a measure of healing out on the farm, away from the pressures of the economic collapse, but he can only hide for so long. Though he had no hand in the nation-wide failure, his investment choices were all his own. He has to, as they say, face the music. And that music, played by people whose money he lost, is about as pleasant as screamo combined with reggae accompanied by nails on a chalkboard.

Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to predict the ending. Longpre stays firmly within the established Christian/historical fiction/romance formula. There was very little chance that Bennett and Larson would not end up together. To her credit, however, she threw in a few twists and turns, providing a little bit of freshness. For fans of this genre, Amazing Grace is the broadly good endeavor of a first-time novelist.

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Review: Where We Belong

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Lynn Austin is a successful historical novelist. Her series Chronicles of the Kings is on my to-read list. Thus when this title came up for review, I eagerly asked for a copy.

I am on page 253 of this book. The beginning of Chapter 18. A little over halfway through.

Can’t even tell you what the story is about.

Austin has written about two wealthy sisters, Rebecca and Flora Hawes. Throughout their lives they take several trips to Europe, Africa and the Middle East, because they find society life dull and unfulfilling. This would be interesting if not for the fact that wealthy women in the 19th Century often traveled; there’s nothing remarkable about the sisters visiting London, Paris, Egypt and the Holy Land.

The reader is supposed to find them fascinating characters, I guess, because they each long to do something unique in the world, something to serve God. We are supposed to see them as mold-breaking and bold. Instead Rebecca is pedantic and preachy while Flora is somehow both shallow and tender-hearted. There is no nuance or complexity to them, even during that is supposed to be one of the great conflicts of the plotline.

Do they get better? Do they grow and become relatable? I don’t know. The novel is, put simply, boring. Far too much dialogue and far too little action, and this coming from a reader who has enjoyed more than a few slow-moving books. I would press through and finish this one, except that I don’t care about any of the characters. I can’t even begin to imagine how the story ends, because it never really began in the first place.

Much of Where We Belong revolves around biblical archaeology, history and questions of faith, all of which endlessly fascinate me – but Austin managed to write about the discoveries of the years in which this book takes place in such a dull, disheartening way. The average person should know more about Codex Sinaiticus, how Darwin’s theories rocked the academic world and why places like St. Catherine’s monastery matter, yet I don’t think that anyone who reads this book will come away with her appetite whetted. It’s all so dry, so clinical.

There’s nothing more I can write about this one. Every author, no matter how skilled and successful, writes clunkers from time to time. I’ve certainly done so. Someone out there will love this book, but that person just wasn’t me.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Review: Loving Luther

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

What was it like, to live “back then?”

I began asking this question as a child and haven’t been able to stop.  There is something endlessly fascinating about history, about peering into the past. How did certain events happen? Why did certain people do what they did? How did the people respond to the events? What was it like to live and love, laugh and cry, in the midst of the great upheavals of the timeline?

As a daughter of the Reformation, I know all about both the brilliance and the deep, often horrifying flaws of Martin Luther. He cried out against the excesses and corruption of the late medieval Catholic church. He taught salvation by grace, through faith. He translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. He wrote hymns. At the same time, Luther failed to support a leveling of the class system, essentially ordering the peasants to stay in “their place.” He was anti-Semitic, though not in a racist sense. Rather, his prejudice was theological, arising from conclusion that God had rejected the Jews. (Let me be clear: Hate is hate, whatever the reason). Love him or loathe him, Luther is a seminal figure in history. The transition from medieval to modern cannot be understood without him.

What would it have been like to love such a complicated, intense man?

This is the question Allison Pittman addresses in her novel Loving Luther. Instead of focusing on the man who lit the match, she turns her attention to a woman who lived in the explosion: Katharina von Bora.

As was common practice at the time, Katharina was taken to the Benedictine convent at Brenha around the age of five. For the next 19 years, her world was one of women and walls. She took the veil as part of the Cistercian order, at the convent of Marienthron in Grimma (eastern Germany). It was a life of deprivation and duty; never quite enough to eat, cold in winter and hot in summer, the clanging of bells interrupting the few hours of precious sleep. Leaving was unthinkable.

Until it wasn’t.

Katharina somehow became aware of Luther and the growing reform movement. (Pittman has her reading messages smuggled into the cloister). A large part of the novel centers around Katharina’s dissatisfaction with life as a nun and her growing spiritual awareness, therefore I won’t go into great detail and so spoil the story for you. Suffice it to say, on Easter Eve, 1523, Katharina and eleven other nuns staged a jailbreak of sorts, assisted by Luther and his friends. (Don’t tell me I should have #spoileralerted you. This happened almost 500 years ago).

It was difficult for her to adjust to life on “the outside.” A woman without fortune, family or marriage occupied a tenuous place in society, dependent upon the goodwill of friends, or, in Katharina’s case, strangers. By the time she left the convent, Katharina was old by the standards of the day (24; I mean, can you even?) and, by all accounts, possessed a sharp intellect and a witty tongue, neither of which were considered attractive. (Glad I am that I was not born centuries earlier). Luther took it upon himself to arrange a match for her, feeling responsible for her settlement.

If you know anything about the history of this pair, you know where there is headed. Even if you don’t know, you can guess, simply by glancing at the title of the book. This is where Pittman shines. She takes us through Katharina’s life, step by step. The reader may know where it will end, but the character doesn’t, and the reader is moved to sympathy for her in her struggles. Indeed, even modern women can easily relate to the struggle in seeking to please God above all, while longing for love and a meaningful place in the world.

There was a clunky transition in the book, having to do with a man named Jerome Baumgartner. I can’t delve too deeply into this as it is integral to the plot, but you will notice the shift as you read, almost as if an engine moves from first gear to third, skipping over second completely. There’s just a shudder and grind to it. Not enough to ruin the narrative and, honestly, I’m not sure how Pittman could have handled it better. Due to a lack of resources on Katharina’s life, no doubt certain choices had to be made in telling her story.

Loving Luther was an enjoyable read, particularly in these weeks leading up to the celebration of Reformation Day. So often church history focuses on the great heroes of the faith. It was a lovely change of pace to read about a heroine instead. I want to know more about Katharina now and am confident that she will be a source of inspiration for years to come.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Review: Emerald Isle

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Mike Trainor’s life is mere existence since a terrorist bomb killed his beloved Mary the week before their wedding. Then an overbooked airplane forces him to sit by a beautiful young Irishwoman who is the spitting image of his dead fiancé….

Sometimes I write lengthy reviews.

Other times I simply tell you, “Read this book.”

This is one of those times.

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser is a beloved friend, one of the few brave men who actively participate in the Five Minute Friday writing community. His humor, intelligence and faith reach across the miles through his words, drawing the reader into reflection. He is unfailingly generous in his encouragement, always finding ways to cheer on anyone with whom he crosses paths. Having developed a real camaraderie with him over the last couple of years, I was in no way surprised that his fiction is as deep and surprise-filled as his blog posts.

Emerald Isle tells the story of Mike, Annie and Mary. From the rolling green hills of Ireland to the heat of Austin to the concrete jungle that is Chicago, with many stops between, this is a story of secrets, vengeance, love lost, hopes shattered and faith tested. It is a tale of a man caught between two women – but not in the way you expect.

While much Christian fiction is saccharine and formulaic, Emerald Isle is refreshingly different. There’s enough action to keep the plot rolling and enough character development to keep the reader attached. In some places, I laughed out loud. Others, my heart ached. If this book were made into a movie, Liam Neeson would easily have a role (I won’t tell you who he’d play). He’d kick butt and take names.

But not as a lone wolf. What I really appreciated about the action elements is that Andrew knows what he’s talking about. He’s been in battle. There are no superheroes in this novel. Results are achieved only through teamwork. Andrew carries this principle beyond the comrades in arms and, in a fascinating exploration of culture, family ties are forged through means other than blood and marriage.

Most importantly, Mike, Annie and Mary’s story prompts the reader to contemplate both the large and small ways in which God is present and working. From Chapter 105:

See, and You can correct me if I’m wrong, I think You’re just too big to understand, starting cold. All that Old Testament stuff, it put me on overload. I bet a lot of people went on overload from that. Started making rules and stuff, making so if we did everything just right you’d like us.

Only, that wasn’t it at all, was it? The answer was always so simple. You loved us from the beginning to way past the end. All we had to do was turn around, see those open arms waiting for us.

Finally You couldn’t stand it anymore, and You came to prove it by dying for us. Dying, and taking all the shame and guilt and general crap we should have felt for the way we lived, ESPECIALLY the way we lived when we thought we were doing good. We protected our hearts from You by building walls of laws and rules and stupid little rituals, while You wore your heart on Your sleeve. And on the cross You bled out, that heart pumped all your blood overboard, until only water came out when the centurion stuck You with the spear.

And that blood went down to join other blood from other victims on that hill, but You made it something different. You made red robes, red for kingship, red for blood, red for love.

My soul sings, reading that.

There’s more to be said, but I won’t say it. I’d give too much away if I did. Just head on over to Amazon. You know what to do.

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I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.