Review: Death at Thorburn Hall

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

I tried. I really did.

But I could not get into this book.

When I was 13, I began reading Agatha Christie mysteries. Murder on the Orient Express will always be one of my favorite novels. I loved the challenge of attempting to figure out who had committed the crime before the author revealed the answer. I loved the setting and the descriptions. The Britain of the 1930s will forever belong to Hercule Poirot.

Death at Thorburn Hall, volume six in the Drew Farthering Mysteries, has been marketed as a must-read for Christie devotees. The novel takes place in the Scottish countryside among the upper crust. The crime happens at a golf tournament. Julianna Deering writes for a Christian publisher, so nothing too gruesome would appear on the pages. On the whole, I was expecting a genteel yet challenging story.

Instead, it was boring.

The plot moves far too slowly. I’m all for letting things unfold at a leisurely pace, but if an author chooses that route than the characters need to be engaging. Drew Farthering and his companions simply aren’t. Further, the way they speak doesn’t feel authentic to that time and place. No anachronisms, but rather too much of the “pip, pip” and “tally ho” sort of speech. This would be easier to overlook if the characters had personality, but they all just sort of glide across the pages without making any lasting impact.

Perhaps I would have a different opinion if I had read the five preceding novels. (From now on, when choosing books to review, I won’t choose titles that are part of a series). I may see if I can find the first entry at my local library, because I would like to give Julianna Deering a fair shot. I’m not at all sure that my introduction to Drew Farthering, deep as the series is into his story at this point, is how she intended our meeting to go.

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

Love and Kindness

Gentle Reader,

Christine Topijan has launched a series of picture books that explore Christian virtues. The first in this series, Love and Kindness, written in a simple format (the book is only 12 pages long), is one that children will learn from and adults will appreciate. Topijan reminds us to look out for ways that we can help and support others, because that’s what God does for us. He is faithful, true and unceasing in His outpouring of love and, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, He wants us to become faithful, true and loving.

My favorite line in this book comes from page 10:

He reminds us of how much He loves us when we feel down and alone.

There is not a child or adult on this planet who doesn’t need to be consistently reminded of this truth.

Nobody has to be taught how to be self-centered. That’s our natural inclination. We all have to be taught how to be observant, compassionate and willing to help others. This little book provides great examples for parents to share with their children as they teach them to be kind to those they meet. I especially appreciated her inclusion of special needs children; the reader is encouraged to reach out to those who are different instead of fearing or shunning them.

Topijan keeps it simple. She doesn’t waste a lot of ink and she doesn’t use the big words. Yet this book will easily stir up big conversations between parents and their children, conversations that should not be avoided. In this, Topijan aids readers everywhere in obeying the command of Deuteronomy 11:19 –

You shall teach them [God’s ways] to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.

–  NKJV

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I RECEIVED A FREE COPY OF THIS BOOK IN EXCHANGE FOR MY FAIR AND HONEST REVIEW.

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.