Monday, August 22, 2016

'The Name I call Myself' by Beth Moran


 All Faith Harp wants is a quiet life--to take care of her troubled brother, Sam, earn enough money to stop the poverty wolves snapping at her heels, and to keep her past buried as deep as possible. And after years of upheaval, she might have just about managed it: Sam's latest treatment seems to actually be working, Faith is holding down a job, and she's engaged to the gorgeous and successful Perry. But, for Faith, things never seem to stay simple for long. Her domineering mother-in-law-to-be is planning a nightmare wedding, including the wedding dress from hell. And the man who killed her mother is released from prison, sending her brother tumbling back into mental illness.

When secretly planning the wedding she really wants, Faith stumbles across a church choir that challenges far more than her ability to hold a tune. She ends up joining the choir, led by the fierce choir-mistress Hester, who is determined to do whatever it takes to turn the group of ragtag women into something spectacular. She also meets Dylan, the church's vicar, who is different than any man she has ever met before . . .

Genre: Contemporary drama/romance, chick lit (sort of), suitable for both Christian and secular market. 

My biggest take-away from this novel is that our experiences are grained into the fabric of our personalities. Even with a wealthy fiance, new car and the offer of limitless financial support, Faith still thinks with the battler's perspective and insists on working hard to look after herself. It's easy to understand, when you consider the gradual revelation of all she's been through. It's quite fascinating. She's planning to marry a millionaire, but still has a broke person's mindset. Overall, Faith comes across with a strong sense of her own personhood, which she never compromises or allows to be violated. It makes her an admirable main character.

Beth Moran's writing style is fantastic. She knows how to play with a reader's emotions using a good blend of humour and pathos. She also has a way of making every character well-rounded and three-dimensional, including those with cameo roles. Each of the ladies in the choir stands out as individuals.  

The heart and wisdom of Hester the choir director, is one of the good parts of the story. She wants the ladies to develop such a loving bond that they support each other like a single organism, and convinces them that they must believe the best of themselves before they can expect their singing performance or lives to get any better. I liked her creative schemes to get them out of their comfort zones. Bonding happened, as Hester hoped, but on a few occasions some serious accidents were narrowly avoided. At those times, she came across a bit like an unqualified, self-appointed counselor who took huge decisions on herself. She was lucky they didn't turn out any worse.

The progression of Faith's romantic dilemma was interesting. Although it's pretty clear from the start that Dylan, the rugged pastor, is marked to be the hero, it was looking like she could've easily gone with Perry. He wasn't an anti-hero. In fact, I think it's to his credit that he turned out as nice a guy as he was, having been brought up by his snobby, overbearing mother. Perry was a product of his upbringing and circumstances, just as Faith and Sam were of theirs. Parts of the story seemed a bit rough on him, but I think he had a narrow escape too, since he could have ended up with a woman who wasn't in love with him and could never share his view of the world. He should have got out earlier, since there were many alarm bells. For example, she never said, 'I love you.' They probably could never have really been a good match, since their world outlooks were poles apart from childhood.

I think many readers who enjoy the 'One true love and you'll know when it hits you,' ideal will enjoy this book. It shows even big girls aren't too old for fairy tales, which sometimes do come true. Hey, I'm not sure if it's ever fully revealed why Dylan was still single. He said he'd explain one day, but did he ever? 

I'll try not to drop plot spoilers, but I decided to take one star off because although the writing is top-notch, some of the events of the plot left me horrified. I found one part of the story to be the emotional equivalent of a whack in the guts. It's most disturbing because the characters concerned are forewarned in plenty of time and do all they can to take precautions, calling on people who ought to be equipped to help, yet the situation still turns out just as they'd feared. That creeps me out. It was like a nightmare, which doesn't say much for the help we can expect from our society (or God, some readers may add).

 Sure, plenty of novels reflect the devastating turns life may take, but I thought it a bit unfair to the reader that this turns out to be one of them, because we were lulled into a sense of security. The cheery front cover design and some of the hilarious happenings early on lead me to expect for certain that this particular plot thread would be cleared up okay. Especially since the characters were doing all the right things. When I got to that stage, all I could do was gulp and say, 'I really didn't think she'd take it there.' It's just one of the hazards of the adventure of reading, I guess.

Thanks to Lion Hudson and NetGalley for my review copy

4 stars

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Sad Scarcity of good Bromances

This blog post was prompted because of the popularity of the new release, 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.' A big focus in this play is the heartwarming friendship between the sons of two traditional enemies, Harry Potter's son Albus, and Draco Malfoy's son Scorpius. 

Several fan groups across the internet believe that the boys' friendship is rich with gay subtext. They've expressed crushing disappointment that JKR and her fellow authors decided not to take Albus and Scorpius that way. A couple of crushes on females have been included for each of them, but several people call this a cop-out. Fan art and fiction to change this is no doubt being produced as we speak. This is just what I've noticed rife on the internet at the moment.

I can't help wondering if it highlights a bit of a problem in our culture. Why are so many people trying to read romance into Albus and Scorpius' friendship, just because of of its depth and sensitivity? Can't a pair of teenage boys enjoy a strong, affectionate friendship without being gay? Could it be because we see so few intense male friendships of this nature presented in literature and the media that so many people instantly assume what was never intended to be there? Even when I searched through images of friends for this blog post, I found an abundance of close girl friendships (hugging, arms around each other, foreheads together, smiling etc) but barely any for males. I'm thinking it must be high time to resurrect the 'bromance', which is defined as a close, non-sexual relationship between guys.

These thoughts prompted me to start searching through my mind for good examples of literary bromances. Although I came up with quite a few, I felt as if I was scraping the barrel. Some of them aren't quite perfect, and others are really, really old. But here they are. 

1) Albus and Scorpius
It seems right to begin with the hot-off-the-press bromance that prompted this post. These two boys are a perfect friendship match on many different levels. First, they turn established patterns on their heads. A dark, resentful Potter hits it off with a sunny, optimistic Malfoy. Their fathers' history of mutual antagonism means nothing to them, because they take people on face value. They discuss sensitive, emotional issues with honesty and are both willing to admit that their life at Hogwarts would be unbearable without each other. When forced apart they are entirely miserable, and aren't afraid to acknowledge that they intend to always be there for each other.

This bromance even helps their families bridge their gap after more than twenty years. Imagine Harry and Draco having a polite discussion about mutual parenting challenges, and Draco offering Harry a piece of sound parenting advice which he decides to accept. This comes across realistically all because of their sons' bromance. 

2) Harry and Ron
You can't start with Scorpius and Albus without mentioning the Hogwarts generation that came before. Although they were often part of a trio rather than a pair, Harry and Ron shared a close, best friend relationship. They had their ups and downs, but proved many times over that their manly affection for each other extended to death if necessary. A lovable duo. 

3) R2D2 and C3PO
It's pretty sad when you have to rely on droids to provide a decent bromance. But these two are firm friends who travel together, look out for each other, translate for each other, understand each other and hate the thought of being separated.

4) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
I admit I've never read these American classics. Being an Aussie, they weren't set on our school curriculum. But from reports I've heard all my life, I assume these two lads are inseparable friends on the same wavelength.

5) Frodo and Sam
I wasn't sure whether to include this one, wondering if their relationship is on quite the right footing to be considered a bromance. There is always a bit of servitude in Sam's attitude toward his beloved Master Frodo, but hey, I wanted to grab something.

6) Holmes and Watson
They are both intelligent, professional gentlemen who at least give lip service to a relationship of equality. Watson is always keen to tag along on Holmes' detective escapades to see what his friend will come up with next, and so he can say, 'You're incredible, Holmes!' And he never seems to find that smug, 'Elementary, my dear Watson,' at all condescending. Maybe not a perfect bromance either, but once again, I grab them where I find them.

7) Darcy and Bingley (from Pride and Prejudice)
These two seemed to be unlikely friends because of their different temperaments, but I guess they tick the bromance boxes. They enjoy hanging out with each other, they travel together and make sure to synchronise the plans in their calendars. And they've been friends for long enough that they make allowances for each others' foibles in a good-natured, eye rolling sort of way.

8) Hamlet and Horatio
The moody Prince of Denmark always had his best buddy to try to make things easier for him. Sadly Horatio's best efforts didn't make a whole lot of difference in the end, but at least he was always there for his friend, and Hamlet appreciated him. 

9) Pip and Herbert (from Great Expectations)
These two are getting closer to my bromance ideal, yet Charles Dickens lived long before the term was ever conceived. These young men became best friends and housemates with mutual concern for each other. They looked out for each others' interests, and were totally trustworthy and comfortable together. But do we really have to go back to Victorian England to find a good bromance? A bit sad if that's the case.

10) David and Jonathan
 I think the ancient biblical bromance nails it, and sets the bar high for all future bromances. These two were devoted to each other to such an extent that David declared Jonathan's love superior to that of a woman, and we all know David was definitely a red-hot male who loved his women. Jonathan's actions proved that David's opinion was justified. He was the Crown Prince at the time of the friendship. Even though David's rising popularity jeopardised his own chances of someday becoming King of Israel, that didn't matter to Jonathan. He remained devoted to David and his cause all his life.

If you can think of any more good bromances, please let me know. It's high time boys were free to celebrate their BFFs, as girls do. My son has a number of fairly close male friendships, so they are out there in reality. We just need to see them reflected in stories and art. Please bring them back into our stories and folklore.

To read my review of 'The Cursed Child', click here.

Monday, August 15, 2016

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne Tyler


Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner. 

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

Genre: General, contemporary, women's fiction. Shakespeare knock-offs.

I just found about the Hogarth Shakespeare project when I started this book. It seems Crown Publishing is on a mission to have some of Shakespeare's works re-told by well-known novelists of today, and this contribution by Anne Tyler is based on 'The Taming of the Shrew.' That was a pretty sexist text. Even the title can come across as offensive in our times, whether or not you're a feminist. The male lead character, Petruchio, sets out to make the opinionated Katherina into a more compliant and obedient bride. It's not something I can imagine (or would want) translated into the twenty-first century. I was curious to see how Anne Tyler would handle it.

In this story, Kate Battista (the Katherina character) is the elder daughter of Louis Battista, an intense scientist. She works as an assistant at a childcare centre, because she's run afoul of her supervisors at Uni and feels this is all she can get. Kate's younger sister Bunny (the Bianca character) is the traditional bimbo who aims to attract boys with her prettiness and frivolity. Their father has a young international research assistant named Pyotr Shcherbakov (the Petruchio character) whose visa is about to expire. Since he's the best assistant Louis ever had, the old man cooks up a plan to talk his daughter Kate into marrying him, just so he can keep his protege in the country.

Pyotr is one of the best and most interesting characters in the story, but I was disappointed that Tyler never took him as far as she could have. He's introduced as an orphan, and from time to time he drops brief stories and hints about his lonely, alienated childhood and youth in a country far removed from theirs, This is what begins to warm Kate toward him. But it's never quite enough! I kept expecting more unfolding revelations, helping our own affection for him to grow. I got to the last couple of pages and realised that what we had was all we were getting. It was a bit disappointing, since the potential was there to add so much more.  

I found Kate's work and social dilemmas more interesting than her romantic one. She's a direct and honest person who calls things as she sees them. That sounds like a positive trait, right? Well, in this story, people with power endlessly try to force her to modify her behaviour. Mrs Darling, the pre-school director, threatens to fire Kate unless she develops more 'tact and diplomacy' when dealing with parents and pupils. Kate realises that she's really being ordered to skirt around doling out pleasant sounding half-truths and outright lies, as everyone else does. So the story gets us wondering whether people who say they value honestly really mean it.

In Shakespeare's play, the other characters believe Katherina is someone who genuinely needs to be tamed. In 'Vinegar Girl', we get to question whether Kate's version of 'shrewishness' is a bad thing. She's witty, observant and free-speaking at the start, and I was pleased to find that she was still a witty, observant and free-speaking woman in the epilogue. In Anne Tyler's version, being 'tamed' turns out to be gaining a more understanding point of view toward others, particularly her new husband and other men in his position. This turns out not to be a bad thing.

I found the story a bit too heavy with annoying and difficult relatives. Toward the end I was getting really sick of the silly extended family. They took valuable word space from the main part of the story, which should have been Kate's budding relationship with Pyotr. What was there between the two of them was fun, but it wasn't half enough. As it was, he managed to get her to warm to him with more ease than I think he should have.

However, it was a quick, fairly enjoyable read, with a simple and fun message not to dismiss romance, no matter how contrived the circumstance seems to be. Someone recommended this as a light, holiday beach read, which I'd agree with.

Thanks to Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books for giving me a copy through Net Galley.

3.5 stars

Friday, August 12, 2016

'Heart of the Mountain' by Jeanette O'Hagan


Twins Delvina and Retza’s greatest desire is to be accepted as prentices by their parents’ old crew when they stumble across the strange abovegrounder. Trapped under the mountain, young Zadeki’s only thought is to escape and find his kin. Will the three youngsters pull apart or work together to save the underground realm?

YA fantasy adventure in the lost realm deep under the mountain.

Genre: Fantasy, YA novella 

I offered some feedback on earlier versions of this story along the way, and it's been good and interesting to see how it's evolved.

It's a pleasure to come across stories which are short enough to prove that a lot of skillful world building and characterisation can take place without needing heaps of space or wordiness. This is a quick read (just a 45 page e-book) and yet the racial differences between the mountain people and the abovegrounders comes through strong, along with all the attitudes of prejudice and suspicion. The descriptions are finely honed so it's easy to picture the scenery and characters in just a few well-crafted sentences.

The young twins have a mission to prove themselves and aim to earn their places in their tribe. Stumbling across an injured stranger in need of help was never part of their agenda, but they try to figure out how they can use his presence to their advantage.

Lonesome newcomer Zadeki considers himself in the deepest possible fix. The limitations of his captors gradually dawn on him, so he's able to step up when necessary in the perfect timing, and in a way that only he can do. I like stories in which the supposed underdog turns out to be the only one far enough removed from a bad situation to clearly discern problems which others are blind to.

The story is also about the running and mismanagement of kingdoms. It prompts us to consider how easy it is to accept what we've always known, and to take the questionable words of leaders on board with blind acceptance, because that's how we've always behaved. It's about skirting around problems until you can no longer miss them, and also how corruption can breed on itself.

Altogether, engrossing and thought-provoking. As I said, I've had the opportunity for a thorough read of this story along earlier stages, which makes it more difficult to rank, but I'd expect most new readers to want to give it a 4 or 5.

Click here for an interview with the author, Jeanette O'Hagan, back in 2014. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Kids living with Writers

Three-year-old Blake loved the book bear at a conference where I had a stall.  

I recently shared a post about writers living with kids.
During their growing years, I wrote and published nine novels. After discussing it over with them, I'm going to talk about the subject from their point of view. 

Here's a sample of the events which might be taken as typical occurrences during their homeschooling years.

1) Their father would say, 'One of you come here and act through this fighting scene with me, to show Mum why it wouldn't work the way she's written it. Be careful not to knock anything off the shelf, though.'

2) Family outings could double up as research trips. I might say, 'Let me take a photo of that old cottage. It looks like a place in my novel.' Once we were hiking through a conservation park and discussing whether or not it would be a suitable spot to dump off a body (when I was writing 'Best Forgotten'). My husband said, 'I think it could be perfect. There are plenty of walkers on these paths, but nobody bothers to climb all the way up that steep cliff next to the main road, which is where you'd dump him in the long overgrowth. He could be there for years before anyone finds him.' And Logan suddenly thought to turn around, and said, 'Dad, there are people right behind us. You'd better keep your voice down. What might they think if they overheard this conversation?'

3) Sometimes the kids tried designing covers, and choosing who they thought might be the right people to resemble characters in my novels. We'd have chats about the quality of other writers' covers, taking in font, layout, colours and title. The same applied to analysing other author's plots.

4) They read through the novels or manuscripts of friends or acquaintances of mine. Once, I was helping judge some entries for an unpublished manuscript competition, and offered to get my teenage son to add his opinion to a very up-to-date YA novel set in the world of computer gamers. He came up with a few technical issues to run past the author. She made the changes he suggested, and was kind enough to thank him in her acknowledgements.

This was a cake my daughter baked and designed to match my 'Best Forgotten' book cover, for a launch. She was thirteen at the time.

I didn't twig that my kids' viewpoints might differ from others, until the day I sent Logan off to a one-day session at the library on creative writing for young teens. He came home shaking his head and said, 'I can't believe the hyped-up opinions everyone else around the table had about authors. They think they're really special or something!'

I told him, 'I thought so too, at your age.That's partly what inspired me to want to write novels in the first place. They do create worlds for others to get immersed in, and characters to love, from their own imaginations. That is pretty cool, isn't it?'

He just laughed and said, 'I don't think about them that way at all.'

That's when it hit me that he thinks differently because he's lived with somebody who has kept on writing for as long as he could remember.  

And there was the time when Emma told us about a young acquaintance of hers who wrote a great spiel on social media about how she couldn't think of anything more inspiring and heroic than being a fiction author, sitting in coffee shops with your lap top, receiving fan mail and royalties in the post, changing lives with the words from your own pen. My daughter hummed and hawed, but decided to tell this friend, 'My parents are a writer and a musician, and I was the poorest of all my friends. When I was growing up I remember thinking that I wish they had other jobs because we could never afford things that my friends' families could.'

I've asked them, and on the whole, Logan, Emma and Blake are all unanimous about the following. When they've told anyone, 'My mother has written some novels,' they've come to expect responses like these.

'Wow, you're kidding, right? Has she really? That's fantastic!' (To which they would nod politely and think how they wished that 'Wow' would match their financial experiences)

Or, 'You must be really proud of her.' (To which they'd smile and agree because it was the polite thing to do.)

Or, 'Your mum must be really clever.' (To which they tell me they just grin and keep their mouths shut thinking, Little do you know!

Monday, August 8, 2016

'The Long Journey to Jake Palmer' by James L Rubart

Corporate trainer Jake Palmer coaches people to see deeper into themselves—yet he barely knows himself anymore. Recently divorced and weary of the business life, Jake reluctantly agrees to a lake-house vacation with friends, hoping to escape for ten days.

When he arrives, Jake hears the legend of Willow Lake—about a lost corridor that leads to a place where one’s deepest longings will be fulfilled.

Jake scoffs at the idea, but can’t shake a sliver of hope that the corridor is real. And when he meets a man who mutters cryptic speculations about the corridor, Jake is determined to find the path, find himself, and fix his crumbling life.

But the journey will become more treacherous with each step Jake takes.

Genre: Christian speculative, supernatural. 

Jake Palmer is a life coach and corporate trainer who was involved in an horrific attack which left extensive burns to the lower half of his body. His wife has left him and his rehabilitation was long and arduous. Jake used to believe all the success principles he'd taught so many others, but since his traumatic injury, he found it all a bit cliched and struggled to go through the motions. While staying with friends at a secluded retreat, he hears local rumors of a secret corridor where the deepest longings of a seeker's heart will be fulfilled. Although he scoffs, he makes it his mission to look into it, just in case.

This isn't my favourite novel by James L Rubart. I felt there was sort of a contrived feeling in the holiday house, with many conversations between the couples introduced specifically instead of evolving naturally. Does anybody as consistently good-natured and goofy as Peter really exist? Most of all, I found it difficult to warm up to the main character.  That may sound a bit harsh, considering all he'd been through. I didn't dislike Jake. It's just that over the long term, I grew depressed by his company and his headspace.

Jake is a mopey life coach, which seems to be a bit of a contradiction. He forever focuses on the negatives of his situation, while there are also many positives. He can still walk, row kayaks, ride dirt bikes, swim, water-ski, resume his job, and the upper half of his body is completely burn free, but he never once seems to express thankfulness for all that. I was hoping for somebody to remind him that the outcome of his attack could have been far worse. It never happens to the extent that I thought he deserved. When he isn't snapping at Peter to stop trying to set him up with women, he seems to be wallowing in self-pity that he's all alone. I wondered why so many women seemed interested to get to know him anyway, since he behaved so morose and rude to them.

I usually enjoy a good romantic thread, but reading all the ways in which Jake tries to fob off Ari, even though he's attracted to her, got a bit old. The story is written in such a way that it's easy to predict they'll get it together eventually. Seeing him keep up his insecure teenage boy act just detracts from the more interesting parts of the story.

I didn't think it started to rev up until about the sixty percent point, when Ryan, the supernatural guide, introduces himself. I did enjoy the way Jake's story becomes a parable, and he represents us all. His main issue turns out to be something we can surely almost all relate to, his response to guilt trips, and false and unnecessary grief about the ways he feels he's fallen short. Portals can be quite fascinating, and there are some intriguing thoughts about where fictional characters really exist, between the pages of books or in the individual imagination? So some of Rubart's usual trademark magic did come through. It's just this book seemed to have to wade us through a fair bit more waffle to get there.

I guess every author is entitled to a few misses, and I've had so many hits with Rubart's novels so far that I'll look forward to the next one. I liked the reference to Black Fedora coffee, which featured strongly in his last novel, The Five Times I met Myself.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

2.5 stars

Friday, August 5, 2016

'A Tapestry of Secrets' by Sarah Loudin Thomas


This Decade-Spanning Novel of Family and Faith Will Delight.
Now in her eighties, Perla Phillips has carried a secret since she was eighteen years old. When she sees her granddaughter, Ella, struggling for perfection, she decides to share her secret to show that God can use even the biggest mistakes for good. But before she can reveal what happened during that summer sixty years ago, she has a debilitating stroke.
Carrying a secret of her own, Ella arrives back in Wise, West Virginia, to help her aunt Sadie care for Perla. Both know the woman wanted to tell them something, but she's now locked in silence. Together they begin looking into the past, but they may learn more than they expected.
Will they have the courage to share their hearts? Or will the truth remain buried forever?

Genre: Christian women's fiction

This is the third and final in the Appalachian Blessings series. I've also reviewed Miracle in a Dry Season and Until the Harvest.

There is a wholesome, country feeling about the trilogy. I remember studying pastoral plays and poems as a student, and can't help thinking of these as pastoral novels. It's fun when a series following one family gradually changes from historical to contemporary. When we are introduced to new generations who hadn't even been born in the previous novels, it has a way of showing how time moves. 

The heroine is Ella, the daughter of Henry and Margaret from the previous story. She is a fabric artist who returns home to help care for her beloved grandmother Perla, who has suffered a stroke. Ella is recovering from a break-up with her city boyfriend Mark, but finds herself growing interested in two local guys, Richard the new pastor, and neighbour Seth.

One of the main plot threads is a mystery which was touched on in the first book. Anyone who remembers Perla and her little daughter Sadie from Miracle in a Dry Season may also remember that Perla stayed tight lipped about the identity of Sadie's father, choosing to look toward the future rather than dwelling in the past. In this novel, she decides that Sadie deserves to learn the truth, just when her stroke renders her speechless. By this stage, Sadie is middle-aged and her relationship with her mother is a bit strained. Bits and pieces are gradually revealed through Perla's flashbacks, until we find out who he was.

There are other things going on in the community too. I kept asking why did Ella have to stay so determined in her opposition to the sale of the church property? The answer, of course, is that it's one of the other main plot threads, but her fixed attitude got a bit old. As readers, I'm sure most of us can see the other side, but Ella refused to listen, and she hadn't even been living in the town and attending the church in her most recent years. She was trying to force her own sentimentality on the poor congregation members who had to put up with the chilly drafts, dodgy plumbing and all the building's other problems that were mentioned. When you think about it, this made her no different from Mavis Sanders, who was presented as a trouble-maker who refused to consider the other side of the debate. Mavis was an elderly inflexible grouch, and Ella was a young inflexible grouch. Happily, it did come to a conclusion.

Overall, I found this a bit slower moving than its prequels and easier to put down, but I'm glad I've read the whole trilogy, and am up-to-date with the Phillips family. 

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

3 stars