Wednesday, July 30, 2014

REVIEW: ONCE UPON A PRINCE ~ RACHEL HAUCK

Suzanna Truit grew up in a dysfunctional home where her parents were always fighting – the plate throwing, screaming at the top of their lungs kind of fighting.  In her teen years, however, her parents found the Lord and turned their marriage around.  The unpredictability of her living situation, however, ingrained in Suzanna the need to live a safe, predictable life; the need to always have a plan.

Content in her comfortable, safe, predictable relationship with her high school sweetheart, a soldier, Suzanna is happy to wait for Adam to finish his tours of duty and ultimately a proposal.  After twelve years together when a stroll on the beach turns into a break-up instead of an engagement, Suzanna is flabbergasted.  She is even more shocked to find that she isn’t heartbroken, just furious – at herself, for hiding in a dead-end relationship for 12 years.  Adam wasn’t wrong when he said they didn’t love each other like spouses should love each other, and the fact that she couldn’t see it before he pointed it out leaves Suzanna frustrated and confused. 

After storming off, Suzanna seeks refuge under Lovers’ Oak, where she meets Nate Kenneth, a charming man on vacation from Brighton.  Nate and Suzanna have instant chemistry and an instant friendship forms.  Soon they are spending every day together, but neither have a romantic relationship in mind.  Suzanna is still reeling from her Adam situation, and Nate has a much, much bigger complication: He is truly Nathaniel, crown prince and heir to the throne of Brighton.  According to Brighton law no heir to the throne may marry a foreigner, so Nate knows from the start that no good can come of seeing Suzanna as anything more than a friend.  Even if marrying Suzanna wouldn’t cost him his crown, the political situation in Brighton and its sister country, Hessenberg, is such that Nate might just be forced to marry the beautiful but cunning Lady Genevieve.  His family, his parliament and even the people of Brighton are certainly pushing him towards it.

Nate and Suzanna’s friendship soon blossoms into a mutual attraction, but with both of them fighting it every step of the way it seems like a happily ever after isn’t in the cards for Nate and Suzanna.  Upon news of the King’s death, Nate leaves Suzanna behind and returns to his life and responsibilities in Brighton.  Certain that a clean break would be the only way to get over Suzanna and the hopes of what could never be, Nate doesn’t make contact with her again… until five months later when Suzanna receives an invitation to Nathaniel’s coronation.

Having lost her long-time boyfriend, her job and her home in recent months, the girl dependent on a plan doesn’t have one.  Suzanna must finally learn to let go and let God.

Having nothing keeping her home, Suzanna embarks on a journey to the European country that will steal her heart, and the man who already has…


Once Upon A Prince by Rachel Hauck is the first book in the Royal Wedding series, and can be read as a standalone.

I truly wanted to love this book.  The beautiful cover first caught my eye and the blurb had my hopelessly romantic heart sighing in anticipation.  An ordinary girl winning the heart of an honest to goodness prince is a tale as old as time, and the ultimate dream of every little girl.  Something about this book just didn’t work for me, though.  

I liked both Nathaniel and Suzanna, and I enjoyed the two of them together.  My favourite part of the story was how Nathaniel and Suzanna each found strength in their relationship with God to overcome the challenges they faced, and how that is what ultimately brings them together.  Their shared faith is the foundation on which their friendship is built, and the aspects of faith are realistically handled without ever being preachy. 

Suzanna’s family were sweethearts (especially her sister, who I hope will get her own book down the line), but I did not like Nathaniel’s mother or his brother.  They were set against his relationship with Suzanna before they even met her, despite the fact that he clearly loved her.  Five months apart couldn’t drive her from his heart, but they cared more about the monarchy than his wellbeing.  He was clearly miserable, he was losing weight, but they would rather he keep the country stable by marrying the conniving Genevieve, who he couldn’t stand, than try to help him find some way to be with the woman who made him smile, who made him laugh, who made him the best version of himself – exactly the kind of woman a King needs by his side.  I understand that sometimes royals need to put their country’s wellbeing before personal happiness, but it seemed Nate’s mother and brother didn’t care for Nate’s wellbeing at all.  They merely wanted him to fall in line and commit himself to a lifetime of misery all in the name of politics.  They invite Suzanna to his coronation solely to prove to him how out of place she would be in their world.  They are certain her presence would highlight the differences between her and Lady Genevieve, and that her unsuitability would help his sense of duty to prevail.  Nathaniel’s entire family treats Suzanna like dirt.  The servants make up for it though, and I loved them all.

While I love the premise and the main characters, there was just a little something missing for me.  I had a hard time believing the depth of their relationship.  I didn’t quite believe that they could be so very connected considering their limited interaction.  I suppose you could argue that it was simply because they were meant to be, but I didn’t completely buy into the depth of their love.  *Mild spoiler alert*  They spend two weeks together, and make no contact for five months. Suzanna goes to Brighton for the coronation, they spend three days together, Suzanna goes home. They make no contact for five months. Nathaniel shows up at Lovers’ Oak to propose to Suzanna, she happily accepts – at this point they haven’t spent three weeks together and they haven’t even shared a kiss.  As much as I would love to throw caution to the wind in the name of a good love story, this just didn’t completely work for me. I wasn’t convinced that they were madly in love at this point. 

Once Upon A Prince is by no means a terrible book, it just lacked a little something for me.  I will, however, give the next book in the series a go.

Princess Ever After will focus on Regina Beswick, the heir of Hessenberg.  I look forward to seeing a regular girl, and a tomboy at that, learn she is a long lost princess.  That is the kind of transition I would have liked to see of Suzanna.  I would have enjoyed more focus on Nate and Suzanna’s relationship back in Brighton, seeing them act like a couple instead of friends, and seeing Suzanna face the challenges a commoner would need to overcome on her journey to becoming queen.  


Product Information:
Title: Once Upon a Prince
Author: Rachel Hauck
Publisher: Zondervan
Year: 2013
Number of pages: 353
ISBN-10: 0310315476
ISBN-13: 978-0310315476
ASIN: B00A9UJWU0


Monday, July 21, 2014

REVIEW: UNSPOKEN ~ DEE HENDERSON

Ruth Bazoni is the most famous kidnapping victim in recent Chicago history.  When she was sixteen, Ruth was kidnapped along with her twin sister, Tabitha, for ransom.  When the kidnappers made it clear that only one of the girls would be released, Ruth sacrificed herself by kicking her sister out of the van, ensuring that Tabitha returned home safely.  What followed was the darkest four years of Ruth’s life; four years of captivity, experiencing trauma so severe her mind has blocked most of it out.  Following Ruth’s rescue she decided to change her name and start a new life.  Charlotte Graham has never spoken about those four years – not to her family, not to her doctors, not to the police.  The reason for her silence is more disturbing than anyone could have guessed…

Bryce Bishop is a coin dealer bored with his life.  He could never have guessed that God would answer his prayers by bringing Charlotte Graham into his life.  Charlotte has inherited a coin collection worth millions, and following the guidance of the only two people she trusts, she has elected Bishop Chicago to buy her collection of coins.  The process of buying Charlotte’s coins will take months, yet Bryce has a sinking feeling only a few months in Charlotte’s life won’t be enough.  He is fascinated by her, intrigued by her and definitely interested in her, but while Charlotte is perfectly cordial she rebuffs his every attempt to move their relationship past friendship.  He doesn’t know anything about her and a background check delivers the bare minimum.  All he knows is that the wonderful woman now part of his life has vowed to remain single for life.  Supported by those closest to her, Bryce slowly and carefully attempts to prove to Charlotte that she can trust him. Maybe, just maybe, Bryce can be the catalyst that finally helps Charlotte heal.

Those four years not only destroyed Ruth’s innocence, trust in men and any chance of a normal life, it also badly damaged her relationship with God.  Charlotte does believe in God, but she has trouble accepting that He loves her, given that He allowed those men to hurt her.  She has an even bigger issue with the fact that God would have been willing to forgive her kidnappers if they were so inclined to ask; and therein lies Bryce’s challenge: Can he convince Charlotte that she is not only worthy of love, but that she is loved – by God and by him?


Unspoken by Dee Henderson is categorised as romantic suspense, yet personally I would not quite classify it as either romance or suspense.  It is essentially a love story, yes, but there is very little romance between Bryce and Charlotte, given Charlotte's past.  There is also zero suspense.  The last 50 pages or so might lean toward that direction, but as none of the characters are ever in any danger, it falls flat.  There is very little in terms of action to keep the reader turning the pages and it all boils down to investment in the story and the characters.

While the story is solid and the writing is good, there are several things about the book that I don’t like.  First of all, Bryce is the protagonist of the story more than Charlotte.  The book is written from his point of view and generally I find it difficult to connect with a book where the POV is solely from the hero’s perspective - I prefer the POV to be from the heroine’s perspective as it is obviously easier for me to connect with a female.  I enjoy dual POV’s, but I don’t particularly like for a book to be solely from the hero’s POV.  Don’t get me wrong, Bryce is by no means a disappointing hero.  He is a wonderfully patient man of God and absolutely perfect for Charlotte, but this book desperately needed at least a few chapters written from Charlotte’s point of view.  While her story is told through others and Charlotte becomes a very sympathetic character, the reader is not given the opportunity to make a connection with her.  Even though she is present throughout most of the book, she is very much a secondary character, and all we know about her is what we see through Bryce.  Charlotte has a dark past and is still very much haunted by it, and I almost feel like Henderson took the easy way out by not delving into Charlotte’s psyche. 

I also feel that Unspoken is much, much longer than it needs to be.  There is a lot (probably no less than 150 pages) that could have been cut without affecting the outcome of the story.  I am the first one to admit that details make a book great, but there is such a thing as too much detail.  I now know more about coin collecting than I ever wanted to.  I completely understand that it is the coins that bring Charlotte and Bryce together, but was it really necessary for me to learn the name, size, shape, colour and age of so many coins?  If the coins were somehow integral to the mystery then it might have been understandable, but as it is the coins were just filler.  Too much filler.  In fact, the first half of the book (mostly focusing on the coins) feels like a different book than the second half (the remainder of Charlotte’s inheritance and the resurfacing of her past). 

Paul and Ann Falcon (from Full Disclosure) are secondary characters in Unspoken, and for me there were just too many scenes of the two of them.  I understand why some of the scenes would be necessary considering how everything fit together in the end, but most of their scenes could have been cut without affecting the outcome of the book.

I will say, though, that ultimately all of this added together to make it believable that the events of the book unfold over more than a year.  It certainly feels like a long time, and it all adds to the realistic progression of Bryce and Charlotte’s relationship.
 
The reader is never made privy to the events of those four years of Charlotte’s captivity.  While it is easy enough to draw certain conclusions, I feel that also in this Henderson took the easy way out and cheated her readers.  Twice it is brought up that Charlotte’s friend, Ellie, will tell Bryce some of what happened to Charlotte, but this never happens.  Authors should guard against introducing a topic if they have no intention of following through.  Furthermore, a reporter is writing a book about the kidnapping and while Charlotte gets to read what he writes, the reader does not.  I think Henderson should have spent less time writing about coins and put in more effort into Charlotte’s trauma. 

In recent years there seems to have been a shift in Henderson’s writing style.  Her recent releases just don’t have the same feel to them as her earlier works.  As with Paul and Ann’s ending in Full Disclosure, Unspoken also left me wanting just a little bit more for Bryce and Charlotte.  It seems Henderson now chooses to leave her readers with less than perfect endings – well, I don’t know about you, but I read to escape from too much realism. Give me a happy (if slightly unrealistic) ending any day.  Life is hard – romance novels don’t have to be.  Henderson’s new tendency to leave the characters slightly unfulfilled and the reader slightly unsatisfied sadly makes me weary of reading her future releases. 


Product Information:
Title: Unspoken
Author: Dee Henderson
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Year: 2013
Number of pages: 449
ISBN:0764211714
ISBN-13: 978-0764211713
ASIN: B00DWA69NW

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

REVIEW: COME BACK TO ME ~ MILA GRAY (SARAH ALDERSON)


Pan Macmillan has graciously provided me with a complimentary copy of this book, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!


Come Back to Me tells the story of a once in a lifetime love.  Jessa has secretly been in love with her brother’s best friend, Kit, since she was old enough to be interested in boys.  Sadly she was never as striking as the kind of girls Kit seemed to gravitate to, and she made her peace with loving him from afar; until the summer she turns 18 when a stolen kiss changes everything.

Kit has never been interested enough in any girl to consider having a serious relationship, but all that changes when he finally gives in to his feelings for Riley’s little sister.  Kit and Jessa’s secret relationship comes with a whole lot of complications, including the fact that Riley would never approve of their relationship, and Jessa’s domineering father hates Kit with an intensity that terrifies her as much as it baffles her.

A summer of secret hook-ups brings Jessa to life as Kit brings out the absolute best in her.  In Kit’s arms Jessa blossoms into a confident young woman, finally finding the strength to stand up to her father and stand up for what she believes in.  The only damper on their otherwise perfect romance is that lurking in the back of their minds is the fact that they only have four weeks together until Kit and Riley are redeployed.  A year-long separation awaits the new lovers – a separation they suspect will be hard but bearable.  Little could they have guessed how drastically that separation would tear them apart.


Come Back to Me is the first new adult book by Sarah Alderson, written under the pseudonym Mila Gray.  It differs from Alderson’s young adult books in the frequency and explicitness of intimate scenes (obviously more on both counts).  

What I loved most about this book is the characters.  Jessa and Kit are both easy to love, and it’s impossible not to root for their happily-ever-after.  They are wonderful individually and even better together, truly bringing out the best in each other.  I absolutely love the character development in this book as both Jessa and Kit have a lot to face and a lot to overcome.  The progression of their relationship is realistic and solid.  It’s clear from the first moment that this is a once in a lifetime, forever-kind-of-love, and Jessa and Kit are deeply committed to each other from the very start.

Kit is an absolute gem of a boyfriend.  He brings Jessa to life in a way I’m not sure I’ve experienced in another book.  He helps Jessa find herself, accept herself and express herself.  The things he does to help her get out from under her father’s thumb are so practical yet so darn sweet.  In turn Jessa is perfect for Kit.  She is the softness he needs in a hard world, the only person he can completely let down his guard with, knowing she loves him just as he is.  The freedom he finds with Jessa is unlike any he’s ever known.

Throughout the book we not only deal with the complications of Kit and Jessa’s relationship, but the prologue of the book (which is set in the not too distant future) stays in the back of your mind like a ticking time bomb.  The mystery of why Jessa’s father hates Kit so very much also begs to be solved, making Come Back To Me a complex read about first love, loss, forgiveness and growth.  Emotionally this is by far deepest book Gray/Alderson has delivered; emotions range from deliriously happy to completely devastated, ensuring the reader goes on a roller-coaster of emotions.  As much as you as reader want to convince yourself that Kit and Jessa’s happily ever after is guaranteed, Gray/Alderson makes it impossible.  It is that doubt that drives the reader to continue turning the pages late into the night.

While Come Back To Me is not my favourite book by Gray/Alderson (Will anything ever surpass Lila?), I am by no means disappointed.  I expect Gray/Alderson will be just as successful in the new adult genre as she is in young adult.


Product information:
Title: Come Back To Me
Author: Mila Gray (Sarah Alderson)
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Year: 2014
Number of pages: 352
ASIN: B00KCRMYU0

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Monday, July 7, 2014

REVIEW: IN THE FIELD OF GRACE ~ TESSA AFSHAR

“You never know who the Lord will use. Perhaps one day, it will be you, Ruth”.  Through the line of Ruth, the Moabite, came Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world.


Moody Publishers has graciously provided me with a complimentary copy of this book, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!


 Beloved, I am afraid one day you will be famous. Everyone wil hear about your story, for you are far too extraordinary to remain forgotten.  As long as there are people in this world, they will speak of your faithfulness and courage [Afshar 2014:266]

Destitute, grief-stricken, and unwanted by the people of God, Ruth arrives in Israel with nothing to recommend her but Naomi's, love. Her loftiest hope is to provide enough food to save Naomi and herself from starvation. But God has other plans for her life.

While everyone considers Ruth an outcast, she is astounded to find one of the most honored men of Judah showing her favor. Long since a widower and determined to stay that way, Boaz is irresistibly drawn to the foreign woman with the haunted eyes. He tells himself he is only being kind to his Cousin Naomi's chosen daughter when he goes out of his way to protect her from harm, but his heart knows better.

Based on the biblical account of Ruth, In the Field of Grace is the story of a love that ultimately changes the course of Israel's destiny and the future of the whole world.

This is one of my all time favourite book covers. So stunning! I especially love that they ultimately used the cover I voted for on Afshar's Facebook page 

At the market a young Moabite, Ruth, meets the Israelite, Naomi, and the two become fast, if unlikely, friends.  Ruth soon catches the eye of Naomi’s son, Mahlon.  It is not long before they are married.  With Naomi, Mahlon, Chilion and Orpah, Ruth finally experiences acceptance and love, and her marriage to Mahlon is a tender one.  It is also during this time when her new Israelite family teaches Ruth about the Lord, and as naturally as breathing Ruth comes to give her heart to the Lord as well.

[…] Ruth prayed to the Lord with increasing frequency.  It wasn’t a calculated, well-examined decision.  She gave it no thought.  She made no conscious change of allegiance in her faith.  She just clung blindly to the One who seemed to bring her a strange kind of relief.

A few years into their marriage, in illness takes Mahlon from Ruth, along with his brother, Chilion.  On the brink of starvation, Naomi makes the decision to return to her homeland, Bethlehem, where the harvest is bountiful.  Naomi releases Ruth and Orpah from their duties to her and bids them to return to their mothers’ houses.  Orpah obeys, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi in one of the most famous statements from the Bible: “Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people will be my people and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).


Naomi and Ruth  © Sweet Publishing

As a Moabite, a Caananite, Ruth is not welcome in Bethlehem.  The fact that she was once married to an Israelite does not endear her to the people of Bethlehem; on the contrary! “[It] only raises their ire more. She had no business marrying a son of Bethlehem”.

Without any means of supporting herself and Naomi, Ruth is forced to glean: the poorest of the poor are allowed to follow the harvesters and pick up whatever wheat is dropped or left behind.  The Lord answers Ruth’s prayer for guidance and leads her to the field of Boaz – a cousin of Naomi.  Boaz, a fair master and faithful servant of the Lord, fears for Ruth’s safety in other fields, and not only allows Ruth to glean in his field but instructs her to glean only in his field.  He then charges his servants to intentionally drop more wheat for Ruth to glean in order for Ruth to provide for herself and Naomi. 


Ruth Gleaning in Boaz' field © Sweet Publishing

In his field, Boaz comes to see Ruth as a remarkable woman, far removed from the unsavoury reputation that Moabite women hold.  He finds her to be a patient and kind woman, brushing off the insults of others, never retaliating with harsh words of her own.  More than anything Boaz values Ruth’s visible love for the Lord.  Despite Ruth’s destitute status, Ruth and Boaz become tentative friends.  Ruth never ceases to be astonished by Boaz’ character.  He is friendly, fair, compassionate and generous.  He treats his servants, and even her – a Moabite! – with kindness and respect.

Ruth and Boaz fall in love with each other, but desperately try to hide their feelings.  Ruth believes she is not worthy of Boaz, and Boaz believes he is too old for Ruth.  Thank goodness for Naomi’s interference, for these two are too stubborn to get out of their own way!


Boaz invites Ruth to join him and his servants for lunch © Sweet Publishing

Before they can settle into their happily ever after, Ruth and Boaz must learn to surrender their fears to the Lord and trust Him above all else.

In The Field of Grace is the fourth book by Tessa Afshar, and is a sequel of sorts to my beloved Pearl In The Sand.  It tells the story of Salmon and Rahab’s son, Boaz, and his Ruth; one of the most famous love stories in the Bible.

As with her previous books, Afshar brings a well-known Biblical tale to life in a marvellously realistic way.  I feel like I've experienced indifference from a family in Moab, hostility from a community in Bethlehem, gleaned wheat in Boaz' fields, fallen in love with the perfect gentleman in an olive grove and found a love so pure it will be remembered for thousands of years.  The book of Ruth is a short one of only four chapters, but Afshar has managed to turn Ruth’s story into a very believable account of what Ruth’s life could have been like. 

As much as In The Field of Grace (and the book of Ruth) is about the love Ruth bears for Boaz, it is also about the love Ruth bears for her mother-in-law, Naomi.  Even after the death of her husband, Ruth refused to separate from Naomi.  Instead, she joined Naomi in a move to Jerusalem, a place where she knew she would be unwelcome at best.  Ruth’s love for Boaz and her love for Naomi carry equal weight in this telling, a very clever touch, as historically Ruth is as well known for her love for Naomi as she is for her love for Boaz.  My only complaint in this regard (and it is a tiny one) is that Ruth and Boaz only meet approximately 25% into the book – I adore Boaz and I love him and Ruth together, so this complaint is just me being greedy and wanting even more of them.

Ruth holding her son Obed, with Boaz looking on © Sweet Publishing

I find it wonderfully poetic that Boaz falls in love with - and marries - a Caananite who came to love Jesus, much like his father and mother.  Rahab’s pearl earrings also make their way into the tale of Ruth and Boaz’ romance; a lovely touch by the author that made me extremely happy.

I love all the colourful characters in the book.  Ruth is wonderful; her legendary courage and loyalty is brought to life so beautifully.  Likewise, the character of Boaz is every inch the perfect gentleman, tender and kind – just like the Bible portrays him.  I felt very frustrated by Naomi at times, but I think in that the author illustrated just how bitter Naomi had become after the death of her husband and sons, and how Ruth’s love and God’s grace ultimately healed her hurts.  I adore Dinah and Adin and wish there was even more of them! 

Tessa Afshar has become one of my favourite authors, flawlessly bringing tales from the Bible to life.  I eagerly anticipate each of her new books, and she doesn’t let me down.  I don’t know what Afshar plans to write next, but I am still clinging to hope for a book about Lysander and Roxanne (from Harvest of Gold).  Here’s hoping :)


Product information:
Title: In The Field Of Grace
Author: Tessa Afshar
Publisher: Moody Publishers
Year: 2014
Number of pages: 304
ASIN: B00J3EQGSO

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One scene in particular touched my heart, and so reminded me of Jesus as our shepherd:

Ruth noticed the tender way Boaz caressed the lamb.  He owned thousands of sheep. One more or less could not make a material difference to him.  And yet he treated the helpless animal with a singular care, as though he were the only one Boaz owned.  As thought pain of this little lamb made his heart ache. 

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