Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: The Dancing Master by Julie Klassen

The Dancing MasterThe Dancing Master by Julie Klassen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When Alec Valcourt, famed dancing master of London, arrives in the little berg of Beaworthy after his father's death, he never anticipated that he would be moving to the only town in England that had an unspoken rule against dancing. This is the height of the Regency era, and Alec's sole expertise is as a dancing and fencing master. His mother and sister fall under his care and Alec needs his livelihood in order to provide for them. He cannot always rely upon his uncle to care for them. Enters the entrancing Julia Midwinter, daughter to Lady Midwinter, the woman who has cast a ban on dancing upon Beaworthy. Alec not only must struggle to find work, but now he is bewitched by a woman far advanced in social status. If only the inhabitants of Beaworthy would open their doors to his tutelage, but first Alec must uncover the reasoning behind the ban, a mystery that Julia also wishes to uncover. Together, the two work together to bring dancing back to Beaworthy.

Julie Klassen made two mistakes with The Dancing Master. First, she made her hero an absolute fop who is afraid to get even the barest hint of dirt upon his person. Second, she developed a heroine who is neither gracious, compassionate, or sympathetic. The rest of the characters in her book are charming. I adore Lady Amelia, the empirical mistress Midwinter. She is misunderstood and afraid, and because I liked her so much, I found Julia's taunts against her mother to be irksome at best, and downright mean at worst. Lady Amelia is a marvelous character, and I halfway wish the book had focused on her instead of the 19-year-old infant, Julia Midwinter. Then there are the Allens: James, Walter, and Patience, who are all delightful in their own ways. Mrs. Tipple who runs the bakery in town, Mr. Barlow who is Lady Amelia's head clerk, and especially Alec's own family, his sweet mother dressed all in black and his darling sister, Aurora. But especially, I adored John Desmond. He is the type of character I love most in historic literature, slightly older than the typical hero, a little weathered and aged, but of the highest integrity. He was brilliant.

I have never tried any of Ms. Klassen's other works. And from what I hear from fellow reviewers, The Dancing Master is their least favorite of her books. So, I will not judge her writing based solely on this one novel. The 2 stars is solely based upon the hero and the heroine. There is nothing likeable about Julia, at least not for me. She is selfish, vain, and careless, and I would not associate with her in real life. Alec is also vain, thinking himself of greater importance than men who perform menial labor. He's arrogant, and he claims to be a Christian. No, I could not see it, and even Julia's "salvation experience" felt forced. Julia is bitter because of perceived wrongs, but she's really just spoiled. In a way, she and Alec deserve each other.

I have no complaints on Ms. Klassen's writing style. She is quite good, and were it not for the lead characters I would have given The Dancing Master 4 stars, and happily. I can only hope that her next book rectifies the character flaws of this one.

- I received a free copy of The Dancing Master from Bethany House Publishers via Netgalley for an honest review, which I have given.

For the rest of my reviews, see my page HERE.

Book Review: Dear Mr Knightley by Katherine Reay

Dear Mr. KnightleyDear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am not one to read all of those "extra" Austen novels that are suddenly flooding the market. I'm quite content with the stories Austen herself wrote, thinking of my own writing and how much I would hate to have someone use one of my beloved characters almost 200 years after my death. However, my opinion is in the minority because these "extra" books are insanely popular. There's no point in my beating a dead horse with my protestations, so I figured I had to start somewhere. That somewhere turned out to be Katherine Reay's debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightley.

Novels written in letter format aren't my cup of tea. Where my sister read all of those Dear America books in her childhood, I simply couldn't bring myself to finish even one. It just felt so unnatural, reading someone else's journal or letters. Fortunately for Ms. Reay, her writing voice is strong enough that I adored her lead character, Samantha Moore, after only about 30 pages. One might even say that I "liked it against my will, against my reason." She's young, introverted, led a rough life as a foster kid, and now she's taking graduate courses through the charitable donations of a mysterious local foundation. Her one requirement to have her tuition is paid is that she write regular letters to the foundation's owner, a man who goes by the name of Mr. Knightley. Because Sam chose to retain her sanity by delving into classic literature, she feels she can trust someone who deliberately picks the name of a great literary character, and a good man.

The novel is comprised entirely of letters. That could have gotten old really quick, but it didn't because I empathize with Sam's character. She's timid and hides in her books, and she's a writer like me, albeit she's going to journalism grad school whereas I studied creative writing. I connect to her, and so it made her letters very intimate and relevant to the thoughts and doubts that often plague me. The book is beautifully written, and the characters are thought-provoking and entertaining. It exceeded every expectation I had for it on multiple levels.

Which leads me to the one downside. About 3/4 of the way through the book, a massively important event takes place in Sam's life. It's exciting and thrilling. However, the following letters are composed almost the same way as the previous letters. There's no real reference to the event, no changing of affectionate terms, and knowing Sam as I came to know her, she would have written those later letters differently. The author lost her voice a little bit there. Also, I wasn't all that keen on the identity of Mr. Knightley. I suspected the road would lead there, but I also wished it hadn't because than the story became a little cliche at the end. Mr. Knightley should have been someone else. I even had a suspicion about his identity during a race Sam ran.

The story would have been much more fulfilling for me as a reader without the sappy, slightly contrived ending. I love the romance, and wouldn't want Sam with anyone else, but various elements of that ending simply didn't work for me. Up to that point, the story almost felt like real life, and then it felt like a fairy tale. Which is why I'm giving 4 stars instead of the 5 that I was so willing to bestow up until the final 50 pages of the book. Regardless, Ms. Reay has a great start to her writing career, and I eagerly anticipate her next novel.

For the rest of my reviews, see my page HERE.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CCLE Book Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1958)

“There is no escape if love is not there," Hannah had said. Had Hannah known when she herself had not even suspected? It was not escape that she had dreamed about, it was love.”

- Elizabeth George Speare, 
The Witch of Blackbird Pond

It is January once again, and like last January, I am participating in the Classic Children's Literature Event! If you want even more details about the event, just visit Amanda at Simpler Pastimes. :)

On to the book!

It is the year 1687, a time of Puritans in the New World. When 16-year-old Katherine Tyler's grandfather dies in Barbados, she travels to Connecticut in the New World to live with her only living relation, her Aunt Rachel and family. The journey is rough, but Kit anticipates a warm welcome from her relatives. Her arrival, however, meets with suspicion by the inhabitants of tiny Wethersfield, and even though her aunt is welcoming, her uncle is far from pleased to see her. The town is Puritan, and Kit is far from the legalistic upbringing required to make a good Puritan. Each day brings new struggles, new mistakes, until she meets the one and only Quaker of the town, Hannah Tupper, called a witch by the superstitious townsfolk. Hannah is no witch, instead she is the one person in the entire town who truly delights in living and actually seems to exude the scriptural instruction to love one's neighbor. Kit's loyalties are tested when the town rises up against Hannah.

This book isn't what I was expecting. I don't know why, but I somehow thought it would be a fantasy. Serves me right for not actually researching the book that much, but then, I rarely read the summaries of books for fear of finding out too much. I've had many a good book ruined because the summary on the back cover gives away the entire plot! I'd rather find out for myself. In the case of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

I admit, I was afraid the book would be anti-religious. And perhaps it is a little, but it's not anti-faith. Instead, Hannah Tupper is a paragon of what a Christian woman should be, both then and now. She is forgiving, compassionate, loving, and she never falters in her love of God. The Puritans stand in sharp contrast to Hannah with their superstitions and fears, all of which to the modern eye are positively ridiculous. But that was how society was in the early history of America. People were afraid of witches, and if any woman dared be a little different or imaginative, they might be condemned as a witch. It's silly now, but was a very real danger in the 1600s.

My sister was the one to always read the Newbery Medal books as a child, but somehow she missed this one, as did I. Nothing really interested me outside of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries that I gobbled up on a daily basis. It's nice, taking the opportunity to catch up on what I missed. I can see why The Witch of Blackbird Pond was awarded that most prized medal in 1959. The book is superb. I'm not so sure I would want a young child reading it, but certainly it should be required reading for tweens and teens. It gives food for thought, and would be a magnificent opportunity for discussion questions. There's even a touch of romantic drama to appease the romantic history lovers.

Out of the three books I've read for my Classic Children's Literature Event this January, this one is hands down my favorite. That might change before the end, but I really can't praise it high enough. I read is in a little under 36 hours, stealing time in between working and meals. I might actually buy this one, it's that good.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Review: A Match Made in Texas by Karen Witemeyer, Regina Jennings, Carol Cox, and Mary Connealy


A Match Made in Texas
A Match Made in Texas by Karen Witemeyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



In "A Match Made in Texas," Dry Gulch has its very own matchmaker. It is the year 1893, and three different women find themselves matched by a mysterious, compassionate hand. In the last novella, the matchmaker meets her own match in the most unlikely source. To be fair to each of these authors, I will review their novellas individually.

"A Cowboy Unmatched"
by Karen Witemeyer
4.5 stars

I've loved Karen's books for over a year now, ever since I first read Head in the Clouds. So, knowing she was the primary author for this set of novellas immediately peaked my interest.

In "A Cowboy Unmatched" Clara Danvers is recently widowed, pregnant, and barely scraping by in the near hovel her rascal husband provided for her outside of town. When a mysterious note sends Neill Archer (youngest son of the Archer family in several of Ms. Witemeyer's other novels) out as her hired hand, Clara greets providence with suspicion at first, and then gratitude. Neill, a god-fearing man determined to finish earning enough money to buy a ranch with his best friend back home, is grateful for he income, but he quickly discovers that he's helping Clara for more reasons than just money. In a few short days, Neill is fond of the stubborn woman who's managing to scratch out a living on next to nothing, and love blossoms soon after. Little does he know that danger lurks in the shape of her father-in-law who holds no affection for Clara, and wants to snatch her child the moment the babe is born. Clara and Neill must stand firm in the face of adversity, gaining strength from one another.

This novella is penned in the delightful style I've come to associate with Ms. Witemeyer. It is bright and vivacious, with strong, likeable characters as the leads. As is always the problem with novellas, the romance is entirely too quick, with Neill and Clara falling in love in a matter of days, but there's no other way to do it. "A Cowboy Unmatched" is a charming read, and a strong start to this book.

"An Unforeseen Match"
by Regina Jennings
5 stars

Young Grace O'Malley, once a schoolteacher in Dry Gulch, is now afflicted with a disease that eats away at her sight one day at a time. The town purchases what was once Clara Danvers' homestead, and situates their former teacher in the ramshackle house in an effort at caring for her, sending meals out via friends on a daily basis since Grace can barely care for herself. The best thing that could happen to her was the unexpected advertisement placed in the local paper for a handyman, which Clayton Weber answers in haste. Ordinarily he wouldn't be in need of funds, but he's on his way to participate in the Cherokee Strip land run, and his poor horse just broke her leg. Now he's in need of funds to purchase another animal, and the opportunity offered to help around Grace's home is one he can't turn down. Little does he expect that the charming, and stubborn Irishwoman is just what he needs to soften his frozen heart, teaching him that the scar creasing his face doesn't define his character.

This is my first encounter with Ms. Jennings' work, but if this is a solid example of her style than I am very, very impressed. I liked "An Unforeseen Match" equally as much as Ms. Witemeyer's novella, perhaps even a bit more because I've always loved characters that are troubled by a physical affliction, an injury that makes them less than beautiful in the eyes of the world. Ms. Jennings' style is active and enchanting, and I especially appreciated her efforts at developing the relationship between Grace and Clayton even though she only had less than a 100 pages in which to do it. Out of all the couples in this book, Grace and Clayton are hands down my favorite.

"No Match for Love"
by Carol Cox
4 stars

Under no circumstances does Lucy Benson want to accept Walter's proposal, but that is her only recourse in securing a future for herself. That is, until a surprise possibility opens up. Somehow, she has been approved to become the companion to an elderly lady, an aunt to a man named Andrew Simms who wishes for his beloved relative to have companionship on her ranch that is quite far from the nearest town. It is the perfect opportunity, and Lucy eagerly snatches it up, sorry to leave Dry Gulch, but not sorry to leave strict Walter far behind. While the situation isn't exactly as ideal as she'd pictured, Lucy settles into her new home and situation vigorously, determined to win the approval of Martha Simms which seems difficult at first due to the woman's gruff nature. Within a few weeks, though, Lucy and Martha bond and Lucy even finds herself unusually attracted to Martha's handsome nephew, Andrew. If only Martha wasn't obviously a few bricks short of a load, claiming she sees cows jumping over the moon, and life would be idyllic. But Lucy soon suspects more is going on around the Diamond S Ranch than meets the eye and maybe, just maybe, Martha isn't as crazy as her nephew thinks.

To my surprise, I really did enjoy "No Match for Love." Other reviewers haven't liked it, but I really did, probably because it wasn't typical fare and I was ready for a different plotline since the first two are so similar. I've never tried any of Ms. Cox's books before, either, but her style is fun. I connected with all of the characters, investing in them, and enjoying their quirks. Lucy is delightful and spunky, Martha is stubborn and compassionate, and Andrew is, well, a romantic. I think the weak link in this story is that reads like it could be a novel. In fact, I wanted it to be a novel! Everything is tied up a little too quickly, and it would have been brilliant if Ms. Cox hadn't been limited to the amount of storytelling she could do.

"Meeting Her Match"
by Mary Connealy
4 stars

In a very short span of time, schoolteacher Hannah Taylor's life is turned upside down. Where once she lived with her father and brothers, now she's forced to take her father's new wife's room in town, vacating her home to her father's new bride. Her life is in complete upheaval, having just recently lost her mother in childbirth, to her 7th child, and now Hannah is pushed out on her own. Every day after she releases her students from school, Hannah returns to the dingy room above the only diner Dry Gulch, and every day shy, introverted Marcus Whitfield joins her from the bank for the two-minute walk, stammering out the occasional complete sentence. Is there more to him than meets the eye? Will she spend the rest of her life alone or could Marcus, or Mark as he is called by everyone but her, offer her the chance of a different life?

I'm being deliberately vague about this last story's plot because I don't want to give anything away. Forgive me, but you must read it for yourself. I applaud Mary Connealy for finally impressing me. The novella is not perfect, but she crafted two lead characters that I like. Lucy is stubborn, but also charming. Mark is the sweetest man imaginable, cute in his shyness. Some might not like the ending of the novella since it could be construed as an entire town bullying a match, but the entire town sort of knew better than Hannah so I can't argue with them. This novella proved to me that Ms. Connealy can write. It's not perfect, and she does sometimes repeat ideas and lines too often for my taste, but she got the characters right and in this kind of fiction, that's really what matters most.

- I received this book for free from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

CCLE Book Review: The Light Princess by George MacDonald (1864)

"One day he lost sight of his retinue in a great forest. These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes."

- George MacDonald, The Light Princess

It is January once again, and like last January, I am participating in the Classic Children's Literature Event! If you want even more details about the event, just visit Amanda at Simpler Pastimes. :)

On to the book!

This is The Light Princess by George MacDonald, the author of The Princess & the Goblin and The Princess & Curdie along with a myriad other books. He was a Christian minister in addition to being a writer, which is why his work is more than simple fairy stories. If you wanted to read The Light Princess in an equally light vein, then you certainly could. No one will stop you or correct you. But, it is also possible to pick out the intended allegory of the story, and while allegory is not my strongest suit, I shall try my hand at interpreting.

There was once a king who wanted children. He and his queen were barren for many years until good fortune smiled on them and a daughter was born, a sweet and lovely princess. Unfortunately, when the king sent out invitations to the christening, he forgot to invite his sister who was not just a princess, but also a witch. Said sister arrives on the scene anyway and curses the baby princess that she will be lighter than air. Or rather:

"Light of spirit, by my charms,
Light of body, every part,
Never weary human arms - 
Only crush thy parents' heart!"
In other words, the princess is an airhead without a serious thought, and at the slightest breath of a breeze could inadvertently float out of a window. The king and queen are astounded, and their princess grows into a young woman of the silliest mind in all the land. It is by pure happenstance that the princess discovers her love of water. In water she actually has weight, and she is not quite so silly as she is on dry land, and so she spends her days floating and swimming in the lake outside of her castle, attended by her family and the court.

Enters our prince, one fine evening, when he quite literally stumbles upon her. It takes awhile, but love blossoms, except how is it possible for an airborne princess and a grounded prince to wed?

I shall try not to give away too much of the story from here on out. Only know that there must be a resolution to the princess's predicament, especially since she and the prince have found true love. George MacDonald, being the fine author that he is, incorporated allegory into his tale. This princess lacks gravity, both in weight but also in spirit. She takes nothing seriously and cares very little for the people around her. She is very foolish, and until she learns to take herself and others seriously, she will continue to be lighter than air, defying gravity.

The Light Princess is a delightful little tale. I love MacDonald, but this is the first time I've ever read this book. It's a short little fantasy, published in 1864. MacDonald wrote for both children and adults, but this one is obviously a fairy tale for children. It was such fun to read out loud to my sister, just for kicks, and she loved it equally as much as I did.

Book Review: Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart (Kopp Sisters #3, 2017)

Original Summary Deputy sheriff Constance Kopp is outraged to see young women brought into the Hackensack jail over dubious charges ...