Christian Fiction, Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Softly and Tenderly (Songbird #2)

Softly and Tenderly (Songbird, #2)Softly and Tenderly by Sara Evans

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the Songbird trilogy, The Sweet By and By, a heartwarming tale of love and redemption. This second novel takes up a couple of years after that sweet ending. At first, it looks like Jade’s life is pretty wonderful in Whisper Hollow, Tennessee except for the fact that she and her husband Max have still been unable to have a baby. Then a series of events exposes the many cracks in Jade’s world – her husband’s substance abuse, her father-in-law’s cheating ways and the motive behind them, and, most of all, her husband’s betrayal just before their wedding and a life-changing secret that’s like a knife to Jade’s already wounded heart. On top of all of this heartbreak, Jade’s Freebird of a mother, Beryl, is losing her battle with leukemia and wants to die at home in Iowa.
Grieving for the mother she’s not ready to let go of, Jade, along with her mother-in-law, June, take the opportunity of granting Beryl’s wish as a way to get away from the various sources of heartache and do a little soul searching. Enter Jade’s ex-husband, her father-in-law’s bid for state judge back in Tennessee, and a rolling hill of memories, Jade struggles to deal with everything.
Because it’s a lot. I felt that there were too many problems facing Jade and June at once – substance abuse, infidelity, betrayal, grief, old feelings, an accident at Jade’s business, and more. I mean, sure, that’s how life can be but for the sake of the story, there were just too many things vying for the reader’s attention. There is not a lot of joy to be found in this second story about Jade’s continuing search for redemption but there is a lot of wisdom. And several questions left at the end that are hopefully answered in the final book.

Though it is really about real life and finding the strength to deal with it, Softly and Tenderly and the Songbird series falls under the category of Christian fiction.  With a few exceptions, I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction but if what you’re looking for is the tale of strong women thriving in the real world, I recommend J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Tidelands (Fairmile #1)

Tidelands (Fairmile #1)Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

“Whether it’s a sin against God or not. Whatever you could say it would be […] and offense to me […] It would be a deep offense to me, against myself.”

“It doesn’t matter – “

“It matters to me.  I matter:  in this, I matter”

That quote from the most heartrending passage in Philippa Gregory’s latest novel, Tidelands sums up the feelings the novel provoked in me perfectly.

Sometimes you know right away that a book isn’t going to be a quick read. Such was the case with this story of Alinor, the abandoned wife of a fisherman who uses her skills and knowledge to raise her two children in an unforgiving land and an even more unforgiving society during the English Civil Wars.

The story is set during the last months of the reign of Charles I of England and James’s part in the tale is driven by his loyalty to the crown. While James’s service to Charles serves as the vehicle to his meeting Alinor and the change represented by Charles’s ultimate fate is a symbol of the changes great and small it will take to change Alinor’s lot and the lot of women and the poor throughout history, the choice to set the story at this particular moment in history is not key to the true heart of the story.

Though much of the novel reads like a romance between impoverished Puritan Alinor and wealthy Catholic priest James, it is truly an exploration of women’s lives in a time when they had none. Part of why Tidelands was such a slow read for me was that I often couldn’t bear to read too much in one sitting because the appalling treatment of the women made me so angry that I had to put the book down. When I read historical fiction (or classic literature) I, like so many readers, imagine if I could live in the time or place in which the story is set. In reading Tidelands I quickly learned that England in the mid 17th century was not for me. The treatment of women as nonentities in the realms of politics, the home, the community, and the church while being thought of as the source of so many troubles was just heartbreaking to me. And it wasn’t just the Puritans with their storied intolerance of independent, intelligent women. My strong feelings while reading Alinor’s story just went to show me how far we’ve come in the ensuing 400 years but they also highlighted how much further we have to go before women worldwide are truly considered equal. We can pass all the laws we want but it is the mentality of inferiority that must change. And it isn’t just the men with this mentality. When Alinor’s daughter, Alys points out to her mother how she defers to men and to anyone better off than she (which is pretty much everyone!) even though she has more knowledge and experience than most of them, I realized that we still see women doing this every day. Sorry to sound preachy but this book brought up such strong feelings in me.

Alinor may have been a strong, independent (by the standards of the time) heroine but, for me, the true hero of the story is her daughter Alys who sidesteps the societal strictures throughout the story then barrels right through them at the end. It was only Alys and this ending that made me happy to learn that Tidelands is just the first in a series that will follow generations of Alinor’s family and gives my review the little extra quarter star.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking read that demonstrates what fear of the unknown and prejudice has done throughout human history, I highly recommend Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time with its unique look at the repercussions of intolerance and the fear it causes. 

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Historical Fiction, Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Kopp Sisters on the March (Kopp Sisters #5)

Kopp Sisters on the March (Kopp Sisters, #5)Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love Amy Stewart’s series about the lives of the real-life Kopp sisters but this fifth book is, while quite different from the first four – if you’ve been reading the series you’ll understand why – one of the best.

As with the rest of the series, Stewart covers the quest for women’s rights and fair treatment in a way that never preaches, instead entertains and educates.
One main difference is that the focus is less on Constance alone and while I do love Constance, it was wonderful to get more of Norma and Fleurette’s characters.

But as Stewart states in the historical notes, this part of the Kopp sisters’ story draws largely from Stewart’s own imagination but we meet many new and interesting characters from the footnotes of history. In fact, even though the Kopps are in the title and their individual characters are as boldly drawn as ever, they act mainly as a framework for the story, which is really the story of Beulah Binford and her undeserved(?) infamy. Kopp Sisters on the March is also about the general experiences and emotions of the women in the months leading up to the United States entering World War I. It was truly fascinating, often infuriating, and I cannot wait to see where the Kopps go next.

I usually write an if-you-liked-this recommendation right here but there are only so many times I can say read this series instead I’ll say, check out Amy Stewart’s website for more historical information about Constance, Norma, and Fleurette as well as the other real-life characters they encounter.
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Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Very Valentine (Valentine #1)

Very ValentineVery Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

This novel about a 30-something Italian-American woman disappointed me. Valentine’s story of familial obligation, professional legacy, passion, and self-discovery got mired down in the minutia. I don’t need to know every step of the characters’ daily routine to know them and I don’t need to know who designed every article of clothing the characters (even the most minor of them!) are wearing. I understand that as an artist in the fashion business, Valentine would have noticed these things but making a laundry list out of the outfits slowed down a story that already lacked a lot of action anyway.
While Valentine, who describes herself as the family’s “funnyone” wasn’t all that funny to me, her tale did contain important messages, though, about finding what makes you happy and not settling for something that hurts you or holds you back. Her trip to Italy, in particular, was beautifully experienced and beautifully described (how could it not be??). I just had trouble getting into the story.

Other books you might enjoy about familial duty and making your own way in a life that seems to be mapped out for you (or in danger of being lost) are Veronica Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Sophie Kinsella’s I Owe You One, and one of my recent favorites, The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller.

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Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of MinnesotaThe Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Confession time. I have never even tasted a beer – I just can’t get past the smell – so I didn’t always understand, or care about, the technical details of the brewing process or get the romance that the drinking and brewing of the stuff held for some of the characters in J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, which is the story of two sisters, Edith and Helen, and the repercussions of one’s efforts to make her dream of becoming a brewer a reality.
My lack of understanding about beer, however, did not impede my enjoyment of the story. Nor did it stop me from caring deeply about the three women at the center of the story, which is less about beer than it is about family, finding one’s passion and following it, love, the strength of women, and forgiveness. The characters are richly drawn and their world so utterly real that it is impossible not to be drawn into their lives and to root for them – not just their professional success – even when I wanted to physically drag Helen out of her ivory tower of pride and fear.
J. Ryan Stradal showed his writing talent in his first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest but his second novel is more cohesive while still illustrating both the small-ness and large-ness of the world with the close encounters and connections between the characters as their paths remain divided.  And I have to say ‘cheers’ to that!  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)

There is something reminiscent of Fannie Flagg in reading J. Ryan Stradal’s writing, especially in The Lager Queen of Minnesota – perhaps it is the middle-America setting or the strong, complex female characters – but with more rough edges.  Still, I haven’t yet read anything too much like his work.  I definitely recommend reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest even if I found that it read more like a series of short stories that come together at the end.  If it is the strong, complex women in a multi-generational story that you enjoy, Kathy Hepinstall’s The Book of Polly is a great read.

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