Review: Made to Last – Melissa Tagg

Melissa Tagg. Made to Last. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013.

Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a book based on recommendations from other authors. I enjoy reading their books, so it seems intuitive to trust their advice regarding what books and authors would be fun to read. Over the last several months, I kept running across the books of Melissa Tagg, so after reading the recommendations on the back cover from Rachel Hauck, Susan May Warren, and Becky Wade, I decided to try Ms. Tagg’s debut novel, Made to Last.

In Made to Last, Miranda Woodruff stars as the host of From the Ground Up, a homebuilding show based in her North Carolina hometown. Although she is known nationally for her show, she works at maintaining her privacy and secrets from her fans and the media. As a talented woodworker and experienced homebuilder in her own right, Miranda attributes her handyman knowledge to her “husband,” who always remains behind the scenes. When the network threatens to cancel her show, Miranda’s producer comes up with a plan to save the day via a lookalike to the fiancé who abandoned her years before. Miranda’s world is turned upside down when Matthew Knox, a reporter with his own career to save, begins to shadow her every move and takes up residence in the cabin on her property. Unfortunately, that means the truth about Miranda’s fictional husband may hit the blog-o-sphere sometime before breakfast.

Filled with unique characters, Made to Last offers an interesting perspective on the world of reality television and the facades that people build around themselves, whether as stars, reporters, or everyday people. While Miranda discovers the price of the secrets and lies constructed around her on-screen persona, Matthew realizes the truth behind his own priorities and decisions.

Overall, I thought that Made to Last was surprisingly well done and much better than I initially expected. I found the beginning portion of the book started off somewhat slow, but it picked up speed in later sections. Miranda’s character was strong and well-constructed throughout the novel, while I found Matthew (the reporter) to be somewhat weaker throughout his earlier scenes. As the novel progressed, I found all of the characters to grow well together and the quality of Ms. Tagg’s writing improved throughout. I really enjoyed her minor characters, as well as the setting of the book in the mountains of North Carolina outside Asheville.

After reading Made to Last, I can understand why Rachel Hauck and Becky Wade both wrote recommendations for the novel. Their books share a common focus on (as well as audience for) light-hearted contemporary Christian fiction, although their particular settings vary. Personally, I would probably pick up Ms. Hauck and Ms. Wade’s books before Ms. Tagg’s, as I found their books to be more humorous and closer to the form of “romantic comedy” that I prefer. However, I look forward to reading Ms. Tagg’s Here to Stay and From the Start (coming March 2015) to see how her storytelling evolves further.

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Review: Like a Flower in Bloom – Siri Mitchell

Siri Mitchell. Like a Flower in Bloom. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.

Many of the western world’s earliest museum collections began at the hands of amateur scientists. They roamed their local communities and foreign lands to discover interesting rocks, plants, and artifacts. From these individuals, the study of the natural sciences, archaeology, and museums themselves emerged and became a significant means for people to learn about history and the world.

Siri Mitchell’s Like a Flower in Bloom focuses on one such fictional family of scientists, including Charlotte Withersby and her father, who wrote the preeminent books on England’s botanical specimens. Living in the patriarchal society of the 1850s, Charlotte continues her failed attempts at publishing her discoveries under her own name, something that is considered unacceptable in the emerging field of botany. Her uncle and father join forces to persuade Charlotte that she should set aside her plants and scientific endeavors to pursue a husband and join society. While she is convinced that she remains indispensable to her father’s work, Charlotte’s role is soon occupied by one of her father’s correspondents from New Zealand. Filled with quirky and amusing characters determined to turn Charlotte into a marriageable woman of society, Like a Flower in Bloom proves that all of God’s creations are unique and perfectly made for their God-given work.

Ms. Mitchell’s works have become an emerging part of my reading list over the last several years. Honestly, I am not a huge fan of her earlier books, but have found that her writing and characters have substantially improved over time, particularly in the case of Unrivaled, The Messenger, and She Walks in Beauty. I was initially drawn to Like a Flower in Bloom based on its relatively unique premise involving a woman botanist in the mid-nineteenth century. In reading the first part of the book, I found it to be surprisingly similar to Julie Klassen’s The Apothecary’s Daughter and Elizabeth Camden’s The Rose of Winslow Street. Also, I discovered a rather substantial editing problem in the earlier part of the book that could easily distract or confuse readers. However, I found myself increasingly enjoying the book as I progressed through it. The last several chapters presented some of the most interesting material of the entire work and I would have very much liked to see how those aspects of the storyline could play out over time and in further detail.

Overall, I believe that Like a Flower in Bloom offers one of the strongest examples of Ms. Mitchell’s works, even though I would still claim Unrivaled and She Walks in Beauty as my personal favorites. I could very easily see Like a Flower in Bloom growing on me further through future readings. With the novel’s setting in nineteenth century England, I believe fans of Julie Klassen’s work would likely enjoy it. Also, this particular set of characters may intrigue readers of Elizabeth Camden’s books, although Ms. Mitchell’s writing style makes for lighter reading.

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Review: Always on My Mind – Susan May Warren

Susan May Warren. Always on My Mind. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014.

Please note, this review contains several spoilers for both When I Fall in Love and Always on My Mind.

As a wonderful post-Christmas surprise, I received Susan May Warren’s Always on My Mind from the library almost a month before I anticipated its release. The fourth book in the Christiansen family series, Always on My Mind follows the adventures of Casper Christiansen, the fourth and middle child of John and Ingrid Christiansen, an aspiring archaeologist and seeker of treasures.

The novel starts only a few months after the suspense-driven events of When I Fall in Love, picking up the story with Casper working on an archaeological dig outside Roatan, Honduras. Meanwhile, Raina Beaumont continues to hide the truth of her pregnancy from most of the members of the Christiansen family, with the exception of her boss and roommate, Grace. Casper travels back from his failed treasure hunt just in time for the delivery of Raina’s baby, triggering the eventual return of both Casper and Raina back to the safety of Deep Haven. In their individual pursuits for peace, they find themselves searching for the greatest treasure in the history of the region. Facing an extreme winter, the realities of adulthood, and the family dynamics of the Christiansens, Casper and Raina finally find the hope they seek in the love of God and one another.

Ms. Warren, a well-established and talented author, continues her amazing multi-book story arch in Always on My Mind. Personally, I felt that the book functioned as an essential piece of the overall book series, addressing key questions and challenges raised in the earlier novels. However, I enjoyed It Had to Be You and When I Fall in Love more as stand-alone novels. Regardless, Always on My Mind convincingly addressed the Casper/Raina storyline that formed a key part of When I Fall in Love, while opening the door for the telling of Amelia Christiansen’s story in the forthcoming book, The Wonder of You (July 2015). The last page or so of Always on My Mind alone would cause almost anyone to pick up the next book.

As a historian (and insatiable reader of historical fiction), I found the inclusion of Casper and Raina’s search for the story of Thor and Aggie Wilder to be one of the highlights of the book. The use of the antiques shop and historical society were particularly intriguing and I enjoyed the characters that Ms. Warren introduced as part of that storyline. With the addition of those characters and the direction of the events, I felt that the novel noticeably lacked the presence of John and Ingrid, who offer much-needed stabilizing wisdom for their children. Likewise, the presence of Eden and Grace in only limited scenes highlighted the importance of their characters in keeping the men of the family from completely freaking out over various events in their lives. The scenes that included only Derek and Casper felt entirely chaotic, which was likely a device to further the novel. I find myself looking forward to the next novel, if only for the simple fact that it will likely return the balance of the family that was missing in so much of this book.

Overall, I enjoyed this entry into the Christiansen Family chronicles. While not my favorite of the series, I would easily recommend Always on My Mind to anyone who enjoys Ms. Warren’s books and the Christiansen Family/Deep Haven novels.

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Review: The Secret of Pembrooke Park – Julie Klassen

Julie Klassen. The Secret of Pembrooke Park. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.

With the premiere of Downton Abbey recently, it seems as if all things British seem to be at the forefront of my recent conversations with my sister. She just discovered that one of her good friends and colleagues enjoys Jane Austen as much as she does and they are already planning viewing parties for their favorite versions of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. This is the same sister for which I initially purchased Julie Klassen’s premiere novel, Lady of Milkweed Manor, back in 2008. Following the stories of young ladies throughout Regency-era England, Julie Klassen’s books have become a category unto themselves within the Christian romance genre.

Ms. Klassen’s most recent novel, The Secret of Pembrooke Park, joins her previous Recency-era works to follow the story of Abigail Foster. As the practical daughter of a financially-ruined father, Abigail organizes the family’s move from the ever-expensive London to Pembrooke Park, the dilapidated manor house of a distant relation. While her sister enjoys the Season and seeks the attention of a wealthy husband, Abigail leads a group of quirky servants in cleaning and organizing Pembrooke after eighteen years of neglect. The local curate, his family, and a mysterious correspondent warn Abigail of the rumors of Pembrooke Park’s secret treasure and the failed attempts of many to search the house. When Abigail’s family finally arrives, they encounter a cast of characters who each bring their own secrets and suspicions as to the real treasure hiding at Pembrooke Park.

By the time I finished reading The Secret of Pembrooke Park, I was left with mixed feelings about the characters and storyline. I have found that Julie Klassen’s books are always relatively good, but not necessarily always of interest to me personally. My personal favorites have been The Maid of Fairbourne Hall and The Silent Governess, while last year’s The Dancing Master was relatively uninteresting in comparison. The Secret of Pembrooke Park fell somewhat in the middle of the pack, as I thought Ms. Klassen presented some interesting, but relatively immature characters. Likewise, I found the overall story of the Pembrooke Park treasure and its fate to be somewhat unique, but it was relatively easy to predict and felt lost in Abigail Foster’s angst. I particularly struggled with Abigail’s immaturity as a character considering that she is lauded throughout the book by many characters as being so very practical and mature at running a household.

In general, I felt that The Secret of Pembrook Park would have benefited from some editing, particularly a few key cuts of middle sections of the book. The back-and-forth dialogue between characters and the “mysterious” appearance of a potential heir felt particularly painful after reading the debate for the twelfth or so time. Granted, if my sister were to read the book (or my review), I’m sure that she would counter that argument with the fact that the details and social encounters are what makes for great Regency-era historical fiction in the first place.

Julie Klassen’s next novel, Lady Maybe, will arrive in July 2015.

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