Friday, March 24, 2017

The Elusive Miss Ellison by Carolyn Miller, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Pride, prejudice and forgiveness...
Hampton Hall's new owner has the villagers of St. Hampton Heath all aflutter--all except Lavinia Ellison. The reverend's daughter cares for those who are poor and sick, and the seventh Earl of Hawkesbury definitely does not meet that criteria. His refusal to take his responsibilities seriously, or even darken the door of the church, leave her convinced he is as arrogant and reckless as his brother--his brother who stole the most important person in Lavinia's world.

Nicholas Stamford is shadowed by guilt: his own, his brother's, the legacy of war. A perfunctory visit to this dreary part of Gloucestershire wasn't supposed to engage his heart, or his mind. Challenged by Miss Ellison's fascinating blend of Bluestocking opinions, hoydenish behavior, and angelic voice, he finds the impossible becoming possible--he begins to care. But Lavinia's aloof manner, society's opposition and his ancestral obligations prove most frustrating, until scandal forces them to get along.

Can Lavinia and Nicholas look beyond painful pasts and present prejudice to see their future? And what will happen when Lavinia learns a family secret that alters everything she's ever known?

(304 pages)

Meh. This is a very forgettable Christian romance book that tries not very successfully to be a Jane Austen novel with "Christian morals" (i.e. lots of moralizing) squished in around the edges. It certainly got in the Christian parts, but got nowhere near the wittiness of Jane Austen.

I'm sorry, is that too harsh? To be honest, I didn't hate the book–I enjoyed reading such a complete escapist story set in Regency-era England. Some of the back-and-forth between Lavinia and Nicholas really is quite clever, and once I stop implicitly comparing the book to Pride & Prejudice I can enjoy it for what it is. The story had a lot of elements I like in old-timey stories–wealthy settings, hatred turn to romance, outspoken females–and I enjoyed reading them.

The book's two main errors, though, are taking things too far and being too obvious about it. Lavinia isn't just outspoken: she's a downright feminist, and she spends her days devoted to caring for the poor. These are both excellent traits, but they are also slightly annoying (she is way too perfect!) and are very unrealistic for her time. There's a constant tension between Lavinia and the very backward way everyone else approaches wealth, class structure, etc. I would have liked to see some evidence that Lavinia was a product of her own time, that her egalitarian tendencies weren't just some convenient flash of inspiration from God, and that she had given a little more thought to why her beliefs about social decorum were so different from everyone else's. I liked Nicholas more than I did Lavinia, though, and seeing him gradually move to her way of thinking (after originally being very prim and proper about what women could and couldn't do!) felt more realistic.

Everything is very melodramatic in The Elusive Miss Elison. Lavinia and Nicholas are constantly accidentally hurting each other's feelings, and their "hearts start pining for each other" from the first time they're separated–despite the fact that at that point they've only ever snapped meanly at each other, and Nicholas's brother literally killed Lavinia's mother when she was a little girl. Lavinia gets past that way too easily, in my opinion. You can forgive someone without falling in love with them, you know? And the plot twists themselves are straight out of a soap opera: Lavinia falls hopelessly ill with the influenza and winds up spending months being taken care of in Nicholas's elaborate house. She moves to London to visit some conveniently-discovered estranged family members, learns all sorts of juicy secrets about her past (that her aunt decided to wait twenty-three years to tell her about, because reasons), and so on and so forth. It's fun to read, sure, but it's also cringe-worthy in how cliche everything is. And don't even get me started on the fakey-happy way everyone's always talking about religion; I may be a Christian, but I don't start randomly talking about the Bible with casual acquaintances like that–and I certainly don't start giving religious advice when they may or may not be Christians themselves. Telling someone to pray about their worries, or to ask God for help, is not always a socially appropriate thing to do.

All in all, I spent a few pleasurable hours with Miss Ellison but I've certainly read better books in its genre. In fact, excuse me, I feel the urge to re-read Pride & Prejudice coming over me . . .

Disclaimer: I recevied a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Loyal by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, 2017

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on National Geographic 
This treasury features heartwarming photographs and touching stories of dedicated working dogs who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and proven themselves as true heroes.
This special collection of dog stories and photographs features four-legged heroes who have worked side by side with soldiers, searched the wreckage of natural and man-made disasters, changed families' lives through emotional support, and administered aid around the world and at home in the United States. Heart-warming photographs and touching anecdotes bring to life thirty-eight caring canines who have served the people who mean the most to them, from a German Shepherd who leads a blind man on his marathon training mission to a belly rub-loving Sheltie who supports at-risk youth in the classroom. For anyone who has experienced the extraordinary affection of a dog, 
Loyal is a lasting celebration of the joys of canine companionship.
(160 pages)

I love my dog to pieces, but she is so useless.

That's my main takeaway from Loyal. All of these dogs are so loyal, heroic, and dedicated; they spend the best years of their lives entirely devoted to doing their job and improving lives for the humans around them. In the meanwhile, my boxer Daisy has lived a life of luxury surrounded by fluffy pillows and caresses from humans who homeschool and therefore never leave her alone for more than a few hours at a stretch. Don't get me wrong, Daisy is an amazing dog–she never barks, never growls, never steals from the table, and devotes her life to loving us unconditionally–but she's never provided nearly the level of service that some of these dogs have. I actually think she would have made an amazing therapy dog if we'd ever taken the time to go through the training and testing, but it's too late for my old fur-baby now.

But seriously, the stories in here are just incredible. There are dogs that find trapped victims after earthquakes, docs that monitor their human companions and warn them before they start to have a seizure, dogs that spend their days comforting soldiers with horrible PTSD . . . the list goes on and on. The book packs a lot of stories into its 160-word format, each one taking anywhere from a single two-page spread to about four of them to tell its tale. There are gorgeous pictures of each dog, including several different pictures of the ones whose stories take up more pages, and for many of them there's also an insert that gives some basic information about the personality traits of their breed.

It's a very attractive book, too–rectangular, hard-back, with glossy pages. It would make a great coffee table book, or even more perfect for a vet's office waiting room. The short stories are just the right size for a dog lover to flip through and read one or two while they're waiting to take their own dog in for a check-up.

The big emphasis throughout the book is on dogs who nobody wanted, who were on the shelter list to be put down, who were instead rescued and turned into heroes for the community. I think this is amazing, and it's "show, don't tell" approach to pushing shelter dogs would I'm sure be very convincing for anyone who's on the fence about where to get their next dog. My favorite rehabilitation stories, though, were the ones about the prison programs some counties run: they adopt dogs off of the kill lists at shelters and have the prison inmates train them into model house pets and even service dogs. That's such an amazing way to provide a second chance for the dogs as well as a sense of purpose and inspiration for the inmates, isn't it? I think all prisons should have a program like that!

Basically, this book is exactly what it promises to be: a heartwarming book about dogs whose love for humans makes the world a better place. If you think that sounds like what you're looking for, then I definitely recommend it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel for the purpose of participating in a TLC Book Tour.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Murder is No Accident by A.H. Gabhart, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Young Maggie Greene may be trespassing in the old, empty Victorian mansion on a quiet street in Hidden Springs, but all she wants is some private time in the magnificent tower room to write her stories. Certain she'll be in trouble if caught, she hides when a realtor shows up. But someone else is in the house too, someone even more worried about getting caught. When Maggie finds the realtor's body at the bottom of a flight of stairs and the other person gone, Deputy Sheriff Michael Keane is called in. He assumes the realtor's death is a tragic accident--until a second person is found dead in the house. When Maggie is threatened, Michael must catch the murderer before anyone else dies.

Cozy mystery fans will love this third installment in The Hidden Springs Mysteries series from an author who knows how to make small-town America sweet, sentimental--and a little sinister.

(352 pages)

First, just so you know, this is the third book in the Hidden Springs Mystery series. I have not read the first two, so I have no idea what details in this book count as spoilers for them. I'll be reviewing it more or less as though it was a stand-alone.

Though I have to say, starting with Murder is No Accident definitely did feel like I was stepping into the middle of something. Most of the characters are given introductions, so I didn't have to constantly guess about who everyone was, but I think I was supposed to already be attached to the characters at the start of the book. I couldn't have cared less about the main character Michael in the beginning of the book, and even though I grew to like him by the end (how could I not, with his love for kids and his tragic back-story?), I still found myself skimming the pages about his personal problems in the second half of the book. What can I say? I wanted to know what was happening with the mystery! And I really didn't care about his personal life that much. There's a fair amount of romance drama between Michael and his girlfriend, and I just couldn't convince myself to feel any anxiety about the relationship between two people who, to be perfectly honest, I did think should just break up and continue in their completely different lives.

To be fair, though, what interest I lacked for Michael and his girlfriend was more than made up for by my interest in Maggie and her boyfriend. It was so cute watching her grow increasingly connected with Anthony, who seems like a really sweet boy. I also just liked Maggie in general, because she seemed like a really nice person whose life was constantly on the verge of catastrophe. The family dynamics, especially with her younger brother and laid-off father, were very well done and I enjoyed them. Basically, Maggie and everything directly connected to her were the biggest things that I loved about the book.

Since this is a murder mystery, I suppose I should talk about the mystery itself. I can't really say much about it without spoilers, obviously, so I'll try to tread carefully. I've read tons of murder mysteries over the years, beginning when I was just nine years old with Murder on the Orient Express, but the number of non-Agatha Christie murder mystery novels I've read can be added up on just one hand. This one is definitely the best of those by far–more engaging, with a wonderfully character-driven plot–but it still doesn't even approach the genius of Christie's mysteries. I didn't guess the murderer, per se, but I definitely wasn't surprised by the end reveal. I was a little bored by it, honestly, but I can't say why because that would be a massive spoiler.

All in all, though, this is still the best murder mystery book I've ever read by anyone whose last name wasn't "Christie," so that's a win in my book. Also, to any other murder mystery fans out there: can you recommend some new names to me? Murder is No Accident has gotten me in the mood for the genre again!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.