Monday, February 27, 2006

A Two-Faced Review: A FAMILY FOREVER

As of March 1st, Brenda Coulter, she of the faboo No Rules, Just Right blog, celebrates the release of her second novel, A FAMILY FOREVER. As with her first novel, the critically praised FINDING HOPE, her second offering flies off the presses of Steeple Hill Love Inspired. What that means is that the novel is an Inspirational Romance.

(For those of you who don't know, Steeple Hill publishes Christian romances, that means they do without sex or any graphic content. Expect kisses and hugs and the occasional prayer along with your story of one man and one woman falling in love or falling in love again.)

I haven't read a straight category romance in a few years. I used to subscribe to Silhouette Romance and Steeple Hill Love Inspired, but those subscriptions are history. I just wandered away from category romance, sort of burned out. I mean, I had read hundreds. After while, the plots were repeating and the characters weren't working for me. I decided a break was in order, or just a moving on. I find I prefer my stories of romance strongly dosed with other factors that contribute to a strong external conflict or a greater sense of wonder: suspense, fantasy, mystery, science fiction, lyrical writing of literary quality...

But I wanted to read Brenda's book. She's a fine specimen of smart and godly womanhood, and I like her. A lot. Plus, she's classy and mature enough to be able to take a really critical review (even a negative one), which satisfied my condition for reviewing a book: I have to be able to be honest and not just serve as a promotional hiney-smoocher. (Yes, you did read that right.)

If I can't be myself, I just don't wanna do it. Brenda gives her reviewers the carte blanche to be genuine and frank. I love that about her.

So prepare for me to say exactly what I think:

This will be a dual personality sort of review. I will review it first from the point of view of The Old Mir, who once read tons of category contemporary romances. Then I will review it as The New Mir, who has moved away from such reads.

This way, whether you are part of one camp (the fan of inspirational contemporary category romances) or the other (the non-lover of ICC romances), you can still get something out of this post to help you decide if this novel is one you would enjoy.

A FAMILY FOREVER is the story of a godly, attractive man, Tucker, and a conflicted Christian woman with a tragic past, Shelby, who also happens to be the fiance of Tucker's late stepbrother, David. David died in a motorcycle crash. Tucker, a talented cycling enthusiast who makes his living selling sporting stuff, feels responsible. Shelby, who is pregnant from a premarital bit of whoopie with David, feels shame and finds herself in a tight spot, what with being alone, pregnant, pretty badly off financially, and uncomforted by a not-very-sympathetic mother with emotional issues of her own.

So, this being a romance novel (and those of you who have read more than a couple dozen category romances know what's coming), a Marriage of Convenience is suggested by Tucker, who feels oodles of guilt and a sense of responsibility, being the honorable man he is. His suggestion is accepted by Shelby, who feels she has no other options and is riddled with guilt at taking advantage of Tucker. But hey, she does anyway. He's insistent.

The novel is basically the two of them working out their guilt issues and their romance. Shelby has to deal with that past that keeps her from being able to fully invest in a relationship. Tucker feels he must prove he's a sensitive male and that they can make the marriage work. Shelby wants not to be a burden; Tucker reassures her she's not. You get it. That kind of general romantic angst abounds.

If you are in Camp Inspy Category Romance Lover:
You will definitely enjoy this novel. It has the internal conflict and hallmarks that will fill your romantic reading needs: the tortured heroine, the rescuing hero, one of the more popular stock premises, the comfy-home-sanctuary, the adorable pooch.

Tucker is a delicious hero. Frankly, he steals the novel right out from under Shelby, who as the one who has to make the largest change, is the real protagonist. Only she didn't grab me. He did. I'd marry him, and that's the biggest compliment you can give a romance hero, right?

There are some truly sweet and moving moments, especially in the latter third of the novel. The kisses carry the requisite impact, and you'll find a very satisfying epilogue. (I remember loving those kinds of epilogues when I was a category buying fiend.)

Shelby, however, annoyed me a lot. I wanted to feel sympathy for her plight, but she was so immature, so non-deep, so "insensitive jerk"-y. I mean, that's the accusation she hurls at Tucker (later repenting of it), but the truth is, he's not at all insensitive, he's not at all a jerk, and she's the one who I want to slap down and say, "Grow fricken up!" And, on top of that, she remains kinda amorphous through most of the novel, not really starting to fill out as a "real" character until the latter chapters.

Fortunately, after an annoying bout of Shelby, you are bound to fall into a scene with Tucker. He's a more clearly presented character, and wonderful enough as a he-man-with-heart to make up for Shelby being a brat-twit.

For Christian readers, your spiritual sense ought to be nicely satisfied by the repentance, prayers, forgivings, and conversions that come along in the last third.

I'd give this 3.5 to 4 stars from a Camp One perspective, mostly for the good scenes in the last part of the novel and for the truly wonderful Tucker. Loved him! And the ending scenes gave me the warm fuzzies. That's always good.

Now, if you are in Camp Inspy Category Romances Make Me Yawn:
You will probably yawn a lot during the first third of the novel when not much happens. It really needed some good conflict to propel things, but it wasn't there. A clear hint of real trauma finally shows up one-third in.

The secondary characters are flimsy, flatter than two-dimensional. (Which is not unusual in shorter category novels, so is hardly a huge demerit. It just didn't realy add to the story, especially the gal-buddy.) Some devices are introduced that are never used fully (Tucker's second job, for instance), so I wondered why they were even there.

I wondered the same thing about the scenes with the best friend. One didn't serve any purpose at all that I could figure. The friend filler.

Overwriting is also a problem. We're hammered over the head over and over and over about "She's suffered. She's pregnant. Her fiance's dead. Of course she..." It gets old after the fith or fifteenth time I, the reader, am told of her being pregnant/grieving. Yeah, yeah, I know! I almost started wondering if the book fell short and Brenda had to go back and put in filler bits, cause it was really a lot of that sort of thing.

Some of the metaphors struck me oddly. One in particular made me stop reading and go, "huh?" It's about Tucker and he "reversed direction like a ping-pong ball bouncing off a paddle." (p. 128) I actually had this image of Tucker whooshing into the kitchen like a ball. Heh.

And one of my personal pet peeves of romance made an appearance: Overuse of heart descriptors. I actually had to stop and retrace when I found conflicting heart metaphors on one page, then another page with two heart metaphors. Hey, it's me, I hate that. I'm sure there's some metaphoric thing I misuse, but this is my peeve. I once stopped reading a Steeple Hill novel mid-chapter one when I encountered 4 heart metaphors in the span of two pages. FOUR. I thought the heroine was going to need a cardiologist and a very tricky operation to cure her racing, jumping, constricting, thundering problems. This may not bother YOU, though.

There isn't much conflict. There isn't any real external conflict at all. It's all internal. If you need to have a story with a strong external conflict and plot, this ain't it. This is an internal read, an emotional read.

However, if you want to give this novel a try, Camp Two-er, consider that there are some lovely scenes of genuinely sweet affection, of "falling in love", of moving humane consideration for another human being, of a man being what we women want a man to be. Remember how millions of women the world over just about fell out of their beds in a swoon when Mark Darcy says, "I like you just the way you are," to Bridget Jones in the movie? Well, I got something of that sort of feeling when the following happens:

{Shelby} turned on him. "Are you suggesting that I have some kind of problem?"
"Honey, I'm suggesting you have all sorts of problems. But I am absolutely on your side."

Or much later in the story, this:

"Talk to me," he urged in a melting-chocolate voice she had no power to resist. "Tell me the stuff nobody understands."


If that sort of hero and those sort of story moments do it for you, then get A FAMILY FOREVER.

My rating for the Camp Two-ers is 2.5 stars.

So, gentle readers, decide which camp you fall into. If you fall into Camp One, definitely get this novel. If you're in Camp Two, you now know what to expect, so don't say I wasn't fair.

And if you want a taste of A FAMILY FOREVER, you'll find most of the first chapter available for preview at BrendaCoulter.Com.


Chaos-Jamie said...

I love your take on the Inspirational Romance Category. Crack me up. I said a similar thing on my blog last week...though I won't go providing a link for my shamelss self promotion. I like your two faced review. LOL! hiney-smoocher!

Mirtika said...

Jamie, you go on and self-promote all you want. Actually, it also makes it easier for me (and all and sundry) to check you out.

Here, watch how the Mir does it, easy as pie:

Mir--loves to tease

Chaos-Jamie said...

since I have permission and all!


Somehow I think we could get along fabulously!

Carol Collett said...

"So prepare for me to say exactly what I think:"

Mir, I think after reading about 2 sentences on your blog, I'm prepared to read exactly what you think. I just can't imagine you any other way!

I like the format for your review-the me and my evil twin kind of thing.

Amy A. said...

I am LAUGHING! That was one heckuva review. From now on I'll be on the lookout for those heart metaphors, :)

Mirtika said...

Well, Carol, I like to think of it as two Good But Mouthy Twins. :)


Mirtika said...

Amy, we all have devices we rely on. I'll expect a contest entry marked up and returned with, "And why do you keep saying "x"...?"


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Mir....ROFLOL...that was great...i thought I was bad with me, myself and I....but you and your 'twin' have me beat by a mile!!LOL

Camy Tang said...

GREAT review, Mir! I especially liked the lines you quoted from the book. Very poignant. Brenda's goooood.

Mirtika said...

Bonnie, the three of you and the two of me can get together with Camy for a nice dinner for six. :)


Deb Kinnard said...

Well, I may not have seen this review on amazon, but I for one found it enormously helpful!

So helpful, I went out & bought the book.

I'm about 3/4 of the way through it. And I love your yin/yang review of it. Yeah, Shelby is (ahem) personality challenged. But I find myself rooting for her anyway. Call me the salmon swimming upstream (again).

And did anyone but me notice that this poor woman, if she doesn't have challenges enough, is now stuck with the married name Shelby Sharpe? Is Brenda trying to have us on, here? 'Cause Shelby is a musician...

Just punning.


Mirtika said...

Shelby Sharpe. "shall be sharp." ; )

Actually, "sharpe" makes me think of Sean Bean, and I have no complaints about THAT association. Woo.