Monday, May 01, 2006

Review: FIREWORKS by Elizabeth White--or as I call it--WOOING SUSANNAH

FIREWORKSby Elizabeth White (Zondervan)

Here's a book whose packaging and opening may easily mislead the bookstore browser or would-be audience.

What do I mean? you ask.

Okay, the cover has a sharp-featured, attractive blond with carefully coiffed long curls, her face in a banded field against a background of fireworks bursting across a night sky. (The fireworks, from a bit of distance to the bookshelf, look like a very odd hat.) The little teaser on the bottom front uses the phrase "former ATF agent" in the same line as the word "danger," and then mentions a hero with "explosive charm."

What does that make you assume? Perhaps that this is gonna be a book about a gal in danger and that it's gonna have romance and explosions and, yeah, fireworks. Romantic suspense in a pyrotechnics milieu.

Let's move to the back cover as we browse.

The well-respected CBA romance author Lori Copeland praises it as "heartwarming" and an "explosive ride." Now, those two descriptions don't seem to go hand-in-hand. But perhaps it's a very emotional, very fast-paced romantic suspense in a pyrotechnic milieu? you say.

Um, you half-nail it.

It's when you get to the last line in the back cover blurb that the truth of what this novel is about comes out: "a cynical young woman's first encounter with Christ-like love."

What we have here, folks, is a case of mixed messages. I had such a hard time getting a fix on this baby just from the packaging. After I read it, I shook my head. Nuh-uh.

It's bad packaging of a very sweet, very Christian, romantic story.

There should have been a nicely shadowed Southern town at dusk with fireworks in the sky above trees and cozy homes. And we should have seen Ms. Copelands term "heartwarming" in big, big letters under the sleepy town with the fireworks. (And maybe a couple going for an evening's jog along a quiet street.)

This is not romantic suspense. This is not an "explosive ride." This is not a fast-paced novel of "danger." Chapter one is not typical of the other chapters. The author, the lovely and sweet Beth White, sort of plays with expectations starting with that chapter. It's kind of misleading. It's a nice chapter, btw, with a good measure of dread and adrenaline. It's just that the rest of the book is not at all like that.

Hang with me.

Okay, now that we know that Zondervan's marketing folks really mispackaged this sweet story, and that you may not know what you're really getting from the bits we book lovers usually scrutinize before we decide "buy or no buy", I'll tell you what this novel really is:

FIREWORKS is, in the main, a salvation story imbedded in a romance that's part Southwestern-Gal-in-Alabama/fish-out-of-water tale blended with a leisurely-solved mystery.

It's pretty easy to figure out who did what and even why.)

FIREWORKS opens with a scary pyrotechnic mishap that nearly kills Quinn Baldwin, the owner of the company staging the show. No one is hurt, but a lot of damage is done to a key civic edifice. Even though authorities call the mishap an "accident," the insurance company receives an anonymous letter saying otherwise. And so, pretty, blond, leggy Susannah Tait, multi-degreed explosives expert and investigator, is dispatched to find out what happened and, her boss hopes, nail Quinn so that the insurance company is off the hook moolah-wise.

The rest of the novel is a strolling Christian romance. Quinn and Susannah get to know each other, while Susannah's deceit becomes a burden. (She befriends Quinn to get info, slips into his circle of friends, and must hold up her deception.) Bit by bit, she's falling under the spell of all the love and faith around her.

To non-Christians, this novel will come across as decidedly preachy. Almost every significant character--from her landlady to her brother (who only shows up via phone calls)--is a strong believer, and all of these are out to get Susannah converted. In fact, the barrage is so persistent, I thought while reading that any non-believing reader would wonder if Susannah had happened upon a Jesus cult out to nab her mind.

Half-joking, there.

Outsiders don't understand the evangelistic fervor we Southern Evangelicals can display in real life. Within the confines of a novel that, naturally, compresses major incidents, having a good percentage of the scenes relate to getting Susannah to surrender to Jesus could leave a less than fervid reader feeling a bit overwhelmed, religiously speaking.

However, once I said to myself, "Okay, the real romance here is between Susannah and the God who is persistently wooing her through his people, not between Susannah and Quinn," I was able to settle enjoyably into the tale. That's the key. Tell yourself, "This is a God-courting-Susannah story." It will fall into place. That's what the marketing should have been. The romance with Quinn has its own secondary place, and the mystery is a straggling third on the list.

It took me well past a third into the book to feel the spell of the romance(s). Quinn is just too perfect in the early part. It's when we start seeing his vulnerability--his first fib, even--that we can connect. Ah, see, he's human. Susannah is likable, although I hated that she was turned into something of a "Southern Girly-Girl". I understand the metaphor the author is using there, but it was nice to have her be the natural beauty without regard for the rituals of prettied up femininity.

Susannah, btw, makes some serious missteps that made me question if she deserved all those educational letters after her name. One especially huge error, professionally speaking, is particularly annoying, and seemed to be a plot contrivance to allow her to hold off some information until the very end. But by then, I very much liked this young couple, as well as the older Elva May, and I also had a small fondness for the quirky secretary and Skeet and Dana. I liked spending a bit of time with the group.

Beth White has a smooth, uncluttered style of writing. It doesn't force metaphors. It doesn't attempt stylistic flights. It's a gentle, clean style that will suit a quiet afternoon or evening's reading when your mood is matched by a novel that doesn't rush, doesn't offer anything offensive, and walks you unhurriedly beside a young woman as she encounters all sorts of new loves--God's love, a good man's love, the love of a faith community.

This is a novel of a woman finding her place, and it's about a man learning lessons about forgiveness, even as both of them learn that what God brings into one's life, even when it seems awful, may ultimately turn out for a whole lotta good.

Lovers of sweet Christian romances should enjoy this novel quite a bit. The romance is believable. The first kiss is utterly exhilirating and delightful to read. The book and its author, I believe, seek to honor a very traditional faith experience--an unsullied and honorable progression from unbelief to belief, from non-love to love--and it succeeds at that.

If you know folks who like to read sweet romances and aren't offended by "churchese", but who haven't fully taken that step and committed to Jesus yet, this is actually a good story to put in their hands. It's like having a soft-spoken, friendly, likable gal tell you about the Lord over tea.

If this is the sort of gentle read you gravitate to, I recommend it. For me, ie. someone who prefers more extreme fiction, it provided a few hours of tenderness and uncomplicated storytelling. And that's not at all a bad thing now and then . . . for anyone.

Mir's rating of the various components of FIREWORKS:
The mystery: 2.5 stars
The romance: 3.5 stars
The spiritual journey: 4 stars

OVERALL RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Thanks for that're correct in saying that the packaging is misleading...If I had bought it, I would have been disappointed in the outcome!

Camy Tang said...

GREAT review! I like how you addressed so many aspects of the story, including who would enjoy reading it. And I'm glad you're feeling better, too.


Mirtika said...

Thanks, Bonnie and Camy.

I'm feeling better--though my computer isn't. Someone please lay hands on both the old and new puters, would ya? :D

I usually address who might like a book (see A FAMILY FOREVER, especially if I don't give it a full or near full rack of stars. I know that tastes differ, and the book I give a 3.5 to will be someone's 4.5 or 5. I want that book to get into the hands of the people who will cherish it, be moved by it, pass it on to a friend.

I like it when books find their way to all the right folks, which is why, I supposed, I spent so much time about the mispackaging. Of course, it's just as appropriate to say, "Who the heck does Mir think she is knowing about packaging?" Nothing, nothing at all other than a lifetime's experience browsing and buying books to the tune of thousands of dollars a year, sometimes. No expertise other than that. :)


Beth White said...

I've been meaning to stop by and thank Mir for such a thoughtful review. I sent her the book on purpose because I respect her taste and judgment. She's exactly right that this book is not intended to be a suspense--it's distinctly different from my Gatekeeper series for Love Inspired Suspense.

And because the heroine is an undercover insurance agent who must essentially lie to the hero (until she's convinced he's telling the truth), I felt like it would be easier to accomplish the story with a heroine who had a long way to go in her journey toward God. Thus it became a "God wooing Susannah" story, as well as "Quinn wooing Susannah." Interesting, no?

Thanks again, Mir, for showcasing my book. You're a Cuban-American peach and I love you!