For many, the search for one’s spouse can be a tricky endeavor, and this is no less true for the Reinhart Stolten, the Margrave of Thornbeck in MelaniFor many, the search for one’s spouse can be a tricky endeavor, and this is no less true for the Reinhart Stolten, the Margrave of Thornbeck in Melanie Dickerson’s The Beautiful Pretender. In him we find a 14th century nobleman in search of a bride, similar to many a plot in classic fairy tales. His method of choosing a wife is managed much like we see in today’s television show, “The Bachelor”, in that he invites ten women from around his Germanic realm as candidates. At the end of their two week stay in his castle, he plans to ask one of them to marry him. Unbeknownst to Reinhart, one woman is an impostor, a mere servant girl named Avelina who is standing in for a lady who has run off with a knight. For reasons revealed in the book, she must obey the Earl of Plimmwald or face dire consequences for her family and her community. Not only must she attend this gathering of potential brides, but she must also remain inconspicuous and avoid being chosen. To be selected would bring negative political consequences to Plimmwald. Unfortunately, as time goes on, she and the Margrave find themselves drawn to each other. Complicating matters, Avelina stumbles upon a conspiracy that could not only threaten the balance of power, but her very life as well.
The Beautiful Pretender was a quick and light read which I enjoyed very much. Many of the story themes were familiar, but I relished the way that Melanie Dickerson drew out her narrative. There were several themes which I found interesting in particular. I liked the allusions to classic fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Pea. Like Princess and the Pea, Avelina’s nobility is questioned, as is her character. As the other bridal candidates were, she was put through tests to judge her character and worthiness to be Stolten’s wife. Despite her actual lack of noble-born blood, she is found to be one of the most upstanding of the women in the group.
The Beauty and the Beast allusion was a thought-provoking one, and for the first time I found myself questioning the values behind it. Reinhart Stolten is a wounded warrior, one who is grieving the loss of loved ones and is also earnestly looking for a mate. Like the “Beast”, he can be grumpy, has a bit of a temper, and has secrets within the west wing of his castle. As Avelina is drawn to him, part of her wants to get close to him so that she can help heal his broken heart.
“Avelina would be good for him. She could make him stop scowling, could make him believe in love and goodness. She could love him out of that dark thought pattern he seemed to be in, thinking about his lame ankle and about his poor dead brother and how he could not save him.” (p.162)
As I read this passage, I found my married self balking at this notion. After over twenty years of marriage, I’ve come to understand a few things about what makes a successful union. While I’m not a perfect wife, I’ve learned over the decades that we must not enter into a relationship with the idea that we are going to “fix” our loved one. This is especially true when looking for a spouse. We need to do as James Dobson suggests, to “Keep our eyes wide open before marriage and halfway closed thereafter.” Our spouses can be our better halves in the sense that we can encourage one another on to love and good deeds, but starting a relationship with the idea that we would “fix” them can be very risky. Yes, we should be very aware of our future mate’s flaws. But are they flaws that we are willing to live with for the rest of our lives? Through God’s influence they might change, but they might not. We need to love them regardless. Fortunately, I don’t see Avelina as a stringent fixer-type. She seems to care about Reinhart and just wants to love him in his pain. He also seems to open to her opinions, which she was more than willing to share, and were not always in line with what he expected in a woman. My guess is that given her temperament, she would be an encouragement to him, and not a pestering wife.
Another interesting theme dealt with the issue of self-respect. In this I could see shadows of Cinderella, in that Avelina is a servant girl who dons fine, tailored clothing and is one of several choices for a noble bride. And although she is a mere hireling, she learns along the way the value of respecting herself regardless of her position in life. Even a servant can command and deserve respect, given how they carry themselves and expect to be treated. This life lesson was something I saw growing in this character as she spent time in Thornbeck Castle, and I respected Melanie Dickerson for including it. Not all of us can be princesses or be noble-born, but we can all have dignity and treat ourselves accordingly. This is not about haughty pride. It’s about being a creation of God and worthy of care.
Given the main premise of the novel, Avelina’s true identity was sure to be revealed at some point. This is a bit of a spoiler, but any savvy reader would expect that the Margrave would discover the truth eventually. While I expected this plot point, I was surprised at how soon this revelation occurred in the story. It was approximately halfway through the book when the truth is revealed. I wondered how Dickerson would keep the story going, with about half of the title left to go. Fortunately, I was rewarded with an exciting tale of power struggles, chases, injuries, romance, and even a little bit of Christian faith thrown in. The second half was more riveting than the first, and the conclusion was delightful.
Melanie Dickerson is an author I have wanted to read for some time now, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read The Beautiful Pretender. In this novel I was entertained in a lighthearted and refreshing fashion. Dickerson’s writing is very accessible and family friendly, while still bringing some passion to the love scenes. It might not have fairies and magical creatures, but the storytelling was quite magical and a delight to enjoy. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Dickerson in the future....more
Dawn at Emberwilde is second in the Treasures of Surrey series by Sarah E. Ladd. In preparation for this review, I quickly read the first title, The CDawn at Emberwilde is second in the Treasures of Surrey series by Sarah E. Ladd. In preparation for this review, I quickly read the first title, The Curiosity Keeper. I will not do a full review here of that novel, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed it very much. I expected a similar experience with Dawn at Emberwilde. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Yes, it’s a sweet tale of a young girl who finds love in a way she never expected. Based on the family-friendliness of the content, I have no trouble recommending this clean romance to general audiences, but for some reason the story didn’t draw me in as the first one did.
I’m not sure why I didn’t find Dawn at Emberwilde as compelling as its sister novel. Set in 19th century England, it certainly falls into the genre of reading to which I’m usually drawn. As mentioned, the content is clean, with even a few moments of faith sprinkled here and there. Lead character Isabel Creston is an admirable young woman, as she manages to weather several types of trials, all while remaining the loving caretaker of her young half sister. The male leads of the story provide interesting focal points for her, as she begins to consider the possibility of romance after starting a new life with her long-lost relatives. There is a mysterious wooded area near her new home, and shady goings-on affect her life in various ways.
All of the elements of an enjoyable novel seem to be in place for Dawn at Emberwilde, but I just wasn’t overly fascinated throughout the story. It was a quick read, but I kept waiting for something to engage me in a way that would interest me more. In The Curiosity Keeper, there was a jewel that was worked into the story line in a very interesting way, and it makes sense that this previous title is a part of the Treasures of Surrey series. With Dawn at Emberwilde, I kept waiting for a similar plot device to show up in the narrative—perhaps a mysterious diamond or emerald with ties to the story that would be exciting or puzzling. To my disappointment, nothing like this really occurred.
While second in the series, Dawn at Emberwilde can very much stand on its own. There are a few crossover characters, but prior knowledge of them and their history is not essential to participation in the reading. Although my enthusiasm for this title isn’t overly exuberant, I wouldn’t say this review is a non-recommendation. Perhaps the novel just caught me on the wrong week to read it—who knows? Despite my tepid response, I do hope that Sarah Ladd continues the series, and I would definitely like to read another volume. In that sense, the jury is not out on my overall opinion of the collection....more
A nice follow-up to Book 1, Accidentally Yours and a very enticing setup for Book 3, Forever Yours. Fitzwilliam remains somewhat robotic, but his appeA nice follow-up to Book 1, Accidentally Yours and a very enticing setup for Book 3, Forever Yours. Fitzwilliam remains somewhat robotic, but his appeal has increased in this volume. Will remains a delight, and I look forward to what is in store for all the characters in the final chapter of this series. Full review and giveaway (ends 3/25/2016) on The Calico Critic:
For many the Advent season is a time of joy, celebration and memory-making. For others, it’s a time of stress, heartache and painful reminders of whatFor many the Advent season is a time of joy, celebration and memory-making. For others, it’s a time of stress, heartache and painful reminders of what is missing or what could have been. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew this keenly as he struggled with the death of his wife, faced the uncertainty and troubles of the Civil War and worked to maintain his career and family. In 1863 he penned the now-beloved poem “Christmas Bells”, which ultimately would be set to music and sung around the world: I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
The poem goes on to recount images and sentiments of Longfellow’s life as he felt despair, fear, but ultimately faith in light of all the calamity taking place around him and throughout the divided Union in the 1860’s. The novel Christmas Bells recounts a handful of these years as historical fiction, taking facts from Longfellow’s life and shaping them into an extended narrative. We see Henry as a doting husband, tragically made a widower by the loss of his beloved Fanny. He also plays the emotionally fragile father, desperate to keep his son from joining the army to fight alongside his peers. As a professional writer, he exhibits the struggles many have in putting pen to paper, eking out quality work in an effort to not only express himself, but also provide for his family.
Christmas Bells also presents a later time period, our present day as seen in alternating chapters. Here we meet a wide cast of characters living in Longfellow’s hometown, all connected at least in part to St. Margaret’s, a historic Catholic church in Massachusetts. We meet a music teacher, her accompanist, a faithful nun, a priest, a wife of a soldier in Afghanistan and others. Their stories all intersect differently, affecting each other in minor and major ways. In a metaphorical way, their lines form the verses as paired with the refrain of Longfellow’s story in the opposite chapters.
I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Bells. It has the feel of a classic tale with the 19th century setting, but the modern aspect of it is also warm and inviting. I found Henry’s story to be a melancholy one, seemingly beset with constant anxiety over his family’s situation. That said, it was not mood-lowering at all. Henry’s struggle to keep his son safe from the war, and then later to overcome battle-related problems was compelling for this mother to read. Although I enjoy most things related to that era, my interest in the Civil War has never extended much beyond Gone with the Wind, and even my love for that has waned over the years. While raised in the American South, I don’t side with many of the agendas that were advanced on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. The racism and ignorance that remain generations later is repellent to me, so I do not prefer to read novels that are sympathetic to the Rebel cause or any descendant of it. Thankfully, Christmas Bells is told from the Union side of the story, with allegiances for the North being more prominent. War propaganda is not the main power behind these chapters, however. The focus is on the Longfellow family, and in particular Henry Longfellow.
The metaphorical verses contained within the modern chapters took me by surprise. When beginning Christmas Bells, I thought my preference would be to remain solely within Henry’s time, as that is what drew my interest to the book initially. However, Jennifer Chiaverini constructs such an interesting piece with the many voices of her modern narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her characters, both old and young. Their individual stories were compelling, and their corporate interactions were much the same. I was keenly impressed with how she managed to bring their voices in and out, much like a musical concert. My only complaint is that I desired more time with each one. As their individual stories concluded, I found myself wanting more. This was particularly felt in the tale of the musical director and her pianist. When their chapters ended, I was keenly disappointed that we didn’t have more details in their conclusion.
For those who adore the Christmas season and for those who anticipate it with at least a small sense of anxiety, Christmas Bells is an excellent choice for the holiday and weeks surrounding it. Moreover, it can certainly transcend the Christmas season. This is a tale of family, faith, and history. It is not so much an Advent story, but one of love in times of trial and uncertainty. I now have a greater appreciation for Longfellow’s classic poem, and will keep the verses presented in this novel in mind as I sing his lyric for years to come. In a modern world of calamity and uncertainty, we can all have the hope and confidence that God is not dead. He does not sleep. Right will prevail over wrong in the end, “with peace on earth, good-will to men.”...more
Fresh off my review of Christmas Bells, my mind easily slipped into the time periods of The Mapmaker’s Children. Once again we have two main narratives: One set in the 19th century during the American Civil War, and another transpiring within modern times. In the older plot line we find Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, a historical figure that many of us might have studied in school as we learned of the Underground Railroad. Sarah’s father meets a tragic end, but his cause does not halt with his death. It carries on with those who strove for the cause of liberty of all mankind, slave or free. Sarah preferred to make her nonviolent contribution to the abolitionist cause through her artwork, creating paintings and dolls to help lead slaves to the north, to freedom. She faces conflict both without and within, dealing with the political issues of her society as well as battling issues of the heart. She was a strong, brave woman and I came to admire her greatly. I cannot say I agreed with one particular decision she made in the light of possible romance, but her intentions were honorable, and I respect her for her choice. Author Sarah McCoy has done a masterful job of taking the facts as they are known in history and weaving them into a semi-fictional tale that is very believable. We may never know what went on in the hearts of many of the characters in The Mapmaker’s Children, but I enjoyed the choices that McCoy made in her craft, as she painted a picture of love, loss and social liability.
As the chapters alternate, we are introduced to Eden and Jack, a couple which has struggled with infertility for years and is beginning a new life away from the city in somewhat rural New Charlestown, West Virginia. Like Sarah Brown, Eden wrestles with the notion that bearing children may never be in her future. While I have personally experienced a miscarriage, I have never known the pain of long-term infertility. There were times when Eden’s pain was so visceral, I wondered if it would be difficult for an infertile couple to read this novel. I imagine they would either relate to Eden and Jack’s story in a way that would be profoundly comforting, or McCoy’s words might be too painful to take in. She isn’t inappropriate in her descriptions – I could just easily imagine these portions to be difficult for some.
Regardless of this, I highly enjoyed Eden’s story line. Between her strained relationship with her husband, to the nascent friendships she has with the residents of New Charlestown, to the unexpected affection for an adopted dog, I loved the interactions she had and the journey she took from August to December 2014. She’s a wounded woman, but yet strong and working to make something of herself. I found her and the residents of New Charlestown to be colorful, well-drawn and captivating. The added mystery of certain contents of her antique home tied her life to that of Sarah Brown quite nicely, making the transition from 19th to 21st century effortless.
Sarah McCoy has a wonderful novel with The Mapmaker’s Children. She has blended the truth of the past with realistic fiction, and merged this into a modern story that is captivating and heartfelt. I highly enjoyed the choices she made in her narrative, and it has brought me greater appreciation for topics such as the Underground Railroad, infertility, forgiveness, and risking all for what you hold dear. Both Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson are characters to be admired, and I heartily recommend this title to my readers....more