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Erica Vetsch – The Cactus Creek Challenge

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Guns, outlaws, and women included.

Publisher: Shiloh Run Press (Barbour Publishing)
Pages: 309
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-630-58927-1
First Published: 1st July 2015
Date Reviewed: 3rd May 2015
Rating: 3/5

Schoolteacher Cassie loves sheriff Ben, but Ben still sees her as a child. When they are paired together, tasked with doing each other’s jobs, both are confidant they can rise to the challenge. Then there is new resident, baker Jenny, a widow with a past she’s not divulging, who is paired with another widow, stable owner Carl. Whoever does their temporary job best wins money for a certain sector or the town but it’s likely they’ll win each other, too.

The Cactus Creek Challenge is an inspirational (Christian) western romance that focuses on domestic and social relations.

The story is simple and mostly predictable but that’s no bad thing; it leaves Vetsch able to look at her other themes. There are two romances. The reader is likely to vastly prefer one to the other due to how much more natural it is. The slow burn of Carl and Jenny’s relationship is rather special and it’s written very well. The addition of Amanda, Jenny’s child, only adds to it. Yes, Amanda is included a lot and almost too talkative (in the way of info-dumping) but the relationship and development of the new family is rather lovely.

Cassie and Ben, on the other hand, is a relationship that’s more forced. There is a nice passage in which Ben realises Cassie has grown up but otherwise their relationship isn’t so believable. It’s hard to see why Cassie likes Ben, particularly when we’re told they are like siblings but never shown any true evidence of it or any friendship. The relationship rests on what we’re told, that Cassie loves Ben but she’s always moaning at him, that Ben now likes Cassie (that nice passage) but it doesn’t really blossom.

Carl and Jenny are the stand outs in this book; both work hard to do the other’s job and to understand life from that point of view. Carl’s efforts to bring Amanda out of her shell and his love for her are written brilliantly; he is a very endearing character. Jenny worries about her past but Vetsch keeps it from becoming frustrating – there is no constant pushing away as there can be in other books.

One of the problems with this book is that Cassie is a bit of a mismatch. Vetsch presents a woman who was a tomboy in her youth, a woman who loves the idea of being sheriff for a month, and who shows promise to the reader as such – and then has Cassie prettifying the jail in a way that makes no sense and bares no relation to the set-up. This second Cassie does not comprehend why Ben is angry she’s added curtains and crockery and cushions to the jail, does not understand why it’s inappropriate to have a tea party there with all the ladies of the town, whilst simultaneously wanting to be the sheriff.

In the main the story reads well, but there are a few issues. Foremost is the way two of the characters kill a kidnapper – they are worried about the child which is understandable, but there is no mention of any remorse or prayers to God, which in the context of the Christian background is difficult. The body is pulled back home and will be planted in the ground; no prayers, nothing. The man is shot and anything else is simply ignored by the text.

Otherwise religion is included well. There is one time wherein an entire hymn is included, which is a bit much and lessens the effect, but otherwise faith lingers in the background, naturally informing the character’s lives. The romantic scenes show well how a book can be perfectly steamy without the characters ever adjourning to the bedroom. Carl and Jenny’s scenes stand out as their scenes do in general, but there are some lovely moments between Cassie and Ben near the end.

Throughout the book you know there’s a fair chance of a particular event occurring – it’s something that is reported as a possibility in line with Jenny’s leaving her old home. It’s something that’s almost expected as an element. However when it comes down to it Vetsch decides to use the concept itself but place it in an entirely irrelevant context, an unimportant plot device sort of context, that could be considered frustrating due to how successful and meaningful the alternative would have been. It’s a case of close but no cigar – not bad, per se, but the alternative was so remarked upon that it does feel as though the story’s going down the wrong path.

There are continuity errors, for example a character says that a person should follow them outside and moments later the second character leaves by themselves with no mention of changing the plan. Chairs are pulled out, never to be referred to again. Part of the story is made up of accident after accident after accident. Lastly there is a great amount of info-dumping and the text is overwritten (excursions that are simply to introduce someone to the reader rather than having an actual raison d’etre).

The writing itself is strictly okay. Here again there is too much description (to paraphrase, there are lots of sentences akin to ‘he took the chair from the desk and sat on the seat’), factually inaccurate statements and anachronisms.

The Cactus Creek Challenge isn’t as refined as, say, A Bride’s Portrait Of Dodge City, Kansas, but it’s generally well set in its era and the twist of women doing the men’s work is as fulfilling as you might have hoped upon reading the blurb. It’s also a fair choice for those looking for faith in their fiction without it being a theme. It’s not going to ‘wow’ you, but you may find yourself lingering over it all the same.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Erica Vetsch – A Bride’s Portrait Of Dodge City, Kansas

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As people learned to say cheese.

Publisher: Barbour Publishing
Pages: 309
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-616-26506-9
First Published: 1st September 2011
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2014
Rating: 4/5

Addie moved to Dodge City with her uncle after troubles caused them to move from Abilene. Now Carl is dead and Addie is trying to build up their photography business by herself. She has a romance-minded friend, Fran, and then there’s the new Deputy Sheriff. Miles has started his new job, and has a few personal conflicts about the job, owing to his new found faith, but he’s excited nonetheless to be working as a lawman, especially given his past.

A Bride’s Portrait Of Dodge City, Kansas, is a pretty fair historical novel straddling the mystery, suspense, and romance genres.

Christianity features in this book. It is a big part of a few of the character’s lives however in terms of the novel itself the faith is woven in enough that the general reader should be okay with it. There are a couple of times where Miles feels he should be declaring his faith to his boss, which isn’t really appropriate, but otherwise the times the characters think of God are totally natural – Addie prays for help whilst hiding from shooting, for example. And there isn’t all that many textual references to it, it is more a case that the reader knows the characters have faith.

The language is generally very good, the characters well written. Addie is self-employed, a woman working as a photographer in the 1800s against various prejudices. She is strong throughout. Fran is a dreamer and doesn’t realise the potential danger ahead, and Vetsch does put her in some situations, including a scene of harsh words from the man who says he loves her, but overall you can see where the author was wanting to show how the good guy can be a mysterious knight in shining armour if given the chance. This said there is a scene in which a bad guy gets perhaps more nasty than he had previously seemed (yes, even for his associations) that readers may find uncomfortable for the way it plays out. Miles will appeal more to a Christian reader than otherwise, though either way you’re likely to see him as a fair hero.

There are repetitions, for instance you hear about Addie’s move from Abilene a few times and there aren’t really enough updates to warrant it until later in the book when she gives you the whole story, and these feel as though a word count was needed because as soon as the narrative moves away from it the story carries on well.

The book is somewhat predictable by fact of it’s romantic genre, but another thread that seems predictable is not so much. This said, the mystery and suspense take a somewhat surprising turn near the end and one of the most obvious suspects isn’t spoken of until this end. The suspense itself, however, is written excellently and Vetsch hasn’t shied away from the details, in fact it could be said she lures you into thinking everything will be just about drunken cowboys, red lights, and saloons, until getting to the gritty stuff. And she shows the difficult and otherwise immoral choices that must be made in times of emergency.

There is a great deal to learn about photography and the times in general. There is a lot of detail given to photography but not so much as to make it boring. Indeed if you’ve even the smallest interest in the subject you’ll likely enjoy Vetsch’s descriptions. The book is firmly in cowboy territory and the balance between ‘protect the women’ and Addie’s freedom is good. Fran could have done with more freedom to choose, but given the way she is presented from the start, you know she’s going to go back on her words somewhat.

Lastly, this may be a clean romance, but its kisses and thoughts are pretty steamy all the same. Indeed Vetsch shows you don’t need sex for a fair tale of romance.

What works in A Bride’s Portrait Of Dodge City, Kansas (it’s a long title but interesting for its difference) makes up the vast majority. There may be flaws but looking at the big picture the book is very good. Cowboys and photography, gangs and romance, independence and dependence; if you’re looking for a western with a bit of faith, you could do worse than read this book.

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Kristy Cambron – The Butterfly And The Violin

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This is the first time I’ve read Christian fiction (besides C S Lewis and Tolkien) and I’ll be reviewing this book as I do any other so it may be the case that this review differs in its main focus than it ‘ought’.

Finding a painting, discovering history, and perhaps (hesitantly) falling in love.

Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 323
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-401-69059-5
First Published: 8th July 2014
Date Reviewed: 19th August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

Gallery owner Sera has been searching for a painting, seen once as a child and instantly loved, for several years. When her assistant tells her another is looking for it and wants the gallery’s help, she jumps at the chance and flies to the other side of the country. The family looking for the painting is wealthy but that wealth is in jeopardy and the painting is the key. In 1940s Austria, the subject of the artwork and the daughter of a general of the Third Reich is branded a traitor and sent to Auschwitz after it is discovered she aided an attempt to provide safe passage to a Jewish family. Both Adele and Sera search for security and happiness, hoping that God will provide.

The Butterfly And The Violin is a Christian dual plot line historical that looks at art, the Holocaust, and the plight and faith of two young women.

It’s often the case that a reader will prefer one plot line over another when there are two of them, however The Butterfly And The Violin is a book less likely to pull you one way. This is because although very different, both stories are of equal strength, the characters somewhat similar, and the stories well balanced. Though of course nowhere near as significant as Adele’s, Sera’s life has that present-day regularity that is compelling simply because of the emotions included in it. Whilst the time periods are fairly standard for dual plot stories, the fact of the Holocaust and Adele’s ‘role’ in it make the book stand out from others. Although Adele may be in a place of privilege, even in Auschwitz, Cambron never shies from showing you what was going on.

The biggest similarity between the women is their faith. We know more about Sera’s, descriptively, than we do Adele’s, but still it is not simply that both women are Christians. In The Butterfly And The Violin the emphasis is on the way faith is playing its part at that very moment, and for both Sera and Adele, at the time we join them, falling in love and being happy in love are two of the most important aspects of their lives. Both look to God for help, Adele prays she will see Vladimir again, and Sera prays that she will trust another after having had her heart broken. Indeed Sera’s faith is a little shaky – she still believes, and would never not believe, but the disappointments and losses have taken their toll and she hasn’t made much time for her faith since.

Obviously there are quite a number of references to God, faith, and Christianity (also Judaism, but as that isn’t a ‘subject’ so to speak, Christianity is what I’ll be focusing on). More often, at least for the first two thirds or so of the book, God is present in Adele’s story. On the surface it can seem that the references are too many and placed at inappropriate times. However if you step back from your reading and put yourself in the situation of the characters, in this case Adele, it seems perfectly natural. It is really more the case that where faith happens so much more in the mind than in conversation (generally) it’s simply that it can seem odd being actually stated, the things most often thought but not said are here, being voiced. This said, there is a sudden increase in references towards the end in both stories that do not work as well for different reasons. In Adele’s case it’s inevitable that in a crisis, a group of faithful people will look to God – it’s simply that the constant references slow down the pace and pull the focus away from the tragedy of the situation at hand. In Sera’s case it’s that it becomes a bit confusing, although it’s well placed as part of her self-discovery and improvement.

The confusion is part of a larger aspect that needs discussing. There are a few sections of the story that don’t quite add up and occasions where there is too much detailing. People tap their feet a lot, for example, and we have many descriptions of hair. Some of the phrasing doesn’t work. And there are also frustrating occasions wherein questions – literal, spoken questions – are not answered for a while and it seems the case that it’s so Cambron can keep the story going longer. There is one place where answers are ignored so that the author can detail a room, and by this time the reader just wants to know what’s going on. It’s not that the characters ignore the questions, it’s that they are left out completely until detail has been included.

Where Sera and the confusion come in is in the numerous references to faith. The problem is that the issues get lost behind the references so that you realise Sera’s faith has been tested and that she wants to trust and get back to God more fully, but you’re not always sure what’s happening to cause this transition. As it’s not a transition from faithless to faithful (Sera never speaks of going to church but one can assume she does sometimes) it is a problem. Simply put, sometimes narrative is not clearly explained.

Unclear is the way the inheritance issue is concluded. That William and everyone else is happy is not believable and the grandfather’s plans come across as thoughtless, having emphasised William’s role and not really considered the rest of his family. Yes, it allows William to be able to choose the life he has always wanted, but it leaves his family in the lurch and we’re not given all that much information about it. It may work for William, but are his family going to be happy with what is effectively a loss for them? It’s also not clear exactly why the grandfather decided to change his will and leave the fortune previously left to his family to someone else.

Yet still on the whole, The Butterfly And The Violin works. There is a lot of information about the Holocaust, including much that isn’t covered by your usual school education, and Cambron has taken a path rarely if ever used, applying a specific sort of artwork and using that as the basis for one of the stories.

The romance, too, works very well. Whilst we don’t read all that much about Sera and William, appropriate time passes off stage to suggest they make a good couple and the somewhat inevitable discovery of a shared faith is included to very good effect. Adele’s relationship with Vladimir successfully details both the horrors of WWII and your everyday social prejudice. And both the painter and the owner of the painting may prove to be unexpected (but welcome).

And finally the characters are believable and people you’ll find yourself rooting for. Adele’s impulsive choices are maddening sometimes, but exactly the choices you’d expect a naïve, hopeful person in her situation to make, and whilst Sera becomes cross and can’t always see what’s staring her in the face, again, in her situation it makes perfect sense.

Definitely, obviously, this book will be appreciated most by those who share the characters’ faith, but there is enough here for a general historical romance reader or dual plot line lover to enjoy as well.

The Butterfly And The Violin isn’t perfect, but nevertheless you may find yourself racing through it.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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