We have quite the…disappointing trio of Lightning Reviews. Hey, they can’t all be winners. Below are reviews for a YA fantasy novel with a bisexual heroine, an anthology of Amish romances, and a workplace romance set at a museum.
The Brides of the Big Valley
author: Wanda Brunstetter
This is a collection of inspirational novellas written by three generations of Brunstetter women. Each story follows a different couple in the intertwined community of Big Valley, Pennsylvania where three Amish communities with varying levels of observance live in harmony. The writing is uneven but all the characters have non-farming jobs, which is unusual for this sub-genre. I frequently read Amish and enjoy farm settings, but it’s nice to see an acknowledgement that farming alone isn’t sustainable for many communities. The stories include trips to local restaurants, named with the real locations, where characters describe menu items in bizarrely specific detail. The result feels at times like an awkward advertisement. For example:
“[He] placed his order for a Saddlers Run sandwich, consisting of turkey, bacon, avocado, mozzarella cheese, and tomatoes on sourdough bread.”
In “Deanna’s Determination”, a widowed mother of a special-needs child is courting her late husband’s best friend. After being blinded in an accident, her betrothed questions his ability to provide for a family. This story needed a longer format. Each scene was barely a sketch, leaving Wanda Brunstetter’s characteristically simple writing style to feel choppy. As a result, the characters were emotionally flattened and one-dimensional. I appreciated the hero having a disability, although the depiction of him struggling to adapt did not break new fictional ground.
“Rose Mary’s Resolve” is the most cinematic of the three stories. A young woman, working her first job at her family’s furniture store, struggles to convince her persistent ex-boyfriend that she truly does want to break up with him. Kevin, a pilot, literally flies into her life when his plane crashes in her family’s backyard. Kevin is afraid of his domineering father and fascinated by Rose Mary’s religion. Their story was predictable but pleasant, and the heroine’s people-pleasing ways were relatable.
“Leila’s Longing” is the most overtly religious of the novellas. Leila is a shy artist who encounters Aden, a kind logger prone to dad jokes, at a youth singing. Leila was previously bullied by Aden’s best friend. They’re from different Amish church communities yet immediately drawn to one another despite the challenges of dating outside their respective churches. Leila and Aden are well-drawn characters, and the slow trickle of trust and longing in their relationship was delightful. I was underwhelmed by the community-based conflict since the differences between their relatively progressive communities seemed insignificant. The story also contains a minor subplot about infertility solved with prayer, which I found frustrating and might be triggering for some readers.
This would be an easy tester for people new to Amish romance because it includes typical themes, tropes, and challenges within the subgenre. Readers with a low tolerance for inspirational romance are likely to be disappointed.
Piece of Work
author: Staci Hart
This contemporary romance started out incredibly promising if you can overlook the initial setup of an intern/supervisor pairing.
Rin is a statuesque heroine, who wears heels that bring her above 6’0”. She lives with a great group of girlfriends in New York in an unfathomably beautiful brownstone that no one her age could afford in real life. She’s an art nerd who really comes into her own and gains some confidence. However, that’s about all the good things I can say because things go off the rails rather quickly.
The hero, Court Lyons, starts off fine. I don’t know if he then bumps his head or gets struck by lightning, but he turns into a grossly manipulative asshole who becomes toxically possessive of Rin. There are several scenes where he makes a move on her and blames it on the way she’s dressed.
The romance quickly spirals into one melodramatic scene after another with numerous scheming, jealous women and Court’s domineering behaviors. Rin’s roommates/friends have a come to Jesus talk with her about Court and though it wouldn’t be a romance without an HEA, I sincerely hoped some other romantic interest would show up at the last second.
I’m on the fence about continuing. If all the heroes are akin to Court, I’m not going to have a good time. Unfortunately, Rin’s friends were awesome and I’m genuinely curious about their lives.
Shatter the Sky
author: Rebecca Kim Wells
Unmet expectations are killer. I wanted a kickass bisexual heroine tearing down the corrupt empire and stealing a dragon to rescue her kidnapped girlfriend. What I got was a slow-paced fantasy novel with an additional love interest that I desperately tried to will out of existence.
By “slow-paced,” I mean boring. There is a chunk in the middle where I didn’t understand why the plot wasn’t moving. The entire premise is that the rescue mission must happen RIGHT NOW OR ELSE. Yet when the heroine Maren settles into her new normal inside the fortress, the book just… pauses. That urgency goes away. Suddenly she’s there to learn skills and make friends. Which is fine, but then that urgency magically returns toward the end of the book. So what, the entire middle of the book is in some kind of freeze frame? I don’t know, but I didn’t like it.
My biggest problem with Shatter the Sky has to do with my loathing for emotional cheating, even if the current relationship is terrible (this is not the case here). Maren is bi, and I appreciate that the book shows her attraction to both her girlfriend and the mysterious boy she meets later (who is far more present in the book than Maren’s girlfriend). But I just really hate emotional cheating of any kind, and I couldn’t understand why Maren swooned over this new guy so easily when she was still in a relationship. At several times, I wanted to shake Maren and demand that she focus on the rescue mission! That’s the entire reason why you’re at the fortress, damnit.
I don’t dislike everything about this book. I’m a sucker for anything dragons (thank you, Dragon Tales on PBS), I love the diverse fantasy setting, and my interest significantly picked up in the last quarter of the book. But while I acknowledge that some parts of the story intrigued me, I spent most of my time bored or annoyed. That’s not any kind of endorsement for a positive reading experience.
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