Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Could Never Be Your Woman

I'll be blunt. Nothing frosts my buns more than the fact that many heathen secular publishing imprints have outright abandoned the western romance, yet the setting flourishes in the inspirational/Christian market place. Now, I'm a librarian. I have absolutely nothing against inspirational romance. At all. But it makes absolutely no sense to me that the setting is selling so frickin' well to the Christian reading masses and not to heathen secular readers. I have my theories on where to lay blame, but I need to stop ranting and get on with this review.

When I read inspirational romances, I tend to stick with authors who used to (or still do in some cases) write for the secular market. I figure the odds are better for me not getting preached at. And for the most part, with this first book in her Irish Angel series, Jill Marie Landis does a good job of not beating me over the head with the God stick.

Heart Of Stone tells the story of Laura Foster, a woman desperate to hide the tragedy and scandal of her past. Robbed of her childhood, and separated from her three sisters, Laura has settled in Glory, Texas, where she runs a boardinghouse (women and families only thankyouverymuch) and is passing herself off as a wealthy widow. The problem is that Laura is one fine bit of muslin. Even if single women weren't scarce, she's the sort of gal that garners attention. She's gotten quite a reputation for turning down marriage proposals, but for some reason that doesn't stop Reverend Brand McCormick from calling on her. Laura knows she has to turn him away. For her own sanity and for his own reputation. If her secret ever got out, he would be ruined in town, and the man is not only a reverend, but has two small children to think of.

The central theme of this story is forgiveness. It's a wise move on the author's part, because the concept of forgiveness is not solely a Christian one. I don't care who you are or what you believe, all of us have something in our pasts that we're not proud of. All of us have felt shame at one time or another. Here the author runs with that theme, illustrating that through faith, many people do find the forgiveness and freedom from guilt that they so desperately want and need. Also, it helps tremendously that the author doesn't heave all this on the heroine's shoulders. Brand isn't exactly squeaky clean either. He found God after surviving the Civil War, and has worked hard to change his life, live by Christian principles, and raise his two children after his wife dies. He's a good man. A strong man. And just the sort of man that Laura needs.

The "God Stuff" is actually fairly subtle for most of the book. Brand's a preacher, so obviously there are moments where he is in reflection or prayer - but it's never heavy-handed or overly preachy. I never felt like the author was trying to convert me. That being said, the "God Stuff" does get more pronounced at the end, and also a tinch annoying since the theme of forgiveness is extended to Laura seeking it. Color me crazy, but I felt the woman had nothing to apologize for. Period. What happened to her started when she was but a child, and as she grew to adulthood, she took one of the extremely few options available to her to build a new life for herself. Of course, we're talking 19th century America here. It's not exactly a shock, or historical inaccurate, that women with Laura's past were often wrongly "blamed" for it. Heck, that crap (sadly and all too often) still goes on today.

The writing here is crisp and straight-forward, although on occasion some "telling" creeps in (over "showing") and the author takes a moment to Series-Info-Dump in the second chapter (while the start of a new series, this book is loosely connected to two previous releases). Also, there were moments where I wanted more of Laura's and Brand's past to be explored, but I'm not sure how well such sordid details would play to the inspirational reading crowd. I'm a bit of a tragic angst junkie in romances, and I couldn't help but want the author to dig a little deeper below the surface.

For readers looking for a tender and sweet romance, this is one I can easily recommend. I know countless readers who have turned to inspirationals not because of the Christian message, but because they're looking for "cleaner" reads. If you're such a reader, Heart Of Stone is a book that should scratch that itch. The "God Stuff" isn't too terribly heavy (granted, I realize this is subjective as heck), and the premise of the series (four sisters separated by tragedy) is certainly compelling. I know I'm anxiously awaiting the rest of the series.

Final Grade = B

Contest Alert! I'm giving away a copy of Heart Of Stone! Sorry folks, this one is only open to U.S. and Canadian peeps, and the winner will be chosen randomly from comments left on this blog post. Contest will end on Wednesday, March 17.

28 comments:

Chris said...

The setting flourishes in m/m romance, too.

Kendra said...

I'll be adding this to my TBB list. I love westerns too and hate that they are hard to find in the secular romance genre. I do read some from the inspirational genre (and not just westerns), because I like the stories. I don't want to be beat over the head with the God angle. It needs to feel like it's a natural part of the story.

Wendy said...

Chris: I totally "get" why it flourishes in both inspiration and m/m corners. It really is a perfect fit for both sub genres. BUT, in my mind there is no valid (or good) reason why it's being neglected in mainstream, secular corners of publishing. For me it all comes down to marketing. Certain publishers are not only doing it wrong, they're not doing at at all. Luckily there are still a small (very small) handful of publishers out there still churning out the occasional western. Thank goodness.

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

I really enjoy this book and the romance between Laura and Brand. I can understand where she's coming from, but really does she have to explain herself? It seems like that is a must, especially when the heroine has a not so shining moralistic past. Unlike the heroes we read were it seems to be embraced if he has been too open with his own body. But of course not in the case of Brand.

But I did feel Brand's past coming back to haunt him felt a but out of place and I didn't think it was needed to further along the story.

All in all I loved the way Brand courted Laura. So sweet and not too slap me silly with god and forgiveness and etc...

BevBB said...

But it makes absolutely no sense to me why the setting is selling so frickin' well to the Christian reading masses and not to heathen secular readers. I have my theories on where to lay blame, but I need to stop ranting and get on with this review.

We should compare notes and see if our theories coincide. I haven't read an inspirational in years but have a pretty good idea why westerns as a setting are popular for them and I'm not all that crazy about westerns myself. So, it would be an interesting conversation. ;-)

Laura Vivanco said...

Lynn S. Neal, in her book about inspirational romance readers, has a bit to say about why Western settings might have a special appeal for Christian readers:

"The novels' happy endings assure readers of the characters' victories over adversity, their creation of Christian families, and their founding of a Christian America through their civilizing of the West. [...] Reading this genre [...] becomes a way for them to imagine and define their role in history as evangelical women. [...] Through these narratives, evangelical readers can claim a central place for themselves in the past and in the present, in the United States." (177)

Lynette said...

Call me stupid, I never realized how booming the inspirational market was. I picked up a book at the library that I assumed was chick lit and it was, inspirational chick lit.

The book was so good, and my eyes were open to the market. I've read several similar series that I've become hooked on. (I gloss over the preaching to me, I think I'm at the point now that I don't even notice - LOL). I'm going to have to search for some good historicals with great settings. Uh-oh Wendy, I'm sensing you need to do a post on that topic for us.

As a matter of fact, I remember you talking about another one about a maid that was coming out soon. Did it ever come out? Did you ever read it? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wendy said...

BevBB and Laura: I went back and rephrased my sentence - replacing "why" with "that." I think the text Laura quoted has it mostly right. I also think the setting appeals because it's such a natural "fit." It took a lot of strength, gumption and faith to head west. It's not a huge leap to believe that many homesteaders relied on that faith to get them through the trials of settling in a wild frontier.....

Wendy said...

Kendra: I think you'll like this one.

Katie: I really liked that gray area the author gave the heroine. The choices she was forced to make. Of course I'm a hopeless sucker for flawed heroines.

Lynette: The maid book is "Maid To Match" by Deeanne Gist, and it's not due out until June. I still have plans to check it out....

Sarah said...

I love the "she's one fine bit of muslin" quote. I'd love to read this book. Please enter me. (riddikulus.sarah@gmail.com)

I don't read much if any inspirational but I'm willing to give it a try with a book that sounds promising.

SandyH said...

I have read any inspirationals in a long time but I think I will try this one. Now if I would win one...:)

Elizabeth said...

This post made me think about how weirdly secular characters in "secular" romance are--especially historicals. I guess I can accept that Regency aristocrats were not particularly religious, as a group, but I expect they sometimes went to church. They appointed clergymen to the churches on their estates. I just read a series featuring children of a vicar (deceased, admittedly) who were never shown setting foot in a church except to get married. Really? Contrast that with Austen, writing at the time, who is pretty secular, but whose books feature a lot of clergymen and even some trips to church(it was, after all, one of the few professions suitable for a gentleman). Of course, if historical characters were more religious, I'd find it even harder to suspend disbelief about the heroines' often totally anachronistic attitudes to sexual morality.

The same might be said for contemporary US romance: a LOT of the population goes to church or describes themselves as Christian, but I haven't met too many romance characters who do. I think that a writer can realistically depict religious faith and practice in characters without writing a "preachy" novel that tries to convert a reader.

It just seems like a strange divide in the US publishing market (inspirational/secular), given the population. Or maybe it's just me, since I'm one of the small and rapidly dwindling number of regular church-goers who is not evangelical and doesn't want to be preached at when reading (but also wouldn't be put off by characters who were believers of one kind or another). Is it just too controversial? Are writers afraid of it?

BevBB said...

I think the text Laura quoted has it mostly right. I also think the setting appeals because it's such a natural "fit." It took a lot of strength, gumption and faith to head west. It's not a huge leap to believe that many homesteaders relied on that faith to get them through the trials of settling in a wild frontier.....

Yeah, but I tend to believe it may go even deeper than that. It took a lot of gumption to survive just about any century in human history in any land and most of the time faith in whatever form it takes is the center of the community and family life.

For instance, the few non-inspirational Westerns I have read set in small towns/communities almost invariably involve at least a community church as a center of focus. Wouldn’t it seem odd if they didn't?

To me, though, the key word in the quote that Laura gives is not faith but evangelical because most of the dominant evangelical denominations found in America today began during what we call that mythical Western era - the last few of decades of the 1800s and the first decades of the 1900s, if we stretch things - and most of their headquarters are found in the heartland of the country where most Westerns are set. Believe me, the love of the Western by inspirational publishers is not accidental and certainly not limited to romances. It's part of their very history as they spread across this country town by town, church by church.

And that's respect, not sarcasm. ;-)

Amy said...

I love Jill Marie Landis's older historicals before she went inspy. I'm going to have to look her up next time I'm at the library. As long as it's not too preachy, I guess is the word I'd use. I don't have to sit here and state my belief system, and I certainly don't want someone else doing it to me, y'know?

Wendy said...

Bev: Now see, I didn't know any of that! I think that definitely fits into the various theories we've been tossing around :)

Elizabeth: My guess? It's probably a little of both. The fear that the mere mention of religion (or politics for that matter) of any sort (no matter how subtle) will turn off readers. I know I have a hard time when politics creep into the fiction I like to read (even those politics I personally agree with!) and I think religion falls under the same umbrella. It can be a real hot potato!

That being said, like Bev mentioned below, I've read scads of historical westerns that weren't marketed as inspirationals that featured characters attending church and/or the church acting as a community gathering place. At least those westerns set in "established" towns tend to. Out in the middle of nowhere frontier, not so much :)

As for contemporaries: it's really interesting because any mention of attending church or the church in general I've read has ALWAYS occurred in category romances. Granted I don't read a ton of single titles, and naturally I can't rattle off specific titles at the moment, but I'm SURE I've read Harlequin Americans and Harlequin SuperRomances over the years that feature characters attending Sunday services. Maybe? Possibly?

Or maybe the novocaine and swollen gums have gone straight to my head and I'm making stuff up. Seriously, dental work is for the birds.

Mayberry Mom said...

I read both "secular" and inspy books and this one sounds interesting. Considering that I met my hubby at Bible College, the preaching doesn't bother me lol

Keira of LoveRomancePassion said...

I just started delving into inspirational romance with Deeanne Gist. It'd be great to try another author esp one so well recommended. :)

Oh and funnily enough the whole reason I picked Deeanne Gist was b/c her pieces were "westerns" or at least set in the "west" in historical America. lol

I think the West is to American romance as Regency is to British romance. If it's not. It should be.

JamiSings said...

I don't want to be part of the contest because until they come out with a Jewish inspirational romance I really don't want to read them. (I believe in God, just not "one true religion" and I just really want more Jewish characters.) And besides, I'm not a big fan of western anything unless it stars John Wayne. However, I have an idea why Christian romances have western settings.

Little House On The Prairie.

Just - mull that over a bit.

Melissa said...

I've been dipping my toes into the inspirational/Christian realm - this sounds like a good one for me to try, too. I'm not too big on being hit over the head by the "God stick" either. So far, the books that have worked for me the best kept that to a minimum.

joykenn said...

Very interesting discussion. What hasn't been mentioned is the Western western. If western romances aren't being published so much, how are Westerns in general doing? I haven't read one in a while (as a kid I made a point of reading ALL of Zane Grey--why, I forget). Westerns traditional were from a male point of view while romances usually concentrate on the female point of view. There hasn't been a hit Western movie in ages (not counting the revisionist westerns Clint Eastwood made recently) and absolutely NOTHING on TV. Have we grown disenchanted with the American West as icon? Anyway, I'd like to read the book if I win.

Wendy said...

Joy: To answer your question, general Westerns are probably in more dire straights than western romances. The running theory behind this is that the people who read them are slowly dying off. There are still well-respected and well-reviewed authors out there working in the setting though. Elmer Kelton and Loren D. Estleman (who also writes mysteries) leap to mind.

Gale has a small imprint (FiveStar) that churns out a handful of titles every quarter. Usually a mix of new stuff, along with reprints from the likes of Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour and Max Brand. Also, there are still a small number of paperbacks that get published every month. Dorchester comes to mind.

I hope that the western doesn't go the way of the traditional Regency. At that end, I think it's a matter of marketing, marketing, marketing. Also, finding a way to snag a new generation of readers. I thought for a while that the HBO series Deadwood would bring back the western - but alas. Didn't happen :(

nath said...

Oh, I got this in my TBR pile! Good to see you gave it a B :D

Daphne said...

It's been years since I've read any inspirational story and I do find the preachiness tiresome. I also found the passivity of the female protagonists (of the few I read) to be annoying. Now before I get flamed, I realize there are likely plenty of strong female protagonists in this genre and plenty of doormats in the secular. However, I did read a book or two where I liked the woman's character. I also remember liking that the couple had to *speak* with each other and that character was demonstrated through action (not just material possessions, bed gymnastics, supermodel physique, etc). That at least felt more real. You may have persuaded me to give this another try. I'll at least put it into my wishlist.

sula said...

hrm. While I like a good Western and goodness knows there aren't that many being written...as someone who grew up in the fundie evangelical sub-culture and is still recovering as an adult, I refuse to touch inspie books. Too strong of a gag reflex for me.

Kelly Anne said...

I haven't read Landis in a long time. I wouldn't mind giving her another try. While I don't read many inspirationals, they don't tend to bother me in an old West setting. I don't know, God seems to fit in in the West?

Lynn Spencer said...

"For me it all comes down to marketing."

What you said. I actually think this isn't just true for Westerns but for loads of other settings as well.

Emily said...

I love Jill Marie Landis and use to snatch her books up as soon as I saw them. Sadly, for me, she sort of fell off my radar but this sounds like just the book to get me reading her again.

Rosie said...

Now I don't have to write a review I can just link to yours.