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review 2016-11-13 17:33
Book Review: Travels with my Father by Karen Jennings
Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel - Karen Jennings Poignant and lyrical, TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER takes the reader on a meandering journey through past and present. I'm not overly fond of memoirs - usually finding them dry, dusty and too factual - but, through the lens of coming to terms with her grief at her father's dying, Jennings has woven a masterful record of life to which everyone can relate. Whether describing the small and personal details of her life (the "desperately ugly" ashtray she thought belonged to her grandfather) or minor details of her travels (the visit to a museum in India, filled with mouldy, stuffed animals - "a bat has fallen off its perch and has been put back so that it stands on its feet"), Jennings's writing is vivid and vibrant. It is also searingly, at times painfully, honest ("The Jenningses do not speak of things that are unpleasant or relate to emotion in any way"). She often mentions her struggle with depression; her disappointment in the smallness of her father's life as he got older. As one reads, her words wrench emotion from one - too often, this is deeply coloured with melancholy and a quiet despair. At one point, her father said to her "Oh, girl, why do you have make things so difficult?" There is no linear pattern to the stories and anecdotes filling the book. The reader is effortlessly carried along a stream-of-consciousness exploration of a period in the author's life starting with her father's death and ending with the scattering of some of his ashes in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. (A delightful scene near the end of the book, which reflects the end of mourning and the beginning of a new phase in her life). This adds to the sense of being personally, intimately involved in this journey of a daughter working through her grief at the loss of her very human, but much loved, father. There are no order to our memories, and TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER reflects that in its seemingly rambling (but exquisitely crafted) style. Whether it's a lesson on the history of the places she visits on her travels triggering a memory of her childhood, or the discovery of a new notebook of her father's triggering memories of her family history, or her new lover's bow legs reminding her of her father, Jennings's masterful control of her subject and her dramatic use of words creates a compulsive need to continue reading. Despite the ending, at that point when Jennings finds in her father's notes a reassurance of the very ordinariness of life that ties together all the threads of an ancestral line stretching both backwards into the past and forwards into the future to a time when she, too, will grow old and die - her acceptance of the cycle of life, in a way - when I finished reading, a darkness persisted, leaving me unsettled and edgy all day. In a way, my lingering sadness is a tribute to the high quality of Jennings's skill as a writer, but my more optimistic personality prefers to leave a book filled with a brighter sense of hope.
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review 2016-03-07 20:31
Review: With This Ring? A Novella Collection of Proposals Gone Awry
With This Ring?: A Novella Collection of Proposals Gone Awry - Melissa Jagears,Regina Jennings,Karen Witemeyer,Mary Connealy

As you might expect from the title of this collection, there are (at least) four proposals, some misunderstandings, unexpected developments, and humorous situations to be found in the pages of these four novellas:

The Husband Maneuver by Karen Witemeyer

Etta has loved Dan for years. When she hears he is leaving her father's ranch she uses the dime novels he hates (the hero is based on him) as inspiration and hatches a plan to get him to propose, risking her reputation in the process. Of course, not all goes according to plan, especially when you have a man who plans for the worst and a woman who hopes for rainbows.

Marietta (Etta) Hawkins and Daniel Barrett were secondary characters in Witemeyer's most recent full length novel, A Worthy Pursuit. These were characters that called out for their story to be told, and having an excerpt of a Dead-Eye Dan dime store novel start each chapter was so much fun. I particularly liked how a Dead-Eye Dan novel is used at the end, and that the ending is so satisfying.

Her Dearly Unintended by Regina Jennings

Katie Ellen is alone and in charge while her parents are away. A storm and a swollen, raging river strand her and her neighbor Josiah alone. The arrival of an unexpected visitor forces Katie Ellen to play along when Josiah tells the man that they are husband and wife. While this is something Josiah would like to be true, he has a lot of work to do if Katie Ellen is ever going to be convinced. If, that is, their visitor doesn't become violent first.

Ellen Watson and Josiah Huckabee were childhood friends when they were introduced in the second Ozark Mountain Romance novel, At Love's Bidding. Here they are grown up, and their characters have developed to reflect that growing up. Katie Ellen is the most changed, in that she likes to be in complete control of her environment. This seemed a bit of an extreme reaction to the events that caused it, but it does add an interesting element to the story. A very fun story with a bit of action, a bit of romance and a bit of Benedict & Beatrice.

Runaway Bride by Mary Connealy

Carrie Halsey and her 16 year old brother Isaac are fleeing Houston the night before their father marries her off to pay a gambling debt. Big John Conroy, a Texas Ranger and former Andersonville Prison Regulator, is determined to get them to Rawhide, Colorado and their older sister Audra Kincaid. But things go wrong and they find themselves in Broken Wheel, Texas, fighting a small army of hired guns.

Incorporating characters from two earlier series, this story was a bit confusing at one point (even for Carrie) unless you are already familiar with how these characters are related to each other. Mary Connealy's usual blend of comedy and cowboys is present here, and it is a very enjoyable story whether you have read the related books or not.

Engaging the Competition by Melissa Jagears

Harrison Gray, local schoolteacher, is nearly blind without his glasses. When they are accidentally ruined in her barn, Charlotte "Charlie" Andrews helps him out in the classroom until a new pair arrives, taking time away from her ranch and preparing for her upcoming marriage of convenience. A marriage with the brother of the man that had been a classmate, and schoolyard bully, of Harrison and Charlie.

This was the one story that I put off reading, partly because the first full length novel in this new Teaville Moral Society series will not be released until early August, and partly because I was a little afraid that I would not love it as much as I did Melissa Jagears' Unexpected Brides series. No need to worry, though, as this was the one novella that actually made me laugh aloud. While some elements of this story did bring to mind the novella from that series, these are definitely different characters in very different circumstances. I'm looking forward to more of this series.

I was so excited when I found out there was going to be a collection of novellas by two of my go-to Christian Historical Romance authors, Karen Witemeyer and Melissa Jagears, and two more that are quickly becoming go-to authors of that genre, Mary Connealy and Regina Jennings. My expectations were high, for the stories themselves as well as my personal level of enjoyment. Happily, those expectations were met and I can count this as one of the books I would highly recommend to those who enjoy novellas that combine faith, romance, adventure, and a dash of humor. 4.5/5 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Bethany House Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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review 2012-10-07 00:00
Finding Soutbek - Karen Jennings Although unremittingly grim, FINDING SOUTBEK is a delicate and intricate novel that juxtapositions a utopian ideal with the harsh reality of the new South Africa.

A fire strikes a devastating blow and destroys the poorest areas of Soutbek, a small West Coast village, increasing the hardship and suffering of the needy. The aftereffects also unravel the lives of its first "coloured" Mayor, Pieter Fortuin, his wife Anna and his nephew Willem. Contrasting this bleak reality of a dream gone sour is The History of Soutbek, a utopian vision of life in Soutbek, written by Pieter Fortuin and the dubious Dr Pearson, and based on the unreliable diaries of Pieter van Meerman, a vryburgher (free man) and seventeenth-century Dutch explorer.

This novel presents problems that are uniquely South African, but the themes running through the pages are universal issues such as power; the gap between the rich and the poor; and how the past affects both the present and the future, a burden one can never escape.

Willem, on reading his uncle's The History, comes to realise that history is only a record of "humans trying to rule other humans, taking the land and everything else for themselves." Governments might change, new promises made, but ultimately nothing changes for the poor and the oppressed:

"Had there not been enough of this sort of thing in the past? Forced removals; doctored histories? ...they saw that yet again they were to be denied the dignity of achievement."

A self-made man, Fortuin's powerful character dominates the story, even as he tries to dominate the land and the people who look to him for their survival and their future. Through his relationship with his wife Anna, his son David, his nephew Willem, his employees and the people of the town, Fortuin shines with the same hope that fills the pages of The History. His tragedy, and the overarching tragedy of this sad novel, is that the burden of history appears too vast to overcome on either a personal or a collective level. Any attempt Fortuin makes to change the course of history, however determined and well meaning, has devastating consequences.

This narrative heavy text is enriched with subtle ironies (the poorest part of town is called "the upper town," while the rich part is "the lower town," a neat reversal of expectations) and vivid metaphors (the Mayor has part of the beach cordoned off to protect his wife, even as he separates himself from the very part of society into which he was born.) The solemn pace effectively mirrors the unhurried rhythm of life in a small rural town, as well as the slow but inevitable crumbling of the hopes and dreams of the people of Soutbek:

"They felt only a sharp recognition of what it was to have days and months pass without pause, without any pause; recognition of what it was to be led towards hope and then denied."

Jennings' sensitive and thought-provoking writing is exquisitely painful; with quiet authority, she reflects the reality of present day South Africa. As I live in South Africa, her melancholy vision is a truth I can't deny. I do, however, contest the sense of utter hopelessness underpinning FINDING SOUTBEK.

Throughout the story, there is little or no allowance made for the eternal resilience of the human spirit, that indefinable "something" that has seen humankind muddle through its own messes for millennia after millennia:

"Something akin to pride had been returned to them, for they bore now a hope of shelter, and, though the word was not common to them, they felt themselves moving towards civilisation"

Perhaps the burden of the recent past was too heavy for Pieter Fortuin to translate successfully into the ideal Utopia he so bravely tried to create in his The History of Soutbek.

But his failure is not as desolate as it is portrayed.

Despite its record of our failures, history has also proven that hope lingers in the human spirit. That hope holds out the chance, however fragile, that we can forge a new and better world for ourselves. Someday, somehow, out of the detritus of the past and present suffering that surrounds us, that "same spirit of generosity and enthusiasm which united such a diverse array of people in the common goal of a better life" will rise again.

Pieter Fortuin tried and failed to create that better life. Perhaps those who follow him, like Gershwin Geduld, will drown in the swamp of suffering. But some people, like Anna and Sara and Willem, will endure. From within that very endurance of all the miseries that life holds for them, hope will once more be born. For to be human is to hope. And, with hope, the future can offer another chance that, one day, we will find a Utopia, perhaps even one called Soutbek.

****

DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of FINDING SOUTBEK for review from the publisher. However, I only review books on condition that both publisher and author accept that my review is honest, unbiased and based only on the quality of the text as I experience it.

****
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review 2012-01-01 00:00
Finding Soutbek
Finding Soutbek - Karen Jennings Title: Finding Soutbek
Author: Karen Jennings
Pages: 165
Year: 2012
Publisher: Holland Park Press
Note: I received a complimentary copy for an honest review of this book. The opinions shared in this review are solely my responsibility. Other reviews can be read at http://seekingwithallyurheart.blogspot.com/ . Also follow me on Twitter @lcjohnson1988
This novel is a work of fiction that portrays life in South Africa. The gulf that exists between its inhabitants is wide. The reasons for this gulf are varied. As the reader progresses through the novel, some of the facts for the division are revealed. Finding Soutbek is Karen Jennings first novel, and she is currently working on another novel as well as working toward her doctorate.
While trying to survive in the village, Pieter Fortuin as a young man decided he didn’t want to end up poor like his father. He made the decision to rise above what was to be a bleak future of poverty to become mayor of the village. How exactly was that accomplished? He had wealth, home, food and was generous to a fault. Yet, his past wasn’t something he could just ignore. Pieter and a professor wrote a book about the history of Soutbek. A publisher was promoting the book and the future would look brighter if the book would sell. Shortly before the book was to be promoted, with a photographer coming to take pictures of the village, a fire had destroyed the poorest area’s homes.
The poor lived their lives on the beach after the fire was over, slowly rebuilding with whatever materials were lying around. This wasn’t the first fire the area had known, nor would it be the last. Life’s struggles and hardships of the village’s inhabitants are shared in the book. At one time, the village was a viable and thriving fishing and farming community; however, the present and future are very different.
Though it is an interesting short novel and easy to read in one day, I was disappointed. Why do authors feel it necessary to darken the pages of a story with foul language? Readers, please be aware there is foul language in this book, though sporadic it doesn’t add to the story. There is also a sexual scene as well.
The art of telling a good story can exclude the use foul language and sexual content. Literature can and does influence readers in many ways, so authors need to be careful what to put in print. All genres of literature can stir readers in many ways. I hope authors will reconsider using such language in books with the hopes of influencing future generations to express themselves differently.
My rating is 2 ½ stars.
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