The Elle Word

Love Starts With Elle by Rachel HauckLove Starts with Elle by Rachel Hauck
Thomas Nelson, 320 pages

Elle’s living the dream-but is it her dream or his?

Elle loves life in Beaufort, South Carolina-lazy summer days on the sand bar, coastal bonfires, and dinners with friends sharing a lifetime of memories. And she’s found her niche as the owner of a successful art gallery too. Life is good.

Then the dynamic pastor of her small town church sweeps her off her feet. She’s never known a man like Jeremiah-one who breathes in confidence and exhales all doubt. When he proposes in the setting sunlight, Elle hands him her heart on a silver platter.

But Jeremiah’s just accepted a large pastorate in a different state. If she’s serious about their relationship, Elle will take “the call,” too, leaving behind the people and place she loves so dearly. Elle’s friendship with her new tenant, widower Heath McCord, and his young daughter make things even more complicated.

Is love transferable across the miles? And can you take it with you when you go?

A week ago, some colleagues and I were discussing relationships and romance, and how one must go in choosing a mate. Perhaps “choosing a mate” is not the proper phrase to use (frankly it sounds a bit too bestial for me), but the discussion was about how the other person can be qualified as a potential guy or girl or will they be cast off into the friend zone. It was quite an interesting discussion, and I was surprised at how some of the guys told me that I needed to find someone who I don’t share too many common interests with but someone who is my opposite — someone who complements me, to use their term. That kind of got me confused. I mean, I know people say “Opposites attract” but if you have no common ground, how will you even start talking? Isn’t having something in common — even a little — a prerequisite in building good relationships?

It’s timely that I started reading Love Starts With Elle by Rachel Hauck as I semi-wrestled with these questions. We first meet Elle Garvey in Sweet Caroline, as one of Caroline’s best friends and someone who could not wait to get married. She was so set to find a man in Beaufort that she started Operation Wedding Day in Caroline’s book, where she made a list of men that are qualified for her husband standards and set off to date them, only to find herself disappointed after kissing and dating many frogs that she hoped would be her prince. We see her at the end of Sweet Caroline done with her Operation Wedding Day and still no groom in sight, and yet she was still somewhat happy at the state of her heart.

We meet Elle again, this time a year after the events of Sweet Caroline, happily managing her own gallery and in love with assistant pastor Jeremiah Franklin for the past two months. Elle is at the peak of her career and life, and there was only one thing that would make her happier — a ring. Jeremiah provided that for her immediately at the start of the story, but not without revealing a catch soon after she gives her yes: they would have to move to Dallas because Jeremiah accepted the a pastor job at a big church there. Elle felt torn, and even if there was probably more flowers in Houston TX, she said yes to Jeremiah, all in the name of love (cheesy, but it’s the only way I can describe it).

It’s here we see trouble brewing. Elle tries her best to submit to her husband-to-be’s whims and wishes, but she can’t help but feel stifled with Jeremiah’s passion for ministry and lack of concern for her. Elle loves Jeremiah, but she also loves her life and her dream and her art — one of them will have to give, but which? To make matters even more confusing, Elle becomes friends with her tenant, handsome and gentleman Heath McCord and his daughter, who both just happen to be there when she needed company the most.

Now, there is really nothing new or surprising in this novel, and I think everyone who’s read the blurb will know what will happen in the end. And it is true: there’s really nothing so surprising in how the story unfolded — the storyline is pretty typical. In a way, it reminded me of the local movie Miss You Like Crazy (John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo), with less angst and more chaste.

So why give it a pretty high rating, if the story’s so typical?

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Sweet Caroline

Sweet Caroline by Rachel Hauck

Sweet Caroline by Rachel Hauck
Thomas Nelson, 320 pages

When a Southern waitress inherits the Lowcountry cafe where she works, she suddenly has to balance more than just her next food order.

Caroline Sweeney has always done the right thing–the responsible, dependable thing–unlike her mother who abandoned her family. But when her best friend challenges her to accept an exciting job adventure in Barcelona, Spain, Caroline says “yes” to destiny.

Then, without warning, ownership of the run-down cafe where she’s been waitressing falls right into Caroline’s lap. While she’s trying to determine the cafe’s future, handsome Deputy Sherriff J.D. Rand captures Caroline’s heart.

But when her first love, Mitch O’Neal, comes back to town, fresh from the heat of his newly-found fame as a country music singer in Nashville, Caroline must make some hard choices about love and the pursuit of the sweet life.

I had reservations with Rachel Hauck’s other novels because my reaction to her first novel, Lost in Nashvegas was just lukewarm. I liked it, but it didn’t amaze me or blow me away and I haven’t picked it up again since I read it the last time. I read Sweet Caroline with low expectations, just so I won’t be disappointed with this buy.

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t have much expectations, because I was really pleasantly surprised by this novel. Sweet Caroline is quite…well, sweet, for the lack of better words. Everything in this novel is just sweet and charming, from Caroline to the Frogmore Cafe staff to the other secondary characters to the town itself. This is one of the few times I really appreciated the setting of a novel, and it’s in a Southern town again. I love the quirkiness of the town, the Frogmore Cafe and everyone else in the story, as it provided me with a very warm feeling, almost like I was one of the Beaufort residents. It was almost like the book was welcoming me into its arms, inviting me to join them in their different town adventures.

Caroline is definitely a character, one I’d love to be friends with myself. In a way, I think a lot of women in their 20’s could relate to her, because I definitely did. She’s far from perfect, and most of the times, she had no idea where to go or what to do. But when extraordinary opportunities come knocking, she felt overwhelmed, and she didn’t know what to do. Don’t we all have that same reaction? Despite her confusion, Caroline chose the smaller thing over the big thing, and she proved to be faithful with that. My favorite part of the novel is when the staff were preparing for Hurricane Howard, and Caroline planned to feed the people of Beaufort for free, knowing that there wouldn’t be enough power to cook their meals in the next day. Caroline’s generosity is something to emulate, and I think she wouldn’t hesitate to give her staff a personalized grilling toolset if they really, really need it.

Caroline has a big heart, one that learned to forgive as she got to know the God of forgiveness. I loved how she came to know God, how she got to know God and how she learned to believe that God loved her so much. It was something out of the ordinary, yes, and I guess some people won’t believe those things happen anymore…but then who knows? I’ve heard more drastic stories, and if God wanted to get someone’s attention, then I bet He’d go all out on it. It almost felt like the words uttered to Caroline were for me — and maybe they were? I’d like to believe that they were lessons for me, too. For example, I could replace Caroline’s name with mine in this line, and relate to it almost 100%:

“You are so blessed, Caroline…I mean this: God is looking out for you.” (p 195)

Despite its sparse prose, the novel was still well-written, and easy to understand. There were no complicated words or long descriptions, and most of the lines were funny and crazy. I especially loved Caroline’s Head and Heart conversations:

Head: Interesting development.
Heart: For once, I agree with you.
Head: What do you think he’s up to? And, we’ve agreed before.
Heart: Do we risk it?
Head: No. Stay in neutral, heart.
Heart: But he’s changed. Really.
Head: Don’t make me come down there. (p.225)

These conversations were just right for Caroline because for other characters, I don’t think it would work. :P

The romance factor is also very, very juicy. This is a little bit of a spoiler, but I can’t not share this:

As the house lights dim for the second half of the performance to begin, Mitch offers his hand. “May I hold your hand, Caroline?”
Gulp. I nod.
His hand is firm and broad; his fingers lock perfectly with mine. “Mitch,” I say, barely above a whisper. “I’m afraid of falling.”
He presses his lips to my ear. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” (p. 235)

I practically swooned when I read that part! :) Heeee. But if you think it will end up the way it seemed from that part…well, there were still more surprises down the end, and those made the novel stand apart from others. It’s not really just a love story between two people. It’s a love story between a woman and her God, and a story of how a woman found herself through the love of Someone who loves her more.

Sweet Caroline is sweet, from the first page up to the last. I laughed, cried, and felt like I lost a friend when I closed the book. Good thing Rachel Hauck gives us another chance to visit Beaufort with a companion novel for Sweet Caroline, Love Starts with Elle. And it’s good that I have a copy of that. :P

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m glad I gave Rachel Hauck another try. :) Sweet Caroline is a light, thought-provoking read, and in some instances, the title would make you break out into song, too. :)

Rating:

2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 58 out of 100 for 2010

My copy: paperback, $5.00 from Amazon

Cover image & Blurb: Goodreads

→ Rachel Hauck’s website

CymLowell

Wonders just ceased

Wonders Never Cease by Tim DownsWonders Never Cease by Tim Downs
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Number of pages:  310
My copy: paperback, review copy from Booksneeze

“It’s true what they say, you know: If you talk to God, you’re religious; but if you hear from God, you’re schizophrenic.”

When a car accident leaves a famous movie star in a coma, nurse Kemp McAvoy thinks he has found his ticket to the life he’s always wanted. As a med school dropout who was on his way to becoming an anesthesiologist, Kemp has the knowledge to carry off the crazy plan he concocts: adjust the star’s medication each night and pretend to be a heavenly visitor giving her messages. He recruits her agent and a down-and-out publisher to make sure the messages will become the next spiritual bestseller and make them all rich.

But his girlfriend’s daughter, Leah, keeps telling people that she is seeing angels, and her mother and her teachers are all afraid that something is wrong.

Before it’s all over, they’ll all learn a few things about angels, love, and hope.

* * *

I invest a lot of emotions when I read a book. I am very particular with characters, and strong characters always make a mark in me, even if the plot is typical. Most of the books I marked as favorite are books that leave me both sad and satisfied at the end, books that I felt that the characters were not only people inside a book, but people who have become my friends.

When I saw Wonders Never Cease up for grabs at Book Sneeze, I grabbed it because I thought this is one of the books where I would find friends. I figure, it’s a book about impersonating an angel, and there’s got to be a lot of hilarious moments here, and redemptive moments as well. The blurb alone sounds like a movie, and it seems like a heartwarming read. Spoiler warning here on out!

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The Guy I’m Not Dating (Trish Perry)

The Guy I'm Not Dating by Trish Perry

“Yowza!” exclaims Kara Richardson when she sees the handsome proprietor of the new delicatessen in town, Gabe Paolino—who soon expresses mutual interest. This would be the start of a perfect love story, except for one thing—Kara has vowed to stop dating until she feels God’s leading.

But when humorous circumstances send Kara and Gabe on a road trip to Florida, hope springs anew. Even with Kara’s flirtatious coworker Tiffany—“a hyena in heels”—along for the ride, the uncouple begins a lively journey that could change their paths forever.

This memorable, charming story of love’s persistence captures the honor of waiting on God’s timing, and the adventure of finding the perfect guy to not date.

I’m not one to deny myself of chick lit books, especially Christian chick lit. I’ve mentioned it here a couple of times, but not in detail: I love chick lit. I love Christian chick lit, especially, because it’s clean, and it teaches good values that women should have, especially in a media-influenced world. Not that I don’t like secular chick lit — I still do, but I’m picky at what to read. Call me conservative, but I really don’t like reading about how a couple consummates their love, especially if they’re not yet married.

So this book from Trish Perry should just tickle my fancy: it’s chick lit, it’s Christian and it’s about dating and purity. Sounds good, right? Just right up my alley.

It sounds good alright. Kara meets Gabe just some time after she had broken up with her ex-boyfriend Paul, and decided not to date until she feels that it’s God’s will for her. This presents a problem to her since she is very attracted to Gabe, and Gabe admitted that he was attracted to Kara, too. Despite all this, Kara wanted to follow and honor her promise to God so she tells Gabe just that, who respectfully backs down. On the other side of the country, Kara’s parents received a call from their Aunt Addie, requesting a visit. However, things go awry when Kara’s dad breaks his legs, so they had now way to bring drive by Addie and visit Kara. Meanwhile, Gabe’s sister, her boyfriend and her twin brother rides to Virginia to visit Gabe without the permission of their parents so he promises to drive them back to Florida after his deli has set up. Kara, feeling the need to visit her family and pick up Addie on the way, decides to join the trip. Her best friend Ren joins them, as well as Kara’s co-worker and constant pain in the neck, Tiffany. And off they go to Florida, with lots of side trips and the ever increasing attraction between Gabe and Kara.

It’s a cute, wholesome story. If I read this a couple of years ago, I think I may have been enchanted with it and I would have been very thrilled at Kara and Gabe’s love story. But now, I’m not.

I think the main reason why I am quite on the fence with this book is how ideal everything seemed to be in the story. It’s like everyone’s so happy and everything is resolved so quickly. I’m not discounting that God puts everything in place if we follow His will and all, but I am having a very hard time believing the events in the story. It’s fiction, I know, but it just seemed to rosy and cheerful for me. In the sixty chapters of the book, I never found a lasting conflict that made me wonder what was going to happen, one that I’d expect would throw me off course and be surprised and all that. It’s not that I’m expecting so much action here, but I was expecting more complications, to add more depth in the story. For example, in Denise Hildreth‘s Savannah by the Sea, Savannah thinks her romance with Joshua North is a match made in heaven…until she finds out something about his past. In Laura Jensen Walker‘s Dreaming of Black and White, Phoebe had to struggle with her mother and the loss of her dad, even while trying to deny her attraction to her boss, Alex. In Kristin Billerbeck’s Ashley Stockingdale series, Ashley struggles with her family, her job, and even her best friend. I didn’t find enough conflict among the characters in The Guy I’m Not Dating — everyone just seemed to get along just fine, except for the lone villain, Tiffany. I understand that people do grow up in a nice environment — I came from one — but it didn’t feel like much of a book if everyone in the story is so darn happy and gets along well with each other. I bet none of them would ever think of drinking muscle building supplements, especially Kara since she’s a trainer and neither is Gabe, since he seems to be the most perfect guy ever. *rolls eyes*

Another thing that kind of got me thinking a bit too much with this novel is the plot. I have nothing against the concept of the story, which is mostly based on Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I agree with the idea of not dating, and pursuing friendship first before romance. However, it’s just really hard to believe that everything happened like that. I may be biased because life’s jaded me a bit. Like I said, if I read this book a couple of years ago, I would’ve been smitten with the idea and I would have been dreaming of my own Gabe. It’s not that these things don’t happen, but it just seems too clean cut. This stems back to what I wrote on the previous paragraph — everything and everyone is just so happy, that it gets on my nerves.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God’s perfect timing, or His plans for me and my romantic life. It’s just that if I were a new Christian who’s got her heart broken or is waiting for the one and I read this, I probably would follow this book like a dating bible because it seems like the perfect Christian setting. Which may be the case, but it doesn’t always happen this way. You know how we say that secular media influences our choices a lot, which makes us want to become thinner, more popular or do things that the Bible says is wrong? I kind of feel wary about this novel because to me, it presents another side of the story. We are not always surrounded by Christians. More often than not, we’re with people who do not share the same beliefs as we do, and we have to face it because it’s reality. I fear that reading books like these that present a sort of perfect Christian world and the perfect Christian romance may make women want the exact same thing, and miss out on other things that God has in store for them. I know that I would probably believe this with all my heart if I read this years back, and it would take a lot to rid me of them, especially if I have set my heart to follow that one path of romance.

I’m not saying that this is a bad book. It’s funny, romantic and a good chick lit read, but I think reading this should really involve a lot of discernment. Kara and Gabe’s story is ideal, and it’s something that we women could pray for and hope for, but we must also be open to how God wants to write our love stories.

Rating:

2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 43 out of 100 for 2010

→ Get The Guy I’m Not Dating by Trish Perry from Amazon.com
→ Trish Perry’s website

Oil and Mango

Last Mango in Texas by Ray BlackstonLast Mango in Texas by Ray Blackston
Publisher: FaithWords
Number of pages: 272
My copy: paperback, ordered from Amazon

Texas Tech student Kyle Mango is attending a fraternity party when he meets Gretchen, an artsy animal lover whose independent spirit immediately sparks his attention. But after a month of bliss, they suddenly find themselves in rough waters. When Kyle inherits four oil wells from his uncle, he sees his affluence as an opportunity to impress Gretchen. But just before he makes his move, Gretchen hears news of an oil tanker spilling its load near the coast of Alaska. Leaving Kyle behind in Texas, she joins a group of campus activists in Alaska for the summer to clean oil from suffering birds.

Kyle is torn between managing his business–and being left lonely in the Lone Star state–and risking everything to fly to Alaska to pursue Gretchen. The young oil man soon discovers that oil slicks are nothing compared to relational slicks. The early bird may get the worm, but the oily bird can ruin romance!

* * *

I’ve always loved Ray Blackston, ever since I got Flabbergasted on a whim back in Manila International Book Fair 2006. I loved Jay Jarvis and the gang, and it’s a treat to read his books because I get to somehow peek into a guy’s mind and sort of understand them better.

I think Ray is the only one I know who writes Christian lad lit. What’s lad lit, you say? To make it simple, it’s chick lit, but with a guy narrator. It has all the fun and setting and situations of a normal chick lit novel, but without the over thinking, ice cream and pink fluffy things that a normal chick lit novel has. In chick lit, we normally see girls gathering and having a shopping moment or having a time to eat ice cream or talk about a guy. In lad lit, there’s little of that: mostly girls, drives with guys, steak dinners, jobs and do less complicated guy stuff.

Okay, I don’t know if that’s just a stereotype. I haven’t read any Nick Hornby (shame, I know), and I can’t really recall any books of the similar genre I read so I can’t have any point of comparison. But here’s the thing about Ray Blackston and his novels: they’re funny.

No surprise there, since lad lit is supposed to be funny. But it’s been a long time since I last read any of his books and Last Mango in Texas reminded me of the author’s wit and humor. We meet Kyle Mango, the protagonist, as he gets to sit with his dad to have “the talk”. His dad had his own version of the talk to him, telling Kyle that he would just have to figure things out on his own. This left Kyle totally in the dark with how to relate with girls, and he wasn’t surprised when his dad left them for another woman. But here came Uncle Benny, Kyle’s doting uncle, who helped their family with his stash of silver buried under the Texas land that he owns.

Fast forward a few years later, Kyle gets to college and we find him as a pledge to a fraternity, which he soon realizes that he didn’t want to be a part of. Kyle meets Gretchen, an artsy environmentalist whose hair smells like honeysuckle, and he was immediately smitten. Gretchen helped him escape, but later Gretchen breaks it off with him, saying she has to focus with her studies.

We meet Kyle again as a senior, where he still pines for Gretchen, and his Uncle Benny still provides for their family. Stolen silver, a death, four inherited oil wells, graduation and a trip to Alaska later, Kyle wonders if he is meant to pursue Gretchen and still be an oil man, or if he would have to give up one to have the other.

Last Mango in Texas is no different from Flabbergasted, not much, anyway. Kyle is a lot like Jay: young, somewhat idealistic, and he doesn’t know much about dealing with girls. In the same way, Gretchen is like Allie, but instead of always going off to missions, Gretchen takes her passion into saving animals and the environment. This obviously gives them conflict, as Kyle is an oil man. I can’t really relate, but I guess this is a discernment conflict for guys: pursue the girl or pursue the career. I’d like to think that there’s really no correct answer, but there is a way to reach a compromise of sorts, like what Kyle and Gretchen eventually did. There should be a lot of prayer involved, as well, and communication between the couple. I’d like to echo what Kyle’s mom said in the novel:

People in love and sharing a life together should not mind flipping burgers together. (p. 171)

And speaking of prayer, there isn’t much praying mentioned here, but Gretchen and Kyle mentions God a lot, and there’s a mission to Africa that they all eventually went to. This makes it less preachy, and I guess more male. Christian chick lit is always filled with the women praying, and God talks are always there, so you never stop feeling that it’s a Christian novel. I guess that’s because women are naturally more talkative about their feelings, including their faith, while men don’t do that so much. It’s not a bad thing, although I’d wish that there was more church mentioned in this novel, but Kyle never grew up in that environment so that’s asking a lot.

The story flowed nicely and it didn’t jump so much that I got lost in the time line. What I kind of find it hard to believe is how Kyle can be such a businessman at the age of 22. Perhaps it’s really the way there in the US, and if you inherit four oil wells. What was I doing at the age of 22? Working and spending my own money, and looking for the highest paying affiliate programs to earn more money. Hrm. Maybe things just really get to them easier than it does for us.

But what I love about this novel is it’s very, very clean. There were kisses, but none of the passionate kind, and yet there’s still the romantic moments that will surely make the reader smile. It’s nice to read something and not be worried if there would be questionable scenes in the novel.

Last Mango in Texas is a fun, light novel that’s funny, insightful, and most of all, not preachy. Ray Blackston did it again, and while I’m not exactly wishing for my own oil man, I’d like to have someone like Kyle who’s willing (and can afford) to follow me wherever I am in the world just to spend time with me. :)

And did I mention it was funny? I leave you with this line:

[Chang] sat up and looked at me as if he had wisdom to share. “What’s her name?”

“Margo.”

He smiled, shook his head. “You can never get involved with any woman named Margo.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because if you married her, you’d have a wife named Margo Mango.”

See. :)

Rating: