Monday, October 13, 2014

The Christmas Light by Donna VanLiere

The following is a two-part review. I wrote one, objective review, trying to put myself in the mindset of a reader who enjoys and even appreciates romance novels.  I have seen Donna VanLiere’s novels in bookstores and, based on how many there are, I assumed she is successful and, therefore, exemplary of the best this genre has to offer.  I also went for a holiday romance novel because I don’t mind sentimentality or contrived happy endings quite so much when they are paired with Christmas. 

However, as I was reading, there were things that I found frustrating and, if I were not trying to read through a filter, I would have written a completely different book review.  As a result, I am going to share two reviews.  For those who enjoy romance novels, and especially holiday romance novels, the first book review is for you.  If, however, you typically avoid romance novels for whatever reason, the second book review is for you.

Book Review 1

The Christmas Light by Donna VanLiere is the type of novel I normally avoid but toward which I find myself lured time and time again. I am not overly fond of romances but, I concede, something about Christmas makes me more inclined to enjoy a little romance with a happy ending. VanLiere has published ten books already; this is her eleventh. I felt that, if I were going to give this Holiday Romance genre another try, why not do it with someone who has obviously made something of a success writing these novels.

VanLiere packs a lot of plot into a very few pages and reading the blurb leaves few surprises about how things will end “happily ever after.” You have a pair of single parents—a woman and a man—with daughters of the same age. You have a pregnant teenager. You have a couple who are ready to “start a family.” All five are brought together, through the relentless force of some older matriarchs enlisted to help with their local church’s Nativity production. Add a few coincidences and happenstances and you have a potentially best-selling holiday romance novel.

Predictable? Yes. Without a doubt. Romance novels are designed to pull the characters together so that there is the promise of bliss, especially of the marital kind. VanLiere masterfully manages to pull together a lot of disparate threads and wrap them up in a nice little bow by the book’s end. The characters are occasionally cliché (and the dialogue sometimes trite) but they are, for the most part, likeable. There are some moments of unnecessary head-hopping but I doubt most readers will notice or especially care. (A good editor could have and should have caught these and helped the author revise accordingly.)

Overall an adequate bit of confection that is meant to enchant rather than endure.

Book Review 2

I love the holidays, especially Christmas, and this is the one time of year when I don’t especially mind the things I usually find sentimental, happy endings acceptable, even tolerable. I even love holiday movies where quirky families manage to come together over hot chocolate and gather under decorated trees and true love conquers all.

After seeing so many copies of books by Donna VanLiere at the local bookstore, I thought I’d give her latest holiday romance novel a chance.  Which is how I ended up reading The Christmas Light.  Just reading the blurb, of course, made it easy to see where things would go.  Single parents, Jennifer and Ryan, are bound to meet one another and fall in love.  Lily and Steven are ready to start a family but you know that they can’t have a child of their own even before you read the first page.  And of course Kaylee is, no surprise, pregnant. 

Really, when you read things like this, you have to know the ending and the question is how the writer will tie up the many loose threads.  Credit due, VanLiere does manage to tie all these loose strands together by the novel’s end.  Of course, there are some dues ex machina moments, perfectly suited to a novel whose target audience is Christian.  When I chose the book, however, it was not listed as a Christian one but a spiritual one and, silly me, I actually considered it might not be blatantly Christian.  Yes, I thought this even though the thing that brings these disparate characters together is the local church’s Nativity performance.

Which brings me to the first bit of confusion because, for whatever, reason, this church not only needs someone to direct the show but they have to build the sets and sew the costumes.  This contrivance is an excuse to drag the characters together but it seems to me that, given that the church has done Nativity performances in the past, they would have some resources on hand.  Okay, maybe costumes would have to be repaired or resized. And maybe an object or two would be added to the set.  But these people are all starting from scratch, creating costumes for everyone, even building a manger.  I mean, c’mon.  That doesn’t really make sense.

There are some serious point-of-view problems with the author head hopping between characters in a single scene, sometimes even in a single moment.  For example, early in the novel we are inside of Jennifer’s thoughts, feelings, experiences.  But when she and her daughter are buying a Christmas tree, there is a paragraph when the reader is suddenly dumped into Avery’s thoughts and, in the very next paragraph we are back with Jennifer.  This is the sort of thing a good editor should have pointed out and encouraged the author to revise.  Although some of the head hopping lasts more than a single paragraph, there is never a smooth transition between points-of-view when they occur.  I stopped each time to reread the section and could easily see ways to still give the reader any necessary information without sacrificing the logical flow of the writing.  I don’t understand how, in revision, things like this are not corrected.  But I suppose, when you have a reading audience that doesn’t know any better or necessarily care, an author doesn’t have a reason to make such changes.

The characters are all fairly predictable. There are no surprises, really, and some characters, although they are pivotal, really become more than two-dimensional.  Fact is, I would argue that all of the characters are as flat as the pages they fill.  Worse, they are cliché, especially Miriam and Gloria, the older characters who draw the younger ones together.  Miriam is refined and mostly all business while Gloria is the warmer of the two, inviting Jennifer to not only help with the sewing but even inviting her into her home when she herself is not there.  Of course, this is a contrived opportunity on the author’s part to bring Ryan and Jennifer together again.   

Naturally, there is a happy ending and I suppose it is satisfying but, since none of the characters really stand out as unique, their happiness is forgettable.  I consider this novel a confection, the type of reading that offers nothing substantial or especially enlightening.  Even the heavy-handed religious passages are not inspired.  Or maybe I just find such bludgeoning an insult to the reader’s ability to draw their own spiritual value from the writing, the sign of an author who, in my mind, doesn’t trust herself, her writing, or her reader.  Perhaps in VanLiere’s case, it’s all of the above.  

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