Friday, February 20, 2015

With Every Letter, by Sarah Sundin

I'm trying to make an acquaintance with some modern authors this year, and Sarah Sundin has been on my list of novelists to try for a long time. Right now the first book of her Wings of the Nightingale series is on sale, so I picked it up and read it last week. I found much to enjoy.

The Book 
Lieutenant Mellie Blake is a competent nurse with some deep-rooted insecurities. For one, her exotic dark beauty stands out in the midst of the other girls. For another, she can never seem to make friends. All she has is a scrapbook full of pictures that she has prayed over and made up imaginary stories with since childhood. Her friendship problems become even more of a struggle when she joins a corp of flight nurses. Flight nurses need to be a tight-knit group, and everyone fits in but her.

Tom MacGilliver's dad was executed for murder when he was a child. His mother wants to make sure he never turns into his dad, so she tells him to keep smiling and always give way in a fight. Only thing is, that policy doesn't work in the army. While he jokes with the men and tries to bribe them with rewards to keep discipline, they get more and more unruly. His captain is already unhappy about his compromised ability to keep them under control.

While Mellie and the other women fight for the chance to assist in air evacuations from the battlefield, her supervisor asks her to join a morale boosting letter program for the soldiers. Everything's anonymous--no pictures, no identifying details, no real names. Just encouragement. Reluctantly, Mellie agrees. And she finds an odd and surprisingly close friendship with a man who needs just as much reassurance as herself. Little does she know that the man she writes to as "Ernest" is really Tom MacGilliver--and she has more connections to him than she dreamed existed.

My Thoughts 
First of all, the WW2 details gracing every line of the manuscript deserve a huge meed of praise. Sarah Sundin has carefully crafted fashions, music, food, hairstyles, building materials, medicines, troop names, and foreign cultures into her plot. I'm writing in WW1, and know how much work this takes. The men sling out details that take hours to get correct. She does all this in a way that is never an info-dump but keeps the reader in tune with what's going on. Especially interesting were the materials the soldiers used to craft the various landing strips for the planes. Even the romance of the plot--Tom and Mellie getting to know each other through a soldier letter program--fits in with the time period. I tip my hat to her, and my heart rejoices. I'll definitely read her again just for her historical accuracy.

Secondly, I resonated with the personal struggles of the characters. Not all the time; sometimes it seemed like they could have gone a little deeper. But Tom's struggle to come to grips with being honest, instead of showing the emotions everyone wanted him to, was tied up in a redemptive and thoughtful way. I was surprised by how deep it went. And Mellie's struggles to make friends by taking risks and showing pieces of her heart to them, was deeply relatable. Both were ones I've struggled (and still struggle with) on a regular basis.

Some things that might bother more conservative homeschool readers didn't bother me--the women wanting the freedom of trousers, the men wanting attention from the nurses whenever they came in on an evac plane. It's historically viable that the women requested trousers, and as far as the romance, no different than the mobs of men surrounding the women who docked at Jamestown. Honesty makes the best historical fiction, and this was honest.

One of the personal struggles didn't ring with me--Mellie holding out on Tom because she didn't think she was pretty enough didn't seem to mesh with the depth of the rest of the plot. Every girl struggles with that thought on an off day, but based on Mellie's sensible character, and what she knew of Tom, I didn't like the fact that it bothered her as much as it did.

The only thing that I didn't always feel comfortable with was the key plot of the book: the romance. And that was no surprise. The dating was fine, even though I don't plan to use the dating model. A lots of girls dated then. After all, I'm looking for a book that's true and accurate. But all the focus on kissing/handsome/adorable/cute every time Tom and Mellie met was skimable. I try not to indulge a habit of checking guys for cuteness, especially because at that time Tom and Mellie weren't even committed to each other in a serious way. But when they were apart, their letters were kind and mature. They weren't filled with expressions of love; simply friendship, asking questions, and trading opinions on how to cope with various life struggles. Again, just like Mellie's struggles with personal beauty, some of the cutesy romance seemed more forced than what would have fit naturally with the plot and the maturity of the characters.

Since some of my readers are people who don't read a lot of romance, I will say that this contains more than I am used to. There were several sections where I wasn't particularly thrilled with the style, but I saw a couple of key areas of merit in Sarah's writing that kept me reading. After all, I enjoyed the book--and that's a sign of good writing. I would advise not making this genre the majority of your reading diet, but treating yourself once in a while isn't a bad thing. :) It's a new genre to me. So I want to know more about it so I can evaluate it in a more discerning manner.

And while I never thought of Tom as cute, I loved how Kay blossomed out into a spunky and thoughtful woman--and Georgie and Rose were pretty adorable. :) And five stars for Sesame the dog!!

Connect with Sarah Sundin
February is Show the Love month on Go Teen Writers--so why not show some social media love to Sarah while you're at it? There's nothing more encouraging than seeing a new follower!

Pinterest | Twitter | Facebook | Author Website 

Find With Every Letter free on Amazon.

Blessings,
Schuyler

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful and lovely review, Schuyler! And thanks also for taking a chance on a new author and a new genre!

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    1. I really enjoyed this story, Mrs. Sundin, and look forward to reading more! Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

      ~Schuyler

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  2. It's cool that you've been able to read some new authors, Schuyler! Blog reviews are the perfect way to show writers love. :D (Maybe you'd like some too...How about we have a WoL chat sometime??) :)
    Great post!
    Love,
    Carrie-Grace

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    1. We NEED to have a WoL chat. ;) I can't wait.

      Love you!
      Schuyler

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  3. This is a lovely review, Schuyler! I read "With Every Letter" last year, and enjoyed it very much, as well - especially on the score of all that wonderful historical detail! Isn't it so amazing the amount of research that Mrs. Sundin must have put into it. She's really amazing. . . I got really inspired!

    The characters were very enjoyable too, as you said, and the themes surprisingly deep considering it was a romance novel - I really enjoyed their communication by letter, and the whole look into each of their struggles, Tom with his struggle of not being like his dad and Mallie over opening up to others. Loved that! I also really enjoyed the story's plot, with the nurses and the military campaigns of the soldiers. However, I do agree with you that the whole "will he like how I look" insecurity of Mallie was probably drawn out too much - I lost interest with the slightly cheescake-romance ending, simply because considering the warm and deep friendship the two of them had built through the letters, I felt it strange that she was so terrified to let Tom know who she was and see her; I think many of us girls have such insecurities in regards to romance and guys, but still, I felt that on the whole the focus was too much on the feelings, and looks - it rubbed me slightly off, I think.

    But, oh yes, I loved the side-characters too, like Sesame the dog, and Mallie's nurse friends, Georgie, Rose and Katy.

    Speaking of Georgie. . . Alas, when I started reading "On Distant Shores", the next book in "Wings of Nightingales" series, I was sorely disappointed that all the stuff that ticked me off with "With Every Letter" was magnified in the next book; the novels *do* bring an accurate depiction of the 1940s dating culture, so I understand that; but "On Distant Shores" had most of its focus on its romance - in a very "dating" setting. Honestly, it was too tangled and mushy for me to continue the novel. While well-written, I felt I had quite my share of Christian romance novels, and decided it was not worth finishing. Hopefully you'll enjoy it better though :).

    So far I have best enjoyed Sarah Sundin's other novel, "A Distant Melody" best. That's a very lovely WW2 story, and while it has its share of romance like in "With Every Letter", I was able to enjoy it more; also the ending was very sweet (mushy, yes) but quite touching too - it is also very captivatingly written! I still want to read more of Sarah Sundin's novels because she has a real skill with capturing the history and the vivid details of the era she's writing in, and also I love her writing style. It's really enjoyable and page-turning.

    I just hope she tones down the "romance" element just a little. ^_^

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  4. The research was just incredible. It's amazing how natural it all sounded--not forced or dull. I was inspired, just like you!

    A Distant Melody sounds like a lovely title. ^_^ I shall have to try it out sometime. Thanks for the recommendation, Joy!

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