Friday, December 22, 2017

The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck by Bethany Turner

A fellow writer mentioned this book as the author, and she, and I were commenting on an FB post. This mutual friend mentioned loving Bethany’s writing voice, and that intrigued me. So, I was grateful to receive a copy to read for review.

Here’s the summary:

Becoming a Christian is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to Sarah Hollenbeck. Best because, well, that's obvious. Worst because, up to this point, she's made her very comfortable living as a well-known, bestselling author of steamy romance novels that would leave the members of her new church blushing.

Now Sarah is trying to reconcile her past with the future she's chosen. She's still under contract with her publisher and on the hook with her enormous fan base for the kind of book she's not sure she can write anymore. She's beginning to think that the church might frown on her tithing on royalties from a "scandalous" book. And the fact that she's falling in love with her pastor doesn't make things any easier.

And now, my review:

First, a note from me: generally, I do not include any spoilers in my reviews. If you haven’t read the book, consider reading it before reading my review, because this review is a little different—more like a one-sided book club discussion, though I still strove to avoid spoilers.

Our mutual writing friend is correct. Bethany (the author) has a strong writing voice. You’ll feel as if you’ve drifted back a few years to when Chick Lit was popular. The story is written in first person, but the tense keeps shifting from past to present. This is rather jarring and may have been worked out in the editing phase, along with multiple uses of the cliché “couldn’t/can’t help but.” (I read the ARC—advanced reader copy—version.) 

If you’ll take a moment and glance at the summary above, you’ll notice the MC (main character) begins the story as a writer of steamy romance novels. Then, she becomes a Christian. This is a great premise for a book, and it’s what kept me reading. If you’re a writer, you’ll relate to the writerly side of this story, in some ways. However, there were some unrealistic elements where publishing was concerned. The MC had zero experience in writing novels, but she instantly became hugely successful. Also, the MC bragged at being one to single-handedly revolutionize the CBA book marketplace with her writing. That hit me as self-serving.  

There are some offensive elements at the beginning of the story, before the MC is born again that had me checking on the name of the publisher because I couldn’t believe we’d see those elements in a CBA book. I wonder if they were reworked in the final version. Though those words may have been in keeping with a non-Christian character, those types of elements almost deterred me from reading on.

The MC is “falling in love with the pastor,” (see summary), so wouldn’t she be deeply ashamed of having written erotica? Wouldn’t she feel disqualified from having a relationship with a pastor and being taken seriously by his flock and/or his family, and especially himself? She might even feel humiliated after writing porn. At the very least, apologetic. Instead, her switch to writing a wholesome genre was treated with lack of believability, as if her erotica publisher, with whom she was still under contract, would permit a change in genre to something wholesome and less lucrative. Also, somehow the pastor knows exactly who she is as a porn writer... The fact that he knew her pen name seemed odd to me too. Why would he know the names of erotic fiction authors (and still be an honorable pastor)? And why wouldn't this stand between them? The book’s summary even mentions church members reading erotica and blushing. There seemed to be an assumption that all Christians read the type of books she wrote before she got saved, that there was no shame in that, and that readers would accept that as fact. This struck me as hard to believe.

The main character is a growing Christian, but we immediately read Christianese while in her POV, and we don’t get to witness her character growth/arc. Instead we have lip service about the Christian way to think. That seemed like another missing element.

Since we’re in first person, we had deep POV potential, but we were kept at a distance and ended up with some leaps in logic, which were jarring.

There’s a secret in the story and when we learn the answer we’d been left in the dark so much that we may not care. If there had been development of the involved party, we might have cared, but as it was, I didn’t recall mention of the involved person. So, it didn’t impact me.

Overall, the conflict and setup had big potential, but the follow-through had many missing elements, in my opinion. I respect the author, but this book (in its ARC form) wasn’t for me. Still, I wish this author and her publisher the best. 

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