Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year End Book Challenge Update

I honestly can't believe 2013 is almost over.... it seems the older I get, the faster time flies...which is scarey, because I'm honestly really not that old! Eek! Anyway, I wanted to give a year end update on the 3 book challenges that I was involved in this year.

E-Book Challenge
hosted by Workaday Reads

My goal was the "DVD Level" of 25 e-books.

What I actually read: 45 e-books

 Mount TBR Reading Challenge
hosted by My Reader's Block

My goal was the "Pike's Peak" level of 12 books.

What I actually read: 12 books

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
hosted by Historical Tapestry
My goal was the "Renaissance Reader" level of 10 books
What I actually read: 20 books

So, there you have my progress and year end totals. I'm happy with how it went, and though I won't be participating in 2014 due to time constraints, I'm still glad I took the challenges in 2013 and met/exceeded the goals I had set.

Some fun facts:
I read a total of 50 books in 2013. (Some qualified for multiple challenges, which is why the above numbers total more.)

I wrote a review for every single book I read. Granted, about 6 are still sitting in my blog draft area waiting to be published, but I still consider this to be quite a feat! :)

Thank you to my followers for sticking with me this year. I wish everyone a happy 2014, and please, if someone has the recipe to make time go a little slower, please let me know, ok? ;)

Happy 2014!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: A December Bride by Denise Hunter

Book Cover and Synopsis:
What started as a whim turned into an accidental - and very public - engagement. Can Layla and Seth keep up the facade in Chapel Springs this holiday season - for the sake of her career . . . and his heart?

Under normal circumstances, Seth Murphy, the best friend of Layla O'Reilly's ex-fiance would be the last person she'd marry. But the news of their upcoming (and phony) nuptials convinces a big client that Layla may be high-society enough to work for his agency, a coup that would put her fledgling home-staging business on the map. 

Seth has secretly loved Layla for years, even when she was dating his best friend. Maybe she'll never forgive him for the way he hurt her back then, but he has to try. And Layla is willing to keep up their engagement farce until she's landed her client. For Layla, it's the chance to save her career. But for Seth, it's his last chance to win her heart.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
I love a good "fake relationship" story, and when you throw in the Christmas season, this novella is a winner! The length is short enough to be considered a novella, yet it's long enough that it feels like a full story in the fact that the characters are fully developed and you get to know them well, which I find is rather rare in novellas.

Layla was certainly an interesting character and easy to like and sympathize with, but it was ultimately Seth that kept pulling me back to the story. His confidence and ease in the fake engagement was charming and amusing, especially compared to the anxiety and bouts of freaking out that Layla was prone to whenever they had to act like a "couple" in front of friends. Their bumpy past added a unique angle, causing Layla to refuse Seth's charm longer than most would...but this is certainly not a bad thing, as it added some pretty fun moments between the two.

I haven't previously read any of Denise Hunter's books, but this novella has sold me on her writing. (No doubt I'll soon be hunting down her previous works!) I really liked the atmosphere of the story; the development of the relationship between Layla and Seth has a very modern and "now" feel, but the Christian genre of the story keeps it clean. :)

If you're looking for a fun December read, this is certainly one that I'd recommend. It's short enough that it won't suck up a ton of your time during the busy holiday season, but yet it's long enough that you can really savor the story. It's a win from all angles!

My Rating: 4 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Zondervan) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Christmas on the Tenth Floor by Lisa Page

Merry Christmas, everyone! Here's my review of "Christmas on the Tenth Floor", a Christmas novella recently released by Lisa Page.

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Abby Daniels can't go home for Christmas so she's trying to make Christmas feel a bit like home; at least, as much as she can in her little apartment on the tenth floor.
She feels like she's living a dream come true after landing an internship at her dream job in New York City. The only glitch is that she can't go home for Christmas. She plans a night of video chatting with her family and boyfriend, Brad, watching favorite movies and continuing her family tradition of baking snickerdoodles on Christmas Eve. She's determined to have a festive night, even if she did have to spend it alone.

But Abby's night doesn't go as planned. She's missing home more than she wants to admit, she doesn't have all the ingredients to make her cookies and her handsome new neighbor, Jason, is rude to her. As if that's not enough, the final blow comes with the discovery of a devastating betrayal.

Alone and heartbroken, she finds comfort in a person she'd least expect; someone who puts her night into a new perspective. Abby finds out that sometimes, grief is better shared and that a jar of cinnamon can change your life. 

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This is a cute novella that's perfect for December, or just for whenever you're feeling Christmas-y! The length is just right for reading in one sitting, it took me about 45 minutes from start to finish.

I really liked the premise of the story; the basic idea of two hurting hearts finding comfort together on a lonely holiday. I do admit that Abby initially struck me as being a bit "too happy" and perfect with her upbeat outlook on things, however considering that it's a Christmas story her attitude wasn't necessarily out of place. I think if more people had a similar upbeat outlook on life, things would be so much nicer for everyone!

The writing itself has a somewhat simple style to it, which makes for a quick and easy read. Though some of the wording felt a bit unpolished, I still found the story to be very cute and enjoyable. The entire story takes place in one night (Christmas Eve), but there is a short epilogue that takes the story a bit further, which was something that I really appreciated.

I was in-between novels when I picked up "Christmas on the Tenth Floor", and it turned out to be a great little story to read while I decided what full-length book to read next. It really is a cute story, and with just a bit more fleshing out it's something I could easily see Hallmark turning into a movie. :)

My Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Home for the Holidays by Christine Lynxwiler

Book Cover and Synopsis:
A heartwarming Christmas novella about true friendship, helping those in need, and falling in love... 
What's a girl to do when she falls in love with her lifelong best friend? Small town librarian Lauren Forrester moves to St. Louis so that handsome contractor Jeffrey Warren can find a wife without having to deal with Lauren's moods. But when Jeffrey shows up on her doorstep to convince her to come home for a country Christmas, will the hardheaded pair lose their friendship or find something even more precious?

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This is a cute little story with characters that are well developed, despite the short novella length. I read it from cover to cover in just one sitting, and it only took about 90 minutes. But in that time I felt like I came to know the characters--especially Lauren--quite well.

The novella explores several themes, including facing your feelings and finding the courage to admit them, as well as letting go of past hurts, and helping those who are in need. Despite the short length, there is a surprising amount of content covered! Though I wasn't head-over-heels for Jeff like Lauren was, I did find myself rooting for Lauren to get the happy ending that she desired. I enjoyed seeing how much history the two had together, and their habit of meeting at "the swings" was really cute.

Christine Lynxwiler's stories are always entertaining at the very least, and Home for the Holidays is no different. If you're looking for a quick read, this one is certainly worth a look! Though most of the story does take place around Christmas, the season is really more just a backdrop for the characters... so while it certainly adds a bit of fun if you read the story during December, the Christmas angle isn't heavy enough to require that it be read during the holidays. Any time of year would be fine! :)

My Rating: 4 stars

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Best Forgotten by Paula Vince

Book Cover and Synopsis:
A young accident victim wakes up in hospital and can't remember who he is. Why does he have nothing in common with his family? Why does he despise the person he was supposed to be? Why has his best friend disappeared without a trace? Is somebody after him? His family can offer no solutions. His girlfriend is strangely aloof and he cannot shake off a feeling that the answers will prove more unpleasant than his amnesia. Somehow he must find out as it seems time is running out. Paula Vince has woven elements of secrecy and suspense with her trademark warmth and compassion. Best Forgotten is an inspirational masterpiece you won't forget.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Best Forgotten is a bit outside of the normal genre that I read, but I actually did enjoy it. The characters are well thought out, with a wide range of personalities and motives. Though the mystery element takes precedence in the story, there are also aspects of family dynamics, a blooming romance, and the search for faith coupled with the struggle to truly believe.

Courtney's amnesia leaves him as a grown man with no memories...a blank slate, if you will. I loved the innocent air this gave him in his interactions with others; he's very open and honest, even in tough and unfamiliar situations (which there are plenty of!). I really liked the idea that experiences and memories shape a person, and ultimately form their personality. Strip all the memories away, and you are suddenly a completely different person, able to view the aspects of your own life with an outsider's objective perspective. It's quite an interesting topic, and definitely something to ponder on...

I must admit that the author did an excellent job of keeping the cards close to her chest, so to speak. Little pieces of the mystery of Courtney's past were slowly revealed as the story progressed...enough to make me extremely curious as to what the urgent thing was that Courtney felt compelled to remember, but couldn't. Interestingly enough, even though small clues were often uncovered, I still didn't have the foggiest idea what the mystery would turn into. Ultimately, it stayed a secret (that I couldn't even begin to guess at) until the big reveal came, close to the end.

If you're looking for something unique and out of the ordinary, Best Forgotten is certainly worth looking into. The Australian setting gives it a unique feel, with slightly different phrases and wording than American novels offer. There are a couple instances of minor language (h*ll and d*mn) from the "bad" guys, but otherwise I can't think of anything objectionable. The story really made me stop and consider if I would like what I'd see were I able to look at my life with an objective opinion, not being swayed by emotions or memories. Honestly, it's an opportunity I hope to never personally have, however, in the case of this story, the trauma of amnesia actually turned out to be one of the biggest blessings in Courtney's life.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Thank you to the author for providing me with a review copy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: Made to Last by Melissa Tagg

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Miranda Woodruff has it all. At least, that's how it looks when she's starring in her homebuilding television show, "From the Ground Up." So when her network begins to talk about making cuts, she'll do anything to boost ratings and save her show--even if it means pretending to be married to a man who's definitely not the fiance who ran out on her three years ago.

When a handsome reporter starts shadowing Miranda's every move, all his digging into her personal life brings him a little too close to the truth--and to her. Can the girl whose entire identity is wrapped up in her on-screen persona finally find the nerve to set the record straight? And if she does, will the life she's built come crashing down just as she's found a love to last?

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
When I think of Miranda, I can't help but remember the old saying, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." Though I don't condone her deception, it sure is a load of fun to read about!! What I really like about Miranda is the fact that she seems like a normal everyday person--with faults and insecurities--despite the fact that she is a celebrity. She's easy to like and sympathize with, which is what makes it so comical when her deceptive scheme starts to spiral out of control!

Even early on it was fairly obvious that Matthew, the reporter shadowing Miranda, would eventually uncover a scoop about her...but what I couldn't predict was how the scenario would end up unfolding. (Let me just say, things did not turn out the way I imagined, and it was ten times the better for it!) I enjoyed seeing Matthew struggle with his ethics while deciding if he should reveal the scoop or not, as it gave him a very realistic feel and clearly separated him from the ruthless image that reporters often have. I also really liked Matthew's relationship with his young niece; it's uncommonly sweet, and leaves you with a hopeful feeling.

While Matthew is a solid leading man, I have to admit that Blake (Miranda's "pretend" husband) was very close to stealing the spotlight. He had a fun and goofy way about him, yet he had a surprisingly serious side as well. His antics really added a lot to the story; he is honestly one of the best characters I've come across in quite a while. I've heard Blake will also be in Miranda's upcoming book "Here to Stay", and I am ANXIOUSLY awaiting the chance to read more about him!

This is Melissa Tagg's first novel, but it's so solid that you would never guess it to be her debut. I'm quite impressed, actually. The characters were all very realistic feeling, and I absolutely loved the comical scenes that were periodically thrown in. (I also really enjoyed the behind the scenes look at the production of a tv show, and seeing that even "how-to" shows have multiple takes, etc.) I've found a new author to follow, and there's no doubt that I'll be snatching up her next book as soon as it's available!

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: Once Upon A Prince by Rachel Hauck

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Susanna Truitt never dreamed of a great romance or being treated like a princess---just to marry the man she has loved for twelve years. But life isn’t going according to plan. When her high-school-sweetheart-turned-Marine-officer breaks up instead of proposing, Susanna scrambles to rebuild her life.

The last thing Prince Nathaniel expects to find on his American holiday to St. Simon’s Island is the queen of his heart. A prince has duties, and his family’s tense political situation has chosen his bride for him. When Prince Nathaniel comes to Susanna’s aid under the fabled Lover’s Oak, he is blindsided by love.

Their lives are worlds apart. He’s a royal prince. She’s a ordinary girl. But everything changes when Susanna receives an invitation to Nathaniel’s coronation...

My source for book: Review Copy via NetGalley
My Thoughts:
Oh my, what a lovely story! Though it's completely set in reality, it very much has a fairy tale feel, in a modern sort of way. British royalty mingling with every-day Americans, and a forbidden romance in the air. These types of events just don't happen to everyday people, but that's what makes this story so much FUN to read!

I do have to admit that the first chapter was rather slow (it started in the middle of a break up scene), but once it moved past that scene I found myself immediately hooked. Susanna is easy to sympathize with, and I found it easy to relate to her issues of learning to trust and wait on God no matter the circumstances. Her family is a lot of fun and adds amusing chaos to her life; I especially enjoyed the atmosphere at Susanna's parents' restaurant and the playful banter between everyone in the midst of their work.

Nate has a gentle air about him that immediately drew me in, but his British speech and mannerisms certainly didn't hurt! ;) He seems just like an ordinary guy, not at all like a prince or king, but that is what makes him so great. I loved how he tried to seek God's guidance for his decisions; it was really cool to see someone in such a power position seeking to follow God like that. (It gives hope that godly rulers can still be found!)

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed this one. The interaction between the characters was great, and I really enjoyed the sweet and slow pacing between Nate and Susanna. Rachel Hauck has definitely delivered a winner with Once Upon A Prince! It gives me high expectations for the rest of the series, which I am anxiously awaiting. It doesn't matter if you're a royalty watcher or not; this is one that I think you'll enjoy!

My Rating: 5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Zondervan) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: Greetings from the Flipside by Gutteridge & McKay

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Hope Landon has been rewriting other people’s greeting cards since she was six years old. There’s always a funnier caption in there somewhere. She’s ready to chase her creative dreams in New York City with her fiancĂ©—until he leaves Hope at the altar.

That may give her something to write about . . .

Hope disappears for the time that would have been the couple’s month-long honeymoon, and upon returning learns of her own funeral. Everyone concluded Hope must have killed herself after being jilted. Needing a fresh start more than ever, she heads for the Big Apple only to discover it isn’t easy to rent a place when you’ve been declared dead.

Taking shelter at the YMCA, Hope lands a job at an inspirational greeting card company assisting Jake, the guy who shut down his organization’s humor department. She has lost her faith in love; he needs to find something or someone that will make him laugh again.

Fun and faithful, Greetings from the Flipside will keep turning over in your mind.

My source for book: Review Copy via NetGalley
My Thoughts:
Oh my, what a gem of a book! I had a complete blast reading this novel, and even though it was slightly different than I expected, I still loved it! I don't want to give any spoilers, but I think I can safely reveal that a large portion of the story actually takes place in a dream-like state. You might ask, "who cares what happens in a dream?", but I actually found it so entertaining that I didn't care in the least that it wasn't "real." The events themselves for the most part are realistic in nature, but there is just enough quirkiness to give it a dream-like, almost fairy tale feel. I absolutely loved the atmosphere of these portions of the book--rooted in the real world, but slightly funner!

Hope is a very likable character, with a fun sense of humor. I liked how she didn't wallow in self pity after being jilted at the altar, instead going out and seeking her dream of being a professional greeting card writer. Her ironic card greetings won't appeal to everyone, but what I was most tickled by was how humorous Hope herself thought her cards were. The dream world is written in first person from Hope's perspective, and she has a really fun voice that makes the story flow along effortlessly.

All of the other characters are great as well, but I want to specifically mention Jake, as I really enjoyed him. He is rather quiet, but as the story progresses, you really get to know him and sympathize with his past hurts. I liked him in both the dream and real world scenarios. As for Hope's mother... she is pretty humorous, in an over-the-top kind of way. In reality she would be too much, but on paper she is quite amusing.

Greetings From The Flipside has definitely earned a spot on my top fiction list for 2013. It's complete fun, but at the same time it really keeps you thinking. The collaboration between Gutteridge and McKay is perfect. (It makes me want to read their earlier novel, as well!) I've seen this story compared to the movie "While You Were Sleeping", and in many ways I think that's a very fair comparison. Fans of that movie will most likely find quite a few things in this novel to enjoy. I know I did! This is one that I highly, highly recommend!

My Rating: 5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (B&H) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Operation Bonnet by Kimberly Stuart

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Twenty-year-old Nellie Monroe has a restless brilliance that makes her a bit of an odd duck. She wants to be a private investigator, even though her tiny hometown offers no hope of clients.
Until she meets Amos Shetler, an Amish dropout carrying a torch for the girl he left behind. So Nellie straps on her bonnet and goes undercover to get the dish.
But though she’s brainy, Nellie is clueless when it comes to real life and real relationships. Soon she’s alienated her best friend, angered her college professor, and botched her case. Operation Bonnet is a comedy of errors, a surprising take on love, and a story of grace.

My source for book: Personal library
My Thoughts:
A few years ago I became tired of the deluge of Amish fiction, and now it takes something with an extremely unique perspective to get me to pick up an Amish-related book. Operation Bonnet certainly fits the bill of "unique", but I didn't realize just how off-the-wall it would be!

Nellie is eccentric, to say the least, and I have to admire the creativity of the mind that dreamed her up! She is just totally off-the-wall, with sarcastic and snarky comments aplenty. I appreciate good sarcasm, but some of hers was too close to crude (unkind, not dirty) for my taste.... still, at other times I was quite humored by her take on things. At 20 years old Nellie is still somewhat immature, causing her to make some less-than-great choices (especially in her detective work), but I do have to say that I really admired how well she handled the difficulties in her personal life of caring for her aging grandmother.

I really, really liked Amos and what he brought to the story. He is funny without even intending to be, with his misuses of pop-culture references and a somewhat stiff (but humorous) way of speaking. The contrast between him and Nellie is great, resulting in some very amusing conversations. But putting the humor aside, I also really appreciated the unique perspective Amos has on things that are commonplace to the English (non-Amish people, like you and me). After one of Nellie's flippant sarcastic remarks, Amos easily replies "Do not be ill-tempered." I was really struck by how common it is for people to be "ill-tempered", sometimes without even realizing it. It certainly made me think about how I might come across to others.

It wasn't until I was a third, or maybe even closer to half-way through, that I really started to get into the story and plot. Nellie's personality was just so loud (and jarring, dare I say?) that it took me a while to become accustomed to her....but once I did, I ended up enjoying the story. The diversity between Nellie and the Amish is huge, and for me it served as a great reminder to try looking at things in my life from a different perspective. Overall I did enjoy the book, and I would certainly recommend it if you're looking for something different from your normal genre.

My Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Charlotte owns a chic Birmingham bridal boutique. Dressing brides for their big day is her gift . . . and her passion. But with her own wedding day approaching, why can't she find the perfect dress...or feel certain she should marry Tim?

Then Charlotte discovers a vintage dress in a battered trunk at an estate sale. It looks brand-new-shimmering with pearls and satin, hand-stitched and timeless in its design. But where did it come from? Who wore it? Who welded the lock shut and tucked the dog tags in that little sachet? Who left it in the basement for a ten-year-old girl? And what about the mysterious man in the purple vest who insists the dress had been "redeemed."

Charlotte's search for the gown's history-and its new bride-begins as a distraction from her sputtering love life. But it takes on a life of its own as she comes to know the women who have worn the dress. Emily from 1912. Mary Grace from 1939. Hillary from 1968. Each with her own story of promise, pain, and destiny. And each with something unique to share. For woven within the threads of the beautiful hundred-year-old gown is the truth about Charlotte's heritage, the power of courage and faith, and the timeless beauty of finding true love.

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
Charlotte is a mostly likeable character, and her business of finding the perfect dress for every bride who visits her shop is interesting and unique. The descriptions of her shop really brought it to life in my mind; the lavish setting would be a dream come true for any bride! As far as Charlotte's personal relationships go, I have to admit that I didn't much care for Tim, or Charlotte's relationship with him. Simply put, he was too wishy-washy for my taste. I kept wanting Charlotte to let him go and just move on with her life, but Tim always managed to re-appear. Though he wasn't "terrible", he just wasn't my ideal for a leading man.

Charlotte's story is set in the present day, but a good portion of the novel also tells Emily's story, which is set in the early 1900's. Emily's sections of the story were actually my favorite, having a sort of innocent, stand-up-for-what's-right atmosphere about them. It did irk me that it took Emily so long to acknowledge the issues regarding her relationship with Phillip, but I suppose the practice of ignoring problems is actually a very realistic thing, especially in the era where social standing was everything. Nevertheless, Emily's story remains my favorite. It had the best church wedding scene I've ever read, which involved a horse, but I won't spoil it by revealing any more! :)

Wedding dresses, especially timeless ones, have an appeal to women of all ages, and it's interesting to tag along with Charlotte (and the rest of the ladies) as the history of the mysterious dress is slowly revealed. I especially liked how the dress was related to the message of the gospel; the moment at the end when the similarities are spelled out was simply AWESOME! It was a parallel I didn't see coming, and there's just no other word for it besides awesome.

Overall, this is a good, solid read. While it's not my favorite of Rachel Hauck's works--that honor goes to Love Starts With Elle--it's still a nice addition to the women's section of the Christian fiction market. I wasn't overly crazy about any of the leading male characters (with the exception of Daniel, but he didn't have a very large part), but when it comes right down to it, ultimately the story is more about the dress and the women who wore it. I give this one 4 stars: recommended!

My Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: Gunpowder Tea by Margaret Brownley

Book Cover and Synosis:
She's a Pinkerton detective. He's working undercover for Wells Fargo. Neither has a clue about love.

Annie Beckman arrives at Last Chance Ranch in the Arizona Territory holding the classified ad she found. Miss Walker's search for an heiress who is single and willing to remain so gives her the perfect cover. As a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, Annie's latest clandestine task is to discover the identity of the mysterious Phantom, a train robber thought to be hiding out at the ranch.

Ranch hand and undercover Wells Fargo detective Jeremy Taggert is secretly tracking the Phantom too, but Annie suspects he may be the train robber she's after. They're constantly at odds and she even goes so far as to serve him gunpowder tea in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

Danger lurks around every corner and everyone is under suspicion--even Miss Walker It'll be a race to the finish to see which rival detective finds the Phantom first. Nothing--not even romance--can get in their way.

My source for book: Review Copy via NetGalley
My Thoughts:
For some reason novels that involve Pinkertons always pique my interest, especially when the Pinkerton is a female. There's just something mysterious and exciting about the pioneering women of the PI field...

Though I have no desire to be a detective like Annie, I found her motives easy to understand and sympathize with. Her occupation requires a web of deception, and I found it intriguing how she began to question and feel guilty about her deceit as she came to care for the people most affected by her lies. As for Jeremy, he is likeable enough, though perhaps not extremely memorable. His main focus is on the job at hand, along with keeping a watchful eye on Annie, which resulted in less of his personality being revealed than I would've liked. (I liked him, but it just seemed that I didn't get to know him as well as I did Annie.) Though there was both personal and professional tension between Annie and Jeremy, overall it wasn't quite as intense as I thought it could be...though admittedly, things did improve when they started "sort of" working together. :)

One thing that was somewhat disappointing, though it's not a huge issue, is that I was expecting to find a scene in the book that closely resembled what the cover art depicts, but there ended up not being any scene like that at all. There IS one part that leads up to a "tea scene", but unfortunately it cuts off just before the tea is served. The story synopsis makes it sound like the scene is a pivotal point in the plot, and the cover art--which is what originally drew me to the book--makes the scene look like so much fun, that I was just slightly disappointed to not find a detailed scene of Annie serving gunpowder tea to Jeremy.

Gunpowder Tea is the final book in the Brides of Last Chance Ranch trilogy, however it could easily work as a standalone novel. The ending wraps things up nicely, while at the same time opening a door for another possible book or series. (Though I don't think anything is currently planned, a continuation has potential to be quite good!) Despite some nit-picking on my part, overall I do feel that the story is solid. The plot is without a doubt unique, and Margaret Brownley's writing is enjoyable, as always. Though I admit it's not my absolute favorite of Margaret's works, Gunpowder Tea is still worth a look, especially if you're a fan of private detectives, undercover agents, or romance in the old west!

My Rating: 4 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Thomas Nelson) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Leaving a life of privilege to strike out on her own, Lauren Durough breaks with convention and her family’s expectations by choosing a state college over Stanford and earning her own income over accepting her ample monthly allowance. She takes a part-time job from 83-year-old librarian Abigail Boyles, who asks Lauren to transcribe the journal entries of her ancestor Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials.

Almost immediately, Lauren finds herself drawn to this girl who lived and died four centuries ago. As the fervor around the witch accusations increases, Mercy becomes trapped in the worldview of the day, unable to fight the overwhelming influence of snap judgments and superstition, and Lauren realizes that the secrets of Mercy’s story extend beyond the pages of her diary, living on in the mysterious, embittered Abigail.

The strength of her affinity with Mercy forces Lauren to take a startling new look at her own life, including her relationships with Abigail, her college roommate, and a young man named Raul. But on the way to the truth, will Lauren find herself playing the helpless defendant or the misguided judge? Can she break free from her own perceptions and see who she really is?

My source for book: Borrowed from friend
My Thoughts:
Prior to reading The Shape of Mercy, the subject of the Salem witch trials always left me feeling confused and uneasy, which I think stemmed from a lack of knowledge of what really happened. What little I knew was gleaned from over-sensationalized movies and tv shows that largely used the supernatural angle--no wonder the topic left me uneasy!

Lauren's transcription work with Mercy's diary is extremely interesting, as is her relationship with the mysterious owner of the diary. (I also liked the details on the condition of the ancient diary and the precautions taken to prevent further deterioration. But back to the review...) Lauren's struggles in her personal life to quit judging people based on perception ties in nicely with what happened in Salem, and it really makes you stop and think about how you look at those around you--family, acquaintances, and most definitely strangers. While Lauren is likeable and her part of the story is undeniably relevant, ultimately it was Mercy's diary that kept bringing me back and leaving me reluctant to put the book down.

Though Mercy is a fictional character--basically a story inside of a story, if you will--her diary seems extremely real, giving you a realistic feeling (and un-supernatural) glimpse of the events that happened in Salem. It's enthralling, yet horrifyingly tragic. As a character Mercy is captivating, and it's awesome how so much is communicated through her diary entries without actually being said. Her relationship with John Peter was lovely, and I so liked how his affection for Mercy was obvious not in words, but in caring actions.

Meissner's writing is exceptional; it's deep and thoughtful, while at the same time remaining easy to read. Initially I did feel that familiar uneasiness regarding Salem when I began the story, but the feeling slowly faded as I started to gain a more down-to-earth, less "hollywood" idea of the events. They were regular people, just like you and I, who were wrongfully accused of evil. In order to live they were required to "confess" their supposed evil ways--a lie some couldn't bring themselves to utter, no matter the consequences.

Overall, I am honestly glad to have read this novel. It's certainly not a "light" read, but it is extremely intriguing. I feel that I now have a much better grasp on the topic of the Salem trials, along with a reminder that things and people aren't always what they seem. Though you may have to be in the mood for a more serious novel to pick this one up, it is certainly one that I'd recommend.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Waiting For Morning by Margaret Brownley

Book Cover and Synopsis:
There is nothing Molly wouldn’t do for her teenaged brother, Donny. Blaming herself for the accident that left him wheel-chair bound, Molly has dedicated her life to his care. But in 1896, gainful employment for a woman is hard to come by. So when Molly learns that an eccentric rancher in Cactus Patch, Arizona, is looking for an heiress—someone to take over management of the ranch in exchange for future ownership—she jumps at the chance to provide a real home for her brother.

If she proves to have a knack for ranching and agrees to remain single for life, the ranch can be hers. Neither stipulation worries Molly. She’s resourceful and hardworking. And she gave up dreams of marriage long ago when she dedicated her life to her brother’s well-being.

However, Molly didn’t bank on meeting Dr. Caleb Fairbanks, the town’s handsome and charismatic young doctor. Caleb has a way with Molly that makes her nervous. But it’s how he is with her brother that really alarms her. Caleb sees past the wheelchair and genuinely likes Donny, but Molly fears he’s putting unrealistic ideas into her brother’s head. Falling in love with Caleb would threaten everything she’s worked for, even her brother’s future happiness.

But it could be the very reason God brought her to Last Chance Ranch.

My source for book: Review Copy via NetGalley
My Thoughts:
Margaret Brownley has done it again, masterfully crafting a story that is just downright entertaining! Molly, the heroine, is easy to like, and her former occupation as a saloon girl (a singer only!) serves as a great reminder to not judge based on perception or outward appearances. I quickly found myself rooting for Molly to overcome her difficult past and to succeed in building a life for herself and her younger brother.

Dr. Caleb is a good guy, but it was the little details about him that really made him stand out to me. I loved how he seemed slightly eccentric--and rather modern--by driving a "horseless carriage" far before they were commonplace. It sort of became his trademark, and I just couldn't help but enjoy the excitement that always surrounded his automobile. I also liked how Caleb took his dog everywhere he went.... it may seem like a small detail, and it's not even necessarily a "manly" thing to do, but it really added a nice touch to the flow of the story.

With the inclusion of Donny, Molly's wheelchair-bound brother, the story offers a unique and interesting look at the life of a handicapped person in the 19th century, which is a topic I haven't previously found in fiction before. Dr. Caleb has a wonderful forward thinking and cutting-edge air about him, which makes it exciting to watch as he tries to help Donny by teaching him how to care for himself despite his disability. I do have to confess that I grew a little weary of Molly's protests against Caleb's methods of treatment for Donny... however, these disagreements did add to the tension between Molly and Caleb, so I can see why they were included.

Overall, this novel is one that I really enjoyed. It's actually the second installment in the "Brides of Last Chance Ranch" trilogy, but in my opinion it far outshines the first novel and could easily be read as a stand-alone. Now, I can't end my review without mentioning Orbit, the little blind horse at the ranch, whose unique personality deftly pulled at my heartstrings. He was an unexpectedly great addition; you'd be surprised how much a blind horse can enhance a story! ;) If you're a fan of historical novels, Waiting For Morning is one that I would definitely recommend.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Thomas Nelson) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley

Cover and Synopsis:
Disgraced dime novelist Kate Tenney fled the city that banned her latest novel for the emptiness of the desert. Answering an ad to be "heiress" to a vast cattle ranch in the Arizona Territory, Kate hopes ranching turns out to be as romantic as she portrayed it in her novels. But what awaits her is a life harder than the one she just left. There is no room for mistakes on a working cattle ranch, and Kate is ill-prepared for her new life. She quickly learns that dawn comes early. But she is tenacious.

Having been abandoned by a string of men, Kate has no intention of ever marrying. But she didn't expect to meet Luke Adams, either. Luke awakens feelings inside Kate she doesn't recognize, and his steady presence is a constant distraction. She has only written about love in the past, never known it herself. But her feelings for Luke stand in the way of all she has to gain if she is chosen as the heir. Perhaps God brought Kate to the barrenness of the desert to give new life to her jaded heart.
My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
Having previously enjoyed several of Margaret Brownley's prior novels, I was anxious to get my hands on "Dawn Comes Early", especially since the desert setting sounded reminiscent of where I grew up. Unfortunately, the book was quite different from my expectations and I ended up being rather disappointed.

The quality of the writing is good, I have no qualms about that--it's just the characters and story that I couldn't connect with. I honestly can't put my finger on exactly what the main issue was, so perhaps it was just many small issues combined. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn't relate to the characters, and some of the things they did grated on my nerves. Top of this list would be the storyline revolving around Luke's aunts, which struck me as over-the-top silly.

As for Kate and Luke's relationship, I never felt much chemistry between them. They barely had any interaction before it was obvious feelings were developing, which made their "feelings" somewhat hard for me to believe. While they didn't blatantly seem un-suited as a couple, I just couldn't get excited about the two of them. I think Luke's repetitive thoughts about being un-educated and not good enough for Kate contributed to my feelings. Likewise, Kate's insistence of remaining single didn't scream romance, either. I do have to admit the last couple of chapters had a semi-cute way of bringing them together, but overall I fear Kate and Luke are a mostly forgettable couple for me.

Honestly, the book wasn't "bad"... it just felt a bit flat and fairly average. I normally read books of this length in 5 to 7 days, but this one took me about 10 days, simply because I couldn't keep focused on it. I think it's probably just a case of the reader and book not meshing well, but I have to be honest about my feelings. The good news is that I have already started the second book in the series (Waiting for Morning) and it is much more to my taste. The author hasn't lost her touch, but in my opinion Dawn Comes Early just isn't her strongest offering.

My Rating: 3 stars

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: How Sweet It Is by Bonnie Blythe

Book Cover and Synopsis:
"Embrasser" means to kiss in French. Delphine D'Arleux, traveling in Belgium for a candy-making class, doesn't expect to have the word demonstrated to her, especially by a stranger. Brad Larsen, an avowed chocoholic, knows he behaved badly by kissing the pretty French girl, but he can't quite regret his actions. Can he show Delphine that a longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul?

My Thoughts:
Stories about chocolate are usually just too sweet for me to pass up, and initially this one started out fairly fun. Though a bit unrealistic in spots, I still found it amusing to watch as Delphine tried to dodge and hide from Brad--a basic stranger who had kissed her on the street--and then ultimately ended up on a plane with a ticket purchased for her by Brad's parents!

I do have to admit that it seemed slightly odd for Brad--a guy--to be such a hopeless chocolate-lover...but this probably stems from the guys in my life being just "so-so" about sweets. Regardless of that, I found it quite interesting when Delphine tried to teach Brad about higher grades of chocolate and the fine quality differences. However, much to my chagrin, every time chocolate came into the scene Brad managed to end up with some on his face. I'm sure this is meant to be endearing, but I just wanted to give him a stack of napkins and tell him to clean up.

Despite a few nitpicks, I honestly enjoyed the first half of the story, but at roughly the half-way point things started to changed. Suddenly the plot's main focus seemed to be about Delphine and Brad both doubting and fearing their affection wasn't mutual. Even after they'd said "I love you" multiple times, they both still continued to wonder if the other was truly earnest in their feelings. This got rather old, and ultimately after so many repetitions of doubts and confirmed feelings, more doubts and more confirmed feelings, I was just ready for the story to be done so I could move on to something else.

Overall, I feel the story would be much stronger if it was shortened up and condensed, mainly in the latter half when the redundancy of doubts begins. If you're looking to try a book by Bonnie Blythe, instead of How Sweet It Is I would recommend checking out Claire's Not-So-Gothic Romance, which I found to be very entertaining from beginning to end.

My Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Love on the Line by Deeanne Gist

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Rural switchboard operator Georgie Gail is proud of her independence in a man's world ... which makes it twice as vexing when the telephone company sends a man to look over her shoulder.

Dashing Luke Palmer is more than he appears though. He's a Texas Ranger working undercover to infiltrate a notorious gang of train robbers. Repairing telephones and tangling with this tempestuous woman is the last thing he wants to do. But when his stakeout puts Georgie in peril, he realizes more than his job is on the line.

My Thoughts:
As commonplace as telephones are nowadays, it's easy to forget their humble beginnings and the ladies who manually connected each call through large switchboards. "Love on the Line" brightly paints this era of the past, easily bringing it to life in full color.

Georgie is quite the character, being an independent single woman in a time when such a thing was truly unusual. Her job as a rural switchboard operator is simply fascinating, and I loved reading about the "party lines" that I've heard my grandmother talk about!! I always appreciate when a fictional novel can be entertaining while at the same time bringing to light trends and issues from the past, and Georgie's love for birds brings up one of these forgotten issues--the fashion of placing taxidermy birds on women's hats and gowns. I find the idea quite appalling, so I was completely on Georgie's side as she tried to put a dent in the sales of such items. Her ideas on how to stop fashion with "bird parts" were interesting to follow, and never more so than when she butted heads with Luke on the issue.

Now, about Luke/Lucious: simply put, he was a superb character. It was really cool how he actually seemed like two totally different people, depending on what clothes he wore and if he was acting undercover or not. When undercover as Luke he appeared so normal, but his true identity of Lucious was more like the "Jack Bauer" of Texas Rangers, and you just can't deny the coolness of that! Though there were a few times when I wasn't completely on board with his actions, I admit that it did make for entertaining reading, keeping me riveted to the page in anticipation of the outcome!

This story has so much going on that it's impossible to cover it all without giving spoilers... I feel like I've been through so much with these characters, and now that I've finished the book I'm rather sad to be leaving my "friends." (I did notice that Bettina seems like a great candidate for a book of her own, and the epilogue seemed like it could easily be leading up to that. I hope at some point her story will be told!) I'm ashamed to confess that I put off reading "Love on the Line" for quite a while, thinking that it would just be average--but I couldn't have been more wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and I would highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction! This one is a real winner!

My Rating: 5 stars

Friday, August 23, 2013

Just for fun: Spine Poetry

The spine poetry craze is making the rounds among the book bloggers, and I can't help but join in.
I raided my bookshelf, along with my mother's, and this is what I came up with.

I can only imagine a cowboy's touch,
under the big sky, by the shores of silver lake.
Together for good, for better or for worse,
from this day forward, cowgirl at heart. 

I've never been a huge fan of poetry, so mine is more of a story... but I'm still rather pleased with how it turned out! :)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Meet Cute by Amanda Hamm

Book Cover and Synopsis:
5 stories… 5 couples… 1 cute collection…

THE SLOW LANE – Slow traffic on the way home from work is never any fun. Or is it? When the good-looking guy in another car starts flirting with Mia, she ends up enjoying the commute and the surprise it brings.

MY BROTHER THE MATCH-MAKER – Tabby’s brother likes to play match-maker. She insists she doesn’t want his help. Will Tabby have to admit she likes the guy her brother picked for her or will she finally see her good friend as something more?

WAITING FOR THE BUS - Wes isn’t waiting for the bus. He always knows exactly what time it arrives. He knows what time she arrives to wait for it. Can he figure out the mystery woman? And will he have a chance to capture her attention as well as she has captured his?

NOW IS GOOD – Emily and Zane get two chances to meet two years apart. What happens when only one of them remembers the first time?

PIZZA HEAVEN – Pizza Heaven has mouthwatering food and a fun atmosphere. It’s a dream job for most of the college students who work there. Kara in particular doesn’t want to leave and she’s attached to something besides the pizza. The problem? She doesn’t have the courage to tell him.

My Thoughts:
This collection of 5 short stories is aptly named, as each story details "cute" first meetings paired with sweet and creative ways of asking the ever important "will-you-go-out-with-me?" question. From matchmaking, to accidental meetings, and long-held crushes, all of these scenarios are explored in the stories. Each one is very clean, and though they're not overtly Christian or religious, there are light undertones of faith woven in.

Most of the stories use a first person writing style, which I always enjoy as it allows me to feel more connected to the characters. I quite like the unique atmosphere of Amanda Hamm's work; it's uncomplicated while at the same time being very amusing, with subtle (and not-so-subtle) humor woven in through the inner-thoughts of the characters. They seem real--just like average everyday people--which makes it easy to picture yourself in their shoes.

While I thought all of the stories were cute, my favorite by far was "Pizza Heaven." It's been several days since I read it, but my mind continues to go back and revisit the story. The restaurant setting was great fun, and the characters and their personalities were awesome; I was immediately comfortable with them, which made it easy to cheer for and sympathize with them through their ups and downs. "Pizza Heaven" is the longest story in the collection, and while it's very complete and doesn't feel too short, I do admit to wishing it had been longer--simply because I enjoyed it so much! :)

I don't often read short stories as I honestly just finish them too quickly, however I did enjoy this collection. It's easy to be amused by the great bits of banter, sweet and harmless flirting, and one or two humorously awkward scenarios. In keeping with our times cell phones play a big part in two of the stories, and the sheer creativity of how they are used is delightful. If you're a fan of short stories or if you're just looking for something light and fun, this collection is a good one to consider!

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Thank you to the author for providing me with a review copy.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Grace's Pictures by Cindy Thomson

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Grace McCaffery hopes the bustling streets of New York hold all the promise the lush hills of Ireland did not. As her efforts to earn enough money to bring her mother to America fail, she wonders if her new Brownie camera could be the answer. But a casual stroll through a beautiful New York City park turns into a hostile run-in with local gangsters, who are convinced her camera holds the first and only photos of their elusive leader.

A policeman with a personal commitment to help those less fortunate finds Grace attractive and longs to help her, but Grace believes such men cannot be trusted. Spread thin between her quest to rescue her mother, do well in a new nanny job, and avoid the gang intent on intimidating her, Grace must put her faith in unlikely sources to learn the true meaning of courage and forgiveness.

My Thoughts:
The description of this story really captured my attention, immediately drawing a grand picture in my mind of the potential fun that could be had with the scenario. Unfortunately, the execution of the plot fell somewhat flat and left me rather disappointed.

The story started out well enough, and initially I liked Grace and Owen, the two main characters. Their interactions were entertaining, especially when Grace was still fresh off the boat from Ireland. But somewhere along the way, perhaps around the 1/3 mark, I found my attention starting to waver, and it never fully recovered.

Grace's distrust of police officers results in her and Owen having little interaction for a large portion--right in the middle--of the story, and I feel this is one of the downfalls. It forced the plot to mostly revolve around their separate lives, which ultimately served to make Owen look like a work-a-holic and to make Grace look overly naive. They were kept apart so long that when they finally did start to work together in the end, I could no longer see any connection or chemistry between them.

I felt the conflict wasn't played up enough, and what conflict there was seemed to be spread across several different subplots. In particular, I thought the side story involving Owen's parents was unnecessary and didn't add much, aside from length, to the overall novel. Grace's issue with her employer being involved in questionable practices initially appeared like it might offer a fun/creepy vibe, but it fizzled out and was resolved without much commotion.

I did like the parts where the Brownie camera came into play, however I felt it wasn't used to the full potential. The gangster matter also wasn't as predominant as I thought it could be. Ultimately, I feel the story would be stronger if it were trimmed and tightened up. I don't like giving 3 star ratings, and I really do like the *idea* of the story... but at this point I have to admit that I'm glad to have finished the book so I can move on to something else. 

My Rating: 3 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Tyndale) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Hospitality consultant Andrea Sullivan has one last chance to snag a high-profile client or she'll have to kiss her dreams of promotion good-bye. When she's sent to meet Scottish celebrity chef James MacDonald on the Isle of Skye, she just wants to finish her work as efficiently as possible. Yet her client is not the opportunistic womanizer he portrays himself to be, and her attraction to him soon dredges up memories she'd rather leave buried.

For James, renovating the family hotel is a fulfillment of his late father's dreams. When his hired consultant turns out to be beautiful, intelligent, and completely unimpressed by his public persona, he makes it his mission to win her over. He just never expects to fall under her spell.

Soon, both Andrea and James must face the reality that God may have a far different purpose for their lives—and that five days in Skye will forever change their outlook on life and love.

My Thoughts:
My feelings on this one are mixed, but I can wholeheartedly say that the foreign setting (Scotland) is quite charming and gives the book a unique atmosphere. I also appreciated the eccentric words and phrases that the locals use in everyday conversation; there's just something about foreign expressions that I find intriguing and fun.

The story focuses on Andrea and James, with the point of view alternating back and forth. Neither one is where they should be in their relationship with God, so a large portion of the book actually reads more like a non-christian novel. This isn't to say it's not clean, for the most part it is, but it just has a slightly "worldly" feel to it. (An example of this is that the characters have alcoholic drinks with almost every meal. While I realize there are many different views on this subject, personally it leaves me feeling unsettled.)

Andrea sort of gave me the impression of a stick in the mud...she is very goal and work oriented, and the hurts from her past only serve to amplify her work-a-holic tendencies, resulting in her keeping everyone at arm's length. Perhaps it's because I've never experienced anywhere near what she has, but I simply couldn't relate to her on any level. As for James, he's a bit too forward in his flirtations; though he technically never does anything inappropriate, he makes some comments that toe the line. Some of this is amusing when you see how all-professional Andrea responds, but at other times his flirtations were just a bit "too much" for my taste.

Overall, I do feel the book is well written and researched....however, it just wasn't my cup of tea. Undeniably there were some parts that I enjoyed and found intriguing, but there were simply too many things that didn't "click" with me, which is the reason for my 3 star rating.

My Rating: 3 stars

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Leaving Liberty by Virginia Carmichael

Book Cover and Synopsis:
At eighteen, Daisy McConnell left Liberty, Colorado and never looked back. The only bright spot in a childhood of neglect and loneliness was the town librarian, Marie. Now settled as a teacher in sunny Fresno, Daisy does her best to forget everything about Liberty including her drunk father, her MIA mother, and the town she hated with every beat of her heart.

Lane Bennett’s life as a small town cop is pretty close to perfect. He’s got his dog, a pretty date when he needs one, and plenty of time to fish on the weekends. No other place can compare to his hometown and he’s happy to devote his life to keeping the folks of Liberty safe. When Marie passes away, Lane knows one of the best parts about living in Liberty is gone, along with the old Carnegie library. It needs repairs the city can’t afford and the city managers won’t pay the new flood insurance. It’s too bad, but safety comes first.

When Daisy comes home for Marie’s funeral and hears the only safe place she knew as a child is going to close, she refuses to let it happen. She hatches a plan to save the old library, run the summer reading program, and keep Marie’s legacy alive. 

She once vowed never to come home and he’s vowed never to leave. Daisy and Lane discover together that true love happens when you least expect it and you should never say never in Liberty.

My Thoughts:
I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm guilty of judging this book by it's cover...in a good way! When I saw the cover of Leaving Liberty, I was immediately intrigued, even without knowing the plot. I just knew it would be my kind of book, and as it turns out, I did end up enjoying it.

I admit that it did take me a while to get fully immersed in the story...initially I was just kind of "so-so" about it, though I can't pinpoint the exact reason. However, by time the half-way mark rolled around, I found myself solidly interested in the outcome of the will-they-or-won't-they relationship between Daisy and Lane. The library also plays a large part in the plot, and it's interesting to see the things Daisy tries in her attempts to keep it from being shut down. I kept trying to predict if she would succeed or not, but I couldn't easily guess the outcome. I really didn't know how things would turn out until I actually got to the end!

I was quite intrigued by the angle the story takes on Daisy and Lane's relationship. They are obviously attracted to each other, but knowing that Daisy is leaving town at the end of Summer, they both try to guard their hearts by ignoring the flying sparks. In all honesty, I generally get annoyed when a couple starts a relationship when they know there is a time limit.... but in this case my opinion was flipped up-side-down, and I was actually rooting for them to start something, despite the time limit! I found it very compelling that the story was able to punch through my preconceived ideas and change my thoughts around in such a way.

Never before have I come across a guy who likens his heart to an old patched pair of pants (Lane), but now that I have, I wish there were more out there like him! ;) Virginia Carmichael definitely has a creative mind to come up with the unique analogies and ideas that are found in the story. This is the first of her works that I've picked up, but I found her writing style to be enjoyable. If small towns, libraries, or will-they-or-won't-they relationships are of interest to you, this book is worth checking out.

My Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: It Happened At The Fair by Deeanne Gist

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Gambling everything—including the family farm—Cullen McNamara travels to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with his most recent invention. But the noise in the fair’s Machinery Hall makes it impossible to communicate with potential buyers. In an act of desperation, he hires Della Wentworth, a teacher of the deaf, to tutor him in the art of lip-reading.

The young teacher is reluctant to participate, and Cullen has trouble keeping his mind on his lessons while intently watching her lips. Like the newly invented Ferris wheel, he is caught in a whirl between his girl back home, his dreams as an inventor, and his unexpected attraction to his new tutor. Can he keep his feet on the ground, or will he be carried away?

My Thoughts:
The 1893 World's Fair is a captivating setting, with an atmosphere full of energy and wonder. It's quite a fascinating look back at an important event in America's history, and I enjoyed watching Cullen and Della experience the various fair exhibits. There's just so much to see and do, even the exhibitors themselves look upon the fair with awe!

I found Cullen and his hearing difficulties very intriguing, yet sad. I greatly sympathized with him, as I have a relative with similar struggles and I know how hard it can be. The novel gives quite a bit of insight to the issue of lip-reading vs. sign language, which was quite enlightening as I was previously unaware of the debate. Something that really shocked and appalled me was that people associated Cullen's hearing difficulties with a lack of intelligence! This absolutely blew me away, and ultimately drove my sympathy level for him even higher. Cullen handles the issue admirably, but the ignorance of some people in the era is tragic.

The level of affection shown between Cullen and Della is a bit higher than most novels in this genre, yet there's nothing blatantly inappropriate. (Unless you count some stolen kisses in a broom closet!) I would probably classify it as very very slightly "edgy", but I feel that it fits the overall atmosphere of excitement that the fair has. 

I do have to confess that a couple times the descriptions of the actual fairgrounds became a bit overwhelming and I found my attention wavering...however, these times were few and far between, and my enjoyment of the characters far out-weighed these small issues.

This is only the second book by Deeanne Gist that I've read, and it's made me realize that I need to check out more of her works to see what I've previously missed. She weaves an entertaining story, filled with characters whose plights you don't soon forget. I very much enjoyed It Happened At The Fair, and I feel confident any lover of historical fiction would also enjoy it!

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Howard Books) for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
On his way to interview for a position at a church in the Piney Woods of Texas, Crockett Archer can scarcely believe it when he's forced off the train by a retired outlaw and presented to the man's daughter as the minister she requested for her birthday. Worried this unfortunate detour will ruin his chances of finally serving a congregation of his own, Crockett is determined to escape. But when he finally gets away, he's haunted by the memory of the young woman he left behind--a woman whose dreams now hinge on him.

For months, Joanna Robbins prayed for a preacher. A man to breathe life back into the abandoned church at the heart of her community. A man to assist her in fulfilling a promise to her dying mother. A man to help her discover answers to the questions that have been on her heart for so long. But just when it seems God has answered her prayers, it turns out the parson is there against his will and has dreams of his own calling him elsewhere. Is there any way she can convince Crockett to stay in her little backwoods community? And does the attraction between them have any chance of blossoming when Joanna's outlaw father is dead set against his daughter courting a preacher?

My Thoughts:
From the very first page, my attention was hooked! Seriously, when a book starts out with a preacher being kidnapped as a birthday present for a young lady, you just know there's lots of fun in store! :)

I found the characters to be very likeable, so much so that I wish they could have another book. Crockett is quite charming and often seems close to the perfect man, yet his character also feels very "real" and human. He's probably my favorite portrayal of a preacher that I've come across. Joanna is also likeable, her strong faith is an inspiration and something we should all strive to match. I enjoyed watching her struggle to come to terms with her feelings for Crockett, especially considering that her father is dead set against preachers of any kind!

Something I liked was the pacing of the relationship between Joanna and Crockett. It's slow and steady, but the story moves along in such a way that they admit to their feelings well before the last page. I love when an author breaks out of the common "last page love confession" mold and gives the reader a real look at the couple together, instead of leaving it up to the imagination.

Though I didn't care for Holly, the young lady who tries to win Crockett's attention away from Joanna, I have to applaud how well she was written. Every time Holly came around and started up with her sly games and catty remarks, I just wanted to scream at her, but at the same time I also kept marveling at how expertly she was portrayed. So while I did dislike her, it was sort of a love-to-hate kind of thing....she was just so well written that she easily evoked real emotion from me as I sympathized with Joanna and Crockett for having to put up with her! :)

Karen Witemeyer has a writing style that I just love... With plots that are completely original and slightly eccentric, her books are a breath of fresh air in the crowded historical genre. I've enjoyed all of her previous books, but I have to admit, I think Stealing the Preacher is my new favorite. If you're a fan of historical novels, this is one you simply can't miss!

My Rating: 5 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Bethany House) for providing me with an e-arc for review via NetGalley.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: Tomorrow's Garden by Amanda Cabot

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Harriet Kirk is certain that becoming Ladreville's schoolteacher is just what she needs—a chance to put the past behind her and give her younger siblings a brighter tomorrow. What she didn't count on was the presence of handsome former Texas Ranger Lawrence Wood—or the way he slowly but surely claims her fragile heart. But can Harriet and Lawrence ever truly put the past behind them in order to find happiness?

My Thoughts:
In this third (and last) book in the Texas Dreams trilogy, familiar faces return, but there are also new characters to get acquainted with. We are introduced to Harriet Kirk, a young woman desperate to escape to a place where no one knows her. So when the opportunity arises, she jumps at the chance to move to Ladreville, Texas, dragging her orphaned brothers and sisters along with her.

I must admit that I felt Harriet and Lawrence took a liking to each other a bit too quickly. Initially it just felt a bit forced, as if the only reason they liked each other was because they were the two main characters and were "supposed" to like each other. However, as the story progressed and they developed a friendship, I was then able to see the attraction. They gradually form a unique relationship, each having personality quirks shaped by events of the past.

Something I really liked was the small bits of story revolving around Harriet's sister, Ruth. Initially she was painfully shy, afraid to talk or interact with strangers... but when forced into a new situation, she managed to form a tentative friendship with the town's minister. I very much understand the difficulty of being shy, so her character, feelings, and actions really connected with me. Ruth's part in the story isn't large--she is just a supporting character--but nevertheless, I really enjoyed the sections written from her view point.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. My only regret is that Ruth didn't have a larger role...however, I can't deny that Harriet and Lawrence were likeable characters, so the story did flow along well. Never before have I read a novel where the hero so vehemently disliked the heroine's choice of clothing, and I have to admit I found that whole situation rather humorous! :) Though Tomorrow's Garden is the last book in the Texas Dreams series, it would also work fine as a stand-alone novel if you don't have access to the first two.

My Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Scattered Petals by Amanda Cabot

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Longing for adventure, Priscilla Morton leaves Boston and heads for Texas, never dreaming that the adventure she seeks will leave her badly injured and her parents dead. Priscilla is determined to rebuild her life and make a home for herself in the beautiful Hill Country. But the bandits who took her parents' lives also destroyed her hope for the future.

Ranch foreman Zachary Webster knows what the future holds for him, and it's not a woman like Priscilla. She deserves a cultured East Coast gentleman, not a cowboy who's haunted by memories of his mistakes. The best thing he can do is leave her alone.

When necessity draws them together, Priscilla and Zach begin to forge a life that, like the scattered petals of her childhood, is filled with promise. But then the past intrudes, threatening their very existence.

My Thoughts:
There's something about arranged or "convenient" marriages that makes for a great story. Without fail, it's always fun to watch the aftermath of these situations as two people slowly fall in love with each other, in the midst of their marriage. In this case Priscilla's trauma adds a unique twist to the typical situation, as she can't stand the thought of a man's touch--not even something as little as holding hands--for fear of the horrific memories it evokes.

Generally I don't pick up books that involve a woman being assaulted, simply because I prefer to read lighter fare... In this case I had previously purchased the whole Texas Dreams series based solely on the synopsis of the first book, so I didn't really know what I had here until I started reading. Though I was initially hesitant, I quickly found myself caught up in Priscilla's drama, wondering how she would manage to pick up the shattered pieces of her life.

The story touches on--and in many cases actually revolves around--some pretty tough issues, but it's handled very tactfully. The author presents the raw matters with realism, yet keeps certain details vague enough to prevent the content from being too edgy.

If there's one thing I didn't care for, it would have to be Jean-Michael and the small sections of story written from his perspective. Admittedly, I never have much sympathy or affection for villains, but I can't help feeling that his character was a bit one dimensional. His thoughts alternated between revenge and pride over his (supposedly) high intellect, and that was pretty much the extent of his character.

Despite a semi-annoying villain, ultimately I'm glad to have read this novel. Priscilla's story is a difficult one, but it's very intriguing to watch as she slowly heals and pieces together a new life. Zach is very kind in his consideration for Priscilla, and even though it makes things difficult, he is always mindful of her fear of men. They both have deep wounds from the past, but together they slowly help each other heal, without even realizing it. It's these two characters and their slow-but-steady relationship that made this my favorite book in the Texas Dreams trilogy. Recommended!

My Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Paper Roses by Amanda Cabot

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Her future stretched out like the clear blue Texas sky. But a storm is coming.

Leaving the past behind in Philadelphia, mail-order bride Sarah Dobbs arrives in San Antonio ready to greet her groom--a man she has never met but whose letters, her paper roses, have won her heart from afar. But there is a problem--Austin Canfield is dead, and Sarah cannot go back East.

As Sarah tries to reconcile herself to a future that is drastically changed, Austin's brother Clay wants nothing more than to shake the Texas dust from his boots, but first he must find his brother's killer. And then there's Sarah. 

Something is blooming out in the vast Texas landscape that neither Clay nor Sarah is ready to admit, and the promise of redemption blows like a gentle breeze through the prairie grasses.

My Thoughts:
This is a comfy historical read with some unique plot ideas and creative situations. I was immediately intrigued by the story, watching as Sarah is thrown into an unimaginable situation. Being a mail order bride would be hard enough, but arriving at your destination and finding that your groom-to-be is dead...I can't even imagine being in Sarah's shoes!

Sarah is likeable enough, but I admit that I had a difficult time liking Clay, as his revengeful attitude simply isn't the type of thing that draws me to a character. Eventually he did start to grow on me, especially after he was able to let go of his anger... but I still felt he was just "okay"; I couldn't get overly excited about him. I did find his medical career interesting, but unfortunately there wasn't much time spent exploring that aspect of his character.

The writing overall is good, but there's one thing that struck me as slightly odd. Towards the end Clay reveals a secret to Sarah, a connection between them that existed even before they first met. It's difficult to discuss without spoilers, but suffice it to say that I expected Sarah to be excited about the news, yet instead she was very calm--almost indifferent--despite the fact that it should've been a surprising revelation. I had been anticipating this scene, but I ended up being disappointed as Sarah's reaction seemed slightly out of character and ultimately made the scene fall a bit flat.

Despite my nit-picking, the story did keep me entertained while reading. It has some unique plot lines that I found rather interesting... but looking back on the story as a whole, I don't feel that it really "stands out" in the crowded historical genre. That's not to say it's not good--the story is solid--but it just didn't "wow" me. (I do actually feel that it would be a great candidate for a Hallmark movie, though!) Paper Roses is an adequate beginning to the Texas Dreams trilogy, and having already read the latter books, I can positively say the trilogy gets even stronger as it continues.

My Rating: 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Speak Now by Chautona Havig

Book Title and Synopsis:
They met at a wedding and his children stole her heart. What started as a polite dance at the reception initiated a whirlwind romance. He admires her heart–not to mention her beauty. She feels more comfortable with him than anyone she’s ever met.

Their chemistry–so intense that they can’t risk affection. Their temptation threshold is simply too narrow to risk.

Cara has a unique talent for making anyone feel at ease. Jonathan prefers to listen rather than speak.

But some things must be spoken–never assumed.

My Thoughts:
Speak Now explores the subject of temptation within a relationship, as noted in the Author's Note at the beginning of the book. The attraction between Cara and Jonathan is so powerful that they scarcely touch at all; it's even too risky for them to hold hands. It's a difficult and fairly uncommon topic for a Christian novel to tackle, but I was impressed by how tactfully it was handled. The characters sort of dance around the issue, both with their actions and words, which works to keep things level and mild despite the intense attraction between them. The dialogue is kept vague when needed; what is left unsaid is sometimes just as significant as the actual spoken words.

Cara and Jonathan connect on a level that is nearly unheard of, almost to the point of reading each others thoughts. Their "wordless" conversations are charming, although a few times this made it a bit difficult for me to follow the dialogue. For the most part I enjoyed watching their interactions as they spent time together and worked to build a relationship, despite not knowing if a future together was feasible or not. The conversations often have a flirty vibe, more so than I would expect in a new relationship, but it's still fun. However, I do confess to being a bit weirded out when one of them would just stare at the other for minutes on end...I felt like it was a visual undressing. I understand it goes along with the intense attraction plot, but it still just kind of creeped me out a bit.

The main thing that I'm hesitant about came in the latter part of the story, when Cara and Jonathan's relationship starts to move quickly towards permanent commitment, despite the fact that they've only known each other for a few months. Yes, sometimes a short amount of time is all it takes, but in this case Cara and Jonathan's rush to be married stems from the difficulty of their "no-touching" policy, and their desire to be able to touch without the fear of things sinfully going too far. Even though they seemed to really connect and understand each other, I couldn't help but wonder what might happen later on in their marriage, after the intense attraction between them tones down.

Overall, I found this book to be very unique; I can't remember ever reading anything quite like it. I do prefer to see characters get to know each other for a longer period before tying the knot, but the nature of the story simply didn't allow for that....and ultimately, those circumstances are what made the story unique. It's not the way I'd want my personal life to go, however I really did enjoy the unique angle and spin on the typical romance story.

My Rating: 4 stars

Thanks to the author for providing me with an ebook review copy.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin

Book Cover and Synopsis:
The World's Fair - Chicago, 1893.

It seems a perfect backdrop for what Violet Hayes longs to experience: a little mystery, a little romance.

To be honest, it is more than a little mystery. She schemed her way to Chicago to discover the mother she barely remembered. As for romance well, with the help of her grandmother and three great aunts, that is coming along nicely as well perhaps too well. Each of her relatives including her saintly grandmother seems to have a separate agenda for her.

In the course of a summer, Violet's world will open wide before her eyes. But in the wake of discovery, she must find a way to determine which path and which man will ultimately be the right lifetime choice for her.

My Thoughts:
This novel is jam packed with all sorts of great stuff! Interesting people, engaging circumstances, and an awesome historical setting (Chicago, 1893). The leading lady, Violet, is amusing and has a very vivid personality; she is spunkier than the average 19th century lady, but this is what makes her--and the story--so much fun.

It's quite interesting to wander around historic Chicago with Violet as she goes on various outings. Feeding the poor in the slums of town, marching in a women's suffrage rally, and even having tea with the city's socialites, Violet experiences all this and more, guided by her grandmother and three great aunts who each wish to involve Violet in their personal agendas.

I enjoyed observing Violet's interactions with all four of her prospective suitors. Each man is completely different, and it's interesting and often humorous to see Violet's reactions to them. I particularly enjoyed Violet's relationship with Silas, unconventional though he is. All the evidence points to him being a thief, someone she should have no contact with, yet she finds him oddly compelling and harbors no fear of him. In fact, Silas's "underworld" connections actually come in handy as Violet attempts to search out information on her long-lost mother.

Ferris Wheel at the World's Fair - Chicago 1893
The 1893 World's Fair is quite a wonder, and the author excels at bringing the setting to life in vivid color. Violet has the opportunity to visit the fair several times, and each time a different aspect of it is presented. I was completely charmed by the first Ferris Wheel, and the other various exhibits are also intriguing and give a compelling look at the social issues and "modern" inventions of the late 19th century.

There are so many different layers and aspects to the plot that a review can hardly do it justice while refraining from spoilers; it's truly amazing how much content is covered in the course of the story. Even though there's a fairly large amount of characters, each one is very fleshed out and "real", with lots of depth and detail to their personality. I quite enjoyed the story, and even though the end was satisfying, I still find myself wishing there were a sequel. If you're looking for a great historical read, I would highly recommend this one!

My Rating: 5 stars