Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: Christmas Roses by Amanda Cabot

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Celia Anderson doesn't need anything for Christmas except a few more boarders, which are hard to come by in this small mining town. She certainly doesn't have a husband on her Christmas wish list. But when a wandering carpenter finds lodging at her boarding house, she admits that she might remarry if she found the right man--the kind of man who would bring her roses for Christmas. It would take a miracle to get roses during a harsh Wyoming winter. But Christmas, after all, is the time for miracles . . .

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This is a sweet historical romance novella. The short length makes it ideal for reading during the busy holiday season, while the pacing and character development actually make it seem more like a full length novel. This is a win-win scenario!

I really liked both Celia and Mark, the two main characters. I do admit that it seemed like Celia had too many men chasing after her, but this didn't dampen my enjoyment of the story. The relationship development between Celia and Mark was done very well and didn't seem rushed at all. Mark's difficult past had left him emotionally scared, but I greatly appreciated how it was shown that the hard times were necessary to bring him to where he was ultimately meant to be.

The story takes place in the later part of the year, but it's not completely centered around Christmas. I feel it would be fine to read at any time of the year, but if you're like me, you'll probably want to read it at Christmas anyway. :) Though I don't think the story will be very memorable for me in the long run, I did enjoy it and it's one of the better Christmas stories I've read this year.

My Rating: 4 stars

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Christmas Project by Amanda Hamm

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Hartford is full of small-town Christmas traditions and Gaby Bryant puts herself in the center of all of them. She loves Christmas and she loves things that stay the same. She spends most of the season engaged in one project after another, all intended to squeeze joy and beauty into the holiday. The fact that her friend Owen only reluctantly joins her preparations somehow adds to her fun.

But this year Owen has a project of his own. He wants to convince Gaby that not all change is bad and that if she’d stop thinking of him as “only” a friend, Christmas could be a whole lot merrier.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
I'm a sucker for a cute Christmas story, and while it's true they're a dime a dozen, this one is better than most of what's out there. It has a cute factor that's fun, but it's not over the top cheesy like many are. It stays grounded with the humorous realistic scenarios that are mixed in, such as Owen's extreme aversion to glittery decorations. (I have an Uncle who is even worse about glitter!)

I really liked the apartment building setting, with Gaby and Owen being next door neighbors on their floor. Their habit of often eating or watching tv together in the evenings was cute, and it really displayed the closeness of their friendship. Of course the "friends-turning-into-something-more" angle is fairly common, but it's one that I like and never get tired of--providing it's done well. This one is pretty good, and it's actually better than many I've recently read. Though they both wonder about the other's feelings, they don't spend pages and pages obsessively analyzing things. (Yay!) The sneaky Christmas-themed test that one of them comes up with to test the other's feelings is really cute and creative, and surprisingly the scene didn't turn out at all like I expected.

Overall, Gaby's love of all things Christmas is pretty fun, and I was quite amused how she continually tried to sneak Christmas decorations into Owen's decoration-free apartment. Though I do think I liked the other books in the Hartford series slightly better, I still enjoyed this one and was sad to leave the characters when the (neatly wrapped up) end came. Though it's part of a series, it stands alone perfectly fine. It's really a cute Christmas romance, and very clean as well. I'm glad to have read it, and I can easily recommend it if you're looking for a cute and clean Christmas story.

My Rating: 4 stars

Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: The Wishing Season by Denise Hunter

Book Cover and Synopsis:
She daydreams of whipping up sauces and souffles in her own restaurant. His heart is set on helping foster children. Both dreams are at stake. So are their hearts.

With grand plans to open her own bed & breakfast in Chapel Springs, PJ McKinley can't afford the most crucial part: the brick and mortar. But when the owner of a local historic home announces a contest and promises her property to the worthiest candidate, PJ makes a fervent wish and tosses her name into the hat.

Cole Evans is cool, confident, and successful, but he'll never forget his roots. He's thankful for how far he's come and knows his life could have turned out drastically different. If he can win the stately old mansion, he'll turn it into a home for children aging out of the foster system.

When the eccentric house owner narrows the entries down to only two applicants, she extends the contest, giving PJ and Cole one year to prove which one of them can make the best use of her beloved home. As the pair competes in close proximity, something deeper than rivalry sparks between PJ and Cole. And in this battle, they're likely to lose their hearts.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
I really liked PJ and her extremely talkative personality. I couldn't help but grin at some of her rambling speeches which were most prevalent when she got nervous. Considering her profession as a chef, I really appreciated that she didn't seem uppity about her tastes or knowledge, and the dishes she prepared, though fancy, weren't things I'd never heard of. Usually when chefs are in novels I find there is too much fancy terminology used, but that was not the case with PJ at all. She is very down-to-earth and easy to relate to, despite having refined tastes.

I also really liked Cole, and I felt so bad for the things he went through as a child. At the same time, I also sort of wanted to slap some sense into him and tell him that the things he blamed himself for weren't valid... BUT, nevertheless I did still like him. The work he did with the older foster kids was awesome, and it serves to shine a light on an important issue that is often overlooked or forgotten.

The book title and cover design initially gave me the impression that it would be a Christmas or winter centered story, but that's not really the case. The story covers the span of about one year, so while winter is included, it plays no larger part than any other season. The story is appropriate to read at any time of the year, so don't let the cute snowy cover image hold you back. 

Something I thought was unique was how one of the major relationship conflicts was resolved in an untraditional manner, with a third party getting involved to try to fix the issues. Often times novels with a large romantic element seem very cookie-cutter in their flow, but this angle brought a unique feel to the resolution of the story that I really liked.

Denise Hunter certainly doesn't shy away from the hard issues, but I really admire how she weaves everything together. The inclusion of difficult and touchy topics gives a very realistic atmosphere, while the grace with which they're handled keeps things from feeling overly gritty. Her characters are flawed with past mistakes--some larger than others--that makes them very easy to relate to and sympathize with. Though "The Wishing Season" doesn't top the previous Chapel Springs book (Dancing With Fireflies, which is one of my all-time favorite novels), it's still a very solid story with a good message and high entertainment value. I can easily recommend it if you are looking for a good read!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: Buttermilk Sky by Jan Watson

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Weary of the expectations imposed on her by her strict upbringing, eighteen-year-old Mazy Pelfrey prepares to leave her home in the Kentucky mountains for the genteel city of Lexington, where she'll attend secretarial school. She knows her life is about to change--and only for the better. Everything will be blue skies from now on. But business school is harder than she thought it would be and the big city not as friendly, until she meets a charming young man from a wealthy family, Loyal Chambers. When Loyal sets his sights on her, Mazy begins to see that everything she'd ever wished to have is right before her eyes. The only hindrance to her budding romance is a former beau, Chanis Clay, the young sheriff she thought she'd left firmly behind. Danger rumbles like thunder on a high mountain ridge when Mazy's cosseted past collides with her clouded future and forces her to come to terms with what she really wants.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Mazy is in a clique of girls headed up by the sterotypical "mean girl", who directs and manipulates many things to go in her favor. Mazy doesn't quite fit into the group of girls and she sometimes questions their actions, but unfortunately she generally goes along with what they do anyway. While I liked seeing Mazy question their behavior, I was kind of disappointed that she never took a big stand on her feelings. All the girls are in the same secretarial classes, and I do admit that I liked the typing class details and the different methods used to teach, such as blacking out the keys to force your memory of the letter positions, etc.

The story alternates the point of view between Mazy and Chanis, the sheriff from Mazy's hometown. Chanis's storyline mainly revolves around him dealing with different problems that he encounters in his job as town Sheriff. The situations are kind of strange, and I had the feeling that the author was trying to make them seem quirky.... but to me it just felt like it was trying "too hard" and came off as unrealistic and slightly irritating. 

By far, the most interesting part of the story was the character of Cinnamon Spicer, the homeless girl who Mazy makes an acquaintance with. Her tactics of picking through trash and selling what she found as a way of supporting herself was really intriguing to me. Unfortunately, Cinnamon wasn't really a main character--which was a shame--but the part she did have was very good. I could easily see her starring in her own story.

Overall, I have to say that it really didn't seem like the story as a whole went anywhere. For being a full length novel, not all that much happened, and what did happen was just sort of average and not extremely intriguing or out of the ordinary. It was fairly obvious that Mazy would end up with Chanis, but this always bothered me because there didn't seem to be any spark between them at all. In light of this, the ending wasn't all that satisfying for me. However, at that point I was ready to be done with the story regardless. Ultimately the story isn't really "bad", but it just doesn't have anything to make it stand out at all.

My Rating: 3 stars

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Lizzy & Jane by Katherine Reay

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Lizzy and Jane never saw eye to eye. But when illness brings them together, they discover they may be more like Austen’s famous sisters after all.

Lizzy was only a teenager when her mother died of cancer. Shortly after, Lizzy fled from her home, her family, and her cherished nickname. After working tirelessly to hone her gift of creating magic in the kitchen, Elizabeth has climbed the culinary ladder to become the head chef of her own New York restaurant, Feast. But as her magic begins to elude her, Paul, Feast’s financial backer, brings in someone to share her responsibilities and her kitchen. So Elizabeth flees again.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with her gift, Elizabeth returns home. But her plans are derailed when she learns that her estranged sister, Jane, is battling cancer. Elizabeth surprises everyone—including herself—when she decides to stay in Seattle and work to prepare healthy, sustaining meals for Jane as she undergoes chemotherapy. She also meets Nick and his winsome son, Matt, who, like Elizabeth, are trying to heal from the wounds of the past.

As she tends to Jane's needs, Elizabeth's powers begin to return to her, along with the family she left behind so long ago. Then Paul tries to entice her back to New York, and she is faced with a hard decision: stay and become Lizzy to her sister’s Jane, or return to New York and the life she worked so hard to create?

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Food, family, and relationships are ultimately at the heart of this novel, which shows the often overlooked link between the three subjects. Elizabeth's relationship with her father and sister is not comfortable nor easy, but the occasional rawness of it struck me as being highly realistic. Very real and very hard, yes, but nevertheless I think it's very true to life for some people in the midst of such difficult circumstances.

In addition to the family relationships there is also a romantic thread in the story, though it's not immediately introduced or obvious. I don't want to give any spoilers so I won't name names, but I will say that I liked how the relationship was approached--in spite of Elizabeth's time restraints--and it was quite interesting to watch it bloom.

I really admired the idea that Elizabeth could modify foods and think up flavors that would be palatable for someone with messed-up taste buds. This aspect was very cool and unique, and it felt appropriate considering her family history and profession. I admit that some of the fancy food names and descriptions went over my head--which was sometimes irritating--but they did seem spot-on for the knowledge a chef should have.

Though the novel is published in the Christian fiction genre, the overall religious elements are actually fairly minimal. Elizabeth and a couple other characters are searching, trying to figure out what they believe in the midst of life's struggles, but there isn't really a definitive gospel message. I had the impression their mother may have had faith, but as for Elizabeth and Jane, I'm really not sure. Regardless of all that, the novel is still appropriate for a Christian audience and has a good message.

Overall, the story is extremely well written and I enjoyed it for the most part, though it didn't give me the "wow!" feeling that Dear Mister Knightley (the author's first novel) did. The story is not one that I'd normally pick up--my love for Dear Mister Knightley wouldn't let me pass it by!--but I'm ultimately glad I had the chance to read it as it really is quite good. Even though I didn't always agree with Elizabeth's actions I did want to see a happy ending for her, and the author delivered this quite nicely even while taking a detour that I didn't expect. The author is still firmly on my favorite list, and I'm anxiously awaiting her next release.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: The Ride of Her Life by Lorna Seilstad

Book Cover and Synopsis:
She's planted firmly on solid ground.
He's ready to sweep her off her feet.

The only man pragmatic Lilly Hart needs in her life is a six-year-old. Widowed for three years, Lilly has decided to leave the home of her intrusive in-laws to stand on her own. However, her in-laws find her new life as a cook at Lake Manawa utterly unsuitable for their grandson. When an argument ensues, a handsome stranger--who designs roller coasters, of all things--intercedes on her behalf. But Lilly is not about to get involved with any man, especially this cocky gentleman. Little does she know she is about to begin the ride of her life. 

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
The roller coaster detail is what originally drew me to this novel, especially since it's such a unique thing for the time period. The story covers the entire building process of the coaster and also sees it up and running, but fortunately the plot doesn't get bogged down by anything overly technical.

Though I enjoyed the story, I often had a vague feeling that something was missing. I'm not quite sure what it was, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that the relationship angle just seemed fairly average...there wasn't much that made it pop or stand out. However, I did like the idea that Nick first became friends with Lilly's son, and from that simple friendship his relationship with Lilly herself slowly started grow.

I admit that I grew a bit weary of the "villains" who were out to mess up Lilly's living situation...but in all honestly, there's not many literary villains that I do like. In this case it's Lilly's scheming in-laws that fill the position. Though I didn't care for the storyline that centered around them, I did like how their first few plans were unsuccessful and ultimately in the end they were defeated, in more ways than one. 

As for the cover image...I love the photo and design, but unfortunately I don't feel that it completely fits the story. Lilly, in her stubbornness, constantly refuses to ride the roller coaster(which I found very annoying), and to my eye that isn't necessarily what the cover image conveys. BUT, even with my misgivings...I still can't help but like the look of the cover.

Having now read the entire Lake Manawa trilogy, I think my favorite is probably the second book...though the others certainly have merit and are worth checking out. I'm not sure the characters featured in "The Ride of Her Life" will ultimately stick with me very long, however the early roller coaster details alone makes the book worth looking into, especially for fans of amusement parks and rides.

My Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: A Great Catch by Lorna Seilstad

Book Cover and Synopsis:
It is the beginning of a new century at Lake Manawa Resort in Iowa, but some things never change. When 22-year-old Emily Graham's meddlesome aunts and grandmother take it upon themselves to find her a husband among the resort guests, the spunky suffragist is determined to politely decline each and every suitor. She has neither the time nor the need for a man in her busy life.

Carter Stockton, a recent college graduate and pitcher for the Manawa Owls baseball team, intends to enjoy every minute of the summer at Lake Manawa, Iowa, before he is forced into the straitlaced business world of his father.

When Emily crashes into Carter at a roller skating rink, neither could guess what would come next. Will Carter strike out? Or will Emily cast her vote for a love that might cost her dreams?

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
Stories that have the heroine under the watch of older female relatives are always a recipe for fun, and this one is certainly no exception. Emily gets all sorts of unwanted advice, grief, and commentary on every aspect of her life from her grandmother and two eccentric aunts. They're all so different but they play off each other really well, ultimately creating some humorously awkward conversations and scenarios.

I thought it was fun how Carter took Emily to such non traditional places for their dates, such as the shooting range and bowling alley. Given the era these were somewhat odd choices, yet very much appropriate in light of Emily's suffrage work and her opinion that "women can do anything men can". Emily's clumsiness is slightly overdone and pops up at the most expected--and sometimes unexpected--times, but I really didn't mind because the resulting situations were just so amusing!

The storyline in general is very unique, especially with the baseball angle thrown into the mix. I was really quite enthralled for a while, but when the age-old "required conflict to drive the characters apart" came along, I lost interest somewhat. I was disappointed that Emily didn't have more trust in Carter.... and as for Carter himself, I thought he gave up too easily after having so doggedly pursued Emily earlier on. I realize these sorts of conflicts are basically required for a story to work, but for some reason the peak of this conflict just didn't sit quite right with me.

Overall, I did enjoy the story (especially the first half), but I was also ready to see the end when it eventually came. For me, it lost a bit of momentum when the conflict arose and it ultimately never quite found its way back. Nevertheless, the story really is a cute one and has a lot of unique elements. (I actually liked it better than the first book in the series!) The Lake Manawa setting is a good one, and it's a great place for a series--as the author has obviously realized. Despite my minor nit-picking, I'm looking forward to reading the final book in the series and seeing what it has to offer.

My Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Making Waves by Lorna Seilstad

Book Cover and Synopsis:
When spunky Marguerite Westing discovers that her family will summer at Lake Manawa in 1895, she couldn't be more thrilled. It is the perfect way to escape her agonizingly boring suitor, Roger Gordon. It's also where she stumbles upon two new loves: sailing, and sailing instructor Trip Andrews. But this summer of fun turns to turmoil as her father's gambling problems threaten to ruin the family forever. Will free-spirited Marguerite marry Roger to save her father's name and fortune? Or will she follow her heart--even if it means abandoning the family she loves? 

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
Making Waves is a lot of fun in most regards, with Marguerite as the spunky heroine. She doesn't let tradition dictate her actions, and she's willing to plot and scheme to work around society's expectations of a lady in order to get what she wants.

I was amused and impressed by the creativity behind Marguerite's scheme to learn the art of sailing. Most captains wouldn't even let a female on board their sailboat in 1895, so obviously teaching one how to sail was completely out of the question. Because of the circumstances I expected that Marguerite would end up disguising herself as a man, but she actually did nothing of the kind. And that's all I'll say because I don't want to spoil it!

At first I wasn't sure that I was going to like Trip (Marguerite's "sort-of" sailing instructor), but he quickly grew on me. I did think he was sometimes a bit hard on Marguerite, though this can mostly be attributed to some issues in his past. Something that I thought was kind of cool was when Marguerite mentally compared Trip to her "boring" suitor, one of the (many) large contrasts she noticed was the fact that Trip actually prayed and had a relationship with God. Though just a small part of the story, to me this bit was pretty powerful.

Though I overall enjoyed the story, I do admit there were some things that irked me. Mainly, the fact that Marguerite wouldn't get rid of the "boring" suitor that her parents pushed her towards. This seemed to go against her otherwise spunky personality, and in fact her personal maid (who is also her close friend) even commented on this. I really just wanted Marguerite to ditch the guy, but in reality this was the basis for most of the conflict so I do admit that it was essential to the plot.

Despite my dislike of the "boring" suitor, ultimately things turned out well and the ending is one that I think most readers will approve of, much as I did. "Making Waves" is the first in the Lake Manawa trilogy, and I was ultimately entertained enough that I've already started in on the second book in the series. Obviously, I wouldn't hesitate to read another of the author's books! :)

My Rating: 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 stars.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Playing by Heart by Anne Mateer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Lula Bowman has finally achieved her dream: a teaching position and a scholarship to continue her college education in mathematics. But when she receives a shocking telephone call from her sister, Jewel, everything she's worked for begins to crumble.

After the sudden death of Jewel's husband, Jewel needs Lula's help. With a heavy heart, Lula returns to her Oklahoma hometown to do right by her sister. But the only teaching job available in Dunn is combination music instructor/basketball coach. Neither subject belongs anywhere near the halls of academia, according to Lula!

Lula commits to covering the job for the rest of the school year, determined to do well and prove herself to the town. Reluctantly, she turns to the boys' coach, Chet, to learn the game of basketball. Chet is handsome and single, but Lula has no plans to fall for a local boy. She's returning to college as soon as she gets Jewel back on her feet.

However, the more time she spends in Dunn, the more Lula realizes God is working on her heart--and her future is beginning to look a lot different than she'd expected.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Though I'm not a big sports fan, I found it quite amusing that Lula was appointed coach for the girls basketball team despite the fact that she didn't know anything about the game! It was interesting to see her slowly learn the basics and play "coach" to the girls who knew more about the game than she did.

I really liked both Lula and Chet as the main characters, but the will-they-or-won't-they relationship angle went back and forth a couple more times than I would've preferred. I grew a little weary of them both pushing the other away for various "noble" reasons, all the while failing to communicate on the issue which ultimately made it seem like a complete rejection. I really wanted their communication to be better, and in the end I wasn't entirely convinced they knew each other well enough to make a commitment.

The regulations for female teachers of this era seem much more strict than for the men, and while I found this rather unfair I also suspect that it's likely a very realistic portrayal of the issue. I really liked seeing Lula sort of innocently buck the extreme rules, and the outcome was one that I truly didn't expect.

For those who want a happy ending (and who doesn't, right!?), the story does have one, though it took a detour that I hoped it wouldn't. Regardless of that, what sticks in my mind the most is Lula's shining moment towards the end, which I thought was quite fun and also a nice nod to her efforts to learn the game of basketball. 

Undeniably the story has some very unique plot elements and an overall good message, but honestly it's not my favorite novel from the author. ("Wings of a Dream" holds that honor.) While this one is generally entertaining, it just didn't have a "wow" factor for me. Though it's well written and seems realistic, ultimately I don't think the characters or their story will stay with me very long now that I've reached the end. Still, if the synopsis sounds appealing to you at all, I'd say go for it. It's a very solid "good" story, but just not "great".

My Rating: 3 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Bethany House) for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Marcus & Lyric by Corinna M. Dominy

Book Cover and Synopsis:
When Marcus Coulter put an ad in the newspaper seeking a roommate, never did he imagine meeting Lyric Bell. Her appearance at his apartment for applicant interviews wasn't the only surprise. She showed up disheveled and looking like she carried a great burden. Before he even knows what he's doing, he offers to let her move in.

Lyric Bell knows that Marcus is a said so in his ad. Otherwise, she wouldn't dare go to interview as a roommate with a stranger, but she's desperate. He might be her only saving grace and she needs sanctuary from her very real and present danger.

Even as Marcus takes his perceived responsibility to protect Lyric without question, she keeps a secret hidden, terrified that if he knew, he would send her back to the world she so desperately needed to escape.

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This story tackles the interesting issue of a single Christian guy having a single (and unrelated) female roommate. It's a touchy topic, but the uniqueness of it is actually what drew me to the story as I was curious to see how it would be handled.

The story is told from both Lyric's and Marcus's point of view, switching back and forth between them quite often. This does give you the opportunity to know how both characters are feeling almost simultaneously, but the amount of switches also seemed a bit awkward to me at times. 

I really liked Lyric's name as it's somewhat unique but not overly so. Unfortunately, as for Lyric herself, I had a hard time connecting with her. Her thought patterns are so repetitive that I became rather annoyed with her. Her background is rough, and this causes her to constantly think thoughts along the lines of "I'm not good enough" in regards to her personal relationships. Over and over she has these thoughts, and despite the fact that it's a central part of the story, I still grew weary of the repetitiveness of it.

The writing itself is doesn't have the feel of coming from a large publishing house, but it is very readable and is not filled with typos (I only saw a few). Some of the dialogue and character actions struck me as slightly unrealistic, but not unbearably so.

I'm hesitant to give a rating of only 2-stars because I know a lot of work goes into writing a story. And ultimately, I really do like the idea of the overall plot... but I honestly think it would be much stronger in a novella form with a tighter pace. If shortened, the repetitiveness of Lyric's thoughts could be largely decreased which would be a major boon. As it is, I did read the entire book.... but I was anxious to reach the end--and very glad when I did--so that I could move on to something else.

My Rating: 2 stars

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: All's Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Katherine 'Kat' Varland is a small town girl, born and raised---and every day, her dreams of owning her own bakery get further away. She has no money, and the cupcake shop she bakes for, Sweetie Pies, seems to get smaller and smaller. Kat might be the sweetheart of Bayou Bend, Louisiana, but she longs to make a name for herself where she can flourish as Kat---not as the girl baking someone else's recipes.

As head coach for the Bayou Bend championship high school football team, Lucas Brannen is used to winning---everything except his best friend's heart. He finally gathers the courage to make a gesture and show Kat his feelings by signing her up for the popular reality TV show Cupcake Combat. But his plan backfires after he realizes the cash prize for the winner also includes a one-year baking contract at one of New York City's most famous pastry houses.

The situation grows sticky when Kat enlists Lucas's help as her baking assistant for the show. Lucas is torn between helping Kat live her dream and selfishly wanting to keep her in town. His plan has always been a dozen acres of land and a farmhouse in Bayou Bend---but Kat is blinded by the stars in her eyes.

Will Lucas and Kat risk their chance at love in order to achieve their individual dreams? Or will they find that sometimes the most delicious happily-ever-afters begin and end in the same place?

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
The synopsis for this one sounded like a lot of fun, but unfortunately it fell short of my hopeful expectations. I gotta say, it struck me as being quite repetitive. Kat and Lucas both have feelings for each other, but their near debilitating fear of the feelings not being mutual causes them both to keep quiet, despite often having moments that seem to go beyond "just friends". The point of view switches back and forth between Kat and Lucas, and their inner thoughts often feel extremely repetitive as they analyze every experience and continually examine the reasons why a romantic relationship may or may not work between them.

Towards the beginning I was able to see the potential for a romance between Kat and Lucas, but as the book progressed it seemed that they bickered and got in arguments more often than not. Their squabbles were mostly the result of a complete lack of communication about their feelings, but it seemed there was a dash of cluelessness that contributed as well, especially on Kat's part. For me, the bickering got rather old and the amount of times it happened again brings up my previous statement about it feeling repetitive.

The cupcake reality show was somewhat interesting, though it was basically what we've all come to expect from these types of shows: challenges and eliminations, and of course a couple of contestants who attempt to sabotage everyone else. In all fairness though, it did have a unique twist by including a look at some troubling politics that went on behind-the-scenes. This was an interesting touch, and it makes me wonder if that sort of manipulation is common in reality or not. I have to believe that it does happen at least on occasion, which makes the twist in the story all the more provoking.

The story idea is really cute in theory, and at different times (especially during the cupcake challenges) I often thought it had potential to make a fun Hallmark movie. But in all honesty, I feel the book would be much stronger in a shorter form--such as a novella--which would ideally cut out the majority of the repetitive back and forth stuff between Kat and Lucas. Though I was involved enough to want to see how things would turn out, I was ultimately glad when the end came so I could move on to something else. I don't doubt that the story will appeal to some, but unfortunately I just couldn't click with it.

My Rating: 3 stars

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: Grace Alive by Natasha House

Heart of Grace, #1
Book Cover and Synopsis:
Meet Zoe Reed. She is 26, unmarried, and still living with her parents. She works at a lame craft store, where she feels like her life has become one giant disappointment. She's waiting for Mr. Right, yet having never been on a date—let alone kissed a man—she wonders if he will ever come. When Branson Tate and his three kids stumble into her life, she finds the breathtaking man to be exactly opposite of what her parents want for her. He’s not a virgin, has a crazy past, and three children to prove it. Even still, the moment Branson asks her out for coffee, she hears God tell her to go, and her life begins to flip upside down.

My source for book: Personal Library 
My Thoughts:
Not having any prior experience with this author, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immediately pulled into the story and entertained right from the first page. I really liked Zoe as she's very easy to relate to and has an amusing personality. Her job at the weird craft store, in combination with her sarcastic tendencies and frank thoughts, makes for some very humorous moments! Her struggle to follow God's will is very interesting, in light of the fact that her parents are telling--practically demanding--her to do exactly the opposite of what she feels God wants. 

Branson's past contains some of the worst stuff possible--from a human perspective, at least--and though I was initially shocked, I actually really liked the boldness that the author showed in giving him such a sordid past, thereby displaying the extremity of God's forgiveness and love, and the power it has to change even the darkest of lives. I liked how Branson was such a nice guy and so awesome with his kids--completely different than you would expect him to be, considering his past. His kids added some cute moments to the story, and the sub-plot concerning Branson's dual-custody of them was quite interesting; I actually wish a bit more time would have been devoted to it.

Much of the plot revolves around law vs grace, and while it's appropriate in the context of the story, it does come off a bit preachy. There's quite a bit of God speaking to people throughout, though not necessarily audibly. Much of this I thought was really cool, liked when Zoe would know God was encouraging her to blindly do the right thing in the midst of a difficult situation... but at other times it was just a bit too much and felt unrealistic. I'm not here to debate the theological aspects, but I will say that both the "law" and the "grace" sides are depicted as fairly extreme, and those in the "grace" camp struck me as being somewhat charismatic. 

The story started out extremely strong for me, but as it progressed I become less enthused. It's hard to discuss without giving spoilers (which I won't do), but I can safely say that a few things--the situation with Zoe's Dad, in particular--took some turns that were rather unpleasant. I wish that situation could have been done a bit different, maybe with something not quite *so* drastic.

Overall, there really was a lot that I liked about Grace Alive--Zoe's personality and the author's writing style being at the top--but I'm still undecided if I will ultimately continue with the series or not. I kind of doubt it, though it is in the realm of possibility.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: A Cowboy Unmatched by Karen Witemeyer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Neill isn't sure who hired him to repair Clara's roof--he only knows Clara desperately needs his help. Can he convince this stubborn widow to let down her guard and take another chance on love?

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
This novella brings back characters from two of the author's previous novels (Short Straw Bride and Stealing the Preacher). Having read those books isn't necessary to enjoy this novella, though I'd say it does add to the experience. For me, it was fun to see all of the Archer brothers again, and in the process I realized just how big their storyline has ultimately become!

Karen Witemeyer generally only writes full length novels, but the shorter novella length of this one is very fitting. The plot doesn't seem rushed and it has a decent amount of time to blossom during its 13 chapters, but there's not really enough content to stretch into a full length novel. The majority of the story has very few characters in it, but I actually liked this as it allowed for a nice amount of character development despite the shorter length.

Neill is a good guy and very easy to like. And as for Clara, it's hard to not sympathize with her difficult situation. I did think the conflict was ultimately solved a bit too easily, especially for the big build-up that it had...though I liked that they ultimately did the "right" thing, rather than taking a path that would be difficult to pass up.

I don't feel the story has quite as much charm or humor as Karen's full length novels, though it's still a good read--especially for those who have previously read the other Archer books. The Archers are a unique clan, and it's nice to see Neill finally have his own story. The sad part is that this likely means we've seen the last of the Archer's...but I have no doubt Karen will come up with something just as good in the future.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Cowgirl At Heart by Christine Lynxwiler

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Elyse McCord always plays it safe -- a fact she blames on being the biological daughter of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. Even in the security of her adoptive family, the McCords, the timid dog whisperer keeps her guard up with strangers. But when she discovers a dog being horribly mistreated, she Elyse transforms into a mighty warrior and charger into a perilous situation, not only risking her life, but also her heart.

Reporter Andrew Stone has been fearless since the day his wife was shot and killed three years ago. He has one mission-use his Texas Ranger upbringing to find her murderer and clear his own name of any involvement. When he sees a beautiful brunette in the hands of a pistol-wielding maniac, he's forced to abandon his covert surveillance and go to the rescue. The danger surrounding Andrew doesn't scare him at all, but the awakening of his dormant heart terrifies him.

When painful pasts collide, the explosion is deafening. Can Andrew and Elyse pick up the pieces and go forward together? Or will they forever live with haunting memories, unable to forgive, unable to love? 

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This one immediately starts out with a bang, featuring an intense rescue scenario--with an unlikely heroine--that instantly pulled me in to the story. As you get to know Elyse, her shy nature makes it all the more amazing that she'd put herself into such an unpredictable situation. I actually really liked her and found her easy to relate to. I also liked her dogs and the work she did with them, and her tips of insight into their behavior were quite interesting. Elyse's painfully shy nature really rang true, and I thought it was pretty cool how she could so easily talk with Andrew right after first meeting him despite the fact that her shyness usually rendered her speechless around strangers!  

Andrew has a lot of secrets in his past, which makes him rather intriguing. Initially I didn't quite know what to make of him, though I immediately liked him. I thought his protectiveness of Elyse was sweet, and it was especially unique when they hadn't even put a label on their relationship. Right from the beginning Andrew and Elyse really clicked, and it was fun to see their friendship slowly grow in spite of the fact that they both held secrets that they were reluctant to reveal.

The story is ultimately about Elyse and Andrew with the point of view switching back and forth between them, but there are also small sections that revolve around Elyse's sisters, Kaleigh and Crystal. In all honesty I felt the subplots about Kaleigh and Crystal were a bit unnecessary... in particular, the story revolving around Crystal and her fiance was slightly odd because it didn't completely mesh with the ending of the previous McCord book, which featured Crystal as the main character. Despite this bit of nit-picking, I really did enjoy the story overall. Elyse and Andrew are very strong characters and they easily carry the story on their own, which is perhaps why I thought the subplots weren't necessary.

I also want to mention the cover. It's gorgeous to start with, but after you read the book it gets even better as it ultimately ties into the story in a really awesome way. Bravo to the cover design team! :)

Cowgirl At Heart is the second book in the McCord Sister series, and while you could read it as a standalone if you wanted to, it really is a bit better if you've read the previous book. I believe the series was originally planned to be a trilogy, however the third book seems to have been put on hold indefinitely. (I hope to see it released at some point as the McCord family is a fun one and there are still a lot of stories that could be told.) Despite all that, Cowgirl At Heart does end well and there are no loose ends left hanging. I very much enjoyed the story and I can easily recommend it, especially to those who love dogs or who know what it's like to be shy.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: The Reluctant Cowgirl by Christine Lynxwiler

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Elyse McCord always plays it safe -- a fact she blames on being the biological daughter of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. Even in the security of her adoptive family, the McCords, the timid dog whisperer keeps her guard up with strangers. But when she discovers a dog being horribly mistreated, she Elyse transforms into a mighty warrior and charger into a perilous situation, not only risking her life, but also her heart.

Reporter Andrew Stone has been fearless since the day his wife was shot and killed three years ago. He has one mission-use his Texas Ranger upbringing to find her murderer and clear his own name of any involvement. When he sees a beautiful brunette in the hands of a pistol-wielding maniac, he's forced to abandon his covert surveillance and go to the rescue. The danger surrounding Andrew doesn't scare him at all, but the awakening of his dormant heart terrifies him.

When painful pasts collide, the explosion is deafening. Can Andrew and Elyse pick up the pieces and go forward together? Or will they forever live with haunting memories, unable to forgive, unable to love?

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This is ultimately a story of following your heart, even if it might mean taking a path you never before imagined. Though this storyline seems common on the outside, there's something about this one that makes it feel fresh and very uncommon. The change in Crystal as the story progresses is very visible as she slowly comes to grips with her past while drawing strength from her family, their ranch, and a certain neighboring cowboy.

Jeremy's ordeal with his missing daughter was heartbreaking, and it honestly caught me off guard because I initially didn't expect such a dramatic storyline...but it was great. It felt very real and kept me riveted while wondering what would happen; I really had no idea how things might turn out. I liked how Crystal pushed Jeremy to try different approaches, basically breathing new life into what seemed like a hopeless situation. Two heads are better than one, and that was certainly the case here as they worked together to find Jeremy's long-lost young daughter.

As for the ending: it's a good one, and I was ultimately happy with the way all the different situations were wrapped up. But if you want more, it's worth noting that Crystal and Jeremy's story is taken even further in the second book of the McCord series, titled "Cowgirl At Heart". (They are large supporting characters and some sections are even written from Crystal's perspective.)

I can easily and highly recommend "The Reluctant Cowgirl" to fans of the genre. I really enjoyed it and I'm not ashamed to say that it kept me up past an ideal bedtime several times! Strangely enough, it sat unread on my shelf for several years and now I can't believe I put it off for so long. It's simply too good to sit unread!

My Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I Own The Most Books From

The topic this week is: Top Ten Authors I Own The Most Books From

I don't own a ton of paperbacks anymore since I do most of my reading on my kindle. So most of these will be counted from kindle books, though I do still "own" them in a sense. :)

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

1. Chautona Havig
I own 13 of her kindle books plus numerous "episodes" from her serial stories, but I've actually only read 4 of the books. It's all because of those free kindle sale days... I can't help but snatch things up when I see them!

2. Bonnie Blythe
I own 8 of her kindle books, but I've only read 2 of them.

3. Shanna Swendson
I have all 7 books from the "Enchanted, Inc" series. Which, by the way, is my favorite series of all time! :)

4. Christine Lynxwiler
I have 7 of her books, but I've only read 3. I really should remedy that...

5. Siri Mitchell
I have 7 of her books, and I've read them all.

6. Tracie Peterson
I have 7 of her books, but I've only read 1 of them so far.

7. Amanda Hamm
I have 6 of her books, and I've read them all!

8. Karen Witemeyer
I have 6 of her books, and I've read them all!

9. Judy Pace Christie
I have all 5 books from her "Green" series, but sadly I haven't read any of them yet.

10. Nancy Moser
I have 5 of her books, but haven't read any of them yet.

I figured this list would ultimately look similar to a list of my favorite authors, but surprisingly it actually doesn't. While some definitely are my favorites, there's others on here that I've never even read before. I seriously blame it on the free kindle sale books though. I check for freebies every day and snatch up anything I might like. It's a good thing for my wallet, but I think it's made this list slightly strange, LOL.

Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry

Book Cover and Synopsis:
When Lucinda Chapdelaine was a small child, her parents left for the royal ball and never returned. Ever since, Lucinda has been stuck in perpetual servitude at her evil aunt’s jewelry store. Then, on the very same day, a mysterious visitor and an even more bizarre piece of jewelry both enter the shop, setting in motion a string of twists and turns that will forever alter Lucinda’s path. In this magical story filled with delightful surprises, Lucinda will dance at the royal ball, fall under the Amaranth Witch’s spell, avenge her parents’ death, and maybe—just maybe—capture the heart of a prince.

My source for book: Personal Library
My Thoughts:
This one is marketed as YA fiction, but the appeal certainly isn't limited to younger readers! (I'm mid-20's and I read it!) The story has some very light Cinderella tones, and the stone/gem sort of reminded me of the ring from Lord of the Rings. (Two odd stories to pair together, for sure, but it does work rather well!) The author has some interesting ideas about other worlds, and she manages to paint an intriguing picture of these places, and of the beings--much like us, but not exactly--that live there.

Something that I really liked was the goat that acted like a dog. In my experience goats don't act anything like this, so the stark contrast to normal behavior made it unique and added to the fairy tale feel. Unless I missed something, there wasn't any explanation for the goat's intelligence or how he always managed to show up when Lucinda most needed him...but this really didn't matter. He was a fun addition, and he conveniently managed to get Lucinda out of several scrapes.

For those who are wondering about the content or appropriateness of the story: it's actually quite clean. The only possible issue I can remember is an instance where Lucinda saw some fancily-dressed ladies on the street late at night and she "realized what they were", but it was not taken any further. The language is mild overall. There were a handful of instances where God's name was misused, but otherwise I can't remember anything that might be offensive.

Though I don't think the book will be extremely memorable for me in the long run, I did enjoy it while reading it. It's not the genre that I normally read, but it actually did keep my attention without wavering. The ending is somewhat bittersweet, but overall I was fairly happy with the outcome. It features a large twist that I never saw coming, but it was ultimately good because it paved the way for a future happily-ever-after which otherwise probably wouldn't have been possible. And of course you know, happily-ever-after's are always a good thing! :)

My Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I'd Want With Me On A Deserted Island

The topic this week is "Top Ten Characters That I Would Want With Me On A Deserted Island". I'm not sure if this is supposed to be strictly book characters or not, but I'm going to go a little crazy and include tv/movie characters as well.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

1. Jack Bauer (24)
This is just an obvious choice. Anything that needs doing, he's the man to get it done. One thing's for sure: with Jack around, everyone on the island would be safe! Unless they turned out to be a traitor or something...

2. Maya Davis (from Cool Beans by Erynn Mangum)
She seems to have my exact sense of humor, and I think we'd get along really well. In a deserted island scenario, you gotta have a good friend.

3. Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1)
If there was any technology on the island, she's the one I'd want working on it. Plus, she'd also come in handy in survival scenarios.

4. Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls)
I couldn't not include a Gilmore on this list, so I chose Rory. I think she'd handle the deserted island scenario *slightly* better than Lorelai. :)


5. MacGyver
A handyman would be invaluable on a desert island, and who better to have than MacGyver!?

6. Jack Bartlett (Heartland)
Every scenario needs an older character, and Jack Bartlett is my choice for that slot. He has a lot of common sense wisdom, and a humorous way of getting his point across.

7. Elyse McCord (Cowgirl at Heart by Christine Lynxwiler)
I just finished reading this book and I really liked Elyse. I don't have any huge reason for picking her, but regardless, I'm still choosing her!

 8. Jade McKinley (Dancing With Fireflies by Denise Hunter)
Again, I don't have a solid reason for choosing her, except that I really liked her and the book is one of my favorites.

  9. Oliver O'Toole (Signed, Sealed, Delivered)
 This seems like a strange choice, but I gotta admit that some of the other characters I've chosen don't have the best moral compass. Oliver has that, and I think he'd be a great asset in that respect.

10. Jack Shepherd (LOST)
Yes, he's low on my list, but I figure that a doctor is always good to have around. And it doesn't hurt that he already has some island experience!

This was fun, but also kind of difficult. I tried to think logically, so I obviously couldn't include characters from historical stories. Yes, I admit MacGyver isn't very current compared to all my other choices. Oh well.

How well would all these random characters get along? Hard to tell, but sadly I'm afraid it probably wouldn't be good. Nevertheless, I had fun with this!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: Collecting Zebras by Amanda Hamm

FYI: The Kindle version of this book will be free on August 1st! :)

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Angel Melling is determined to find a husband. The long held goal has recently morphed into an obsession. Being the new girl in a small town does have some advantages though. Angel quickly catches the eye of several of Hartford’s eligible bachelors.

Her quest for a husband appears to be on the right track as she embarks on the most active dating of her life. But as the guys are ruled out one after another, Angel begins to fear that she’ll run out of options. Will Angel find a guy who meets all the criteria for her happily ever after?

Collecting Zebras is the third book in the Stories From Hartford series.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
I found Angel's mission to find a husband extremely entertaining. Despite the fact that she immediately sizes up almost every man she meets, it doesn't feel over-the-top at all. She has a slightly sarcastic voice and it helps that she can sort of laugh at her man-crazy thoughts, in spite of not being able to control them. Angel inwardly admits that she's glad people can't read her thoughts, but I have to say I'm glad the book is written in first person so I CAN read her thoughts because they are highly amusing.

There's actually a surprising number of guys featured in the story--more than I expected--and they all continually pop up throughout, sometimes acting humorously odd with motivations that aren't extremely clear. (Riley, I'm thinking of you!) Just when I'd think no more guys could be introduced, another one would come on the scene. All of this makes it interesting when you try to figure out ahead of time who Angel might end up with. No, the number of guys may not be completely realistic, but it is completely entertaining. Everything else is fairly realistic feeling, including the speed of small town talk and some misunderstandings about which guys are or are not married!

Collecting Zebras is the third book in the "Stories from Hartford" series, but as with all the Hartford books it works well as a standalone if you want to read just the one. As for the others, there's no required order for the series; the stories just kind of fit together in any way you choose to read them. One of the main constants in Hartford is Mabel, the cashier at the grocery store, who has appeared in every story so far. I just can't help but be amused by her good-natured way of sticking her nose into everyone's business while she rings up their groceries!

I do want to point out that the book is very clean. Even though husband hunting is a large part of the story, the content never steers into iffy or objectionable areas. This isn't that kind of story, and Angel isn't that kind of person. It's not preachy at all, but Angel does attend church and accordingly she is looking for someone who shares her beliefs.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Collecting Zebras and I was sad to see it end, though it did end very nicely. Thankfully, the next Hartford book releases later this year so it won't be too long before I can once again "visit" the town and its cast of characters.

My Rating: 5 stars

Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: TV Shows

I don't normally participate in these types of things, but from time to time the Top Ten Tuesday has some interesting topics. I thought I'd try it out this week, since the topic is an easy yet interesting one!

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

 1. Gilmore Girls

2. Stargate SG-1

3. Stargate Atlantis

4. Psych

5. Monk

6. Bones

7. White Collar

8. Heartland

9. Signed, Sealed, Delivered

10. Mysterious Ways

Of course the list isn't necessarily in any particular order. The top ones are pretty solid, but I had trouble numbering the lower half of the list. There were other contenders as well, but in the end I decided to give the love to some lesser known shows, like Mysterious Ways (which only lasted 2 seasons).

Thanks for stopping by! Comments and follows are welcome!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: A Noble Groom by Jody Hedlund

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Recently widowed Annalisa Werner has the feeling her husband was murdered but can't prove it. Alone with her young daughter in 1881 Michigan, she has six months left to finish raising the money needed to pay back the land contract her husband purchased, and the land is difficult to toil by herself. She needs a husband. With unmarried men scarce, her father sends a letter to his brother in the Old Country, asking him to find Annalisa a groom. 

For nobleman Carl von Reichert, the blade of the guillotine is his fate. He's been accused and convicted of a serious crime he didn't commit, and his only escape is to flee to a small German community in Michigan where he'll be safe. He secures a job on Annalisa's farm but bumbles through learning about farming and manual labor. 

Annalisa senses that Karl is harboring a secret about his past, yet she finds herself drawn to him anyway. He's gentle, kind, and romantic--unlike any of the men she's ever known. He begins to restore her faith in the ability to love--but her true groom is still on his way. And time is running out on them all.

My source for book: Local Library
My Thoughts:
A Noble Groom offers a nice twist on the traditional mail-order-spouse plot in that Annalisa's father essentially orders her a groom, but while waiting for the groom to arrive she develops feelings for someone else. Something that really intrigued me was the fact that Annalisa didn't have any experience with romance, flirting, or even kissing, despite the fact that she was widowed and had children. It was interesting to see her experience these things for the first time at her stage in life. Her reactions and thoughts seemed very realistic, especially considering her upbringing and the strict traditions of her community.

I enjoyed Carl's personality and the way he was able to make light of many situations. I loved how his playful and jokey comments were such a stark contrast to the serious manner of most everyone else! His views on women and relationships were also wildly different from the commonly accepted ones, but again, the contrast was great--especially considering that Carl was ultimately right. It's rare to find such a playful guy in fiction of this time period, but it was good. Very good.

Though I really did enjoy the story, I have to admit that I struggled with the first two chapters. They seemed very slow, with lots of unknown German words sprinkled in the dialogue and some political background that I had trouble following. I actually considered abandoning it, but thankfully I pressed on and soon found myself absorbed in the story as things quickly picked up. Maybe it was just me, I don't know... but regardless, it's definitely worth pushing through the first couple of chapters, as my overall 5 star rating shows!

The ending wasn't as concrete as I expected, but the large issues were all ultimately resolved. It actually struck me as being somewhat bittersweet--much like real life often is--but I was left with a mostly hopeful outlook for the characters' futures. Despite the first two chapters that I struggled with, I'm ultimately glad to have read the story. There's a lot of positive reviews out there for this one, and there's good reason for it. It's a great story, and fans of the genre won't want to miss it!

My Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Through the Deep Waters by Kim Vogel Sawyer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Born to an unloving prostitute in a popular Chicago brothel, timid seventeen-year-old Dinah Hubley was raised amidst the secrets held in every dark, grimy room of her home. Anxious to escape, Dinah pursues her dream of becoming a Harvey Girl, waiting tables along the railroad in an upscale hotel. But when she finds out she isn’t old enough, her only option is to accept a job as a chambermaid at the Clifton Hotel in Florence, Kansas. Eager to put everything behind her, Dinah feels more worthless than ever, based on a single horrible decision she made to survive.

The Clifton offers a life Dinah has never known, but blinded to the love around her, Dinah remains buried in the shame of her past. When a handsome chicken farmer named Amos Ackerman starts to show interest, Dinah withdraws further, convinced no one could want a sullied woman like her.  Despite his self-consciousness about his handicapped leg and her strange behavior, Amos resolves to show Dinah Christ’s love. But can she ever accept a gift she so desperately needs?

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Dinah's situation is a tough one, and it's something that Christian fiction doesn't often delve into. The set-up for the story is actually quite intriguing as young Dinah plots how to start a fresh new life, with her need for travel funds being at the top of her requirements. Out of desperation she makes a bad choice that brings about some uncomfortable scenes, though the author does handle them fairly well despite going into slightly more detail than I expected. (Nothing graphic, though!) It's a heartbreaking scenario--no doubt it's fairly realistic for some girls--and it does serve to open up your mind to the tragic and secret pasts that some people have.

The point-of-view switches back and forth between Dinah, Amos, and Ruthie. I liked the perspectives of Dinah and Amos, but unfortunately I found Ruthie's perspective somewhat annoying, especially in the beginning. She alternated between being overly happy and perky or being overcome with feelings of jealousy towards Dinah. Though her misjudgement and envy towards Dinah is actually realistic, overall I found it to be irksome considering the truth of Dinah's sad past. In Ruthie's defense though, I really appreciated the lesson she learned of how she needed to pursue her relationship with God in order to gain happiness, rather than pinning all her hopes on finding a husband.

I have to admit that the writing struck me as having a somewhat simple vibe. The storyline isn't simple, but the way it's written--the dialogue in particular--has a somewhat plain feeling. I've never experienced this with any of the author's other books, so I was somewhat caught off guard by it. I can't really describe it any better than I have, but something about it unfortunately made me view the characters as being slightly immature for their ages.

Though the story started out fairly strong, I felt that it began to run out of steam about half or three-quarters of the way through. In the end Dinah is forced to face her past head on, and the way it played out was a situation I saw coming long before it happened. It got so predictable that I ultimately became anxious to see the end simply so I could move on to something else. If you're a die-hard fan of Kim's writing then it's probably still worth checking this one out....but otherwise, I would recommend reading one of her other works instead. (I highly recommend My Heart Remembers or Echoes of Mercy.)

My Rating: 3 stars

Thanks to the publisher (Waterbrook) for providing me with a review copy.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Out of the Ruins by Karen Barnett

Book Cover and Synopsis:
While her sister lies on her deathbed, Abby Fischer prays for a miracle. What Abby doesn’t expect, however, is for God’s answer to come in the form of the handsome Dr. Robert King, whose experimental treatment is risky at best.

As they work together toward a cure, Abby’s feelings for Robert become hopelessly entangled. Separated by the tragedy of the mighty San Francisco earthquake, their relationship suddenly takes a back seat to survival. With fires raging throughout the city, Abby fears for her life as she flees alone through burning streets. Where is God now? Will Robert find Abby, even as the world burns around them? Or has their love fallen with the ruins of the city?

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Right from the beginning I was intrigued with these characters and their difficult situation. The then ground-breaking treatment of cancer using X-Rays is extremely interesting, and I especially enjoyed seeing things from Robert's perspective as he experimented with the new technology. His manner is very down-to-earth, despite his advanced medical knowledge, which I really liked. Abby is also very likeable and easy to identify with. Her feelings for Robert are very understandable (he is pretty great!), and this also added an interesting dynamic--sort of a forbidden vibe--considering that Abby's sister is his patient.

The story is split into two different sections, with the first section covering a span of several months, and the second covering just a couple of days, going hour by hour. Obviously, the two sections have vastly different pacing, but it actually works well and the transition between the two is smoothly done. The first section serves as a way to get to know the characters and their back-stories, but the second section is where most of the action happens. I liked both sections equally well.

I have to applaud the author for her skill in conveying the dramatic events so clearly and vividly. I felt like I was actually there--right beside Abby and Robert--in the midst of the earthquake chaos and destruction. Prior to reading this book I had zero knowledge of the 1906 earthquake and resulting fires, but I have since researched it a bit further. I was amazed to discover photos taken of the actual events are amazingly similar to the images the book painted in my mind! That's a sign of some powerfully descriptive writing!

This is the first book by Karen Barnett that I've read, but it will certainly not be my last. The characters and storyline burrowed into my mind so much that I found myself thinking about it during the day, anxious for the time when I could read a couple more chapters. Though most of the story is serious, there are some surprisingly lighthearted and humorous moments that keep it well balanced. (In particular, a certain large bow on the back of a dress comes to mind!) Overall, this is a title I can easily--and highly--recommend. I'm anxious to see what the next book in the series will hold.

My Rating: 5 stars

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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Full Steam Ahead by Karen Witemeyer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
When Nicole Renard returns home to Galveston from an eastern finishing school, she's stunned to find her father in ill health. Though she loves him, he's only ever focused on what she's "not." Not male. Not married. Not able to run their family business, Renard Shipping.

Vowing to secure a suitable marriage partner, Nicole sets out with the Renard family's greatest treasure: a dagger personally gifted to Nicole's father by the pirate Jean Lafitte. Many believe the legend that the dagger is the source of all Renard Shipping's good fortune, though Nicole is sure her father's work ethic and honorable business practices are the keys to their success. Before she can board the steamer to New Orleans, Nicole finds her father's rivals—the Jenkins brothers—on either side of the gangplank, ready to grab her and steal the dagger. Quickly, she decides to instead travel north, to Liberty, Texas, where she can decide what to do next.

Darius Thornton needs a secretary—someone to help him get his notes in order. Ever since the boiler explosion aboard the "Louisiana," Darius has been a man obsessed. He will do anything to stop even one more steamship disaster. The pretty young socialite who applies for the job baffles him with her knowledge of mathematics and steamships. He decides to take a risk and hire her, but he's determined her attractive face and fancy clothes won't distract him from his important research.

The job offer comes at exactly the right time for Nicole. With what Darius is paying her, she'll be able to afford passage to New Orleans in mere weeks. But Mr. Thornton is so reclusive, so distant, so unusual. He can create complex scientific equations but can't remember to comb his hair. And his experiments are growing more and more dangerous. Still, there are undeniable sparks of attraction between them. But Nicole is leaving soon, and if she marries, it must be to a man who can manage a shipping empire. Darius certainly doesn't fit that description. And the Jenkins brothers have not given up on kidnapping Nicole and seizing the Lafitte dagger for themselves.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Nicole is a fun heroine with lots of hidden talents that continually amused me. Coming from society, she is proper when needed, but she also has a spunky side that often pops up. Her intelligence and skills in math are able to put most men to shame, and in a pinch she is even handy with a blade! I liked how she didn't let Darius' gruff exterior deter her from her purpose, and I also have to admit I found it rather humorous that she found his feet attractive, LOL! :)

The Lafitte dagger is the basis for the story, basically the reason that many events take place, however I have to admit that the dagger itself began to get on my nerves after a while. The superstition surrounding it is extreme, and the high value some people place on it is very misguided...though I suppose it actually is a plausible scenario. I certainly didn't feel the dagger was worth risking life and limb for, but I did appreciate that Nicole didn't buy into the superstition and she only sought to protect the dagger out of love and respect for her father. Above all, I loved Darius's attitude toward the dagger, but I won't spoil it by saying any more on that subject! :)

The time frame on the story is fairly short, with most of the events taking place within the span of about one month. This results in the relationship between Nicole and Darius moving fairly quickly, without a lot of time for them to get to know each other. To be honest, it actually didn't seem too fast when I was reading it, but when I stopped to think about the timeline--and realized just how short of a time they'd actually known each other--I became a bit skeptical. For the sake of realism and practicality I would've liked to see them know each other for a longer period of time before committing, however the nature of the plot really didn't allow for this. It's certainly not a deal breaker for me, but it was just something I noticed and pondered on.

While it's not my favorite of Karen's novels, I still did enjoy it quite a bit. She has a knack for writing extremely unique, out-of-the-box stories, and this one certainly falls into that category. There's mystery, intrigue, romance, bad guys, chases, and even a couple explosive experiments! For fans of historical fiction, Full Steam Ahead is a title that I can easily recommend.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

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