Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review: Here to Stay by Melissa Tagg

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Blake Hunziker has played nomad for five years and landed in his fair share of trouble too. But now he's finally returning to his hometown--the Lake Michigan tourist town of Whisper Shore. Counting on a not-so-warm welcome, he's surprised at not only a positive reception but also a job offer. Determined to settle down and prove himself responsible, he agrees to the catch that comes with the job offer--coordinating the annual Christmas festival--even though he has no idea how he'll pull it off.

Autumn Kingsley, inn owner and experienced organizer of the Christmas festival, has always dreamed of traveling the world. Now she has a job opportunity in Paris and a surprise potential investor coming to town who just might take on her family's inn and finally leave her free to go. The only problem is that she has just two weeks to whip the inn into shape.

Their families have a long history of not getting along, but when Blake comes to Autumn for help with the festival, she actually agrees...in exchange for his help with the repairs to her inn. They may have struck a simple deal, but complications are quick to pile on when the guy who's had enough of running away and the woman who can't wait to leave join forces.

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Having previously "met" Blake in the author's prior book (Made to Last), I was anxious to reconnect and learn more about him. He still has the same fun-loving personality, though it's somewhat toned down by the reality of going home and coming to terms with--and trying to overcome--his past. While I did somewhat miss his over the top wackiness, at the same time it was actually very interesting and moving to see beneath his personality to the grief and uncertain feelings that he carries around.

Autumn is fairly easy to identify with, despite the fact that her longings to travel don't really match up with mine. I liked her inn and genuinely wanted to see her succeed, especially when the odds were stacked so severely against her. The stiffness in her relationships with her family was sad but also very enlightening when she discovered the underlying cause. It makes you stop and realize how lack of communication builds up walls, and sometimes you don't even know it until after it's happened.

Something that really spoke to me was the bit of advice that Blake's friend gave to him about life: "You don't have to see every open door on the way to your end goal--just the one staring you in the face." This was a great reminder for me, and I pondered on it for days after. The future may be unclear, but all we need to do is just what God puts in front of us, not worrying about anything past that. Sometimes it takes seeing the truth in story-form for the message to hit home, and this did just that for me! Thank you, Melissa!

I didn't initially realize the story was set late in the year, but the town's Winter Festival--and Christmas, to a lesser extent--is actually a large part of the story. I'm a bit of a Christmas fanatic so I didn't mind reading it in the summer, but some people might want to wait until the holiday season to enjoy it. It's in no way necessary to read it around Christmas, but it just might add a bit of extra fun! :)

As for the ending, it was sweet and everything I hoped for, though the journey to get there did take some twists I hoped it wouldn't. Ultimately Autumn had to "live and learn" in order to discover what it was that she really wanted...which is actually fairly realistic when you stop and think about it. So while it was slightly delayed, everything still turned out nicely in the end. Overall, I enjoyed the story quite a bit; the characters were entertaining but at the same time their rocky pasts give them a very normal vibe, like everyday people you might know in real life. This is one I can easily recommend, and I think most fans of the genre will enjoy it!

My Rating: 4.5 stars

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: Meant to be Mine by Becky Wade

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Ty Porter has always been irresistible to Celia Park. All through high school--irresistible. When their paths cross again after college--still irresistible. This time, though, Ty feels exactly the same way about Celia. Their whirlwind romance deposits them at a street-corner Las Vegas wedding chapel.

The next morning they wake to a marriage certificate and a dose of cold reality. Celia's ready to be Ty's wife, but Ty's not ready to be anybody's husband. As a professional bull rider, he lives on the road and can't bring himself to settle down.

Five and a half years pass. Celia's buried her dreams so that she can afford to raise her daughter. Ty's achieved all of his goals. Or thought he had, until he looks again into the face of the one woman he couldn't forget and into the face of the child he never knew he had.

How much will Ty sacrifice to make Celia's dreams come true, to win her trust, and to prove to her that their spontaneous marriage can still become the love of a lifetime?

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
Though my initial impression was unfavorable, I actually ended up really enjoying this one. In the beginning, the worldly feel of the first few chapters--there's not even a hint of God or faith--coupled with Celia and Ty's impulsive actions in the Vegas atmosphere was enough to give me pause about continuing on. Little Addie was the first person to really start drawing me in, with her sweet personality and innocently simple--but often correct--way of looking at life's issues.

Following Addie's lead, Celia and Ty slowly started winning me over, until I was surprised to realize how much my feelings had changed from my first impression. Celia's description of a "tarnished knight" for Ty was absolutely perfect. He seriously disgusted me at the beginning, but the well written growth of his character ultimately caused my opinion of him to do a complete 180 turn-around. No, he still wasn't perfect, with his reckless side occasionally coming out, but this only served to add authenticity. Despite his flaws, I really couldn't help but be charmed by his sense of humor, his gentleness with his daughter, and the animated way he verbally sparred with Celia.

Addie's fascination with princess stories is fun, especially when she coaxes Celia or Ty into telling her a story. The princess stories they tell her are very unconventional, to say the least, but highly amusing, as the stories ultimately end up reflecting the personality of the story-teller. It's not a large part of the plot, but I wanted to mention it because it adds a good dose of humor and at the same time offers a realistic feel--who doesn't know a little girl who loves princesses? 

Though a work of fiction, the story has some extremely powerful messages about life's tough situations. It delves into the difficulty--and resulting freedom--of offering forgiveness; I especially like how it displays forgiveness as something that requires a conscious, sometimes continual, effort. On the flipside, the effect of holding a grudge and the grip it can have on you is also explored. And as for marriage, I loved how the value of it was ultimately presented: even if the relationship is feeble and weak, God still values it much more than the world would have you believe.

I generally try to steer clear of stories that revolve around broken marriages, simply because they tend to be more of a downer than I prefer, but I'm glad that I made an exception for Meant to Be Mine. The circumstances sort of, in a way, actually make it read more like a non-married romance, despite the fact that Celia & Ty's defunct marriage is often highlighted. The interaction between them is highly entertaining, and it's something I'm glad I didn't miss out on. Though the beginning scenes were rocky, they were ultimately necessary, a pivotal plot point...it was sort of like watching something beautiful grow from ashes. Never before have I encountered a book where my opinion of the characters was so radically changed from beginning to end.... that's the result of some seriously awesome character development! 

My Rating: 5 stars

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Echoes of Mercy by Kim Vogel Sawyer

Book Cover and Synopsis:
When a suspicious accident occurs at the famous Dinsmore Chocolate Factory in Sinclair, Kansas, Caroline Lang goes undercover as a factory worker to investigate the circumstances surrounding the event and how the factory treats its youngest employees—the child workers. Caroline’s fervent faith, her difficult childhood, and compassionate heart drove her to her job as an investigator for the Labor Commission and she is compelled to see children freed from such heavy adult responsibilities, to allow them to pursue an education.

Oliver Dinsmore, heir to the Dinsmore candy dynasty, has his own investigation to conduct. Posing as a common worker known as “Ollie Moore,” he aims to find out all he can about the family business before he takes over for his father. Caroline and Oliver become fast friends, but tension mounts when the two find themselves at odds about the roles of child workers. Hiding their identities becomes even more difficult when fate brings them together over three children in desperate need. When all is revealed, will the truth destroy the love starting to grow between them? 

My source for book: Review Copy
My Thoughts:
For some reason I generally have a hard time identifying with female investigators in historic fiction, so I was thrilled to discover that Carrie is not like most investigators that I've previously encountered. Though she is determined to do her job to the best of her ability, she doesn't have an uppity air of trying to prove herself in a man's world. She's capable of getting things done, but she doesn't let the job define her. The balance between work and personal interests is well done, with much of her free time being spent trying to help three underprivileged children that she meets and ultimately gets tangled up with, both in emotion and responsibility.

The point of view shifts back and forth between Carrie and Ollie, and both perspectives are equally interesting and entertaining, easily keeping my attention. The idea that both of them are working "undercover" in the factory--for completely different reasons--is fun, and it adds a bit of amusing drama when their attraction becomes clear. Neither of them is able to be completely truthful about who they are, but they are still able to form a tentative friendship.

In addition to Carrie's and Ollie's perspectives, there are also some smaller sections told from the viewpoint of two supporting characters. While these characters themselves are generally well written, unfortunately their perspectives weren't quite as interesting to me. (One is the villain, and the other is a young girl whose immature--though authentic--actions began to irk me somewhat after a while.) However, I do have to admit that things came together at the end in a way that I didn't see coming, and it ultimately wouldn't have been possible, or as dramatic, without the rotating perspectives.

Overall, this is a solid story that I enjoyed quite a lot. The interaction between Ollie and Carrie is fun; I liked seeing how their relationship slowly grew despite their differences of opinion on some subjects. I especially liked when they joined forces and started sneaking around to uncover the truth regarding the mystery at the factory. If you enjoy historical novels with a bit of mystery, this one is most definitely worth a look. Come on, it's set in a chocolate factory! That alone makes it pretty hard to resist! :)

My Rating: 4.5 stars

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

Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: Jealousy & Yams by Amanda Hamm

Book Cover and Synopsis:
Luke Foster has been accused of being too nice for his own good. He enjoys being helpful though and never thought it was a problem until he met Summer. Now he believes she feels indebted to him and it isn’t gratitude he wants from her.

Summer Slough feels guilty for using Luke. She also feels an attraction to him that she doesn’t know how to handle. It’s beginning to look as though her mistakes and inexperience will keep them apart.

Lucky for both of them, Hartford’s annual Yam Fest is right around the corner. The community event has a way of bringing people together… maybe even Summer and Luke.

My source for book: Review Copy 
My Thoughts: 
The title of Jealousy & Yams, which initially seems odd, is actually very appropriate for this story. The town Yam fest is one of the main plot points and is the topic of many amusing conversations. And as for jealousy... strangely enough, it's the reason that Summer and Luke first meet! Though the word "jealousy" often brings to mind unpleasant feelings, the story itself is actually rather sweet. Yes, I was initially leery of Summer because I didn't understand what her game was, but it turned out to be quite interesting. Though Summer's intentions were at first slightly mischievous, her unexpected attraction to Luke turned her plans completely upside-down, causing her to reevaluate her motives.

I really liked Luke's humorous penchant for abruptly changing topics in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes the change seemed semi-logical, and other times it was pretty far out there....yet I couldn't help but grin each time he did it, because the quirkiness of it gave him such a likeable, down-to-earth type of vibe. I felt bad because people ragged him about the quirk, but Summer's approach to it was really nice in that she was supportive, and they were even able to laugh about it from time to time. 

There's some familiar faces from the first Hartford book that pop up, which is kind of fun because it gives the setting a familiar feel, though the main characters are new. However, it's all done in a clever way so that there's no necessary reading order for the series. If you want to just read one book, or you accidentally read them all out of order--don't worry! It really won't matter.

Though I normally tend to be annoyed when characters don't communicate the big stuff, Summer's and Luke's motivation for not sharing their feelings was actually kind of sweet. Despite a rough--and admittedly, odd--start to their relationship, neither wanted to force the other into anything. I really enjoyed watching their relationship as it falteringly grew. Amanda Hamm's stories are always sweet and cute, and this one is no exception. I admit it did take me a couple chapters to "get into" the storyline, but after that I was quickly hooked and finished the story in just 4 sittings. I very much enjoyed it, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next Hartford story!

My Rating: 4.5 stars

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