Sunday, October 31, 2010

How Sweet It Is by Alice J. Wisler

Rating: 4 stars

How Sweet It Is is the first book that I’ve read by Alice J. Wisler.  I admit that I did not have high expectations for this novel.  Based on the back-cover synopsis, I expected this to be light-hearted, perhaps "cheesy" read that lacked depth.  To my surprise, the storyline was fresh and meaningful, with dashes of flavor that are unique to Wisler.  The story is told in first person by Deena Livingston, a young woman who moves into her deceased grandfather's remote cabin in North Carolina, following a devastating car wreck and a broken engagement.  Deena's life has diverged onto a path that she has not chosen and she must attempt to find happiness and healing in her new home.  Living in her grandfather's home and following his instructions to teach cooking to a group of troubled middle school students, Deena learns life-changing lessons about love, forgiveness, happiness, and healing. 

How Sweet It Is inspired me in a couple of ways.  The novel is infused with cooking ideas and recipes as Deena teaches her students to cook and experiments in her own kitchen.  Although I am not a cook, I decided to try out the "homemade" tortilla chips referred to in the novel.  (Cut a flour tortilla into triangles and bake for 15 minutes at 375 degrees.  Deena coated hers in olive oil and sprinkled the pieces with garlic salt, but for dessert, you can coat them in butter, cinnamon and sugar).   A few recipes are also included in the back of the book, which is a fun addition to the novel.

More important than cooking-related inspirations, I was moved by the novel's message of finding happiness in life even when it takes an unexpected path.  Although I have not gone through an experience as tragic as Deena's, I am struggling with an unchosen job change.  Like Deena, I find myself longing for my former life.  (In my case: my former job, office, and co-workers.)  Reading Deena's story has inspired me to search for happiness in my new circumstances.  Although it may take time to adjust to life's new flavors, we must trust that the end result will be a delicious new recipe with its own unique tastes that are worth experiencing. 

How Sweet It Is opens with this quote by Helen Keller, which I find particularly poignant:
When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Catching Moondrops by Jennifer Erin Valent

Rating: 5 stars

After reading Fireflies in December and Cottonwood Whispers several months ago, I anxiously awaited the release of Catching Moondrops.  The latest installment in the series does not disappoint.  At 19, Jessilyn Lassiter is still the spunky and determined heroine.  She is determined to win Luke Talley's heart once and for all and begins to see signs of success.  Meanwhile, racial tensions escalate in Calloway, with the arrival of a young black doctor, Tal Pritchett.  Love blossoms between Tal and Jessilyn's friend Gemma, but the beauty of new and true love is threatened by hatred as the Klan once again violently makes its presence known.  Jessilyn, her family, and friends find themselves fighting for morality and equality in the face of deadly threats.  As Jessilyn witnesses the evil actions of the Klan, the seed of hatred and bitterness that was planted in her heart several year prior grows into a poisonous vine that seems destined to destroy her life and her relationships.

Like the other novels in this trilogy, Catching Moondrops completely captivated me and whisked me away to Calloway, Virginia in 1938.  The southern dialogue is engaging and refreshing and the characters are developed and well-crafted.  I have been captivated by Jessilyn's love for Luke since Fireflies in December, and this novel provided the perfect conclusion to their story.   Catching Moondrops is not just a love story; it is also a drama, which examines the racial tensions and hatred that sadly defined the south in the early 1900s.  Valent touches the sensitive subjects of discrimination, cruelty, and hatred in each of her novels, which make them especially thought-provoking and meaningful. Each novel delivers a satisfying blend of love, drama, and several comical moments.  As a testament to the quality of Jennifer Erin Valent's novels, they have even engaged a non-reader in my family, which has always been a difficult task indeed.  I highly recommend all three novels to readers!  ~ M

Sunday, October 10, 2010

June Bug by Chris Fabry

Rating: 5 stars

June Bug is a poignant novel of survival, sacrifice, family and love.  June Bug is a spunky, but mature 9-year-old traveling around the United States with her father in an old RV.  At least, she believes the man she has been living with for the past seven years is her father.  When she sees her face on a missing child poster in Wal-Mart, June Bug's life veers down an uncharted road.  As June Bug seeks the truth from her father, John, he is forced to confront memories of a painful past.  Meanwhile, June Bug's biological grandparents in West Virignia are struggling to uncover the truth about their beloved granddaughter's disappearance while dealing with the painful questions of their daughter's involvement.  Chris Fabry's vivid story-telling will keep readers turning the pages as the truth unfolds and the characters' lives irrevocably change.

June Bug captivated me from the first page.  Chris Fabry masterfully tells the story from several perspectives of the individuals impacted by June Bug's disappearance: June Bug, John, the grandparents, and the police officer heading the investigation.  Each perspective is equally moving, but June Bug's voice is especially compelling.  I was anxious to discover the truth about June Bug's life and how she came to live with her father, John.  The ending, though bittersweet was not a disappointment.  I would love to read a sequel to the novel that picks up several years later because I wonder what life holds for each character further down the road. This novel is one of those rare thought-provoking gems that I find myself thinking about even a couple of days after finishing it.  June Bug is the first book I have read by Chris Fabry, and I am anxious to read his other novels.

The Sweet By and By by Sara Evans and Rachel Hauck

Rating: 4.5 stars

As a fan of country star, Sara Evan's music and Rachel Hauck's novels, I was excited to discover that both women have joined forces and released an inspirational novel.  The Sweet By and By is a collaborative effort that successfully blends the emotional story lyrics present in Sara Evan's songs with the character development and humor that defines Hauck's novels.

In The Sweet By and By, Jade Fitzgerald is a young woman who is the owner of a vintage, antique shop and just weeks away from marrying Max Benson, a successful lawyer from an upper-class family.  With pasts that they both wish to forget, they agree to live in the present while embracing the future.  After Jade reluctantly sends a wedding invitation to her estranged mother, Beryl, memories from the family's past set ripples of pain and regret into motion.  These ripples soon turn into a wave of emotion that they must confront.  While the women struggle to reconcile their past, Max also faces the return of his former fiance and a secret that he wishes to keep from Jade.  Will Jade's and Max's love for one another surmount the obstacles that they face?

The Sweet By and By skillfully displays the complexities of family relationships and the power of forgiveness as individuals struggle to come to terms with their past actions and decisions.  While reading this novel, I was drawn to the unfolding story of Jade's and Beryl's tumultuous relationship.  Like this story, real-life is complex with no "perfect" endings.  Our lives are always a work in progress. 

I look forward to Sara Evan's and Rachel Hauck's upcoming novels in the Songbird series.  Hopefully,  readers will once again re-visit the lives of some of the characters in The Sweet By and By, especially Jade's younger sister, Willow.

Still House Pond by Jan Watson

Rating: 4 stars

I am often guilty of judging books by their covers, but an appealing cover design is one of the elements that draws me to a book (in addition to the plot and the author of course!).  My first impression of Still House Pond was based on two elements: the author, Jan Watson, first and the cover second.  Based on the cover design, I made the assumption that Lilly Gray Corbett was around 16 years old; so I was a bit surprised when I discovered that she was only 12.  The synopsis on the back cover of the book does allude to Lilly Gray being a child, however.  Nonetheless, I adore the cover, and I believe it captures the essence of both the title and the most pivotal event in the novel.

Throughout the past few years, I have read each of Jan Watson's novels, starting with her moving and charming first novel, Troublesome Creek.  Watson crafts such realistic characters that, after reading her four novels, I feel as though I know and understand the folks that make up the fictious Kentucky communities.   I enjoyed reading Still House Pond because the novel welcomed me into the life of Copper, the star of the first three novels, through her daughter Lilly Gray.  The novel follows the life, faith, struggles, and triumphs of Copper's family and her small Kentucky hills community in 1896.  The details of the day-to-day life of the main characters is charming but interspersed with enough troubles to make the plot interesting.  There were only a few major events in the novel, but they lacked suspense, and the outcomes were somewhat predictable. 

I enjoyed the re-introduction to Copper that this novel provided; and it was interesting to be a part of her adult life as a midwife/doctor, wife, and mother of a few children.  The novel primarily focuses on Copper's family, but it also introduces Manda, Copper's hired help.  Manda faces struggles of her own  throughout the story, which eventually impact the life of Copper's family.  Manda was an interesting character, but I did not feel like I completely knew her.  I would have liked the plot to delve deeper into her character so that I could better understand her decisions. 

Overall, Still House Pond is a very well-crafted and charming novel.  Jan Watson's words paint vivid scenes and life-like characters. In many ways, Jan Watson's stories remind me of Catherine Marshall's famous novel, Christy.


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