Monday, December 8, 2014

Review of "Love Unexpected"

Rating: 4 Stars

Review: "Love Unexpected" is a gentle romance with endearing characters and a beautiful setting.  Jody Hedlund makes a mark on readers' hearts with her tale of faith, forgiveness, and love. I became easily ensconced in the lives of Emma, Patrick, and Josiah. The unexpected is present from the tense opening scene when Emma finds herself coming close to death at sea. In a short span of time, her life completely changes and she becomes a wife and mother. I was surprised at how suddenly Emma and Patrick enter into their marriage of convenience.  In many ways, their situation is similar to "Love Comes Softly," and the marriage is just the beginning of the story.  Emma's struggles and doubts as a new wife and mother make her a realistic character who is easily lovable.  Her compassion and humility definitely stand out, and her interactions with little Josiah are absolutely heart-melting.  The cover art captures their bond to perfection, and matches the essence of the novel in its entirety.  

Patrick is the epitome of a gentleman, behaving with honor and restraint.  Emma quickly loses her heart to him and readers will too. His character is one with multiple layers that add texture to the entire plot.  His dark history is a stark contrast to the redeemed Patrick, which adds significant depth to the messages of hope and forgiveness.  Patrick's job as the keeper of the Presque Isle light seamlessly incorporates Michigan's nautical history. The small village and its lighthouse are described with picturesque charm, while still acknowledging the hardships faced by those who settled in remote areas. Jody Hedlund has an undeniable ability to bring to characters to life and place them in historical settings, and that talent is prevalent in "Love Unexpected." The gentle love and the purity of emotion make this a memorable novel, whose light shines brightly.  

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House through their book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. 

Summary from Bethany House: 1859,   Presque Isle, Michigan 

What Is the Secret That Could Shipwreck Both of Their Lives?

All Emma Chambers ever wanted was a home, but when her steamboat sinks just outside Presque Isle, she's left destitute and with no place to stay.

An unlikely solution arises when the lighthouse keeper arrives in town. He's just lost his wife and is having a difficult time caring for his child. So a traveling preacher gets the idea that the keeper and Emma might be the answer to each other's dilemma. After a hasty marriage, she finds herself heading to the lighthouse with this handsome but quiet stranger. Nothing in her aimless life, though, has prepared her for parenting a rambunctious toddler, as well as managing a household.

Emma soon suspects Patrick may be hiding something from her, and then she hears a disturbing rumor about the circumstances surrounding his late wife's death. It seems as if her wish for a home and family of her own could end up leading her once more into turbulent waters.

Review of "Brentwood's Ward"

Rating: 4 Stars

Review:  "Brentwood's Ward" isn't a typical Regency romance; it has murder, mystery, and deception alongside the expected spencer jackets and social gatherings.  Michelle Griep creates a plot with numerous twists and surprises that keep the pace moving steadily.  Emily Payne is a headstrong young woman determined to do things her own way, even when danger lurks nearby.  She comes across as spoiled and makes some aggravating decisions; but like any good character, the circumstances she faces lead to growth and maturity.  Sparks fly when the handsome Nicholas Brentwood is assigned as guardian to Emily.  The two are social opposites, and Emily is steadfastly determined to marry within her own class.  The result is an undercurrent of romance, leaving us in anticipation for the moment they openly acknowledge their mutual love.

Brentwood brings a lot of interest to the story.  He plays a variety of roles - guardian, lawman, and caretaker.  Griep ties in a few subplots through Brentwood.  His job as a Bow Street Runner provides a new perspective into London's history, while bringing action and suspense as well. Brentwood takes us on a detective's journey to uncover the deadly danger that surrounds Emily and her family. The most heartwarming role that Brentwood portrays is that of a loving brother.  His sick sister is a sweet addition to the cast, who reminds me of Betsy in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South." Brentwood's interactions with his sister establish his character, making him a stark contrast to some of the society "gentleman" who Emily holds in high regard.

"Brentwood's Ward" is a novel that kept my interest completely. The specifics of the central mystery and Emily's family felt somewhat contrived, but I enjoyed the story.  I read Michelle Griep's "A Heart Deceived" last year, and found it completely gripping. "Brentwood's Ward" is less memorable for me, but a novel that I fully recommend.  Griep's ability to create a dimensional historical story with themes of faith will keep me picking up her books.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Books through NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Barbour Publishing: Place an unpolished lawman named Nicholas Brentwood as guardian over a spoiled, pompous beauty named Emily Payne and what do you get? More trouble than Brentwood bargains for. She is determined to find a husband this season. He just wants the large fee her father will pay him to help his ailing sister. After a series of dire mishaps, both their desires are thwarted, but each discovers that no matter what, God is in charge.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review of "The Secret of Pembrooke Park"

Rating: 5 Stars

Review: Julie Klassen once again immersed me in early 1800's England.  I always welcome a chance to delve vicariously into historic England, and "The Secret of Pembrooke Park" proved to be a delightful adventure.  Fans of Jane Austen will find similarities in the plot to "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion," but "The Secret of Pembrooke Park" is its own story with plenty of mystery. The questions begin right from the start when Abigail's family is presented with the prospect of living in Pembrooke Park.  Their unidentified benefactor is soon the least of mounting mysteries when Abigail moves into the abandoned manor house.  Klassen weaves the secrets into a richly detailed plot in which the characters and the manor house play equally important roles.  As the cast of characters grows, Klassen leaves readers questioning their motives and true identities.  This is definitely a story that veils the truth of its secrets until the end, and its numerous layers kept my interest.  Even as answers are revealed, Klassen adds some twists and suspense.  

I loved the characterization of the manor house and the many tales held within the walls.  It is an integral part of the plot, which Klassen describes with exquisite details.  The first glimpse of Pembrooke Park is one that plays out as vividly as the scene of a movie. That first eerie impression of a suddenly abandoned house sets the tone of mystery which builds as more questions are introduced, such as sneaking cloaked figures and notes from an unknown sender.  

"The Secret of Pembrooke Park" is not without its share of love and romance, but it is more understated than in some novels.  I appreciate Klassen's approach to focus on the emotional connection between the characters rather than relying on physical attraction.  Although Abigail initially feels destined for spinsterhood, she soon finds herself with two potential suitors - one new and one old.  Add an attractive and outgoing younger sister to the mix, and romance becomes a bit more complicated. Like the rest of the plot, Abigail's journey to love is defined by some suspense, and the characters involved come to life on the pages, once again reminding me of some of my favorite British period movies. 

Julie Klassen once again succeeds in creating an engaging story set against the charming backdrop of England's countryside.  The journey through the pages is one that I enjoyed, and I'm sure other fans of history and all things British will find similar pleasure within the pages of "The Secret of Pembrooke Park." 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House through their book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. 

Summary from Bethany House:  Abigail Foster is the practical daughter. She fears she will end up a spinster, especially as she has little dowry, and the one man she thought might marry her seems to have fallen for her younger, prettier sister. 

Facing financial ruin, Abigail and her father search for more affordable lodgings, until a strange solicitor arrives with an astounding offer: the use of a distant manor house abandoned for eighteen years. The Fosters journey to imposing Pembrooke Park and are startled to find it entombed as it was abruptly left: tea cups encrusted with dry tea, moth-eaten clothes in wardrobes, a doll's house left mid-play...

The handsome local curate welcomes them, but though he and his family seem acquainted with the manor's past, the only information they offer is a stern warning: Beware trespassers drawn by rumors that Pembrooke Park contains a secret room filled with treasure.

This catches Abigail's attention. Hoping to restore her family's finances--and her dowry--Abigail looks for this supposed treasure. But eerie sounds at night and footprints in the dust reveal she isn't the only one secretly searching the house.

Then Abigail begins receiving anonymous letters, containing clues about the hidden room and startling discoveries about the past. 

As old friends and new foes come calling at Pembrooke Park, secrets come to light. Will Abigail find the treasure and love she seeks...or very real danger?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review of "The Wishing Season"

Rating: 4 Stars

Review:  Denise Hunter has kept readers ingrained in the lives of the McKinley family in her "Chapel Hill Romance" series.  "The Wishing Season" puts the spotlight on PJ, the youngest McKinley. True to the tone set by the previous novels, Hunter again delivers a story balanced with emotional complexity, love, and romance.  Although this can be read as a stand alone novel, the connection to the tight-knit McKinley family is definitely stronger after reading the preceding novels. 

PJ and Cole are thrown together in a sequence of events that leaves them sharing a house while competing for ownership of the property.  They each believe that the house is the answer to their aspirations -PJ hopes to open a restaurant and inn, while Cole wants to open a home for teens aging out of foster care.  Competition, attraction, and romantic tension weave their way throughout the plot. Some scenes will leave readers breathless; but while clean, the physical element of Cole and PJ's attraction is strong at times for my personal reading preferences.    

Romance aside, the relationship between PJ and Cole reveals a deeper message about the growth and realization of dreams.  Both of their stories, though very different, have touching and relatable elements.  Once again, the McKinley family dynamic shines with lovable realism.  As the youngest child, PJ feels overprotected and doubted by her family.  I enjoyed the journey of the McKinley family and the strengthening of their already strong bond.  Cole's past as a foster child is a stark contrast to PJ's secure upbringing.  He brings depth to the plot with memories of his childhood and the lives of the teens he fosters.  Heartbreak is very much a part of Cole's story, but healing leaves readers with a sense of hope and satisfaction. 

PJ and Cole join the ranks of happy McKinley couples, who I hope will reappear in a cameo role in another novel.  Denise Hunter leaves the door open for another "Chapel Hill Romance" with references to Ryan McKinley.  I definitely feel that Ryan's story deserves to be told and I finish "The Wishing Season" wishing to read more about him. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Thomas Nelson: Living side-by-side, a fledgling chef and a big-hearted contractor find a delicious attraction.  Trouble is, their chemistry could spoil their dreams.

Spirited PJ McKinley has the touch when it comes to food. Her dream of opening her own restaurant is just one building short of reality. So when a Chapel Springs resident offers her beloved ancestral home to the applicant with the best plan for the house, PJ believes it’s a contest she was meant to win.
Contractor Cole Evans is confident, professional, and swoon-worthy—but this former foster kid knows his life could have turned out very differently. When Cole discovers the contest, he believes his home for foster kids in transition has found its saving grace. All he has to do is convince the owner that an out-of-towner with a not-for-profit enterprise is good for the community.
But when the eccentric philanthropist sees PJ and Cole’s proposals, she makes an unexpected decision: the pair will share the house for a year to show what their ideas are made of. Now, with Cole and the foster kids upstairs and PJ and the restaurant below, day-to-day life has turned into out-and-out competition—with some seriously flirtatious hallway encounters on the side. Turns out in this competition, it’s not just the house on the line, it’s their hearts.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review of "The Promise"

Rating: 4 Stars

Review: "The Promise" is a tale in which love and sacrifice exist alongside deceit and hidden agendas. This was a very different story from many that I have read. It was the unique plot, as described in the summary, that initially piqued my interest and my desire to read more. The fact that it was based on someone's real life experiences made me more intrigued. I knew from the description that Mallory would be lured to an unstable area of Pakistan under false pretenses and find herself in a dangerous situation. Her journey to Pakistan begins just before the half-way point of the novel. The first half of the plot builds up to Mallory's trip, and I expected it to occur earlier. As a reader, knowing the pivotal decision that was forthcoming, made me impatient for it to begin. I kept wondering when Mallory was finally going to travel to Pakistan and felt like the inevitable dragged out a few chapters too long. However, Beth Wiseman does a great job in developing Mallory's motives and conveying the emotions that make her vulnerable to an elaborate scam. It's easy to think "this would never happen to me;" but given the right circumstances, I believe most of us could be conned to some extent. The chapters preceding Mallory's trip made me understand how and why she was motivated to take such drastic action. Wiseman also built suspense for the situation that Mallory was entering in Pakistan. It was clear from the beginning that Mallory would be just a pawn in underhanded schemes, but the specifics remained a mystery.

The second half of "The Promise" brought the action and suspense. I was frustrated at times when Mallory just couldn't see the truth of a situation. As the reader, it was easy to see that Abdul was a less than charming man, despite his handsome appearance and flattery. Some of Mallory's decisions made me want to jump in the pages and make her see the truth. I definitely remained engaged until the very end as the tension ebbed in the very final pages.

I found "The Promise" to be a welcome departure from the books that I usually read. It was just slightly out of the box from my normal reading selections. It was refreshing to read a novel that isn't about two characters falling in love. Mallory is in an established relationship. While love plays a role in the plot, the dynamic between her and her boyfriend is different than that of two characters falling in love. It was refreshing for romance to take a backseat and to witness love reacting to adversity under trying circumstances.

I received a complimentary e-copy of this book from LitFuse. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

About the book: Mallory's search for happiness leads her to a faraway place. There she finds heartache, betrayal---and danger.

Mallory Hammond is determined that no one will stand in the way of her goal---to save a life. She had that chance years ago, and she failed to take it, leaving her adrift and in search of the real meaning of her life. Finally, she meets a man online from a volatile corner of the world who offers her the chance to find that purpose. But she will have to leave everyone she loves behind in order to take it.

Tate Webber has loved Mallory for many years. He understands that Mallory will never be happy with him until her deepest heart's desire is satisfied. When Mallory decides to travel across the world to fulfill her dreams, Tate begs her not to go but tries to give her the space she needs. Mallory embarks on her dangerous journey only to discover how swiftly and easily promises can be broken. And Mallory can only pray that she will make it out alive.

Inspired by actual events, The Promise is a riveting love story that asks the question: how far will we go for love?

Purchase a copy: 

Beth Wiseman is the best-selling author of the Daughters of the Promise series and the Land of Canaan series. Having sold over 1.3 million books, her novels have held spots on multiple Bestseller lists. She was the recipient of the prestigious Carol Award in 2011 and 2013. In 2013 she took home the coveted Holt Medallion. Her first book in the Land of Canaan series--Seek Me With All Your Heart--was selected as the 2011 Women of Faith Book of the Year. Beth lives in Texas with her family.

Find Beth online: websiteFacebookTwitter

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review of "Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Cracklin' Cornbread"

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Review: Mary Jane Hathaway combines two nearly irresistible subjects: southern charm and Jane Austen.  What happens when "Jane Austen Takes the South"?  Her stories find life with modern day characters and a few southern side dishes.  Hathaway puts a fresh spin on Austen and southern romances with a mixed race couple.  Each character has their own unique style, while staying true to their Austen counterparts.  Lucy Crawford and Jeremiah Chevy play the roles that parallel those of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. Though the specifics of their lives differ, this retelling of "Persuasion" follows its inspiration very closely in the major details.  As a result, there weren't many surprises in the plot.  I enjoyed the story and the journey of Lucy and Jeremiah, but knowing the path of the plot made the reading experience less exciting.

The incorporation of American history offers a departure from Austen.  Lucy and Jeremiah are less interested in England's Regency period and much more focused on America's Civil War era. Some of the Civil War scenes coincide with the more romantic moments in the novel.  All paths of the plot lead to the final proposal scene, which has both "Persuasion" and Civil War influences.  One of my favorite scenes of "Persuasion" is the closing proposal scene, and "Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Cracklin' Cornbread" was just as satisfying, but refreshingly unique as well.  Mary Jane Hathaway pays homage to one of history's most beloved authors and brings fresh beauty to a story of lost love and second chances. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Howard Books through NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Simon & Schuster: A lively Southern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, featuring Lucy Crawford, who is thrown back into the path of her first love while on a quest to save her beloved family home.

Lucy Crawford is part of a wealthy, well-respected Southern family with a long local history. But since Lucy’s mother passed away, the family home, a gorgeous antebellum mansion, has fallen into disrepair and the depth of her father’s debts is only starting to be understood. Selling the family home may be the only option—until her Aunt Olympia floats the idea of using Crawford house to hold the local free medical clinic, which has just lost its space. As if turning the plantation home into a clinic isn’t bad enough, Lucy is shocked and dismayed to see that the doctor who will be manning the clinic is none other than Jeremiah Chevy—her first love. 

Lucy and Jeremiah were high school sweethearts, but Jeremiah was from the wrong side of the tracks. His family was redneck and proud, and Lucy was persuaded to dump him. He eventually left town on a scholarship, and now, ten years later, he’s returned as part of the rural physician program. And suddenly, their paths cross once again. While Lucy’s family still sees Jeremiah as trash, she sees something else in him—as do several of the other eligible ladies in town. Will he be able to forgive the past? Can she be persuaded to give love a chance this time around?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of "Playing by Heart"

Rating: 5 Stars

Review: Anne Mateer's "Playing by Heart" is a novel that tugged at my heart strings.  I was reminded that an emotionally driven plot can be as captivating as action and adventure.  Mateer led me to care about the characters in the early chapters; and by the end of the novel, I was emotionally invested in the outcome.  What struck me about the plot was the realism of the scenarios shaping the lives of each character.  Lula and Chet were endearing leads who faced real-life decisions and problems. Their families each had their own difficulties that became integral notes in the overall song of the story.  By the end of "Playing by Heart," every character made an impact on me.  My connection to Lulu and Chet was one of the strongest I've had to two protagonists.  The alternating first person perspectives allowed me to emphasize and understand their emotions and actions.  I felt a camaraderie with Lulu who was striving to find her place and purpose in life.  The details of Chet's life gripped my heart. His dedication to his mother and basketball team were admirable. Both Chet and Lulu grew significantly over the course of the book, and their love story was so beautifully portrayed as a product of their growth.  I was completely charmed by them and their romance.

The setting on America's homefront during World War I offered a different perspective on the war's impact.  Chet's decision not to enlist in the army gave insight to the personal and public doubts that men in his position would have faced.  His struggles with guilt, uncertainty, and his mother's bitterness created raw emotions that transcended the pages.

I was concerned initially that the basketball focus would be dull for someone who isn't a basketball fan. Mateer was light on the technical details of the sport, while providing enough detail to bring the games to life.  I was surprised to find myself excited by the game scenes, anxiously awaiting the outcome.  Anne Mateer succeeded once again in holding my interest with a meaningful story full of heart. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House through their book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. 

Summary from Bethany House: Lula Bowman has finally achieved her dream: a teaching position and a scholarship to continue her college education in mathematics. But then a shocking phone call from her sister, Jewel, changes everything.

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. Lula doesn't even consider those real subjects!

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

However, the more time she spends around Jewel's family, the girls' basketball team, music classes, and Chet, the more Lula comes to realize what she's given up in her single-minded pursuit of degree after degree. God is working on her heart, and her future is starting to look a lot different than she'd expected.

Review of "Lizzy and Jane"

Rating: 4 Stars
Review: In "Dear Mr. Knightley,"  Katherine Reay showed readers that she doesn't shy away from weighty emotional topics. "Lizzy and Jane" is more evidence of her ability to confront tough subjects and create a memorable reading experience. Though the title suggests that Reay's latest novel is inspired by "Pride and Prejudice" the sisterly relationship is very different from that of their namesakes. Reay's Lizzy and Jane have a distant relationship, and Jane's battle with cancer heightens the stress. Their journey is one of physical and emotional healing, portrayed with realistic detail. The plot takes us where few authors venture - into the life of a family affected by cancer and into the treatment center where patients, families, and nurses are fighting to defeat a formidable foe. It is a topic that is relevant to today's readers, but definitely makes "Lizzy and Jane" a weighty read. Reay portrays real-life family dynamics shaped by present fears and scars from the past.  The relationship between Lizzy and Jane is a roller-coaster ride of emotions, with moments of healing mixed with moments of hurt. They can cut each other with a careless comment, but also offer comfort that only a sister can provide.  Although their bond is not as ideal as Austen's famous sisters, it is reflective of real life and creates a strong message of forgiveness and love. 
Reay's talent for crafting fully imagined scenes is evident throughout "Lizzy and Jane."  Jane's illness and Lizzy's passion for cooking and literature are portrayed in dynamic detail, and blend to create a cohesive plot. Cancer plays a huge role in the story, impacting nearly every action, even Lizzy's culinary skills. Lizzy's experiments with recipes that will be palatable for Jane are described from preparation to completion, emphasizing the ingredients, aromas, and flavors. Reay's incorporation of classic literary figures, like Hemingway and Austen, is creative and adds a new dimension to the cooking scenes.  Whether in Lizzy's restaurant, in Jane's kitchen, or in social situations, food is a constant presence and character itself.  I became a bit bored during the food passages, and eventually skimmed them.  Foodies and cooks, however, will likely find them interesting and engaging.

It is a requirement for any novel inspired by Austen to contain a dashing hero. "Lizzy and Jane" has two heroes - one for each sister.  Jane's Peter is more understated, but still Austen-worthy. While he has flaws and doesn't seem like the most devoted husband in the beginning, his quiet care and love for Jane is soon evident. Nick takes the spotlight with his steadfast personality and respect for both Lizzy and Jane.  If readers aren't won over by Nick by the end of the novel, they will find him hard to resist when he quotes from "Persuasion."  The path to any Austen devotee's heart is most assuredly through her verses, and Reay blended perfectly with Austen for a savory ending.  
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Thomas Nelson: Sometimes the courage to face your greatest fears comes only when you've run out of ways to escape.
At the end of a long night, Elizabeth leans against the industrial oven and takes in her kingdom. Once vibrant and flawless, evenings in the kitchen now feel chaotic and exhausting. She's lost her culinary magic, and business is slowing down.
When worried investors enlist the talents of a tech-savvy celebrity chef to salvage the restaurant, Elizabeth feels the ground shift beneath her feet. Not only has she lost her touch; she's losing her dream.
And her means of escape.
When her mother died, Elizabeth fled home and the overwhelming sense of pain and loss. But fifteen years later, with no other escapes available, she now returns. Brimming with desperation and dread, Elizabeth finds herself in the unlikeliest of places, by her sister’s side in Seattle as Jane undergoes chemotherapy.
As her new life takes the form of care, cookery, and classic literature, Elizabeth is forced to reimagine her future and reevaluate her past. But can a New York City chef with a painful history settle down with the family she once abandoned . . . and make peace with the sister who once abandoned her?

Review of "The Covered Deep"

Rating: 4 Stars

Review: Brandy Vallance's debut novel, "The Covered Deep," is rich with details and veiled in secrets. Faith and forgiveness are predominant themes throughout the novel. Vallance describes the Holy Land with vivid realism and gives a two-fold historical view of the area - the area's actual biblical history and the area as it would have been in the late 1870s.  The setting of the novel was definitely one of the highlights for me.  I love the opportunity to "see" places from different perspectives, especially when that perspective is from a bygone era.  "The Covered Deep" reminded me of Lisa T. Bergren's Grand Tour series with its expedition to far off lands and a dashing guide to share his knowledge.

Bianca goes on the trip searching for love, and finds herself instantly attracted to the historian, Paul. Although I am usually bothered by the two lead characters developing a romantic interest early in the novel, there are enough hindrances to their love to keep it from blossoming too soon. My opinion of both Paul and Bianca fluctuated throughout the book. I took me a few chapters to warm up to Paul's character.  Although he seemed gentlemanly, I wasn't sure if he was playing a role in Sir Adrian's underlying scheme.  Paul's character took on more depth as the plot progressed and more of his point-of-view was revealed.  I began to empathize with him, and then found myself perplexed by Bianca.  In the opening chapter, Bianca appeared as an innocent dreamer and book lover with an adventurous side yearning to see the world beyond her Kentucky home.  Her personality seemed to change midway through the novel, and some of her endearing qualities became less obvious.  It was frustrating to watch Bianca preaching forgiveness numerous times, but failing to show forgiveness.  There were times that I was quite put off by her behavior, but it ultimately brought the central themes together.

The message of "The Covered Deep" is a powerful one that gives the title true meaning.  There are a few references throughout to past sins being "covered deep" and forgiven. Vallance shows that it isn't always easy for us to practice forgiveness, whether it's forgiving ourselves or others. There is a air of mystery that lends emotional tension to the novel. When Bianca first meets her travel group in New York City, it is clear that the organizer, Sir Adrian, has an agenda and her travel mates have guarded secrets. As the story unfolds, layers of deceit and mistakes are revealed.

I finished the novel feeling a disconnect with Bianca and some of the other characters, but learning their motives and connections kept me interested. Two definite highlights were the solid lesson of faith and the well-researched and well-presented history. "The Covered Deep" is a promising debut and an interesting read for those who enjoy historical romances.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Worthy Publishing through NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. 

Summary from Worthy Publishing: An incurably romantic bookworm from Appalachia wins a contest and travels to England and the Holy Land in search of the perfect romantic hero. Set in 1877.
Bianca Marshal is holding out for the perfect husband. Finding a man that meets the requirements of her “must-have” list in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains has proven impossible. Bianca’s mama insists that there’s no such thing as a perfect true love, and that Bianca’s ideal man is pure fiction. On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Bianca discovers a devastating statistic: her chance of marrying is now only eighteen percent. Unwilling to accept spinsterhood, Bianca enters an essay contest that propels her into a whirlwind search for her soulmate. Via the opulence of London and the mysteries of the Holy Land, Bianca’s true love will be revealed, but not without a heavy price.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review of "Love's Fortune"

Rating: 5 Stars
~  ~  ~

Review: Laura Frantz's novels are never hit-or-miss; they are consistently hits. The Ballantyne Legacy is a rich, sweeping family saga, traversing three generations of Ballantynes. It is easy to become connected to the characters who grace the pages of each novel, contributing to the ongoing legacy.  "Love's Fortune" introduces Wren Ballantyne, the Kentucky bred granddaughter of Ballantyne patriarch, Silas.  Wren is a wholly endearing character, taken out of her quaint Kentucky woods and into the high society of industrial Pittsburg. Frantz paints a stark contrast between the pure woods of Kentucky and the oppressiveness of a growing city during the industrial revolution. Reading her descriptions, I was reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell's "North & South" and the dichotomy between the idyllic countryside and the bustling industry of the city. As seen through the eyes of Wren, Pittsburg is not portrayed in the most becoming light, but Frantz's detail is stunning in its vividness and realism. 

Frantz's descriptions breathe life into the plot and the characters.  Every character, even those who are less than likable, are carefully carved into relevant members of the cast.  Wren and James are endearing leads with stories that will capture hearts. Their gentle love story is enveloped in a historical setting that lends dimension and interest. Frantz layers plots and subplots, allowing readers to experience the social and political climate of a tumultuous and evolving era with Wren and James. From the ballrooms to the river, emotional and physical pressures abound. Wren fights to stay true to her heart's leading, while James is in constant danger as a steamboat pilot and an active abolitionist. Strain and anxiety within the Ballantyne family add another layer of tension that makes "Love's Fortune" engaging.

"Love's Fortune" is as melodic as Wren's violins, with laments and reels.  There is beauty throughout the novel - the cover art, the quotes that begin each chapter, Wren's costumes, and the exquisitely crafted violins.  The story itself is graceful and beautiful, offering everything one expects from the Ballantyne Legacy - love, faith, and loyalty amid pain and struggles.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell through their book review program, Revell Reads. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising

Behind the Cover Video:

Summary from Revell: With two very different horizons stretched out before her, one young woman stands on the cusp of an unknown future.

Sheltered since birth at her Kentucky home, Rowena "Wren" Ballantyne has heard only whispered rumors of her grandfather Silas's vast fortune and grand manor in Pennsylvania. When her father receives a rare letter summoning him to New Hope, Wren makes the journey with him and quickly finds herself in a whole new world--family members she's never met, dances she's never learned, and a new side to the father she thought she knew. 

As she struggles to fit in during their extended stay, she finds a friend in James Sackett, the most valued steamship pilot of the Ballantynes' shipping line. Even with his help, Wren feels she may never be comfortable in high society. Will she go her own way . . . to her peril?

With her signature attention to historical detail and emotional depth, Laura Frantz brings 1850s Pennsylvania alive with a tender story of loss, love, and loyalty.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review of "Captured by Love"

Rating: 4 stars
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Review: When I pick up a Jody Hedlund novel, I know that she is going to take me on a trip through history.  The pages of "Captured by Love" immerse me in Mackinac Island around 1814. Hedlund gives us a broad scope of life on the island through the lives of her characters. The Michilimackinac Island that Hedlund portrays is nothing like the resort area that we picture today; it is a remote island of hardships, starvation, and fighting between the British and Americans.  This love story melds with a history lesson that is beautifully portrayed with contrasting shades of darkness and light. 

"Captured by Love" begins with a confrontation that sets the tone of tension that envelopes the island throughout the story.  The struggles become personal when details about Angelique's life are revealed.  As a young woman living with a strict stepfather and a suspicious stepmother, Angelique is imprisoned on the island that she adores.  Her stepfather, Ebneezer, is definitely one of the sources of darkness in the novel.  His treatment is nothing short of cruel, which adds a degree of heaviness to the plot.  Angelique's strained relationship with her stepfather is contrasted with her close connection to the Durant family, especially Miriam and Pierre.  Hedlund's characterization of Angelique is impeccable, and she quickly becomes a character that captures my interest and emotions.  When the dashing Pierre enters Angelique's life, a more vibrant side of her is revealed.  Though both of their pasts and presents are riddled with conflict, their interactions add some refreshing fun and romance to the surrounding strife.  

The path to love is not straight and easy, however, as a love triangle forms between Pierre, Angelique, and Pierre's brother, Jean.  Pierre evokes mixed feelings in me as he pursues Angelique.  He is charming and complimentary, but often shows a degree of conceit as well.  His disregard for the relationship between Jean and Angelique is bothersome as well.  Pierre's view of their commitment highlights Angelique's desire to live a moral and godly life, and makes me appreciate her character even more.  Despite his flaws, Pierre is undeniably a good character, and one of the few gentlemen introduced in the plot.  Hedlund uses Pierre's faults to teach a lesson about faith, honor, and sacrifice.  Many of those lessons are taught during the conclusion of "Captured by Love," which is filled with peril and excitement. The emotional journey continues until the very end, and the last pages bring romance to capture our hearts. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House through their book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Bethany House: A voyageur and a young woman swept up in a time of upheaval and danger discover firsthand the high price of freedom.

The British Army has taken control of Michilimackinac Island and its fort, forcing the Americans to swear an oath of loyalty to the crown in order to retain their land. Pierre Durant is a fur trader who returns after being away from the island for years, only to find the family farm a shambles and those he cares about starving and at the mercy of British invaders.

Torn between the adventurous life of fur trading and guilt over neglecting his defenseless mother, Pierre is drawn deeper into the fight against the British--and into a relationship with Angelique MacKenzie, a childhood friend who's grown into a beautiful woman. She now finds herself trapped by the circumstances of war and poverty, and the cruelty of her guardian, Ebenezer Whiley.

As tensions mount and the violence rages on, Pierre and Angelique must decide where their loyalties rest and how much they'll risk for love.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review of "A Match of Wits"

Rating: 2.5 Stars
~  ~  ~
Review: Summer is the ideal time to dive into a lighthearted, carefree novel like Jen Turano's " A Match of Wits."  The novel reads like a romantic comedy, with an emphasis on wit, as the title suggests.  Within the first chapters, the tone is set for an ongoing series of zany antics.  When Matilda, the pig makes, her grand entrance and establishes herself as a character, it becomes obvious that this is not your average book. Agatha Watson is a spunky reporter with a penchant for adventure and disaster, and currently evading would-be murderers with the help of a companion and bodyguard.  Usually a murderous plot against a central character would be a source of tension, but in "A Match of Wits," it is hard to take the danger seriously. Turano keeps the plot light, while still incorporating a small mystery around the plot to kill Agatha. Likewise, the romance between Agatha and Zayne remains fun, with only a small degree of tension.  Agatha and Zayne play off of each other's antics and find themselves in some outlandish situations. The humor is temporarily brushed aside toward the end of the novel when sincere emotions are expressed between Agatha and Zayne. From the novel's beginning, there is no doubt that there will be a happy ending, and the journey is filled with potential laughs for readers.

I was looking for an easy and fun book for vacation when I picked up "A Match of Wits."  It delivered in that respect, but I didn't enjoy the novel overall.  Agatha is extremely hardheaded and opinionated, qualities that can be more irritating than charming, especially when they lead to trouble. There were too many unrealistic elements that kept me from feeling truly engaged in the characters and their lives. For example, how can an entire group of people not only survive a massive explosion, but not sustain any injuries? How can multiple women have a talent for finding themselves in the most unconventional and outrageous circumstances?  I prefer comedy balanced with realism, and "A Match of Wits" didn't strike the right balance to capture my full interest.  If the story was a novella rather than a full-length novel, I think my impression would have been more favorable.  Over the course of 350 pages, the humor became too over-the-top; however some readers will breeze through the pages on notes of laughter.

I received a complimentary e-copy of this book from Bethany House through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed above are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Summary from Bethany House: After his departure from New York two years ago to meet up with his almost-fiancĂ©e, Zayne Beckett is the last person Agatha Watson wanted to stumble upon in her travels as a reporter with the New York Tribune. Quite pathetically bedraggled, he clearly needs to be taken in hand and sent back East to his family. Although she no longer has feelings for him, Agatha realizes, by hook or by crook, she'll have to be the one to get the obstinate man home.

Zayne has no desire to be taken anywhere and is prepared to drag his heels all the way home... until he finds himself slipping back into the familiar banter of his former friendship with Agatha. Once they arrive in New York, Zayne realizes Agatha's determined nose for news has earned her a few enemies, and he hopes to repay her help with some help of his own. When she rebuffs all his attempts to prove himself a knight in shining armor, the lengths to which they'll go to win this battle of wills lead to some memorable antics. 

Everyone else may think them a match, but nothing could be further from the truth--until Agatha finds herself in real trouble. Have these two stubborn, too-smart-for-their-own-good people been meant for each other all along?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dreamers and Doers: 2014 Summer Trip

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island

Our summer vacations are far from relaxing, but our adventures create amazing memories.  We spend months planning our trips and making itineraries to make sure we make the most of our time. This year, we ventured to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.  We received our Nova Scotia travel guide in the mail, and the title, "Dreamers and Doers" immediately resonated with us.  Dreams never venture further than our own minds until we become doers.  Prince Edward Island has been a dream destination since we were young and re-enacting "Anne of Green Gables," whereas Nova Scotia just recently made our travel list. This trip was filled with dreaming and doing - from taking a motorcycle tour of the picturesque Peggy's Cove to walking the PEI shores.  

Nova Scotia awed us with her sweeping beauty and charmed us with her culture. We visited quaint towns around Halifax, including Lunenburg and Mahone Bay.  In Glen Margaret, we met local artist and author Ivan Fraser, who gave us a tour of his childhood home and spun a captivating tale of Peggy's Cove that was blend of fact and fiction.  Our time on the east coast of Nova Scotia was filled with history, maritime culture, and charming coastal towns. The landscape became stunningly dramatic as we traveled the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton.  We began our Cape Breton experience at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center, learning a little about Celtic music, fiddle-playing, and step-dancing, which are huge parts of the local culture.  The coast of Cape Breton etched itself in our minds.  We took a few hikes that rewarded us with awe-inspiring views. White Point was our absolute favorite, a quiet retreat surrounded by a rocky coast, where our closest neighbors were seagulls and fishermen on lobster boats. The island is dotted with rural communities, and it is refreshing to completely disconnect from the suburbs, traffic, and chain stores.

Prince Edward Island lived up to its nickname "The Gentle Island," and was all that I ever dreamed it to be, from the Red Sand Shores to the Prince Edward Island National Historic Park.  We visited L.M. Montgomery's Green Gables and walked Lover's Lane and the Haunted Wood.  The visit is a must for Anne fans, but I'm sure we have all developed our own visions of Prince Edward Island after reading or watching "Anne of Green Gables."  My sister and I drove around the island searching for the one perfect spot that matched the PEI of our imaginations.  When Anne is naming the Lake of Shining Waters, she tells Matthew "I shall call it--let me see--the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that is the right name for it. I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill..." We felt that "thrill" when we found our PEI paradise in the photo at the top of this post.  We were in French River, driving down one of the island's many unpaved roads, when we came upon a scene that captured everything beautiful about the island: lupine, red dirt, and verdant, rolling fields.  Prince Edward Island gives visitors a chance to unwind and take a few back roads.  You really can "...feed [your] soul where the blacktop ends."  PEI's beauty is unassuming and undeniable, both her landscape and the locals welcome travelers.  As put our feet in the red sand, gazed over lush fields, and let the breeze waft over us, we gave Prince Edward a piece of our hearts. Which means that one day we will revisit her alluring shores.

Nova Scotia

We reached Nova Scotia after 2 days of driving!

Peggy's Cove
The Three Churches, Mahone 
Blue Rocks
Blue Rocks
Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Sunset in Lunenburg
White Point, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
White Point, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Looking Towards Cheticamp

A Rocky Beach in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Middle Head

Prince Edward Island

Green Gables House, The Home that Inspired L.M. Montgomery 
L.M. Montgomery's Lover's Lane
A Room in Green Gables
Dalvay-by-the Sea.  The exterior was used in the "Anne" movies.  

Red Sand Shores

French River

Greenwich Dunes 
Floating Boardwalk at Greenwich Dunes

Quintessentially PEI: Farmland and Sea


Beautiful Lupine

Stanley Bridge Hall

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Band Perry In Concert: Always Impressive

I saw The Band Perry in concert for the fourth time recently; and once again, their energy and passion for music was contagious.  Going to a TBP concert is a lot like Christmas...the excitement and anticipation, the pleasure and fun of the moment, and the letdown when those moments are over.  Then, the "patient anticipation" begins again.  I feel fortunate that The Band Perry has come to my area for the past 4 years, and I hope the visits continue.  I don't attend many concerts, but The Band Perry is always on my "must see" list. If I needed a reminder why I don't want to miss a live TBP performance in my area, last weekend's concert would have been a strong one.  Kimberly, Neil, and Reid are naturals on stage, performers without pretense.  When Kimberly says she wants the band and the audience to be one big family for the night, I believe her. They invite the audience into the magic of their sibling dynamic and their music. And, for an hour and half you forget the extraneous factors - like the humid air of an outdoor venue in the summer - and get captivated by the music.

The show opened with a dramatic countdown. Three large screens flashing red numbers counting gown from 10, interspersed with images of Kimberly, Neil, and Reid.  Then our wait was "DONE" and with that ever energetic, foot stomping song the concert began. The Band Perry has seemingly unending energy, transitioning from one song to the next and constantly engaging the crowd.  Like their albums, their concert is a mix of some spunky and gritty uptempo songs and more sentimental ones.  At this concert, the most memorable moments occurred with "I am a Keeper" and "Pioneer," both powerful songs with different deliveries.  The lyrics of both are encouraging and The Band Perry used the performances of both to encourage the audience.  "I am a Keeper," began with Kimberly, Reid, and Neil sharing some of the criticisms that they have received - and criticism is something to which we can all relate.  They reminded us to be true to ourselves, and above all to remember that we are indeed keepers. Their point was reinforced with a performance of conviction that was like raising a flag of victory rather than one of surrender.

Above all, the most touching song of the night was "Pioneer." It is one of my favorite songs  with inspiring lyrics that apply to life in so many ways.  The entire "Pioneer" segment of the show was poignant, starting with Kimberly's introduction filled with encouragement to keep moving toward our personal frontiers.  On that night, The Band Perry dedicated "Pioneer" to America.  An American flag was displayed in the sole spotlight at the top of the stage while Jason Fitz played the national anthem beautifully on the fiddle.  It was one of the most memorable performances of the National Anthem that I have heard, simple but undeniably stirring and the perfect precedent to "Pioneer." The band segued in "Amazing Grace" to conclude the segment.  I love The Band Perry's rendition, which I have heard at their other shows as well.  It was the ideal conclusion to the most touching 10 minutes of the night.  Everyone in the audience must have felt the power of those moments, as a peaceful stillness descended upon us, and the music and artistry stirred our emotions.

The Band Perry quickly became my favorite artists when they released their first album, with a sound that is uniquely their own.  My sister and I love their originality and their positive image.  This year, I had the opportunity to meet and greet the band - an exciting event in itself.  Though those few minutes are somewhat of a blur of excitement and nerves, I know that Kimberly, Neil, and Reid were friendly and as down-to-earth as one would expect. In retrospect, I don't feel like I met stars, just genuine people pursuing their dreams like us. Still, it is unreal to meet a group that hear on the radio or follow online. Last weekend's concert was an unforgettable, wonderful experience. Seeing The Band Perry perform live is consistently a pleasure and a night spent in the audience is far from a "night gone wasted."


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