Monday, July 28, 2014

Review of "A Match of Wits"

Rating: 2.5 Stars
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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."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review of "All for a Sister"

Rating: 5 Stars
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Review:  Allison Pittman's gift for creating plots with depth and intricacies is evident in "All for a Sister," her latest novel set in 1920s Hollywood.  There are numerous layers and several viewpoints to command readers' attention for the course of the story.  When I pick up a book by Pittman, I know that I am about to immerse myself in words that will take me on a unique journey that I will remember.  Pittman's plots are not different versions of the same story we've read before, they are unique and stirring.  Her latest three works are perfect examples.  "All for a Song," "All for a Story," and "All for a Sister" are all set in the intriguing 1920s with some of the same secondary characters, but they are each stand-alone with fresh main characters facing very different conflicts. "All for a Sister" proved my favorite novel of the three with all of its complexities and relationship dynamics.

This was a novel that required my complete attention and engagement.  The perspectives switch between Celeste DuFrane as child, Celeste as an adult, Dana Lundgren living in the present and retelling her past, and the written confession of Marguerite DuFrane reflecting on her life-altering decisions.  Each change in viewpoint is clearly delineated for the reader, making the shifts much easier to follow. The central mystery of the plot revolves around the death of the Dufrane's youngest daughter, an event that sent Dana to prison for 20 years.  It is clear from the beginning that there is much more to the alleged murder, and as we learn more about the past events, a tangle of sinfulness, hatred, and deceit emerge.  Pittman deftly weaves the silken web to show the disastrous trap that sin creates.  All hope is not lost, however, as faith and love gradually loosen the tangles.

I can always count on Allison Pittman to deliver a story with depth and pain with lives that are far from idyllic.  It is refreshing to depart from the happy love stories and delve into something with heartbreak. Dana's story in particular is full of woe - a childhood spent in a dark and often cruel prison, not unlike a setting Charles Dickens would create. While Dana reflects on her painful past, which is an integral part of the plot, it is balanced with the healing and promise of her future.  Despite her meekness, Dana outshined the beautiful and vivacious Celeste, and quickly found a home in my heart.  Celeste and Dana could not be more disparate women - one lived a life of comfort, the other a life of want.  Celeste adds a needed vibrancy to the plot and a different perspective of life in the Dufrane household.  I began guessing how the two women's lives would entwine before starting the novel.  Although the resolution was not a complete surprise, the journey was full of unexpected revelations and the beauty of hope.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 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 Tyndale: In Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties, Celeste DuFrane has it all. Her father’s work with color movie film opens doors that lead to the stardom she’s always aspired to. But after losing her mother, she discovers that half the estate has been left to a woman accused of killing Celeste’s baby sister before Celeste was even born.

Dana Lundgren arrives on the steps of the DuFrane mansion having spent most of her life imprisoned for a crime that never happened. After accusing her of murder so many years ago, why did Marguerite DuFrane leave her a sizeable inheritance? 

As Celeste and Dana learn each other’s stories, they come up with more questions than answers. Then a surprising discovery begins to fill in the missing pieces: Marguerite DuFrane’s written confession, penned shortly before her death. Uncovering the treachery and deceit that changed the course of countless lives—most of all, their own—the two women find more than they ever dreamed of.


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