Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: Your Best Happily Ever After


Your Best Happily Ever After
By Ginger Kolbaba
Shiloh Run, 2015


Summary

Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. Rapunzel. These beloved stories all conclude with, “. . .and they lived happily ever after.” We sigh, smile, and know there’s an amazing story of love, adventure, and redemption coming.

We all yearn for a fairy tale life, but too often our existence feels less like the pages of a storybook and more like a bad reality TV show. From poisoned apples (sin) and Ugly Stepsisters (joy-stealers) to magic mirrors (real beauty is more than skin-deep) and glass slippers (God’s perfect calling for us), the truth is that as daughters of God, we can live the perfect story the Author has written for our lives—we can experience the happily ever after that He has penned for us, now, regardless of our circumstances!

Writer, speaker, and surrogate fairy godmother Ginger Kolbaba offers encouragement, challenges, biblical insights, and a little humor on how God wants us to live and love our stories in the here and now.


My thoughts

I grew up loving fairy tales - and, while the characters can go through all kinds of trials and difficulties, I still want the fiction I read to have that "happily ever after" ending. However, it doesn't take long to realize that any similarity between real life and fairy tales comes to a screeching halt at The End. . . . But wait! There's a spiritual HEA that's available to every Christian, yet I suspect many aren't sure how to avail themselves of all that God freely gives for our daily walk. These spiritual blessings come during and in spite of life's dark times, and that's exactly what Ginger brings out in this book. Your Best Happily Ever After is not a book about marriage, but rather a book of life lessons, relationship lessons applicable to any situation.

First of all, the physical book is lovely in style, pages similar to popular devotional books with uneven edges, really appealing to hold in your hands.  Each chapter revolves around a particular fairy tale or character, draws from applicable Scripture, and ends with points upon which to reflect. I don't think I've ever seen such an ingenious concept for a practical Christian living book! Who knew such impactful spiritual lessons could be drawn from Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White? Ginger's style is to capture your attention with her engaging prose, relatable personal stories, hilarious sense of humor, and then drive home her point. After reading this, I believe I'd pick up anything Ginger writes.

One thought that stood out to me is how "God answers our prayers by giving us opportunities to grow into those answers." For example, we might pray for patience, only to have God give us opportunities to show patience. And drawn from the story of Ruth in the Old Testament, "Faith is choosing, when we can't see the outcome, to believe that God will not let us fall."

While this book is certainly applicable to anyone, no matter where they are in their faith journey, I almost think it should be required reading for older teens, college age and young adults in general. Actually, I even think men would enjoy and benefit from it. Your Best Happily Ever After would make a great graduation gift.

Highly recommended.

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Ginger Kolbaba is editor of discipleship and women’s resources, including Today’s Christian Woman magazine and Marriage Partnership.com, both award-winning publications of Christianity Today International. She has been a columnist for Let’s Worship and has published more than 250 articles. Also an accomplished book author, Ginger has written or contributed to fifteen books, including her most recent novel series, Secrets from Lulu’s Café, which includes Desperate Pastors’ Wives, A Matter of Wife and Death, and Katt’s in the Cradle.

Ginger also teaches and speaks across the country. She’s appeared on national venues such as CNN’s Nancy Grace and Court TV’s Catherine Crier Live, as well as Family Life Radio and Moody Radio’s Midday Connection. When she isn’t chained to her computer, Ginger enjoys spending time with her husband motorcycling through the countryside, visiting Yellowstone National Park, walking her Doberman, reading good books, and talking theory with her friends about the television series Lost. She believes one of her greatest accomplishments would be dusting off her piano and treadmill and using them both—at least once this year.

Find Ginger online at gingerkolbaba.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

Thank you to Barbour Publishing for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: Hope Harbor


Hope Harbor
By Irene Hannon
Hope Harbor #1
Revell, 2015


Summary

Come home to Hope Harbor--where hearts heal . . . and love blooms.

Tracy Campbell never wanted to leave Hope Harbor, Oregon, or the idyllic three-generation cranberry farm where she grew up. But life--and love--altered her plans. Now she's home again--with a floundering farm to run . . . a tragic secret . . . and a wounded heart. Romance is not on her agenda.

Nor is it on Michael Hunter's. The visitor from Chicago has daunting secrets and devastating regrets of his own. But when Tracy recruits him to help with a project that is close to her heart, winds of change begin to sweep through Hope Harbor, bringing healing, hope, and love to countless lives--including their own.


My thoughts

Hope Harbor is very different from Irene's popular suspense novels, and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. Although suspense isn't my favorite genre, Irene Hannon is one of the few suspense authors that I do enjoy - yet it's her contemporary romances that I enjoy most. Rather than being action packed, Hope Harbor is a heartwarming story, poignant, uplifting - and, as the title suggests, filled with hope. It is a character-driven story with sweet romance, charming setting, and characters so real that they could live in any of our neighborhoods.



The story is set in the fictional small town of Hope Harbor, Oregon - and I could so easily visualize an evening walk on the beach with the famous sea stack rock formations in the distance. The small-town, coastal setting and close-knit community brought Macomber's Cedar Cove to mind. Tracy's family cranberry farm also featured prominently and I enjoyed learning about the methods and hard work that go into the process.

Tracy and Michael's growing feelings for each other are first based on friendship, which is something I love to see in a romance novel, and the chemistry between them feels real. Michael's landlady, Anna, has a strong role, and all three of these characters are burdened with guilt and devastating regret over past actions. Who of us can't relate to that in some form or fashion, having discovered that guilt has only one cure. And then there's Charley, with his much sought-after fish tacos, who has an almost supernatural insight into people's deep, unspoken needs. I suspect there's some spiritual symbolism embodied in this beloved character.

As I reflect back on Hope Harbor, I'm impressed at the way Irene brings these characters into each other's lives, using both their natural talents and spiritual giftedness to help - all in a way that begs the question, coincidence, fate . . . or God? I loved Charley's pointed words to Anna that coincidence is "God's way of remaining anonymous."

The spiritual theme of forgiveness is unmistakably, but gently, woven throughout - forgiveness not just of others, but of self. This story made me step back and reflect on how I treat loved ones, impressing upon me how essential understanding and empathy are, and how crucial being willing to take that first step to initiate reconciliation can be. Above all, Hope Harbor is a story of hope.

By the way, there's only one thing missing, and that's the Harbor Point Cranberry Nut Cake recipe! (Sorry, couldn't resist, Irene.) I have become invested in this community and eagerly await the next Hope Harbor book, coming in summer 2016. Highly recommended to all readers.


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Irene Hannon is the bestselling author of more than forty-five novels, including That Certain Summer, One Perfect Spring, and the Heroes of Quantico, Guardians of Justice, and Private Justice series. Her books have been honored with three coveted RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America, a Carol Award, three HOLT Medallions, a Daphne du Maurier Award, two Reviewers' Choice Awards from RT Book Reviews magazine, a Retailers' Choice Award, a Booksellers' Best Award, and a National Readers' Choice Award. In addition, she is a two-time Christy Award finalist, and Booklist included one of her novels in its "Top 10 Inspirational Fiction" list for 2011. She lives in Missouri.

Find Irene online at irenehannon.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

Thank you to Revell for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review + GIVEAWAY: Among the Fair Magnolias


Among the Fair Magnolias
By Tamera Alexander, Shelley Gray, Dorothy Love, Elizabeth Musser
Thomas Nelson, 2015


Among the Fair Magnolias is a wonderfully entertaining and moving collection of stories. It's all about historical romance and being southern fiction is a bonus for me, but these character-driven stories rise above that genre with their compelling storylines set during a turbulent time in America's history from 1860-1878. There's no way I could pick a favorite because all are well written and compelling in their own way.

Among the Fair Magnolias . . . What an evocative title for these four novellas featuring Southern women with hidden depths! As a life-long resident of Georgia, I've always known of the magnolia blossom's association with the perseverance, dignity, and strength that Southern women possess - the ingrained ability to not just endure hardships, but to rise above them. And that is exactly what you will find here. I delight in recommending this novella collection with surprising depth.


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A Heart So True
by Dorothy Love
Abigail knows all too well what is expected of her: to marry her distant cousin Charles and take her place in society. But her heart belongs to another. A terrible incident forces Abby to choose between love and duty.

Duty, politics, physical abuse and action that held my interest are just a few elements that we see in Dorothy's story. I loved revisiting the Pawleys Island, South Carolina, setting of Carolina Gold and even seeing a few familiar faces. So glad Dorothy brought us back there. Wish there could have been a little more "together" time and relationship development for Abigail and Wade, but still very enjoyable.


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To Mend a Dream
by Tamera Alexander
Savannah Darby would do almost anything to revisit her family home. So when new owner, Aidan Bedford, a Boston attorney and former Union soldier, seeks to redecorate the house for his fiancée, Savannah jumps at the opportunity. But the clock is ticking. Can she find the box her father supposedly hid there during the war before her assignment is completed? And before she sees yet another battle lost on the home front. This time, one of the heart.

Savannah Darby was a memorable secondary character in To Win Her Favor and I'm so glad Tamera was able to feature her here. This is a beautiful and poignant story packed with intricacies skillfully woven together. Everything about Savannah and Aidan is real and touching, with great chemistry between them. And the story beautifully illustrates God's quiet orchestration of our lives, expressed as they reflected on how often "He interlaced such painful parts of this earthly journey with such joyous ones, weaving them together with such skill and grace. And beauty."


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Love Beyond Limits
by Elizabeth Musser
Emily has a secret: She’s in love with one of the freedmen on her family’s plantation. Meanwhile, another man declares his love for her. Emily realizes some things are not as they seem and secrets must be kept in order to keep those she loves safe.

This is the first story by Elizabeth Musser that I've read and let me just say that I will be searching for more immediately, for anyone who  can write such a moving and eye-opening story as this demands my attention. I loved the Georgia setting, although I learned a lot about my state's Reconstruction history that I'm not proud of. Elizabeth spins a poignant story that features themes of racial superiority and "taboo" relationships, making me realize that our world hasn't progressed all that much. And I had so much admiration for the lead characters, Emily and Thomas.


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An Outlaw’s Heart
by Shelley Gray
When Russell Stark returns to Fort Worth, he’s determined to begin a new life. But when he arrives at his mother’s homestead, he discovers she’s very ill, and the woman he loved is still as beautiful and sweet as he remembered. With time running out, Russell must come to terms with both his future and his past.

Up until now, all I have read by Shelley Gray has been Amish fiction, but it's evident that her creative storytelling ability carries over to other genres as well. Russell Champion's story evolved from Shelley's previous historical series and I simply loved this flawed character, as well as Nora and others in the town. Poignant and touching, this story beautifully conveys forgiveness, change, and that we shouldn't always define people by their past - and that you really can go home!


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        Tamera Alexander is the best-selling author of numerous books including “A Lasting Impression” and “The Inheritance.” Tamera is a two-time Christy Award winner, two-time RITA winner, and a recipient of the prestigious Library Journal Award.
        A native of west Tennessee,Dorothy Love makes her home in the Texas hill country with her husband and their golden retriever. An award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, Dorothy made her adult debut with the Hickory Ridge novels.
        Shelley Gray is the author of The Heart of a Hero series. Her Amish novel (written as Shelley Shepard Gray), “The Protector,” recently made the New York Times best seller list.
        Elizabeth Musser, a native of Atlanta, Georgia now living in France, is a novelist who writes what she calls ‘entertainment with a soul.’ For over 25 years, Elizabeth and her husband, Paul, have been involved in mission work with International Teams.

Find out more about Alexander, Gray, Love, Musser at http://www.thomasnelson.com/among-the-fair-magnolias.

The post Story Spotlight on ‘Among the Fair Magnolias’ appeared first on Litfuse Publicity Group.

Thank you to Litfuse Publicity for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


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GIVEAWAY

To enter the drawing for Among the Fair Magnolias . . .

1) Please go to my Facebook page and share about this giveaway ("likes" to my FB page are not required, but very much appreciated).

2) Simply leave a comment as to why this book appeals to you.

Name and email address required for entry - leave in a safe format - [at] and [dot]. Contest ends at midnight PST on Sunday, August 30. Winner will be chosen by Random.org and contacted by e-mail.

Eligibility: US residents

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: Drape Expectations


Drape Expectations
By Karen Rose Smith
Caprice De Luca Series, #4
Kensington, 2015


Summary

These days, home stager Caprice De Luca’s calendar is a full house. Her grandmother’s health is failing, her wayward uncle is stirring the pot, and she’s torn between two equally eligible suitors.

With so much drama in her personal life, Caprice is grateful to have Ace Richland, a former 80s rock star, ask her to stage his girlfriend’s house. But Alanna Goodwin is a tough customer who balks at Caprice’s ideas and all but commandeers the staging. Caprice almost isn’t surprised when the snappish Southern belle is strangled to death with a tieback from her tacky velvet drapes. But just as she draws back the curtains on the truth, Caprice realizes she may be next on a murderer’s set list…


My thoughts

I have long been a fan of cozy mysteries and welcome the addition of the Caprice De Luca series to my reading enjoyment. As with most series, each book can stand alone, although reading in order will give a better sense of flow and characterization. Compared to a lot of other mysteries that I read, this series is more character driven, which is something I greatly appreciate because picking up a new book is like coming home to a comfortable family.

In addition to an entertaining murder mystery, Drape Expectations continues with strong family dynamics, including the making of a decision between two suitors who have been present since the first book. Let me just say that I've had my favorite from the beginning and was not disappointed. In fact, the couple had great chemistry and this theme featured prominently in the story. I also want to add that this book is completely clean, proving that novels can indeed entertain and succeed without profanity or bedroom scenes. Well done, Miss Karen!

With her home staging business, large family, and love for animals, I find Caprice to be quite an engaging lead character and amateur detective. Anyone who has spent even a little time viewing HGTV will appreciate Caprice's unique staging themes - Minimalist Illusion, Southern Plantation, etc. I loved how her sister Nikki, who caters her open houses, found a description of a plantation dinner and replicated it. But it's Caprice's love and passion for family that touch me the most, for she realizes that family is worth fighting for. The De Lucas "didn't take adversity lying down. They got up, shook themselves off, and figured out what to do next." One of my favorite secondary characters was Caprice's uncle, whose return home causes much tension.

Readers who enjoy animals will find much to like here, as Caprice's pets are very much a part of her family, and it's obvious that Karen's love for pets isn't merely for the sake of hooking readers. As an owner of multiple cats myself, it was so much fun to watch Caprice's efforts to integrate the murder victim's cat into her own household.  Caprice's pets are very much a part of her family, and she even gives some tips for care.

Descriptions - furniture, style of dress, etc. - sometimes slow down the pace, but I actually enjoyed that aspect of the story. The murder theme held my attention and I was surprised by the guilty party, but then I usually am, as I read more for overall story. I look forward to whatever Caprice gets involved in next. Recommended to cozy mystery fans everywhere.

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After writing romances for twenty years, Karen Rose Smith is excited to see her Caprice De Luca home-stager mystery series published. Her sleuth reflects many of her interests: ­interior decorating, cooking, retro fashion, gardening, and, most of all, taking in stray animals. Married to her college sweetheart, Karen has convinced her husband that felines can make purr-fect housemates. They share their home in the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania with their three rescued cats.

Find Karen online at karenrosesmithmysteries.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

Thank you to Karen and Kensington Publishing for providing a electronic copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.



Review: Glory Days


Glory Days
By Max Lucado
Thomas Nelson, 2015


Summary

The wilderness. Maybe you know it well.

The Israelites sure did. After all, they spent forty years wandering the desert. Victories were scarce. Progress was slow. They were free from Pharaoh but not free from fear. Saved but stuck.

Sounds a lot like midlife misery. Caught in a rut. Stalled out. Running on empty. Are you mired in the same?

You can name the day you became a Christian and escaped Egypt. But you can’t remember the last time you defeated a temptation or experienced an answered prayer. You’re fighting the same battles you fought the day you came to Christ. You’re out of Egypt, but Egypt’s not out of you. Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be better than this?

Jesus offers abundant joy. Yet you live with oppressive grief. The epistles speak of grace. You shoulder guilt. You are more than a conqueror yet are commonly conquered by temptation or weaknesses.

But there’s good news. With God’s help you can close the gap between the person you are and the person you want to be. Like Joshua and the Israelites, you can move from a wilderness existence into a promised inheritance.

This is God’s vision for your life. You, at full throttle. You, as you were intended. You, as victor over the Jerichos and giants. You, minus the stumbles, hurts, and hate. You and your Promised Land life.


My thoughts

Max Lucado is one of my favorite Bible teachers today, for he beautifully crafts emotional word pictures that make me think and then pick up my Bible to go deeper. His impactful style of writing is such that anyone can relate to it, from the new Christian to seasoned believers. While I've enjoyed all that I've read by Max so far, Glory Days just might be one of his best teaching resources as he carries us up close and personal through the book of Joshua.

I'm pretty familiar with the historical elements of Joshua, but never realized it contained so much essential insight for daily Christian living. For instance, I've always thought of the Christian's Promised Land as heaven, maybe because of hymns I grew up with, but Lucado puts forth that it is a spiritual reality - a spiritual reality that many Christians fail to experience because they're still wandering in the wilderness, enslaved by fear. And one of the most meaningful aspects of his writing is the wealth of Scriptures that he draws from.

What a powerful book! Each chapter focuses on a particular passage and theme from Joshua, and the book would work well for either personal or group Bible study. I've read Glory Days for review purposes, now I'm eager to begin again and go deeper, maybe even memorizing a few Scriptures that are especially meaningful to me. And since I already have so much highlighted, let me share just a few quotes . . .

  • Jericho may be strong. But Jesus is stronger. Let him be your strength.
  • Glory Days happen to the degree that we trust him.
  • One stumble does not define or break a person. Though you failed, God's love does not.
  • Landing in a pigpen stinks. But staying there is just plain stupid.
  • Heeding God's Word is more critical than fighting God's war. Indeed, heeding God's Word is fighting God's war.
  • Remember who you are; you are God's child. You've been bought by the most precious commodity in the history of the universe: the blood of Christ.


And the last lines of Glory Days beautifully sum up its message:


This is your inheritance: more victory than defeat,
more joy than sadness, more hope than despair.
These days are Glory Days.

I highly recommend Glory Days to all readers.


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More than 120 million readers have found comfort in the writings of Max Lucado. He ministers at the Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Denalyn, and a sweet but misbehaving mutt, Andy.

Find out more about Glory Days by visiting the Litfuse landing page.

Thank you to Litfuse Publicity for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review: Irish Meadows


Irish Meadows
By Susan Anne Mason
Courage to Dream, #1
Bethany House, 2015


Summary

Faced with an uncertain future, sometimes all you have left is the courage to dream.

Brianna and Colleen O’Leary know their Irish immigrant father expects them to marry well. Recently he’s put even more pressure on them, insinuating that the very future of their Long Island horse farm, Irish Meadows, rests in their ability to land prosperous husbands. Both girls, however, have different visions for their futures.

Brianna, a quiet girl with a quick mind, dreams of attending college. Vivacious Colleen, meanwhile, is happy to marry—as long as her father’s choice meets her exacting standards of the ideal groom. When former stable hand Gilbert Whelan returns from business school and distant relative Rylan Montgomery visits Long Island during his seminary training, the two men quickly complicate everyone’s plans.

As the farm slips ever closer to ruin, James O’Leary grows more desperate. It will take every ounce of courage for both sisters to avoid being pawns in their father’s machinations and instead follow their hearts. And even if they do, will they inevitably find their dreams too distant to reach?


My thoughts

Irish Meadows, book #1 of the Courage to Dream series, has such an appealing setting in the Long Island, New York, horse farm by the same name. The year is 1911 and the focus is on the James O'Leary clan, a family of Irish immigrants struggling to survive during a time when horse racing was banned in many states. Characters are well developed and filled with flaws to the extent that I didn't always like them, but that's what makes an enjoyable read for me. Susan Anne Mason's debut historical romance is a page turner and I look forward to more from her very soon.

The romances of two sisters unfold simultaneously with emotion, glimpses of humor, and great chemistry. Brianna and Gilbert had been childhood best friends, and their initial meeting in the stables upon his return home immediately had me engaged. But while I enjoyed their story, it was Colleen and Rylan who fascinated me most. A "happily ever after" ending seemed unlikely for both couples, so readers will be pleasantly surprised.

James O'Leary, Colleen and Brianna's dad, is a strong character with an almost overpowering impact on the lives of his family. Having survived the rough times that most Irish immigrants faced, he determined to use the most available financial assets he had in order to save the family farm, which just happened to be his children. Instead of cherishing Colleen and Brianna as blessings, he used them as pawns to better his finances. And while years earlier, James had opened up his heart and home to bring the orphaned Gil into his family, he now demands that he court the banker's daughter. I think the series title, Courage to Dream, beautifully comes in to play here as the characters seek to rise above the restrictions of their culture and times.

That the Catholic faith was important to the O'Leary family is something I would expect from this era, and I appreciated that aspect. We do see spiritual and emotional growth in the main characters, but Colleen's story is the most redemptive and I loved everything about it. God's orchestration of events and ability to transform is clearly seen - and even if some change happened a little quickly, that's okay with me because it made for great storytelling.

From the book's cover and description, I expected more of a family-saga type story with lots of historical detail, but the main focus of Irish Meadows is romance. Although that's not a bad thing, I would have loved to see slightly less emphasis on romance and more rich historical elements  because the Irish Meadows horse farm and 1911 era have so much to offer. Still a very enjoyable read for me and I eagerly await the story of the troubled older brother, Adam, in A Worthy Heart, coming January 2016.

Recommended to all who enjoy historical romance.

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Susan Anne Mason's debut historical novel, Irish Meadows, won the Fiction from the Heartland contest from the Mid-American Romance Authors Chapter of RWA. A member of ACFW, as well, she lives outside of Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and two children.

Find Susan online at susanannemason.com, Facebook, and Twitter. Also learn more at the Litfuse landing page.

Thank you to Litfuse Publicity for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.