Monday, December 26, 2011

Bittersweet Surrender - Diann Hunt



"Bittersweet Surrender" by Diann Hunt is a women's Christian fiction romance novel released December 20, 2011 by Thomas Nelson.  I realized right from the start that the key character is the owner of a chocolate spa, and I fell right into the book.  I work in a spa part time, and I feel the author did an excellent job of portraying the different types of clientele encountered at a high-end spa.  Topics like plastic surgery along with various other kinds of things women consider were talked about openly in a fun, realistic way.  Since Carly had a mastectomy a couple years earlier, reconstructive surgery was at the top of her want list.  We stayed with her fun, romantic character as she searched for love and finally found a way to be at peace with her body the way it was -- while still maintaining a healthy desire to have the surgery.  I felt like the novel was romantic and showed strong attraction between the two key characters.  It also had a fantastic ending. 
 Although I fully expected this novel to be a romance (and it did not disappoint), what I wasn't expecting and was happily surprised to discover was that it is also a very well-written mystery with a detailed plot.  The author managed to include adult situations like gambling addiction, embezzlement, and adultery all in the same book.  It held me from the first to the last page. 
    My last word on this novel is this.... buy this book and keep it for a time when you can sit down and read straight through it.  Because you won't want to stop until you reach the end.
    This book was a complimentary review copy from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased review.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Stuck" - a Women of God 8-week Bible study starting January 26th

"Stuck," a study written by Jennie Allen and published by Lifeway is an 8-session study focusing on breaking free from brokenness, anger, discontentment, fear, and sadness.  Many women struggle in these areas.  As someone who has, after 3 long years, overcome debilitating depression I can testify that there is hope!  Join me at my home for this DVD/workbook hybrid study on becoming unstuck.  This is a study designed for women to grow closer to God and each other.  This study has a 5-star rating on Amazon -- nearly impossible to achieve.  I can't wait to dig in!
"We are often so stuck in invisible struggles in our hearts and minds, we barely have space for God. These deep struggles, these stuck places, are familiar to every one of us: brokenness, anger, discontentment, fear, and sadness. "Stuck" takes on these struggles within us so that we can encounter God. Because until we recognize that we are stuck and in need of God, we will miss what He has for us."
The cost for the workbook is $10.  You can get the workbook through Branson First Baptist Church  by calling (417) 334-7437 or signing up at the information booth.  You can also order it at Amazon for $9.99 + shipping. 
Meeting time will be 10:00 AM Thursday mornings starting January 26th. 
This study will be held at my home, which is located north of Branson.  Directions are (as if coming from from Branson):
  • Go north of Hwy 65.
  • Turn right on Rose O'Neill Rd.
  • When you see the mailboxes, go straight thru the green gates onto private property.
  • Make the first left onto a small, gravel road.  This is our driveway.  Brick home ahead.
You can sign up for this study by calling FBC Branson or by emailing me at TomRenae417@hotmail.com.

Friday, December 16, 2011

There You'll Find Me - Jenny B. Jones

"There You'll Find Me" is a teenage romance written by Jenny B. Jones, who you may remember from "Save the Date," which was one of my very first book reviews on this blog.  "There You'll Find Me" highlights the more serious concepts of overcoming grief, dealing with emotional issues, and working through the past.  The author uses humor (the hallmark of a novel by Jenny B. Jones) to convey the important messages, so the reader never feels depressed.  The romance is well-written and age appropriate. 
The characters of the story strongly resemble modern day Paris Hilton (daughter of a wealthy American hotelier) and Robert Pattison (one of the stars from the Twilight series) with a modest, Christian twist.  The premis of the story is that Finley flies to Ireland as a foreign exchange student in an effort to track her deceased brother's journey.  She does this so that she can connect with his memory and move on in her grief.  When she meets Beckett, the vampire movie star, and gets to know him sparks fly (in a rather subdued, safe way) and new situations arise that she needs to work through.
Overall, the book is well-written for the age group that it is intended, but I don't feel that it should be considered an adult novel.  I would recommend it to girls ages 15-18. 
I received this book as a complimentary review copy from BookSneeze in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck - Kathleen Y'Barbo

The title "The Inconvenient Marriage of Charlotte Beck" grabbed me as being quirky and creative.  The cover art and title made me think I would enjoy this light, fun read.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it had much more depth.  A plus was that the chemistry between the two main characters was believeable.  As a former "Heartsong," "Love Inspired," and "Romance Club" writer, this is what Kathleen Y'Barbo does best.  But don't think that this is simply a longer version of a dime store novel, because it's not.
I'll let you in on a secret... I didn't actually know that it was the third in a series until just now when I was doing research on the author.  If you had asked me just minutes ago, I would have told you it was a stand alone novel.    The first book in the series is "the Secret Life of Eugenia Cooper" and the second is "Anna Finch and the Hired Gun."  Both look like excellent novels, and I will probably take time to read them.  I'm glad I didn't find out until just now, because normally I will wait to read a book if I know there are others that come before it in a series which I have not previously read.  Never once did I feel like I was missing information or backstory. 
The author did a fantastic job of grabbing my attention from the very first page.  I fell in love with all the characters, and felt like everyone got the right amount of page space.  The plot was good, although not intricate, and kept moving.  I thought it was very creative of the author to split the book into two time periods.  I didn't see that coming, and I love to be surprised. 
My only criticism of the novel is that the character of Miss Pence seemed superficial and slightly out of place with the tone of the rest of the book.  She was clearly a fictional character.  I wish that the author had instead included similar quotes from actual people who lived and breathed during that era.  A few true historical quotes is a nice accent to an otherwise fictional book.  This way, the same goal that Miss Pence served could have been met in a more interesting and less superficial way.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Renae's Christmas Wish List 2011

CNN Money published that shoppers will spend approximately $704.18 this year on Christmas gifts.  Their source (Big Research) learned that "peace and happiness" came in at 4th place this year, while it came in at 1st place in 2010.  Very interesting.
So instead of publishing my 2011 Christmas list on the world wide web, I should probably demur... but I won't.  Even though I firmly believe that the birth of Jesus Christ is the true origin and meaning of Christmas I am also one of the many who enjoy giving and receiving (gulp, it's true) gifts.  I'll post my list here (no holding back!), and below that will include the top gift items for year 2011 as published by USA Today.

Renae's 2011 Christmas Wish List:
  • Butcher block cutting board from Blue Mountain Woodwork.  I saw these multi-color wood cutting boards almost 2 years ago at a craft fair and fell in love with the workmanship.   Wow! 
  • A light for my Kindle.  Tom gave me an unexpected gift last year -- an e-Reader.  I hadn't asked for one, but he really nailed it!  I use my Kindle all the time.  Since so many books are available free for the Kindle, this gift has saved me money over the last year.
  • Cozy pajamas.  I always wondered as a child why my mother wanted pajamas every single year.  Now I know.  New pajamas are just sooooooo cozy!
  • Sara Bareilles CDs -- Kaleidoscope Heart and Little Voice.  I Pandora her every chance I get.
  • iPad.  Yes, I am a statistic.  I have no immediate plans to acquire one of these, but it makes the list nonetheless.
  • Silver jeans in the "Suki" fit.
  • Piano music.  Most especially, the 12-song collection from the Pride & Prejudice soundtrack (Keira Knightly version).  I'd also like the 100-song Hal Leonard Christmas book.
  • A book on how to photograph your children.  It's called "Mamarazzi: Every Mom's Guide to Photographing Kids"
  • I won't wish for health plan reforms or the end of world hunger, but I can't stop myself from begging for the end of child sex trafficking.  It won't happen without us fighting.  It is a growing problem, and is spiraling out of control.  Please help!  Here are some ways you can help end human trafficking.... You can donate to a trustworthy organization that is actively fighting human trafficking such as The A21 Campaign.  You can purchase a beautiful handbag (maybe as a Christmas gift?!?) from Sak Saum, an organization that provides rehabilitation, shelter, job-skill training and food to exploited, victimized women that have been rescued from human trafficking.  Your purchase helps this ministry to continue their rehabilitation program.  Another thing you can do is purchase your every day goods wisely.  Please make sure that you are buying products from fair-trade organizations.  You can do your research and continue to buy locally, or purchase items from a company that has already done this for you, such as Yobel Market
If you can't save the world tonight, but you do need a good gift for your spouse, read on and take your pick from the following (almost) guaranteed winners, per USA Today:
  • Apple iPod touch (newest model) for $299.00
  • Apple iPad 2 starting at $499.00
  • Amazon Kindle Fire for $199.00
  • Xbox 360 with Kinect for $299.00
As always, a pair of pajamas might just do the trick.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies

Now that we have eaten tons of Thanksgiving Day food, I'm ready for a change of pace.  No more green bean casseroles, sweet potatoes, or turkey for me!  I'm heading toward the perfect chocolate chip cookie.  Since this information is highly proprietary, let's give credit where credit is due. The recipe was created by Jacque Torres, and published to the public by the NY Times as being the absolute most perfect chocolate chip cookie.  It first peaked my interest as being pinned by a friend on Pintrest, then I followed the link.  Having just finished reading Tendercrumb's blog, I had to share it with you.  Perfection doesn't come without a little hard work, though.  Here are a few tips...
  • Don't substitute regular all purpose flour.
  • Chop your own chocolate.  Buy a couple pounds of bittersweet chocolate made by a good company.  Roughly 60% cacao would be good. 
  • Refrigerate the dough.
  • Do not overbake.
When I make these, I will post a follow-up article on my review of the recipe.  Here's the kick-butt recipe, exactly as published on Tendercrumb.  Drum roll please....

Jacques Torres' Secret Chocolate Chip Cookie RecipeMakes twenty-six 5-inch cookies or 8 1/2 dozen 1 1/4-inch cookies
Ingredients
1 pound unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups packed light-brown sugar
4 large eggs
3 cups plus 2 tablespoons pastry flour
3 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 pounds bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Directions
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats; set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugars.
- Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
- Reduce speed to low and add both flours, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla, and chocolate; mix until well combined.
- Using a 4-ounce scoop for larger cookies or a 1-ounce scoop for smaller cookies, scoop cookie dough onto prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.
- Bake until lightly browned, but still soft, about 20 minutes for larger cookies and about 15 minutes for smaller cookies.
- Cool slightly on baking sheets before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

I don't know whether the photo is copyrighted or not, but just in case let me tell you that if so it is owned by Tendercrumb.  I hope to post my own photos after I make a batch.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Women of Faith Conference in Kansas City, MO -- Nov 4-5, 2011

If you've seen my posts on Facebook over the last several months then you know I have been totally psyched about Women of Faith coming to Kansas City, MO!  This was an awesome time of women speaking to women, challenging us to live our faith in a completely "over the top" kind of way.  I will be posting pictures soon.  For those of you who did get to enjoy this, but you have non-buyer's remorse (meaning, you regret that you didn't purchase some swag at the conference)... visit this link to hook yourself up.

If you couldn't breakaway for a girls weekend this last Friday & Saturday, then it's my sisterly responsibility to remind you that there are only two conferences left this year!  I hope you can find time to squeeze one of these into your schedule.  Tickets are $99 each, and you can purchase them online here.

"Over the Top"         November 11-12, 2011        Oklahoma City, OK
"Imagine"                     November 11-12, 2011        Hartford, CT

I just Mapquested the drive from Branson, MO to Oklahoma City, OK and I am happy to report that it is only 5 hours and 32 minutes.  Since most of that is interstate, this makes an ideal mini-vacation for this weekend!

I have more great news!  Women of Faith has released their event schedule for 2012.  Here are some dates for conferences near Branson, MO:

"One Day"              March 31, 2012                Wichita, KS
"Dream On"*          April 14, 2012                   Oklahoma City, OK
"One Day"              June 16, 2012                    Little Rock, AR
"Celebrate"             November 2-3, 2012         Kansas City, MO

*This is part of the Revolve tour, which is for young ladies in junior high and highschool.

If you need to stay closer to home, let me offer an alternative.  There will be a James River women's rally Friday, November 11, 2011 (this weekend)!  It will no doubt rock the house starting at 7 pm.  Be sure to get there early for a good seat.  If you need a friend to sit with, send me a Facebook message so I can find you.  James River Assembly is located just off Hwy 65, north of Branson in Ozark, MO.  Go like you are going to Lamberts.  Then turn left at the first stop light and it will take you straight to the church parking lot.

A Lasting Impression - Tamera Alexander

Several months ago I had the pleasure of reading "From a Distance" by Tamera Alexander.  It was a well-written book with a strong plot.  Because she was published by Bethany House, I had every confidence that this new-to-me author held promise.
Let me emphatically say that after reading "A Lasting Impression" I can see that my confidence was not misplaced.
The book is set in Nashville, Tennessee in 1866 just after the Civil War, with some of the main characters having fought in the war themselves. The author did an excellent job of portraying the South's struggle to regain its footing after the war.  I got the distinct feeling that there were several historically accurate events depicted in the book, but that the author had respectfully changed the names of the people.
In writing this review, I noticed the fine type on the cover just under the title says "A Belmont Mansion Novel."  My pulse quickened and I immediately flipped to the inside of the book to confirm what I hoped to be true, and -- YES! -- this is the first in a series of books based in Nashville on the Belmont estate.

In the Author's Note, Tamera says that this book took her two years to research and write.  Since the book is packed with history, emotion, and a very creative plot I don't doubt that at all.  After reading this, you can't help but do a little research of your own to learn more about Adelicia Acklen.  I have included a photo of Adelicia Franklin Acklen Cheatham and a photo of Belmont here.  After all, this belle of the south was one of the wealthiest people of her era.  Throughout her life she experienced great loss (the death of all four children from her first marriage, the death of child twins from her second marriage, and the loss of two husbands), great wealth, and exhibited strength of character through it all.  She is considered courageous because when she learned that the Union soldiers were planning to burn bales of cotton at her Louisiana estate, she traveled from Tennessee to Louisiana and conducted the sale of that cotton to a client in Liverpool, England for the total sum of $970,000.00.  I cannot imagine a more interesting person to write a novel around.
My last note on this review is that the book is a longer-length novel, and I encourage the reader to settle in with a blanket and a cup of coffee to enjoy it -- over several days.  You can buy this on Amazon.com for $9.22 + shipping.  It's worth it!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Embers of Love - Tracie Peterson

"Embers of Love" is book one in the new "Striking a Match" series by Tracie Peterson.  Since I have read a number of Tracie Peterson books and loved them all, I began this one with high expectations.  My opinion is that this a very "safe" book, and the author doesn't take many risks.
Strong emotion isn't shown, except when Mrs. Foster learns that her son has had a logging accident.  When Euphanel's son has a similar accident, I was left cold and surprised at the lack of emotion shown from this mother.
The plot encompasses more than one main character.  Perhaps because of this, not as much attention to detail was given to any one character.  The love story between Lizzie and G.W. (which I accidentally mentally pronounced "G.Q." almost every single time when I read it) seemed underdeveloped.  The initial dilemma they faced at the beginning of the book was overcome just a little over mid-way through.  I had the feeling that the story was over and winding down.  Still, since it was so early in the book, I was expecting retaliation from Stuart Albright later on, but it never came.  I wondered if there was a romantic attachment between Euphanel and Arjan, but if there was nothing was made of it.  I felt that overall it was more of a prequel to the second book in this series which is to be about Deborah.
This book was not as gripping as some of her novels.  While I was able to download it for free to my Kindle last week, I believe that the special is over and they are now charging the regular rate for the book.  It was well worth my time reading it, but I'm not confident that I will read the second book in the series.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Griselda Takes Flight - Joyce Magnin

At first, I thought this book set in the fictional town of Bright's Pond was exceptionally cute and had a good grasp on small rural life.  The characters had small town names (Zeb, Studebaker, Griselda, Gilda, Stella, Agnes, etc.) and the word-isms were hilarious.  This was definitely a study in small town culture.  I laughed many times at the author's sense of humor. 
The premis of the book is that Griselda has been newly freed from the constant care of her obese sister, Agnes, because Agnes recently checked herself into a nursing home.  Now Griselda has an opportunity for the first time in a long time to live life willy-nilly.  She takes an interest in flying.  We get to hear a little about her minimal love life.  On a separate line, some supporting characters, Stella and Nate, are growing a ginormous pumpkin which they have named Bertha Ann.  Bertha Ann will be their submission to the state fair competition.  The book follows their journey and we learn a mild bit of info about pumpkin growing.  The only actual plot I could detect was that Stella's estranged brother, Walter, has come to town seeking a buried treasure and ends up in a coma.  His supposed fiancee is in town, and something seems fishy.  It's a good start, but is really not the focus of the book. 
Overall it was like reading a journal.  The entire book was written from one person's perspective (Griselda's) and written in first person.  It has no sustainable plot and reading it was like moseying through life one day at a time.  I am officially deeming this book a snoozer. 
It didn't work for me, but it may be good for a reader who wishes to relax in a Steel Magnolias kind of way.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lady in the Mist - Laurie Alice Eakes

I love it when books begin with action.  This one did, and it held my attention all the way through.  This was my first experience reading a novel from Laurie Alice Eakes.  It was well researched and read like a breeze.  This would easily qualify as a good book to relax with on vacation.  I can see myself reading more from this author in her Midwife series.  If you have a Kindle, you can download this for free at Amazon.  As of today (10/7/11), the link is still good. 
The plot was detailed enough, and I learned about the role of midwives in society just after the American Revolution as well as the problem our nation had with the British Navy impressing Americans as little more than slaves on their ships.  There were a couple nights that I just didn't want to stop reading it.  I took my "book" with me everywhere. 
On a score of 1-5, with 5 being completely unpredictable, the mystery plot was about a 3. It bears saying that I never fully believed that the red herrings planted were guilty.  I think the book would have been less predictable if the conclusion had gone a different way. 
For romance, this is a good fix.  The author did a fantastic job with the characters' romance.  The ratio of mystery to romance was roughly 50/50.
Once or twice I noted that the language used was not consistent with the date that the book was set in.  She also chose to use a couple obscure words that I had never heard before, and I used my Kindle to get the definition.  The British word "brainbox" is presently a slang word, and I couldn't get quite over it.  Since the word appeared several times, it must have been a favorite of the author. 
Overall, a fantastic read.  Even better, it was free.  This one is definitely worth downloading!  If you don't own a Kindle, click here for the Nook download, and here for the KOBO download.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sworn to Protect - DiAnn Mills

After reading "Attracted to Fire," the DiAnn Mills novel sent to me by Tyndale a few weeks ago, I knew I had to have another one.  So I bought and paid for "Sworn to Protect." 
Again Ms. Mills delivered.  In this novel the chemistry between the two main characters was not quite as good as in "Attrated to Fire." Although the romance wasn't there as much, it still made for an exciting storyline, because it leaves the possibility open for treachery.  "Sworn to Protect" is the first in the "Call of Duty" series.  It was published in 2010, so it's still a fairly new release.  This plot was multi-dimensional, but focused mainly on Danika, a Border Patrol officer.  Her husband, Toby, was murdered two years ago, and his killer was never found.  The killer still feels threatened, and is determined to bring down the entire Morales family.  It heats up with a lot of fighting, emotions, and an excellent presentation of both sides of the immigration situation.  Sensitivity was used throughout, although I did resent the use of a certain word which popped up roughly three times during the entire course of the book. 
This book is loaded in research on the job of a Border Patrol officer, the drug cartels and gangs on both sides of the border, and immigration operations and safe houses.  It's a trip to Texas, along the Rio Grande.  Grab a burrito and enjoy.

Contagion (movie)

Normally I review Christian women's fiction books, but I went to the movie theater with a friend last night for the first time in several months, so I'm going to review a movie... 
"Contagion" starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet among other non-famous actors revolves around the premise of a highly contagious virus which originates in China and takes over the world.  The virus has a 25% or higher death rate, and we see how quickly that would spread if such a thing were to take place in the world today.  It held my attention, but only because of the medical knowledge presented and the backdoor experience into the CDC (our government's Center for Disease Control).  There were no secondary or underlying story lines; this one is pretty unilateral.  Matt Damon stars in this movie, but you won't see him very much, and for his part not much was required.  He is usually a good actor, but in this movie showed very little emotion and versatility.
"Contagion" is rated PG-13 for graphic scenes.  As far as sex/nudity goes, this film has virtually none except for a short phone conversation at the beginning of the movie which was a little uncomfortable.  It has mild language except for the use of one "f" word.   The rating is almost entirely due to graphic scenes including one man getting ran over by a van (no blood shows), the high number of deaths as a result of the virus, graphic death scenes (convulsions, foaming at the mouth, etc.) and an autopsy.  If you have a weak stomach, I recommend looking away during the death and especially the autopsy on Gwyneth Paltrow.
Kate Winslet also makes a brief appearance, and dies about mid-movie.  Gwyneth Paltrow gets a surprising large part considering that she dies within the first few minutes of the movie.
If you are germophobe, you should definitely avoid this movie.  As always, my opinion is that PG-13 movies are best suited for adults only.  Overall, I would give this 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Attracted to Fire - DiAnn Mills

Let me start by saying that this is the first book by DiAnn Mills that I have ever read, and it didn't take long for me to decide that she rocks.  The book is set in present day on a large ranch in Texas.  The story is set around three main characters, with roughly ten supporting characters.  The story revolves around two Secret Service agents working to protect the President's daughter, whose life has been threatened. 
As far as romance is concerned, "Attracted to Fire" is about as hot as it gets in the women's Christian fiction genre! The attraction between the two main characters was very well written.  For that reason alone, I'm giving it five stars.
The plot was detailed and well-planned out.  The suspense was real, and I felt it.  I worked hard to solve the puzzle before the bad guy was revealed.  The author did a fantastic job of giving clues here and there so that the reader had a shot at figuring it out.  Some of my assumptions were right, others were incorrect. 
The author obviously did considerable research on the Secret Service prior to writing the book.  That not withstanding, I would have really dug more information about the Secret Service, because it is such a.... secret.  I did appreciate the research done on recovered drug and alcohol addicts.  This was also worked in with sensitivity.
My critique for this book is a big one.  I'm talking about the graphic design job on the cover of the book.  First, the design itself is completely lame and is not up date with current styles.  Strictly because of this, I questioned whether I would like the book before I started it.  Secondly, and most importantly, it's obvious the graphic designer did not even read the book.  For instance, the woman on the cover has short, brown hair.  Recorded many times in the book is that she had medium-long red hair with blonde highlights, which is much more feminine and exciting.  Also, the two people on the front of the cover are wearing business suits.  This is ridiculous for an assignment protecting the President's daughter on a ranch in Texas, and nowhere in the book does it say that they wore suits.  On a lesser note, the background of the cover is of a Texas desert.  Actually, the ranch is described as being beautiful and lavish, as you would expect for the Vice President's personal home.  I also am making a soft recommendation not to put the face of the man in the book on the cover, because it limits the imagination of the woman reading the book.  I am aware that many publishing houses do not allow the author to approve the final design, so in no way do I blame DiAnn Mills for this.
I enjoyed reading this so much, that I told my husband mid-book that it was the best novel I had read in a long time.  I stand by that original statement, and am looking forward to more books from DiAnn Mills.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Gingham Mountain - Mary Coneally

By now you know "Gingham Mountain" is the third and final book of the "Lassoed in Texas" trilogy by Mary Coneally.  Let's get to it...
After the impressive plot in the first book of this trilogy, the second and third book fell flat by comparison.  I give credit to Mary Coneally for using plots which were different enough that even when reading the books  back-to-back, I never felt a sense of déjà vu.  The plot in this one was relatively interesting, but more low key than the first book.  The villain in this book never struck me as very dangerous, and there didn't seem to be very much risk among the characters. 
I regret that the author set this book in a different town.  "Gingham Mountain" was set in Sour Springs, TX when the first two books were set in Mosqueros, TX.  I presume this is because the author felt oil could not be found in West Texas, but could be found in East Texas, which is necessary for the plot to succeed.  I'm not sure I share her opinion, though.  Knowing the backstory of the characters in previous books adds value to the books that come later in a series.  I don't believe the trade off was worth it.  I felt like I was losing all the progress I had gained by getting to know the other supporting characters based in Mosqueros, TX. 
Both towns are completely fictional, although there is a present day Sour Lake, TX.  If you visit the Sour Lake page on Wikipedia you will quickly learn that Sour Lake, TX was previously named Sour Lake Springs, TX.  It is the oldest town of the county of Hardin, and is located in east Texas (just as Sour Springs is in "Gingham Mountain") on the Texas-Louisiana state line.  It was a boom town of the very early 1900's due to the discovery of oil.  Sour Lake is also know as the birthplace of Texaco and is still today one of the oldest oil-producing fields in the world.
You might think that is justification for changing settings.  I agree, but none of this information was shared with the readers.  I will give the author props for working in the other characters quite a bit considering how far removed they were from the town of Sour Springs.  One of my favorite chapters was when Grace reunites with her sister, Hannah.  The portrayal of Grace, Daniel, and the Reeves boys was a perfect picture of what a stranger's impression might be the first time they met these characters.  It was made hilarious because, due to the second book, I was already familiar with this family and knew why they acted the way they did.  Overall, the book was well written and interesting, but it wasn't a page-turner like the first one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Calico Canyon - Mary Connealy

I'll keep this review short since the last review of book 1 in this series was so long.  "Calico Canyon" is the second book in the "Lassoed in Texas" series that I am reading right now.  After being blown away by book 1 ("Petticoat Ranch") I'm a bit disappointed in book 2.  The level of suspense, careful writing, and different perspectives between characters just wasn't as interesting.  In "Petticoat Junction" each character, including the lead vigilante, was so well written that I could identify with their different perspectives and understand where each person was coming from.  I didn't ever get a good bead on why the villain in book 2 was bent on the main character's destruction and what he had to gain from it.  I wish that had been clearly identified early in the book.  On a positive note, the attraction between the main characters was well written.  I also thought the author did a very good job of writing the evolution of the unmarried, single young lady into a married mother of five boys. 
I am rolling into book 3 now and still loving the series.  Even considering the criticism, this series has been exciting and fun. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Petticoat Ranch - Mary Connealy


That I'm reviewing this book is a fluke. Let me tell you about it... Since I review books for publishers and authors, I’m rarely out of reading material. However, a couple books that I requested recently went into production and haven’t been delivered yet. Thus, a lag in read time. So I headed to our local Christian book store for an inspiring, recreational find. The cover of a book can really sell it for me and when I saw the trilogy "Lassoed in Texas" I thought it just might be perfect. What cinched the deal was that this was a trilogy that I had never started and here it was all bundled up for me in one book. The entire trilogy was new to me and so was the author, Mary Connealy. Since do not often need to purchase a book, when I do purchase one I tend to grab established, never-failed-me author types such as M.L. Tyndale, Catherine Palmer, or Mindy Starns Clark. I'm glad I chose Mary Connealy!

Now that I have completed the first book in this trilogy, it's time for the review.

"Lassoed in Texas" is the name of the series, and "Petticoat Ranch" is the first in the series. This novel length story is about a widowed woman with four daughters. After saving a man from the clutches of vigilantes, she agrees to marry him for practical reasons. If you think this storyline sounds familiar, think again. The entire book was a twisting, turning vigilante mystery that kept me happily on my toes the entire time. Just when you thought it was over – BANG – another aspect of the storyline weighs in. I couldn't put this down! There were nights that I was up reading well after I should have been asleep. The author uses a perfect balance of fun, romance, and mystery. The writing is hilarious, and reflected so well both a man and woman's point of view that laughed continually. The picture of life with a household of four daughters was so realistic hat I could have sworn the author was a mother of four girls herself. Guess what? She is!

If you choose “Petticoat Ranch,” you can be confident that not only will you be fully transported to Texas you will also get to enjoy excellent writing. Mary Connealy is raising the standard, and I'm afraid that all of a sudden a lot of future reading I do is going to taste vanilla in comparison.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sak Saum - My Way to Help End Human Trafficking from Branson, MO

I AM AN ABOLITIONIST.  Since learning about human trafficking for the first time in September 2010, I have been looking for a way to help end it.  My initial gut reaction is to grab a machine gun and go on a rescue mission.  But I know that will never be my reality. 

Last weekend Tom and I visited Yobel Market in Colorado Springs, CO on our brief visit for my sister's wedding.  That's where I learned about Sak Saum.  Sak Saum is a rescue and rehabilitation organization located in Phom Pehn, Cambodia.  There is currently 13 girls in the safe house.  They have provided counseling and then taught them how to sew and financially support themselves in a desperate economy.  When I bought this bag, I knew that it had been sewn by one of those 13 girls.  I knew her hands had crafted it, and I rejoice with her about her new opportunity.  By buying the handbag, I am helping the ministry continue.  They have plans to expand with a new location, whereby they can double the number of girls they house. 

The purchase of the handbag was not a donation, it was a "fair trade."  I say this because the handbag itself is superior quality and completely adorable.  It fits my personal style to a tee.  I paid a square price and got a fair bargain.  Even though this was, in fact, a fair trade for me, that's only half of what "fair trade" means.  "Fair trade" is a newer phrase that indicates that the craftsmen (read: crafts-women) were paid a reasonable price for their labor.  They were not taken advantage of.

I am happy to say that one of these bags from Phom Pehn, Cambodia has made it all the way to Branson, MO -- two, actually, since my mom bought one also!  It's a long drive to Colorado Springs, but if you want one you can go to www.saksaum.org and order one straightaway.  Be a part of something great!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fighting for Your Family - Steve Carlson

"Fighting for Your Family" is an insightful, straight-to-the-point book from Steve Carlson about fighting the spiritual war for family unity.  This book is short, encouraging, and strongly written.  I did not find it repetitive or rambling.  You move quickly through the topics, and the author still thoroughly covers each one.  On a side note, I loved the way the Contents section was laid out.  It provides a complete outline of the book and allows you to easily find and refer back to a section you wish you read again.
Steve begins his writing with a brief autobiography and a transparent look into his life including his earlier divorce.  I found this refreshing.  Since none of us can claim to live perfect lives it was good to see Steve open up about his past and unselfishly provide the rest of us an opportunity to learn from his experiences.
I also appreciated the note in an early section that God does not ask us to surrender our family.  Too many times we see people place their families farther down in their priorities than what could be considered healthy.  Often this is done in the name of ministry.  I was happy to see this topic addressed specifically so there was no chance of misinterpretation.   
On a technical note, I noticed a few grammatical errors and typos.  Overall, the writing was on the proper level (my guess was 6th grade, which is the industry standard and considered ideal) in order to be easily read by the majority of our culture. 
My only critique is that initially the perspective of the divorce seemed slightly biased, but once I got farther into the book the impression faded.  Again, I appreciated that all instruction was given in a humble way from the perspective on someone sharing their personal testimony. 
This book targets Christian men age 25 - 55.  Will there also be a book released that approaches fighting from a woman's perspective?  If you choose to pick up a copy of "Fighting for Your Family," then I recommend you also grab a highlighter, because there is so much of the good stuff you'll want to make notes in the margin as you read!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Where Hearts are Free - Golden Keyes Parsons

Golden Keyes Parsons is a relatively new author that has written three books, all of which have been published by a leader in the Christian women's fiction world -- Thomas Nelson.  "Where Hearts are Free" is the third in her"Darkness to Light" series.  This group of books is so captivating that once you start you won't stop reading until you reach the last page.
The first two books track the story of Madeleine, a childhood friend and love interest of the King.  Through her friendship with King Louis she is able to protect her Huguenot family from persecution until King Louis removes his protection and becomes a harsh enemy.  It is evident that the author did significant historical research before writing, and the book will transport you to a different era.  The second continues Madeleine's life, and the third -- which I am reviewing here -- changes its focus to Bridget and Phillippe as the main characters.  I think this was a smart move for Golden, and it keeps the story moving.  To refresh your memory, Phillippe is the son of Madeleine who became an indentured servant after the family lost all their money on board the ship to America.  The book begins as Phillippe finishes his time as a servant to Bridget's household.  This well-thought-out mystery provides the framework for the plot, with romance written in so that the balance is about 60/40 (mystery/romance). 
Books that are this well crafted are hard to come by, and I can only beg that she continue writing so the rest of us can continue to visit the world of early French royalty and American immigration.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Too Rich for a Bride - Mona Hodgson

"Too Rich for a Bride" is a short novel, and is the sequel to "Two Brides Too Many."  This is a fun, upbeat, cheerful romance with a happy ending.
My suggestion to the author is this... the main storyline was the growing and changing relationship between Ida and Tucker.  However, my favorite part was near the end when the villain is introduced.  The stock market debacle, almost-kidnapping, possible hostage situation, and the results of those events really spiked my interest and held it there.  Unfortunately, the mystery wasn't introduced until the last quarter of the book, and it was over quickly.  The stock market mystery could have been the main storyline right from the beginning in lieu of the romance.  Writing in more mystery would require more research and would be more difficult to craft, but that should be no problem for Mona Hodgson. She is a talented writer and keeps the story moving.
I would recommend this to someone who wishes to relax, enjoy a lightweight, conservative romance over the course of a couple days.  However, if you like to think through your books, this one isn't for you.
This book was a gift from the published in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Women of Faith Conference - Kansas City, November 4-5, 2011


Wow! I am thrilled to pieces! Normally I only blog about books, but I just found out that I get to be one of the bloggers for the Women of Faith event in Kansas City on November 4th & 5th. This road trip is going to be AWESOME! We'll be staying at the Courtyard by Marriott right on the Plaza. There will be plenty of time Friday afternoon to cram in some fine dining at the Cheesecake Factory and shopping at the Plaza.  If you want to come a day early and arrive on Thursday, November 3rd (ride with me -- I'm leaving on Thursday), you'll have even more time to shop and relax.

This is going to be a beautiful time of refreshment.  Consider it a retreat for our crazy lives.  A wise woman once told me that she takes at least one weekend a year to go out of town and refresh herself as a wife and mother.  This is something we should do not only because it will be a total blast, but also because it will equip us as mothers, wives, and Christ followers. They are going to have some amazing speakers that we will be unlikely to cross paths with again.  Mandisa is one of the best in the Christian music field, and she will be there performing!  Amazing!  Come with me.  Let's see how many friends we can get on board.

I will be going up on the 3rd and spending two nights, and I would LOVE for you to ride with me!  We plan to have another van leaving Branson early Friday morning and they will only spend one night.  I still need a van driver, so if you have a mini-van and can drive up Friday morning, please let me know.  My recommendation is to stay 2 nights so you will have plenty of time to shop.

Schedule:
Thursday:
10:00 AM Van #1 (Renae) leaves Branson
1:45 PM Check-in at hotel, shopping, and restaurants for the rest of the day at the Plaza

Friday:
7:30 AM  Van #2 leaves Branson
10:00 AM - 3:30 PM Women of Faith conference (morning session)
3:45 PM - 6:30 PM Shopping at the Plaza & lunch at Cheesecake Factory & check-in at hotel
7:00 PM - 10:00 PM Women of Faith conference (evening session)

Saturday:
6:30 AM - 8:30 AM Breakfast buffet hotel or walk to restaurants in the Plaza
9:00 AM - 5:00 PM Women of Faith conference
5:15 PM -7:15 PM Shopping at the Plaza and dinner
7:20 PM  Both vans return to Branson

Cost:
  • The ticket price for the Women of Faith Conference is $99, and it includes a box lunch on both days. You can reserve your conference ticket here. If you use the code "RADIO" you can save $10 off the ticket price.
  • Make your room reservations at the Courtyard by Marriott right on the Plaza.  Simply click on this link, and you will be directed to the property's home page with the negotiated rate code already entered in the appropriate field and can quickly make your room reservation. Room rates are $109 inc. breakfast buffet for up to 2 people (they told me on 7/24/11 they would do the $109 rate and throw in breakfast for free!).  After tax, your total will be about $127 per night, and split with a friend only $64 each per night.  They allow up to 4 adults in the room.  All rooms have 2 queens and are non-smoking.  If you don't have someone lined up to be your roomie, you can write me a check and I will reserve your room with my credit card, and I'll assign a roommate for you.  Call me @ 417-561-5527 and I'll meet up with you in town if this is what you decide to do. 
  • Shopping & food at the Plaza!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Lady of Bolton Hill - Elizabeth Camden


Elizabeth Camden is Bethany House's new, talented author. After reading "The Lady of Bolton Hill," I just hope she can write as fast as I can read! This book boasts an intricate plot, excellent detail about life in the late 1800's including business practices and the opium drug trade.
On Elizabeth's website, she writes that her novels "have a brisk pace, plenty of intrigue, romance, and fiercely intelligent characters..." All of this is true. The book was moving fast from the very beginning, the romance felt genuine, the struggles of the characters were realistic, and the mystery tied all parts of the plot together.
Let me say once more -- I'm really looking forward to the next novel. If my hunch is correct, and I hope it is, then the next main character will be Alexander Banebridge. If this isn't the plan, then I sincerely request it. There's so much potential there for a good story, that I hope Elizabeth doesn't feel overwhelmed by it and choose to focus on someone else.
Now for the suggestions. I have only one suggestion for this most excellent book. Toward the end when the mystery is solved, the criminal mind behind it all surprised me. I love surprises (in books!), but when the villain is revealed and I either haven't heard the name before or have heard of it just a couple times, I am slightly disappointed. I prefer to be given a few clues throughout the book so that I can narrow down the suspects and find out if I am correct toward the end. In this case, I feel that it was impossible to have a fair chance to solve the mystery.
That said, Bethany House is lucky to have Elizabeth Camden! I will definitely keep posted about new books from her. I hope to see several published soon! Elizabeth, please don't take three years to give us another one!
This book was a gift from the publisher in exchange for a non-biased review.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

When God Created My Toes - Dandi Daley Mackall


"When God Created My Toes"
is an adorably written children's book about questions a child may ask regarding the moment God created them. The wording rhymes, which makes the book fun to read. The girls (my children, ages 6, 4, 2, and 1) all loved Dandi Daley Mackall's book, and I have no doubt that they will request it many, many more times. The cover was well done, and the quality of the book itself was excellent. This would make a perfect birthday present, especially since the book celebrates the creation of "me"!
I have two recommendations. My first recommendation is that a fun, upbeat story such as this get equally fun illustrations. I'm not recommending a different illustrator, because David Hohn is very talented. I'm recommending that the colors used be brighter, less drab colors. Currently, the colors set the stage for a more serious, melodramatic storyline. They didn't seem to flow with the author's goal of sharing the enthusiasm of a child discovering that God made every part of them.
My second recommendation is to the author. As a parent, I saw several opportunities to spark conversation with my children about God being our Creator. This can be an awkward thing for a parent to do, and for those of us who are teacher-challenged, discussion questions at the end of the book would be very helpful. My kids were enraptured with the story, and if there were prompts the book would have become a tool to spark meaningful conversation about God in addition to being a source of entertainment.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mine is the Night - Liz Curtis Higgs


After finishing "Here Burns My Candle" I couldn't rest until I read "Mine is the Night." As I read, the story kept getting better. I worried that there would be a book three that hasn't surfaced yet, and that I wouldn't get closure until next year. However, this book completes the duo.
Let's recap. These two novels comprise a rendition of the book of Ruth, with the setting being in Scotland in the eighteenth century. I reviewed the first book of this duo about a month ago. It was historically detailed and the emotions were right on. Although there were opportunities to show more grief the author kept it from becoming too melancholy. Let me just tell you, the first book was good, but the second book is so much better. "Mine is the Night" is when the story really gets moving.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this duo. However, if you have a bit of ADHD and you choose to skip straight to book 2, here are my comments. As I read I noted that -- technically -- you will not be left out of the loop if you do skip straight to book 2. The author did an excellent job of presenting all the facts to you in the second book so that if you did happen to miss the first one, you will still fully enjoy the second. That said, I do recommend reading "Here Burns My Candle." Even though it moves a little slower, there's a lot of fun information in there and you'll enjoy the second book even more if you've read the first. Some minor characters make a reappearance, and their backstory adds a nice depth. Again, it's not technically necessary, but it will add immensely to your enjoyment. Specifically, I can't see reading the second book with the same perspective if I hadn't already gotten to know Lord Mark Kerr and Rob MacPherson.
Overall, excellent. Five stars.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Larkspur Cove - Lisa Wingate


Lisa Wingate is a veteran novelist who has released somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-15 Christian fiction books for women. "Larkspur Cove" can be read as a stand-alone novel. However, it is the first in a series and the second book will be released July 5, 2011. There is a wide variety of books available from this author. She has written several contemporary novels ranging from the fun and superficial (i.e. "Talk of the Town") to the serious and melancholy. "Larkspur Cove" lands on the serious side of the scale.
The book hops back and forth equally between the viewpoints of Andrea, a new divorcee, and Mart, an eligible game warden. Andrea's character is 38 and struggling to recover from her divorce from a philanderer ex-husband. She has a troubled junior-high student and juggles a new job as a Social Services aid. Mart is working through his own issues related to the death of his brother and nephew that took place three years ago. Both characters are flawed emotionally, and the story is about their journey to emotional and spiritual freedom with light romantic overtones and mystery.
On a scale of 1 to 5, I would give this book a 3.5 star. My reasoning is this: the emotions of the characters are deep, the plot is well thought out, but the mystery falls flat throughout the book until the last few chapters when it really becomes a page turner. Until then, reading the story made me feel a little depressed, as though I was taking on the emotional drama and burdens of a friend. Although it ends on a nice note, I wouldn't classify this one as a "feel good" book. I do want to give Lisa props for her description of the game warden; although she kept it safely conservative, the job description and character development of this hero/man's man was hot.
This book was a gift from the publisher in exchange for my free and unbiased opinion.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Heart Most Worthy - Siri Mitchell


"A Heart Most Worthy" is a historical fiction set in 1918 in Boston and written from the perspective of three Italian girls ranging from late teens to mid-twenties. One creative spin that makes this book unique is the storyline. Instead of being based on one main character it is based on three main characters. Each main character has their own antagonist and supporting actors. While the characters are friends/acquaintances, it is not until later in the book that you can see how their personal stories intertwine. This is what makes the book so well crafted.
The author takes a different approach by writing a portion of the book - including the opening - in second person (as if a narrator is speaking to you). She switches back and forth to third person, so you can still enjoy the traditional reading style of third person. I am not a fan of reading a book written in second person, but am glad the author chose to switch gears each time just before I became disinterested.
The author chose to include a character list in the front of the book. I skipped this, believing that I could follow the story line without it. I was correct. The book was not overly complicated, and the character list proved to be unnecessary for me.
Overall, I enjoyed the book but found it a little less entertaining that I had hoped. It took a little longer than I would like for the plot to become apparent. I prefer having some direction right from the start.
"A Heart Most Worthy" is the third book that I have read that was written by Siri Mitchell. The other others, "She Walks in Beauty" and "A Constant Heart" were both historically accurate and detailed, as was this one. Of the three, I most highly recommend "She Walks in Beauty"; it was by far the most enjoyable to read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Bethany House, in exchange for an objective review.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Lightkeeper's Ball - Colleen Coble

As the third and final book in the Mercy Falls series by Colleen Coble, this mystery-slash-romance is just as intriguing as the two that preceded it. Historical fiction is not Colleen's genre of choice, but I am so glad she went for this -- and three books straight in a row! For those of you who love mystery but don't want to sacrifice a good romance, this book will fill that niche.
My only complaint is that this mystery, like most books authored by Colleen Coble, is unsolvable until the villain is revealed. My personal preference when reading a mystery is that all clues be given throughout the book so that, if you are an excellent Sherlock Holmes, you can have a decent chance at solving the puzzle. I love the feeling of having a mental list of clues and valid suspects then narrowing them down when new facts are released. A good example of an author who writes a challenging mystery but still gives the reader an opportunity to solve the riddle is Mary Higgins Clark. After reading most all of Mary's books, I cannot help but feel that Colleen Coble has also done so, and is working toward this end.
All this said, Colleen Coble is the Mary Higgins Clark of women's Christian fiction. I always enjoy her books, and when you combine her mystery writing skills with a historical setting, you simply cannot go wrong. Thank you, Colleen, for adding this historical set to your repertoire!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Here Burns My Candle - Liz Curtis Higgs

This is the first in a series of books set in Scotland and based on the story of Ruth.  "Here Burns My Candle" integrates tons of Scottish history while setting up the basic elements of the story of Ruth, as told in the Bible.  The characters and setting has all changed to accommodate the fictional, compelling storyline.  Because of this, I enjoyed the book as a source of entertainment and considered the resemblance to the Book of Ruth an added bonus.
The book was engaging and kept my attention, and I am looking forward to reading the entire series.  My only critique is that the emotions of the main character may not have been written strongly enough. For example, Elisabeth Kerr, the main character, suspects that her husband is unfaithful.  When that suspicion is confirmed, her heartache is described.  This is perhaps the only area of the book that I felt was a bit on the weak side. That said, this area may have been lightened a bit by the author in order not to allow the book to take a depressing turn.  The rest of the book was very descriptive in every way.  All in all, it was an excellent book, very good attention to detail -- especially as it pertains to dialogue -- and I am very much looking forward to the next one.
In accordance with the regulations of the FTC, I would like to add that this book was a free gift to me from the publisher in return for my objective review.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Courting Morrow Little - Laura Frantz

This picture of Kentucke in the late 1700's presents life during the time when there were fewer states, and areas were known only according to the Indian tribe that occupied it.  The sweet romance was unique and breathtaking; there was nothing cookie-cutter about it.  As to historical accuracy, the author used exquisite detail!  The pages were rent with Indian raids, treachery, and gave a realistic picture of the risk of living in the unsettled area of the Midwest.  Occurrences such as children being captured and taken to live as Indians were included.  Names like d'Etroit, Ohio, Kentucke, and many other names originating from tribes and Indian villages came to life.  The book drew mainly from the background and language of the Shawnee and used many Shawnee words such as "kinnikinik.”
Normally I don't consider myself an Indian history buff, but now I find myself Googling "maps of Indian territories."  It is a pleasant surprise that there are about 200 people remaining in the United States who speak the Shawnee language.  I learned so much -- but only by accident -- because the story itself was so moving that I couldn't put this book down.  The author kept the storyline real, so you'll definitely be kept on your toes.  I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to avoid books that take you straight from point A to point B.  This one twists and turns with laughter, joy, and sadness and ends at just the right spot.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Always the Baker Never the Bride - Sandra D. Bricker

Sandra D. Bricker brings us a sweet (pun intended) romance between a cake decorator and hotelier.  The author hit the bulls eye with the setting; I loved learning about the business of running a wedding hotel and cake decorating operation.  One thing that sets this apart from most other books (AHEM, but bears an uncanny resemblance to Sandra Byrd's "Let Them Eat Cake" which was released almost exactly 3 years prior) is the recipes inserted throughout the book.  My favorite, the Cashew Fudge Brownie recipe, is on my radar for this week's dessert choice.  In addition, there are tips on wedding planning, statistics, and (fictional) newspaper article inserts.  For ladies who wish fiction books had pictures, this is the next best thing! 
Some questions for discussion are in the back of the book.  That said, I didn't feel that it was jam-packed with edifying spirituality.  Take heed - this is not a criticism.  The book is fun and completely G-rated.  Not every book needs leave us with deep spiritual revelations. 
This particular choice makes for a relaxing evening because it is fun, easy reading.  The issues presented between the couple are realistic, which I appreciated.  This light-hearted, savvy romance tends to lack a little heat -- even by Christian fiction standards, but super hip conversation more than makes up for it.