Monday, October 27, 2014

When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren


When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren

Among Christian writers, Susan May Warren is a mentor for thousands, teaching them craft, championing them. For those she mentors, her novels are a study of what to do. (No pressure on Susie. ;) And as a long-time fan having read most of her novels, I can say this book is one of her best.

The book’s summary:

Hawaii was the last place Grace Christiansen ever imagined she’d vacation, much less fall in love. But when her family surprises her with a cooking retreat in paradise, she is pulled—or maybe yanked—away from her predictable, safe life and thrown headfirst into the adventure of a lifetime.

Max Sharpe may make his living on the ice as a pro hockey player, but he feels most at home in the kitchen. Which is why he lives for the three-week culinary vacation he takes each year in Hawaii. Upon being paired with Grace for a cooking competition, Max finds himself drawn to her passion, confidence, and perseverance. But just when Grace dares to dream of a future beyond her hometown, Max pulls away.

Wrestling with personal demons, Max fights against opening his heart to a love he knows he should never hope for. And as his secrets unfold, Grace is torn between the safe path in front of her and what her heart truly desires. If love means sacrificing her ideal happily ever after, Grace’s faith will face its toughest test yet.

And now, my review:

This book ministered to me. First, I loved that we watched a few couples progress through the story, wondering how their stories would turn out.

Grace is used to a small-town life. She’s insecure and doesn’t like to travel. But a slew of blessings wait for this would-be heroine, outside her comfort zone. Many readers will relate with her fears, her calling outside that “safe place,” and her quest. She may just find she’s had the courage all along.

And Max. He’s decided to limit God, unintentionally. But the secrets he’s hiding have made him cautious. So, in a mirror of sorts, he’s limiting his life’s adventures too, though he’s a buff hockey player who parasails for fun over Waikiki Bay.

Speaking of Honolulu, you’ll love the setting of this novel. Sure, we’ll be in Northern Minnesota some of the time, but we’re also jetting off to Hawaii for a cooking contest. Hope you like seafood, because you’ll see a lot of it. Foodies will love all the cooking in this book.

Readers will find layered characters and plots with deep human emotion. That scene when one of the characters learns the truth and how he reacts, gave me more than one visceral reaction at once.

The element of family was strong here, as with the other Christiansen Family novels. Acceptance. Accountability. Wisdom. Love. For more on how the book ministered to me, read the author’s letter following the story.

A couple of secondary characters in the Christiansen family play key roles in this novel, and I loved watching their stories unfold. One such character is Casper, and I can’t wait to see what happens to him next in Always on My Mind, releasing 1-1-15.

Susie is such a pro. This was one of my favorite reads this year.

Highly recommended!

Note: I recommend reading this book before reading Evergreen, Susan’s novella set at Christmastime. My schedule didn’t work out that way. (Notice a review of Evergreen here on NBN from a couple of weeks ago.) But reading in that order would make the most sense to readers of this series. And as with all long series, it’s best to read the stories preceding this to know the history, though Susie does give a context for her characters’ actions.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Holiday Proposal by Kimberly Rose Johnson



A Holiday Proposal by Kimberly Rose Johnson

Too early for a Christmas read? Maybe not. This will be my second holiday title reviewed so far this fall on NBN. ;)

Let’s begin with the summary:

Holly Miller Is Steering Clear of Mistletoe 

Just out of nursing school, Holly can’t risk any distractions. She knows a slip-up could cost a life. Like the mistake she made years ago that still plagues her conscience. When she runs into old high school friend Matthew Cook, she hesitates to let romance into her life. Even if the handsome baker is as delectable as his fabulous pastries.

She didn't notice him back in high school, but things have sure changed. Now that Matthew has Holly's attention, maybe the holiday season is the perfect time for him to show her that she deserves to have it all—work, family, friends and a love that lasts a lifetime.

And now, my review:

Holly believes she can control the future by limiting her own life. She’s punishing herself for that slip-up in her past. So, she’s the perfect candidate to find love. Right? I like how this story demonstrates that sometimes God brings love into our lives when we’re feeling the most unlovable, or disqualified. Even Holly’s mother doesn’t seem to love her like she loves her sister.

Humble Matthew pined for Holly back in high school. So, he’s thrilled when she’s back in his life. But convincing her to consider a romance with him isn’t going to be easy, even when she finally starts noticing him. Understandably, he’s protecting his heart where she’s concerned.

One of the story’s elements is things aren’t always as they seem, and perhaps people are hiding how they truly feel and why they act as they do. I liked the story’s setting at Leavenworth in Washington.  
The author didn’t shy away from some heavier life issues. I respect that.

Overall, a sweet holiday read. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Evergreen by Susan May Warren



Evergreen by Susan May Warren


It’s always such a treat to read one of Susie’s books!

Let’s begin with the summary:

An empty nest has Ingrid Christiansen dreading the upcoming holidays, but her husband, John, couldn’t be more excited about this new season of life. He even has a surprise trip planned abroad. He’s sure she’ll love it. What’s more romantic than Christmas in Paris?

Before he can stop her, however, Ingrid agrees to spearhead a major church project. Then their faithful dog, Butterscotch, needs emergency surgery, draining their savings. And then—because disasters strike in threes—an unexpected guest arrives, dredging up old hurts.

As a beautiful blanket of snow transforms the north woods into a winter wonderland, a deep chill settles over John and Ingrid’s marriage. With the holidays fast approaching, their only hope of keeping their love evergreen depends on turning the page on the past and embracing a new chapter of their future.

And now, my review:

I love novellas! They’re quick reads and when well-written, they pack a lot of emotion into a short story.

In Evergreen, we follow the empty-nest journey of the parents of the Christiansen family, John and Ingrid. The book opens with Ingrid’s repeated attempt to write her family Christmas letter, but failing because of her grief.

I appreciated how Susan kept the story from getting too heavy, yet dealt with real, even raw, issues. The layers just drew me deeper into the story.

My favorite tidbit? This is a married couple romance. You don’t see those very often. Kudos to Tyndale! (And Susie!)

Just when Ingrid thinks her useful days are over, God offers a new opportunity to her. I liked watching her competence. I sympathized with her and her empty-nest grieving. We didn’t camp on that topic long, but Ingrid’s depression resonated with me.

Being empty-nesters has brought this couple’s issues to the surface. No more hiding from the truth, or denying it. One of the themes is self-protection, and how that keeps others at a distance. Another theme was honesty and forgiveness. I liked the symbolism of the evergreen and how it relates to longevity in marriage. I think every reader will benefit from the nuggets sprinkled through this entertaining novella. 

Also, you might guess from the cover that this is a Christmastime-only read. It’s not. It’s a fall/winter read, with some Christmasy moments. I read my copy in the warm October sunshine. So, you can enjoy it anytime. One of the perks: you’ll get to revisit the picturesque northern Minnesota setting, which Susan makes sound appealing no matter what time of year.

Glad we’ve gotten to visit John and Ingrid again. Looking forward to the next book Christiansen Family series!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

All's Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant


All's Fair in Love and Cupcakes


What fun!

The summary:

Kat inspected rows of the same old cupcakes. They seemed to blink back at her, as if they knew she was capable of so much more.

Kat Varland has had enough of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.

At twenty-six years old, Kat is still living in the shadows of her family in Bayou Bend, Louisiana. Still working shifts at her Aunt Maggie’s bakery. Still wondering what to do with her passion for baking and her business degree. And still single.

But when Lucas Brannen, Kat’s best friend, signs her up for a reality TV bake-off on Cupcake Combat, everything Kat ever wanted is suddenly dangled in front of her: creative license as a baker, recognition as a visionary . . . and a job at a famous bakery in New York.

As the competition heats up, Lucas realizes he might have made a huge mistake. As much as he wants the best for Kat, the only thing he wants for himself—her—is suddenly in danger of slipping away.

The bright lights of reality cooking wars and the chance at a successful career dazzle Kat’s senses, and Lucas is faced with a difficult choice: help his friend achieve her dreams . . . or sabotage her chances to keep her in Louisiana.

My review:

Our heroine isn’t certain about her identity. She’s getting messages from her family that she’s unworthy, that she can’t be “great,” or break out of her small-town life and hum-drum job. She’s longing for more, but she’s full of self-doubt. Our hero believes in her. A lot.

Our hero was likable but flawed, which worked well. And he truly cared about our heroine. All his certainty about her pushed her to prove herself to herself, which is what this story came down to: going for your dreams, despite doubts and fears.

The romcom elements were fun, though like most romantic comedies, the story was a bit superficial (though not insincere). Still, the romance was enjoyable and believable. I enjoyed watching their adventure, how they had to overcome together. At some points, I felt the pacing lagged a bit. But if you’re looking for a light read, this is it.

I loved the behind-the-scenes look at what filming a show like "Cupcake Combat" might be like. Our family enjoys that type of show, so reading this fictionalization was fun.

And who doesn’t love cupcakes?! A story centered around cupcakes, with a wholesome romance thrown in? Bring it! Enjoy!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Love's Fortune by Laura Frantz



Love's Fortune
Love's Fortune
I’ve enjoyed this series. I appreciate how Laura provides a behind-the-scenes look at the process for her book's cover art.  (see video link after my review)

Let’s begin with the summary:

Sheltered since birth at her Kentucky home, Rowena Ballantyne has heard only whispered rumors of her grandfather Silas's vast fortune and grand manor in Pennsylvania. When her father receives a rare letter summoning him to New Hope, Rowena makes the journey with him and quickly finds herself in a whole new world--filled with family members she's never met, dances she's never learned, and a new side to the father she thought she knew. As she struggles to fit in during their extended stay, she finds a friend in James Sackett, the most valued steamship pilot of the Ballantynes' shipping line. Even with his help, Rowena feels she may never be comfortable in high society. Will she go her own way . . . to her peril?

With her signature attention to historical detail, Laura Frantz brings 1850s Pennsylvania alive with a tender story of loss, love, and loyalty. Fans will cheer for this final installment of the Ballatyne saga.

And now, my review:

Our heroine feels out of her element and without options. Her foreign-to-her family have many expectations of her. She’ll have to face the social season, transforming from a free country woman to a stuffy, guarded socialite among the city’s elite.

Her escort, James Sackett, has been a family friend/employee for years. But since he’s not New England nobility, he rules himself out where Wren (our heroine) is concerned. I enjoyed watching them grow close through the trials of this story. I felt for Wren having to change her personality in order to oblige her family. She’s a musical person, who feels deeply. When she performs with her first class violin, she lets the music move her. But society feels any show of emotions isn’t acceptable. James can’t display his true feelings because he’s her escort, tasked to show her how to present herself in a stoic way. They both have much to overcome.

One theme in the story was courage. Both the hero and heroine display it throughout. After cooperating with her elders for each preparation of the “season,” Wren insists on wearing her grandmother’s dresses, remade—an unpopular decision, but one that is honored. James, though faced with threats outside of genteel society, doesn’t back down. He will not be intimidated—an admirable quality.

The author keeps readers guessing as to who will end up with whom, while we witness a few romances unfolding.

The historical elements were well researched and enjoyable. The author included some pre-Civil War elements, which were interesting and provided additional tension to the story. At times I felt the story's pacing was a bit slow as the central romance lagged. I wondered why certain characters acted as they did, given their near decision to proceed in a different way. But characters, like real people, will do that. (smile)

Overall, an enjoyable novel. Fans who’ve read this series will have an advantage because they have the context of the earlier stories and especially the characters. I recommend reading the earlier books first in order to keep straight all the extended family and their households.

And now, for more fun!

Check out this video of how the cover image was made: