Saturday, December 5, 2015

Flourless to Stop Him

Flourless to Stop Him (A Baker's Treat, #3)Flourless to Stop Him by Nancy J. Parra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gluten-free baker Toni Holmes is close to exhaustion, working too many hours to meet the demand for her GF treats, hoping the extra revenue over the holidays will keep her fledgling business afloat during the leaner post-Christmas months. The last thing she needs is to add "investigate homicide" to her To Do list, but that's exactly what happens when someone frames her brother Tim for the murder of his former best friend.

I liked this one better than the previous two books in the series, mostly because there was more character development. Grandma Ruth still drives me crazy with her irresponsible behavior, but at least she wasn't the focus of this story, and she did finally get Toni to see that she not only could but should ask her family for help with her bakery during her busiest times. That was a surprisingly difficult realization for Toni.

I am delighted that the character development with this one included Toni choosing between her two potential suitors. Hooray! For a while I was afraid Ms. Parra might write herself into a corner with that one, like Janet Evanovich did, so I'm thankful Toni did some soul-searching and made a choice.

One thing that freaked me out in this book was the part where Toni's cousin brings non-GF bread into her house and Toni says not only the toaster but also the dishes and utensils have to be isolated as permanently contaminated because the gluten can't be washed off. What?! Do I need to replace every dish in my kitchen and ban my family from eating gluten in my house?!

However, I got the chance to have an online conversation with the author shortly after reading this book, and I asked about the contradiction between that scene and the one where Toni eats fast food French fries and gets sick from the contamination. Ms. Parra explained that the French fry scene came from a weak-willpower moment in her own life--she has Celiac disease--and that although not everyone is so incredibly sensitive to gluten, she does know people who not only can't use dishes touched by gluten, they can't even walk down the flour aisle in a grocery store. Wow! That made me incredibly thankful to not be nearly that sensitive to cross-contamination. I can't eat most French fries, but at least I have no problems with freshly washed dishes or baking aisles.

Oh, and the mystery? It kept me guessing, although I did start suspecting the right person by the end.

For readers' advisors: character and story doorways. No sex or swearing that I can recall (or if there is any, it's very mild). A little bit of violence at the end, but not at all graphic.

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Murder Gone A-Rye

Murder Gone A-Rye (A Baker's Treat, #2)Murder Gone A-Rye by Nancy J. Parra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's almost Thanksgiving, and Toni Holmes is not only gearing up for the holiday gluten-free baked-goods rush, she's also trying to decorate a float for the annual Homer Everett Day Parade. Homer was a local celebrity--pro football player and war hero--and the parade is a big deal. But when Grandma Ruth goes to meet with a woman claiming to have information proving Homer wasn't all he was cracked up to be, she finds the body of her would-be informant and is accused of murder. All of which Grandma Ruth finds entertaining, though Toni does not. Toni wants to leave the investigating to the police, but Grandma Ruth's antics in sleuthing force her to get involved, not only to solve the case but also save her grandmother's life.

The potential love triangle between Toni, Brad, and Sam continues in Book #2, thanks to Toni's insistence on taking a year off from relationships after her divorce. Toni will have a hard time choosing there, I think. Both men are fantastic.

Grandma Ruth's character is both amusing and irritating to me. She's supposed to be fearless and eccentric, but her lack of consideration for other people--their feelings and their property--is appalling. She rides roughshod over everyone. You'd think after 90+ years on this earth, she wouldn't be quite so self-absorbed. Other reviewers have referred to her as an elderly teenager, and I totally agree. I'm not sure why Ms. Parra describes her as being well-respected when it doesn't seem like she behaves in a manner worthy of respect.

As for the mystery itself, I came close on guessing the old secrets and current killer but had a few details wrong, so that was a nice surprise.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways. No sex, bad language, or on-screen violence.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Death Before Decaf

Death Before Decaf (A Java Jive Mystery, #1)Death Before Decaf by Caroline Fardig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

Juliet Langley is turning 30, back in Nashville after having everything but the kitchen sink stolen from her by her cheating fiance. Her best friend, Pete, has hired her to manage the coffee shop he inherited from his father. She and Pete both worked there in college, so she already knows some of the staff, and before her fiance robbed her blind, she had owned a very successful cafe.

Unfortunately, none of the staff are happy she's coming in to overhaul the failing business, and she gets into an argument with the head cook, whom she finds murdered later that night. Things go downhill from there. Soon Juliet finds herself at the top of the suspect list, semi-dating a film studies professor who isn't what he seems, chasing down crazy people in an attempt to find the real killer, and learning she may not have given the deceased cook enough credit.

This has been advertised as perfect for fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, and I think that's fairly accurate, although Juliet is far more competent than Stephanie has ever dreamt of being. Both do some pretty stupid stunts in order to chase down leads, but Jules is smarter overall.

As for the love triangle, I'm hoping it won't last beyond this first book. Janet Evanovich sort of wrote herself into a corner with no good way out, but so far Caroline Fardig hasn't made the same mistake, as the final scene of the book indicates. I do, however, want to see more of Ryder, and I'm really hoping he finds someone great in the next book.

The book starts at a relaxed pace, setting up the characters and their history, and then it accelerates until it's fairly racing. The funeral scene is snort-out-loud funny--reminiscent of a Lula/Grandma Mazur "incident."

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, character secondary. A fair amount of swearing, right from the get-go, which is why I didn't label it as "cozy mystery," since most cozies have cleaner language. The swearing was on the milder side, as swearing goes, but still, not everyone's cup of tea, so it's something to take into consideration when suggesting to readers. A bit of sex but not described.

I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Should've Said No

Should've Said No (Thistle Bend, #1)Should've Said No by Tracy March
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars.

Lindsay has lived her entire life in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., but after a year of unemployment since being laid off from the Smithsonian Museum, she agrees to take a position in the tiny town of Thistle Bend, Colorado, getting their Heritage Museum up and running. She doesn't plan to stay more than a year or so, and definitely doesn't plan on falling for a sexy handyman cowboy...who happens to be the wealthy director of his family's trust--the same family who has been feuding with hers for over a century.

No one but her great-aunt and uncle know Lindsay is related to the Karlssons, and the closer she gets to Carden Crenshaw, the harder it is for her to keep that secret. Both sides want Lindsay to uncover the truth about the feud, each certain it will bring vindication, each hoping to influence her to portray their side in a positive light in the museum exhibits. What she does discover surprises everyone.

It was a solidly enjoyable book with some very steamy make-out & sex scenes. I didn't understand why there was a three-month time gap between the truth being discovered and Lindsay & Carden reconciling, though. And I really wished Tracy March had included the reveal scene between Lindsay and the two families. Ah well, I had fun imagining on my own how that might have played out. I had guessed part of the reason for the feud pretty early on, but I didn't guess the twist, so kudos to Ms. March for that!

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, setting and story secondary. See above about steaminess. A little bit of swearing (mostly the occasional "damn").

I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

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Saturday, October 3, 2015


PaladinPaladin by Sally Slater
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lady Samantha of Haywood has always been a tomboy, but after a demon kills her mother, she decides to become a Paladin--a demon-slaying warrior. There are no female paladins, however, so Sam practices in secret for two years, then runs away from home, chops off her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and invents a new heritage in order to begin her training. She is assigned both a mentor and a roommate. The first is her hero and the man who saved her life. The second is a half demon/half human whom the other students taunt and fear. After the trio save the training fortress from a demon attack--the first in its history--they are sent on a quest to learn more about a new fighting force rising in the East, the Uriel. Their orders are to capture the leader of the Uriel and bring him to meet their High Commander, but all is not as it seems, and new information shifts allegiances.

I'm so glad this is the first in a new YA fantasy series! I absolutely loved it and stayed up way past my bedtime because I couldn't put it down. Sally Slater did an outstanding job building the relationships between Sam, Tristan, and Braeden, and I can't wait to read the next book.

There were a few puzzling things here and there, such as how Sam managed to keep her sword practice truly a secret in a castle full of servants, why she thought her father didn't care about her in the slightest, and how she could hope to maintain her masquerade while traveling when her companions would know she never had to shave and did have to (presumably, unless on this world reproduction is different) deal with menstrual cycles which are never mentioned, but these were minor in comparison with the overall arc of the story.

For readers' advisors: Most YA fiction has story as the primary doorway, but this book was more about character development and world-building, although plot was also strong. There was a small amount of swearing (mostly "shite"), and a some sexual innuendo (primarily during the scene when Tristan decides Sam needs to "become a man" and drags both trainees to a brothel...which doesn't go so well). Otherwise it's a pretty "clean read." This would be an excellent read-alike for fans of Tamora Pierce, particularly her Alanna the Lioness series.

Many many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read a free Advance Reader Copy in exchange for my honest review.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Over the Moon at the Big Lizard Diner

Over the Moon at the Big Lizard DinerOver the Moon at the Big Lizard Diner by Lisa Wingate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For more than eight years, Lindsay Attwood has played it safe. After her ex-husband ditched her upon learning of the impending arrival of their daughter, Lindsay stopped traveling the world and instead took a job in the basement of a museum in Denver, converting her talents for archaeological discovery into those of restoration and cataloging. She wrapped her life around her daughter, Sydney, keeping new people at bay after learning the hard way that men can't be trusted. However, that approach led to fundamental loneliness and an emotional collapse the moment her ex suddenly decided he wanted to be a part of Sydney's life and took her to Mexico for the summer.

Lindsay's twin sister, Laura, and their friend Collie hatch a plan to drag Lindsay out of her despair: Laura invites Lindsay for a visit to Texas, and Collie begs for her help discovering who has stolen dinosaur tracks from a local ranch. Collie persuades Lindsay to go "undercover" at the ranch as a student in the horse psychology camp run by the owner's granddaughter, since it's possible the theft was an inside job. On the way to the ranch, Lindsay nearly runs over a giant dog chased by angry cowboys, and her defense of the dog leads to a temporary adoption--although which of them did the adopting is a matter of debate.

One of the cowboys turns out to be the veterinarian grandson of the same ranch owner whose dinosaur tracks had been stolen, and over the next few days, Zack and Lindsay fall in love while repairing windmills and chasing her escape-artist dog across fields to the Lover's Oak. Once the townsfolk hear they were seen kissing under the famous tree, curiosity is at a fever pitch, and the wedding a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, Lindsay has Trust Issues with a capital "T" and no faith that it's possible to have a relationship with a USDA vet who lives thousands of miles away.

I'm not typically one to notice language unless it's unusually bad (especially grammar and typos) or unusually good. While listening to this audiobook, I noticed not only Johanna Parker's lovely voice, but also the lush, lyrical, evocative, and amusing descriptions and idioms Lisa Wingate used to tell the story. The beautiful words helped me cope with the main character's stubborn refusal to pay more attention to present actions than past hurts.

Seriously--Lindsay is in dire need of Alison Armstrong's workshops on understanding men & women! The horse psychology class was a big step in the right direction, yet it's fairly improbable that Lindsay so quickly went from being a failure to a star pupil, given her inability to fully translate the early skills into the human world. I think she needed a bigger "Aha!" moment first, like some of the other students seemed to have. That would have made it a 5-star book, in my opinion.

For readers' advisors: character and language doorways are primary, story and setting secondary. Some contortions to avoid actual swear words, which was sweet but unrealistic. No sex or violence.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Not Quite a Wife

Not Quite a Wife (Lost Lords, #6)Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Laurel married James when they were very young and madly in love. He was her brother's best friend from the Westerfield Academy, and they met when he visited her home. After an extended honeymoon of bliss, they returned home to London. Before she could be introduced to the rest of his friends, she witnessed him kill an intruder with his bare hands, and the sudden violence frightened her so badly, she fled to live with her brother, wanting never to see her new husband again.

A decade later, James has a malarial attack in Bristol and is robbed by thugs while delirious. Good Samaritans bring him to the local infirmary and leave him in the care of the nurse on duty...Laurel. She recognizes him right away, and realizes that his fever isn't due to his injuries, so she treats him with Jesuit's bark. While hallucinating, he clutches her, reigniting the passion kept tightly banked for ten years. However, the next morning, Laurel lets James believe it was just a dream, and they part ways again, believing it to be forever.

A few weeks later, Laurel realizes she is pregnant, notifies James, and he jumps at the chance to be part of her life once again. For the sake of the baby, they agree to tell people they've reconciled, dividing their time between Bristol, where Laurel runs her brother's clinic and the connected battered women's shelter, and London, where James is a spymaster for the British government. But Laurel's traumatic memories are not easily eradicated, despite all she learns about the extenuating circumstances of that night, and she doesn't know whether she'll ever be able to put it behind her.

I've never witnessed my husband do anything violent, so I have no personal experience with which to compare, yet I groaned in frustration many times while reading because Laurel was so quick to panic and so slow to listen--a common trait among teenagers, and one I really thought she should have grown out of in the intervening years. Also, even once she knew the full story, the mitigating circumstances barely made a dent in the walls she'd built around herself.

Nonetheless, the story was absorbing, the characters felt like real people, and I stayed up way too late reading because I had to know how James was going to catch the kidnapper. I'm very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series, which tells Laurel's brother Daniel's story.

For readers' advisors: character and story doorways, as well as setting (i.e. Napoleonic War era in England). I'd almost characterize it as "Christian Fiction," given the critical importance of Laurel's faith to the story, but there are some sex scenes--albeit not terribly explicit--which you don't typically find in books labeled "Christian Fiction." It's the 6th book in the Lost Lords series, and it's best if they're read in order because the characters from all the other books show up in this one.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs

The Perfect Comeback of Caroline JacobsThe Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't we all have a moment or moments in our childhoods that shaped us, nudged the trajectories of our lives just a little bit, changing the course of who we would become? For Caroline Jacobs, a meek mouse of a woman, these included losing her father, her best friend, and her sister. The wounds of adolescence molded her into a conflict-averse mother and a talented photographer afraid to risk rejection. And then one day, at a PTO meeting, an insult aimed at someone else snaps her virtual bonds.

The next day, when her teenage daughter, Polly, defends her and is threatened with suspension, Caroline impulsively busts her out and takes her on a road trip to Caroline's childhood home to confront the memories that haunt her. Along the way, she finally shares the stories shadowing her life and slowly begins to reconnect with her stubborn, strong, independent daughter.

Every story has different perspectives, though, and Caroline begins to see the shades of grey in differing realities, eventually learning to forgive herself as well as others for their all-too-human mistakes.

I loved this book! The only things holding me back from a 5-star rating are the contradictions and errors that might have been the result of it being an advance copy that I read courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. I'm hoping the final edits caught the timeline confusion regarding how old Caroline was when her father left, and so on. Details like that yanked me out of the story a few times, which was frustrating. Otherwise, though, it was a great story with well-developed, nuanced characters who evolved over the course of the novel.

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, story secondary. Some swearing. No sex or onscreen violence, other than someone accidentally falling through glass.

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The Scam

The Scam (Fox and O'Hare, #4)The Scam by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

AUGH!! Cliffhanger ending, and I was reading an advance copy courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher (many thanks), so who knows how long I'll have to wait to find out what happened! I sure hope Ms. Evanovich & Mr. Goldberg are nearly ready to release book #5 in this series ASAP.

This time around, Kate and Nick are leading their team in a con to bring down Evan Trace, a corrupt casino owner who gladly allows his businesses to launder money for some pretty nasty folks. Our intrepid duo first meet up with Trace at his hotel/casino in Las Vegas and then join him later in Macau, where much of the story takes place, aside from some side trips to (and smaller cons in) Hawaii. Not everything goes quite as planned, forcing Nick and Kate to think on their feet...or while dangling above a tank of piranhas.

Book #4 in the Fox and O'Hare series is a fast-paced, funny adrenaline ride. Everyone's favorite characters return to help pull off the latest complicated scam to bring down criminals regular law enforcement can't touch.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, character secondary. Writing style is witty. Some mild swearing and reference to (but no on-screen) sexual content.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Double Whammy

Double Whammy (Davis Way #1)Double Whammy by Gretchen Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Davis Way desperately needs a job. She's been out of work for over a year, ever since she went a little crazy when she learned her ex-husband had gambled away her inheritance, so when she's offered the mysterious undercover security position for the Bellissimo Casino, she accepts without taking the time to read the entire (very long) contract. Her new job involves lots of wigs and costumes and runs the gamut from gambling to housekeeping. She gets paid lots of money to figure out how various scams and thefts are occurring, and she does it well, given her background as a police officer in her tiny hometown and her training in computer programming. Despite her successes, Davis soon realizes something bigger and darker is going on at the casino--something somehow related to her wretched ex and the boss's wife. Her uncanny resemblance to said wife lands her in jail, and Davis must figure out what's really going on before they throw away the key.

A caper indeed. Fun romp if you don't examine it too closely & notice the plot holes or improbabilities.

Davis Way is like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum or Darynda Jones' Charley Davidson (minus the supernatural abilities, most of the bad language, and the steamy sex). She's a brilliant woman in some ways, a complete idiot in others, and a little too thoughtless/self-centered in her relationships with family & coworkers. Still, it's a fun, fast-paced, entertaining read, perfect for escaping reality for a while.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary. A few swear words. No on-screen sex.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Secrets at Maple Syrup Farm

Secrets at the Maple Syrup FarmSecrets at the Maple Syrup Farm by Rebecca Raisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars, really.

Lucy's chronically ill mother can't stand watching her daughter give up her youth and vitality to care for her, so she orders Lucy to quit her job and take a year off to travel, concentrate on her art, and apply to a prestigious art school in France. The last thing Lucy wants to do is leave her mother, but she reluctantly promises to buy a bus ticket for the next bus out of town and let fate take her where it will. She winds up in a small town in Connecticut, where some kind locals take her under their collective wings and help her find a place to stay and a job working for the local recluse who is trying to get his newly inherited maple syrup farm up and running.

Clay, the young curmudgeon she goes to work for, isn't thrilled when she shows up on his doorstep, announcing she's there for the job and that his cousin told her not to take no for an answer. His response is to put her to work doing difficult physical labor for long hours, and her innate stubbornness plus desperate need for money induce her to stick it out just to prove she can, despite having zero knowledge or experience of farming (nor suitable clothing).

For the first time in a long time--perhaps ever--Lucy begins to make friends and have a social life, despite her daily exhaustion. She takes cooking lessons and participates in Girls' Night activities, and when Clay unearths a box of journals beneath the farmhouse floor, Lucy makes an emotional connection to the mysterious author.

Gradually, though they constantly argue and push each other's buttons, Lucy and Clay grow to respect one another, which only fuels the fire of their mutual attraction. However, neither one knows how to trust enough to share the painful secrets and memories each is harboring, and that fear threatens to destroy their fledgling relationship.

It took me a little while to get into this story because I found the beginning rather confusing and lacking in exposition--why was the main character on a bus, and to where, and how old was the woman sitting next to her? I totally thought it was set somewhere in the South such as Virginia or one of the Carolinas at first, instead of Connecticut. Which makes no sense, given the part about the maple syrup farm, but the setting didn't feel...solidly fleshed out, I guess you'd say. I don't typically read for setting, but in this case because so much of the backstory was purposely left mysterious, to be painstakingly dribbled out, the lack of clarity hampered my ability to jump into the novel for a few chapters. I'm sure it didn't help that I read it mostly during lunch breaks at work! Eventually, though, it picked up steam, and I eventually really enjoyed the story.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free ebook review copy in exchange for my honest review!

For readers' advisors: Character doorway is primary; story secondary. A little sexual content, but nothing explicit (that I can recall--it's been more than a month since I finished reading).

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Friday, August 14, 2015

The Perfect Bargain

The Perfect BargainThe Perfect Bargain by Julia London
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sloane Chatfield wasn't quite abandoned at the alter, but she did already have her wedding dress and reservations booked when her louse of a fiance decided to break up with her. Her friends' plan to set her up with someone new has morphed into social torture, so Sloane tells them she's going to go to Scotland and find her own real-life Jamie Fraser (from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander). When they announce they're going to join her, she figures she can fly in early, pretend to fall in love and have a whirlwind romance, then break up with the fictional boyfriend to get them off her back for a while.

Her brilliant strategy collapses when they decide to show up a couple of weeks early, and Sloane panics. The only suitable candidate in the tiny Scottish town is the local pub owner, who's gorgeous, single, and can't stand her. Fear is a strong motivator, however, and she awkwardly propositions Galen, offering to pay him a considerable amount of money to pretend to be her boyfriend. He's completely insulted and appalled, naturally, and refuses. However, he's also going broke and eventually agrees to play along, negotiating half in jest that she'll pay extra for kisses and sex.

I stayed up WAY past my bedtime because I couldn't stop reading until I'd finished, so I was glad it's a relatively short novel. The funny thing is, although I really liked it and couldn't put it down, upon further reflection, I really didn't like Sloane's friends and couldn't understand what she ever saw in the former fiance. However, I thought that the relationship between Sloane and Galen was pretty well-written, and although each started out inflexible and obnoxious, they grew over the course of the story to the point where I felt like they might have a chance of building a life together.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways. Some sex scenes and swearing.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free ebook copy in exchange for my honest review!

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Just Like Magic

Just Like MagicJust Like Magic by Elizabeth Townsend
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this retelling of the Cinderella story, particularly the twist that had the stepmother not being evil but rather just weak and lazy--she didn't intend for Ella to become a servant so much as she just wasn't strong enough or paying enough attention to prevent her older daughter, Lucy, from manipulating the situation.

I also really enjoyed Ella's character arc as she transitioned from being nearly as big a snob--albeit a less imperious one--as her stepsisters to becoming a more humble, useful, and self-aware young lady. Cinderella is often portrayed as a saint whose spirit has pretty well been broken, but this version of Ella had flaws, was fairly stubborn and strong-willed, and seemed more realistic.

My only real complaint about the book is that in the end, Ella agrees to marry the prince. (Does that count as a spoiler if we all know the basic story already?) I think it would have been a better ending if she'd agreed to consider it but had insisted on taking more time to get to know each other. I know that's not "a fairytale ending," but it would have worked much better with the story arc and the trajectory of Ella's character development--an hour's conversation with a stranger does not a solid foundation for a marriage make. A good start to a relationship, yes, but jumping straight into marriage? No.

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, story secondary. No sex, violence, or bad language. Not quite fantasy, but I'm not precisely sure when or where it's set.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Beekeeper's Ball

The Beekeeper's Ball (Bella Vista Chronicles, #2)The Beekeeper's Ball by Susan Wiggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Isabel Johansen is about to open a cooking school on her family's sprawling hacienda in Sonoma Valley, California, when author Cormac (Mac) O'Neill roars into her life. Her sister and grandfather decided to hire Mac to write a book about her grandfather's life, particularly his role in the Danish Resistance as a teenager during WWII. Writing a biography means getting to know the family, and in spite of--or perhaps in reaction to--their calamitous introduction which resulted in an emergency trip to the doctor, rooted-in-place Isabel fascinates Mac, the perennial wanderer. Isabel is also drawn to Mac, but her disastrous past relationship and the secret she's kept since then have destroyed her trust in herself and her judgment, immobilizing her heart. Authors poke at secrets, however, and this one breaks free when Isabel's ex comes to town and threatens her fledgling business.

I love how Susan Wiggs slowly unfolds the story by alternating between present-day and the 1940s. Book two in the series fills in some of the details shared in book one and leaves plenty of room for book three, which I am eagerly awaiting. There are really two stories at play here: Isabel's personal growth and budding romance, and Magnus's survival as an orphaned teen determined to thwart the Nazis every way he can. Both absorbed my complete attention. This series should definitely be read in order, beginning with The Apple Orchard .

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, story secondary. A little bit of swearing, allusions to sex but no descriptions.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Some Like It Witchy

Some Like It Witchy (A Wishcraft Mystery, #5)Some Like It Witchy by Heather Blake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems a beautiful day in the Enchanted Village, yet Darcy has a bad feeling that trouble is coming, and her instincts are proven right when she and her friend Cherise discover the body of Cherise's realtor, Raina Gallagher, upstairs in the Tavistock house. The house had only recently come on the market when its reclusive owner died. Rumors of hidden jewels from a famous heist decades ago have brought treasure hunters out of the woodwork, and Darcy must figure out whether they have anything to do with the murder.

The fifth installment of the Wishcraft Mystery series is just as fun as the first four. There is less in the way of character development in this one, but the main characters are still multi-dimensional, which I very much appreciate.

The plot twists kept me from guessing the killer, although I am pretty sure have figured out who the dove and The Elder are. I am looking forward to the next book in the series to confirm whether I'm right and what that will mean!

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, character & setting secondary. I only remember one swear word, otherwise it's totally a "clean read."

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Friday, July 3, 2015

Yes, Please

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The audiobook version is fantastic! Amy Poehler herself "reads" it, but it never feels like reading--more like she's just talking to you and telling stories. She also gets Carol Burnett, Kathleen Turner, and Patrick Stewart to read her chapter titles, Seth Meyers to read a chapter he's written (i.e. chat with Amy in the sound booth and read his chapter), Mike Schur(?) to chat with her about creating the TV show "Parks and Rec," and even her parents have small speaking moments. It's a very humorous book.

Fair warning, though: Amy has a potty mouth much of the time and apparently spent much of her twenties and part of her thirties stoned, so it's not suitable for tender ears. I could only listen to it when my toddler wasn't in the car.

I might have given it 5 stars if it weren't for the abundance of swearing and my disappointment in Amy for all the drug use and smoking. Everyone has their own journey to get to where they are today, and I wouldn't have wanted her to lie about her life, but for me it was heartbreaking to know that she had done so many stupid things in her younger years--a hero falling off a pedestal, I suppose. Such a waste--think of all the (much funnier) things she could have written and performed during those years if she hadn't been stoned! She's really proud of the Upright Citizens' Brigade (UCB) improv company she helped found and is still involved with, but some of the stories she tells about them are appalling--like pressuring their entire audience to smoke pot before they would start one particular performance. Dude, if you have to be stoned to enjoy it, it's probably not that good!

Still, if you're debating between reading and listening to this book, I'd recommend listening. Hands down, no question.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ever After

Ever After (Nantucket Brides Trilogy, #3)Ever After by Jude Deveraux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hallie discovered quite by accident that she had inherited a house from a man she had never met. If she hadn't returned without warning to her house that afternoon, looking for a missing envelope of important documents, she never would have walked in on her stepsister impersonating her and signing papers to take possession of Hallie's unexpected inheritance. While it wasn't especially shocking to learn her stepsister had deceived the executor of the will and was attempting to defraud her, it most certainly was shocking to discover she now owned a house on the island of Nantucket, and it was even more shocking to find out that she had a private physical therapy client waiting for her in said house. Most shocking of all was the revelation that her newly acquired home came with two ghosts: the Tea Ladies, who died a couple of centuries ago and yet never stopped fixing their famously elaborate teas.

The sisters' matchmaking talents are legends among the islanders, and soon Hallie finds herself locked into and out of rooms, drenched by thunderstorms so local the neighbors aren't aware they occurred, supplied with endless quantities of fabulous sandwiches and cakes, and falling for her gorgeous patient with the huge extended family.

Jamie Taggert isn't pleased with the way his identical twin got him to Hallie's house on Nantucket Island, but he acknowledges he needs physical therapy to rehabilitate his knee after a skiing accident, so he agrees to let Hallie treat his leg--and ONLY his leg. Unlike most men, who can't wait to disrobe, Jamie refuses to let anyone see his scarred body. He fears pity and goes out of his way to avoid it, usually by avoiding people altogether. His aversion to pity runs so deep, he lets Hallie believe he's just a rich playboy rather than admit he acquired most of his scars--both physical and mental--when his humvee exploded, killing his friends and nearly killing him as well.

Although the attraction between Jamie and Hallie is strong, painful secrets and ingrained beliefs threaten to separate the pair, and it takes some clever conniving on the part of the departed to teach them to have faith in the strength, reality, and longevity of their bond.

I love that Deveraux is now writing about the next generation of the Taggert/Montgomery family. Such a treat to get a glimpse into the happily ever after of some of my favorite characters of the past! I actually stayed up late two nights in a row, despite being seriously sleep-deprived, just because I couldn't stop reading.

Many thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher for letting me read an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) of the third book in this series in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly say I absolutely loved it! It's truly delightful to read a romance novel written by an author who likes and appreciates men and depicts them pretty realistically.

For reader's advisors: story and character doorways are both pretty strong, as is setting (ghosts and the non-creepy haunted house). There is some sexual content, but not especially explicit, and there is a little bit of swearing.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Eighth Grave After Dark

Eighth Grave After Dark (Charley Davidson, #8)Eighth Grave After Dark by Darynda Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The eighth book in the series picks up about eight months after Book #7 left off. Charley & Reyes have long since moved to sacred ground to avoid being shredded by twelve demon hellhounds, Cookie and Uncle Bob are about to get married, and Beep will be born very soon. It's a fast-paced whirlwind of a book, full of both humor and suspense, as well as some swearing and sexual content. Great fun, with enough twists and turns to have readers flipping back a few pages to make sure they got it all.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary. Some swearing and sexual content. Often popular with fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wicked Autumn

Wicked Autumn (Max Tudor, #1)Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First in a series of contemporary British cozy mysteries set in the village of Nether Monkslip.  Featuring Max Tudor as the sleuth--a former MI5 agent turned vicar.  No one liked Wanda Batton-Smythe, but murder her?  There hasn't been a murder in Nether Monkslip in decades, perhaps centuries.  And this one was definitely premeditated.

For reader's advisors: story & setting doorways are primary, character is secondary.  A few swear words here and there but no sex or on-screen violence.

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Make Your Home Among Strangers: A Novel

Make Your Home Among Strangers: A NovelMake Your Home Among Strangers: A Novel by Jennine Capo Crucet
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm giving up on this one. I find myself making excuse after excuse not to pick this book up to finish it because I just do not like the main character. She lies and makes stupid choices all the time and for no good reason, doing all kinds of unnecessary damage to herself and others. I can't stand spending time with her, and I'm having a hard time seeing how any college would think she were smart enough to be accepted, which makes the foundation of the story completely unbelievable. I was really expecting a book that told the story of a first-generation Latina college student trying to cope with unfamiliar customs and traditions, which I guess this is, but she'd have a much easier time adjusting if she were a nicer, smarter person with even an ounce of common sense. :( I'm basing my review on the first 115 pages of the book, so feel free to take my opinion with a grain of salt if you read the whole thing.

I received an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) from the publisher via BookBrowse in exchange for my honest review.

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Beyond the Sunrise

Beyond the SunriseBeyond the Sunrise by Mary Balogh
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I should really know better than to read/listen to a romance novel written before the mid-to-late 1990s at the VERY earliest (aside from Jane Austen's novels, of course).  Balogh is one of my favorite historical romance novelists, but this early work of hers is awful.   It's kind of interesting as a historical spy novel set in Portugal & Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, but as a romance it fails miserably.  The heroine does nothing but humiliate, emasculate, and lie to the hero, even when her mission no longer requires secrecy, and yet the reader is supposed to believe he would STILL fall in love with her?!  Um, no, that's not how that works.  Men respond to authenticity, not the contempt Joana demonstrates for all men as she manipulates, flirts with, and controls them like puppets on a string.

The book perpetuates the myth that if you have sex with a man who lusts after you, that means he'll automatically fall in love with you.  Um, no, also not how that works!  A man has to care about and respect a woman in order to fall in love with her.  Lust is just lust.

The story could have wrapped up in half the time if only Joana had told the truth as convincingly as she continued to tell lies; had explained why she wanted the French colonel to follow her; had been honest, genuine, and/or kind; and had enlisted Robert's help instead of deliberately making him think she was a French spy.   There were flashes of excellence in this novel, where you could glimpse the writer Balogh would become, but there were also plot holes and faulty premises enough to have me ranting at my car stereo for hours (see above about the unnecessary length of the book).

I strongly do not recommend this one.  The narrator does her best, but she can't make up for a terrible story.

For readers' advisors: setting doorway is primary.  Story is secondary, I guess.   There is some swearing and a lot of sex.  Seriously, no one could have energy for that much sex while trudging around the hills/mountains of Spain & Portugal in wartime with no shelter, no trust, no safety, & not much food.  No one.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Goodnight Train

The Goodnight TrainThe Goodnight Train by June Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The goodnight train gets set to roll. It's being shined, and filled with coal... that looks remarkably like cookies or cinnamon rolls--yum! This bedtime story board book is delightful, with the children's beds and a bathtub for the skunk making up most of the train's cars. Anthropomorphized animals are the train's conductor, porter, etc. The pajama-clad tots ride the train up the mountain, through the tunnel, around the town, across the plains and fields, until everyone is asleep and arrives home.

The rhythm of the words fits the pacing of the story, and the illustrations are fabulous--fun for little kids but with lots of jokes that will tickle the funny bone of older siblings, parents, and grandparents. My toddler loves it, and even after dozens of readings, I'm still noticing new clever visual gags.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

Four Nights With the Duke

Four Nights With the DukeFour Nights With the Duke by Eloisa James
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Negative 500 stars, really.

I give up. I struggled to listen to 19 chapters' worth, but I simply can't take it any more. This book is AWFUL!! The narrator's breathy, sleazy voice exacerbates the Ick Factor so badly that I almost didn't make it past the first chapter. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had given up right away and not wasted my time listening to such a wretched travesty of storytelling.

Mia is secretly a popular author of ridiculous Gothic romance novels, but when she's jilted at the alter a month before the deadline her deceased brother imposed on her to marry in order to remain guardian of her nephew, her money doesn't help. She resorts to blackmailing the son of her father's lover into marrying her right away. Their parents caused scandal with their 20-year relationship and more scandal by dying together in a fire at an inn, and further association with the Carrington family is the last thing Vander wants, so he's pretty livid. Stupidly, he doesn't read the letter she leaves with him explaining the terms, which include dissolving the marriage as soon as Charlie's safety is assured. Instead, he burns that letter but does NOT burn the one she also leaves with him that proves his mentally ill father was also treasonous. (Yep, bafflingly moronic decision.)

I'm still not sure why she felt she had to resort to blackmail instead of just telling him the truth and asking for his help. If he'd understood her predicament and met Charlie at the beginning, not to mention the sociopathic uncle scheming to control Charlie's inheritance, perhaps he wouldn't have been as furious or nasty or a complete and total jerk to her. They could have worked together to thwart her uncle and uncover the truth of what happened to her father, brother, and fiance. THAT would have been a much more interesting story for Ms. James to tell. Not to mention actually romantic as they got to know each other and gradually fell in love.

Instead, Ms. James wrote a story in which an a$$hole lusts after his new wife but treats her like garbage and still expects her to be an enthusiastic bed partner. He's controlling and vicious--his only redeeming quality is that he's nice to Charlie. Mia is supposedly independent and brave, but other than her initial determination to follow through with the blackmail, she's a spineless ninny who completely believes she's ugly and has no worth. All scenes between them were excruciatingly painful to listen to and usually resulted in me rolling my eyes, gagging, howling, grinding my teeth, and/or shouting, "THAT'S NOT HOW THAT WORKS!!!"

Case in point: every time Vander was cruel to Mia and then grabbed her, manhandled her, forced kisses on her, or in any other manner sexually assaulted her, and she went from being devastated/furious/anguished/heartbroken to instantly turned on and responsive. WHAT?!?! It's like Ms. James wished to invalidate the trauma of thousands (millions, really) of rape victims by saying, "Oh, it's OK--I know you SAID you didn't want him to touch you, but once he did, you loved it."

I so wish I could prevent Eloisa James from writing another book until she took every single one of Alison Armstrong's PAX workshops. Every. Single. One. Perhaps repeatedly, until the lessons really sunk in.

So what kept me listening through 19 dreadful chapters? I wanted to know whether Mia's uncle had murdered, bought off, or abducted her fiance on the way to the church, and whether he'd set the fire that killed her father. I can't remember how her brother supposedly died, but it wouldn't surprised me if her uncle had killed him off, too. In fact, if anyone reading this review knows the answers to these questions, I'd be grateful if you'd tell me in the comments section below!

I did like the character of Vander's drunken uncle, Sir Cuthbert (Chuffy? hard to tell with an audiobook), and I liked little Charlie. Also, I was amused at the references to Julia "Quiblet" (a.k.a. Julia Quinn, one of my favorite historical romance authors) and Lisa "Klampas" (a.k.a. Lisa Kleypas, another historical romance author).

Unless you wish to alarm your fellow drivers by shouting and gesticulating angrily at invisible people, I'd say skip this audiobook entirely. (If you do wish to freak people out during rush hour, then by all means, download this book.)

For readers' advisors: setting doorway (i.e. England, circa 1800). Swearing and sexual content. Abusive relationship.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Blanche on the Lam

Blanche on the LamBlanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blanche White (yes, that's really her name) has written one too many bad checks, thanks to meager wages not promptly paid, and she's facing jail time. Panic leads her to sneak out of the courthouse during a commotion and flee, ending up bluffing her way into a job for clients she'd had to cancel on thanks to the court appearance. Luckily for Blanche, the family soon heads to their summer home in another town, providing her a place to hide out while she figures out her next steps. Her employers have dangerous secrets of their own, however, and Blanche must pry into them if she is to stay alive.

I finished reading this nearly two months ago, but it's taken me a while to try and process what I think of it. I did enjoy reading it, although it was not what I was expecting, based on the blurb. For one thing, it's set in the present day (or, well, the present day of the early 1990s when it was written), but I was terribly confused at first because it felt like something out of the 1950s or 1960s. Are there really still African American maids and gardeners and other domestic workers in North Carolina who are treated like second-class citizens or worse? I suppose there might be, given all the recent racial tensions and violence in the news lately (currently the rioting in Baltimore).

It's truly a different world from the one I know. Although we can now finally afford to pay someone to come and clean our house every couple of weeks, and we just hired a landscaping service to take care of our yard because we simply can't keep up with it, we pay them well, and I cannot fathom treating any of the people doing the work with anything less than the utmost respect and deep gratitude for the time and energy they are saving us. I don't know anyone at all who has ever had "hired help" in the manner depicted in this book, and even if anyone had, no one I know would ever treat people so badly. It's an alien concept--just as much as if this were a sci-fi novel instead of a contemporary mystery.

The sad thing is, Blanche has experienced such a long history and culture of racial bigotry and inequality, that it--understandably, if unpleasantly--colors her perspective on everything. She is intelligent, even when she doesn't make the wisest choices. She loves her adopted children, and I'd love to eat her cooking, but she has a huge chip on her shoulder that keeps her from fully bonding with Mumsfield, a mentally slow sweetheart of a young man, just because he's white and related to her employers. Keeping her distance is a defense mechanism, and her bitterness and cynicism made for difficult reading at times. It was an interesting book, and I am curious to know what the next one in the series is like.

For readers' advisors: character and setting doorways. Some crude language and, strangely enough, a couple of descriptions of Blanche adjusting her underwear when it had ridden up.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free ebook copy I received in exchange for my honest review.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dragons loyal to the Comonot are battling those of the Old Ard who want to depose him and return to the days where humans were food. They claim exposure to humans taints dragons, making them impure and in need of having their memories excised. Seraphina, Queen Glisselda, and Prince Kiggins know they must gather allies to help them battle the dragons of the Old Ard in order to save the humans of Goredd, so the Queen sends Seraphina as her emissary to nearby kingdoms to persuade them to provide assistance. The journey has another purpose, however: Seraphina has read of a sort of mind-net that was once created to defend against dragons in a former time, and she resolves to seek out her fellow ityasaari (half dragons) to learn whether such a thing is possible today.

Things do not quite go as planned, of course, and Seraphina learns that another half-dragon, Jannoula, who has the ability to invade and take over the minds of other ityasaari, is searching for the same people Seraphina hopes to find. Jannoula plans to use the mind-net for her own purposes, although uncovering all the twists and turns in her devious plot will be a long, frustrating challenge for Seraphina. One by one, she watches her friends fall under the spell of Jannoula, unable to save them until she learns the secret of unlocking her own mind-fire.

There are so many things to adore about this book, but I think the saving grace for me was that it was so easy to immerse myself instantly in the world Hartman has created, no matter how little time I had to read--including sometimes just the couple of minutes it took to heat my lunch in the microwave. I had to be creative in order to carve out a few minutes (or a whole half an hour!) here and there when I could read, and with Shadow Scale, I could pick up right where I left off and be transported immediately into the world of the story. Rachel Hartman's world-building skills are outstanding.

My second favorite thing was the character development, particularly of Jannoula. You really got to see and feel sympathy for how she came to be so twisted, and you understood the guilt Seraphina felt for her inadvertent role in that. I also loved the variety of characters and relationships, including that they were so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story.

I also appreciated that not everything was tied up with pretty little bows at the end. Don't get me wrong--I LOVE happy endings. In this case, though, it felt so much more real for some things to be left a little more open-ended. In a war, people are injured and die, and not just "the bad guys." This story takes place during wartime, with some battles occurring far from a traditional battlefield.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the free Advanced Reader's Copy of the ebook for this fantastic sequel to Seraphina!

For readers' advisors: setting, character, and story doorways are strong. Language, too, given the many words Hartman has invented. There is no sex, and if I recall correctly, any swearing uses made-up words or phrases. The violence is not at all graphic and mostly happens "off-screen." It's LGBT-friendly.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess BrideAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite thing about listening to the audiobook version of Cary Elwes' book was hearing many of the actual people involved with The Princess Bride voice their memories of making the film. It felt like they were sitting down with me and having a nice chat about the The Good Ol' Days, telling funny stories and reminiscing. How often do you get the chance to do that with the characters of your favorite childhood movie?

I still remember going on a rare movie date with my mom when I was about 12. We went to the Sellwood Theater (that no longer exists) and saw a double feature of La Bamba and The Princess Bride. Both were good movies, but The Princess Bride...ohhhh, yeah, that was the first of about 3 dozen viewings over the years. I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to see it on DVD with me.

Elwes' book is a must-read (or must-listen) for anyone who loves the movie. I adored hearing all kinds of stories about how and where they filmed different parts, all the background context and personalities. Like, for example, that the scene when the Prince & Count Rugen catch Buttercup & Westley as they emerge from the Fire Swamp, and the Count knocks Westley out with the handle of his sword--that was Cary Elwes collapsing unconscious to the ground because Christopher Guest accidentally bonked him too hard. OOPS! :D

The only (small) quibble I have with the audiobook version is that much of the time Cary Elwes, who narrates his own memoir, somehow manages to come off sounding ever so slightly pompous. Not in what he's saying, but in his tone, which I would have preferred to be a little more conversational. I kept envisioning him in the studio reading his book, whereas all the actors and the director who recorded their own memories sounded like they were simply telling stories to friends.

Still, it's a delightful love fest of mutual admiration, which makes a pleasant change from the usual spiteful tell-all memoirs. I was sad when the book came to a close. It felt like I had to say goodbye to my friends, which is apparently how they all felt at the end of filming.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a beloved DVD to re-watch....

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Same Sky

The Same SkyThe Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Same Sky is the story of Carla, a young girl living in the slums of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Alice, a childless woman who co-owns a BBQ restaurant with her husband in Austin, Texas. Carla's mother paid a coyote to smuggle her into the US when Carla was about seven years old and her younger brothers were babies. She's been sending a little money back to Honduras ever since, to help support Carla, the boys, and Carla's grandmother, and as soon as she could afford it, she paid a coyote to bring one of the boys to her in Austin, Texas. By the time Carla is twelve, life in the slums has become too difficult, and Carla realizes she must make the brutal journey north to America if she's to have any hope of saving her little brother, Junior. The immigrant experience is a waking nightmare, and only faith keeps Carla going.

Alice and her husband, Jake, have a thriving business, but their home life has been shattered by an adoption that fell through one night after they brought home a newborn baby boy. After being unable to conceive, they tried surrogacy and then adoption, and the latest disappointment drives a wedge in their close relationship as they struggle to grieve in totally separate ways.

The story is told in alternating chapters, and Carla's chapters held my attention a little bit better than Alice's, although both were gut-wrenching in their own ways. I just felt like Alice was a tiny bit obnoxious and unprepared to be a mother (at least based on the awkward and inept way she went about being a "Big Sister" to a troubled teen at a troubled local high school). I wanted to shake some sense into her sometimes, whereas with Carla, I longed to scoop her into my arms and shield her from any more harm.  Their stories don't intersect until the very end, and not quite in the way I had predicted.  The Same Sky is both wonderful and heartbreaking.  Keep the Kleenex box handy, although sometimes I was too stunned to even cry.  Carla's story was especially haunting, and I frequently wished I could change the events in her life--just rewind a bit, and it would all be OK again, right?

I received a free ebook copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review, although in the end, in order to get the book read, I listened to a downloadable audiobook version I checked out from my library.

I'm not sure whether this was intended to be "Christian fiction," but Carla's faith plays a huge role in her story, and faith (or the lack thereof) plays a part in Alice's story as well.

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, setting secondary. There is some bad language, drug use by minors, rape, and some references to sex.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Jo Frost's Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper Behavior

Jo Frost's Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper BehaviorJo Frost's Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper Behavior by Jo Frost
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always liked watching Jo Frost as "Supernanny" on TV because she works miracles with common sense and love. Her written advice is more of the same: practical, effective, logical, and based on the stages of child development. Fabulous! I especially appreciated that she gave real-world scenario examples of all her techniques, tips, and troubleshooting FAQs. That really helped me connect the theory to what it would look like in practice and when to use which method. There is nothing revolutionary or mind-blowing about the lessons in this book, but that's the point. Raising toddlers isn't rocket science, it's just structure, consistency, and discipline (in the best sense of the word), with a whole lot of patience and love. The main takeaway for me is something I usually do instinctively and will now do consciously: S.O.S. = Step back, Observe, Step in. Thanks, Supernanny!

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

Jane and the Twelve Days of ChristmasJane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's Christmas time, and Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and their mother are on the way to visit their brother James and his family for the holidays. They have a mishap enroute, thanks to their brother's parsimony, and end up meeting a handsome stranger on his way to the home of mutual friends, which eventually leads to an invitation for the whole family to join the house party at The Vyne. Unfortunately, a young man dies while they are visiting, and Jane determines it was murder.

She's not alone in her sleuthing this time, for the handsome stranger turns out to be Raphael West, an artist and government agent, and the two of them work together to solve the crime. Jane isn't completely sure she can trust Mr. West, despite their mutual attraction, but she has few options, especially when a second person dies under suspicious circumstances.

I loved all the historical details in this volume--from James' wife Mary's hypochondria to the 12 outfits Cassandra and Jane sewed for their niece's doll as gifts for each of the 12 nights of Christmas. These elements really made the story come alive for me. If Stephanie Barron's Mary Austen is anything like the real Mary Austen was, it's a miracle no one smothered her in her sleep. She is so utterly self-absorbed, she makes for good comic relief, though!

Unfortunately, I struggled to keep straight the names and relationships between a few of the secondary characters, and it slowed down my reading tremendously when I had to stop and go back to look up their connections to each other. This was partly due to my only having time to read during lunch breaks, which wasn't Ms. Barron's fault at all. However, since those characters ended up being central to the mystery, it made for some rough going some of the time.

The other thing that frustrated me was that Jane seemed to ignore some rather obvious clues, which is unusual for this series. I kept wishing I could be like Tuesday Next in the Jasper Fforde Eyre Affair series and jump right in to the book and talk to the characters. I felt like Jane could have wrapped up the case faster if she had paid more attention. On the other hand, the resolution felt somewhat hasty and unsatisfying, albeit realistic.

Bottom line? It's a fun historical cozy mystery, worth the read, but not the best in the series. Still, I'm sad that there can't be many more of these books to come, given that Jane died in her early 40s.

For readers' advisors: setting and story doorways. No sex, bad language, or onscreen violence.

I originally was approved to read a free eGalley copy through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review, but I didn't download it soon enough, so in the end I checked out a copy from my library. Same review, though. :)

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Friday, January 2, 2015

One Potion in the Grave

One Potion in the Grave ( A Magic Potion Mystery #2)One Potion in the Grave by Heather Blake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carly Bell Hartwell uses secret drops to create magical potions that actually work, so when she gets a visit from a famous bride-to-be wanting a love potion, she's curious. And when her childhood friend, Katie Sue Perrywinkle, now Kathryn Perry, stops by her shop to say hello after a ten year absence and sets off Carly's "witchy senses" with the aura of danger surrounding her, Carly grows concerned. Her worry leads her to warn Dylan Jackson, her former-fiance-almost-boyfriend who works for the sheriff's office, that something is amiss. Sadly, Carly's warning doesn't prevent catastrophe, and she must piece together what happened before anyone else dies.

I really enjoy Heather Blake's two mystery series. They are fun cozies with quirky characters and small town settings. Two things affected my rating with this one, though: 1) I figured out near the beginning that a key assumption Carly made about Katie Sue's relationship to the Calhoun family was wrong, whereas it took Carly 3/4 or so of the book to realize her mistake, which was annoying, and 2) I actually figured out who the killer was several chapters before the end of the book. (I prefer not to be certain about who & why.)

OK, and a third thing that didn't help my rating was that I really enjoyed getting to know the characters in the first book in this series, and I had been wanting to get to know them better in this one, which barely happened. There is a little progress made in some key relationships, which I appreciated, but I felt like Blake could have had much more space to flesh out her characters if only they hadn't wasted so much time chasing red herrings. Ah well, it was still fun and a great choice for relaxing on the couch, recuperating after the holiday whirlwind.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary. There is no sex or onscreen violence and only a few mild swear words.

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