Monday, June 30, 2014

Reviewer's Bookshelf: Miracle in a Dry Season by Sarah Loudin Thomas


Synopsis (from Goodreads): It's 1954 and Perla Long's arrival in the small town of Wise, West Virginia, was supposed to go unnoticed. She just wants a quiet, safe place for her and her daughter, Sadie, where the mistakes of her past can stay hidden. But then drought comes to Wise, and Perla is pulled into the turmoil of a town desperately in need of a miracle. 
Casewell Phillips has resigned himself to life as a bachelor...until he meets Perla. She's everything he's sought in a woman, but he can't get past the sense that she's hiding something. As the drought worsens, Perla's unique way with food brings both gratitude and condemnation, placing the pair in the middle of a maelstrom of anger and forgiveness, fear and faith.

My thoughts...
Miracle in a Dry Season is a heartwarming story about love, but the central theme is forgiveness.  Casewell Phillips has longed for a close, loving relationship with his father, and through a painful journey, he is able to experience what he longed for.  Perla longs to be accepted despite the mistakes she's made in the past.  She has repented and asked God for forgiveness, but struggles with forgiving herself.  She also wants the love and forgiveness that Casewell can give  her in order to have a relationship with him.  Angie and Liza, twin sisters who have never married, must forgive each other and a man that wronged them both, in order to experience freedom and joy in their golden years.  As you can see, this theme of forgiveness runs in several story lines in this novel.

My personal preference in fiction is a faster-paced, more intense love story.  This novel is not what I would consider fast paced, but more of a leisurely walk through a moment in time.  The romantic aspect of the story was very clean, and I liked that.  But I would've liked a little more interaction, even hand holding or some kind of innocent physical touch, that would create a few more sparks between our main characters.  I have read many novels that can remain clean and still create that strong romantic tension that makes your heart beat faster.  Much of this story had a more relaxed approach to every conflict that presented itself.  Although there were a few intense scenes, they didn't last long and were resolved somewhat easily.  

I would've liked to read a little more backstory with Perla's character.  There were bits and pieces of her story told throughout the book, but I wanted more.  There was an obvious scandal circling around her, and even though I don't really want to know all the details of someone's failures in real life, it makes for some good tension in a novel.  In general, the tension could have been taken up a notch with our main characters. 

 This novel is also set in the 1950's in the Appalachian area.  I read that in the synopsis so I had it in the back of my mind throughout the novel, but there wasn't a strong focus on the setting.  The same story could've taken place in the 1880's in the west and the plot wouldn't have changed much.  In fact, there were times that I had to remind myself that it wasn't in the 1800s (but I also read a lot of westerns ; )).

The aspect I particularly liked about this novel were the talents and gifts that were given to some of the main characters.  These gifts had a spiritual element to them, as if things were happening that could only be done by God, such as the food Perla cooked multiplying without explanation.  At first that part of the story had me feeling skeptical that the author could pull it off, but as I read on I began to really like the way it fit into the plot.  Casewell had the same kind of gift with his carpentry.  

Looking at this novel objectively, I would say that there were many good things about it.  If you like a story that will leave you with a sigh and a sense of completeness after a satisfying ending, you'll like Miracle in a Dry Season.  I also thought the theme was well executed and there were several examples of forgiveness that were believable and appreciated throughout the novel.  I also love cover art, and I thought the cover was beautiful! However, the novel needed an elevated level of tension--especially on the romantic aspect.

My rating:
*** 1/2 to ****
I can't decide if I want to do 3 1/2 or 4, but I'll probably go to 4
I liked it~

(I was given a free copy of this novel by Bethany House Publishers via NetGalley for an unbiased review)

Sarah Loudin Thomas has also written a novella that is a prequel to Miracle in a Dry Season.  It's called Appalachian Serenade and is currently free for the Kindle.  I really enjoyed this short novel and would recommend it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Reviewer's Bookshelf: With Every Breath by Elizabeth Camden


In the shadow of the nation's capital, Kate Livingston holds a respectable position as a government statistician when she encounters a rival from her past, the insufferable Trevor McDonough. A Harvard-trained physician, Trevor never showed the tiniest flicker of interest in Kate, and she's bewildered at the way he suddenly seeks her out. Surprising even herself, Kate agrees to Trevor's entirely unexpected and risky proposal to work side-by-side with him in his quest to rid the world of tuberculosis, a contagious and deadly disease. 

As Kate begins to unlock the mysteries of Trevor's past, she realizes there is much more to him than she could have imagined. His hidden depths may fascinate her, but his most closely guarded secrets and a shadowy enemy lurking in the background carry a serious threat to their future. 

When the truth of the past comes out, threatening to destroy everything they hold dear, how will Trevor and Kate ever overcome all that stands in their way? (summary from Goodreads)

This book captivated me from the first page!  I honestly couldn't put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours. I'm an Elizabeth Camden fan, but this book really stands out to me.  Here are some of the things I particularly enjoyed about this book:
*I LOVED Trevor's character.  He was the kind of male lead that I really like: flawed, a little dark and brooding, but beneath it all there is a vulnerability. There's a legitimate reason for his being the way he is, and it makes you feel so compassionate towards him...which is my other favorite thing about a good male character.  Some male leads just seem a little too good to be true.  Trevor has that tender side, filled with pain, and yet it only shows itself at a few pivotal moments in the story.  I hope this doesn't ruin anything for any of you, but I kept thinking of Benedict Cumberbatch the whole time I read about Trevor ;-).
*The medical aspect was very interesting to me.  The drive Trevor had to research tuberculosis made me want to root for him and also made me think of what so many doctors and researchers went through to discover cures and vaccines for diseases.  We now take so many of those cures for granted, but many died in their efforts so that future generations wouldn't have to suffer.  This aspect of the story was explained so clearly and understandably....I didn't get lost in a lot of medical jargon.  
*The chemistry between Kate and Trevor was fantastic.  I wouldn't have minded even more moments between them, but I thought the level (very clean) was good for this type of novel.  There was a fun sense of competition between them, which made the sparks fly.  
*Another thing I appreciate in Camden's books is that even though I think I know what will happen, there's still some uncertainty there.  I love the slight mystery aspect.  It wasn't too heavy, but the plot twists and turns had me flipping pages!  I had no idea how Trevor was going to overcome his professional and personal battles, and I think that makes a great book.  Kate also had some serious personal battles that I wasn't sure if she would overcome or not.  I was surprised by some of the decisions her character made, but it made the plot a little more intense.  I don't mind some predictability in a book, but some books can be almost boring if you can tell what the outcome will be from the beginning.
*The setting was also appealing since we just returned from our trip to Washington DC!  I didn't realize when I picked the book up that it was where the novel was set.  It was neat to picture some of the places that were mentioned!

The only criticism I can think of in this novel is that there were times when Kate's struggles frustrated me.  I could totally relate to how compassionate she was towards others.  When she lost those who were dear to her, and even some she wasn't as close to, she struggled with keeping her emotions under control (and who says you have to!).  I'm exactly the same way as Kate's character.  I grieve deeply when it comes to loss.  In this story, because she was contrasted with Trevor's behavior, it was seen by him as a weakness in Kate.  But I appreciated that in her. The aspect of her personality that sort of got to me was her overbearing desire to control the circumstances in her life and in the lives of others.  I understand why she did this, because she was trying to protect herself from pain and loss, but it was hard to read sometimes!  I kind of wanted her to move a little faster in her journey of self-discovery.  I'm so impatient with these female characters sometimes ;-).

I am giving this book:
5 stars
Because it was seriously good and I LOVED (!!!) it.  You know a book is good if you can't stop thinking about it and the first thing you'd love to do afterwards is read it again ;-)

Happy reading!
(I received a free copy of this novel from NetGalley/Bethany House for an unbiased review)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Our epic road trip: traveling to Baltimore, MD and Washington DC with kids

I was a little unsure how our road trip would go with a 7 and 5 year old.  We had a 12 hour plus drive that we wanted to do in one day (and we did it...both coming and going!).  Then we were going to a conference in Baltimore for 2 days (an adult conference...which had the potential to be boring for two young kids) and had the rest of the trip (3 days) to fit in sight seeing.  I have to say...the kids did great!  I was so excited that there was a limited amount of complaining and the kids were so fun to have with us.  I wanted to share some of the things I learned and some of the things we did that you might like to do if you have a road trip like this!

Planning phase: I didn't do mass amounts of planning for this trip.  I knew that it would be good to have a "wish list" of things we could do, but realistically I knew we couldn't do it all.  I started at Pinterest, one of my favorite resources, and got some good "top things to do for free" and "top things to do with kids" for both cities.  That was a good place to start.  There are tons of bloggers out there who have done this same trip and can share.
*keeping the kids busy...One thing I knew we would have to have on this trip is entertainment for the long car ride and for the conference time.  My son has a LeapPad and my daughter has a Kindle Fire.  So, I just invested in some cheap $5 headphones for each of them and that did wonders!  I also signed up for a free Amazon Prime subscription (1 month free) so we could have access to lots of free tv shows and kids movies.  I ended up not using it like I thought I would, but it is a pretty great free trial deal.  I also spent less than $5 on a shower caddie like this:
I filled it with drinks and snacks that they could have at different intervals so I wouldn't have to keep reaching back to find them something if they were hungry.  I set it between their seats in the van we were driving in so they could reach it easily.  Worked great!  After using it for snacks, I was able to put art stuff in there.  

Traveling around: While we were in Baltimore, our hotel was about 30 minutes from the Inner Harbor, where the conference center was. The Inner Harbor area has so many fun things to do!  It was the perfect starting point and my husband and I enjoyed the waterfront and all that it had to offer.  Lots of great restaurants, tourist attractions, sports venues, etc. are within a short walking distance.  If you want to pay extra for a hotel close to all of this, you won't have to rent a car.  There is also a public bus system that is free to several points in the city.  We rode on it once and it was safe (during the daytime), although there are several homeless and those less fortunate riding as well.  We had a car, so we had to find parking in the city each day.  Not fun.  And expensive!  A great resource that was recommended to us for finding parking at a good rate (in several different large cities) is:
*Parking Panda we used this site twice and saved a good bit of money because of it!
I also knew that we were going to Washington from Baltimore and heard that the traffic is bad in DC, but the public transportation (Metro) was great.  I figured that since Baltimore wasn't too far, there might be a train that we could take to get us there....and there was!  We could've actually gotten to DC faster if we drove, but the train was a good experience for the kids, was easy for us because we could just sit back and relax, and was relatively inexpensive.
*Here's the MARC train link if you want to do this, too.  There were two stations in Baltimore...Camden and Penn.  The Camden line left at 8:05 am from Baltimore and returned from DC at 5:22pm.  The Penn line ran later from DC, but the Camden line worked for us.  You can go to a kiosk at the train station and purchase your tickets there.  We didn't realize our 5 yr old would've been check the age requirements.  The tickets were $7 one way.
*After we got to DC, we had to figure out the Metro, and thankfully it wasn't that hard.  The trickiest part to me was making sure you were on the right side of the side went one direction down the rail line and the other side went the other direction.  The people working at the Metro station were extremely helpful in telling us what kind of ticket to purchase. You can purchase Metro cards in advance and put money on them so you don't even have to worry about it.  This map: 
was a lifesaver!  You can get brochures at the metro station that have this map on there, but it was good to have a look at it before we went there.  We arrived from Baltimore at Union Station, so we took two different lines to get off at the Smithsonian stop, which put us right by the Washington Monument.  
Seeing the sites: There is an overabundance of history and fun things to do in both of these cities.  There was no way we could get to all of it.  My husband and I are already thinking of going back some time.  The great thing about Baltimore is that it is a good central location to several different big cities, such as DC, Philadelphia, and New York.  We chose DC because, well, it's DC.  There's so many historical things and the great thing about that is that almost everything there, museums, landmarks, etc., are free.  You do have lines to wait in, but you don't have to pay anything.  Love it!  
*Highlights of Baltimore: As I mentioned before, the Inner Harbor area is a great place to start.  There's the Hard Rock Cafe, along with lots of other delicious restaurants, the aquarium, a World Trade Center, the USS Constellation (a ship that you can tour), a submarine that you can tour, and Camden Yards (the baseball stadium) is right within walking distance.  We chose to tour the area by water.  There's a water taxi that you can pay to ride ($6 kids/$12 adults) and you have all day access to travel to any of 7 (I think it's 7) ports.  We chose to ride to Fell's Point, a historical little area that has cobblestone streets and rows of old town looking shops, pubs and more.  There's a cute little pretzel and icee stand ride as you come off the boat and honestly, I could smell those delicious pretzels before we even docked! (Yes, I bought one!)  From Fell's Point we took a taxi over to Fort McHenry.
This is where the historic battle took place in which Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner!  It was so neat to be there on Flag Day as well, as we were able to see a special music/military presentation.  It was free to walk the grounds and see the small museum and movie, but you had to pay to walk inside the fort area.  
We also took in a baseball game.  I was really impressed with the stadium and the fact that even though we were on the top row on one side, we could still see the field really well.  My hubby bought the tickets online and got a really good deal. Even though we had to pay a little extra for processing fees, it was still cheaper than buying at the stadium.  And, if you do go, buy some food and take it in with you.  The lady at our hotel told us we couldn't take food in, but you can.  We actually bought some from a vendor selling hot dogs, chips, bottled water and a bag of peanuts for a family of 4 for only $ was a great deal!  
Too fun!  It was the kids' first baseball game memory!
Like I said, lots more to do than I realized in the city of Baltimore.  I also enjoyed the cooler, gnat and mosquito free, outdoors.  Such a nice break from the south GA heat!
*highlights of DC: We started our day with walking from the Washington monument down through what is known as The Mall.  This is a nice walking path that extends from the monument to the Capitol building.  I would definitely recommend doing this in the cooler hours of the day since it's outside (if you're there in the warmer months).  It took us a while to walk down the path and make our way to the Lincoln Memorial.  On the way you'll see several other war memorials, all of which are worth the time to look through.  By the time we got to the Lincoln Memorial, the kids were pretty tired.

But awesome!  There's a little outdoor restaurant next to the Lincoln Memorial where we stopped to rest and eat.  One thing I'm glad I did....packed snacks and lunch! We had brought lots of snacks for the trip, including some bread and pb& worth it!  We saved a lot in DC by just packing up some sandwiches, drinks and other snacks.  Bring lots of water, too, because you'll need it.  Because we were all a little tuckered out and we wanted to go the National Archives, we opted to take a short taxi ride.  Honestly, so worth the $10 bucks.  It was a fun experience for the kids, too.  It put us right by the Archives and the Smithsonian museums, which is where I would recommend spending the hotter parts of the day.  By this point, the kids weren't super interested in seeing the Declaration of Independence, but I was.  So glad I was able to see all of these amazing documents.  Then we went on to the Museums of Natural History and American History.
This was pretty cool.  The kids perked up seeing all the neat and interesting animals.  My only regret is our lack of time.  I felt like I was pushing us through every place we saw in DC.  If you're able to, spend a couple of days there.  But for our time constraints, we were really able to see a lot.  I regret we didn't make it to the capitol, Air and Space museum (I really wanted to see this one!), the White House, and Arlington.  If we do this trip again, I definitely want to apply in advance for the tour of the Capitol and the White House.  I honestly don't think our kids, being as young as they are, would've enjoyed the Capitol tour, but some of our friends went and said it was about 3 hours long and very interesting. 

I hope this was helpful to some of you!  If you have any questions, please ask away!  I think this was one of our favorite family vacations so far.  I hope we can do this one again some time and see even more.  God bless!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reviewer's Bookshelf: Silenced by Dani Pettrey

Silenced is book 4 in the Alaskan Courage series by Dani Pettrey.  I would suggest reading the series in order to have a good amount of backstory on the characters.  I did not read the books in order...and haven't read them I had to get a little help from a fellow reader to know what was going on before I read this one.  I was able to enjoy this story without having read all of the previous ones (I have read book 2), but I think I would've enjoyed it even more if I knew past details.

Book summary (from A relaxing day of rock climbing takes a disturbing turn when Kayden McKenna's route brings her face-to-face with a dead climber. Is it a terrible accident or something darker? When the case is handed to overburdened sheriff Landon Grainger, he turns to Jake Westin for help. With Jake's past now revealed, he's ready to use his talent for investigation again--but he could never prepare for where the mystery will take him.

Kayden's climbing expertise soon leads her and Jake to the realization that the death was no accident. And worse, it seems the killer is onto them. When strange things begin happening in Yancey, Jake is terrified that once again his world may put someone he loves in danger. But the truth is far worse than he could ever imagine. 

As I mentioned, I have read book 2 in this series so I was eager to read another part in the story of the McKenna family.  Each book is a chapter in the life of one of the McKenna siblings, but it also includes side stories of the other siblings, which has opened doors for future books in the series.  Silenced is no exception.  
The main story focuses on Kayden McKenna, who is an expert climber but has an almost obsession with being healthy and doing everything in her power to be in top physical shape.  It's been her way to deal with the physical decline and death of her mother, which happened years before.  Her mother suffered with a degenerative disease and Kayden wants to do everything in her power to prevent it from happening to herself...or passing on any burdens to a husband and future children.  It does make her seem a little cold and stand-offish, but it offers an internal struggle that makes her character grow through the story.

Jake knows that Kayden is trying everything she can to push him away, but he's persistent, and that's always an admirable trait for a hero : ).  Jake is strong and reliable, but definitely vulnerable and wounded when it comes to love.  He's lost deeply (this happened in the previous book), and doesn't want to lose anyone else that's close to him.

I really like what I've read of this series.  In this story, I liked that Kayden wasn't a pushover, going all gaga over Jake, even though I think most girls would go gaga over him.  Each of the stories in this series involves a murder mystery of some kind.  I liked they way Jake and Kayden, along with the other McKenna family members, worked together to solve the mystery.  It made for an action-packed page-turner.  The aspect that sort of fell flat for me was the actual solving of the murder that was central to the story.  There was a build up of "whodunit?!" and then all of the sudden a person confessed and that was it.  And the confession didn't really seem that person may not have really done it (maybe this part of the plot will continue in the next book?).  Even some of the characters in the book were saying, "I can't believe that person did it." I couldn't believe it, either.  It just didn't have the closure I hoped for before the action jumped right into another story line that had been hinted at throughout the story.  This part concerned someone basically stalking and wanting to kill Jake and Kayden.  The peak of that part of the plot came right after the "solving" of the other murder.  It was also very action packed without having that too dark and creepy feel.  It was a good balance of having a believable bad guy but not making them too Stephen King.  I also liked the way that the stalker/killer person tied in to some of the previous novels and even revealed some misconceptions about who really was the mastermind behind some previous crimes.  I love the "aha!" moments in a book.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Silenced and the other books leading up to it in the series.  All have some mystery, action, romance, and the rugged outdoor setting of Alaska.  Very good combination. I'm going to give this book:

4 stars

Really enjoyed it!

(I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley/Bethany House publishers in exchange for an honest review)

My next post will be about our trip to Baltimore, MD and Washington DC!  I can't wait to share what I learned and how we did it with two kiddos!  Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reviewer's Bookshelf: Stuck Together by Mary Connealy

Stuck Together is the third book in the Trouble in Texas series by Mary Connealy.  I have read the first two in the series, but you could read any of the books on their own and get the gist of the story.

This third installment picks up where the last one left off, but focuses primarily on Vince Yates and his story.  Vince was known as "Invincible Vince," the name given to him by his band of brothers in the harsh conditions at the civil war prison in Andersonville, GA.  These guys have definitely "stuck together" through some harsh moments, especially since they moved to Broken Wheel, Texas.  Vince can handle the shootouts, keeping watch through the night, taking a gun shot, and surviving a childhood with a cruel father, but when Tina Cahill shows up unexpectedly in Broken Wheel, Vince has met his match.  Tina is picketing the local saloon, spouting off advice, and making Vince's heart beat quicken...and he can hardly think straight.  When his father, mother, and new sister come to town, Vince can't help but second guess his nickname...because he feels anything but invincible.

I absolutely loved the first two books in this series.  They were filled with action, romance, and suspense with some pretty rough bad guys.  I also connected with the story in that I had actually visited Andersonville and could picture the harsh conditions these men went made their friendship even more believable.  I'm also a big fan of the humorous dialogue that is characteristic of Mary Connealy's books.  
Stuck Together had the romance, fun dialogue, and likeable characters I was looking for in book 3 of this series.  The characters I loved in the first book were there, although their part in the story was more of a supporting role, with the exception of Vince.  The primary storyline was about Vince and Tina, and as Vince was always kind of mystery in the first two books, I enjoyed learning his backstory.  Connealy also explores the struggle of having a parent with dementia and how the characters at that time, with limited resources, dealt with it.  I always like to read a story that shows people coming together to help each other.  Through Vince's situation with his family member, he was able to experience love from his dearest friends like he never had.
  At the beginning of the story, I'll have to admit that Tina's character got under my skin.  I was hoping that she would move out of the sign-toting, whiny phase as the book progressed, and she did!  Yay!  So I felt like I was able to enjoy her character so much and got to see her mature.  By the end of the book I honestly didn't mind if she had her little protests...because I felt like she was doing it for the right reasons.  
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and having closure in the series.  I did feel that the "bad guys" in the story didn't have the impact that the ones in the first two books had.  I didn't have the pulse-racing..."oooh, what's going to happen"...feeling.  The conflict was resolved pretty quickly.  My favorite aspects of the story were the healing that took place in the hearts of Vince and Tina, and I really think that was the center of the story, not the shoot 'em up scene at the end.

4 stars

*I received a free copy from NetGalley/Bethany House publishers for an unbiased review*