What Else I Read This Summer

What Else I Read This SummerAs you read this, my family and I have just arrived home from Africa, where we spent time in Swaziland at New Life Homes, and then on the South African coast, where we did a bit of safari-ing.

During this time, I’ve taken a break from reading books for review, and from social media too. (If you’ve noticed a certain silence from my end these last few weeks…well, now you know.)

As summer winds to an end and I prepare to resume where I left off, thought I’d fill you in on the other titles in my reading pile.

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. I know, everyone else on the planet has already read it and raved, so now my turn. Surprisingly profound, sometimes shockingly intimate–this book has changed the way I count my blessings, every day.

Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by Sarah Young. I’m amazed, almost daily, at the mystical way each reading seems to speak to me and me alone in that particular moment in time. Beautiful and healing.

How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences by Kathy Koch. In some ways my kids learn the way I do. In many ways, they don’t. This book is helping me to understand where they are gifted, and to better appreciate their unique kinds of smarts. The author’s website, CelebrateKids.com, also provides excellent, practical resources and perspectives for parents.

The Mystery at Lilac Inn: A Nancy Drew Mystery by Carolyn Keene. Wait–what? Yes, I know…but one day I was feeling low and needed some comfort, and the thought of immersing myself in a childhood favorite sounded enormously appealing. Lovely for a trip down memory lane…and quite funny too. Oh, how writing styles have changed! And I do love the illustrations.

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes by Shauna Niequist. Love this book. LOVE. For its vision, its heart, its recipes. My new go-to book for hospitality and warmhearted, down-to-earth, chummy wisdom.

Your turn: Have you read any of these titles? Which books have you been reading that I should add to my list?


Spotlight on The Trail by Ed Underwood

Spotlight on The Trail by Ed Underwood“God’s good and perfect will is not a destination on the horizon of life where everything makes sense, but a place where life is exposed to God’s power.”

The Trail: A Tale about Discovering God’s Will by Ed Underwood

About this book: (from the publisher) Matt and Brenda feel trapped because they look for God’s guidance about major life decisions in completely opposite ways. Their friends Brian and Lindsey try to help by introducing them to a person who had helped them gain an unshakable confidence in God’s will.

After meeting Sam Lewis in the stunning High Sierras, the three hike together, Matt and Brenda learn that God’s good and perfect will is not a destination on the horizon of life where everything makes sense, but a place where your life is exposed to God’s power. One by one, Sam’s eight principles illuminate the path ahead. As the story builds to its stunning conclusion, all three characters desperately seek and experience God’s redemptive guidance.

You will treasure this timeless tale about discovering God’s will.

About the author: (from Tyndale Media Center) Ed Underwood is a pastor, author, and speaker. In addition to leading Church of the Open Door, Ed has taught Bible school students, seminarians, spoken to packed conferences, and written numerous articles and books. When Ed is not studying, leading, discipling, writing, or speaking, he loves spending time with his wife, Judy, their children, and grandchildren. He enjoys backpacking, and still tries to surf some.

Genre: Non-Fiction/Christian Life/General

Spotlight on The Trail by Ed UnderwoodAuthor Q&A:

Ed, thank you for being here today on Story Matters and sharing a bit about the story behind the story of The Trail. Please tell us why you chose to deliver your message by way of a parable. Wouldn’t a non-fiction how-to have been an easier book to write?

There’s no question it would have been easier to write a non-fiction how-to book from the series I’ve been teaching for over 30 years. I wrote by way of parable or allegory because I’m intrigued by the power of story and I wanted to not only teach the principles but to illustrate it through the characters.

Plus, I love the High Sierras and I’ve written quite a lot of fiction from my years as a firefighter for a Hotshot crew. None of it is published, but I felt I could use fiction to not only teach the principles of the Trail, but also to introduce people to the High Sierras, the culture of wildland fire fighting, and the dynamic of discipleship or mentoring.

Has anyone suggested that The Trail is something like William P. Young’s 2008 bestseller The Shack? Do you agree or disagree with the comparison, and why?

Wow, I never thought of that. I enjoyed The Shack, and I do see some similarities. The one immediate difference I would point out is that The Trail is a story that teaches more specific biblical truth than The Shack did. The Trail seems more intentional about helping people in maybe a more specific way.

After reading The Trail, what is the one truth you want your readers to take away?

I want them to live expectantly, knowing that the God who cherishes them wants to reveal His guidance to them. I don’t want them to be afraid of God’s will for their lives or feel enslaved to some formula. I want them to feel as if they were on the journey with Sam and he helped them find their way in some life decision.

Thanks to Tyndale for providing me a free copy for this post. All opinions are mine.


Misery Loves Company, book review

Misery Loves Company, book reviewDon’t tell me it’s terrifying. Terrify me.

Misery Loves Company by Rene Gutteridge

About this book: Grieving Jules Belleno, far too young to be a widow, rarely leaves the house since Jason, her police-officer husband, was killed in the line of duty. Aside from her social media connections, including the book reviews she writes on her blog, she barely makes contact with the world beyond her door.

Until one day she awakens in a darkened bedroom that is not her own. Terrified, she realizes she’s been kidnapped—by her favorite author, whose latest book she reviewed none-too-favorably on her blog.

Meanwhile, Chris Downey, Jason’s former colleague on the small-town, Maine police force, is one of the few who sees anything sinister in Jules’s disappearance. With the help of Jules’s alcoholic father, he determines to find her. And the truths he discovers along the way will change everything—both for him and for the one he seeks.

About the author: Rene Gutteridge is the author of seventeen novels. She’s married to Sean, a musician and worship leader. They live in Oklahoma with their two children, and she can be found online at ReneGutteridge.com.

Genre: Fiction/Suspense/Christian

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? Hard not to be intrigued by creative covers like this one, which–as it turns out–captures this story perfectly.

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: G. Clean as a whistle.

Reminds me of… Friend Me by John Faubion

You’ll want to buy this book if… you enjoy suspense novels written with a light touch and inspirational themes.

Why did I read this book? As a Novel Crossing reviewer         

Would I read another by this author? Quite possibly. Years ago, I enjoyed her lighthearted Boo

My take: With her latest mystery/suspense, Misery Loves Company, versatile, veteran author Rene Gutteridge offers her readers a spiritually uplifting, G-rated take on Stephen King’s famous horror novel-cum-movie, Misery. The twist? Instead of the author being held captive by his fan, it’s the other way around.

With her usual smooth prose and clean storylines, Gutteridge develops relatable characters and a well-drawn mystery. But I thought the pace lagged a bit, and although an unanticipated turn or two caught me off-guard, most of the story moved in a predictable sequence.

That said, I did appreciate how the spiritual message was delivered in a way unusual for a Christian novel: none of the main characters were believers. Instead all were influenced in their spiritual journeys by a deceased Christian, whose legacy of faith ultimately changed their lives.

Thanks to Tyndale for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

End notes: A variation of this post first appeared on Novel Crossing as a featured review.


Stranger Things, book review

Stranger Things, book reviewIn the burnt-out hollow, a house of dark secrets and an eerie beauty beckon.

Stranger Things by Erin Healy

About this book: When a student wrongly accuses biology teacher Serena of sexual misconduct, she finds herself thrust into a world of lust-filled men propagating an evil trade. Then, after she visits the site of a ruined house overrun by criminals, she starts having mysterious, haunting visions. Even more disturbing, she witnesses an act of senseless, apparently random violence, prompting her to seek the answer to the question: Why would a stranger sacrifice his life for hers?

Editor-turned-novelist Erin Healy understands fiction from the inside out. She began as an award-winning fiction editor working with renowned suspense writers, including rock-star novelist of the supernatural, Ted Dekker. She co-authored two books with him before launching a fiction career of her own.

In her sixth novel, Stranger Things, she explores the question: what would you do if a stranger died for you? The story is all about the power of self-sacrifice and humankind’s eternal hope for salvation. It takes a hard, head-on look at prostitution and the human trafficking crisis spreading like a virus across the U.S. and around the world.

As in all of her novels, Healy’s characters inhabit the so-called thin places, those locations where, according to the author, “the veil between physical and spiritual realities is so delicate that a person can see through it.”

Healy’s trademark exploration of God’s mysterious side swiftly drew me into this story. That plus her unerring knack for crafting edge-of-your-seat suspense featuring complex characters facing fantastic problems. I find the author particularly adept at creating sympathetic yet flawed characters, and of all her novels, this one is perhaps her most intricately plotted to date.

Like the Old Testament book of Esther in which there is no outright mention of God, Stranger Things does not feature God Himself as a character, yet His fingerprints can be found all over the story. Which means that mainstream fiction fans may enjoy this novel as much as Christian ones.

In Stranger Things, Healy weaves a story in which the supernatural is made natural, and the implausible becomes very possible indeed. Best of all, these mysterious elements are woven so believably into the story that they encourage readers to look for thin places—those inimitable touches of God’s hand—in their own lives.

About the author: (from her websiteErin Healy is the bestselling co-author of Burn and Kiss (with Ted Dekker) and an award-winning fiction editor for numerous bestselling authors. Erin is the owner of WordWright Editorial Services, a consulting firm specializing in fiction book development, and she is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and the Academy of Christian Editors. Her novels include such thrilling stories as Never Let You GoThe Baker’s Wife, and Stranger Things. She lives with her family in Colorado.

Genre: Fiction/Christian/Suspense

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? I’d read this book for the author’s name alone.

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG-13, not for language but for its exploration of mature themes (which is tasteful but honest).

Reminds me of… Ted Dekker with a softer touch

You’ll want to buy this book if … you enjoy tight suspense centering around real-life issues with themes of the supernatural.

Why did I read this book? As a Novel Crossing reviewer

Would I read another by this author? That’s me, standing at the head of the line, eagerly awaiting her next release.

My take: Editor-turned-novelist Erin Healy understands fiction from the inside out. She began as an award-winning fiction editor working with renowned suspense writers, including rock-star novelist of the supernatural, Ted Dekker. She co-authored two books with him before launching a fiction career of her own.

In her sixth novel, Stranger Things, she explores the question: what would you do if a stranger died for you? The story is all about the power of self-sacrifice and humankind’s eternal hope for salvation. It takes a hard, head-on look at prostitution and the human trafficking crisis spreading like a virus across the U.S. and around the world.

As in all of her novels, Healy’s characters inhabit the so-called thin places, those locations where, according to the author, “the veil between physical and spiritual realities is so delicate that a person can see through it.”

Healy’s trademark exploration of God’s mysterious side swiftly drew me into this story. That plus her unerring knack for crafting edge-of-your-seat suspense featuring complex characters facing fantastic problems. I find the author particularly adept at creating sympathetic yet flawed characters, and of all her novels, this one is perhaps her most intricately plotted to date.

Like the Old Testament book of Esther in which there is no outright mention of God, Stranger Things does not feature God Himself as a character, yet His fingerprints can be found all over the story. Which means that mainstream fiction fans may enjoy this novel as much as Christian ones.

In Stranger Things, Healy weaves a story in which the supernatural is made natural, and the implausible becomes very possible indeed. Best of all, these mysterious elements are woven so believably into the story that they encourage readers to look for thin places—those inimitable touches of God’s hand—in their own lives.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

End notes: A variation of this post first appeared as a featured review on NovelCrossing.com


Sober Mercies, book review (reprised)

Sober Mercies, book review (reprised)If this title looks familiar, that’s because it is: I reviewed it originally about a year ago, when it first released. Now it’s available in paperback and I had to feature it again because it’s such a poignant, beautifully told story of grace and hope–and you certainly don’t have to have a problem with alcohol, or any addiction for that matter, to want more of that.

Sober Mercies: How Love Caught up with a Christian Drunk by Heather Kopp

About this book: As a long-time Christian, Heather Kopp never expected to become an out-of-control alcoholic who kept private stashes of booze all over the place–tucked behind books in her study, zipped into a special compartment in her oversized purse, at the back of her closet stuffed inside her boots.

Even as her career and marriage teetered on the brink, Kopp couldn’t get a grip, desperately hiding the true extent of her drinking from the rest of the world–her husband included. During the day she wrote books about God and prayer and family. At night she’d locked herself in her bathroom to guzzle chardonnay.

For her, as for many Christians who struggle with addiction, overwhelming shame and confusion only made things worse. Why wasn’t her faith enough to save her? Why didn’t repentance, Bible reading and prayer work? Where was God?

Meanwhile, as she watched in horror, her grown son descended into his own nightmare of drugs and alcohol. She feared for his life, yet she couldn’t stop drinking long enough to help him–or find a way out for herself.

Until the day everything changed.

Engaging, funny and bracingly honest, Kopp shares her remarkable journey into darkness…and back to the light again. Her story reveals the unique challenges and spiritual conundrums Christians face when they become ensnared in an addiction, and the redemption that’s possible when we finally reach the end of ourselves.

If you love Jesus but shop too much, drink too much, eat too much, crush on men who aren’t your husband, or otherwise fixate on doing things you hate but can’t stop doing, Sober Mercies is for you.

As you follow Kopp’s sincere, stumbling journey toward freedom and a deeply satisfying relationship with God, you’ll find renewed hope–and practical steps of recovery–for your own journey.

Genre: Religion/Self-Help

Judge this book by its cover? A beautiful cover featuring appropriate allusions to both addiction and hope.

Reminds me of…A Christian addict’s version of Eat, Pray, Love, similar in candor and wit.

Buy or borrow? Buy. One for yourself. More to give away. It’s that good.

Why did I read this book? To review for Jericho, but I would in any case.

Would I read another by this author? I inhale everything this gifted writer writes.

My take: This brave, honest and wise memoir offers hope to Christians who discover that faith alone isn’t always enough to save them from unhealthy habits. “Where do you turn for hope,” Heather writes, “when you already have the answer, but it isn’t working?” With startling honesty, she dives courageously into this highly charged question and delivers the answers she’s discovered.

Sober Mercies is a well-crafted story in three parts. Parts 1 and 2 are sad and fascinating and so gripping you can hardly look away. Part 3, though, is where the real crux and power lie. With vibrant language, Heather talks frankly about everything from her hypocrisy (as she sat in on an intervention with her addicted son, for instance, while herself a secret, raging alcoholic) to sober sex. She brings you inside the skin of an alcoholic, exposing you to the horror, helplessness and apparent hopelessness of that particular hell.

Though I finished it in a matter of days, Sober Mercies isn’t a quick read. I found myself pausing often to read and reread passages to allow their sobering impact sink in. I savored the countless aha moments, including this one:

“…if I was ever going to experience the kind of ongoing spiritual transformation I so desperately wanted, I would have to learn the difference between ascribing to a set of Christian beliefs that had no power to change me, and clinging daily to an experience of God’s love and grace that could.”

And this: “If I wanted to learn how to live again, I needed to learn how to love people.”

Ah! Who among us doesn’t need to learn that?

My own hope is that Sober Mercies finds a wider audience than merely alcoholics or those in recovery. I’d love to see Heather’s story open doors to honest conversation in Christian circles, showing how to get real about so many of the problems that plague us. Depression. Mental illness. Eating disorders. Addictions to food, pornography, lust, gambling, materialism. Problems we typically look to faith to cure, and then despair when it fails to deliver.

We all have our issues. What Heather Kopp reveals in Sober Mercies is that it’s impossible to talk about wholeness and healing without talking about grace. And that’s very good news–no matter who you are.

Thanks to Hachette/Jericho Books for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

I highly recommend you get to know more about Heather and Sober Mercies by visiting her blog, Soberboots.com. Have I mentioned it’s my very favorite blog? She’s very responsive to readers, and she’d love to hear from you. And finally, check out this vid, in which she talks more about her book:

End notes: If you liked this post, you may also be interested in this Q&A with author Heather Kopp


Fiction: A Window or a Mirror?

Fiction: A Window or a Mirror?

Marybeth Whalen, author and co-founder of She Reads

(With special thanks to Marybeth Whalen for her permission to repost this piece, which first appeared on She Reads.)

If you read fiction (and please don’t tell me if you don’t because… I’m not sure we can be friends) why do you read it? What do you want out of the story when you open that new book?

I was thinking about this the other day as I ran. (And please understand when I say “the other day” that is a generalization because it has lo been many days since I have run, thanks to all the rain. I hear confession is good for the soul. Hopefully by the time you read this I will have been to that new gym.)

Back to “the other day” when I was running. And thinking. I was thinking about some of the comments I’ve gotten on my novel THE WISHING TREE. And how some people love my “lighter” books, books that are more romantic and dreamy. And some really like the ones where I dig in and really examine issues.

And I thought about how some people want a window when they read– a way of looking at the world beyond. And some want a mirror– they want to see themselves and the people they love, maybe in a new way or in a way that helps them think differently. There really does seem to be a dividing line among readers as far as what they look for in stories. The window people would tell you they just wanted to be entertained and transported. The mirror people would tell you they want to learn something about Fiction: A Window or a Mirror?the human experience; they want to be challenged

And as I ran (if memory serves), I thought about how the best writing is the kind that is both window and mirror. The kind that
shows you a world beyond but also makes you look inside yourself. Maybe that’s what all writers should be aiming for. Maybe it’s the ones who manage it who become the bestsellers, meeting both types of readers right where they are, enticing them with one, but surprising them with the other. And showing them the value in both.

End notes: Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of several novels, the most recent of which, The Bridge Tender, released this summer.


The Art of Arranging Flowers, book review

The Art of Arranging Flowers, book reviewA moving and eloquent novel about love, grief, renewal—and the powerful language of flowers.

The Art of Arranging Flowers by Lynne Branard

About this book: Ruby Jewell knows flowers. In her twenty years as a florist she has stood behind the counter at the Flower Shoppe with her faithful dog, Clementine, resting at her feet. A customer can walk in, and with just a glance or a few words, Ruby can throw together the perfect arrangement for any occasion.

Whether intended to rekindle a romance, mark a celebration, offer sympathy, or heal a broken heart, her expressive floral designs mark the moments and milestones in the lives of her neighbors. It’s as though she knows just what they want to say, just what they need.

Yet Ruby’s own heart’s desires have gone ignored since the death of her beloved sister. It will take an invitation from a man who’s flown to the moon, the arrival of a unique little boy, and concern from a charming veterinarian to reawaken her wounded spirit. Any life can be derailed, but the healing power of community can put it right again.

About the author: Lynne Branard is the author of sixteen books, including the NY Times Bestseller, Friendship Cake and Pie Town. She also writes mysteries under the pen name, Jackie Lynn. She and her husband live in Albuquerque, New Mexico where Lynne works as a hospice chaplain and continues to write as well as teach classes on writing as a spiritual and healing practice.

Genre: Fiction/Women’s Fiction

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? Yes, its beauty captured me. 

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG-13. A little profanity.

Reminds me of… Rebecca Wells, Jan Karon; also The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

You’ll want to buy this book if …you enjoy lovely, literary women’s fiction. Will especially appeal to florists, gardeners and flower-lovers.

Why did I read this book? For Berkeley Books for review.

Would I read another by this author? Sure.

My take: This is a story about its characters–a whole town-full of them. Some of them a quirky, a few snarky, all of them lovable for one reason or another. The story unfolds at its leisure, and the narrative often includes more than is strictly necessary to move the story forward. But that’s the way it is with literary fiction. It takes its time and it’s a lot about the language–metaphorical language, at that. 

While all these good things are true, I’ll admit I wasn’t utterly captivated by this novel, much as I desired to be. I wanted more to happen, I guess. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for a literary novel? Quite possibly. That happens. As a book reviewer, quite often I have to read the next book in line so that I make my deadlines, whether the timing is right for me or not. Just so you know.

On the plus side, The Art of Arranging Flowers is, at its heart, about the art of giving and receiving love. And it is an art. This, perhaps, is what I liked best about this novel: how it reveals this truth so poignantly, and in a unique and beautiful way.

Thanks to Berkeley Books for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

End notes: Despite my mixed feelings about the book itself, I have to rave about the cover. Is it the pink flowers? I am a sucker for those. (I’ve recently come out of the closet regarding my feelings about pink. Pink makes me happy. There. It’s said.) I loved having this lovely novel sitting on my nightstand for the last week, a piece of decoration. It was almost as nice as having an arrangement of flowers itself.


Miranda Warning, book review & giveaway

Miranda Warning, book review & giveawayChild of the Appalachian mountains, Tess Spencer has experienced more than her share of heartache.

Miranda Warning by Heather Day Gilbert

About this book:  (from the publisher) Tess Spencer–Glock-wielding, knife-carrying, Appalachian housewife–knows how to survive whatever life throws at her. But when an anonymous warning note shows up in her best friend Miranda’s mailbox—a note written in a dead woman’s handwriting—Tess quickly discovers that ghosts are alive and well in Buckneck, West Virginia. Hot on a cold trail, she must use limited clues and her keen insight into human nature to unmask the killer…or the next victim might be Tess herself. Tinged with the supernatural and overshadowed by the mountains’ lush, protective presence, this twisting psychological mystery is the first in A Murder in the Mountains series.

About the author: (from her website) Heather Day Gilbert enjoys writing stories about authentic, believable marriages. Sixteen years of marriage to her sweet Yankee husband have given her some perspective, as well as ten years spent homeschooling. Heather is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, a site dedicated to bringing helpful information to authors.

You can find Heather at her website, Heather Day Gilbert–Author, and at herFacebook Author Page, as well as TwitterPinterestYouTube. Her novel, God’s Daughter, is an Amazon bestseller. You can find it here in three formats–Kindle, softcover, and audiobook.

Genre: Fiction/Christian/Mystery

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? Medium-yes. Though beautiful like its heroine, I’m typically more drawn to softer lines and hues, and I’m not sure these sophisticated colors (though they’re some of my favorites) suggest the rural/mountain flavor of the story. 

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: G. Squeaky clean, in the best way possible. Thank you, Heather Day Gilbert, for walking that fine line of writing a book for adults while not stooping to adult language. 

Reminds me of… Rene Gutteridge, Sandra Orchard

You’ll want to buy this book if … you enjoy a good, wholesome, psychological mystery

Why did I read this book?  For the author, for review.       

Would I read another by this author? I’m a fan!

My take: Though I don’t often read them these days, I do love a good mystery–even more when it features a beautiful, beguiling heroine surrounded by a cast of intriguing characters in a unique setting. Are you ahead of me? Miranda Warning has all of this, and more.

Right off the top, there’s so much to like about this novel: its sassy tone, the quick chapters, sparkling dialogue, twisty plot, and the characters–especially Tess. And upon this foundation, Gilbert skillfully, subtly layers an inspirational message of hope, faith and redemption.

I also enjoyed the way Tess grew into her new role as mama-to-be, and I liked the sweet yet realistic portrayal of her marriage, which–two years in the making–experiences its fair share of ups and downs. I liked the unusual BFF relationship between Tess and Miranda as well. And if the mystery itself seemed to take its time unfolding–well, that’s been my comment for the last four mysteries I’ve reviewed, so I’m quite willing to chalk that up to just me.

On the whole, I highly recommend Heather Day Gilbert as an author to watch. She is smart, professional, and a gifted storyteller–a winning combination sure to take her far.

Thanks to Heather Day Gilbert for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

End notes: Bonus! This delightful author has offered her book as a giveaway to one lucky blog reader. So leave a comment for your chance to win.

On another note…it so hugely encourages me to see fine, quality novels like this one (as well as Gilbert’s first, God’s Daughter) emerging on the indie-publishing scene. The traditional publishing world has changed so much in recent years, and it continues to, in vast ways. As marketers have more and more say in acquisition decisions, niches are becoming narrower, and chances for debut novelists to be published by a traditional publisher slimmer. Fortunately, the indie option is becoming more and more appealing as quality books are finding their way into print. Gives me great hope for the future of indie (self) publishing.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you read an indie-published novel that you particularly enjoyed? (Lisa McKay’s Love at the Speed of Email springs to my mind.) I’m seeking recommendations!


The Loving Kitchen, book review

The Loving Kitchen, book reviewA collection of comforting recipes straight from the kitchen of popular food blogger LeAnn Rice.

The Loving Kitchen: Downright Delicious Southern Recipes to Share with Family, Friends and Neighbors by LeAnn Rice

About this book: (from the publisher) You know the feeling you get when you’re an overnight guest in someone’s home, and you awaken to a hot-off-the-griddle breakfast? Or when a coworker brings in a pan of her famous brownies to celebrate your recent promotion? Doesn’t it feel great when dinner at the neighbors’ house includes multiple courses of scratch-made recipes and conversation that lingers beyond dessert and that last cup of coffee?

For many of us, these are the moments in which we feel most loved. That’s the idea behind The Loving Kitchen. Get your family’s day started right with LeAnn’s fluffy Pumpkin Spice Pancakes, or a bowl of Almond Coconut Granola and yogurt. Keep your favorite sports fans fueled through the entire game with hearty servings of Hot Sausage and Spinach Dip, or toss together a Grilled Chicken and Berry Salad for lunch with your dearest girlfriends.

Want a signature dinner you can serve on those special occasions? Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Orange Cranberry Glaze with Creamy Smashed Baby Potatoes is the perfect meal to celebrate a milestone. LeAnn’s sunny narrative and ideas for bringing people together will remind you that the best meal you’ll ever cook is the one you prepare as an act of love.

About the author: (from the author herself) LeAnn Rice is a foodie, author, dishwasher, lover of dark chocolate, hater of lima beans, mom of Mancub, overworked and underappreciated servant of an ornery cat, shower singer of showtunes, and Nathan Fillion’s soulmate. (Sadly, he hasn’t yet been informed.) [editor's note: :) For more of such delightfulness, you'll want to check out LeAnn's charming blog, LeAnnCooks.org. Trust me, you will.]

Genre: Non-fiction/cookbook

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? Does a Southerner crave sweet tea?

Reminds me of… Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist for its similar focus on food as a gift and centerpiece of hospitality.

You’ll want to buy this book if … you are a Southern home-cookin’, comfort-food junkie.

Why did I read this book?  As a BookLook Blogger, for Thomas Nelson for review.       

Would I read another by this author? You bet, as well as her blog.

My take: What homemaker can resist a gorgeous cookbook that includes not only a wealth of DIY deliciousness but warm-hearted advice besides? Goodness knows, I can’t. Exhibit A: The Loving Kitchen in my hands.

If you’re looking for a cookbook that provides as much pleasure in the reading as it does in the eating, look no further. The author’s personality sparkles on every page, while full-color photographs of her food entice you to try. As she dispenses her wise and witty insights on the subject, LeAnn Rice fashions hospitality into an art.

My one caveat would be that this is not cookery for the faint of heart. While the cooking processes are simple enough (and well enough detailed for even the most beginner of cooks), most recipes employ more dirty dishes than I prefer (unless I know someone besides myself is cleaning up after ;-) ), and involve more calories (and cholesterol) too. Though I am a firm proponent of the “everything in moderation” philosophy, I would have a hard time adding these rich ingredients to my food on an everyday basis, as they tend to call for more butter, cream and cheese than you can shake a stick at.

Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful book. Know anyone getting married this summer or moving into a new house? Would make a lovely bridal or housewarming gift.

Thanks to BookLook for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

End notes: While we’re on the subject of cooking, I’m curious: Are you a clean-up-as-you-go kind of cook, or create-a-pile-and-wash-it-after? Me? I fall somewhere in the middle, and I’m also a lucky gal: I have a husband not afraid to pitch in and make things spotless again once all the guest go home. 


The Stories We Tell, book review

The Stories We Tell, book reviewBestselling author Patti Callahan Henry is back with a powerful novel about the stories we tell and the people we trust.

The Stories We Tell by Patti Callahan Henry

About this book: Eve and Cooper Morrison are Savannah’s power couple. They’re on every artistic board and deeply involved in the community. She owns and operates a letterpress studio specializing in the handmade; he runs a digital magazine featuring all things southern gentlemen. The perfect juxtaposition of the old and the new, Eve and Cooper are the beautiful people. The lucky ones. And they have the wealth and name that comes from being part of an old Georgia family.

But things may not be as good as they seem.

Eve’s sister, Willa, is staying with the family until she gets “back on her feet.” Their daughter, Gwen, is all adolescent rebellion. And Cooper thinks Eve works too much. Still, the Morrison marriage is strong. After twenty-one years together, Eve and Cooper know each other. They count on each other. They know what to expect. But when Cooper and Willa are involved in a car accident, the questions surrounding the event bring the family close to breaking point. Sifting between the stories—what Cooper says, what Willa remembers, what the evidence indicates—Eve has to find out what really happened. And what she’s going to do about it.

About the author: Patti Henry is a New York Times bestselling storyteller of eleven books, including Between the Tides, And Then I Found You, and Driftwood Summer. Patti lives in Mountain Brook, Alabama with her husband and three children, where she is crafting her next story.

Genre: Fiction/Contemporary

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? Yes, I like its shadowy nuances.

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG-13 for language

Reminds me of… Kristin Hannah

You’ll want to buy this book if … you enjoy contemporary women’s fiction with lots of relationship drama, a hint of the south, and a strong undercurrent of mystery.

Why did I read this book? For St. Martin’s Press for review

Would I read another by this author? Happily. I liked this one, in fact, much more than her last novel, which delighted many critics but somehow missed my mark.

My take: From its first pages, I was drawn into this story. Right off the top, I liked its title, premise, cover art, and the prologue, which was a terrific set-up for the story, hinting at oncoming conflict while introducing the main character. Nicely done. 

It never fails to intrigue me how subjective the enjoyment of a book is. What works for me doesn’t for you, and vice versa. Similarly, the same writer can hit my mark once but the miss it the next time. Or the other way around, which is what happened for me here. As a She Reads reviewer, I recently read And Then I Found You and wasn’t delighted with it. I didn’t connect with the characters–as I recall, I had a hard time identifying with some of the main character’s life choices–and consequently, the rest of the story fell flat.

So not the case for me with this story. In that elusive way that is such a big part of bookish magic, the combination of conflict, characters and setting hit me in all the right places. This, even though Christianity is stereotypically portrayed in a very negative light (the sisters, Eve and Willa, endured childhoods damaged by all the wrong, hypocritical ways religion can manifest in human beings), and even though I wasn’t in total agreement with Eve’s choices, I could at least understand them. And–more importantly from a literary point of view–wanted to stick with her until she reached them.

Anyway. I’m getting perhaps a bit off the track here. I liked this book. I liked Henry’s prose, which is straightforward yet written from a place of deep understanding and empathy which translates beautifully to the page. I liked the way she strung out the mystery until the end, and how I was really guessing who to trust all along the way, just like Eve. All in all, it was a book I couldn’t put down, which, by my definition, makes it a read well worth my while.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

End notes: Kimberley Freeman is another author I’ve read recently whose first book (Lighthouse Bay) I didn’t particularly care for but whose second (Ember Island) I did. It’s hard to say precisely why because they were really quite similar. How about you? Have you had a similar experience?