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review 2018-07-20 05:09
Falling Like Snowflakes (Summer Harbor #1) by Denise Hunter
Falling Like Snowflakes (A Summer Harbor Novel) - Denise Hunter

Speeding north through rural Maine, Eden Martelli wonders how her life came to this—on the run with her mute five-year-old son dozing fitfully in the passenger seat. When a breakdown leaves them stranded in Summer Harbor, Eden has no choice but to stay put through Christmas . . . even though they have no place to lay their heads. Beau Callahan is a habitual problem solver—for other people anyway. He left the sheriff’s department to take over his family’s Christmas tree farm, but he’s still haunted by the loss of his parents and struggling to handle his first Christmas alone. When Eden shows up looking for work just as Beau’s feisty aunt gets out of the hospital, Beau thinks he’s finally caught a break. Eden is competent and dedicated—if a little guarded—and a knockout to boot. But, as he soon finds out, she also comes with a boatload of secrets. Eden has been through too much to trust her heart to another man, but Beau is impossible to resist, and the feeling seems to be mutual. As Christmas Eve approaches, Eden’s past catches up to her. Beau will go to the ends of the earth to keep her safe. But who’s going to protect his heart from a woman who can’t seem to trust again?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Eden Martinelli is on the run with her five year old mute son. Though her one persistent thought is "keep moving!", once her car breaks down she is forced to at least temporarily settle in the small town of Summer Harbor, Maine. With holiday season on the horizon, Eden gets a job at a local tree farm, the farm owned and operated by former cop Beau Callahan. When Beau's aunt, Trudy, suffers an accident that leads to a fractured leg, Eden is hired on as her home aide while Trudy recovers and works through physical therapy. 

 

As Eden settles into the Callahan home on the farm, her very presence seems to gradually knock loose some repressed feelings in multiple family members, feelings wrapped around long-running unaddressed hurts.Beau notices this influence, and though his heart begins to warm toward Eden, he's still troubled by the mysterious air she keeps around her. Why is she so evasive with any personal questions? What is she hiding? Beau low-key worries that she might be running from the law and he just hired a criminal to look after a beloved family member, but his gut tells him she's not dangerous, just scared. So who put that kind of fear into her?

 

This is a nice holiday read. It's not brimming with over the top holiday cheer, but instead offers a cozy balance of wit, small town charm, a slow-burn romantic interest, and a dash of mystery. Perfect for those who like their suspense on the more mild side of things...sort of in the thriller-lite vein of a Hallmark Mystery Movie. The bad guy scenes got a little cliche at times for my liking, but the Callahan brothers are so likeable in this series that minor eyeroll moments can easily be forgiven. 

 

For those in book clubs, discussion questions for this story are offered at the back of the book. 

 

I've been reading these out of order, which -- I thought I would mention -- works fine, as each book focuses on a different Callahan brother (of three). But looking back, there are some minor chronological aspects -- mainly with the storyline of Riley's military service -- that will flow better if you read in order. 

 

------------------

 

My review for The Goodbye Bride (Summer Harbor #2)

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review 2018-06-11 15:49
All The Lonely People by Jess Riley
All the Lonely People - Jess Riley

WANTED: a whole new family to share holidays with. Please have a good heart and be a thoughtful, polite person. No sociopaths, no pedophiles, no fans of the Kardashians. We're not weirdos, I promise. I love old Steve Martin movies, new Steve Martin banjo tunes, Indian food, and reruns of Bob Ross painting happy little trees. So if you're looking for something other than the typical family dysfunction this Christmas, drop us a line.

After losing her beloved mother to cancer, 37-year-old Jaime Collins must confront the ugly fact that she and her siblings don't actually like one another. At all. Fueled by grief and an epic argument at Thanksgiving dinner, Jaime decides to divorce her siblings and posts an ad on Craigslist for a new family with whom to share Christmas dinner.

What happens next is a heartwarming, funny, and surprising journey to forgiveness and healing. Is blood really thicker than water? What makes a family? And how far do we have to go to find our way back home again?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel touches upon the topics of cutting, depression, abusive relationships and attempted suicide.

 

Thirty-seven year old Jaime Collins recently lost her mom to cancer. Now the holiday season is just around the corner and Jaime could not be less enthused. She has no interest in holiday shopping or putting on smiles around her insensitive brother and meddlesome sister-in-law. Things come to a head when she ends up having a blow-out fight with her siblings over Thanksgiving dinner. Riding the high emotions of that night, Jaime goes home and decides to place a Craigslist ad for a new family for Christmas. She requests responses from anyone else feeling alone or fed up with their own family situation. She crafts the ad while intoxicated, posts, and within 12 hours has 26 responses to sift through. The winners for her Christmas party include transgender Chris, daschund-loving Paul, welding artist Evelyn (who also happens to have a dander allergy) and Alyssa, a science major struggling through her own grieving process after recently losing her boyfriend in a car wreck.

 

 

All the Lonely People

re-release cover for this book

 

 

While this story certainly has its laughs, it may not be for the more sensitive readers out there because plenty of hard-hitting topics are addressed over the course of Jaime's story. There's also a fair bit of crude language and dark / off-color / risque humor (ie. jokes about strap-ons) implemented in the process. In addition to witnessing our main character work through the grieving process over the death of her mother, we (the readers) are also informed of Jaime's father-in-law battling Alzheimer's, Jaime herself struggling with fertility issues (her journey through IVF treatments), as well as the plot also bringing up the topics of cutting, depression, attempted suicide, abusive relationships and struggles with gender identity.

 

That night, I sleep on the couch for the first time in years... Erik finds me downstairs in the morning, a hurt look on his face. "We never sleep apart," he says, like a wounded little boy. I tell him he was snoring, that I couldn't sleep, that I didn't want to wake him with my tossing and turning. The real reason is this: I'd simply wanted to be alone with my sadness, giving it space to spread out, because there wasn't enough room for all three of us in the queen-sized bed...Part of it was that I felt like a broken shard from a smashed vase, and I only wanted to spend time with the other broken pieces because maybe we could glue ourselves together and hold water again. Erik wasn't a broken shard. He was a whole vase, forged from some space-age unbreakable polymer. He bounced when he fell. I shattered into sharp little pieces waiting to slice into the next person unfortunate enough to walk into the room barefoot. Or as Frankie would say, I'd cut a bitch. And then feel really bad about it.

 

Even though I can appreciate that important topics were brought to light in the unfolding of this story, and the story itself is solidly entertaining, it did go on a little long for me. By Chapter 17 I was feeling like the story could've been sufficiently wrapped up, all questions answered... a feeling that continued on right through Chapter 26... and even after that you get three more chapters! I also didn't always love Jaime. In fact, she struck me as a being a little petty with her dad near the end of the book.

 

In the acknowledgements, Jess Riley gives a shout-out to author friend Jen Lancaster.

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review 2018-03-26 13:33
Christmas at Carnton by Tamera Alexander
Christmas at Carnton - Tamera Alexander
Amid war and the fading dream of the Confederacy, a wounded soldier and a destitute widow discover the true meaning of Christmas - and of sacrificial love. Recently widowed, Aletta Prescott struggles to hold life together for herself and her six-year old son. With the bank threatening to evict, she discovers an advertisement for the Women's Relief Society auction and applies for a position - only to discover it's been filled. Then a chance meeting with a wounded soldier offers another opportunity - and friendship. But can Aletta trust this man? Captain Jake Winston, a revered Confederate sharpshooter, suffered a head wound at the Battle of Chickamauga. When doctors deliver their diagnosis, Jake fears losing not only his greatest skill but his very identity. As he heals, Jake is ordered to assist with a local Women's Relief Society auction. He respectfully objects. Kowtowing to a bunch of "crinolines" isn't his idea of soldiering. But orders are orders, and he soon discovers this group of ladies - one, in particular - is far more than he bargained for. Set against the backdrop and history of the Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, Christmas at Carnton is a story of hope renewed and faith restored at Christmas.
Amazon.com
 
 
 
It's the winter of 1863 in Franklin, Tennessee. Twenty-five year old Aletta Prescott has recently been informed that she's now widowed (her husband having been away fighting in the Civil War). In true "when it rains, it pours" fashion, life deals her a few more blows to boot: she's laid off from her job at a textile mill, she's facing eviction, and she's seven months pregnant as well as now being a single mother to her six year old son. Not one to cry too long about hardships or lean on excuses, Aletta immediately sets herself to finding solutions, mostly in terms of finding employment again as soon as possible. Persistently putting feelers out pays off for her when she hears word of a job opportunity at Carnton Estate.
 
Upon first arriving at the estate, Aletta is crushed to find the position she's after has already been filled, but her personality wins over the household and before long, luck provides her with the setup she was looking for... even if it proves to be only temporary, it gives her a stepping stone to future security for her and her children. 
 
One source of this luck for Aletta comes in the form of Captain Jack Winston, a wounded Confederate officer. Jack sustains a serious head wound in battle that damages his eyesight. A medical examination determines that Jack's eyes may fully recover, but it can't be guaranteed. So it's a waiting game. Jack's commanding officer sends him to Carnton Estate to help with the Women's Relief Society auction. It'll not only give Jack something to do as he recuperates, but the auction is also raising funds for much needed supplies for the guys still on the battlefields. Though Jack understands this, he's still not happy about the assignment, having to, as he sees it, "kowtow to a bunch of crinolines". But just one interaction with kind-hearted Aletta, and his perspective certainly flips in a hurry!
 
Christmas at Carnton offers a sweet, heartwarming holiday story, for sure.. but there are also deeper themes here that many readers will appreciate. Just from a historical perspective, author Tamera Alexander gives readers a realistic feel for wartime struggles in this era -- horrors of slavery, the scarcity of groceries, job layoffs, struggles with bills, families broken apart from grief and struggle, the depths one might stoop to... simply out of sheer desperation to survive. This is particularly admirable when you remember that this is simply the starter novella for what is expected to be a series of full length novels (at least 3) which will first start rolling out Fall 2018. To pack sufficient historical detail in novella length AND still include an engrossing storyline to boot -- that gets a nod of respect from me! Alexander even writes in a mention of chow-chow, a dish I find not too many people outside of the South or certain East Coast areas tend to recognize. 
 
Outside of the historical aspect, readers who are mothers themselves will likely feel at least a bit of a bond with Aletta's struggles, especially if you are a single mother. Aletta has an impressive strong will that propels her to fight to give her children the best living situation she can possibly provide, even through periods where she's not sure what her options will be from one day to the next. Still, she makes it work and in true mother fashion, she often swallows her fears and stops herself from vocally airing her doubts in front of her children, instead pushing herself to find a smile every day even if it doesn't always start as a sincere one. 
 
All of this together quietly gives the reader a kind reminder that in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one must remember to be grateful for the blessings -- no matter how small -- that are to be found in each day if we only take the time to look for and acknowledge them with a smiling heart. 
 
Life was hard everywhere she looked. Which made her more determined to be grateful for what she did have, even if gratitude wasn't her natural response at present. 
 
If you are interested in possibly using this as an option for your book club, this novella includes a supplemental section made up of reading discussion questions and holiday recipes pertaining to the story... including DIY chow-chow and holiday simmering spices! 
 
 
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 
 
__________
 
EXTRAS
 
* Carnton Estate, where this story is set, is actually a real place. It is located in Franklin Tennessee, roughly about 20 miles outside of Nashville. 
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review 2018-01-26 02:08
Angel On Assignment (Elf on The Shelf Alternative) by Wanda Carter Roush
Angel on Assignment: Move over elf. It's time to share the shelf. - Wanda Carter Roush,Mike Motz

If your family loves the Elf on the Shelf and you want to keep the fun going, check out Angel on Assignment. It's a children's activity book that offers a Christian alternative to the elf, teaching children about the angels who watch over them, not just at Christmas but all year long. With beautiful illustrations and rhyming verse, Angel on Assignment takes readers through the angels' roles in the Christmas story and presents the ways guardian angels look out for boys and girls today--and how children can act as angels in disguise for friends who need help. See how many angels your child can find--some are hiding!

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In recent years, it seems the Elf On The Shelf holiday tradition has become nearly as standard an element as gingerbread cookies and numerous twinkle light displays. Wanda Carter Roush, former Sunday school teacher and author of Angel on Assignment, after witnessing her daughter battle Dravet Syndrome-induced epilepsy, wanted a special spin on the elf tradition. Roush wanted something that would teach young readers about the role of angels not only during the holiday season -- though the nativity story is incorporated -- but throughout the entire year, reassuring each reader that an angel has your back nonstop, watching and protecting you every day of your life. The intent of this is to not only instill hope and wonder in the hearts of children, but Roush also urges children to think of these angels and be inspired to carry out charitable acts of their own each day, to aspire to make it a natural way of life as they grow towards adulthood. 

 

From a poor simple stable and a bed made of hay, 

To the cross on a hill, in a borrowed tomb he lay.

Angels were there from the start to the stone,

When the greatest gift to the world was made known.

 

      ~text from page 6 of Angel on Assignment

 

But there's more than just a mere story here. Readers are given a fun interactive experience throughout! In addition to a heartwarming tale told in rhyming verse, Angel on Assignment  features wonderfully colorful illustrations done by Mike Motz as well as a "spot the angels" game in each illustration. At the back of the book, there are also pages that instruct children on how to make their own paper angels (with adult supervision, of course) and encourages children to post their creations to the book's Facebook page. The last page of the book is an inscription page where families can record the date that they first started the Angel tradition in their home. 

 

 

 

 

Since being released in 2017, Angel On Assignment has gone on to be awarded the Gold Medal Christian Book Award in Young Kids category as well as the Bronze Medal Readers' Favorite Book Award in the General Christian category. The rhyming is done in a pleasant rhythm, flowing nicely without being TOO simple in vocabulary or awkward & clunky in pace. Roush's spin on the classic Elf tradition offers a refreshing alternative to parents looking to incorporate more "reason for the season" kind of celebrating into their family festivities during the Christmas season. 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  BookCrash.com and Ella's Pearl Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2017-11-05 10:55
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment In Relishing The Season by Alexandra Kuykendall
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment in Relishing the Season - Alexandra Kuykendall

The Christmas season is a particularly difficult time for women to slow down and relish what's right in front of them. An annual marker for many, it is a holiday that can often remind us how life is not going as we'd planned. Our family relationships remain strained, our finances stretched, and our schedules stuffed with too much to do in too little time. Following the formula of her successful Loving My Actual Life, Alexandra Kuykendall shares with readers her own personal experiment to be completely present in her life as it is during the holiday season. Addressing the themes of Advent and Christmas, she reflects on hope, love, joy, peace, and relishing the season, with practical pullouts on common Christmas stressors, such as finances, schedules, and extended family. Kuykendall's signature candor helps women go easy on themselves, remember what truly matters, and find joy in their imperfect Christmases.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

It all started with Alexandra Kuykendall's previous release, Loving My Actual Life, in which for an entire year she challenged herself to slow down a bit and take in the actual life she was living rather than the one she was obsessively trying to achieve through insane schedules, a go-go-go lifestyle and maybe a touch of subconsciously trying to compete with friends and neighbors for a mythical "best life" award. Using the format of that experiment, Kuykendall challenges herself once again, this time tackling the seemingly inevitable stress that comes with each year's impending holiday season -- the days packed with endless holiday festivities, the decorating, the blown out holiday budget that depresses her come January. She explains that her inspiration this time around was the realization that she did not want her daughters to grow up and have their dominant holiday memories be of stressed out, edgy and resentful parents. Instead, she wanted to put the need for perfection aside and just try to be present and authentically capture the true magic of Christmas for her girls. This year, Kuykendall wants to put the focus back on true family togetherness, charity, kindness, all those warm fuzzy emotions we ALL desperately need a good dose of right about now. 

 

Can I do this? Create an experiment where I'm able to savor the season in front of me without ending up overwhelmed and bitter? Where I avoid needing a detox from the fa-la-la-la and the mistletoe? It is worth the try. Because hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly words I want to associate with this time of year. Rather than overspending, overeating, undersleeping and underrejoicing, I want to notice the goodness God has offered in the here and now. In this year. This Christmas. Regardless of the circumstances. Because I don't want to resent this actual Christmas. I want to love it. 

 

 

It's a tough year for Kuykendall, as it's the year her stepfather passed away, a man she had come to rely on as a loving, reliable male figure in her life (for more on the difficult relationship Kuykendall has with her birth father, check out her memoir, The Artist's Daughter). Hard as it will be to tackle a season of family gatherings without this important man there for her, Kuykendall works hard not to let the sadness tarnish the warm memories she wants to cultivate for her family. 

 

In Loving My Actual Christmas, Kuykendall admits from the very beginning that this round will be slightly different because she is not working within the luxury of an entire year. We are talking about a season. So she gets the ball rolling in November, jumping right into family gatherings and activities around Thanksgiving, Christmas right around the corner. After moving passed Christmas, the book closes out a few days past the New Year (this past January 2017, as she notes that she started writing this book during 2016 holiday season).

 

Though she may not have a full year to work through, to give herself some sense of structure to this experiment, Kuykendall plots out the time frame of the experiment using the window of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day) as well as Christmastide (more commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas), carrying through to just after New Year's celebrations. This book has the same diary-like layout as Loving My Actual Life. From day one, Kuykendall makes entries for every day of every week, giving readers a rundown of what the day's activities looked like, what she hopes to accomplish with that day, what she comes away with (lesson-wise) at day's end, and what Scripture she used that day to ponder on as she worked through each day's schedule. The entries are divided by Advent week and for each week she gives herself an overall theme to focus on: 

 

  • Week 1 = HOPE
  • Week 2 = LOVE
  • Week 3 = JOY
  • Week 4 = PEACE
  • * and then a section that does an overview on her Christmastide experience

 

Each chapter closes on "Questions for Reflection", questions that help guide readers on their own journey of better appreciating the season. She also offers relevant scripture, so this book (as well as her previous experiment book) have potential to be used as devotional supplements. Kuykendall is quick to address that a lot of the issues / stressors she tackles in this book will likely come of as #firstworldproblems, but as she points out -- the experiments are called MY ACTUAL LIFE and MY ACTUAL CHRISTMAS... it might seem first world, but it is the life SHE is personally living, so we gotta let her do her thing. 

 

What I love about these experiments of hers is that Kuykendall gives it to her readers honestly, warts and all. She fully admits to being human, starting with the best intentions and then getting in the moment and seriously wanting to throw in the towel instead. Immediately from Day 1 of her Christmas experiment she hits a wall. Not a good start, but a humorous and relatable one! She talks of facing the living room mantel, realizing she has to take down all the "harvest" decor to set up the Nativity scene... and she's honestly just not feelin' it, y'all! Who hasn't been there!

 

Also on this day she's hit with the first wave of holiday family travel plans (orchestrating all that) as well as trying to find time to sit down to do the obligatory Christmas cards. Those Christmas cards haunt her through many of the days, leading her to tell a story of when she just decided to NOT do cards one year, and guess what? There was a little guilt involved on her part, but no one died and no one disowned her. This spoke to my soul as it's exactly where I was last Christmas, and frankly I don't know that I'm feeling much for the cards this year, so it was nice to get a sense of camaraderie from that. Kuykendall encourages readers to still do cards, but do them for the right reason. Do it because you honestly love and miss these people and WANT to connect, don't just make it a chore to scratch off because you don't want things to get awkward later. 

 

No big surprise, but one of Kuykendall's big takeaways from this project is that the best gift is really just giving someone time / attention / respect / love. If you love the act of bestowing physical gifts, just make sure that the gifts show you LISTEN TO THEM. Don't get caught up in getting what everyone else seems to be buying -- unless, I guess, your people have expressed that's truly what they want with all their hearts. But in general, it's nice to give gifts that give a nod to something said in passing that shows you were listening even when they thought you weren't! ;-)

 

Other main points:

 

* Decide on a holiday budget and STICK TO IT. Also, it might help to make an inventory of all expected costs for the season -- what you anticipate to spend on holiday meals, outings, travel, holiday clothing, etc. Factor that into the overall "holiday budget" at the beginning of the season and you probably won't have quite as much sticker shock come January. 

 

* As Kuykendall's husband kept telling her throughout this process: "No bad-mouthing Christmas!" Your season might still have an element of stress no matter what you do but don't blame the season, just find your zen again and remember the real "reason for the season".

 

As I carried out the experiment, I was reminded that this holiday becomes a circus because we are operating out of our longings. We long for memories and fun and happiness. We long for meaning and purpose. We know it must be hidden somewhere among the decorations and the fuss. And when I stopped and paid attention, this is what stood out to me about why we do all of this Christmas making in the first place. 

 

* Learn to say "no" sometimes and be okay with it. Much of the stress of the season comes from us allowing ourselves to be roped into doing every little thing to ensure everyone else has the perfect season. Once in awhile, stop and say no. And then go let yourself have some you time so YOU can enjoy the season. 

 

At the back of the book, Kuykendall also offers supplemental guides such as "Practical Tips and Strategies" where she outlines just how exactly she pulled off this experiment and how you can try it yourself. Within the guides she also encourages readers to engage in some moments of contemplation: evaluate family holiday traditions, WHY you still do them and should you continue with them or are you merely doing it out of habit? (Think: are the kids too old for it? Are there enough people that still enjoy the tradition or are you just forcing them through?). She gives you a really handy guide on ways to be more economical during the season as well as a pep talk on the power of "no thank you".

She closes with the plea to readers that while they go through this process (should they choose to, that is), in all things always strive to continually be kind, gracious and compassionate. 

 

Near the end of the experiment, Kuykendall points out that throughout this process it is important to keep in mind that you can't (or at the very least, shouldn't) gloss over the hurts and struggles of the year with a simple dusting of tinsel, a few rounds of carols and a nice mug of eggnog (if eggnog is your thing). Kuykendall advises readers to remember the Nativity story: all the struggles that were going on in that time in history, how so many people craved a positive change for peace... and what happened? A star suddenly appeared in the night sky shining a light so bright as to leave any observer awe-struck, so bright as to be able to guide three wise men to a random manger. A light in the darkness. The darkness doesn't go away for good, but having your heart in the right place helps keeps the hardships at bay. That's the idea here. Acknowledge the struggles but embrace the joy and grace found behind them. We will likely always be trying to fight off one evil or another in the world, but Kuykendall encourages you, when faced with dark times, to allow yourself to still be in awe of the marvels & beauties in the world, because if you keep yourself open enough, they will remind you that they are still out there. As she says, "This is a year to celebrate the good news within the context of our actual lives."

 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Baker Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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