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review 2017-01-25 22:53
A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay
A Portrait of Emily Price - Katherine Reay

Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . . Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love. But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccollo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart. Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?




Art restorer Emily Price is sent on a business trip to Atlanta, Georgia to help an Italian family revive some of their family heirlooms. It's there that she meets Benito (Ben) Vassallo, the nephew of her clients, newly arrived from Italy. He's temporarily staying with his aunt and uncle while he helps them try to breathe life back into their restaurant, which has quietly but steadily losing business of late. As their respective areas of work have them frequently running into each other, they find themselves caught up in a whirlwind romance with each other. Ben spontaneously proposes to Emily, she agrees with equal spontaneity, and within hours they're on a patch of grass getting married by the nearest justice of the peace they could find!


The newlyweds fly off to Benito's hometown of Montevello, Italy (back cover synopsis mistakenly has it as "Monterello") where it doesn't take long for some of the luster to fall off the rose.  Sure, Emily found almost immediate love & friendship in the arms of Ben, but it won't be so easy when it comes to his family. She quickly starts to feel very much out of her element. Though Emily tries to make herself as amiable and helpful as possible at every turn, it just seems like anything she attempts she royally ruins. Ben feels bad for her, things are not unfolding quite as he envisioned either... but he has his own special blend of stress, being caught in between a sense of loyalty to his family as well as to his new wife. Even outside of the shock of Ben coming back married, the family has additional sources of stress and strife they're all trying to work through. It's a rocky homecoming all around!


Emily becomes concerned with her developing feelings of alienation from the rest of the family. That is, until she finds herself surprisingly bonding with Ben's quiet father, Lucio. But is having one ally other than her husband enough to make forever work?


This is only the second of Katherine Reay's works that I've picked up. I was surprised to find how deep some of the themes in this one got, as I remember the first book I tried -- The Bronte Plot -- was cute but as far as meat in the story, didn't really get too deep past surface level coziness & fluff.


Ben was quite the charmer and will likely have the "hopeless romantic" type readers of all ages swooning, even if just a little bit. :-) I liked that Ben had layers to his character. He could be a charming flirt one minute but the next could just as easily show some serious emotional turmoil, trying to hold the family together. It was also nice to see that his love for Emily was not rash or merely physical, he was honestly always about her well-being, making her as comfortable and appreciated as possible at all times. Who's not going to want to get to know a character like that! I also awwed over the relationship between Ben's parents, Lucio and Donata. Donata could be a fiesty one, a bit of a prickly exterior, but around Lucio? A big ol' bowl of melted butter. And Lucio always seemed to know just how to round off her sharp edges when Donata had her claws out. The sense of warmth, patience and love that radiated between them was a real joy to experience. 


The symbolism of the sunflowers was the standout take-away for me. I love the idea of the field of girasoli (Italian for sunflower), where Ben explains to Emily that one has to allow them to turn to the light on their own. If you force it, you snap the stem and potentially kill the flower. 


"Girasoli - Piovene Rocchette, Vicenza" by Renzo Pietribiasi

 image from Trek Earth



All in all, I'd deem this a fun read for lovers of Italian food, culture or landscape. Author Katherine Reay does a nice job having her characters make connections between the layering of art and the layering of culinary flavors, as well as the overall importance of always coming back to that strong family bond. You're bound to have a good time getting to know Ben's clan! :-)



FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2016-12-15 23:20
Ex-Mas by Kate Brian
Ex-mas - Kate Brian

Seventeen-year-old Lila Beckwith's parents just left for vacation, and Lila's all set to throw the holiday party of the season. But when her Christmas-obsessed little brother, Cooper, discovers that global warming is melting the North Pole, he and his best friend, Tyler, take off on a runaway mission to save Santa. Lila has to get Cooper safely home before her parents get back on Christmas Eve. But the only person who can help her is Tyler's older brother, Beau — a.k.a. Lila's musician, anti-everything ex-boyfriend. It'll take more than a Christmas miracle for Lila and Beau to overcome their differences and find their fugitive brothers. But could a journey destined for disaster help these polar opposites fall in love...all over again?

~from back cover 





Seventeen year old Lila Beckwith's parents are taking off on a trip for part of the holiday season. Lila will be left home to house-sit as well as care for her eight year old brother, Cooper. She has plans for a blow-out party waiting in the wings but those plans are shot down when her brother decides to get little-brother petty and rat out her secret. To get back at him, Lila "accidentally" leaves out an article she got from her Earth Science class that hypothesizes how global warming might spell trouble for Santa this year. Lila knows her little brother still believes in Santa so she figures the article will hurt him a bit, but she has no clue just how far lil' Coop is about to take things!


Cooper, under the guise of hanging out at his best friend Tyler's house, manages to sneak out from the watch of his sister and board a train with Tyler (who just happens to be the little brother of Beau, Lila's grunge-lovin' ex-boyfriend that she currently has rather acidic feelings toward). Cooper and Tyler have a plan to travel to the North Pole to help Santa fight global warming and keep Christmas on track. So with two boys under the age of ten on the loose on the California railway system, Lila and Beau will have to set differences aside and round up their brothers before wind of the impromptu roadtrip gets back to their respective parents. Over the course of days that they find themselves on the road trying to catch up with their brothers' train schedules, Lila & Beau get to talking and discover that maybe they've always understood each other better than they realized and maybe just maybe there's a chance wrongs can be made right just in time for a magical, romantic-in-the-most-unlikely-of-ways Christmas. 


Beau swung back out through the door of the little store, and Lila watched him walk toward her. He had a way of walking like the world owed him something, and he wasn't afraid to hold out for it no matter what. It was a laid-back yet prickly saunter.


This is the first of Kate Brian's works I've tried, though I've heard of her Private series. Given the premise and the cutesy cover, it might be easy to initially dismiss this one as an easy breezy forgettable holiday fluff piece {confession: at least that's about as high as MY expectations going in were...}. While this is most definitely holiday fluff, it's of the best sort, in my book! You have your share of warm & fuzzy feels here, but I also like that it's balanced with families that aren't necessarily Christmas card perfect -- the tree might be up but these guys still argue, get stressed out, annoyed with each other... I can respect that realness!


I think having Beau and Lila start the story at a point where they can barely make eye contact they're so disgusted with each other was a good move as far as plot goes. The reader doesn't immediately have insta-love dumped on them from the first chapter and the build up of the "get a room already" kind of bickering was really well done, I thought. Beau and Lila start off each having their own way of exuding somewhat shallow or judgmental tendencies, but I'm impressed that for such a short story, author Kate Brian found a way to have them both go through emotional growth that seemed to unfold at a reasonable pace.


There was also a fun personal connection for me (being a born & raised Cali girl) having these characters be put on a roadtrip up the coast of California as I got to vicariously re-experience sights I grew up knowing so well but have been away from for quite some time. 


If you're looking for that fun & breezy Christmas read that's not SO sweet it'll feel like chugging a carton of nog, I'd definitely recommend giving this one a try. Coming from someone who has always considered Christmas her favorite holiday, I still say we need all the comic relief we can get this time of year and this one pulled some solid smiles out of me :-)

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review 2016-12-14 14:05
Jingle Bells, illustrated by Kathleen O'Malley
Jingle Bells - Kathleen O'Malley

This is a little holiday book, designed & manufactured with the idea of gifting I imagine, that I came across just recently.


I see no actual author's credit given anywhere in the book, only that it is published through Publications International, Ltd / PI Kids and the illustrations are done by Kathleen O'Malley. A website is provided, for anyone interested in looking up more of this company's catalog: pilbooks.com


Inspired by the classic Christmas song, this book features a quick little story for young readers that tells of a brother and sister who plan a holiday surprise for their family. Thinking they will both have to work at their respective jobs on Christmas Day, Andrew ( a clerk at a general store) and his sister Arabella (a schoolteacher) are informed that they, in fact, do have the day off. This allows the siblings to give their mother the best Christmas gift of all, time with the family all together!


Andrew's boss at the store, Mr. Ward, offers Andrew the use of his horse Nelly drive out to the family dairy farm. Andrew picks up his sister at the boarding house in town where she lives and off they go on a snowy sleigh ride through the woods, anticipating their mother's fresh cinnamon rolls they know she'll be baking and the look of surprise and joy on her face when she gets to see them! 


Within the story, Andrew whistles the "Jingle Bells" tune as Arabella talks excitedly, and the very last page features a full lyrics sheet to the classic song. The story itself is cutesy and heart-warming and the illustrations give it that little something extra to make this a sweet, cozy read for the littlest readers in your life. :-)


Happy Holidays! 

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review 2016-08-22 05:19
The Secret To Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale
The Secret to Hummingbird Cake - Celeste Fletcher McHale

In the South you always say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” You know everybody’s business. Football is a lifestyle not a pastime. Food—especially dessert— is almost a religious experience. And you protect your friends as fiercely as you protect your family— even if the threat is something you cannot see. In this spot-on Southern novel brimming with wit and authenticity, you’ll laugh alongside lifelong friends, navigate the sometimes rocky path of marriage, and roll through the outrageous curveballs that life sometimes throws . . . from devastating pain to absolute joy. And if you’re lucky, you just may discover the secret to hummingbird cake along the way.

~from back cover




First off, it's a little bookish peeve of mine: books that waste back cover space on rave review blurbs or a synopsis (such as the one on this book) that serve you a mountain of words but tell you absolutely nothing about the plot itself. I live in the South, I don't need generalizations about life here, what is THIS book ABOUT?! (That was my inner monologue on first perusal of this book... just thought I'd share :-P).


So let me help ya and tell you the ACTUAL, general plot here. Obviously it's Southern fiction, but specifically the reader is planted in the small town of Bon Dieu, Louisiana. Told in first person POV, our narrator is Carrigan Whitfield. When Carrigan was just 17 years old, she managed to catch the attention of local ladies' man / happy bachelor Jack Whitfield,10 years her senior and heir to his family's soybean fortune. Much to the surprise of everyone in town, Carrigan is the one Jack chooses for his wife. Since then, Carrigan has had the pleasure of living a pretty cushy life. Til now.

Present day, we're thirteen years into the Whitfield marriage. A lot of good years have passed between Carrigan and Jack, but here lately he's inexplicably started pulling away from her. Intimacy between them has all but stopped, as has much of their communication / conversations. Then the rumors start. All over town, Carrigan is hearing whispers that Jack is parking his boots at the bedsides of other ladies *wink, wink*. Rather than do the mature thing, push through the awkwardness that's been built up between them and just ASK Jack what really is going on, Carrigan goes off and has her own affair out of spite with a man she simply dubs "Cell Phone Romeo". Problem is, she doesn't even seem to like this guy very much at all. In fact, she's still very much in love with Jack, but for the longest time she sees no signs of him letting her in on his thoughts. Just when she's about to check out of her marriage completely though, Jack does have a turn around, suddenly bringing back waves of affection and soft words, only confusing her further. WHAT is going on?!


Luckily Carrigan has the support of her two best friends to carry her through this tough time. Directly across the street from her house is the home of one of her best friends, Laine. Not too far away is the other, Ella Rae. All of them now 30 years old, the three have been best buds since age 5. But this year will prove to be a test of strength & faith like the trio has never known before when tragedy strikes, forcing all of them to restructure their lives to accomodate the changing future. That's where the idea of the Hummingbird Cake comes in -- it's something that can bring people together and give them a smile, some small sense of comfort, when all else seems to be speeding out their control.


Okay, so why the low rating from me? Basically it came down to the writing. But there were what I'll call "savers" that kept me from hating it entirely. First though, what was problematic for me:


1) The whole cake idea. For a book that features a cake on the cover, even writes it into the title, I mean REALLY pushes the importance of this cake, once I read the actual story... the cake didn't seem all that prominent to me. It's mentioned maybe half a dozen times and always seems to be in passing -- "Hey Laine, you should make one of those cakes" "Yeah, maybe I will" "Hey guys I made one of those cakes." -- that kind of thing. For me, if a book really pushes the importance of food in its plot, I want it to be INFUSED with it --- books like JoAnne Harris' Chocolat, Erica Baumgartner's The School of Essential Ingredients,  Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate... that's what I'm looking for when it comes to foodie novels. 


2) I'll admit this one is entirely personal preference, but I just DID NOT LIKE Carrigan. It bugged me that she has this incredibly privileged life but she doesn't seem all that grateful for it and when it comes to friends, she seems to prefer "yes men" type friends rather than people who will give it to her straight. 


3) The character building, for Carrigan especially but also for some of the other characters, needs some work. In the case of Carrigan, her personality came off as confusing / wishy-washy. I audibly groaned at the conflicting character traits between pages 16 -17. Page 16, Carrigan states, "Not that I was a wild child, I was no child at all. But I was, well, busy." So I took that as meaning she didn't have much of a childhood, had to mature fast, etc. But then on the VERY NEXT PAGE, Page 17 Carrigan says, "I was a bit rebellious in my teenage years. Okay, I was a lot rebellious in my teenage years. I just liked to test my limits no matter what I was doing. With grades, ignoring curfews, ignoring expectations...Like the rules didn't apply to me..." Sooo you were crazy rebellious and the rules didn't apply to you but you weren't a wild child?? This is the kind of stuff that bugged me. 


4) There were virtually NO surprises in the plot for me. Seriously. Like, none. I did read to the end but basically closed the book feeling like the author was trying too hard to be the next Steel Magnolias


Okay, now those few "savers" I mentioned:


1) While much of the writing struck me as over-the-top, cartoonish representation of life in the South, there were a few good quips here and there that entertained me, such as the line, "Do you ever get altitude sickness from the moral high ground, Laine?" :-)


2) While I didn't much care for Carrigan, I did like Laine and Ella Rae. They were given fun personalities and I enjoyed their sense of humor! 


3) I liked the moments when Jack would show his sweet, soft side with Carrigan. 


4) The story between Mitch and Laine and the unfortunate timing with everything -- forget Carrigan and Jack, I found THIS story the most touching part of the entire book. 


5) My very favorite scene in the whole book though was the whole bit with the ladies talking over the coffin, just having a conversation with their heads on the lid, but the way they look everyone else in the chapel thinks they're beside themselves with grief. That whole convo between the ladies had me cracking up as I pictured it! 


So yeah, not the best Southern fiction I've read this year but as you can see, I found some saving moments in it for me. 


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. 

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review 2016-08-16 17:51
All Summer Long (Follow Your Heart #2) by Melody Carlson
All Summer Long: A San Francisco Romance (Follow Your Heart) - Melody Carlson

Tia D'Amico is thrilled to move to San Francisco to help her aunt transform an old luxury yacht into an upscale floating restaurant. What's not to love? Sunset dinner cruises, upscale wedding receptions--the possibilities are endless and far more appetizing than staying in a monotonous job in her Podunk hometown. Besides, some of her best memories are tied to San Francisco--especially the memory of Leo Parker, her crush from a long-ago sailing camp. When the self same Leo Parker turns out to be the yacht's captain, Tia is floating on air. But will it all come crashing down around her when she discovers his heart belongs to someone else?





Fresh out of culinary school, Tia D'amico is excited to be moving out to San Francisco, California to help her aunt turn a vintage luxury yacht into a floating restaurant. Tia's aunt has grand plans to turn the aging vessel into the best event cruise ship in the Bay Area! Sadly, right before Tia's arrival her uncle is rushed to the hospital with heart trouble. Turns out he's looking at a major blockage, requiring bypass surgery. That means Tia will largely be left on her own to manage the boat renovations while her aunt stays at the hospital. She's not completely alone though. Serving as the ship's captain is young Leo Parker, a guy Tia originally met at a sailing camp when they were teenagers. In fact, her last memory of him was when he gave her a brief kiss before walking out of her life for good (so it seemed then). 


Briefly emotionally sidelined at running into this blast from her past, Tia's emotions quickly turn to excitement at the possibility of getting to know Leo again as an adult. Until Leo says the dreaded line, "I'd like you to meet my fiancee." Bubble officially bursted. 


No surprise though, Leo's fiancee is the polar opposite of him and seems completely wrong for him. Everyone sees it except him (isn't that always the way). He can't figure out why he has to work so hard to make the relationship work and doesn't seem all that into the idea of being eternally bound to this woman. He admits feeling pressured to advance the relationship but now doesn't know how to bow out gracefully. In comes Tia as the shoulder to cry on... and it's not to hard to guess where the story goes from there. 


While the friendship between Leo and Tia was definitely cute, their growing flirtation didn't leave me all that swoony. I think I was largely distracted by being hung up on the idea that these are supposed to be college graduates but they still talk like they're 14-15 years old. Instead of feeling like grown-ups, these characters, to me, came off as playing at "adulting". And Tia, almost immediately out of the gate pining away for Leo. Seriously, girl? You're that emotionally broken up to the point of shedding tears over a guy who gave you one quick kiss way back when you were 16?! Seems a bit dramatic. Bummed, sure, I can understand that. But heartbroken?! Girl needs to get centered in life. 


So I wasn't too moved by the romance here, but the friendships and family dynamic was entertaining enough to keep me reading to the end (these books are pretty short anyway). I did like this addition to the Follow Your Heart series a good bit more than the first book, but I'm still not feeling quite enough heart in Carlson's characters (at least for this series). She crafts fun settings for them to work and live in -- an NYC boutique hotel in Book 1, a floating restaurant yacht in San Francisco Bay here -- but something about her characterizations remains too flat for me. That being said, this one showed strong potential for the series to increasingly improve with each book, however many that ends up being. The first one I only gave 2.5 stars, this one got a 3.5 out of me. Anything 3.5 or higher from me I consider solid recommended reading territory :-)


FTC Disclaimer: Revell / Baker Publishing Group 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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