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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?

Amazon.com

 

 

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 2016-08-22 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?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

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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review 2016-08-13 19:46
The Forgotten Recipe (Amish Heirloom #1) by Amy Clipston
The Forgotten Recipe (An Amish Heirloom Novel) - Amy Clipston

After losing her fiancé in a tragic accident, Veronica Fisher finds solace in the old recipes stored in her mother’s hope chest—and in a special visitor who comes to her bake stand to purchase her old-fashioned raspberry pies. Veronica Fisher knows how lucky she is to be marrying her best friend. Seth Lapp is kind, hardworking, and handsome—but most importantly, he loves Veronica. When an accident on the job steals Seth away from her, a heartbroken Veronica is certain she will never love—or be loved—again. Yet when she discovers a batch of forgotten recipes and opens a bake stand to sell her Mammi’s raspberry pies, Veronica picks up a regular customer  who gives her heart pause. Jason Huyard was with Seth when he lost his life—a memory that haunts him still. So when he seeks out the grieving fiancée to convey his condolences, the last thing he expects—or wants—is to fall in love. Nonetheless, Jason soon finds himself visiting Veronica’s bake stand every week . . . and it’s for more than the raspberry pies. Now, as Veronica’s heart thaws, Jason can’t bring himself to tell her he was there when Seth died. Can he ever reveal where he was on the day her life derailed? Or will his secret rob them of the second chance at love they both want?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Veronica Fisher has recently lost her fiancee, Seth Lapp, in a tragic construction accident. She's just broken inside, as she'd been in love with Seth since the age of 10, and just when they seem like their life together is about to start, death steals him away from her. At first, she drowns her grief in cleaning projects, one such project taking her up to clean and organize the attic of the home she shares with her mother and sister. In the attic, Veronica comes across a box that contains various family heirlooms, one being her deceased grandmother's long lost recipe for raspberry pie. Veronica gets the idea to take up baking as her new way to work through her grief. She starts making pies from the recipe, handing them out to friends and family. Encouraged by her mother's prompting, she branches out to selling the pies to Englisch (non-Amish) tourists visiting the Amish community. Getting rave reviews for her baking skills, Veronica decides to start selling her pies at the Philadelphia Farmer's Market. 

 

One of Veronica's customers is Jason Huyard, who was with Seth just moments before the construction accident that took his life. Guilt-ridden, thinking that he could've possibly prevented the death, Jason seeks out Veronica hoping to get to know her and offer his condolences. He hopes for friendship, never expecting to find himself falling in love with her -- at least that's what the back cover says, but I think most readers can guess a romance is to be expected ;-)

 

Jason keeps his connection to Seth's death secret from Veronica at first. He has every intention of telling her, but in consideration for her grieving process he wants to wait for just the right time. And.... cue the subsequent misunderstandings! But before all that mess, a friendship does slowly build between Jason & Veronica. They find they're able to bond over their mutual families pushing them to "get back on that horse" -- Jason after a recent failed marital engagement, and Veronica only 3 months out from having lost Seth! Veronica slowly warms to Jason but is hesitant to allow herself anything beyond friendship, thinking that anything more would be dishonoring the memory of Seth.

 

If you've read the novella collection An Amish Market, this novel offers a deeper look at the main family --- and some of the other minor characters as well -- Clipston introduced in her novella "The Love Birds" (that story mainly focused on Ellie Lapp, Seth's sister). The Forgotten Recipe is a cute & clean romance overall that had some parts that I really enjoyed while other parts of the story were a little problematic for me.

 

The good: 1) I liked the simple, sweet romance that seemed to unfold at a believable pace. 2) I think my favorite element though was how Clipston illustrates Veronica's grieving process. This, I thought, was one of the strongest features of this novel. I think most any reader has experienced some level of grief in their lifetime and will easily relate to Veronica's struggles with getting used to not having a loved one around, bonding to items that still carry a loved one's scent. 3) I also enjoyed Veronica's bond with her mother and sister and the strong sense of family Clipston wove in here. 4) Though I didn't strongly connect with any of the characters here, I did think the banter / inside joke between Veronica and Jason regarding the weather reports was kind of adorable. :-)

 

 

That being said... 

 

 

The problematic: 1) Jason mentions to Veronica how Seth talked about her all the time, so much so that Jason felt he knew Veronica before he had actually ever met her. If that were the case, if Jason and Seth were that good of friends, I have a hard time believing that Seth wouldn't have likewise mentioned Jason to Veronica... but she doesn't seem to have any knowledge of him until the moment he introduces himself 2) Though Jason is supposed to be 23-24 years old, he sometimes seemed to have the emotional maturity of a 15 year old.

[spoiler]

He gets all upset when Veronica turns down his advances, saying it's too soon and he needs his dad to remind him to honor a person's grieving process. Really, dude?

[/spoiler]  3) Veronica's reaction to Seth revealing his secret was a bit dramatic for me, but to be fair, I guess grieving can affect a person's sense of rational behavior. 4) The dialogue was too bland and safe for me. I understand this is meant to be a "clean" story, but at times it all felt a little too scripted for my liking. 

 

The book ends on a bit of an annoying cliffhanger... Well, it felt cliffhanger-esque anyway. There was a hint at a new secret from Veronica's family being possibly aired out. I can't imagine why Clipston would've wrote it in if she didn't plan to touch upon it in the next book, The Courtship Basket. Honestly though, given that I didn't get too attached to the characters here, I'm not sure if I'll be continuing on with this series. 

 

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 2016-06-30 09:19
An Amish Market: Four Novellas (Various Authors)
An Amish Market: Four Novellas - Vannetta Chapman,Amy Clipston,Kelly Irvin,Kathleen Fuller

An Amish Market is an omnibus of four Amish-themed novellas, each centered around happenings within a general store or farmer's market-type setting. 

 

A quick run down of the stories within:

 

Love Birds by Amy Clipston -- Ellie Lapp and her mother are mourning the sudden death of Ellie's brother Seth (work accident). With no other immediate family (Ellie's father having died years ago), Seth's close friend Lloyd helps the Lapp women with chores around their family farm. Lloyd and Ellie begin to see their friendship deepening to something more. Ellie is awed by Seth's wood carvings of birds and gets the idea to sell them in the shop where she works part-time, but Seth is very much hesitant to sell his work. That is until it dawns of him that his work may truly help someone in need. 

 

A Bid For Love by Kathleen Fuller -- Hannah Lynne sells homemade butter at the local farmer's market. Ezra stops by every week and buys a brick of it, keeping secret the fact that back home he has quite the stockpile of these bricks because he can't seem to get the courage to do much more talking with Hannah beyond store counter niceties. His chance comes though when at a local charity auction Hannah sees a quilt she clearly desperately wants, a quilt donated by Ezra's mother. When Hannah's bid doesn't win the quilt, Ezra comes to the rescue, buys back the quilt from the winning bidder, and gives the quilt to Hannah. She can't, in good conscience, just take the quilt after she hears what he paid to get it for her so she agrees to pay him back through sweat equity, helping him fix up an old house he recently bought. Seeing her bring her feminine touch to his home, Ezra feels quite the pull to convince Hannah to stay by his side for good. 

 

Sweeter Than Honey by Kelly Irvin -- While doing some shopping one day, Isabella formally meets store owner Will Glick when she accidentally breaks a glass jar of pickled beets, instantly staining Glick's shop floor. Isabella is embarrassed but also admittedly curious to get to know Glick -- resident confirmed bachelor -- better. She soon learns that Will's guarded demeanor stems largely from a former soured romance that has since made him uneasy around any other women. But what girl doesn't like a good challenge, right? :-) Isabella hopes a patient and gentle approach to befriending Will can help him open up and see that one bad experience doesn't have to mar one's entire life. 

 

She was right to be offended. He'd painted her with the flaws of another. A bad habit when it came to women he hardly knew. 

 

Love In Store by Vanetta Chapman

 

There's an unidentified prankster running around the grounds of the Old Amish Mill Complex, a property consisting of nearly 40 buildings -- including but not limited to an ice house, market, cafe, theater, school house and gift shop -- celebrating and teaching about Amish life and history. The pranks start out harmless enough, but as they intensify to the point of seriously potentially injuring guests to the complex, employees David (a widower) and Stella (a 50 year old spinster) team up to try to solve the mystery. And, of course, given the title of this one, a flirtation between the two develops in the process. 

 

 

My thoughts on the collection:

 

Love Birds was cute but ultimately a little too simple and sweet for my personal taste. I've read some of Clipston's other stuff in the past and ran into the same issue: cutesy stories but largely a little too safe and bland for me.

 

I think Bid For Love might have been my favorite of the bunch. I found Ezra's covering up his shyness with butter hoarding endearing and later when we see just how big his heart is when he opens up, I was completely sold on this couple :-) Here again, I've read some of Fuller's previous stories and I find that she writes characterizations really well, I never seem to find them too stale or cliche but just right.

 

Sweeter Than Honey had a nice warmth to it, but Isabella was a bit of a tougher sell for me than some of the other characters. Good thing this story was only novella length because she didn't seem like she wanted to wait for Will THAT long. 

 

Love In Store had a good little cozy mystery written into the plot, and I liked that it featured an older couple. I thought that was a unique element that you don't see in stories much. I enjoyed David's easy going way of moving through life, which came in handy as he got to know Stella, who initially comes off as a big ol stick in the mud type but eventually learns to loosen up around him. 

 

This collection as a whole was nicely done, I thought. The writing is solid, the characters (for the most part) plenty interesting. Not too many twists and turns within the plot, but the well-crafted banter kept me happily turning pages. 

 

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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