Monday, June 19, 2017

Freedom's Price


In order to avoid an unwanted marriage after the death of both her parents, Catherine Hays leaves her home in England and crosses the Atlantic in an attempt to find her mother's estranged family in Louisiana.  On her journey west, she catches the eye of wrecker Tom Worthington in Key West.  Enchanted by Catherine, Tom leaves his own home to accompany Catherine on the remaining leg of her journey.  When they arrive at the plantation outside of New Orleans, though, it no longer resembles the paradise Catherine's mother had always described. And as they learn more about the man now controlling the plantation, it becomes clear that Catherine and Tom's lives are more intertwined than either could have imagined.  Will they each stubbornly hold to the dreams of their youth, or will they be able to make a new life together?

Christie Johnson tells an intriguing story of life along the Gulf Coast in the 1850s in Freedom's Price.    While I enjoyed Tom as a character, I just couldn't bring myself to like or understand Catherine.  Whereas Johnson, I assume, wanted readers to see a strong and independent heroine, I found myself annoyed with her.  Time after time Catherine makes truly idiotic decisions for absolutely no good reason.  From leaving England in the first place to adamantly staying in a dangerous situation, Catherine's choices make her seem spoiled, selfish, and plain stupid, and made me long for Tom to just leave her to her own devices and head back to Florida.  She would have deserved it.  It took me a while to get into the story, but once Tom and Catherine reach Louisiana (which should have happened several chapters before it did), the story picks up quite a bit.  Other than Tom's poor choice in a love interest, the plot itself was interesting full of lovely surprises.

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.  


Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Matter of Trust


Renowned backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left fame behind after being sued for negligence in the death of one of his fans.  He finds satisfaction in his new life as a member of the PEAK Rescue team near Glacier National Park, but still has moments when he resents the life he lost, and those who stole it from him.  

State senator and lawyer Ella Blair-- former friend and admirer of Gage's-- deeply regrets the role she played in prosecuting the civil suit against him... especially when she learns a damaging truth about the case.  When her younger brother goes missing on one of the park's most dangerous areas, Ella knows Gage is the only one capable of bringing him home.  As Ella and Gage battle snowstorms and injuries, will they also have the courage to tackle their own feelings and regrets and make it back down the mountain safely?  

Susan May Warren doesn't disappoint in her third installment of her Montana Rescue series, A Matter of Trust.  I might go so far as to say it's my personal favorite thus far!  Warren developed Ella and Gage's characters in such subtle a way that the reader fully understands their individual choices, without the need to knock the reader over the head with a bunch of back-stories.  Minus the one mention of Gage sporting a "man bun" (ewww), he was a worthy and believable romantic lead.  I found Ella's personal journey of finding forgiveness and self-worth particularly poignant.  While Ella and Gage's story itself stands alone, Warren's weaving of series-long plot lines throughout this newest addition would make it confusing for readers not familiar with the previous novels.  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.  

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Name Unknown



Having grown up as an orphan on the streets of London, Rosemary Gresham and her "family" of fellow orphans have become some of the best thieves in England.  When the mysterious Mr. V offers her more money than she has ever had to investigate the loyalties of a reclusive gentleman of German descent, she embarks on an adventure that will change her life and the way she views the world around her.

Due to his stuttering speech and German heritage, Peter Holstein spends most of his days writing adventure novels under a pen name, rather than interacting with his neighbors.  With Europe seemingly hurtling toward war, Holstein must find a way to prove to his neighbors, his friends, and his country that he is a trustworthy and loyal Englishman.

When Rosemary appears at Peter's door claiming to be a librarian willing to organize his mess of a library, he quickly agrees.  Peter soon finds himself drawn to his new employee, despite her tendency to disrupt his quiet life, and the small untruths he frequently catches her telling.  As she learns more and more about Peter, Rosemary similarly catches herself beginning to enjoy Peter's company, even though her family's future security depends on proving that he isn't a loyal British citizen.  When they each discover the truth about each other, will their newly formed friendship have the opportunity to turn into something more?

Roseanna M. White takes readers back to the intriguing world of Edwardian England in A Name Unknown.  After finishing White's "Ladies of the Manor" series last year, I've been anxiously awaiting a new series, and was far from disappointed.  Delving into the politics of pre-WWI was fascinating, wading through London's underbelly was thrilling, and exploring the county of Cornwall was truly lovely.  White's addition of a bit of mystery amid the engaging love story and historical detail was also masterfully done.  I absolutely loved Rosemary and her colorful family, as well as Peter and his accompanying cast of Cornish characters.  I couldn't put this one down, and look forward to more installments in this new series!

I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review was required, and all opinions are my own.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Heart on the Line



Grace Mallory finally feels safe in Harper's Station surrounded by supported friends, working at a job she loves, and getting to know a mysterious and engaging fellow telegraph operator every evening.  When she gets a message from a friend warning that the man who has hunted Grace for the last year has discovered her location, Grace must choose whether to trust her new friends and face the man responsible for her father's death, or continue to run.

Quiet, yet charming Amos Bledsoe knows he isn't the rugged and dashing hero most women look for in West Texas.  But as he talks nightly to his delightful telegraph companion-- Miss G.-- he begins to wonder if he has finally found a woman that will appreciate and love him for who he is.  When he finally builds up the courage to meet her in person, though, he discovers that his potential love interest may be in mortal danger.

Will Amos have the courage to leave his quiet and comfortable life to save Grace?  Will Grace be able to trust him even if he does?

In Heart on the Line Karen Whitemeyer takes readers back to Harper's Station for another entertaining story full of adventure, mystery, and love.  I adored the fact that Amos wasn't the typical gun-wielding, horse-riding, tough-guy hero of typical Western romances.  Small, shy, and introverted Grace was equally refreshing.  In addition to creating interesting characters, Whitemeyer manages to simultaneously tell a beautiful love story and intriguing mystery, while also teaching reminding readers to look beyond outward appearances.  I thoroughly enjoyed this latest installment, and can't wait to return to Harper's Station.

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.  

Monday, May 15, 2017

Weddings, Weddings, and more Weddings

I'm a bit behind on book reviews... but I'm guessing it's due to the fact that we've driven to Houston the last two weekends in a row for some family weddings.

My lovely sister-in-law got married first.  Since I was in this one, I didn't get to take too many pictures, but I got to take their engagement portraits a few months ago...




My father-in-law got married this past weekend, and I took plenty of official pictures!












Monday, May 8, 2017

Trusting Grace


Recently widowed and charged with the care of her ailing father, Grace Bidwell begins to wonder if her dreams of growing old with a loving husband in a house full of children will ever come true.  Struggling to balance her father's needs with single-handedly running her late husband's farm, Grace decides to place an advertisement for a farm hand.  She soon begins to wonder if single-father to three newly acquired step-children, Robert Frasier, just might be the answer to both of Grace's prayers.  After each has experienced so much loss and disappointment in recent years, will Grace and Robert learn to trust one another with their hearts and ultimate happiness?

Set in 1860s Montana, Maggie Brendan's Trusting Grace had plenty of potential to tell a beautiful story of love and loss against a rugged backdrop, but unfortunately falls short.  Brendan introduces a host of compelling and relatable problems for many of the characters, but each one manages to virtually solve itself without much fanfare, effort, or payoff.  Robert struggles to parent three children he barely knows.  He kind of figures it out.  Grace is jealous and threatened by her father's new love interest.  She gets over it.  There's something shady about the man trying to court Grace.  He ends up in jail.  Again, lots of potential... very little payoff.  The only situation that took any real amount of time or effort to resolve was Grace and Robert's relationship, and even that was barely satisfying.  Rather than solving itself, this plot line simply dragged on for about 50 more pages than it needed to.  It was if Brendan felt the need to create random problems for secondary characters to work through just to prolong the story.  This one was a struggle to finish, I'm afraid.

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.  

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Love So True



Evelyn Wisely absolutely loves her work ministering to the orphans and prostitutes of Teaville, Missouri.  Though her friends and family regularly try to convince her to court a number of eligible men in town and start a family of her own, Evelyn has always managed to push them away.  When the dashing David Kingsman arrives in the small town to manage one of his father's businesses for a few months, though, Evelyn lets her guard down.  Assuming that the handsome and charming younger man would never fall for a passed-over spinster, Evelyn allows herself to befriend David and accept his offered help with her various ministries during his stay in Teaville.  When it becomes apparent that they have fallen in love with one another-- despite their best intentions-- will David be able to stand up to his father and properly court Evelyn?  Will a closely guarded secret from Evelyn's past drive David away even before he has a chance?  

Melissa Jaguars tells yet another lovely story of grace, forgiveness, and love in A Love so True.  Neither David nor Evelyn are typical, run-of-the-mill historical fiction protagonists, and I loved them for it.  David's complaisance, need to be well-regarded, and overwhelming desire to please his demanding father made him particularly compelling and complex, and I loved watching him develop and evolve as a character.  Similarly, Evelyn's big secret was not at all what I expected, and added a believable twist to an enjoyable love story.  While it would be tough to top A Heart Most Certain as far as I'm concerned, I still thoroughly enjoyed this latest installment of Jagears's Teaville Moral Society series.  

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Stranger at Fellsworth


After the death of her father, Annabelle Thorley's life is virtually controlled by her untrustworthy elder brother.  Her original betrothal broken due to her family's financial problems, Annabelle's brother begins to push her more and more strongly to marry a man she cannot love, or trust.  For her own safety, Annabelle decides to secretly run away from London and accept a teaching position at a school in Fellsworth with her estranged uncle.  

Widower and game keeper Owen Locke is hard-working, single-minded, and extremely protective of his young daughter.  When Owen has the opportunity to help Annabelle escape her conniving and dangerous brother, he is surprised when she requests to flee to Fellsworth-- where his own daughter is a student.  Despite his determination to buy land of his own and protect his heart from further damage, Owen can't seem to put Annabelle out of his mind. 

As Annabelle struggles to find her footing as a teacher, will she learn to discern who she should and should not trust?  Will her new-found friends or family betray her to her brother?  And as she and Owen become better acquainted, will either of them learn to let go of past disappointments and trust each other with their hearts? 

Sarah E. Ladd's A Stranger at Fellsworth is a lovely story full of danger, excitement, adventure, and romance.  While many aspects of the plot strongly resembled The Curiosity Keeper-- another Ladd novel in which a young woman runs away from a dangerous family member and finds herself teaching at a small school-- I found Stranger at Fellsworth much more satisfying.  While I've certainly loved many of Ladd's previous novels, she has a tendency to gloss over the relationship-building portions between the main characters and somehow magically skip to the "happily ever after" a bit prematurely.  In this case, I definitely could have used a bit more interaction between Owen and Annabelle, but their story was still believable and  entertaining.  The plot itself was full of action and kept me guessing until the end.  Overall, Ladd's latest is among her best efforts.  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Noble Servant



Lady Magdalen has been infatuated with Steffan, the Duke of Wolfberg, ever since meeting him at a ball 2 years ago.  She realizes, though, that while they may have enjoyed each other's company, her lack of dowry makes it unlikely that Steffan would ever pursue a romantic relationship with her.  Much to her surprise, after 2 years of silence, Magdalen receives a summons from Steffan asking her to travel to Wolfberg and become his wife.  Her maidservant Agnes, however, has a different plan.  On their way to Wolfberg, Agnes and her father betray Magdalen and convince the people of the castle that Agnes is the the Duke's betrothed.  

Finding herself minding Wolfberg's flock of geese, Magdalen watches and waits for an opportunity to prove her true identity.  Much to her surprise, the supposed Duke of Wolfberg looks nothing like Magdalen remembers, while a new shepherd bears a striking resemblance to the man of her dreams.  Will Magdalen and Steffan have the courage to trust one another with their identities in time to stop Steffan's uncle from stealing everything from them?  Will the betrayals they have both endured blind them from the growing feelings they have for one another?  

Melanie Dickerson tells an entertaining tale of mystery, intrigue, and romance in The Noble Servant.  
I feel like a broken record in reviewing Dickerson's novels: the dialogue between characters often feels awkward and stilted, but her creative storytelling abilities always keep me coming back for more.  This particular effort is true on both counts.  Luckily, Dickerson's character development in The Noble Servant is better than usual.  Both Steffan and Magdalen are real and believable characters, but not so flawed or obnoxious that they were difficult to root for as protagonists.  I was so enthralled with their story, in fact, that I managed to finish the book in a single evening.  I also enjoyed the chance to reunite with a few characters from The Beautiful Pretender.  In my humble opinion, Dickerson's latest is one of her better efforts.

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sandpiper Cove


When incidents of vandalism keep popping up in the quiet town of Hope Harbor, Oregon, police chief Lexie Graham finds herself spending time with ex-con and new resident Adam Stone.  When Lexie realizes quite quickly that Adam isn't behind the recent crimes affecting the town, she enlists his help in mentoring a troubled young teenager.  Determined to build a new life for himself, Adam doesn't understand his fascination with Lexie, and tries his best not to wish for things he can never have.  While Lexi tries to focus on her job and raising her son, she also can't seem to keep her mind off of the enigmatic Adam.  As the pair spend more time together, will they each be able to let go of the past, and learn to truly trust God and each other?  

Irene Hannon tells yet another heart-wrenching story of love and forgiveness in hew latest Hope Harbor novel, Sandpiper Cove.  Both Lexie and Adam were wonderfully complex and extremely well-developed, and  I truly enjoyed every page of their journey.  As with Hannon's previous installment, Sea Rose Lane, the plot itself is a bit predictable, and lacks many twists or turns.  As character studies, however, Hannon's Hope Harbor novels are nothing short of masterful.  While contemporary fiction isn't generally my genre of choice, Sandpiper Cove is equal parts romantic and lovely.  I anxiously await any subsequent additions to the Hope Harbor series.  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Chapel Car Bride


Eternal optimist and dedicated daughter, Hope Irvine, cannot wait to serve alongside her father as a missionary in his traveling chapel car.  When they reach a rural mining town in West Virginia, Hope sees endless ways to bring joy and aid to its families and surrounding areas.  Local miner, Luke Hughes, feels called to become a preacher, but has no way to attend school or earn a living outside the mining community he'd always known.  While he is immediately drawn to Hope, he begins to wonder if she returns his affections when she spends time with the untrustworthy son of Luke's employer, Kirby Finch.  Will Hope's desire to find the good in everyone blind her to Kirby's faults and put her in danger?  Will Luke be able to convince her of Kirby's true intentions without appearing to simply be jealous? 

Judith Miller brings the fascinating world of the coal industry to life in The Chapel Car Bride.  Miller's portrayal of the relationships between the miners and the wealthy mine owners, the colorful depiction of the mining families, the seedy underground of bootleggers and revenuers, and a bustling railroad make for a thoroughly entertaining setting.  Additionally, Luke is a believable and worthy protagonist and romantic lead.  I did, however, find myself regularly frustrated with Hope.  While it's certainly noble to strive to forgive every offense and believe the best in people, Hope's utter naiveté is far more annoying than it is endearing.  I enjoyed Kirby as an antagonist, but unfortunately his storyline ends in an abrupt and very unsatisfying way.  Miller's latest has potential and several high points, but I just never truly found myself engaged in the story.  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Long Time Gone


With his father recuperating in Denver, and his brother recovering from a recent gunshot wound, Justin Boden finds himself not only running his family's ranch, but trying to solve a decades-old mystery.  Who is this powerful enemy that will seemingly never give up until the Bodens have lost their land?  

Angie DuPree is finally learning to express herself and make up her own mind after having been completely managed by a manipulative mother and hurtful husband for most of her life.  When she comes to stay at the Boden's ranch to help care for Justin's brother, can she trust herself to keep her own identity as she and Justin spend more and more time together?  Despite all the chaos of his life, Justin can't manage keep Angie off of his mind.  Will he decide that she's safer by his side, or out of his life completely? 

In Long Time Gone Mary Connealy takes readers on yet another entertaining adventure in the Wild West.  Perhaps I'm just partial to the New Mexican setting, but the Cimarron Legacy series seems to be one of Connealy's best so far.  Her character development continues to evolve and improve with each attempt.  While I definitely enjoyed this second installment in the series, it doesn't stand well on its own.  If I hadn't read No Way Up, there's no way I would have been able to follow the plot of Long Time Gone.  Having read the previous installment so many months ago, I still had trouble jumping right back in to the story.  Connealy's latest effort is definitely worth reading... just make sure to brush up on Boden family history first!  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, March 20, 2017

To the Farthest Shores


Army nurse Jenny Bennet is determined to focus on her work and never risk letting someone break her heart like Ryan Gallagher did.  Six years after the intriguing naval officer told her in a letter not to ever expect him to come back for her, Jenny is shocked to find him once again at the Presidio army base, and with a young half-Japanese daughter in tow.  

Ryan desperately wants to rebuild his life in the US with his daughter after years of a dangerous, clandestine assignment in Japan.  All his hopes depend on training a young playboy to replace him... and on Jenny's forgiveness.  When Ryan decides to include Jenny in his new mission and bring her into his life once more, can she learn to trust him again?  Or will Ryan's attempts to protect Jenny just drive her further away?  

In To the Farthest Shores, Elizabeth Camden takes readers on a truly gut-wrenching adventure.  As usual, Camden masterfully combines intriguing historical detail with expertly-crafted characters to bring an epic story to life.  Camden paints her two main characters so clearly, that the reader perfectly understands why they make the decisions they do.  Just as I lamented in From this Moment, however, I just couldn't accept Ryan Gallagher as a swoon-worthy romantic lead.  Perhaps I identified a bit too much with Jenny's plight, but I just couldn't quite bring myself to forgive Ryan as thoroughly as she did.  I'm not sure he could really have loved Jenny as much as he claimed, while still making the decisions he did throughout most of the novel.  I'm not convinced he suffered quite enough.  In Camden's defense, though, not many fictional characters can get me quite so riled up, or instigate the level of soul-searching that Ryan and Jenny did.  While I'm still not sure if Ryan ultimately understands or deserves Jenny, I can't deny that To the Farthest Shores is an excellent piece of romantic fiction.

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Redeeming Grace


Elimelech decides to move his wife and two sons to Moab when famine strikes his land in Bethlehem.  While his family seems to flourish at first, Elimelech and his sons seem to accept the ways of the Moabites more and more the longer they live away from their own people.  When he and both of his sons die in a foreign land, his wife Naomi finds herself virtually penniless and with only two childless, foreign daughters-in-law to show for the 10 years spent in Moab.  When Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, her daughter-in-law Ruth decides to also leave Moab and its ways behind her, and embrace Naomi's people and their God.  

After the years of famine, Boaz's land is finally producing bountiful harvests again, but after the sudden death of his beloved wife, he can't seem to see past his own grief and doubting.  When his relative Naomi returns with the lovely Ruth, will Boaz finally accept the blessings God has chosen to give him?  

With her typical talent, Jill Eileen Smith exquisitely tells the Biblical story of Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi in Redeeming Grace.  As with most of Smith's novels, the reader already knows the end of the story, but Smith's additions of fascinating historical detail and beautiful story-telling make them anything but boring.  I thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into the tribe of Judah during the time of the Judges.  While I knew there would have to be some heartache involved, the overall feeling of the story was much less depressing than Land of Silence.  Rather than waiting for calamity throughout the entire novel, the reader gets to look forward to blessings and happy endings.  This beautiful story of redemption and faith shouldn't be missed.  

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Vicar's Daughter



As the youngest of six daughters, Cassie Wilton has anxiously waited for years to enter society and find the perfect husband.  Due to her father's edict that only one of his daughters will ever be out at once, Cassie despairs that her shy and anxiety-ridden elder sister, Lenora, will ever find a match.  When Lenora enters her third season, Cassie decides that Lenora will never succeed without some help.

When Lenora has a chance encounter with Evan Glenside-- a kind clerk from London who has recently become his wealthy uncle's heir-- Cassie is convinced he is the perfect husband for her timid sister.  In an attempt to help the romance along, Cassie begins writing letters to Evan under Lenora's name.  As she learns more about Evan, however, Cassie finds herself falling in love with Evan herself.  When Evan begins to court Lenora in earnest-- believing her to be the author of the letters he holds dear-- will Cassie's deception ruin everything?

Josi S. Kilpack takes readers on a truly lovely journey in The Vicar's Daughter.  While the premise of this novel has certainly been told before, Kilpack's character development makes the story unique and compelling.  Even secondary characters like Evan's uncle and Cassie's parents have complex backstories that perfectly explain their thoughts and actions.  Evan's and Lenora's journeys to self-assurance and security are certainly fascinating, but Cassie's arc is truly excellent.  From a selfish and conniving debutante-to-be, to a truly contrite, humble, and mature young woman, Kilpack does an admirable job in creating a real and believable protagonist.  For much of the book, I honestly wasn't sure whom I wanted Evan to choose in the end.  I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to delve into and explore the complicated subjects of family, trust, loyalty, truth, and forgiveness.

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own

Monday, February 27, 2017

When Tides Turn


After a few disappointments in love, the glamorous and always popular Quintessa Beaumont decides she needs a change.  She leaves her department store sales job, starts going by the name "Tess," and joins the Navy's new WAVES program.  Lt. Dan Avery is determined to make Admiral one day, and doesn't have the time for distractions of any kind.  When the fun-loving Tess and straight-laced Dan find themselves working in the same office, sparks fly despite their best efforts t act otherwise.  Will Tess be able to prove to Dan-- and herself-- that she's more than a pretty face?  Will Dan realize that the rest and fun that Tessa brings to his life is a blessing and not a distraction? 

Sarah Sundin brings her Waves of Freedom series to a lovely and exciting conclusion in When Tides Turn.  Though I'm a devoted fan of Sundin's work, I'll admit to being a bit skeptical before starting this particular novel.  From previous installments, I'd honestly never been terribly fond of Quintessa or Dan.  A self-centered and overly beautiful blonde, and an uptight, career-obsessed sailor?  Not my first choice for relatable protagonists.  With a truly talented bit of storytelling and character development, though, Sundin proves me absolutely wrong.  

The growth experienced by both characters is both convicting and engaging, and I enjoyed every page of their love story.  The historical context of the series from a Naval and home front perspective continues to prove compelling, and the twists and turns of other sub-plots kept me guessing until the very end as well.  As with Sundin's previous series, all three installments of Waves of Freedom are well-researched, beautifully written, and well worth the time.  

 I received a free copy from the publisher.  No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Note Yet Unsung


Vienna-trained violinist Rebekah Carrington finds herself back in her hometown of Nashville after the sudden death of her grandmother.  Unable to live with her lecherous step-father and apathetic mother.  Pursuing her dream of playing with an orchestra, Rebekah auditions for Nashville's new conductor Nathaniel Tate Whitcomb.  While clearly impressed with her talent, Tate can't bring himself to defy the conventions of the time and allow a woman to perform with his orchestra.  Still seeking a way to support herself, Rebeka takes a job at Belmont Mansion teaching violin lessons.

As Nashville's youngest conductor, Tate feels intense pressure-- from himself and anxious donors-- to finish his first symphony in time for the grand opening if the city's new opera house.  Fears for his dying father, frequent headaches, and a strange buzzing in his ears leave him seemingly incapable of finishing his symphony.  As he learns more about Rebekah's training and natural talent, in becomes clear to Tate that she may be the only one who can help him.  Can Tate manage to convince Rebekah to help fulfill his dream when he has effectively ruined hers?

Tamera Alexander brings her Belmont Mansion series to an epic finale in A Note Yet Unsung.  I've long been a devoted fan of Alexander's, and this newest novel may just become my new favorite of hers.  It is easily my favorite of the Belmont series.  I can't think of a single complaint.  My inner Yankee often balks at her tendency to over-romanticize Southern culture, but there was very little of that in this case.  Music, feminism, faith, and romance all come together here for a virtually perfect work of fiction, and I devoured every last page.  The journey both Tate and Rebekah take in trying to reconcile their pasts with their dreams for the future is both believable and compelling, and caused me to shed more than one tear in the reading of it.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, January 30, 2017

10th Anniversary Trip




The Hubby and I recently returned from an Eastern Caribbean cruise celebrating our 10th anniversary. I had plenty of time to read on the boat-- so expect some new book reviews soon-- but before we get to those, I thought I'd review our trip as a whole!

Here are the basics:

Travel

 


Southwest Airlines:

I love Southwest.  Every one of our flights boarded, departed, and arrived on time.  Every crew member we interacted with was friendly, helpful, and professional.  Lastly, BAGS FLY FREE!  When embarking on a 10-day trip requiring everything from formalwear to snorkeling equipment... we simply had to check a few bags, and were able to do so without paying an extra $50.

Uber 

Ok, I know I'm behind the times, but I experienced my first Uber rides this trip.  Never will I take a taxi again, if I can help it.  The cars were clean, the drivers were knowledgeable, the Uber app was efficient, and the fares were FAR cheaper than those quoted from taxi companies for similar rides.  Uber rocks.

Universal Orlando 

Loews Royal Pacific Resort 



This resort is on the Universal grounds, and worked perfectly for our purposes.
Advantages include:

  1. Easy walking distance to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and City Walk 
  2. Free Express Passes included.  These passes allow you to skip lines at the majority of rides in both parks. 
  3. Early park admission.  As resort guests, we were allowed to enter Islands of Adventure and hour early.  This allowed us to ride several popular rides that do not accept express passes, and enjoy walking around Hogsmeade before the park became unbearably crowded. 
  4. Beautiful grounds, rooms, and pools. 

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure 

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-- the only reason we made the trip in the first place-- was all I dreamed it would be.  The theming is impeccably done.  Again, it got crowded fast, so take pictures and enjoy the experience as early as you can.  The rest of the park seemed deserted in comparison.  Also try the frozen butterbeer.  It's awesome.  





Norwegian Epic 


We took a 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard NCL's Epic that departed from Port Canaveral.  

Here's a brief list of lessons learned:

The Epic

  • Yes, the staterooms are arranged in an unusual way.  There was plenty of space and storage for 2 married people... but any more would be tight, and perhaps a little awkward with only frosted glass separating the shower and toilet from the rest of the cabin.  For a couple that's been married for 10 years?  No big deal.  
  • We chose a standard balcony stateroom, but one that had an extra-large balcony due to it's location on the ship.  I highly recommend the large balcony.  It fit two lounge chairs, two regular chairs, and two small tables easily, with plenty of room to move around. 
  • BUY POSH PASSES.  The fancy-shmancy "Haven" area of the ship is for rich people who need their own lounging areas, pool, and dining room.  They also have their own sun deck with a bar called the "Posh Deck."  Luckily, NCL sells a set number of posh passes to the lowly regular cruisers every trip.  We sprinted and elbowed our way down to guest services immediately upon embarkation, and barely managed to get a hold of 2 passes.  Worth.  Every.  Penny.  The deck has plenty of space, a variety of comfy lounges, and a very well-trained staff.  If Nester is working the bar, ask for a Margarita Meltdown.  We invented it.  You'll thank me later. 
  • The food was delicious, though the desserts were a bit unimpressive.  We ate at the main dining room a few times, and also visited several specialty restaurants.  Le Bistro (the French place) was great, but Cagney's (steak house) and Moderno (Brazilian) were fantastic.  The cheese rolls at Moderno changed by life.  I'm googling the recipe later today.  
  • We aren't big cruise entertainment people, but we gave Howl at the Moon a try.  It's a free dueling piano show in one of the clubs that performs every other night.  All night, the performers play audience requests and have everyone sing along.  It was a blast, and definitely worth checking out.  
 (Posh Deck)






Tortola 


We took Speedy's Ferry from Tortola to Virgin Gorda to see The Baths.  
  • We were left mostly unimpressed with Speedy's.  I had read that they ran on time and were the best way to travel between islands, and that booking a trip to Virgin Gorda through the cruise ship was a waste of time and money.  That's probably still true.  Speedy's got us to Virgin Gorda, and from the ferry dock to The Baths very efficiently and for a reasonable price... but the return trip was another story indeed.  Unfortunately the cruise ship had contracted with Speedy's as well, and because we didn't have the green wristband issued by the cruise excursion, we were treated like second class citizens for most of the afternoon.  The only tram and ferry rides available to use lowly blue wristband people left far too early to have sufficiently explored the area, or too late to ensure an on-time arrival back to Tortola.  We made it back with a bit of time to spare, but it was a stressful time waiting for the last ferry to arrive.  The crew was not terribly helpful or friendly either.  
  • The Baths themselves, however, were fantastic!  Not only were the giant granite boulders beautiful and fun to climb over, under, and around, but the beaches around them were equally perfect.  The beach closest to the actual caves was overcrowded and unpleasant, so we swam/snorkeled up to Spring Bay (a very easy swim) and enjoyed a mostly deserted beach with excellent snorkeling.  

St. Thomas


  • We jumped on a taxi van headed up to Megan's Bay from the cruise port for $8 per person.  The driver stopped at an overlook of the bay, then took us down to the state park area.  Entering the park cost another $5 per person, but was definitely worth it.  Magen's Bay is regarded as one of the world's best beaches for a reason.  While the beach area right off the parking lot got uncomfortably crowded with 5 cruise ships in port that day, Hubby and I walked about 1/4 mile down the beach, and were mostly alone for the morning.  I was worried about the "tourist-y" nature of the famous beach making it too crowded to enjoy, but that was not the case at all. 
  • We stopped at some shops on our way back to the boat and picked up some souvenirs for the boys and my awesome father-in-law who had been watching them all week.  Plenty of the typical t-shirts, hats, magnets, pirate-themed toys, etc. to meet our needs.  

Great Stirrup Cay 


  •  Our final stop was NCL's private island in the Bahamas.  While the water in the Virgin Islands was plenty warm enough in January, that wasn't the case in the Bahamas.  We tried to get in the beautiful water, but it was just way too cold.  Luckily, the weather was perfect for laying under a palm tree in the shade... which is what we did.  
  • Much of the island was under construction, but we still managed to hike away from the crowds, and found a nice, not too crowded area with beach loungers to claim.  
  • There's a main buffet on the island, but we opted for the taco truck instead.  The beef and chicken tacos were just fine, but the fish tacos were quite good.  It was an excellent day of relaxing for to end our trip!  
Overall, it was a lovely trip and celebration of our marriage.  I truly appreciated the chance to get away from all the responsibilities of home and simply enjoy being married to my awesome Hubby.  I sincerely hope we don't have to wait another 10 years to get away again!  


Monday, January 16, 2017

"Army Man" Birthday

Last week my baby turned five.  How that's possible, I'm still not sure!  We decided against doing a party (to make life easier...) and yet between making our house appear festive, baking 22 cupcakes for school, and a big cake for our family and a few friends it still felt like a lot.

J. told me he wanted an "Army Man" birthday.  Not sure exactly what he was picturing... here's what I came up with:
For school, just some Army men (ordered from Amazon for cheap) on green cupcakes.  Done. 




Can I just say, freezer paper stencils are the best?  No more dropping $25 on a customized, monogrammed shirt that he'll grow out of in 2 months.  A $4 Hanes t-shirt, some freezer paper, a printer, some scissors, and brown paint and we've got an Army man shirt!  (The back has his name and a 5) 


These super cheap foil hanging decorations are also life-savers.  Amazon has everything.  




The Hubby may have critiqued my battle configuration... but I think the cake was cute.  The pieces on top came from the same tub as the cupcakes with plenty leftover for J. to open as a separate gift.  

In case you're looking for a new recipe, I absolutely LOVE this one for white cakes!  I used it for both the cupcakes and the actual birthday cake.  



Look at that happy birthday boy!