Book Review: The Heart of a Hero by Susan May Warren

“The Way of the Brave” by Susan May Warren is a wonderful, suspenseful, action-packed Christian romance. The main focus of the book is the story of Aria and Jake, who we first met in the previous book as side characters. (Note: Although I read and enjoyed the first book, I think this one works just fine as a stand-alone. Enough information is provided to fill the reader in on how Jake and Aria met, and what happened to them.)

The romance is excellent. Both Aria and Jake are well-developed characters with defined personalities and unique flaws. The reader can get to know them separately, and enjoy following along as they spend time together, grow closer, encounter obstacles, and respond to them. Both stay true-to-character, never doing anything that doesn’t make sense based on what we know about them.

There is plenty of dialog between the main characters, and it’s easy to see how and why the two come to care for each other. The dire circumstances they face together serve as another uniting factor.

The storyline beyond the romance is fabulous as well! Even though we begin the story at a nice family picnic, danger and adventure are never far away for these characters. Aria quickly finds herself alone and trapped in the middle of a major hurricane, and Jake is off to the rescue. Brace yourself for plenty of action as one dangerous situation follows another.

Having lived in Florida for a few years, I can say the author definitely did her research. Everything about the effects of the hurricane making landfall is accurate, as are the depictions of certain people who refuse to evacuate no matter what. I appreciated this attention to detail, and commend the author for getting everything just right.

The faith-based part of the story is more subtle here than it was in book 1, but it’s definitely present, primarily through the character of Mimi, who always has just the right spiritual insight to share with the others.

One final note: there is a small side-plot involving Ham from book 1 heading off to research something that started in the earlier volume. Just enough information is included about this to set up the next volume in the series, and I have to say I can’t wait to see how everything is resolved!

All if all, five out of five slices of yummy pepper-jack!

Book Review: A Sprinkling of Murder by Daryl Wood Gerber

“A Sprinkling of Murder” is the first book in a new cozy series, and author Daryl Wood Gerber does not disappoint! I am a huge fan of the author, and was eager to give this new series a try. I’m very glad that I did.

First, this is a magical realism cozy, meaning that it’s mostly a regular-world story, but with a bit of magic added in. In this case, that magical element comes in the form of fairies being real. Main character Courtney saw fairies as a child, and has recently opened her own fairy garden shop. She has a resident fairy names Fiona, who is very much an active character in the story. I especially enjoyed that certain adults (who truly believe) can see and interact with the fairies. Animals and some children can see them as well.

It is important to note that, while Fiona and other fairies have special gifts and powers, they do NOT sweep in and magically solve the entire mystery. Instead, they help by observing and providing useful information. Courtney is left to her own devices to utilize this information as she tries to unravel what really happened to the victim.

There are plenty of characters and suspects, but a handy “who’s who” guide is provided at the start of the book. My advice is to NOT read over it upfront….instead, refer back to it if you come across a character you don’t remember. The list looks overwhelming if you tackle it first….I found that by meeting the characters as they appeared in the story, I had no trouble keeping everyone straight.

On the subject of characters, Courtney is a great one! She is realistic, with real-life strengths, relationships, and problems. Her open heart and faith (which allows her to see fairies) make her even more likeable. I also enjoyed meeting her father, friends, and frenemies, and look forward to seeing these relationship evolve over the course of the series. (I’d especially love to see Courtney’s dad have a bigger role next time around.)

The mystery itself was ideal, with plenty of possible suspects and motives to keep things interesting, but never so many that things became confusing. In the end, I was satisfied with who the guilty party was, and with the motive. Everything made sense, and the savvy reader could have figured it out with the clues provided, but not too early in the story.

I’ll conclude that I loved the addition of the fairy aspect, and am eager to learn more about the fairy world and fairy gardens in Courtney’s next adventure!

Five out of five perfect slices of provolone!

Book Review: Still Knife Painting by Cheryl Hollon

“Still Knife Painting” by Cheryl Hollon is the first book in a new series, and it does not disappoint! First, the story is set in beautiful, mountainous Kentucky. The heroine, Miranda, has moved into her late uncle’s home, which she has just inherited. An artist by trade, she starts a new business involving a scenic hike, an outdoor painting class at a striking overview, and a traditional southern meal combined with moonshine cocktail pairings.

I loved all the descriptions of the area, as well as the details about how to paint a landscape provided as Miranda taught her classes. A local ranger stops by during each class to share information about the area and answer questions; I learned a lot from that as well. Another thing I learned about was MOOONSHINE COCKTAILS! Growing up in an area with a plentiful supply of the beverage, I had never realized all the different things that could be done with it cocktail-wise. Recipes are included, and I’ll definitely be trying some as soon as possible. (Southern food recipes are included as well.)

Miranda as a character is a bit unique within the cozy genre. She is a bit of an introvert, and knows this about herself. I enjoyed watching her try to overcome this as she ran her business and investigated the murder. Unlike most cozy heroines, she’s not always nice, either. She often snaps at people, or says things that are rude or inappropriate. Sometimes she is aware of this, sometimes not. She’s a nice person overall, but I like the fact that she’s not perfect and has areas of her personality to improve on as the series moves forward. These flaws make her seem more like a real person.

I also appreciated the well-written mystery storyline. There are plenty of suspects, between the locals and the tourists who attend Miranda’s “Paint and Shine” tours. It was interesting to observe Miranda trying to learn more about everyone to help solve the mystery. I liked the way she used her artistic talent and highly-observant nature to help in her investigation.

Another unique aspect of this book is the rivalry between the local sheriff and his department vs. the “big city” law enforcement contingent from Lexington. I hope the issues between the two lead police characters are given even more attention in upcoming books. Unusual in a cozy, we also get to see part of the story from the point of view of law enforcement, making the police officers into real characters, not just caricatures. I enjoyed this perspective, and hope this feature continues going forward.

I must also mention Miranda’s adorable rescue puppy Sandy. The puppy antics are lots of fun, and I liked that Miranda actually thinks about what’s best for Sandy when she heads out for various reasons.

All in all, five out of five yummy slices of provolone!

Book Review: Why Doctors Skip Breakfast by Dr. Gregory Charlop

“Why Doctors Skip Breakfast” is a well-researched book full of interesting information. The author is obviously very familiar with his subject matter, and highly qualified to discuss it.

The book is written in easy-to-read, everyday language. The necessary medical terms are defined in a special section for quick reference. I found the verbiage very straightforward and was able to understand everything without having any sort of medical background.

The anti-aging information offered by this book all makes sense, and I think it would work for anyone who was able to follow a good percentage of the tips. The big issue is that, due to the cost of many of the supplements, treatments, and ideas, doing all of these things will likely be out of the price range of many people. While I enjoyed learning about what causes aging, and what can limit the effects of it, I was disappointed to find relatively few tips that were both practical and affordable.

“Why Doctors Skip Breakfast” is a well-researched book full of interesting information. The author is obviously very familiar with his subject matter, and highly qualified to discuss it.

The book is written in easy-to-read, everyday language. The necessary medical terms are defined in a special section for quick reference. I found the verbiage very straightforward and was able to understand everything without having any sort of medical background.

The anti-aging information offered by this book all makes sense, and I think it would work for anyone who was able to follow a good percentage of the tips. The big issue is that, due to the cost of many of the supplements, treatments, and ideas, doing all of these things will likely be out of the price range of many people. While I enjoyed learning about what causes aging, and what can limit the effects of it, I was disappointed to find relatively few tips that were both practical and affordable.

That being said, I did find a few take-away suggestions that I am implementing. Hopefully they’ll have some benefit even if I’m not able to do everything in the book.

Book Review: Stories That Bind Us by Susie Finkbeiner

“Stories That Bind Us” by Susie Finkbeiner is one of those rare, special books that truly made me happy. To clarify, I enjoy reading almost any book; that was also the case with this one. What I mean is that, during and after reading it, I was left with a sense of personal happiness…a sense of abiding joy. This is truly a special book, and I recommend it very highly.

Main character Betty Sweet is a genuinely good person. She cares about others, is loyal to her family, and always does whatever she can to help in any given situation. The story focuses on her relationships with her family, both past and present. Through this, the reader is treated to an in-depth study of her character.

The story itself comes through in three main components. First, we have the present day, in which Betty is coping with the death of her husband, the surprise arrival of her estranged sister and her son, and the opening of a chain competitor to her family’s business. Second, we have Betty’s memories of the past, through which we learn more about her, her complicated relationships with her parents and sister, how she met her husband, and how her relationships with his family members evolved over time. Third, we have Betty’s stories. These are a mix of stories she remembers from her own childhood and new ones she makes up. All are told to her young nephew as she tries to help him cope with his mother’s illness and feel comfortable in his new life.

This book deals with some serious issues: death of a spouse, death of a parent, mental illness, and racism. Despite these heavy topics, the story still feels uplifting; I never felt overwhelmed by the difficult subjects, but instead found inspiration from the way Betty dealt with them.

Overall, this book is a wonderful slice-of-life and character study. Nothing monumentally exciting happens to the characters, but I still eagerly anticipated each new small development in their lives. I wanted to learn what happened next just as much as if I’d been reading a best-selling thriller.

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about “Stories That Bind Us”. Read it, enjoy it, and give some thought to the stories of your own life, and how they bind you to the people around you.

Five out of five chunks of creamy mild cheddar!

Book Review: The Matinee Murders by Jeannette de Beauvoir

I have to start this review by saying that this is one of my favorite cozy mystery series. I don’t say that for every book, in every review, either. I have three favorite series, and this is one of them.

A huge part of what makes this series so great is main character Sydney Riley. She has an interesting job as an event planner at a local inn, and also manages to get herself involved in solving crimes on a regular basis. But the best part about Sydney is that she is HILARIOUS! While she usually manages to remain professional and appropriate with others, her snarky inner dialog is funny enough to make me laugh out loud. Sydney is not your typical sweet, soft-spoken cozy heroine, politely looking for clues. She dives into everything head first, and will make you laugh along with her.

Another fabulous aspect of this book is the underlying theme of diversity and inclusiveness. This particular book featured a wedding with two grooms (one of them VERY famous), and as Sydney (and the reader) get to know the less-famous man and learn his story, he becomes a compelling character in his own right. Important to note: the diversity themes NEVER come across as preachy or heavy-handed. The book just happens to be set in a place that embraces everyone, and I love reading about it.

The mystery itself was intriguing. I had several theories along the way, including one I was very happy to be wrong about, as I really liked the character I suspected. I enjoyed unraveling the many clues (and being side-tracked by red herrings) along with Sydney. I figured out the actual solution about the same time she did, which means right at the end. Of course, everything was explained and made perfect sense at that point.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Sydney’s friend Mirela. If you’re a returning reader, you’ll be surprised with some of the developments with her. To avoid spoilers, let’s just say that I’m looking forward to the next book every bit as much to see what the future looks like for Mirela as to find out what happens in Sydney’s life. I think the two of them will have quite the time going forward! (If you’re new to the series, you’ll quickly find a new literary friend in Mirela, I promise.)

Five out of five giants chunks of yummy Pepper Jack cheese!

Book Review: Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish by Bethany Turner

I was initially drawn to this book by its premise: two famous chefs, competing against each other and trying to form a personal connection. I fell in love with this book because of the amazing writing and fabulous plot.

First, both main characters were wonderful. Hadley (the Southern belle of the kitchen) and Max (the playboy gourmet) were both very well thought-out. Their personalities were detailed and very realistic. I especially appreciated they way the two thought about (and discussed) the differences between their on-screen personas and who they really were. Max, in particular, underwent some significant changes during the story, and this was handled slowly, beautifully, and in a way that seemed very honest and organic.

Several secondary characters were interesting in their own right, especially Twila, Stuart, and Leo. It would be fascinating to read a backstory book about Twila’s past in particular!

The backdrop/setting of the story added a lot to the book for me. Both Hadley and Max had their own nationally-televised cooking shows, and readers got a nice glimpse of what it was like filming Hadley’s show. The two also competed on a competitive cooking show, which was shown briefly. Readers got an even more in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes process of another show the two appeared on together. I enjoyed learning more about how a reality show is made, and watching how the main characters dealt with some of the issues that arose during the process.

What really made this book stand out for me was the slowly evolving relationship between Max and Hadley. I’m not generally a fan of the “enemies-to-lovers” trope, but it really worked here. This was primarily because Max WANTED to change from the beginning, and Hadley was open enough to let that happen. The author does an amazing job with the dialog, allowing the reader to actually observe the things that bring the two closer. This is one of the few romances I’ve read in which I actually believed that the relationship had a long-term chance after I finished the last page.

Kudos to Bethany Turner for writing one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time! You have a new fan, and I’ll definitely be seeking out more of your work!

Five out of five yummy morsels of pepper-jack!

Book Review: The Arlington Orders by Elliot Mason

“The Arlington Orders” is the perfect mix of a plot-driven thriller and a character-driven literary novel. There’s a lot going on in this book, and all of it is interesting. The modern-day quest to find the lost Confederate treasury is interspersed with the Civil War storyline, which is accompanied by some fictional (but very realistic) primary sources. I enjoyed both aspects….following the clues along with main characters Des and Madison, and reliving history with the older storyline. Once Des and Madison accidentally stumble upon the first clue, they are 100% committed to solving the mystery, and throw themselves into it with abandon and enthusiasm. There is enough excitement, danger, and suspense to keep any mystery or thriller fan happy.

In addition, the characters were exceptionally well written. Often in this type of story, the major characters are little more than caricatures; pretty much anyone could be dropped into the roles, as the plot is the most important thing. In this book, the characters are equally important. It is obvious that the author thought about each of them a great deal, and provides enough back story for each that the reader can really understand why they are unique and what motivates them. As Des and Madison interact during their mission, the reader also gets to observe the character development of both. William 2.0 is also interesting, as his motives aren’t the same as what you’d typically expect for a character in his role. I enjoyed his misgivings about his partner, and appreciated his dedication to his goal and his internal monologue throughout.

I must also mention that the locations were amazing! I live in the general area of many of the book’s events, and am familiar with most of the locations…I’ve even been to quite a few. I appreciated the attention to detail included…the places are described well enough to ring true to a “local”, and to be very clear for a reader less familiar with the area.

All in all, an exceptionally well-written novel. I look forward to following Des and Madison on their next escapade!

Five out of five perfect, thin slices of provolone!

Book Review: The Operator by Gretchen Berg

“The Operator” by Gretchen Berg tells the story of Vivian, a switchboard operator in 1950s Ohio. I found Vivian to be an engaging and likeable character. Yes, she is a born eavesdropper and snoop. But she is also a resilient, focused, loving, capable woman, albeit one with a few flaws. I loved learning more about small-town life in the 50s, and about what it was like to work for a switchboard company in the days before private lines and cell phones.

The story itself was a good one. Vivian overhears something while eavesdropping, and has to try to figure out what is really going on. The story is made more engaging by the fact that the reader doesn’t know exactly what Vivian heard for quite some time, and is trying to solve the mystery right along with Vivian.

The book also shines through the depiction of the characters. In addition to Vivian, several minor characters were very intriguing. My favorites were Charlotte, Flora, and (in a love-to-hate way), Betty. In fact, I’d love to read more about the town of Wooster to see how the other characters’ stories play out.

I loved the way a couple of seemingly unconnected events and storylines played into the overall plot. The author has a true talent for making a small town come to life in a very realistic way, and I look forward to reading more from Ms. Berg. Bravo to this first-time author!

Five out of five yummy bites of Gouda!