Sweetened With Honey (review)

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Sweetened with Honey (Farm Fresh Romance 3)Sweetened with Honey by Valerie Comer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sierra Riehl is the last of the threesome that established Green Acres still single. In Sweetened with Honey—the third in Valerie Comer’s Farm Fresh Romance Series—Gabe Rubachuk re-enters the picture. Gabe, with his wife Bethany, started Nature’s Pantry, an organic food store in the fictional Galena Landing in Book One (Raspberries and Vinegar).

Gabe’s life with pregnant Bethany came to a tragic end when she was killed in a collision with a truck on her way home from work one night. Devastated Gabe has spent the last three years in Rumania, working in an orphanage with his parents.

He appears in Chapter 1 just as Sierra is about to administer to Doreen (Bethany’s mother who has been in charge of Nature’s Pantry) a bee sting to help with her arthritis pain. His over-the-top emotional reaction to what he believes will harm her shows us how emotionally fragile he still is.

However, the weeks of his adjustment back to life in Galena Landing has him spending lots of time with the Green Acres crowd and softens him to the beautiful Sierra. For her part, she is conflicted—attracted to Gabe but also romantically involved with a local commercial beekeeper whose inflated ego and money-oriented business practices rub the Green Acres crowd the wrong way, so lots of delicious conflict there.

Again in Sweetened With Honey we experience the camaraderie of the farm—Jo and Zach (Raspberries and Vinegar), Claire and Noel (Wild Mint Tea), along with Jo and Zach’s toddler, his elderly parents, and Doreen are all around the table for communal meals on more than just special occasions.

Comer continues fleshing out in her characters and story line the principles of ecologically sustainable farming that fuel her stories, as well as the importance of a relationship with God. This book also deals with themes of forgiveness and honesty in relationships.

I found Sweetened With Honey a sweet and satisfying read. I’m delighted to discover it has made the shortlist in the Romance Category of the 2015 Word Awards. Congratulations, Valerie!

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Wild Mint Tea (review)

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Wild Mint Tea (A Farm Fresh Romance, #2)Wild Mint Tea by Valerie Comer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claire Halford would dearly love to get the job cooking for the tree-planting crew of Enterprising Reforestation. It would mean that she could quit her short-order job at the Sizzling Skillet, Galena Landing’s main eatery. But good-looking boss Noel Kenzie doesn’t fall for her farm-to-table, cook-what’s-local-and-in-season ethic, though he can’t help but realize he could fall for this perky city girl-cum-farmer in Wild Mint Tea, Book 2 of Valerie Comer’s Farm Fresh Romance Series.

In the story we follow Claire and her Green Acres partners Jo and Sierra through a summer of trying to get their place established as an event destination, while Claire juggles her job and what soon blooms into a romance between her and Noel.

I enjoyed the story with its recognizable, likeable characters and community spirit. Comer never strays from her two favorite themes of living lightly and considerately on the earth and the necessity of orienting one’s life by the true north of a biblically based faith.

My only quibble with the book is in its portrayal of romance, where Claire and Noel’s emotional intimacy—seen in shared values and friendship—pales compared to the physical electricity between them. I wished she had shown, in their relationship, more of the glue that keeps people together over the long haul. However, Comer is no slouch at writing romance, so the book certainly delivers in that department.

As a whole the writing is lively, with a taut plot that only gets stronger as we get to the ending. It’s a great continuation of life at Green Acres.

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Other Side of the River (review)

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other side of the riverOther Side of the River by Janice L. Dick.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens have been sweethearts for almost as long as they can remember. Luise expects they will marry soon. But the spring of 1926 is not a time life goes along according to expectation for the lovers or anyone else in the Mennonite village of Alexandrovka, part of the Slovgorod Colony in Western Siberia.

As the Soviet officials begin to interfere increasingly in the life of the enterprising farmers and craftspeople, demanding ever more tax and confiscating machinery and livestock, many villagers decide it’s time to leave. While some are allowed to emigrate to America, Luise’s chronically ill stepmother fails to pass her medical exam. So the family ends up planning to join others on a long train ride east. There is farmland and they have official permits to settle near the border of China on the banks of the Amur River.

Meanwhile a winter of hard work up north for Daniel separates the lovers. He returns shortly before her family is set to leave and Luise makes peace with the fact that she will be apart from her family when she and Daniel settle as newlyweds in the farmhouse Daniel has been building.

Of course, that doesn’t work out quite as planned either in Janice L. Dick’s Mennonite historical Other Side of the River. It’s a story through which we experience the day to day life of these God-fearing, peace-loving and industrious people during a time in Russian history when expressions of faith were not allowed, personal initiative was frowned on, and even speaking German could be cause for arrest.

Lovable and hated characters populate the pages with Luise’s great-aunt Tante Manya taking the prize as my favourite, Senior Major Leonard Dubrowsky and Ivan Mironenko tied for the ones I most disliked and feared. The way Dick portrays the everyday circumstances, struggles, and growth of main characters is realistic and kept me right there, experiencing their challenges with them.

The period and setting are depicted in satisfying detail. I loved all the homey touches—the roasted zwieback and other home baking, the Germanisms like “Nah jah,” and Luise’s and Daniel’s close-knit, intergenerational families.

The story, though lengthy, had enough twists and turns that it rarely sagged. The only time it felt a bit draggy was very near the end, but then it picked up again to the harrowing finish.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book—both the day-to-day life of its characters and the big story aspect of it—for I too am descended from them, a Mennonite, not from those that stayed in Russia, but from forbears that emigrated to North America before Communism and the era of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the faith of these people through testing was an inspiration. This book left me with a great appreciation of the fire-proved faith of my ancestors.

Apparently Dick is working on a sequel (according to this Blog Talk Radio interview). I hope so. I’ll definitely pick it up when it comes out!

Read Chapter One of Other Side of the River.

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Pray, Write, Grow – review

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Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing TogetherPray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together by Ed Cyzewski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each year I choose a word or phrase as a focus for the twelve months ahead. My word for 2015 is “pray.” So when I saw the title of Ed Cyzewski’s latest book, I knew I wanted it.

Cyzewski’s premise is that prayer and writing are similar in many ways. In the first six chapters he shows how they both:
– Require space in our lives. We may need to jettison something else to fit them in.

“I’ve found it immensely helpful to set timers for both prayer and writing” – Ed Cyzewski, Pray, Write, Grow, Kindle Location 283.

– Benefit from our undivided attention.

“Our prayer and writing will be most effective when we tune in to both ourselves and other people” – K.L. 370.

– Help us find healing from painful experiences and aid us in helping others.

“We don’t just heal by articulating past pain when we pray. We can also heal by writing about our pain, our fears, and our struggles. As my prayer and writing work together, I have often transitioned from prayer to writing as I’ve faced the anxiety of my past” – K.L.

– Have a physical component and grow stronger through exercise and a regimen.

“… this whole book is all about simple steps we can take to improve our spiritual, physical, and mental states as we seek to pray and write” – K.L. 740.

– Guide us toward our life’s purpose.

“If we want to share something meaningful and healing with others, we have to spend time up on the mountain” – K.L. 894.

– Need a great deal of faith.

“Living by faith shouldn’t feel safe. It should feel a bit wild and reckless” – K.L.922.

The seventh chapter is lists of prompts, resources, and links under the headings “Writing Quick Start” and “Prayer Quick Start.”

Cyzewski’s voice is encouraging. When he gives advice and suggestions he does it with a subtle, not commanding tone. He shares transparently about how prayer gave him insight into the childhood roots of his fear and anger. He tells about his struggles with worry when he quit his job to freelance full time. The awareness he gains through prayer and journaling opens his eyes to his passions, which then become his writing topics.

My two top takeaways from this book are:
1. An introduction to the Examen prayer practice (developed by Ignatius Loyola) that Cyzewski uses, explains, and recommends. His experience of how this daily discipline fosters spiritual intimacy with Christ in him whets the reader’s appetite to try it for him/herself.
2. The picture Cyzewski paints of an integrated writing life. In it prayer and writing intertwine to braid a trellis that aids growth in both areas.

I think this would be a great book for Christians writing in any genre to read.

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe (review)

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds CafeMiracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe by Max Lucado

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Chelsea Chambers discovers that her NFL husband Sawyer has been cheating on her, inheriting the family café and coffee shop in San Antonia is the perfect out. She, with 12-year-old Hancock and six-year-old Emily move into the upper floor of the Victorian house above the Higher Grounds Café, determined to put new life into the family’s 40+-year-old establishment.

But just after she opens, a letter from the IRS arrives demanding back taxes. When she contacts Sawyer about releasing funds for this, she discovers he has spent all her nest egg on his own money problems. Is her dream of running her own business doomed before it ever gets underway?

Chelsea’s dilemma alerts heaven’s minions and soon Samuel, her clumsy but loveable guardian angel is up to his neck in her daily affairs.

Fantasy intersects reality in Max Lucado’s novel Miracle at the Higher Grounds Café—a book that addresses issues of family, prayer, forgiveness and second chances. It’s an easy read and Lucado’s signature deftness with words makes it a fun read as well:

“ ‘ Who’s that?’ said the young magician who had turned his smartphone into an IMAX screen. The image stretched as far as the east is from the west: Sawyer Chambers in the arms of another woman. A redheaded beauty. A triple threat—younger, thinner, and prettier” – Kindle Location 289.

Discussion questions at the end help us hone in on the timeless truths this story delivers with subtlety and grace. Readers of all ages will enjoy this inspirational, ends-well tale.

I received Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Miracle on Voodoo Mountain (review)

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Miracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman's Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of HaitiMiracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman’s Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of Haiti by Megan Boudreaux

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a few mission trips to Haiti, 24-year-old Megan Boudreaux was happily settled in her marketing job for a hospital in Louisiana. Then she began having unsettling dreams. Always they featured the tamarind tree that sat on top of Bellevue Mountain near Gressier, Haiti.

Several months later, with these dreams continuing, Megan began to wonder if there was a message in them. She mentioned them to her boss and his response: “If you think God is calling you to Haiti, you absolutely need to go,” set her on a path she had never imagined or designed for herself.

Miracle on Voodoo Mountain is the story of Megan’s move to Haiti and takes us from 2011 and the humble beginnings of a feeding program, to the present Respire Haiti—a school, medical clinic, café, and various community and sports outreaches that have touched the lives of hundreds. She has also started her own family by adopting several youngsters and in January 2013 she married Josh Anderson. A section of photographs brings the characters and events in this book to life.

Boudreaux’s is an amazing tale of danger (in which she does things like report a corrupt orphanage operation and confront voodoo priests), miracles (she begins speaking the language with no history of learning it), compassion (she tirelessly advocates for Haitian children, especially the restaveks—child slaves), and hard hard work.

Megan’s story impressed on me the importance and power of prayer and the incredible things that God can do through people who are implicitly obedient to Him. This is a faith-building story, full of compassion and hope. I’d highly recommend it to readers of all ages.

I received Miracle on Voodoo Mountain as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Scary Close (review)

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Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Acquiring a Taste for True IntimacyScary Close: Dropping the Act and Acquiring a Taste for True Intimacy by Donald Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“These are snapshots of the year I spent learning to perform less, be myself more, and overcome a complicated fear of being known,” writes Donald Miller in the first chapter of Scary Close, his latest memoir (Kindle Location 173).

The learning includes listening to the input of trusted friends and counselors, making mistakes that almost cost him his relationship with Betsy, giving up control, finding compromises, and finally understanding and embracing the new relationship paradigm he is entering: “Applause is a quick fix. And love is an acquired taste” (K.L. 118).

The journey is easy to take, delivered as it is in Miller’s personable voice. Some of his stories are funny, some poignant, some instructive, some inspirational, and a couple even made me squirm in embarrassment. For this sometimes-bumbling man is nothing if not transparent.

Though God doesn’t play an out-front role in Miller’s story, He is there in its presuppositions and moral underpinnings. The one significant God-lesson that stuck with me Miller relates near the end of the book where he writes about how his whole life has been a search to fill a hole of longing and loneliness inside. When Jesus didn’t fill that hole early in his Christian life, Miller says he nearly abandoned his faith. But now, through reading the Bible he realizes that the incompleteness he is feeling will never be satisfied on earth—not even by the most compatible partner. He says:

“What differentiates true Christianity from the pulp many people buy into is that Jesus never offers that completion here on earth. He only asks us to trust him and follow him to the metaphorical wedding we will experience in heaven” (K.L.2281).

However, he sees his marriage as key in helping him endure that longing. Instead of expecting the lover to fill that hole: “… we will comfort each other in the longing and even love it for what it is, a promise that God will someday fulfill us” (K.L.2299).

I would recommend Scary Close to anyone who loves a good memoir—but especially to singles who have had many relationships but still never found the one. The man who says he was “… rescued from my fear and insecurity that made me so frighteningly poor at relationships, rescued from isolation and from fairy-tale illusions about what love really is” (K.L.2397) might just have some clues for you.

I received Scary Close as a gift from the publisher for writing a review.

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