Hidden Secrets (review)

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Hidden Secrets (A Green Dory Inn Mystery, #2)Hidden Secrets by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With batches of fragrant muffins and mugs of herbal tea, served up in an idyllic seaside setting, Janet Sketchley lures us into discovering the deadly secrets of the Green Dory Inn. Hidden Secrets is Book 2 in the Green Dory Inn Mystery series.

Thoroughly modern, with cell phones and drones, there are also elements of old sea tales with rogue ships and rum-runners in this cozy mystery. The Christian faith of the two main characters, Landon and Anna, adds value and heft to this hard-to-put-down read.

The believably imperfect characters (many of whom we met in Unknown Enemy, Book One of the series) remind me of the characters in Jan Karon’s Father Tim books. But the main player here is a 24-year-old college student, Landon, whose secretive personal past adds complications to the fast-moving plot. Sketchley has included a character list at the beginning of the book to help us keep straight the cast of characters and their relationships to each other. Though it works nicely as a standalone, reading Book One of the series would help you feel like you’re reconnecting with these folks.

Sketchley’s descriptive, yet tight writing and savvy plot combined to make me wish the book was longer. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am happy to hear that Sketchley is beginning work on Book 3.

I received Hidden Secrets as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Sidetracked (review)

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SidetrackedSidetracked by Brandilyn Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Driving home from Clara’s shower after everyone else has left, 34-year-old Delanie spots a suspicious-looking character in a dark hoodie, and then a body lying on the sidewalk. Right from the first chapter of Brandilyn Collins’ Sidetracked, we’re alerted as to what kind of story this will be:

“The chill inside me crackled to ice. For the longest moment I could only stare at the object. How frighteningly familiar it looked. A silent scream wracked my head. No, no no!

But deep within I knew. Death had followed me.” – Kindle Location 194.

Collins tells the tale of this murder mystery in two ways—Delanie’s 2014 segments are in first person. The 1995 and on flashbacks—Laura Denton’s story—are in third person. The switch between present and past are clearly indicated in the chapter headings. Those headings plus the change in point of view make it easy for us to keep track of where we are. They also add information at just the right time, helping to build suspense. Will history repeat itself?

Collins knows how to push all the right buttons. As I read, I felt outrage over what was happening to Laura and Delanie, frustration with the police investigation, sympathy toward our heroines, and a sense of hopelessness as the injustices pile up. The story certainly delivered on its promise of suspense. I was on tenterhooks through this entire thing.

Faith / lack of faith in God when He doesn’t turn things around in the face of blatant injustice is one of the understandable struggles Delanie works through. Her past has made her super sensitive to anyone being wrongfully accused, and so the search for truth (in this case about who killed Clara) is another theme that runs through the book.

Aside from a couple of crime scenes, the book is safe in the violence and gratuitous sex department (though Delanie’s relationship with Andy together with the way his parents view her make for an interesting subplot).

Great writing and a compelling plot make this a book I’d recommend to all lovers of Christian suspense.

This book is part of my own Kindle collection.

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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).

Pregnant Bethany’s life 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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Appalachian Serenade (review)

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Appalachian Serenade (Appalachian Blessings, #.5)Appalachian Serenade by Sarah Loudin Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When 33-year-old widow Delilah Morrissey comes back home to Wise, West Virginia to live with her sister Charlotte, husband Ed and daughter Perla, she’s not the happiest person. Her husband of 14 years has recently died but his disastrous handling of their money has left her penniless. She had a good job in Chicago but it’s 1945, the war has recently ended, and her job has been given to a returning soldier. When she overhears Ed grousing to Charlotte about her being an imposition, she determines to help out in any way she can.

Robert Thornton, upper-30s bachelor, owns the general store in Wise. He loves chatting with his customers but his garrulous manner doesn’t make for efficiency when it comes to serving people quickly and he can’t seem to keep good help. Pretty Delilah catches his eye when she makes her first trip into town. She aids a fellow female customer and her intuitive advice has Robert daydreaming about how great her presence would be for business.

A donkey-drawn pony cart, lots of misunderstandings between these middle-aged singles, plus the reappearance of Robert’s old flame, newly separated but now with four kids in tow, add spice and humor to this historical romance novella.

Delilah and Bob’s decisions are molded by their faith and their romance is thoroughly chaste (in other words, no hot-and-heavy love scenes).

Appalachian Serenade by Sarah Loudin Thomas is a prequel to her first full-length book, Miracle in a Dry Season, which picks up the story of Delilah’s niece Perla in 1954. As of this writing, Appalachian Serenade is a free Kindle download at Amazon.com. (It also contains the first few chapters of Miracle in a Dry Land, Book 1 in the Appalachian Blessings series, which I actually enjoyed more than Appalachian Serenade. Miracle in a Dry Season is scheduled to release in early August 2014.)

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Life Behind the Wall (review)

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Life Behind the Wall - Robert ElmerLife Behind the Wall: Candy Bombers, Beetle Bunker, and Smuggler’s Treasure by Robert Elmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life Behind the Wall is a collection of three novella-length stories for the YA crowd. Each is set in part of Berlin in a different time period between 1948 and 1989.

Book One, Candy Bomber, begins in the summer of 1948. Erich Becker, a 13-year-old Berlin resident, hates the Americans whose bombs wrecked his city and killed his father. He regularly prowls Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, sneaking into U.S. cargo planes in search of food for his hungry mother and grandmother. He meets U.S. soldier DeWitt who is a journalist, befriends Erich, and writes a story about the hungry children of Berlin. He comes around to Erich’s house with bags of treats like canned peaches and takes Erich and his cousin Katarina up in his plane to do some candy drops over Berlin neighborhoods.

Soon it becomes clear that DeWitt’s interest is in more than Erich. He wants to marry Erich’s mother and move the family to the States. Will Erich be able to forgive the Americans for what he holds against them?

Book Two, Beetle Bunker, begins in 1961. Its main character, 13-year-old Sabine, is a polio survivor who hobbles around on crutches. She lives with her mother, grandmother (Oma Poldi Becker), older brother Erich (from book one), Onkel Heinz, and Tante Gertrud in Oma’s crowded flat in East Berlin.

In this book we see the Berlin wall erected and are part of a daring tunneling attempt to escape from the East to West sectors of the city.

Book Three, Smuggler’s Treasure, begins in 1989. Liesl, the 13-year-old daughter of Sabine and Willi (from book two), lives in West Berlin. She tries to act cool the day she and mother are stopped at the checkpoint and thoroughly questioned on their way to visit Uncle Erich who still lives in the Communist side of the city. Mother and Uncle Erich are most upset when they find she has stuffed her stockings and clothes with slim Bibles. She gets into more trouble when she digs into the family history while researching for a school project and still more when she joins some older kids in a protest at the wall.

This part of the story sees the Berlin Wall come down and also reveals the mysteries surrounding Sabine’s father (Liesl’s grandfather).

These stories offer a great experience of another time in history. They show firsthand the poverty, bravery, resilience, and resourcefulness of the people of East and West Berlin during the Cold War era. They are also an example of how the divided city affected families.

The setting seems realistic with its atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. Characters must be careful not to be seen with the wrong people or overheard saying the wrong things because they don’t know who to trust and who might be snitching on them to the authorities. Chapter numbers in German and lots of other German words and expressions sprinkled throughout also give a feeling of authenticity to these stories.

None of the main character kids in these books are content to sit around. The stories are fast-paced and filled with adventure and danger. The age of each of the heroes (13) tells us that these books will appeal to tweens and early teens.

The end of Book One has a “How It Really Happened” section that explains which events in that story actually happened. All the books conclude with a set of “Questions for Further Study” designed to deepen and broaden the reading experience for individuals or groups.

As well as giving YA readers three interesting and fun stories, this book would be excellent supplementary reading for home schoolers and Christian school classes doing a study of the Cold War period (all three books are written from a Christian point-of-view).

I received Life Behind The Wall as a gift from the publisher (Zondervan-Zonderkidz) for the purpose of writing a review.

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