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"Restoring Christmas" by Cynthia Ruchti

Christmas can't be relaxing when you're trying to ratchet your career up to the next level. Interior designer Alexis Blake is competing for her own show on the Home Project Network, and the last step is a Christmas-themed home renovation. If she can beat out the other two finalists she'll achieve her dream. She knows things won't be easy, but she arrives on location near Door County, Wisconsin, to find that the homeowner doesn't want to cooperate and her videographer has sustained an injury that will sideline him from the project. This is not a promising start.

Elsie has lived many years in the fieldstone home which her father built. She's not happy that her neighbor submitted her house for the Restoring Christmas project, and she's very set on having her say in making sure Alexis doesn't change too much. She's also prone to taking mysterious trips and will shut down any conversation that broaches the subject of family. She begins to regret her begrudging consent to allow Alexis and the crew into her personal space.

While respected videographer George Langley can't be a part of the special, he insists his son Gabe is more than capable of stepping in. Alexis isn't convinced, but Gabe is larger than life with his optimism and generosity. As he sweeps away her objections and finds unusual solutions to plaguing problems, Alexis agrees to let him in on the project, but can't help wondering what's behind all the charm and personality.

While Elsie's house is under construction, so are the hearts of all those working on it. Gabe is dealing with his first Christmas since his mother's death. Alexis feels the stress and pressure of meeting deadlines and having everything turn out the picture-perfect way she's envisioned it - while meeting resistance from Elsie at every turn. Elsie's shrouded past and sensitivity to change keeps everyone guessing and on edge as to what she'll object to next.

In a story about the true meaning of Christmas and learning to listen to one another, Cynthia Ruchti has crafted a heartwarming novella that will leave you sighing with contentment. I'd highly recommend this for all readers, and especially if you enjoy shows like Fixer Upper. This story introduced me to the song Still, Still, Still, which I have a feeling will be a regular feature on my holiday playlist this year. Are you ready to have your own heart examined before we reach the height of this busy season? Check out "Restoring Christmas" and let the message soak into your spirit.

Thank you to the author for my copy of the novella. All opinions in this review are my own.

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"Newton and Polly" by Jody Hedlund

John Newton is best known as the man who penned the lyrics of the classic hymn "Amazing Grace." In her new release, Jody Hedlund offers a look into Newton's eighteenth century life, and the story behind the woman who inspired him through many tumultuous years.

Still a teenager when he met steady and sensible Polly Catlett, Newton fell head over heels in love with her. Though he was scheduled to leave and take up a job for his father's friend in Jamaica, he overstayed and missed his boat's departure by several weeks, causing him to eventually find other employment as a sailor. This wasn't the only time the rather irresponsible Newton missed out on work because of a desire to stay close to Polly. He really believed that with his charm he could recover from any setback and in time become a man worthy of Polly's hand.

Polly struggles with trying to be "good enough" to earn God's favor through a pious life and charitable actions. While she can admit that John's attentions turn her head, she doesn't think he would make a proper husband and provider. Her goals to further her education and find a suitable husband are somewhat in jeopardy by her father's resistance to the local smuggling ring and her cousin's abolitionist antics.

When Newton finds himself press-ganged into the navy, his lack of personal diligence soon puts him at odds with his captain and shipmates. Through whippings and storms and time spent in Africa, God is yet calling John to Himself. It is the remembrance of beautiful and pure Polly which helps Newton not completely give up on life, and eventually return to England as a changed man to try to convince her to marry him.

I was impressed with the restraint Jody Hedlund showed with this novel. The romance was gentle and not over the top. While by necessity she had to discuss and describe things relating to Britain's slave trade, it was not glorified in any way and kept to a minimum. As usual, the author did a wonderful job keeping things historically accurate. If you'd like more information about this novel, please click here.

Thank you to the publisher for my copy of the book. All opinions in this review are my own.

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"Keep Holding On" by Melissa Tagg

I really like Melissa Tagg, both as an author and a person. We've yet to meet face to face, but she just seems like one of my people. Her newest release, the third book in the Walker Family series, has been on my radar since the second one came out April. It was great to revisit the fictional Iowa town of Maple Valley, and the storyline did not disappoint.

Beckett Walker has stayed away from home for six years, and his first trip back is unceremoniously interrupted when he is almost immediately arrested for a warrant issued long ago over a youthful indiscretion. That is hardly the way he wanted to face his family and friends after such a lengthy absence! He's returned home to try to clear up this mess and get things lined up for joining the JAG Corps, but now everything is more complicated than ever. Sentenced to a significant amount of community service, Beckett has no recourse but to make Maple Valley home for the next couple months.

Also on her first trip back home is horticulturalist Kit Danby, who made a life for herself in England after she left her Maple Valley groom at the altar six years ago. But there's a longing in Kit's heart that prompts her to make her flight to Iowa a one-way trip, and when she sees her grandparents' orchard, the place where she was raised, so abandoned and neglected, she wonders if this is where her heart is supposed to be. The orchard is still in her family, and her absentee and nearly estranged father agrees to let Kit try to revive it, on the condition that she turn a profit her very first season.

Once childhood best friends, Beckett and Kit get to know each other again when he is able to arrange to serve his community service at her orchard. The pull of her heart to make this orchard work is just as strong as the pull of Beckett's heart to find adventure and fulfillment in his new career with the military. Even as they feel the draw of attraction which they never explored as kids, they brace themselves for the parting they know is coming.

While Melissa has explored plenty of deep emotions in her previous books, this one felt a little different for me. There was a maturity in the writing which set this story apart. Beckett's pain of always feeling on the outskirts made him a truly compelling protagonist, his emotions written in such a way that you truly understood the choices he made. He seems to be cursed with constantly missing big moments, and not knowing how to handle that grief keeps driving him away from the people he loves. Watching the beginning of Beckett's healing left me full of wonder and hope. There were some ways that I really related to Kit as well, nearly choking up with the ways God spoke to her heart because they were so familiar to me, echoing ways that God has spoken to mine.

The orchard setting makes this perfect autumn reading. As Beckett and Kit fight for the orchard and fight for a home for each of their hearts, you'll be drawn in to the wonderful place that is Maple Valley and its colorful cast of characters - and also to the love of God that keeps Him always holding on to us.

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"Anchor in the Storm" by Sarah Sundin

Lillian Avery is out to prove herself. She's on her way to Boston to begin her job as a pharmacist, and she's overcome a lot in her life already, having lost her leg in an accident and adapted to use of a prosthesis. While her new boss makes it clear that he's unhappy about the necessity of hiring a woman due to so many men enlisting in the second World War, Lillian believes she can face this challenge and come out triumphant as she has in the past.

On leave with his best friend, Ensign Archer Vandenberg meets Lillian and is immediately drawn by her beauty and her resilient character. It is also extremely alluring that she isn't pursuing him for the wealth of his old Connecticut family. Not only is she not pursuing him, she actually rebuffs his attention. If a little romance won't win her heart, maybe proving himself as a genuine friend will.

She's only been on the job for a few days when Lillian notices odd prescriptions for large quantities of phenobarbital, a controlled substance believed to help with combat fatigue. Such amounts would not normally be prescribed, and when Lillian investigates she quickly finds that this is the tip of the iceberg - there's a drug ring in the area, and her safety may be in danger if she attempts to get to the center of it.

Meanwhile Arch is back at sea and dealing with battle neurosis after the events of Through Waters Deep. As he navigates what could be a shameful ending to his naval career, he notices many of his fellow sailors seem to be dealing with drowsiness and lack of concentration. When he discovers that many of them may be turning to phenobarbital to cope with the horrors of war, and obtaining the drugs illegally, he and Lillian begin trying to piece together the puzzle that begins at a Boston pharmacy but reaches into the United States Navy.

It is not only German U-boats and greedy drug runners who provide danger to the plot. Lillian realizes that while she has needed to be tough, a heart of granite is not an asset in life or love. Arch's insecurity over his wealth and his need to make an identity of himself apart from his family leads him to question the best things in his life. Is there hope that these two can work through these obstacles and predicaments and truly find each other? Sarah Sundin weaves a compelling story that will leave you turning the pages to find out what happens next. Another excellent book from this top-of-her-class novelist!

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"The Lost Heiress" by Roseanna M. White

Raised as a prince's daughter in the palace in Monaco, Brook is a free-spirited and highly cultured young lady. Yet the longing to find her true identity tugs insistently at her heart, and when her dearest friend returns to her with the news that he's found her biological father, it is with trembling hope that Brook journeys to northern England to meet the Earl of Whitby. She possesses enough links to undeniably be the earl's lost daughter, and he immediately welcomes her with the full joy of his heart. Other family members and household staff are not so sure, however, and Brook must handle their disapproval as well as the adjustment of missing her Monegasque home.

Having safely seen Brook to her new home, her friend Justin Wildon finds himself in a predicament. Not only is he in a time of grieving and inheriting his father's title and responsibilities, but now that Brook has been ushered into a home with every future luxury ensured, he feels awkward to think of courting her at this point, when she might think he was only changing the nature of their relationship due to her new fortune. Deciding the best course of action is to let her settle in, Justin pushes Brook away and throws himself into learning his own new position in society.

Brook is soon inundated with new friends and suitors, some genuine and some who are only fortune hunters. There are also cousins and relatives to meet and get to know. Even as she cherishes the growing relationship with her father, Brook longs for more of the freedoms she's used to, and she misses Justin and his ability to help her make sense of her life.

It soon becomes clear that there is a mystery underfoot. Brook is attacked for something called the Fire Eyes, and she realizes that one of her servants has been betraying her. There is also the lingering doubt as to why her mother left England before her death, giving infant Brook to a stranger with instructions to keep the child out of the country. When it becomes clear that there are those who will stop at nothing to gain the mysterious Fire Eyes - even though neither Brook nor her father know what they are - every attempt goes to keeping Brook's life safe. Danger lurks everywhere, including among those who call themselves family.

This was the first book by Roseanna M. White that I have read, but it won't be the last! It was easy to get lost in fictional 1910 Europe, and while sometimes the characters drove me crazy with their choices, you always hoped for the best for them. The story of the Fire Eyes continues throughout the next two books in this series, and I'll be doing my best to read them soon!

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Ella has made a quiet life for herself as a maid in a hospital, shutting out as much of her soul-splitting pain as she could. Everything she knows changes drastically when Charlie Lionheart bursts into her life, little baby Holland in arms. With hardly two coins to rub together, Charlie is having trouble finding someone to care for his girl. Feeling the unjustness and a pull towards someone so small and helpless, Ella quits her job to dedicate a few days to nursing Holland with all the herbs and remedies she's been studying.

Charlie's home is far from normal. As a lion tamer with the circus, all of his belongings and responsibilities can be packed up in a couple of wagons. He knows he shouldn't be bringing the young nurse to his tent, not at the risk of what it could cost him where his contract is concerned, but Holland has never been so sick and there is no one else skilled in caring for her. He would - he has - given up everything for Holland, and he's not about to stop now.

While Ella enjoys tending to the baby, meeting Charlie's friends, and seeing the amazing sights around the circus, she worries about where to find a new job and how she's going to pay her rent. Maybe she should consider going home to her parents. But that would mean returning to the place where she endured so much agony. Agony that all comes back to the surface as she spends time with Charlie, caring and kind as he is.

Drawn to the serious and sweet woman, Charlie doesn't know how to tell her of the dark secrets in his own life. Secrets that would be inescapable were their relationship to become closer. He is counting down the days until the agreements that made Holland his are fulfilled and he is free of the evil lurking in the far corners of the circus.

This is a truly beautiful story. It's not without darkness, but it is so strong on hope and love. Joanne Bischof allows her characters the time to explore their emotions, to fully develop their feelings and draw readers in. This was a book I did not want to put down, and though it's the first Bischof I've read, I'm sure it won't be the last. I would give a word of caution that there are disturbing elements to this story and it is definitely not one for everyone. But it also has allegorical veins that point to the Bringer of Hope and Light and Love - Jesus Christ. Through Him we face our fears, our darkness. Through Him we have a future, no matter how cloudy it is at present. Through Him we have all we need. All in all.

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Three years ago when tragedy took the life of their 12-year-old daughter, Libby closed her heart to her husband Greg. Now she's decided that she's going to leave him when he returns from his annual trek into Quetico Provencial Park. The only problem with the plan is that Greg is a few days late returning from his wilderness journey. More than grief or worry, Libby is furious that whether by choice or by accident Greg has found a way to get out of their marriage before she did.

As she goes through the motions of filing a missing person's report and talking with authorities on both sides of the border, Libby weighs various scenarios. She can't picture her faithful-to-a-fault husband deciding to drive away from their home and vanish without a trace, but the distance has grown so far between them that it's not something she can automatically discount.

When Libby, her best friend, and her father-in-law decide they must go to Quetico themselves and retrace the voyageur route Greg had planned, they don't know what they will find, or if they will find anything at all. Libby doesn't know if she even wants to find Greg or what she'll say if she ever sees him again. But she knows this is a trip she has to make before she can move forward one way or another.

The depth of this book left me at a loss for words. Cynthia Ruchti writes with beautiful and lyrical maturity as she delves into loss, uncertainty, and pain in the human soul. I had no idea how this book would end, but the more I read the more I could not put it down. Thoroughly captivated, thoroughly touched. Cynthia is a can't-miss author in my estimation, with both her fiction and non-fiction. Highly recommended.

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The year is 1915 when we rejoin the Ramsey family, whom we have followed in The Governess of Highland Hall and The Daughter of Highland Hall. With England embroiled in the Great War, many men are joining the armed forces, including Alex Goodwin, longtime friend of Julia and Jonathan. A fearless pilot, Alex agrees to correspond with Penny Ramsey when he is shipped off to France.

With Zeppelins bombing London, Penny and her sister Kate retreat to the safety of their family home in the country, bringing with them Kate's large family of adopted children. Helping with the boisterous youngsters keeps Penny busy, but not so busy to keep from missing her new friend and praying for his safety.

As Alex goes on missions and builds up a reputation, he takes great comfort thinking of Penny's sweetness and growing affection towards him. After a turbulent home life while growing up, it seems too good to be true that he could have a hope for a happy future. If he survives the war, that is. With the short life expectancy for pilots, Alex knows there's no guarantee for tomorrow.

While this book almost seemed to have too many characters, I would have missed any storyline that was left out. The novel was fascinating from a World War I standpoint, with an emphasis on the new ways war was being waged in the sky, with Germany thinking they had superior air technology with their Zeppelins. I also had not realized there were German internment camps in England during World War I, and the story of Marius being imprisoned for his heritage was very touching. I love learning history through a well-written story!

Through all the long and uncertain days, Penny, Alex, Marius, and the rest face challenges that will shake their faith. I greatly enjoyed this series by Carrie Turansky and would definitely recommend it to all historical fiction fans.

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"Fraying at the Edge" by Cindy Woodsmall

Life could not have changed more dramatically for either Ariana Brenneman or Skyler Nash. In this sequel to "Ties That Bind," the two twenty-year-old women who discovered they were switched at birth are now trying to fit in with their biological families. Ariana has agreed to leave her Amish home for a one-year trial period in exchange for her father not suing the midwife who made the mistake, while Skyler chose a year with her Amish family rather than going to rehab for a drug addiction.

Ariana has a sincere desire to do her best in getting to know her new family, but she is quickly overwhelmed by all they ask from her. Her biological father is an atheist who challenges the beliefs she was raised with, and he gives her a 'bucket list' of experiences she can pursue in order to earn points towards a visit with her boyfriend. The title of this book perfectly describes the confusion and self-doubt Ariana goes through as she navigates the changes that have been thrust upon her.

Meanwhile Skyler is determined to be as insolent and difficult as possible towards the Brennemans, feeling like her parents disowned their troubled daughter in exchange for a chance to bring home a brand new innocent one. She believes she can still find suppliers to keep her drug habit going, and as soon as she can manage it she plans to run away. Yet as she unwillingly helps around the farm and in the cafe Ariana that bought just before finding out about her heritage, something begins to change inside Skyler. If this is what working together and truly loving others looks like, maybe she could begin to accept the love and care the Brennemans are offering.

We also continue following Quill, the former Amishman who helps families who want to leave the Amish community. Having facilitated Ariana and Skyler reuniting with their biological families, he is the last person Ariana wants to reach out to, but he is also the only one who can help her make sense of all she is thinking and feeling.

I greatly enjoyed the second book in The Amish of Summer Grove series. Cindy Woodsmall has a way of drawing you in with characters you can't help but cheer for. If you would like more information about this story, please click here.

I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this honest review. All opinions are my own.

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"Starving Hearts" by Janine Mendenhall

As a fan of Regency fiction, I was drawn to this book not only by the setting but also by the first line of the back cover. "Since her assault, Miss Annette Chetwynd has been plagued by nightmares and worries about an arranged marriage." This was definitely a unique concept - I have never read anything from this period that dealt with a woman's physical assault or how it might affect her. If handled with grace, what a great story that could be! My expectations were almost immediately dashed, however, when I discovered that this is not actually what the story is about. From the beginning Annette has no fears of an arranged marriage or even meeting men; in fact, she is plotting how to escape from her chaperon to have one-on-one conversations with gentlemen at a party in the very first chapter.

I was also dismayed at the inconsistent behavior of our main characters. For example, when we first hear of the chaperon it seems as though Lucy is one of the biggest annoyances in Annette's life and we are set up to dislike her, yet a few scenes later we find Annette actually views Lucy as a close friend. This kind of thing happened multiple times throughout the novel and made the characters seem unresolved and waffling.

I found a few historical inaccuracies in the text, and more than a few grammatical errors. It bothered me that the Lord's name was taken in vain, and that a minor character prayed by name to a voodoo god. I did read the book all the way through, and I can say it was full of twists and turns. It was clear that the author is a dedicated Christian who desires to use her writing to glorify God. I wish her well as she grows in craft and experience.

Starving Hearts Janine Mendenhall

I received my copy of the book from LitFuse Publicity in exchange for this honest review. All opinions are my own. If you would like to read what other people are saying about "Starving Hearts," click here.

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