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"Celia's House" by D.E. Stevenson




I've heard of Scottish author D.E. Stevenson, but receiving "Celia's House" for Christmas was the first time I was able to read her for myself. In a style that reminded me strongly of Lucy Maud Montgomery, this is the story of a Scottish estate and its residents from 1905 until the middle of World War II.

Humphrey Dunne was shocked when his elderly aunt named him to be the heir of her family estate. Dunnian is full of history and is a beautiful, charming place in which to raise his family. Aunt Celia has some strange stipulations to the arrangement, including that he must name one of his future daughters Celia and make sure she is the one to inherit the house after Humphrey. When Aunt Celia passes, Humphrey and his small but growing family are happily overwhelmed as they settle in to their new home.

Much of the story focuses on Humphrey's children as they grow. There's Mark, the eldest, who is tenderhearted and wants to become a doctor. There's Edith and Joyce, the oldest sisters who tend to be spoiled by their mother. The youngest two, Billy and Celia, are close pals who tend to get into their share of scrapes. Soon a cousin joins them, but Deb quickly becomes as close as any other sister and is a huge help with the general running of the household.

A good portion of this book borrows from Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park," which is about a cousin who grows up with her relatives, and the foibles and follies they fall into with their neighbors in their young adult years. If you've read Austen's story you can see a lot of the plot twists before they happen, although it isn't an exact mirror and it's fun to see it from another point of view. There are courtships and schemes and one big play-acting production that quite captivates the group for a while.

I would recommend this for fans of Austen, Montgomery, and other classic storytellers. It's a delightful character-driven tale, and covers some interesting parts of history, too. Originally published in 1943, this new edition is once again bringing attention to D.E. Stevenson's works.



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"The Mark of the King" by Jocelyn Green




This was my first novel by Jocelyn Green, but I was intrigued the moment I read its premise. A young midwife, after being falsely convicted for the death of a client, is able to have her prison sentence commuted if she will join a convoy of those going to help populate Louisiana in 1719. Leaving her native France and everything she knows in the hope that she might be able to find her brother who disappeared in Lousiana two years earlier, Julianne sets out on a lifelong journey which will be much more than she could have imagined.

From the very beginning, John Law and the Company of the Indies has more planned for the immigrants, who are mostly orphans and prisoners, than they were aware. Before they set sail, Julianne and the rest of the women are forced to choose husbands from among the men. The goal of the Company is to have as many French babies born in Louisiana as possible, bolstering the population and their claim on the colony. Julianne is wed to Simon, a kind man but also a firebrand willing to stand up to the oppression they find themselves under.

Life is hard during the journey and as they settle in to their new home. Julianne can't find anyone who knows anything about her brother, but she begs Simon to be on the lookout as he ventures farther from New Orleans with the employment he's found. Meanwhile Julianne tries to start up a midwifery practice and face the memories of the last birth she attended and all the pain that has stemmed from that day.

The loss in this book is heartbreaking and yet realistic. Everyone in the story faces so much grief and hurt as they try to forge a life in this untamed land. Green does an amazing job with the sights, sounds, and smells of eighteenth century Louisiana, as well as the range of emotions our characters experience. This is a thick book, but I never wanted to put it down. I will certainly be looking to read more stories from this author in the future!

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


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"Somebody Like You" by Beth K. Vogt




Stephen Ames became estranged from his identical twin brother when they were 18 years old, after half a dozen tumultuous years when they were lived in separate states following their parents' divorce. He wasn't happy that Sam decided to join the military instead of following through on their plans to go to college together, and then one thing led to another so that they stopped speaking to each other altogether.

When Sam is killed on deployment in Afghanistan, Stephen feels the weight of regret. Wanting to get to know more about his brother's final years, he seeks out Sam's widow to ask questions and try to make up for missing so many years. But there's one thing he didn't count on, and that was that Sam had never told Haley about Stephen!

Living day to day trying to adjust to widowhood and the idea of being a single mother to her unborn baby, Haley is so shocked to learn about her husband's identical twin that she pulls a gun on him the first time he shows up. There were many things that were not perfect about their marriage, including Sam's frequent deployments, but she never guessed that he would have held back such pertinent information about his childhood. At first Haley wants nothing to do with Stephen, as it's too hard and strange to see the mirror of her husband, but he persists in showing up, bringing gifts for the baby, and helping with projects around the house.

Haley is an independent, tough-it-out tomboy, but Stephen can see that underneath the strength there's a woman who really needs help making sense of this time of her life. As he begins to understand why his brother fell in love with her, he fears she'll never be able to look at him and see anything other than Sam and the shadows that marred their marriage.

This book was a little bit slow taking off, as the characters have a lot of walls around their hearts. As the plot draws you in and the walls start coming down, I found the story impossible to put down and ended up reading the last 150 pages in one sitting. The themes were deep and thoughtful, especially having an estrangement in my own family, and the story was well-written. I quite enjoy Beth. K Vogt's contemporary fiction.



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Best of 2016

Here are my favorite reads from 2016! I hope you'll check some of them out for yourself. Click on any title to read my full review.

Historical Fiction



Anchor in the Storm by Sarah Sundin

This World War II story focuses on a plucky female pharmacist and a Naval officer as they try to uncover a drug ring operating out of Boston Harbor.


Young Adult Fiction



The Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson

A captivating retelling of The Little Mermaid, Melanie Dickerson again proves her brilliance as a fairy tale writer.


Contemporary Fiction



Keep Holding On by Melissa Tagg

I loved the depth of the characters, and I really related to one of them in particular. I just love Melissa Tagg's stories!!


Non-Fiction

I've got to go with the autobiographies of two Olympians here! Weren't the Rio Olympics exciting??



Greater Than Gold by David Boudia

David's journey from an active tot to a world class diver, and how he found Jesus along the way.




Courage to Soar by Simone Biles

Leader of the Final Five and winner of five medals in Rio, this 4'9" gymnastics wonder shares her story from adoption to training to topping the podium.


Classic Literature



Mr. Harrison's Confessions by Elizabeth Gaskell

This short novel, from which part of the miniseries Cranford was drawn, is laugh-out-loud funny and encompasses the delights of a small English village.


Novella

This category has two winners as well, because I couldn't choose between these two delightful Christmas stories.




One Enchanted Eve by Melissa Tagg

If you enjoy competitive baking shows, you'll love this story of a down-on-her-luck baker and her quest to find one wow-worthy recipe to land her dream job.





Restoring Christmas by Cynthia Ruchti

All Alexis needs for Christmas is her home remodel to go well. When everything goes wrong it may be time to reevaluate the true meaning of Christmas.



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"The Ringmaster's Wife" by Kristy Cambron




This Jazz Age tale tells the story of Mable Ringling, wife of famous circus master John Ringling. From her humble upbringing as a dreamer in Ohio to being part of the greatest show on earth, Mable's life is testament to those who think big and have the courage to try something new.

Told alongisde is the journey of fictional character Lady Rosamund Easling, a gifted horsewoman who forsakes her homeland when she is about to be forced into a marriage to help her father's estate. Her beloved horse was being sold to the Ringling Brothers Circus, and Rosamund goes along to make sure Ingenue is properly settled. But circus manager Colin Keary hasn't merely been recruiting a good horse - he's out to inspire and captivate the woman he believes can be a star.

Rosamund agrees to join the circus, and is encouraged by her conversations with Mable Ringling. She is not warmly welcomed by the rest of the cast, and in fact soon begins receiving threats that suggest she should return to England. Rosamund battles to find her place amidst hostility and her own insecurities. She'd be happy to simply make it through the season and leave star billing for those who crave the spotlight.

While I enjoyed this story, I was a bit confused about the dual storylines. The portions focusing on Mable's life take place between 1885 and 1929, while Rosamund's story, interspersed with Mable's narrative, is set in a much more concentrated time period, mostly 1926 and 1927. It's not my favorite method of storytelling, although Cambron seems quite drawn to it, as all her releases have used it so far. Maybe she'll switch it up with her upcoming Harry Houdini book, but whether she does or not, I'm looking forward to reading it in 2017!



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"For the Record" by Regina Jennings




Betsy Huckabee might have been raised in the Ozark Mountains, but she has dreams to be more than your usual mountain lass. She knows that her imagination is the ticket to getting a cabin of her own so she's not bound to living with relatives forever. So far her stories haven't been picked up by any of the big city newspapers she's submitted them to, but she believes her day is coming. And that day might be here when she meets the new deputy and realizes she has the perfect hero to base her fiction tales around.

Running from a false accusation, Deputy Joel Puckett has taken the job in Pine Gap, Missouri, in hopes of a fresh start. He's heard about the corruption in the mountains and the gang called the Bald Knobbers who are trying to enforce their own brand of justice. With the hope that he can bring law and order to the area and breathe new life into his own career, Joel isn't prepared at the level of apathy and resistance he meets - except for Betsy, who as a female is one person he'd like to avoid more than anyone else!

When her first story about "Deputy Eduardo Pickett" is published and the newspaper asks for more stories, Betsy is thrilled but also knows she must keep it a secret. She'd be embarrassed to death if Joel found out, especially as they develop a friendship. He's realized that she can be a help as they try to figure out who is terrorizing the mountain folks. Is it a bandit or have the Bald Knobbers blurred the lines to become criminals themselves?

There was so much that I loved about this story!! Living in the Ozark mountains myself, I'm familiar with the historical Bald Knobbers and thought Regina Jennings did a great job bringing them to life. I also thoroughly enjoyed the humor in the writing. I was laughing out loud as early as Chapter 2, with gems like this catching me by surprise: "'What made you think he was the deputy?' the cowboy asked, obviously unconcerned with the very important internal discussion going on in Betsy's head." The style of narration made this delightful and captivating.

This is the third book in Jennings' Ozark Mountain Romance Series, although this one is set several years past the other two and works well as a stand alone. I do recommend the previous books on their own merit, however! Here are my reviews for Book One and Book Two.

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



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It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie, and this book is full of reminders about why I love it. Bob Welch thoughtfully dissects the movie and its characters, discussing what we can learn from this classic film. Having enjoyed his similar book on Les Miserables, I knew this would be perfect holiday reading material, and it was!

Each chapter begins with a quote from or about the movie, and then talks about how we can apply various themes and thoughts into our lives. I love George Bailey and the impact he makes on Bedford Falls. As Welch says on page 90, "...The good we bring to the world, to the community, to our families, doesn't necessarily have to be big and glitzy. It can be small and quiet, which doesn't negate its importance." This is something I'm passionate about, and I love it when other people catch this vision.

I enjoyed the backstory and behind-the-scenes tidbits about the movie that Welch highlights. He talks about various script changes that Frank Capra's story underwent, tells us which lines the actors ad libbed that made the final cut, and comments on public perception of the film when it was released in 1946 versus how it's viewed today. It was clear the cinematic history was carefully researched and is seamlessly woven into the narrative, showing the high regard Welch holds for the movie.

The book is also laced with Scripture and makes plenty of connection to faith's influence on our lives. How does God desire us to live? Does He value the sacrifices we must make for others? Jesus knows more sacrifice than any one of us. I'd definitely say this book was written for a Christian audience.

"People respond to those who inspire, which is what, in his quiet way, George does," Welch writes on page 157. I hope that you and I will be more aware of the ways we can touch and inspire the world around us, both in this Christmas season and throughout the New Year. May we change our worlds the way George Bailey changed Bedford Falls!



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"A Jane Austen Christmas" by Maria Grace




If you've ever wondered how Jane Austen might have celebrated the winter holidays, this book on Regency Christmas traditions is for you! This little book is full of information, everything from etiquette to activities to recipes taken directly from the time period.

This book contains sections devoted to different kinds of parties, whether a simple card party of an elaborate Twelfth Night celebration. It discusses different days that gifts might have been exchanged, and what those gifts might have been. I enjoyed the section about caroling and which songs Jane Austen might have sung.

There are plenty of things explained that sound strange to our American ears, like traditions from St. Thomas' Day and Boxing Day, or the description of a mummers play or yule candle. In short, this is a thorough examination of how Christmas and New Years was celebrated two centuries ago and a fun resource for history fans.



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"Courage to Soar" by Simone Biles




I was thrilled to have the chance to review this autobiography by Simone Biles, the darling of the 2016 Rio Olympics. While many might not have known who Simone was at the start of the Games, certainly everyone knew who she was afterwards! Winner of five medals, four of which were gold, Simone broke records and shone in the spotlight. Now we have the opportunity to read the story of her life in her own words.

Simone starts with her earliest memories of life with her birth mother, and talks extensively about the transition to being adopted by her maternal grandparents, who gave her a home full of love and stability. She tells about how she was first introduced to gymnastics through a daycare field trip and immediately fell in love with tumbling as an outlet for her unusual amount of energy. When her parents enrolled her in classes she caught the attention of the coaches from the very first day. Her natural gifts were evident even though she was getting a "late start" to formal training, at age 6. With her abilities she soon caught up and passed the other girls her age with the skills she was able to perform.

I enjoyed learning about Simone's relationship with her coach, Aimee Boorman, and also about all her parents did to support Simone's growing dreams as she advanced in the sport. Simone talks openly about times she struggled with attitude and how she agonized over certain decisions regarding her education. She discusses the times she failed and the times she succeeded, each one shaping her character and career in its own way. Simone's Catholic faith has also played a huge part in her life. In the telling of her life story there is a great balance of honesty, humor, and humility.

Once I got to the part of the book about Simone's senior gymnastics career, I read the rest of the book in one sitting. It was so exciting to read her perspective of events I'd watched on television, including all the way up her crowning achievements in Rio. I wanted to know what Simone thought about Martha Karolyi and the other Final Five gymnasts, and she did not disappoint or skimp on the details.

I would highly recommend this book to all gymnasts or gymnastics fans. It's a great look at the hard work at sacrifices that this sport requires, as well as the fun and glory of success. As someone who has made her place in history, Simone's story will attract readers for many years to come. Special thanks to Michelle Burford for helping make this book a reality.


I review for BookLook Bloggers

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



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"A Heart's Rebellion" by Ruth Axtell




This Regency story is a sequel to Moonlight Masquerade and features several of the same characters. This time our heroine is Jessamine, a vicar's daughter who is having a season in London thanks to the generosity of her godmother. Jessamine always planned to marry her best friend's brother, but when he chose someone else Jessamine was heartbroken. Now she's determined to catch the eye of a fashionable, wealthy man while she has the chance. Taking her cues from London's elite, Jessamine lowers her necklines and her inhibitions in pursuit of being found desirable.

Having spent time in India as a missionary, Lancelot Marfleet is unimpressed with his return to English society. He desires to find a parish and continue learning about botany, but his parents are insisting it is time he find a marriage partner. When Mr. Marfleet first meets Jessamine he accidentally offends her, and his quest to make up for his blunder brings them together at further parties and dinners. At first he is drawn to her because she is different and has a genuine interest in his life experiences, but soon he's dismayed to see the drastic changes to her person and the questionable decisions about her choice of acquaintances.

Jessamine doesn't realize that as a young lady with very little protection in town she is perfect prey for those of a less savory character. She only wants to be sought after and admired. While Mr. Marfleet is proving himself to be a friend, Jessamine doesn't want to further his attention too much. The last thing she wants is to end up with a man so much like her father.

I confess I found this story quite hard to get into, but once I came to care about the characters I could hardly put the book down. I would caution that this story does contain a few scenes which might be triggering for victims of assault. I would recommend the novel for die-hard Regency fans, especially if you enjoyed the first book in the series.



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