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"One Enchanted Eve" by Melissa Tagg

In a setting just perfect for Christmas, chef Rylan Jefferson is on the cusp of running a bakery again. She just needs to come up with one show-stopping dessert to have the opportunity to win the job. While she's never been good at original recipes, Rylan receives an offer of help that she can't pass up - even if it is from the class clown of her culinary class. Maybe Colin's natural inspiration will transform a wish into a reality.

We first met Colin Renwycke in One Enchanted Christmas, when he was a rather disreputable teacher and model. He's never been good at life decisions, but last Christmas was a wake-up call. He's determined to make culinary school work and to become a successful chef, but he's still afraid to go home and face his family in Maple Valley, Iowa. In an effort to both help Rylan and bring a buffer of protection to himself, Colin invites her to spend a couple weeks on the farm inventing that wow-worthy recipe she needs.

Maple Valley is as charming and ever, as you know if you've read any of Melissa Tagg's other stories set there. While we do get glimpses of other characters we know, the story does a good job focusing on downtrodden but hopeful Rylan and bad-boy-attempting-to-turn-good-guy Colin. We get a look at their pasts, the way they think, and their family dynamics. These are two realistic and relatable characters striving to overcome mistakes and setbacks, dreaming of a hopeful future, and trying to make magic in the kitchen.

This novella was funny, thoughtful, inspiring, and yes, enchanting. A perfect holiday read from one of my favorite authors!

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"The Silent Songbird" by Melanie Dickerson

She's done it again! Melanie Dickerson retells a classic story with her own distinctive style, turning it into something fun and new. This time she tackles The Little Mermaid, resetting Ariel as Evangeline, cousin of King Richard II, in the fourteenth century.

Evangeline has hoped and dreamed of a marriage based on love, but as the king's ward she knows that may not be possible. When she finds out the king is going to give her in marriage to a middle-aged man who seems corrupt and salacious, Evangeline decides she will run away. She's lived shut up in Berkhamsted Castle, and now she is free to see all the beautiful creatures and places in the English countryside. Evangeline's maid escaped with her, and in order to disguise themselves they agree that Evangeline will pose as a mute and they will say they are servants looking for work.

They reach the village of Glynval, and Evangeline finds herself working for the le Wyse family, whom readers will recognize from some of Dickerson's other books. She is attracted to Westley le Wise, but since she is pretending to be a mute servant and he is heir to the manor, there are many impediments to getting to know him. Although Evangeline has never worked a day in her life, the blisters and soreness and her many blunders do not stop her determination to make a way for herself and to continue hiding from the king's men who are searching for her.

Evangeline is forced to use her voice when she comes upon an attempt on Westley's life. Still hesitant to tell the whole truth about her identity as she gets to know the le Wyse family better, eventually it all comes out. A showdown with King Richard and his minions is inevitable, and will require bravery and sacrifice from all who will stand for freedom and love.

I'd recommend this book for anyone who enjoys Melanie Dickerson and fairy tales.

I review for BookLook Bloggers

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

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"Snow on the Tulips" by Liz Tolsma

This is a unique story that is based on actual experiences within the author's family in the Netherlands during World War II. While the Netherlands had declared neutrality at the beginning of the war, Hitler invaded in 1940 and the citizens suffered much under Nazi rule. Our story focuses on a Dutch Resistance worker who was caught by the Nazis and executed - except his bullet wound was not fatal, and he survived and escaped.

Alongside the Resistance worker, who is named Gerrit in the story, our other three main characters are siblings. Cornelia is a young widow who is hiding her 20-year-old brother Johan from the Nazis in the closing days of the war. Since losing her husband she's tried to keep her head down and just get through until her country can be liberated. Anki is the oldest sibling and is married to a staunch pacifist. When Johan goes out exploring one night and comes back with the injured Gerrit, it thrusts them all into danger. Cornelia agrees to harbor Gerrit, and Anki goes behind her husband's back and uses her nursing skills to help Gerrit recover.

Once the Germans realize they are missing one of the corpses of the Resistance workers, they begin raiding neighborhoods searching for the wounded man. They also begin cracking down harder on anyone they suspect of hiding men or Jews. Johan longs to get involved in the Resistance after having spent so many years hiding. Cornelia has ignored Resistance work for so long but now that she's hiding a prominent member she can no longer turn a blind eye to the needs of the cause. Anki is risking her marriage and family to be involved, but can only do what she feels is right even though it may cost her everything.

As liberation comes closer but danger yet lurks in every shadow, bravery and romance bloom. And hope - hope that there can yet be a future for this family and for their beloved country after this long nightmare is over.

I enjoyed this novel and the chance to learn more about the Netherlands during the war, especially since the plot was based on real events. I would have liked to see more depth in the writing itself, as the style of using unvaried and simple sentences did not draw me in and engage me as a reader, even though I cared about the characters. Since this was the author's debut novel and I've not noticed the same thing in her later releases, I believe she has grown and improved in this. I would highly recommend her other books, Daisies Are Forever and Remember The Lilies.

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"An Endless Christmas" by Cynthia Ruchti

Katie is in love with Micah, but when he unexpectedly and very publicly proposes marriage to her when she's just met his extended family, she has no choice but to say no. And it's Christmas week at his grandparents' rural Minnesota homestead, so it's not like she can just catch the next flight home to Florida. There's no way she can accept Micah's proposal until she can talk through the reasons she said no, but privacy is hard to come by with Micah's parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins filling every nook and cranny of the cottage.

In disbelief that the Binder family is still being so amazing and welcoming to her even though she may have broken Micah's heart, Katie tries her best to walk the tightrope of forming relationships while not letting herself get too close. It's hard, though. The Binders are so full of love and commitment and making the most of every moment - if she believed she could make a marriage last, this would definitely be the family she'd want to marry into.

As Christmas draws closer, there are surprises of both the happy and not-so-happy variety headed to the Binder farm. For this family who tries to celebrate each holiday as if it might be the last, what if it really is the last for one of their members? Sentiment threatens to become reality and leaves everyone scrambling.

This novella captured me from the opening page. Anyone who has a large extended family will enjoy the scenes of a packed home and family togetherness -- including waiting in line for the bathroom and sleeping anywhere you can find space to fit an air mattress. Those are all-too-familiar sights for some of us! Katie's emotional dilemma kept me reading more to find out when she and Micah would talk and if they could work things out. Through the ups and downs of this unforgettable holiday, love will see this family through - the same endless Love that will always be there for each one of us. Cynthia Ruchti weaves a sweet tale about family, faith, and finding yourself.

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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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