Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Fiction Books of 2013 Blog Hop & Year Review

Ages ago, like in either May or June, I signed up to be a part of the Best of Blog Hop hosted by Diane Estrella. Of course I decided to focus on the fiction one.

Best of Books Last year at the end of the year, I wrote a long post about what had gone on in my life, the books I loved, the ones I was disappointed in, the movies I adored, etc. I'm not really going to do that this year, as much fun as that was. I just don't have the time. But I will talk about the books - fiction of course - that I found to be outstanding. My problem comes in narrowing down the selections. I've read at least 140 books this past year - fiction, nonfiction, or children's. This is of course the ones that I actually remembered to track on Goodreads. So I actually probably read over 150, because I know that I didn't log all of them. So to help me narrow down the list of ones I felt were outstanding, I'm only going to list ones I actually posted a review for on my blog. But even then, that list is still rather large. So I'm going to try to include only the top 25 for the year.

Here they are in no particular order. Click on the title to go to my review of the book.

1. A Memory of Light - by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson - I love this 900+ page book because it finally brings closure to a series that I started over ten years ago. Though if you want to start this series, it's best to start it at the beginning. :)

2. A Noble Groom - by Jody Hedlund - I seriously think I spent more time with the cover closed than with it open to read! But this book is probably my favorite one of Jody's and worth the read and reread.

3. Stealing the Preacher - by Karen Witemeyer - Crockett Archer. I loved Crockett when I met him in Short Straw Bride, and his story lived up to my expectations. The supporting cast of characters made this a delight to read. And as with any of Karen's books, I've found that I read them entirely too quickly!

4. Love at Any Cost - by Julie Lessman - A new series. While it was sad to say goodbye to the O'Connor's, I fell in love this family pretty fast. And Jamie has become my favorite of Julie's heroes, surpassing the spots held by Colin and Stephen.

5. King - by RJ Larson - the final volume in the Books of the Infinite Series. I was thrilled to see Ela get a happily ever after. I also loved the king and of course the destroyer-horse Pet/Scythe.

6. Though My Heart is Torn - by JoAnne Bischof - A heart-wrenching saga. This couple just can't get a break. As much as I wanted to dislike Cassie, I found that I couldn't and she was just as much a victim as Lonnie and Gideon.

7. The Wedding Dress - by Rachel Hauck - first book I've read by this author. It pulled me in and wouldn't let me go.

8. House of Hades - by Rick Riordan - the lone children's book on my list. I've followed Percy Jackson for a several years now. Each book just gets a little bit better. I think that this one my be my favorite to date.

9. Pilgrimage of Promise - by Cathy Bryant - I'd gotten this from the author to review, not really knowing what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by it. Once I finished it, I went back and read books 1 and 2. Book 3's sitting on my Kindle to read and I hope to get to it in 2014.

10. Wings of Glass - by Gina Holmes - Written in the form of a letter to the narrator's unborn baby, I wasn't expecting this to be such a heavy topic. But the way it deals with the topic of abuse is beautiful.

11. Love's Awakening - by Laura Frantz - a beautiful story of love overcoming long-held grudges. This one is literally just as beautiful as the first.

12. Stranded - by Dani Pettrey - I absolutely adore the McKenna family! Gage's story is no different. This man is wounded by his past and outside of his family, doesn't like to let anyone get close to him. Plus there's mystery and romance.

13. On Distant Shores - by Sarah Sundin - I loved this book. I loved seeing how both Georgie and Hutch grew and changed as the story developed. I'm going to be so sad when this series is over.

14. That Certain Summer - by Irene Hannon - While not at all like her suspense books, this story of two sisters pulled me in and held my attention through to the end. Still it was a wonderful romantic book to read on a semi-lazy summer day.

15. Rules of Murder - by Julianna Deering - This was one of the highly talked about books I'd seen on Social Media this year. It's a cross between Agatha Christie and Jane Austen. But it's quirky enough that I enjoyed it.

16. Made to Last - by Melissa Tagg - I saw fun reviews, blog posts, tweets, etc all over my Facebook page for this book. This is pure chick lit. I loved loved loved it! The romantic in me practically swooned.

17. Vanished - by Irene Hannon - The first book in a new romantic suspense series, I couldn't wait to see what happened. Ranks up there with the O'Malley Series and Dani Pettrey's books as favorites.

18. Trapped - by Irene Hannon - I wasn't sure if the second book would be as good as the first. Because sometimes, the second book flops. But not so on this one. In fact, this one is even better than the first. It's a hold -onto-your-seat kind of story.

19. The Icing on the Cake - by Janice Thompson - For some reason, I enjoyed this romantic comedy more than the first one in this series. Haven't quite figured out why that was. But it was enough to make my list for the year.

20. The Heiress of Winterwood - by Sarah Ladd - I first saw the cover for this book ages ago. When it came up for review, I wasn't able to request it at that time. But I did manage to get a copy. And for a debut author, this book didn't feel at all like a first novel. I am looking forward to the second in the series.

21. My Hope is Found - by JoAnne Bischoff - Seriously these books need to come with a kleenex warning. But I found myself eagerly anticipating this conclusion. I won't give away the ending, but it was a journey I won't forget.

22. Bride for Keeps - by Melissa Jagears - This is the author's debut book. And it's a twist to the mail-order bride story. I'll admit that I read A LOT of mail order brides/marriage of conveniences books this year. And it's a storyline that never really gets old for me.

23. Undeniably Yours - by Becky Wade - I'd not read the author's debut book, but I loved this one. It was light-hearted and came at a time for me when I was overly stressed and needed something light and fluffy.

24. Wishing on Willows - by Katie Ganshert - I loved the first book, Wildflowers from Winter, and was excited to read Robin's story. I needed the Kleenex for this one. It reminded me in style to what I call the classic Karen Kingsbury.

25. Once Upon A Prince - by Rachel Hauck - I'm a hopless romantic. I love all things fairytale related. And princes, and castles, and happy endings. I loved Nate and Susannah in this book. I felt I'd read a fairytale story by the end of it.

So while I read a lot of really excellent books, it was a hard decision to narrow it down to the 25 that I have listed. I really tried to trim the list down as well. In fact, since I just limited it to ones I've posted reviews about on my blog, these three titles didn't make it - Ella Enchanted, The China Garden, and Lynette Easman's newest one, No One to Trust. The review for No One to Trust will be posted in January.

 I read a couple of books that while I may not have ranked them outstanding, they did stand out. Burning Sky by Lori Benton and Under a Blackberry Moon. Both of these books had characters who were not the typical heroine. Yet I found them slow moving, though rich in history. Other authors I enjoyed this year include Rose Gordon, Cora McCormick, Susan May Warren, and more.

I did find a few books/authors who disappointed me this year.

JK Rowling - Casual Vacancy - I love Harry Potter. I knew going into it, that this would be vastly different. But I wasn't expecting to feel like I'd been tortured.

Karen Kingsbury - A longtime fan of hers, I was disappointed in both the Chance and Fifteen Minutes. She's lost me as a reader.

Jessica Dotta - Born of Persuasion - There is no middle ground on this. The entire review will come soon. But it was either really good or really bad.

So that's what my favorites & disappointments were like this year. What about you?

Check out the other blogs who are also participating in the Best of Blog Hop. The full list is featured here

I exceeded the maximum number of characters in my labels post. So authors, I couldn't list all of you.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Kitchen Experiment

I enjoy baking. For the past several years, I make it a point to give out cookies to my friends at Christmas. Though for some reason, these last couple years have had me so busy I've not been able to bake. But anyway. These cookies include - typically - snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, and various types of cookie bars and other recipes I'm in a mood to make.

Chocolate Chip Meltaways
This year, I wanted to make as part of my best friend's Christmas gift applesauce cookies, chocolate chip meltaways, and snickerdoodles. Great. I've got all three recipes and I can easily make them. The problem? My friend currently has several different food sensitivities and apples and gluten (including rice & almond) are among them. So this was a dilemma. What was I to do? I did a google search for a gluten free snickerdoodle recipe. I found several. But the one I used was found here. They are the closest to the ones I make, so I figured it'd be the best to try. I'd also found Bob Red Mill's Gluten Free All Purpose Flour that wasn't made with rice or almond. So I made sure to have that with me. The applesauce and the chocolate chip meltaways were not actually gluten free recipes. I just substituted the gluten free flour for the regular flour.

So on Christmas Day, I was at my mom's. I'd brought a big bag that had the Apple-Peeler-Corer-Slicer and all of my ingredients for the three cookies. I knew that I wouldn't actually be able to bake the cookies at Mom's because of issues with the oven door swelling and sticking once the oven was hot, but I could mix up the dough. So I did. We had to improvise where to attach the apple slicer since I'd forgotten to bring the stand it goes with. So I clamped it to the side of the bar and got to work.

First I mixed up the applesauce cookies. The dough looked like it was supposed to, which was a good thing. Then I did the chocolate chip meltaways. This dough didn't look quite like I was used to. I decided to sample the dough for these by licking the beaters. Big mistake! The dough was bitter and not sweet at all. Mom found that out too when she sampled it as well. We were both thinking "I sure hope these things turn out." The snickerdoodle recipe was the last one. My aunt sampled it. Her reaction was the same as ours.

I got home around 8:15 that night. Turned the oven on so I could bake the cookies. I did have to be at work the next day. I spooned the applesauce cookies onto the baking stone. Put them in the oven, and when I took them out 10 minutes later, they looked right. So I moved them to a cooling rack and got the sugar mixtures ready for the snickerdoodles and the chocolate chip meltaways. I was tired and was only going to bake about 12-15 of each. The rest of the dough could sit in the freezer. I got them ready and put them in the oven. When I took them out, I was very impressed with how they turned out. They had expanded more than usual, but they looked how they were supposed to. The two pictures are of the meltaways and the snickerdoodles. So I sampled them. Surprisingly, all three tasted pretty good.

I packaged them up and took them to my friend's house the next day. She loved them! So did her family. But I learned the lesson of not sampling gluten free cookie dough!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Critical Reaction - A Review

An explosion. A lawsuit. A coverup? Young lawyer, Emily Hart agrees to take her college friend's case - the lawsuit he is bringing against Covington Nuclear. Kieran insists that Covington is covering up extent and the type of radiation that he was exposed to when he was in an explosion. As Emily and her father, Ryan, get further and further into the case, they discover that things at Covington aren't what they seem. The more that they dig, the more startling facts they find. Will they be able to prove that Covington is responsible?

This is literally an explosive book. I don't usually read legal thrillers, or thrillers in general, so this was a branch out for me. I'd read the author's first book, Deposit Slip, and enjoyed his writing style. This one kept me interested from the first page to the last. I loved loved loved both Ryan and Poppy. I thought that Ryan's determination in the courtroom made for some tense moments. And Poppy, I loved how he knew that what he was being asked to do was wrong and he stands his ground. I wasn't expecting it to be as fast paced as it was. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for more by this author.

I received this book for free from Bethany House Publishers for the purpose of reviewing. My thoughts and opinions are my own.

Recommend to fans of Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, John Grissom, Robert Whitlock, legal thrillers.

Rating - 4 stars

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Home for My Heart - A Review

Sadie Sillsby loves her position as assistant to the matron at the Raystown Home for Orphan and Friendless Children. She enjoys the children and dreams of the day when she will be able to marry Blaine, her beau. When the matron suddenly announces her own upcoming marriage, Sadie finds herself next inline for the position. But when Blaine also puts their own dreams into motion and is able to marry her immediately, Sadie must choose - her future with Blaine or the children who need her.

I think that this is the first book that I've read by Anne Mateer. I really felt kind of blah about the book as I began it. It did take me a while to get into it. But once I was involved, I found that the book is a heart-warming read.

I wished, often through the book, that Sadie and Blaine would just talk. Things could have been resolved so much faster between them if they'd just talked. I really enjoyed the character of Miranda. I found that she may have been a little gruff around the edges, but she really did have a heart of gold. It just took Sadie a long time to realize that. I loved how when Sadie came to the realization that running the Home wasn't in her God-given gifts (or SHAPE as my pastor would call it), that she actively sought out a person who did have that talent. Sadie realized the mistakes she made both in her career and in her relationships and set about trying to right them - even at the cost of her own happiness.

Overall, I'd say that this wasn't my favorite book, but it was sweet.

I received this book for free from Bethany House Publishers for the purpose of of reviewing. My thoughts and opinions are my own.

Recommended to fans of Janette Oke, Beverly Lewis, Lauraine Snelling, Jody Hedlund, Tracie Peterson, Judy Baer

Rating - 4 stars

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do you ever wish you just had some help?

I don't know about you, but this time of year is busy for me. I've got work, my Mary Kay business, and my book reviews. Plus church, AWANA, and spending time with friends. Somehow, I'll manage to work my Christmas shopping into the mix. And then there's the parties.

I am the "social event" coordinator for my Small Group Bible Study. Basically that means that I coordinate who brings what for when we have an event (picnic, dinner, party, etc).So planning these events has been rather interesting. We'd send emails back and forth to see who was bringing what. Then it never fails. Someone would bring something other than what they'd sign up for and we'd be without plates or something like that.

I also coordinate meal schedules when a class member has a new baby or is out recovering from surgery or something like that. And once again, a lot of responsibility fell on my shoulders. I'd send an email out to the person the day before to remind them. And then when they couldn't make it or forgot, I'd have to scramble to put something together.

A year or so ago, one of my friends introduced me to Perfect Potluck. This is a free online tool that makes event planning easy. You get to set the date, plan the menu, tell how many you need of each item, and then Viola! I had an easy schedule that all I had to do was send the link out and people could sign up for what they wanted to bring. It even would send an email out to remind me of what I signed up to bring. My Small Group has been using this for a while now. We find it very easy to use. I'm thinking it would work for the family get togethers where everyone brings a different dish. Or for the potluck parties. Anyway, I'm so glad that my friend told me about it. Check out the sample that is on the site.

There is a sister site to the Perfect Potluck called Take Them A Meal. I absolutely love this site! I mentioned earlier that I would send out an email reminder to the person the day before to remind them that they were scheduled to bring a meal on such and such date. I found out when my friend had her first baby that it took a lot of time on my part to ensure that meals got there. What I love about this site, is that it allows me to set the schedule, delete dates as needed, and I don't have to send out the emails. My Small Group is currently providing meals for one of the ladies who just had surgery. Before I set the schedule up, I talked with my friend to find out what they like to eat, allergies, etc. As I was setting up the schedule, I was able to put in the notes section the things they are allergic to and what they like to eat. It was so easy! Those who wanted to sign up, could, and those who didn't, they didn't have to. As the coordinator, I get an email every day with the reminder that this person is bringing the meal.

I'll definitely be using it again at the end of April/May when my friend has her third baby.

So snag the links, bookmark them, and use them when you need to. Even those who aren't internet savvy have found it easy to use.

Try it out. Tell me what you think.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Cast of Stones - A Review

About the book
In the backwater village of Callowford, Errol Stone's search for a drink is interrupted by a church messenger who arrives with urgent missives for the hermit priest in the hills. Desperate for coin, Errol volunteers to deliver them but soon finds himself hunted by deadly assassins. Forced to flee with the priest and a small band of travelers, Errol soon learns he's joined a quest that could change the fate of his kingdom.

Protected for millennia by the heirs of the first king, the kingdom's dynasty is near an end and a new king must be selected. As tension and danger mount, Errol must leave behind his drunkenness and grief, learn to fight, and come to know his God in order to survive a journey to discover his destiny.

My thoughts
Christian fantasy seems to me to be rather touch and go. There are some authors who stand out and wow the reader and there are others that don't. For me, this particular book falls into that second category. I tried and tried to get into the book and enjoy it, but sadly I just couldn't. I ended up just skimming the book so I'd know what would happen. I felt that this book had potential to be an amazing start to an amazing journey of faith and become an epic in the Christian fantasy market. Yet it lacked.

There were a few things I enjoyed about the book. First, the cover design. It served it's purpose and captured my attention. The back cover synopsis caught my attention as well. The fact that this was the first in the series was an added bonus. I found some of the characters to be very interesting. I really loved the priest. I found him to be very resourceful.

Sadly, the main character, Errol, annoyed me to no end. I felt that the author was trying to make him into another Frodo, and for me that didn't work. I may pick up the free Kindle version at some point and give this book a shot again, but for now, I'm done with it.

Fantasy lovers may truly enjoy this book. As one fantasy lover, this was not one I enjoyed. I will still continue to read Christian fantasy on the chance that I find the hidden gems that exist.

I received the paperback copy for free from Bethany House Publishers for the purpose of reviewing. I was not required to like the book or to give a positive review, but to just express my opinion. My thoughts and opinions are my own.

Rating - 2 stars

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bride for Keeps - A Review

Julia Lockwood answers an ad for a mail order bride. But when she arrives in Salt Flats, Kansas, she discovers that her prospective groom, Everett Cline, didn't advertise for one. At least not this time. Everett has been hurt more times than he can count in the hopes of finding a wife. After having one girl leave him, he decided to advertise for a bride. Yet each one that answered his ad ended up not marrying him. One died in route to him. Another married a man she met on the train. A third married someone else once she arrived. So Everett feels that Julia won't be any different. Julia's determined to prove that she will be a wife that won't leave him. She's also determined to have only a marriage of convenience. But what'll happen when the pair start to fall for each other? Will they turn their marriage of convenience into a real marriage?

Mail order brides are a popular theme right now. But as long as an author makes it seem new, then for me the stories never get old. This twist on the mail order bride story is one I'd not read before, so I truly enjoyed it. Debut author Melissa Jagers does an excellent job in showing Everett's pain and reluctance at trying his hand at a marriage - again. Julia is very complex. She was hiding something, but what I didn't know. Eventually the reader finds out. I loved the secondary characters of Dex and Rachel and their family. I am looking forward to more by this author.

I received this book for free from the author for the purpose of reviewing and promoting. My thoughts and opinions are my own.

Recommended to fans of Love Comes Softly, mail order brides, Karen Witemeyer, Love Inspired Historicals, Lori Wick, Tracie Peterson, Lauraine Snelling

Rating - 4 stars - good solid debut