Review & Giveaway: What Momma Left Behind by Cindy K. Sproles

WHAT MOMMA LEFT BEHIND
by

Cindy K. SprolesChristian Historical Fiction

Publisher: Revell
Date of Publication: June 2, 2020
Number of Pages: 256

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Worie Dressar is seventeen years old when influenza and typhoid ravage her Appalachian Mountain community in 1877, leaving behind a growing number of orphaned children with no way to care for themselves. Worie’s mother has been secretly feeding a number of these little ones on Sourwood Mountain. But when she dies suddenly, Worie is left to figure out why and how she was caring for them.

 

Plagued with two good-for-nothing brothers—one greedy and the other a drunkard—Worie fights to save her home and the orphaned children now in her begrudging care. Along the way, she will discover the beauty of unconditional love and the power of forgiveness as she cares for all of Momma’s children.
Storyteller and popular speaker Cindy K. Sproles pens a tender novel full of sacrifice, heartache, and courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
 
PRAISE for What Momma Left Behind: 


“Worie Dressar isn’t your typical heroine
she’s tough, she’s opinionated, and she’s loud. But at her core she wants to love and be lovedjust like the rest of us. Cindy’s special talent is in telling about life the way it ishard parts and allwhile preserving the beauty and wonder of love shining through even the darkest night.” Sarah Loudin Thomas, Christy Award-nominated author of Miracle in a Dry Season

“Seldom does a story move me to tears and encourage me to examine my life. A powerful story. Highly recommended.” DiAnn Mills, author of Fatal Strike

“Cindy Sproles has a way of placing readers inside the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her ability to transport readers into her Appalachian adventures is nothing short of genius. Leaving us hanging on every word, Cindy writes with feeling and incredible historical knowledge. This book is a must-read!” LaTan Murphy, writer, speaker, author of Courageous Women of the Bible

 

Review

What Momma Left Behind by Cindy K. Sproles is the kind of book that I will reread when I need to feel inspired and find inner strength or peace. If you were to judge this book by its cover, you would probably assume that this was another run of the mill historical fiction with a fluffy love story. I wouldn’t blame you because the cover is gorgeous and fits right in with that type of book. And the description on the back cover also does not prepare you for the harrowing story contained within.

We lay eyes on Worie Dressar at the lowest point of her young, hard life. Sproles points out several times that her characters have had to grow up quickly because of their environment. But the opening scene is something that someone even near the end of his or her life would have a hard time coping with. Physically, we see the characters in this novel carry on because nothing would get done if they threw themselves down and mourned for days on end. But Sproles lets us in on their inner turmoil with subtle descriptions and inner dialogue since the story is told from Worie’s perspective. And I suppose it dawned on me that this was not a romance novel when the author did not waste words on the physical appearance of the characters. As a reader who craves love stories in even action or horror genres, this was a big jarring to me. But it made sense given how pragmatic Worie is.

Sproles’ authenticity is consistent in every way, from the characters’ dialect (even in Worie’s narrative point of view) to the description of daily life and the norms of that society. And it is because of that authenticity that it never registered to me that this was a Christian book as well. I suppose because the Bible was the one book that everyone in America read if they knew how to read, I just assumed that folks from that time period quoted the good book frequently. Also, Christian books are not the only ones that teach us lessons in faith and forgiveness.

Maybe you’re not into Christian books. Fear not, because What Momma Left Behind does not read like one. The villain in this novel is among the worst human beings I have ever read in fiction. This is not your cloyingly sweet novel with a picture perfect happy ending; nor does it thump you over the head with the Bible unnecessarily. There are quotes from scripture, but they’re used in a way like if Dan Brown wrote his cryptic clues down and floated them in a bottle. So basically, they have a purpose beyond getting some heathens to read the Word of God.

I thought I was going to read a soothing story of a young woman who teaches orphans to hunt and farm the land. That is not what this story is. It is so much better and more real. I recommend this book to people who like to read realistic historical fiction. Not to mention, a book about the effects of an influenza and typhoid pandemic in America is quite timely during COVID-19.

 

Cindy K. Sproles is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries. An author, storyteller, and popular speaker, Cindy teaches at writers’ conferences across the country and directs the Asheville Christian Writers Conference in North Carolina. Editor of ChristianDevotions.us and managing editor for Straight Street Books and SonRise Devotionals, Cindy has a BA in business and journalism and lives in the mountains of East Tennessee with her family. 

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Excerpt & Giveaway: All Things Left Wild by James Wade

ALL THINGS LEFT WILD
by
James Wade

Genre: Adventure / Rural Fiction / Coming of Age
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication Date: June 16, 2020
Number of Pages: 304 pages

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After an attempted horse theft goes tragically wrong, sixteen-year-old Caleb Bentley is on the run with his mean-spirited older brother across the American Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century. Caleb’s moral compass and inner courage will be tested as they travel the harsh terrain and encounter those who have carved out a life there, for good or ill. 

Wealthy and bookish Randall Dawson, out of place in this rugged and violent country, is begrudgingly chasing after the Bentley brothers. With little sense of how to survive, much less how to take his revenge, Randall meets Charlotte, a woman experienced in the deadly ways of life in the West. Together they navigate the murky values of vigilante justice.


Powerful and atmospheric, lyrical and fast-paced, All Things Left Wild is a coming-of-age for one man, a midlife odyssey for the other, and an illustration of the violence and corruption prevalent in our fast-expanding country. It artfully sketches the magnificence of the American West as mirrored in the human soul.

PRAISE for All Things Left Wild:
“A debut full of atmosphere and awe. Wade gives emotional depth to his dust-covered characters and creates an image of the American West that is harsh and unforgiving, but — like All Things Left Wild — not without hope.” — Texas Literary Hall of Fame member Sarah Bird, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“James Wade has delivered a McCarthy-esque odyssey with an Elmore Leonard ear for dialogue. All Things Left Wild moves like a coyote across this cracked-earth landscape—relentlessly paced and ambitiously hungry.” — Edgar Award finalist David Joy, When These Mountains Burn

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Excerpt

 

An excerpt from the prologue of All Things Left Wild

by James Wade

Two barn swallows hopped and danced between thin branches in a grove of tangled salt cedar, never getting too close or too far from one another. It was as if their movements were circumscribed by some choreography they were born knowing, and should either decide to quit the routine, the other would surely die of incertitude, and the world would become in an instant a less balanced place.

I watched them, turning away from the sad scene in front of me. The cemetery wasn’t much to look at, unless you were needing to look at wood crosses and chewed-up dirt. There were a few rocks. Somebody had tried to set up a little fence around the graves and their markers, but it didn’t take and now there were old posts lying about on the ground like bodies waiting to be buried themselves.

Fall was late in coming, but the morning air was crisp, and the baked brown grass held onto the dew as long as it could, fighting the rising sun over water rights. The land sloped down into town and the trail up the hill was covered in greasewood and flowered yucca, and the preacher had spoken of the beauty of the morning and the wonder of eternity and all that it held. Beyond the plots the trail gave out, like some woebegone spirit too tired to continue, and there the sumac grew thick and would often times mantle the valley with its perfumed scent. Higher still, the earth pitched itself toward the sky and borne upon it were the juniper and pine of the high country and out from amongst them he rode, atop the old bay horse he’d given to her when they married.

I saw him there on the ridge. He sat his horse like a drunk, slightly slumped and tilting off to one side. He was a drunk. The preacher spoke to the part about life everlasting, but he was too far away to hear. He was too far away for anything.

He had on a black coat and he’d taken off his hat and there he sat in reverence and in sobriety. I turned back to the preacher, and when he was finished I scanned the ridge again and there was nothing and no one and the service had ended.

I smoothed my hair back and pulled my hat down firm over top it and the few dozen people shrouded in black began to all move as one, trudging toward the cheap pine coffin in a manner withdrawn, sending up muffled prayers, wondering about rain and war and if it was too late for breakfast. They nodded at us or gave half-hearted smiles or both. There were hands on our shoulders and pats on our backs. Some offered kind words. Others offered food. We watched them go.

“He was settin’ up there on that ridge,” Shelby said. “Just past the tree line.”

“I know,” I told him.

“You seen him?”

“I did.”

“Well?” he asked.

“Well what?”

“What do you think?”

“What do I think about what?”

“Nothing, I guess.” Shelby walked toward the line of mourners as they filed down the hill, and he stopped midway and turned and stared for a while at the tree line, then walked on.

I stood and watched as the gravediggers lowered her down and filled in the dirt, and when they were finished I stood some more. I didn’t want to go back to the house yet, not even to change clothes.

I walked out from the graveyard and followed a well-trod deer path to Red Creek and sat in the grass. The morning sky glowed golden behind a bank of blue-gray clouds, a quiet caution to the world’s awakening.

The sun was distancing itself from the horizon line, but the clouds had yet to burn off, leaving the eastern half of the world to be filtered through an orange tint. The creek moved slowly, matching the pace of the morning, the water shining pale pink, and on its surface, a bleeding reflection of the world.

A cat-squirrel duo on the far side of the creek were hard at play with some game I could not follow. They barked at one another or at me or at nothing, then in fits and starts they hopped from one tree to the next, clinging to the bark with their arms and legs splayed in an almost sacrificial manner.

A siege of herons passed overhead. The long-legged shorebirds flew beneath the lowest clouds and I saw them and they me and it would be months before they returned north, passing again along the same sky.

I watched them glide across the morning, unencumbered by the changing of the times, following the flight of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, all the while unburdened by such things as doubt and desire. Participating by blood. Born into decisions made long ago and born knowing, but not knowing why. I envied the certitude of their existence. I longed for the conviction of those like my mother who, despite all to the contrary, could maintain a faith in the way of things, holding tight to a structured and resolute reading of every breath until her last.

Instead, at a moment I couldn’t recall, or perhaps in a series of built-upon moments, I accepted ambivalence and unease, and there inside of me they did remain in some dogged cellar of the soul, determined that I should never know peace or certainty again.

 

 

James Wade lives and writes in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He has had twenty short stories published in various literary magazines and journals. He is the winner of the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest and a finalist of the Tethered by Letters Short Fiction Contest. All Things Left Wild is his debut novel.
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Review & Giveaway: Storms of Malhado by Maria Elena Sandovici

STORMS OF MALHADO
by
MARIA ELENA SANDOVICI
Genre: Historical Fiction / Ghosts
Publisher: Independently Published
Date of Publication: March 26, 2020
Number of Pages: 252

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Galveston Island, Texas, September 2008 Katie doesn’t believe in ghosts. And she certainly doesn’t believe the rumors that her family’s home is haunted, despite its tragic history: two young women who lived there in different eras died in hurricanesone during Hurricane Carla in 1961, one during the Great Storm of 1900, the greatest natural disaster to befall the United States. But that was the past, a fact Katie reminds herself of when she returns to Galveston to await Hurricane Ike with her parents and boyfriend in her family’s Broadway mansion, hoping to rekindle her flailing relationship.

While Katie is not afraid of the ghost stories she’s heard, she is afraid of the monster storm approaching. As even die-hard Islanders evacuate, her fears grow—fear of the looming hurricane, fear that she’s talentless as a painter, fear that her relationship with her boyfriend is already over. As Katie struggles against her fears, the past whispers to her of the women who died there and the haunting similarities they share with Katie’s own life. 


Through three different timelines, Storms of Malhado weaves a story of Galveston’s past, underscoring its danger and isolation, as well as its remarkable resilience, and its capacity for both nostalgia and reinvention. Full of contradictions, at once insular and open to the world, Galveston Island is as much a character of the novel as Katie, Suzanne, Betty, their lovers, and their confidantes.
 
PRAISE FOR STORMS OF MALHADO:


“Taking place entirely on a beautifully moody Galveston Island, Ms. Sandovici weaves three simultaneous stories with ease. With a timeless tale, ethereal language, and complicated characters, readers will be entranced by this modern ghost story. How many times can the past repeat itself? How do we recognize people through generations? The author tackles this topic amid a backdrop of violent nature and intangible dreamscapes.” 

—Courtney Brandt, author of The Queen of England: Coronation, Grand Tour, Ascension

”Three women, three great storms, and one house, haunted by forbidden love and frustrated ambition. Get ready to be swept away by Sandovici’s foray into Galveston Island’s tempestuous history in this tale of lives intertwined across time.”
—Donna Dechen Birdwell, author of Not Knowing

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Review

Storms of Malhado is the second book that I have ready by Maria Elena Sandovici. I read Lost Path to Solitude almost exactly four years ago and remember being very impressed with Sandovici’s excellent storytelling and her talent for writing natural dialogue. Those two traits are present in this latest book and Sandovici has certainly honed her craft to create such a fascinating story.

As a Houston native (a far north suburbanite, at the least) I was a little annoyed with Katie’s decision to leave Houston in order to weather the storm of Hurricane Ike in Galveston of all places. When Ike was about to hit, distant relatives of mine left Galveston to hunker down with my family, so Katie’s reverse evacuation didn’t make sense to me. But alas, there would be no story if she acted rationally. The story spans three different timelines and takes place in the same mansion on the Island.

I recall wishing with Sandovici’s previous book that she had used character names at the beginning of chapters when she switched POV because it sometimes became confusing. I was happy to see that she gave us the year and a short description of what was happening at each break in this book. I also was delighted to see that her characters had names indicative of the times that they lived in. Names like Desmond and Esmeralda feel distinctly 1900s while names such as Betty and Edna are perfect for the 1960s. Details like those are among the many that Sandovici thoroughly researched so that the reader could be transported without the rude shock of glaring inaccuracies.

Authenticity is obviously important to Sandovici as her vivid details of Galveston across the timeline ring true when compared to the photographs I have viewed and the stories that I have read in museums and historical landmarks. The relationships between the characters within each era and spanning across the three time periods are intricate and bursting with color. Which makes sense when you take into account that the main character and the author herself are artists.

I don’t want to go into specifics and ruin the ending for you but I felt like the point where everything merged felt a little too perfect, for lack of a better word. When I have read about similar phenomena in real life accounts or fiction, there usually isn’t so much clarity, especially when multiple people are involved. There, I will zip my lips now and let you see for yourself.

I think that this book would resound with practically any reader, but I think that it would truly affect those who are into the supernatural or very realistic historical fiction (the kind that borders on nonfiction when it comes to details). This is not your fluffy historical fiction, which you might have guessed since it takes place during times of devastation. However, I like how it leaves you feeling hopeful, like seeing a rainbow after the storm.

 

Maria Elena Sandovici is a full-time writer, artist, and gallery owner living in Houston, Texas. After obtaining a Ph.D. in political science from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 2005, her curiosity led her to Texas, where she taught at Lamar University for fourteen years. She felt attracted to Galveston Island from her first visit and lived there part-time for three years before her artistic career took her to Houston. 

 
Sandovici is a 2008 graduate of John Ross Palmer’s Escapist Mentorship Program, a program that teaches artists business skills. She resigned from her tenured academic position in December 2018 and opened her own private gallery space. Her previous works of fiction are Dogs with Bagels, Stray Dogs and Lonely Beaches, Lost Path to Solitude, The Adventures of Miss Vulpe, and Lone Wolf. She is also the author of Stop and Smell the Garbage, a volume of poetry in the voice of her dog, Holly Golightly. You can follow her daily adventures on her blog HaveWatercolorsWillTravel.blog.

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Review & Giveaway: The Outlaw’s Daughter by Margaret Brownley

THE OUTLAW’S DAUGHTER
HAYWIRE BRIDES, BOOK 3

by
MARGARET BROWNLEY
Western / Historical Fiction / Clean & Wholesome Romance
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Date of Publication: May 26, 2020
Number of Pages: 384
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He may be a Texas Ranger, but he only has eyes for the outlaw’s beautiful daughter . . . 

Texas Ranger Matt Taggert is on the trail of a wanted man. He has good reason to believe that Ellie-May’s late husband was involved in a stagecoach robbery, and he’s here to see justice done. But when he arrives in town, he discovers the thief has become a local hero . . . and his beautiful young widow isn’t too happy to see some lawman out to tarnish her family’s newly spotless reputation. 

 

Ellie-May’s shaken by her encounter with the ranger. Having grown up an outlaw’s daughter, she’ll do anything to keep her children safe—and if that means hardening her heart against the handsome lawman’s smiles, then so be it. Because she knows Matt isn’t about to give up his search. He’s out to redeem himself and find proof that Ellie-May’s husband wasn’t the saint everyone claims . . . even if it means losing the love neither expected to discover along the way.

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Review

The Outlaw’s Daughter by Margaret Brownley is the third book of the Haywire Brides series, but it is the second book of the series that I have read (I read Cowboy Charm School and loved it). Just so you know, I wasn’t concerned about missing the second one because a great author like Brownley can provide exposition as necessary or write a story that reads like a standalone. However, I do intend on reading The Cowboy Meets His Match when I have a free moment.

The first chapter might make you take another glance at the cover to make sure you are reading the right book. The tone is so serious without a hint of physical attraction between Texas Ranger Matt Taggert and the titular character, Ellie-May Blackwell, but that is Brownley’s style. She sets up that meet-cute in true grit fashion, with two strangers who are wary of each other for very good reasons. Even as some barriers break down and feelings start to surface, the bleakness of Ellie-May’s situation is not lessened just because love is in the air.

That is what I really enjoy about Brownley’s brand of western romance and what separates her from other authors in the genre. She doesn’t throw in a hardship or villain or two to make the story interesting. Brownley acknowledges that the time period was hard for everyone but especially so for a woman like Ellie-May. The author doesn’t hand out rose-colored glasses just because Ellie-May has a second chance at love. She creates interesting characters who have been grown in this harsh environment, showing us how some people will take what they think they’re entitled to and how others will do what they have to do to survive while still keeping their moral integrity intact. Striving to be the latter is a struggle and Brownley shows that it is not always easy to accomplish.

Brownley’s flavor of romance also tastes realistic, which to me is much more gratifying than the cloying love stories that flood the genre. The boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back motif is a common one in romance, but the stakes are usually comically low and they cheapen the love story. This is not the case with The Outlaw’s Daughter. Love and respect are hard earned, as they should be.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a great story with love and the Wild West in the mix as well. It reads like a standalone; so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two books. But if you’re about to put this book in your shopping cart, you might as well save yourself another trip or delivery wait by adding the other two now. You’re welcome.

  

New York Times bestselling author Margaret Brownley has penned more than forty-six novels and novellas. 

 
A two-time Romance Writers of American RITA® finalist, Margaret has also written for a TV soap and is a recipient of the Romantic Times Pioneer Award. Not bad for someone who flunked eighth-grade English. Just don’t ask her to diagram a sentence.
 
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Review & Giveaway: The First Emma by Camille Di Maio

THE FIRST EMMA
by

Camille Di MaioHistorical Fiction / Historical Romance / Women’s Fiction

Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing
Date of Publication: May 5, 2020
Number of Pages: 315

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The First Emma is the true story of Emma Koehler. Whose tycoon husband Otto was killed in a crime-of-the-century murder by one of his two mistresses – both also named Emma – and her unlikely rise as CEO of a brewing empire during Prohibition. When a chance to tell her story to a young teetotaler arises, a tale unfolds of love, war, beer, and the power of women.
PRAISE for The First Emma

“Di Maio’s take on a shocking American drama pleasantly blends romantic and historical fiction . . . a sweet memorialization of a real-life female business pioneer in San Antonio.” —Kirkus

“A beautifully crafted portrait of an intriguing woman. Mystery and romance are set against the backdrop of fascinating pieces of twentieth-century history, and a richly drawn setting leaves the reader feeling wholly immersed. Historical fiction fans will love this one!” —Chanel Cleeton, NYT bestselling author of Next Year in Havana


“Di Maio does a brilliant job of weaving together all the threads—from past to present—while unearthing a tale of blossoming love, the power of our chosen family, and the losses that make us whole again.” —Rochelle B. Weinstein, USA Today bestselling author of This Is Not How It Ends

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Review

It was love at first sight when I saw the cover of The First Emma by Camille Di Maio. The young woman in a pretty dress gazing out of a window promised me a lovely historical fiction, while the blurb teased me with a thrilling tale of infidelity, murder, and power. If any of those things appeal to you as a reader, then you will devour this book like I did.

The words “inspired by true events” always give me a little rush. I don’t know why that is, especially when you take into account that many fiction books and movies are usually based (perhaps quite loosely) on someone’s real life. But those four words seem to whisper a promise that the story you are about to hear will be that more shocking or inspiring because they are based on real life. I don’t know if I should be embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of the Koehlers or of their Pearl beer, but this book has stoked my interest to the point that I intend to read the newspaper clippings for myself at a later time.

Di Maio transports the reader into two timelines: back to 1914, before the United States joined the fight and prohibition loomed on the horizon, to nearly 30 years later, with the second world war that took most of the young men in our country, along with necessities like fuel and metal. Maybe because I have lived a sheltered life, I am truly fascinated by stories of hardship. I have never had to walk through slushy streets; I have never lived alone. I like to think that if I were ever tested, I would have strength like Mabel from Baltimore.

My warm affection for Mabel came about quickly but it was Emma’s observations that solidified that attachment into something more. Di Maio’s fluid writing style and emotional depth allowed me to connect with characters that I was a little wounded to find out later did not really exist. And working from very little source material, the author spins a plausible version of these events with an intimacy that I have never encountered in any other historical fiction or romance book that I have read.

Most historical fictions, while entertaining to read, often have a scene or two, or perhaps a character, that rings false. The First Emma does not have either of these flaws. You will be shocked to later find out just how much of this story was Di Maio’s imagination and how much was based on research. I really appreciate that the author’s note at the end of the book shares where the inspiration came from and her writing process.

There are harsh moments in this book, some completely true and some fictional, but I love everything about it. It is a seamless story of feminine intellect, strength, and great lessons on self worth and loyalty.

Camille Di Maio always dreamed of being a writer, though she took a winding path of waitressing, temping, politicking, and real estate to get there. It all came to fruition with the publication of her bestselling debut, The Memory of Us, followed by Before the Rain Falls, The Way of Beauty, and The Beautiful Strangers. In addition to writing, she loves farmers’ markets, unashamedly belts out Broadway tunes when the mood strikes, and regularly faces her fear of flying to indulge her passion for travel. Married for twenty-three years, she home-schools their four children. (Though the first two are off at college now!) She is happy to live in Virginia near a beach. 
 

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Review & Giveaway: Breakfast at the Honey Creek Cafe by Jodi Thomas

BREAKFAST AT THE HONEY CREEK CAFÉ
A Honey Creek Novel
by
Jodi Thomas
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Zebra
Publication Date: May 26, 2020
Number of Pages: 336 pages

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From Jodi Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of Mornings on Main and Indigo Lake, comes this heartwarming new novel set in Honey Creek, Texas—a small town where family bonds and legends run deep, and friendship and love are always close at hand . . .


Piper Jane Mackenzie, mayor of Honey Creek, won’t let a major scandal rip her quirky hometown apart or jeopardize her dream of one day running for higher office. So she’s willing to welcome undercover detective Colby McBride, hired to help solve the mystery behind her wannabe fiancé’s disappearance. Colby’s cover? That he is an old boyfriend now begging Piper for a second chance—always when there are plenty of townsfolk around to witness his shenanigans.
Piper hardly knows whether to laugh or cry, especially when she finds herself drawn to the handsome rascal. He’s not the only newcomer she has to deal with. There’s a new interim preacher in town, Sam Cassidy. Drifting from one assignment to another since his one love died, Sam isn’t sure he’s the right fit for Honey Creek. But as Piper knows, this is a place chock-full of surprises. And if she can keep her town—and her heart—from going completely off the rails, there may be a sweet, unexpected future in store . . .
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Review

I adore Jodi Thomas books so, of course, I jumped at the opportunity to read Breakfast at the Honey Creek Cafe. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a mystery when I read the prologue. Who could possibly be threatening the beloved mayor, Piper Jane Mackenzie, in such a cute little town like Honey Creek?

Cut scene and we are introduced to the intriguing Sam Cassidy whose name perfectly matches the outdoorsy manly man who is attempting to step into his father’s shoes. As he is peeling away one life to start another, Sam bumps into another man who seems to be doing the same, Colby McBride. Each man assesses the other in back to back chapters, and it made me nervous about a possible love triangle with Piper. Flipping back, I tried to look for clues early on about who would claim the mayor’s heart, but Thomas kept those early encounters professional and didn’t hint at any romance… yet.

Much like a Stars Hollow but set in Texas, Honey Creek is small but a busy hive of locals who are all up in each other’s business. I really enjoyed the time that Thomas took to tell us tidbits about the inhabitants: from the old ladies in the walkers that take up the second row real estate in the church to the town drunk who is tailed by children wanting to bring home a daddy to the youngest son of a family who uses children as free labor. Those last two sound a bit tragic but they’re anything but when Thomas brings them to life on the page. And I am truly amazed at how much world building is accomplished in such a short book. Not only do many eventful happenings occur in this town in the span of a few days, but also Thomas has created fully developed characters with interesting backstories, all being interwoven as they interact with each other.

When you take into account how much happens, it is surprising to realize that the pace is perfect. No loitering in fanciful daydreams about the love interest for pages on end, but a gradual and realistic build of attraction, respect, and then love. It seems that all of the male characters have to break down the cold hearts of their female love interests, and I would have loved to see at least one relationship that deviated from that pattern. I also felt like the end was not fully resolved, at least to my satisfaction. But when I read the teaser chapter at the back of the book, I realized that maybe some of the questions I had would be answered in the next book. Well played, Ms. Thomas.

Should you read this book? Yes! The mystery is great and the romance is even better. This book further solidifies Jodi Thomas as one of my go-to authors for romance reads. If you’re a little nervous of steamy stories, don’t worry. This one is cozy and so much fun to read.

With millions of books in print, Jodi Thomas is both a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over fifty novels and countless short story collections. Her stories travel through the past and present days of Texas and draw readers from around the world.
In July 2006, Jodi was the eleventh writer to be inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. With five RITAs to her credit, along with National Readers’ Choice Awards and Booksellers’ Best Awards, Thomas has proven her skill as a master storyteller.
 
Thomas was honored in 2002 as a Distinguished Alumni by Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas and served sixteen years as the Writer in Residence at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas.
 
When not working on a novel, or inspiring students to pursue writing careers, Thomas enjoys traveling with her family, renovating an historic home, and “checking up” on two grown sons and four grandchildren.

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Audiobook Review & Giveaway: Covey and JayJay Get Educated by Shelton L. Williams

COVEY AND JAYJAY
GET EDUCATED
Audio Book Tour
By Shelton L. Williams
Narrated by Kathy James
Covey Jencks Mysteries, Book 2
Genre: Murder Mystery / Social Thriller / Amateur Sleuth
Publisher: Audible
Length: 5 hours, 40 minutes
Publication Date: March 18, 2020

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Amateur detectives Covey Jencks and JayJay Qualls are drawn into a triple murder on the campus of Baker College in West Waverly in the Texas Hill Country. Both end up taking positions at the college: Covey as an adjunct instructor and JayJay as a visiting actor. 

 

Initially they believe that money is the motive for the murders, but over time they learn that the college is a cauldron of political and social intrigue. The college’s new president and his beautiful wife, various staff members, a prominent trustee, and parties not associated with the college have the motives, opportunities, and wacky agendas that might implicate them in the murders. It turns out that a white nationalist group may be using a college house for its nefarious activities, but are they more talk than action? 
 
The West Waverly police are little to no help in the investigation, and Covey himself has to depart the college to deal with his father’s death. JayJay takes over and makes a critical breakthrough. Upon Covey’s return, the couple must rely on deception, a bit of luck, and martial arts skills to solve the crimes and to try to prevent a high-profile assassination.

Review

Covey and JayJay Get Educated, by Shelton L. Williams is the second book in the Covey Jencks series. I listened to the first book a little over a year ago and remember very much enjoying the story and getting a kick out of the narrator, Kathy James.

I think the characters are what I enjoyed most in this book, especially JayJay. I loved how fearless she was and how she handled herself in any situation. I can’t remember if I had similar feelings while reading the other book, but I thought that Williams writes women very well. I got the feeling that he likes writing about them more than he likes writing about men; which is funny since the series is named after the main character who is a man. The dialogue was fantastic throughout but my favorite moments took place in Covey’s office. Something about office banter really appeals to my sense of humor. But funniness aside, I was really impressed with how Williams handles the weight of social injustice and political corruption. I sometimes wonder about authors who choose seemingly random time periods for their backdrop, but in this case it works really well – especially when you take into consideration that times haven’t changed much since then. I think that setting the story in the past makes the theme come across less preachy and maybe creates a distance that feels safer for the reader. On a lighter note, I’m a big fan of alternate histories or fictional works that briefly feature real people.

While I enjoyed this story even more than the first book, the narrator just did not do it for me this time around. I felt like the sauciness of some of the characters couldn’t shine through because of how robotic James speaks in this book. She also was not consistent with differentiating between different characters. Aside from some editing that felt a little choppy and overlapped like radio infomercials, the production quality was good. However, my final impression was that maybe she did not have time to pre-read the book or re-record sections.

Overall, I recommend this audiobook to anyone who likes a good, smart mystery. You don’t have to read or listen to the first book to enjoy it either. I look forward to the next adventure with Covey and JayJay.

Shelton L. Williams (Shelly) is founder and president of the Osgood Center for International Studies in Washington, DC. He holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he taught for nearly forty years at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He has served in the US Government on four occasions, and he has written books and articles on nuclear proliferation. In 2004 he began a new career of writing books on crime and society. Those books are Washed in the Blood, Summer of 66, and now the Covey Jencks series. All firmly prove that he is still a Texan at heart.
 Amazon Author Page  



Kathy James. My first part time job while I was in high school was announcing at the local radio station, and I had fun being “on the air” and using my sarcastic sense of humor.  I worked in the radio business for more than twenty years. My favorite pastimes are teaching figure skating, getting lost in a great book, and watching movies.  I narrate and produce audio books in my home studio, and I truly enjoy bringing an author’s characters to life with an audio book. I currently reside in Minnesota with my slightly overweight cat and two childlike golden retrievers.  




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Review & Giveaway: A Firm Place to Stand by Lori Altebaumer

A FIRM PLACE TO STAND
by
LORI ALTEBAUMER
Genre: Christian / Romantic Suspense
Independently published
Date of Publication: January 25, 2020
Number of Pages: 321

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She’s either being stalked or losing her mind.

A job at a camp in the rustic and often rugged landscape of West Texas offers Maribel Montgomery a chance to escape both, especially if she makes sure no one knows she’s there. But when the body of a woman washes up in the river on her first morning, her hopes of a safe place to start over are swept away.

The suspicion that she’s being watched follows her to her new home, and Maribel is forced to take a stand or keep running. Does she have the courage to face the danger stirring at the Pool of Siloam Camp? If she doesn’t, another girl might die. If she tries and fails, it could be her.

Circumstances force her into the acquaintance of Conner Pierce—a man with secrets of his own. Can Maribel risk working with him in order to save the next victim and find a missing girl? Or is he the killer?

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Review

A Firm Place to Stand by Lori Altebaumer makes you ask questions immediately from page one. And I could sense a sly grin as Altebaumer pulls you into the story, only causing the questions to multiply. Sort of like how dodgy people will answer your questions with more questions. Which would all be rather intriguing in any suspense book, but for some reason this surprised me even more coming from a book classified as a Christian, romantic suspense novel. My usual experience with the genre is that the protagonist struggles with their personal relationship with God and/or the act of forgiving a person who has hurt them terribly, all while wearing their heart on their sleeve.

Maribel Montgomery certainly has that struggle with the Almighty, but she does not face the obstacle of forgiving another person nor does she wear her heart on her sleeve. It’s refreshing to see a Christian author write about a character that is not already almost squeaky clean, nor are all the people around them unrealistically wholesome either. The characters, both the good and the bad ones, are people you have encountered in the real world. And she has developed each one so well that if you pulled a quote at random, chances are you could guess which character said it. That being said, it isn’t too difficult to figure out who is out to get Maribel.

You can pretty easily point out who is behind all the terrible happenings, but Altebaumer holds the answers as to why very close to her chest. Much like it takes a long time to draw out why Maribel has a shadow hanging over her, Altebaumer doesn’t reveal the motive until the very end of the book. And when I say the very end, I don’t mean the last few chapters or so. I mean you have like 5 or 6 pages remaining in your right hand, and you’re hoping that the last 3 pages aren’t book club discussion questions and an advertisement for the next book. To say that I was hooked and eager to reach the conclusion would be an understatement. I can’t remember the last time that I read a book so quickly and with such intense concentration.

Coming down from the high of finishing the book, I took the time to reflect on what I had just read. Forgiveness was a big theme in it, much like most Christian novels, but this was definitely one of those books that didn’t bash you over the head with scripture. The characters were realistic people with real world issues, no gloss or fluff to hide or soften the imperfections. The only thing that bugged me was that Maribel’s backstory felt like I missed out on reading a previous book. While Altebaumer does a wonderful job of exposition, the backstory was a little too interesting for there to not have been a book about Maribel’s previous life. If the author doesn’t have another book in the works already, I hope she considers the idea of writing a prequel to this one.

So who is this book for? Anyone who loves a good suspense novel, I’d say. Remember the name Lori Altebaumer. I have a feeling that she has so many books already mapped out in her head and I am eager to read the next one.

A life-long Texan, Lori lives in a small community not far from the rugged West Texas landscape she loves to write about. The mother of now-grown twins, she has learned that the secret to survival is a well-developed sense of humor and an active prayer life. After years spent working in the insurance business, Lori now uses her time to educate, inspire, encourage, and entertain through the written word.
 




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Review & Giveaway: Edison Jones and the Anti-Grav Elevator by Michael Scott Clifton

EDISON JONES AND THE ANTI-GRAV ELEVATOR
by
MICHAEL SCOTT CLIFTON
Genre: MG-YA / Action & Adventure / Men’s & Boys’
Publisher: Book Liftoff
Publication Date: February 11, 2020
Number of Pages: 282 pagesSCROLL DOWN FOR THE GIVEAWAY! 

Twelve-year-old Edison Jones is a prodigy with a passion for technology and inventions. Paralyzed from the waist down since the age of five, he hasn’t let his disability slow him down. Then his world changes overnight when his grandfather, a billionaire tech company owner, decides to enroll him in a public school. Algorithms, quantum physics, and digital engineering are easy. Finding his way in the bewildering world of boys and girls his own age is quite another thing . . . the biggest challenge of his life.




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Review

I can’t lie, when I first heard of Edison Jones and the Anti-Grav Elevator by Michael Scott Clifton, my brain immediately thought of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. While both elevators travel much farther than any elevator known to man, that is where the similarities end. Not to mention, Charlie Bucket isn’t an adolescent genius who invented the great glass elevator.

Edison Jones is like the Iron Man of junior high boys. He has this incredible mind that he uses to create amazing inventions that tend to skew toward military or aerospace applications. And like Iron Man, Edison uses one of his inventions, his anti-grav chair, to improve his quality of life. So that’s where the Iron Man comparison ends. While any kid who hasn’t been to public school before has a similar fear of fitting in and not making friends, amplify that by a thousand when you consider that Edison has no friends or acquaintances of his own age. His struggle with social norms among his peers reminds me of Sheldon Cooper minus the immature quirks. Edison is like a 30 year old man in a 12-year-old body.

All of the junior high scenes played out like a teen movie in my head with each archetype represented. You’ve got Hondo the jock, Carly the cheerleader, and Bree the nerdy girl who is beautiful once the glasses come off. While in my own junior high experience, these four kids wouldn’t be friends in school, much less outside of it; I was able to suspend my disbelief and really came to enjoy their relationship. It was refreshing to see them act outside of their character type as well. Believe it or not, I would have liked to see the bully, Markie Franks, fleshed out more. One minute he’s yelling the typical bad guy, “You haven’t see the last of me!” to using words like “droll” while mimicking a fine art curator to flipping the bird. And then you see him get dropped off in front of a nice home with a perfectly manicured lawn. So many questions…

While the character interactions were very entertaining, I was most impressed with the science in this novel. Clifton really must have a background in science or at least did a lot of research to pull the technology together. I’m no science whiz, but you can just tell when a book has some fantastical gadgets in it that are a little too good to be true. I loved how Edison batmans from his bedroom (replete with goodies like Hunger Games/Sanctum Sanctorum panels) down to a lab that is connected to a Raccoon City-esque labyrinth of LogicTech’s top secret facility. I lapped up all the details and kept thinking, ‘God I hope this becomes a movie someday.’ I think my excitement over each new invention even rivaled Edison and Hondo’s enthusiasm. The only real bummer for me was one scene that was a little too similar to Big Hero 6. It not only used the same technology, but the fake out that led to victory was almost identical.

Overall, I found the book a great pleasure to read. It seems to be aimed at men and boys, but I think that girls would really enjoy it as well. I like that it shows how people are complicated and that there is so much more than what meets the eye. I also feel like it’s a lesson on trusting your gut and not making excuses when life is unfair. I don’t know what Clifton’s intention is, but this book felt like a setup for an exciting series. I sure hope there are more Edison books to come. If not, I will definitely be on the lookout for the next book by this author.

Multi award-winning author Michael Scott Clifton, a public educator for over 38 years as a teacher, coach, and administrator, currently lives in Mount Pleasant, Texas, with his wife, Melanie, and family cat. An avid gardener, reader, and movie junkie, he enjoys all kinds of book and movie genres. His books contain aspects of all the genres he enjoys: action, adventure, magic, fantasy, and romance. His fantasy novels, The Janus Witch and The Open Portal, received 5-Star reviews from the prestigious Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews, and he has been a finalist in a number of short story contests, with Edges of Gray winning First Place in the Texas Authors Contest. Professional credits include articles published in the Texas Study of Secondary Education Magazine. Clifton’s latest book, The Open Portal, won a Feathered Quill Book Finalist Award, and launched the fantasy book series, Conquest of the Veil. 



 
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Review: Destiny’s Way by Ben H. English

DESTINY’S WAY
A Novel of the Big Bend
by
Ben H. English
Historical Fiction / Suspense
Publisher: Creative Texts Publishers
Date of Publication: January 18, 2020
Number of Pages: 363
 

Kate Blanchard woke up one morning in a dream home she could no longer afford, with a young son who needed a man’s influence, and not a friend among those who had claimed to be prior to her husband’s mysterious disappearance.

About all she had left was a ramshackle ranch along Terlingua Creek, sitting forlornly in the desolate reaches of the lower Big Bend. It was the only place left she could go. There she finds a home and a presence of something strange yet comforting that she can’t put her finger on or fully understand.

With that ethereal presence comes Solomon Zacatecas, a loner with his own past and a knowledge of her land near uncanny in nature. He helps her when no one else can and is honest when no one else will be, but she suspicions that he is not always completely so.

Yet her quiet, unassuming neighbor proves to be more than capable in whatever situation arises. That includes when standing alone against those who would take everything else that Kate had, including her life as well as her son’s.



PRAISE FOR DESTINY’S WAY:

“This is one of those rare books that you simply can’t put down. Ben English ‘s writing style is pure magic. He really brings this historical fiction book to life. Immediately, you are drawn to the main characters Kate and Solomon and feel as though you are right there next to them, experiencing what they are experiencing. Destiny’s Way is one that would do well on the Silver Screen.”
Catherine Eaves, published author“Ben does a superb job with this book! Excellent characters, true-to-life environment that is part and parcel of the story, twists and turns enough to make you wonder what is going on, and a slice of life down in Big Bend that rings true. That area has historically been full of ‘characters’ throughout its history, and Ben brings those characters into the book, raising the hair on the back of your neck. Highly recommended!”
J. L. Curtis, author of the Grey Man series“Ben, I love how your words and your memories reach out and connect the past with the present and touch so many people along the way. You are the connector! Bravo Zulu, my friend.”
Matt Walter, Museum of the Big Bend Curator



 

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Review

Destiny’s Way by Ben H. English quotes La Golondria, which is played during a dance scene in the book. I decided to fire up the version by Nana Mouskouri on YouTube to set the mood as I write this review. It is a lovely song to listen to and you get a sense of longing even if you don’t understand the lyrics. In retrospect, the longing and anguish of the swallow unable to return home can be understood by several characters in the novel, both living and nonliving.

The prologue is an action scene out of a good western – nothing flashy or corny – with grit and the grim reaper waiting in the wings. It is a very different scene and tone from the first chapter that takes place about 60 years later. English’s knack for writing exquisite detail takes a break from the tactical to give the reader a real sense of what the Big Bend looks and feels like. He takes us through Kate’s impression of the area to a geography lesson-like description and finishes off with a theological rendition of how the Big Bend was created. With just that one page of description, I understood how different that area was from anywhere else I have been to in Texas, but I could see how it comforted Kate in some way.

I wanted nothing but good things for Kate from the very beginning. Once you know what she has been through and had to overcome while raising a young boy alone, you can’t help but place yourself firmly in her corner. And it was a relief when Solomon the “Wolf” came into their lives. Don’t get me wrong; Kate is definitely not a damsel in distress. She is a very strong and capable woman with a very big heart. And when you adore a character with those qualities, you want them to be cherished and respected. English writes her so beautifully in stark contrast to the vile men who have nothing but bad intentions. And somewhere outside of that spectrum, the author gifts us with the enigma that is Solomon. I really enjoyed the characterizations in this book (even the baddies) but Solomon was so deep and wide.

The life lessons that Solomon teaches Jamie really resonated with me since I have a young son myself. I think that the code that he lives his life by is honorable and can be adopted by anyone regardless of gender or age. While their growing bond and Jamie’s transition to manhood are not the main storyline, they fueled my enthusiasm for the book because without them, Solomon would not be the protector of the small family and he likely would end up on the wrong side of the law to exact revenge. I have nothing but respect for people who follow through with their morals and lead by example.

In addition to writing quite a yarn, complete with spectral visitations, English very obviously knows his stuff when it comes to the locale, the animals, the weapons, and strategy. While I could have read hundreds of more pages about how Solomon helped Kate improve her home, I was truly gripped by the suspense and smarts behind the last act. English has a subtle touch when it comes to uncomfortable situations, so if you’re worried you can’t handle violence, don’t. I think that this book will appeal to many different readers: lovers of historical romance, historical fiction, westerns, you name it.

Ben H. English is an eighth-generation Texan who grew up in the Big Bend. At seventeen he joined the Marines, ultimately becoming a chief scout-sniper as well as a platoon sergeant. Later he worked counterintelligence and traveled to over thirty countries. 
 
At Angelo State University he graduated Magna Cum Laude along with other honors. Afterwards Ben had a career in the Texas Highway Patrol, holding several instructor billets involving firearms, driving, and defensive tactics.
 
His intimate knowledge of what he writes about lends credence and authenticity to his work. Ben knows how it feels to get hit and hit back, or being thirsty, cold, wet, hungry, alone, or exhausted beyond imagination. Finally, he knows of not only being the hunter but also the hunted.
 
Ben and his wife have two sons who both graduated from Annapolis. He still likes nothing better than grabbing a pack and some canteens and heading out to where few others venture.

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