Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark

The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark, Simon & Schuster, $26.99 list price, hardcover.

From the publisher:
Biblical scholar Jonathan Lyons believes he has found the rarest of parchments—a letter that may have been written by Jesus Christ. Stolen from the Vatican Library in the 1500s, the letter was assumed to be lost forever.  Now, under the promise of secrecy, Jonathan is able to confirm his findings with several other experts. But he also confides in a family friend his suspicion that someone he once trusted wants to sell the parchment and cash in. Within days Jonathan is found shot to death in his study. At the same time, his wife, Kathleen, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is found hiding in the study closet, incoherent and clutching the murder weapon. Even in her dementia, Kathleen has known that her husband was carrying on a long-term affair. Did Kathleen kill her husband in a jealous rage, as the police contend? Or is his death tied to the larger question: Who has possession of the priceless parchment that has now gone missing? It is up to their daughter, twenty-eight-year-old Mariah, to clear her mother of murder charges and unravel the real mystery behind her father’s death.

I couldn't put this book down once I started reading it. I started it on a Friday, figuring it would be my reading for the weekend but ended up finishing it in one day.  It was that good. 

I was intrigued by the idea of a personal letter written by Jesus Christ and Clark does a good job building a mystery around it and making possession of it a motive for murder while also exploring the moral dilemma as to whether someone with Alzheimer's should be held responsible for actions they have no memory of, even if it is murder.  There was no shortage of suspects which made the plot all the more interesting and although there were many characters introduced, the relationships were well-developed and each one played a necessary part in the story.  Sometimes the sheer number of characters can be distracting but that wasn't the case in this story. 

There was also a little romance thrown in involving Mariah although it wasn't developed until late in the book and felt a bit rushed to include it in the storyline before the conclusion.  That issue aside, this book lived up to my expectations and provided all the suspense and mystery I hoped for.  Although I haven't read many titles by Mary Higgins Clark, this one has me looking forward to her next book.

Friday, March 30, 2012

50% Off Murder: A Good Buy Girls Mystery by Josie Belle

50% Off Murder: A Good Buy Girls Mystery by Josie Belle, Berkley Prime Crime (division of Penguin Group), $7.99 list price, paperback

Maggie Gerber is one of the founding members of the Good Buy Girls club, a group of bargain-hunters living in St. Stanley, Virginia, who make it their mission to find the best prices on everything from groceries to top designer shoes, clothes, and handbags.  When the murdered body of a man is found in the basement of the public library, one of the members, librarian Claire Freemont is arrested when it is discovered that he is someone from her past.  Maggie and the rest of the group set out to find the real killer and things are complicated by the fact that Maggie's old flame who broke her heart years ago, Sam Collins, has returned to St. Stanley as the new sheriff.

This is the first book in this new cozy mystery series and I did enjoy it.  All of the characters are enjoyable, even Maggie's nemesis, Summer Phillips, a former classmate who has always had it out for Maggie.  The story flows well and although it isn't a nail-biter, the plot is good.  The murder gets solved, but other things are left undone for the next books in the series, including whether Maggie and Sam will become romantically involved.

The Power of a Positive Mom Devotional & Journal by Karol Ladd

The Power of a Positive Mom Devotional & Journal: 52 Monday Morning Motivations by Karol Ladd, Howard Books, $12.99 list price, paperback.

Using scripture and Biblical examples, the author offers 52 weekly devotions that focus on becoming a more positive mom and woman.  Each entry includes an inspiring scripture, guided journal section, quotes, a mom-related message, a list of choices the reader can consider, a prayer, and suggestions for further Bible reading. 

For example, in week two the title is I Will Help You and centers around the topic of God's provision using Exodus 4:10-12 as the scripture.  The journal prompt is "Do I trust God to be my strength in my weaknesses? What 'I can't's' do I need to give over to him?"  The choices section includes "This week I will choose to focus on what God can do, not what I can't do.  This week I will choose to ask him for help in all the tasks I undertake.  This week I will choose to seek God's leadership and guidance."  Then, this week I will choose to: (and the reader fills in her own choices).  Each weekly devotional follows the same format.

This is not a deep Bible study, but rather serves the purpose of guiding the reader to consider how she can become a more positive example to her children as she discovers what God says about this and how she can apply that truth to her own life.

The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas

The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas, New American Library (a division of Penguin Group), $15.00 list price, paperback

Rinette Leslie of Granmuir has been entrusted by the dying queen regent with a silver casket full of Scotland's darkest secrets, meant for newly crowned Mary, Queen of Scots.  But, on the day she is to deliver the box to the queen, Rinette's husband is brutally assassinated.  Realizing that others will do anything to obtain the power the secrets hold, Rinette appeals to the queen for justice for her husband's murder before she will surrender the casket.  It soon becomes apparent that even the queen's protection isn't enough as ruthless men will do anything to possess the box.  Rinette finds herself unsure of who she can trust as she tries to protect herself and her daughter, as well as the secrets the casket holds.

The setting of this novel is interesting, combining real historical figures with fictional ones, and giving the reader a glimpse of life in the royal court of Mary, Queen of Scots.  There are many characters in this story but thankfully the author provides a cast list at the beginning of the book outlining who they are and their connection to each other.  Within the story itself, the characters flow together in a way that isn't distracting.

While I did like the historical element of this book, psychic, supernatural themes don't appeal to me and in this story, Rinette is a flower reader who divines the future much like a someone who reads tea leaves, and for that reason, this book wasn't as enjoyable to read.

Dancing at the Chance by Deanna Cameron

Dancing at the Chance by Deanna Cameron, Berkley (a division of Penguin Group), $15.00 list price, paperback.

From the publisher: 
New York City in 1907 is a kingdom of endless possibilities for anyone who dares to dream. The Gilded Age has ended, and immigrants fill the bustling streets. The glamour of Broadway lures those who desire the limelight-but only a few are fortunate enough to thrive in the lights of a city that casts long, dark, and merciless shadows. 

Pepper MacClair and her mother arrived penniless in New York thirteen years ago, and their fortune has not changed. A dancer of fluid grace and motion, Pepper is still only one chorus girl among many, struggling for an opportunity to prove herself worthy of something bigger. 

For now, Pepper dances at The Chance, a rundown venue long past its prime. It is not only Pepper's workplace, where she has pushed her physical endurance to its limit, but also her home. And as the larger world changes around her and she is pulled into the intrigues of New York's elite, it is her last hope, not only to fulfill her dream, but to fulfill her heart.

Pepper MacClair starts out as a seamstress at The Chance theater, and makes her way into the chorus line a a dancer.  When the owner's son, Robert DeGraaf, returns to take over the theater due to his father's illness, a romance sparks between them but Pepper soon begins to question Robert's motives and is also torn by her feelings for someone else.  It becomes evident that Robert doesn't value The Chance as his father did and wants to sell it rather than return it to it's glory days.  Pepper must decide whether to follow her heart or her career, and with either choice, others she cares about will be affected.

This book is interesting with it's historical setting and light romance.  It's the first I've read by this author and although it isn't a genre I am typically drawn to, it was entertaining and easy to read over a weekend.  I did like the characters and even though there were several, the story maintained the focus on Pepper while still developing the relationships with the others.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Perfect Square: A Shipshewana Amish Mystery by Vannetta Chapman

A Perfect Square: A Shipshewana Amish Mystery by Vannetta Chapman, Zondervan, $12.99 list price, paperback.

From the publisher: 
There's more to the quaint northern Indiana town of Shipshewana than handcrafted quilts, Amish-made furniture, immaculate farms and close-knit families. When a dead girl is found floating in a local pond, murder is also afoot. And Reuben, brother of Deborah's best friend's fiance, is in jail as the suspect!Reuben refuses to divulge any information, even to clear himself of a crime Deborah is certain he didn't commit. So, with her English friend Callie---fellow sleuth and owner of Daisy's Quilt Shop---Deborah sets out to uncover the truth. But the mystery deepens when an elderly man seeks Callie's help in finding his long-lost daughter, missing since the days of the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornadoes. An old man who has lost his past. A young man who may lose his future. Once again Deborah and Callie find themselves trying to piece together a crazy quilt of lives and events---one that can bring unexpected touches of God's grace and resolve the tragedy that has shaken this quiet Amish community.

This is the second of three books in the Shipshewana Amish/Quilt Shop mystery series and I enjoyed this one as much as the first.  It is all the more interesting because I live in the area where this story takes place and while I know it is highly unlikely that an "English" quilt shop owner and those from the Amish community would team up to solve local crime, it's still entertaining as mention is made of towns, places, and culture I recognize.

I had to resist the urge to skip ahead to see what happened to the Amish woman found in the pond and what her connection was to Deborah's family because there was such mystery surrounding it.  Likewise with the elderly Amish man who wants Callie's help in finding his daughter who, as just a toddler at the time, disappeared during the tornado outbreak in 1965.  I just wanted to get to the end to find out what happened to everyone which made this book hard to put down so I read it in one weekend.

This is Christian fiction with a central theme of faith done in a balanced way that doesn't get preachy and doesn't distract from the plot.  There is also just enough romance thrown in to appeal to women readers, especially where Callie is concerned.  It seemed her dating life would head one direction by the end of the first book, only to have it take different turn in this one, but anything can happen in the next book in this fun series.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More-With-Less: A World Community Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre

More-With-Less: A World Community Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre, Herald Press, $24.99 list price, hardcover spiral bound, updated edition.

Although written before "sustainable living" was a popular media point, this cookbook is a collection of "recipes and suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world's limited food resources" as the subtitle says. 

The first 44 pages address philosopies of food such as the issues of over-consumption whether it be too many calories, too much protein, fats, and sugar, or too many processed foods, then follows with recipes that are healthier with the suggestion to buy local and organic when possible.  My only issue is the implication that eating less will solve the problem of world hunger which I don't believe will happen.  Even so, from health and responsible living points of view, it makes sense to not over-consume anything.

It does not promote vegetarianism (although a vegetarian will find plenty of recipes), but rather a diet that is more plant-based (beans, legumes, vegetables, etc.) while still using meat in lesser amounts.  However, there are still a lot of dairy products (cheese, etc.) used in the recipes, as well as white flour and sugar so those thinking this is a health food cookbook will probably be disappointed.  The focus is on economy more than health food, but any of the recipes can be modified if desired, using whole grain flour instead of white, for example.

The chapters for recipes include breads, cereals, beans and legumes, main dishes, eggs and dairy, meats, and fish, soups, vegetables, salads, desserts, snacks, and a chapter on gardening and preserving.  There are also helpful charts for substitutions, recommended nutrient allowances, equivalent measurements, and metric conversion.

There are several recipes I have bookmarked to try.  I did make the Cottage Cheese Casserole (p. 123) which was a pasta dish that tasted similar to lasagne, and I added diced zucchini to the ingredients for even more vegetables per serving.  Other recipes I hope to make soon include Garden Supper Casserole, Swiss Eggs, Middle Eastern Lentil Soup, and Baked Lentils With Cheese.  Any of the vegetarian dishes can have meat added; likewise, dishes with meat could be made without it, making this is a versatile cookbook.  Although there are no photos of recipes included, the spiral binding makes the book lay flat while using, something that is always appreciated.

Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre

Living More With Less: 30th Anniversary Edition by Doris Janzen Longacre (Revised and updated by Valerie Weaver-Zercher), Herald Press, $14.99 list price, paperback.

In 1980, before "sustainable living" and "green" became trendy buzz-words, Doris Janzen Longacre wrote Living More with Less as a practical guide for a simple and healthy lifestyle with the future of the planet and the plight of mankind in mind.  It isn't a book written to make one feel guilty for having more than those in third-world countries, but rather helps the reader determine what responsible living can look like.  When those of us who have much choose to live more simply and not waste the resources at our disposal, it can create a ripple effect that helps those who are in need. Whether it be how we obtain our food, what energy sources we use, or even how we dispose of trash, it all makes a difference.

The book is divided into three sections: The Legacy of Living More with Less, The Life Standards, and Living Testimonies (essays from various authors about their own experiences of adopting a "more with less" lifestyle).  It was this last section that was most interesting to me, addressing the topics of money and stewardship, homes and homekeeping; gardens, farms, and markets; cooking and eating, clothes and bodies, technology and media, churches, strengthening each other and organizing communities, among others. 

I enjoyed the section on homekeeping in which the author challenges the reader to consider what is most important - making a home pretty or making it functional according to the needs of the occupants.  She doesn't suggest that pretty doesn't have a place but rather points out that if that is the starting place, then we end up at the mercy of the magazines instead of first asking who we are as a family and what is the purpose of each room.  Then, the decorative choices can be made with sustainability, the environment, finances, and functionality in mind.

I like this book for the perspective it gives without being preachy.  The authors simply pose the questions we all need to consider and then, with some practical tips included, we can develop a plan for simpler living according to our own convictions, lifestyles, and resources.  It will look different for each of us, and while I'm not willing to go to some of the extremes presented as examples in the book, it does serve as a springboard for thinking through the process.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Almost Amish: One Woman's Quest For a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life by Nancy Sleeth

Almost Amish: One Woman's Quest For a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life by Nancy Sleeth, Tyndale House Publishers, $14.99 list price, paperback.

From the publisher:
Have you ever stopped to think, Maybe the Amish are on to something? Look around. We tweet while we drive, we talk while we text, and we surf the Internet until we fall asleep. We are essentially plugged in and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Rather than mastering technology, we have allowed technology to master us. We are an exhausted nation. No one has enough time, everyone feels stressed out, and our kids spend more hours staring at a screen each week than they do playing outside.

It’s time to simplify our lives, make faith and family the focal point, and recapture the lost art of simple living. Building on the basic principles of Amish life, Nancy Sleeth shows readers how making conscious choices to limit (and in some cases eliminate) technology’s hold on our lives and getting back to basics can help us lead calmer, more focused, less harried lives that result in stronger, deeper relationships with our families, friends, and God.

I admire people who are able to do what this author did in making the choice to limit or even eliminate technology that wastes time and resources, and choosing instead a simpler lifestyle patterned after that of the Amish.  I live in an area that has large Amish and conservative Mennonite communities so I'm aware of the kinds of things the author is writing about and while I'm careful to not put the Amish up on a pedestal as being more holy or better than everyone else, I do admire their thriftiness, respect for natural resources, and the focus on relationships and community instead of Facebook status updates or following friends on Twitter.

What I liked about this book is that, while based on Biblical principles, it isn't preachy about "save the earth" but instead offers tangible ways we can live a more sustainable lifestyle that benefits not only the environment but our overall health as well.  Incorporating conscious choices about how we will eat, what kinds of homes we will live in, methods of transportation, how we will dispose of trash, and how we will spend our waking hours can all add up to a life that is less stressful and often more economical.

The chapters include the topics of home, technology, finances, nature, simplicity, service, security, community, families, and faith.  In each, Sleeth compares the standard American way of living in each of these areas to that of the Amish.  She isn't suggesting that anyone live without electricity, meet in homes for Sunday services, resort to horse and buggies for transportation, but she does offer tips on how to transition from a wasteful, technology based lifestyle to one that is more simple.

The chapters I appreciated the most were the ones on home (Amish homes are simple, uncluttered, and clean) and technology (technology serves as a tool and does not rule as a master).  The chapter on security was also good as it points to the truth that the only true security, despite technology and everything else, is found in God.

This is a great book for anyone who desires to live a simpler life.  For me, it serves as a motivational resource without guilt or feeling I have to "go Amish" in order to achieve that kind of life.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

You're Already Amazing: Embracing Who You Are, Becoming All God Created You to Be by Holley Gerth

You're Already Amazing: Embracing Who You Are, Becoming All God Created You to Be by Holley Gerth, Revell (A Division of Baker Publishing Group), $13.99 list price, paperback.

Holley Gerth offers a positive message that as Christian women, we are much more than pretty...we are wonderfully made. We are much more than likeable...we are deeply loved. We are much more than okay...we are daughters of the King.  Using scripture and her own journey from doubt to truth, Gerth shows readers how to discover God's plan and purpose for them.

I liked the conversational and sometimes humorous style of the author which makes this book easy to read.  As far as the subject goes, I was happy that the focus wasn't on building up one's SELF-esteem, despite the title that implies otherwise.  Us being amazing has less to do with who we are and everything to do with who God is and what He did for us and does through us. Perfection on our part is not required because God is already perfect.  Gerth does a good job communicating that truth.

There was one passage that I especially enjoyed where Gerth writes, "Lord," I asked, "why do women feel as if we're not enough?"  It seemed I heard a whsiper in response: "Because they're not." ..."Excuse me, God, it sounded like you said we're not enough.  Could you repeat that, pretty please?"  Again, gently and firmly, "You are not enough." By then I started thinking perhaps my heart had dialed the wrong number and the devil was on the line.  But in that pause it seemed God finished the sentence: "You are not me you are so much more."

Some of the issues covered include dealing with sin that entangles us, finding God's purpose for our lives, why it's difficult to see ourselves as God does, what we have to offer as women, and how our relationships with others can help or hinder our view of ourselves.  There is also a study guide included that is helpful for a group study or as a way to individually dig deeper.

I did enjoy reading this book and came away with a better perspective of who I am in Christ instead of looking to what the world says I should be, look like, do, or think.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Today is Your Best Day: Discovering God's Best For You by Roy Lessin

Today is Your Best Day: Discovering God's Best For You by Roy Lessin, New Leaf Publishing, $14.99 list price, hardcover.

This little devotional comes with a big message: God loves you, cares about you and is on your side. The meditations focus on the truth of how God promises to sustain us through any trial as found in scripture, leading the reader to discover why today really is his or her best day regardless of the circumstances. There are 60 readings, with each including a scripture followed by the thoughts of the author, Roy Lessin, co-founder of Dayspring.

Each day's title begins with Today is Your Best Day, followed by topics such as Because of Faith, Because Christ is in You, Because of Mercy, Because of God's Plan, Because of God's Wisdom, Because of God's Timing, and Because of God's Character, to name a few.

I liked the chapter Because of Grace in which the author lists some of the benefits of God's grace including salvation, sufficiency, edification, hope, victory, and abundance, with an explanation of each that encouraged me to stop and think about how I can experience grace in my life.

This is a nice devotional for a light daily meditation that doesn't dig too deep, although the reader can certainly use the topics as a springboard for more in-depth study.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Classic Zucchini Cookbook by Nancy C. Ralston, Marynor Jordan, and Andrea Chesman

The Classic Zucchini Cookbook: 225 Recipes for All Kinds of Squash by Nancy C. Ralston, Marynor Jordan, and Andrea Chesman, Storey Publishing, $16.95 list price, paperback.

Zucchini is one of my favorite vegetables so it's nice to have a whole cookbook devoted to it and squash in general.  The book starts with a tutorial on the different kinds of summer and winter squash, followed by chapters for Starters, Salads, and Soups; Vegetarian Main Dishes, Seafood, Chicken, and Meat Main Dishes; Summer Squash Side Dishes, Winter Squash SideDishes, Breads, and Desserts, plus a chapter on pickling, preserving, and freezing.

Two recipes that turned out well for me were the Cheddar Cheese Soup with Zucchini and Ground Beef and Zucchini Italian Casserole.  There are many more I look forward to trying.  The recipes use easily found ingredients and are suitable for beginner cooks as well as the more experienced.  The only downside is that there are no photos at all.

The Fresh Egg Cookbook by Jennifer Trainer Thompson

The Fresh Egg Cookbook by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Storey Publishing, $14.95 list price, paperback.

This cookbook offers over 100 delicious recipes for eggs that go beyond scrambled eggs for breakfast, although there are recipes for those, too.  Traditional recipes are included for soft-boiled and poached eggs, French toast, eggs Florentine, huevo rancheros, deviled eggs, eggnog, and homemade mayonnaise.  Beyond the breakfast fare, there are also recipes for appetizers, main dishes, casseroles, soups and stews, and desserts.  This book is also a brief tutorial on chicken breeds and tips for raising chickens based on the author's own experiences.

Chapters include Classics, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, Egg-Cess, Vegetarian Dishes, and Desserts.  The Baked Eggs in Tomatoes were great and made a nice change for lunch.  Other recipes I hope to try soon are Gruyere & Broccoli Quiche, MJ's Egg Casserole, and Friday Night Frittata.

The many color photographs are a plus although I would have liked to see more photos of the actual recipes rather than baskets of eggs, chickens, chicken figurines, and the author's family.  It isn't that those photos aren't charming, but it is a cookbook so seeing more of the recipes would be preferable. The other downside with this book is that it doesn't lay open when trying to use a recipe.  It would be perfect if it was spiral-bound.

Those two issues aside, I do like this cookbook and plan on trying many of the recipes.

Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables by Andrea Chesman

Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables by Andrea Chesman, Storey Publishing, $18.95 list price, paperback.

With 175 recipes, this cookbook offers many different ways to use vegetables in salads and side dishes, main dish meals, soups, and even desserts.  The recipes are easy to follow and use ingredients that are easily found in most grocery stores or farmer's markets (or one's own garden).  One downside of the cookbook is that no photos are included.

The recipe chapters are categorized by season with lists of individual vegetables, so if you want some ideas for using up the surplus of pumpkins or zucchini from your garden, you will find recipes under the appropriate season chapter by vegetable rather than type of recipe.  However, if you are looking for a general type of recipe for something like desserts or pasta dishes, you will need to look them up in the index rather than the table of contents.  There are also recipes for salad dressings, sauces, broths, and condiments, as well as a section on preserving and canning.

This cookbook inspires me to try recipes using vegetables I typically avoid such as rutabagas, swiss chard, and parsnips, because I don't know what to do with them except maybe to boil them and serve them with butter and salt and pepper.  The recipe for Tomato Cabbage Soup was good and a few others I have bookmarked to try are Spicy Skillet Potatoes, Tomato-Mozzarella Salad, Grilled Asparagus and Chicken Salad, and Roasted Spiced Rutabaga Sticks.

Overall I do like this cookbook for the motivation it gives me to try different ways to serve vegetables as side dishes and add more to main dishes.

High Protein, Low GI, Bold Flavor: Recipes to Boost Health and Promote Weight Loss by Fiona Carns

High Protein, Low GI, Bold Flavor: Recipes to Boost Health and Promote Weight Loss by Fiona Carns, The Experiment Publishing, $18.95 list price, paperback.

This cookbook focuses on recipes that have a lower glycemic index (GI) for those who need a high protein, lower carb diet to manage blood sugar levels and weight.  The emphasis is on high-quality ingredients such as lean meats and fish, whole grains, and low GI fruits and vegetables.  It's difficult to stick with a low GI diet when things like white flour, sugar, pasta, and potatoes are either eliminated or used in very small amounts but this cookbook offers so many great recipes that those foods will not be missed.

The book includes an introduction to the high-protein, low-GI diet and the science behind it, a guide to cooking family-friendly meals, and tips on pantry staples.  There are beautiful color photographs which is always a plus for a cookbook and complete nutritional data is included for each recipe.  Recipe categories include breakfasts and light lunches, main-meal soups and salads, fish, chicken, meats, side dishes, and desserts.  I enjoyed the Open Omelette with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, and Olives with just 7 grams of carbs, and Broccoli with Lemon Olive Oil and Parmesan (6 grams of carbs).
Some of the recipes seem high in carbohydrates per serving but as the author points out, higher carbs can also be low-GI so for most people this doesn't present a problem. Those with diabetes may have to revise recipes to lower the carb grams if needed.  For example, the slow-cooked lamb recipe has 63 carb grams per serving and includes a white bean puree, tomato sauce, and carrots. I could reduce the carbs by eliminating the puree and carrots and substituting diced or crushed tomatoes for the sauce. For diabetics or those with insulin resistance, 63 carb grams in one meal may be too many even if it is low-GI. But even with the higher-carb recipes, there are plenty of choices that offer lower grams per serving. 

The recipes are clearly written and suitable for cooks of any level, and they use common ingredients that can be found in most local grocery stores.

Agony of the Leaves: A Tea Shop Mystery by Laura Childs, mystery, fiction

Agony of the Leaves: A Tea Shop Mystery by Laura Childs, Berkley Prime Crime/Penguin Group, $25.95 list price, hardcover.

From the publisher:
The opening of the aquarium is a major Charleston event, and Theodosia has been hired to cater tea, scones, and sandwiches for the private party to honor dignitaries and big buck donors. Things are going swimmingly, until Theodosia escapes the party for a momentary rest, only to discover the body of a man entangled in a net, drowned in one of the aquarium's state-of-the-art tanks.

To make matters worse, the victim is Theodosia's former boyfriend Parker Scully. The EMTs on the scene think Parker's drowning was an accident, but when Theodosia notices what look like defense wounds on his hands, she realizes that someone wanted Parker dead. The local police aren't keen on hearing her theory-especially because of her ties to the victim-so Theodosia knows that if she wants Parker's killer brought to justice, she'll have to jump into the deep end and start her own investigation.

As a fan of the tea shop series by Laura Childs, I enjoyed this latest book.  In the last one, Theodosia's relationship with Parker was ending but it was a surprise to have his character killed off so soon, and even more of a surprise to discover he already had another girlfriend who becomes a suspect, along with several others who were involved with Parker on a business level in the competitive restaurant industry.  As ususal, Theodosia and her employee and friend, Drayton, get caught up in investigating a murder that ends up putting them in danger.

I always like the recipes that are included from the tea shop treats described in the story.  This cozy mystery was easy to read in one day and would be a good one to take along to the beach or on vacation this summer.  I'm looking forward to the next one.

Cat's Claw: A Pecan Springs Mystery by Susan Wittig Albert

Cat's Claw: A Pecan Springs Mystery by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley Prime Crime/Penguin Group, $25.95 list price, hardcover.

From the publisher:
Police Chief Sheila Dawson believes the death of Pecan Spring's computer guru, Larry Kirk, to be a suicide, perhaps triggered by his painful divorce. Further investigation reveals that Kirk's death wasn't self-inflicted. And the truth is reinforced by her friend China Bayles' news-Larry recently asked her for legal advice in regards to a stalker.

As a police chief in a male-dominated force, Sheila meets many challenges, especially when her theories rock the boat in high profile cases like that of George Timms. He was caught breaking into Larry's computer shop to steal his own computer back because of dangerous personal information it contained. Now that Larry is dead, she's sure it's connected to the burglary. And she's also sure she'll get plenty of resistance on her assessment...

Timms's time to turn himself in to the police comes and goes, and he's nowhere to be found. In her investigation, Sheila uncovers secrets, terrible secrets that would drive anyone to kill. So who then? It's up to Sheila to prove she's got what it takes to hunt down the predator that's loose on the streets of Pecan Springs.

I'm a long-time fan of the China Bayles series by Albert and while she is still featured in this new series, the focus is on Sheila Dawson as she navigates her role as the new police chief amidst a murder investigation.  She is a strong character, so it works to have the series shift to her while maintaining China's presence. 

Even though I guessed who the killer was before it was revealed, the story kept me interested as the details of motive and possible accomplices were worked out in the end.  It was easy to read in a weekend while still having the kind of substantial storyline I've come to expect from the author.  As always, the herbal facts sprinkled into the storyline were interesting.

I think a spin-off series highlighting other characters from the China Bayles mysteries will work and I look forward to reading the next one.

Illusion by Frank Peretti

Illusion: A Novel by Frank Peretti, Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), $26.99 list price, hardcover.

From the publisher:
Dane and Mandy, a popular magic act for forty years, are tragically separated by a car wreck that claims Mandy’s life—or so everyone thinks. Even as Dane mourns and tries to rebuild his life without her, Mandy, supposedly dead, awakes in the present as the nineteen-year-old she was in 1970. Distraught and disoriented in what to her is the future, she is confined to a mental ward until she discovers a magical ability to pass invisibly through time and space to escape. Alone in a strange world, she uses her mysterious powers to eke out a living, performing magic on the streets and in a quaint coffee shop.

Hoping to discover an exciting new talent, Dane ventures into the coffee shop and is transfixed by the magic he sees, illusions that even he, a seasoned professional, cannot explain. But more than anything, he is emotionally devastated by this teenager who has never met him, doesn’t know him, is certainly not in love with him, but is in every respect identical to the young beauty he first met and married some forty years earlier.

They begin a furtive relationship as mentor and protégée, but even as Dane tries to sort out who she really is and she tries to understand why she is drawn to him, they are watched by secretive interests who not only possess the answers to Mandy’s powers and misplacement in time but also the roguish ability to decide what will become of her.

I'm a fan of Peretti's stories that blend supernatural plots with a Christian theme, and this one took a different turn with a time travel plot, taking the reader in and out of the past and present lives of Dane and Mandy, a married couple who comprised a magic act in the entertainment industry.  When Mandy dies in a car accident, or so everyone thinks, Dane is devastated, but when he discovers a young woman who looks just like Mandy did at that age, and has the same uncanny ability to do magic tricks, he is perplexed, but so is she because she doesn't understand the connection she seems to have to him.

At first the story is hard to follow because so little is explained in the beginning when the young woman wakes up to find herself decades in the future.  We know on some level it must be Mandy but it is impossible...or is it?  That is the question Peretti brings to the reader as the story takes twists and turns, but stick with it and the questions get answered.

I did enjoy this book but had to concentrate more than usual so as not to miss some important piece of information that explained the strange things going on within the time-space continuum storyline.  I think fans of Peretti's books will welcome this newest title.  It falls under the Christian fiction genre, but there really wasn't as much of a Christian theme to it compared to some of his other novels.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Organized Cook Weekly Meal Plan System by Toni Spilsbury

The Organized Cook Weekly Meal Plan System: The Busy Mom's Remedy for Dinnertime Ruts & Runaway Grocery Bills by Toni Spilsbury, Tate Publishing, $16.99 list price, paperback.

I always appreciate a cookbook that offers ways to streamline the meal planning and cooking process, uses (planned) leftovers to save time later, and uses regular ingredients I can find in my local grocery store.  The Organized Cook offers all of that in a format that is easy to read and includes color photos of the dishes.  Even the weekly grocery lists are included.

As the title suggests, the menus are for weeknight dinners, Monday through Friday, and include a main entree plus a side dish or salad.  Desserts aren't included.  The idea is to reuse ingredients throughout the week.  For example, weekly meal plan #3 is Slow-Cooker Beef Roast, Sesame Baked Chicken, Peppy Spaghetti, Beef Enchiladas, and Chinese Chicken Salad.  Extra portions of the beef and chicken are cooked with the Monday and Tuesday meals to be included in the other recipes that week. 

The recipes are suitable for cooks of any level.  However, the amounts seem to be small for the number of servings (four per recipe), but the author does suggest that for families with larger appetities (or a husband and always hungry teenage boy, in my case), the recipes can be doubled which I found to be about right for my family and given that my husband usually takes dinner leftovers for lunch at work the next day. 

While I haven't yet tried any of the 12 weekly plans exactly as outlined in the book, I do believe they do work to streamline weeknight meals and would save money.  The recipes tried so far have been good (Sesame Baked Chicken and Italian Sausage and Peppers).  Any of the recipes can also be revised to reflect the tastes one's family prefers, and extra ingredients such as vegetables could be added as desired.

Overall I do like this cookbook as a resource for good recipes, menu planning, and keeping the food budget under control.

The Healthy Green Drink Diet by Jason Manheim

The Healthy Green Drink Diet: Advice and Recipes to Energize, Alkalize, Lose Weight, and Feel Great by Jason Manheim, Skyhorse Publishing, $14.99 list price, hardcover.

I've always been skeptical of green drinks, maybe because they remind me of the unappetizing, gloppy drink Rene Russo's character always drank in The Thomas Crown Affair movie. However, this book has changed my mind.

Jason Manheim, founder of, has compiled recipes using vegetables and fruit that really do taste good, not to mention being packed with anti-oxidants and vitamins you just can't get from a pill.  One thing I liked about this book is that it encourages users to substitute ingredients according to personal tastes and come up with their own combinations.

I don't have a juicer but most of the recipes can be made using a regular blender with the result being more like a smoothie than juice.  I made a drink called The Grape Pear that tasted good, using grapes, a pear, an orange, and kale (which I didn't have on hand so I substituted spinach).  I also got a little daring and made my own smoothie using frozen blueberries, canned (in juice) pineapple, spinach, avocado, coconut milk, and some chia seeds for extra fiber.  It surprisingly also tasted good and left me with a sense of well-being because it made me feel I was doing something healthy by getting in extra servings of fruits and vegetables in one drink.  Although Manheim makes the case that fruit and vegetables have more protein than most people think, I will likely add some whey protein powder or perhaps Greek yogurt from time to time for extra protein as a meal replacement drink.

There are beautiful photographs throughout the book that inspire healthy eating. Chapters include Why Go Green?, The Greens, Adding Fruit, Adding "Superfoods", Sweeteners (If You Must), Tips: Buying, Saving, Growing, and Storing; Think Supplements, Not Diet; Equipment and How-To, and Juicing vs. Blending.

I do like this book and look forward to trying more of the recipes to get more nutrients into my diet and increase my veggie servings.

Due or Die: A Library Lover's Mystery by Jenn McKinlay

Due or Die: A Library Lover's Mystery by Jenn McKinlay, Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin Group), $7.99 list price, paperback.

Carrie Rushton, the newly elected president of the Friends of the Library, has been accused of murdering her husband but Library Director Lindsay Norris and their circle of mutual friends from the Briar Creek Crafternoon Club don't believe it.  Lindsay sets out to prove Carrie's innocence and find the real killer.  To complicate things, a nor'easter hits Briar Creek, Connecticut and buries the town in snow, leaving Lindsay vulnerable to the real killer while local police are distracted by the storm.

This is the second book in the Library Lovers series so the budding romance between Lindsay and Mike Sullivan, known as Sully, continues.  Readers are also introduced to Lindsay's new puppy, Heathcliff, who was abandoned in the library dropbox, adding an endearing storyline to the series.

I do enjoy this series.  The characters are likeable (except for the sour Ms. Cole who works at the library) and believable and the author does a good job keeping the story interesting with a nice balance of suspense, romance, and daily life.

Little Shop of Homicide: A Devereaux's Dime Store Mystery by Denise Swanson

Little Shop of Homicide: A Devereaux's Dime Store Mystery by Denise Swanson, Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin Group), $7.99 list price, paperback.

Devereaux (Dev) Sinclair quit her job in the city to purchase an old-fashioned dime store in her small Missouri hometown.  Hopes of living a quiet life dwindle when Joelle Ayers, fiancee of Dev's ex-boyfriend, is murdered and a local cop on a power trip and with revenge on his mind is determined that Dev is responsible.  Dev enlists the help of her two best friends, Poppy and  Boone, to help clear her name and find the real killer.  She also unexpectedly finds help as well as plenty of distraction from handsome Jake Del Vecchio, a deputy U.S. marshal and grandson of a neighbor.

This is the first in a new series by this author and I liked it well enough to read it in one evening.  There are lots of characters but the author does a good job of focusing on the main ones without bogging the reader down with the backgrounds of the rest.  The romance between Jake and Dev moves quickly but is left open as to whether it will continue or not so it will be interesting to see what happens with that.

As a light, cozy mystery, I did enjoy this and look forward to the next one in the series.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Downfall: An Intervention Novel by Terri Blackstock

Downfall: An Intervention Novel by Terri Blackstock, Zondervan Publishing, $14.99 list price, paperback.

From the publisher:
Emily Covington has turned her life around after a drug addiction, but her family still has trouble trusting her. Though Emily has committed herself to a year-long treatment program and has been sober for almost a year beyond that, even her mother walks on eggshells around her, fearing she'll relapse. After her behavior during her drug years, Emily realizes she has a lot to prove. When police discover a homemade bomb under Emily's car, and she then learns the wife of one of her friends was murdered that same morning, she knows things are deadly serious. But who wants Emily dead? And why? A conversation she had with two men, an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and a plan for a double murder all conspire for one explosive ride ... and Emily is the only one who can identify the killer and save the life of the next potential victim. As she frantically works to solve this ever more complicated puzzle, Emily finds herself playing right into the killer's hands.

This is the third volume in the Intervention series featuring Emily Covington, her mother Barbara, and brother Lance.  Besides the plot of someone targeting Emily, the book also deals with the issue of a recovering addict working to gain back the trust of family and friends.  As Christian fiction, I appreciated that Blackstock has the characters turn to their faith in the midst of adversity without it becoming preachy. This is especially evident as Emily struggles to overcome the ever-present temptation of returning to drugs and alcohol when things get tough.

The book was easy to read while having all the elements I look for in a good mystery, the main ones being that it holds my interest through each page and surprises me when the killer is revealed.

I'm a fan of Blackstock's novels and look forward to the next one, whether it be a continuation of this series or something new.

Sew the Perfect Gift: 25 Handmade Projects from Top Designers

Sew the Perfect Gift: 25 Handmade Projects from Top Designers, That Patchwork Place/Martingale & Company, $24.95 list price, paperback.

This book is a joy to look at with the colorful photos of handbags and totes, pillows, quilts, table runners, bracelets, a curling iron case, and upcycled projects including a cup cozy and wristlet purse, plus many more...25 fun projects in all by top designers.

Many of the projects include full size patterns to trace or photocopy, and the rest are given as measurements for cutting.  There are plenty of photos and diagrams that accompany clear instructions that even a novice seamstress will be able to follow.  Some of the items require machine sewing and others are hand-sewn.  The first project that caught my eye was the felt journal cover that is sized to cover a composition notebook, but I will revise it to fit sketch pads as Christmas gifts for the little girls in our family who love to draw and color.

I'm a fan of craft books by Martingale & Company and this one met all my expectations with the color photos, glossy pages, and inspiring crafts. 
Project images from the publisher (click on link to see more):

Fast and Fun First Quilts: 18 Projects for Instant Gratification by Sara Diepersloot

Fast and Fun First Quilts: 18 Projects for Instant Gratification by Sara Diepersloot, That Patchwork Place/Martingale & Company, $24.99 list price, paperback.

I've always been intimidated by quiltmaking but this book gives me the confidence to try it again.  The projects are beautiful and look more time-consuming and detailed than they really are.  While it isn't a "how to quilt" book, it is appropriate for quilters of any level and basic sewing skills are assumed.  The idea is to have projects that can be done quickly by using large pieces of fabric, strip quilting rather than intricate smaller pieces, and simple techniques.

There are many beautiful color photos to inspire a crafter, plus many drawings and diagrams that accompany clear instructions.  Another feature I appreciated in this book is that the author gives alternatives to some of the projects with suggestions for different color combinations, fabric designs, etc.  For example, with the valentine theme quilt, a suggestion for a baby quilt done in different colors and fabrics is shown.

The 18 projects in this book will inspire any quilter and serve as a springboard to creating an original quilt using the techniques taught.

Project images from the publisher (click on link to view more):

A to Z of Crochet: The Ultimate Guide for the Beginner to Advanced Crocheter

A to Z of Crochet: The Ultimate Guide for the Beginner to Advanced Crocheter, Martingale & Company, $28.95 list price, hardcover spiral bound.

This is a great book that teaches all the basics of crochet to a beginner, as well as more advanced stitches and techniques for the more experienced.  This is not a book of projects but rather focuses on how to crochet.  For a visual person like myself, the hundreds of photographs of real hands holding real crochet hooks and yarn to demonstrate the techniques is what sets this book apart from other "how to crochet" books I've seen.  The written instructions are clear as well.

Chapters include Before You Begin (basic information you need to know), From the Beginning (tips and tricks to get you started), Stitches, More Stitches and Techniques, Added Touches (special techniques such as buttonholes, edgings, etc.), and Finishing.  I counted at least 22 different stitches taught in this book, not to mention several finishing and embellishment techniques.

Anyone who wants to learn to crochet for the first time, or those who learned years ago and need a refresher course, and even experienced crocheters will benefit from the wealth of information in this book.  I taught myself to crochet years ago and still have the hooks but haven't picked them up for a long time.  This book has motivated me to start this craft again.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Probability of Murder: A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery by Ada Madison

The Probability of Murder: A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery by Ada Madison, Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin Group), $7.99 list price, paperback.

Math professor Sophie Knowles' weekly parties celebrating famous mathematicians and scientists are a big hit on campus but while enjoying the latest gathering and anticipating a getaway with her medevac pilot boyfriend Bruce Granville, the festivities take a somber turn as emergency vehicles arrive at the campus library.  Sophie is heartbroken to discover that her good friend and librarian Charlotte Crocker has been murdered. 

The romantic getaway must be put on hold as Sophie sets out to discover who killed Charlotte and why, but in doing so things about her friend that she never could have imagined begin to surface that shed light on a possible motive and Sophie finds herself a target as she closes in on the killer. 

This is the second book in this series but the first one I've read and I did enjoy it.  I was concerned that with the main character being a math professor, I'd be distracted by math related subjects that I wouldn't find interesting but that wasn't the case.  It was an interesting storyline and easy to read, making this cozy mystery a good one to take along for a commute to work, time at the beach, or a weekend at home.

Murder, She Wrote: Skating on Thin Ice by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

Murder, She Wrote: Skating on Thin Ice by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain, New American Library (The Penguin Group), $7.99 list price, paperback.

Olympic pairs figure skating hopeful Christine Allen arrives in Cabot Cove to train with her partner, Russian skater Alexei Olshansky, under the instruction of former gold medalist Brian Devlin; one a perfectionist with a quick temper and the other a chauvinist, both of whom manage to offend many people with Christine caught in the middle. A series of "accidents" begins to occur, making it apparent that someone wants one or all three of them to fail and when one of them is murdered, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher tries to discover who is behind it all and why, putting herself in harm's way as she gets closer to the truth.

For the most part, this had a good storyline.  A lot of time is spent on the characters and relationships but not in a way that really adds significantly to the plot. One problem I had with it is that it took several chapters to get to the murder and I was starting to get bored with everything leading up to it.  Once I got to that part of the story though, the rest went pretty quickly and kept me interested to the end when the killer is revealed.

Overall, I think fans of this series and the Jessica Fletcher character will enjoy this story.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Back to Charm School: More Fun Quilts From Country Threads by Mary Etherington and Connie Tesene

Back to Charm School: More Fun Quilts From Country Threads by Mary Etherington and Connie Tesene, That Patchwork Place/Martingale & Company, $24.99 list price, paperback.

This book has beautiful small quilt projects any quilter would enjoy, including wall hangings, table runners, pillows, and more, using pre-cut 5" charm squares of fabric (hence the title).  Most of the finished quilts measure 36" or less with a few reaching 40-52" in length, so they are great for people like me who like to start and finish a project relatively quickly.  I have to say this book has definitely inspired me to dust off my sewing machine and visit my local fabric store.  I'd love to make a table runner for an old cedar chest in my home and found several possibilities in this book.

I consider myself a beginner-novice quilter in that I know some basics of machine piecing and hand quilting, but haven't done much of either, so I read this book from the viewpoint of a beginner.  While it does assume the reader has basic sewing knowledge, I didn't find anything that was confusing so I feel I could make any project in this book without intimidation.  The instructions and diagrams were clear and found the tips to be helpful. The color photographs of the finished quilts are gorgeous and inspiring.

There are 20 projects in this book that quilters of any level will enjoy.

Project images from the publisher (click on link to view more):

Threadbare: A Needlecraft Mystery by Monica Ferris

Threadbare: A Needlecraft Mystery by Monica Ferris, Berkley Prime Crime/Penguin Group, $24.95 list price, hardcover.

From the publisher:
When an elderly homeless woman is found dead on the shore of Lake Minnetonka, she's wearing something that holds the key to her identity but also opens up a mystery. Embroidered on her blouse is her will, in which she bequeaths everything she owns to her niece-Emily Hame, a member of the Monday Bunch at Betsy Devonshire's Crewel World needlework shop! Emily's aunt turns out to be the second homeless woman to be found dead under mysterious circumstances. It's up to Betsy to discover the common thread between the deaths-and to determine if a murderer may strike again...

I've read other books by this author but this is the first in the needlecraft mystery series for me.  I did enjoy it as an easy to read cozy mystery.  It didn't knock my socks off, so to speak, but it was a good way to pass the evening it took me to finish it.  The characters are likeable and although I guessed "who done it" before it was revealed, there were several likely suspects to give some depth to the storyline.  There are a lot of characters but they are woven into the story in a way that doesn't overwhelm or confuse the reader.

I enjoy various forms of needlework so the fact that the main character, Betsy Devonshire, is the owner of a needlecraft store called Crewel World appealed to me with the mentions of supplies, techniques, and even an actual embroidery pattern included at the end of the book.

Overall I did like this book and look forward to the next one in this series.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A to Z of Knitting: The Ultimate Guide for the Beginner to Advanced Knitter

A to Z of Knitting: The Ultimate Guide for the Beginner to Advanced Knitter, Martingale & Company, $18.99 list price, paperback.

The first thing I liked about this book was the many photographs of real hands holding real needles and yarn, showing knitting techniques and stitches.  I didn't count the pictures, but according to the publisher there are over 1,000 of them and that is needed for something like knitting and for a visual person like me.  In reading through this book, I felt I could learn this craft again having taught myself years (ok, decades) ago when I was a teenager.

The chapters include a history of knitting which I found interesting, tutorials on types of yarn, needles and other types of equipment; how to read patterns and charts, clear instructions on how to hold the needles and yarn, knit and purl stitches, plus techniques for casting on, binding off, creating a selvage, adding new colors of yarn, and shaping.  In addition, there are chapters covering many styles of knitting including Aran, Shaker, circular, beaded, and adding embroidery and smocking to knitted projects, and finishing techniques.  The instructions start with the beginner in mind and progresses to more advanced stitches and techniques for those who already know the basics.

This is not a book of knitting projects to create, but rather teaches everything needed to take on any project from other sources.

I've looked at other "how to knit" books but this is the one that I feel the most comfortable with and that leaves me feeling confident I can pick up this skill again.