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Under the Italian Sun–looking for family

Under the Italian Sun

by Sue Moorcroft

Zia is a young English woman in search of a family after her grandparents pass away and she finds herself without a job. She knows her father, who is not listed on her birth certificate, was from Italy. She does some sleuthing and decides to go to Italy to hopefully discover some family ties and perhaps persuade her father to legally acknowledge her, thus easing the pathway to Italian citizenship.

Along her journey, Zia uncovers long buried secrets, meets some family, and falls in love. The road to happiness even under the Italian sun and overlooking a vineyard and winery is not an easy one. Not everyone is welcoming in Montelibertá, and Zia’s ex-boyfriend morphs from an insulting cheater into a vengeful stalker.

Sue Moorcroft’s Under the Italian Sun is an interesting romance with a great setting. Zia’s past is dismal as she gradually loses those close to her, but she is an intelligent young woman, a good friend, and full of hope. She falls quickly and hard for her handsome Italian neighbor. Can they really settle for a summer fling knowing Zia can not legally stay in the country indefinitely?

I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Rating: 4/5

Category: General Fiction (Adult), Romance, Women’s Fiction

Notes: Rather disappointing for me, this really nice story has an “open door” bedroom scene and a lot of expletives.

Publication: May 13, 2021—Harper Collins (Avon Books)

Memorable Lines:

The oven timer continued to ping in counterpoint to the gull’s plaintive calls but Zia heard the shush-shush of her heartbeat louder than both. As spooked as a child at a horror film, she had to force her breathing to be even.

Church steeples poked up between terracotta-tiled roofs, buildings were painted cream, ochre or apricot, the major structures gracing the town centre while houses huddled on the slopes like children hatching mischief.

At some point this afternoon she’d made the decision never to identify herself to Gerardo. It had come from an instinct to protect herself from disappointment rather than from structured reasoning but the decision was a relief. Couldn’t trust him. Could do without him.

Under the Magnolias–a darkness of the mind

Under the Magnolias

by T. I. Lowe

Dave Foster is a tobacco farmer and the pastor of the church he fondly refers to as the First Riffraff of Magnolia. He has a large family including two sets of twins, a mentally challenged son, and another who is physically disabled. His wife Edith is a loving mother who somehow manages her husband’s dark times and keeps the family happy. The main character is the oldest daughter Austin, and the story is related from her point of view as she finds herself at the age of fourteen having to become a mother to her six siblings and walk the fine line of respect for her father while acting as a buffer between him and the other children. She works to maintain his standing in the community and keep the tobacco farm running.

Under the Magnolias is very much a character driven story as Austin struggles and sacrifices for others. She is a very intelligent young lady who puts aside her dreams to help her family survive. Unfortunately her father’s dark times become deeper and more frequent and his outbursts more violent. A teenager, Austin doesn’t really know how to deal with her father’s mental issues or get assistance.

Help does come in the form of the mayor’s handsome son. Although Austin won’t let him get close because she is driven to maintain family secrets, he continues to stand by her. Others in their little church and her siblings are important to the story as they all suffer from the occasions when Dave’s mental illness surfaces and bubbles over.

This book is very well-written. In terms of emotional impact, it is hard at times to read. The author, T. I. Lowe, puts the reader right in the middle of the struggles waiting, as Austin does, in the good times for the other shoe to drop. “It was too good. Too shiny. Too normal. No matter how much I wished, prayed, begged, I knew this season wouldn’t last.”

The story takes place from 1980 through 1988. There is a final chapter that relates how life works out for all of the characters. It makes a fitting conclusion because over the course of the book the reader has gotten to know each of them, understanding why they are the way they are. The pacing is excellent with about two chapters per year presenting cumulative snapshots rather than blow-by-blow descriptions. There is an authentic South Carolina flavor in both plot and language. I highly recommend Under the Magnolias as a tale whose characters resonate and linger long after the final page.

I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Rating: 5/5

Category: General Fiction (Adult), Women’s Fiction

Notes: Clean—no inappropriate language, sex, or violence

Publication: May 4, 2021—Tyndale House Publishers

Memorable Lines:

Looking through the innocent lens of adolescence, those happier days were perfection. Sadly, they had an expiration date just like those snack cakes. Happiness staled and nothing was pleasing after that. But just like the expired cakes in a meager season, we had no other choice but to stomach whatever life tossed our way next.

I figured it was a blessing that she could pretend something didn’t happen, but we would both learn later in life that pretending something away was no better than constantly dwelling on it. Both produced impactful wounds that tended to fester in other parts of living.

“Honey, the living creep me out. Not the dead.” He picked up a cosmetic brush and touched it to Mrs. Fannie’s pink cheek. “The living can be cruel, judgmental, quick to complain, and slow to please. The dead never yell or cuss you out. Or call you ugly names.” There was such a sadness to his gentle voice.

The Woman with the Blue Star–refuge in a sewer

The Woman with the Blue Star

by Pam Jenoff

If you are an aficionado of World War II novels, you will probably like The Woman with the Blue Star, the story of Sadie and her family who are forced into a Polish ghetto and later avoid a roundup of Jews for deportation by fleeing to the dark stench and filth of the sewers. Their survival depends on the mercy of the sewer worker who leads them there and provides them with what food could be had in Krakow in 1942. The Germans leave little for the local population and ration cards are required.

Sadie’s path crosses with Ella’s at a chance glance down through a sewer grate. Ella lives with her stepmother who maintains a fairly good standard of living by acting as a mistress to various German officers.

The author describes in detail both the disgustingly putrid conditions for the Jewish family in the sewer and the better, but still precarious, lives of the Polish citizens above ground. The characters and their reactions are generally believable. There are a number of dramatic twists in the story along with some romantic threads and a look at those involved in the Polish Home Army underground movement.

Most of the story seems realistic. I do wonder about the many occasions when Ella ventures out after the government imposed curfew, once even with Sadie above ground. Given the enormous threat of German soldiers and Polish police patrolling the streets, their adventures seem foolhardy and unlikely.

I love the epilogue which confirms something I suspected, but its revelation makes a great twist. Although it is difficult to read about the enormous hardships, this book is an important reminder of a piece of history we should never forget so we will not allow it to be repeated.

I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction

Publication: May 4, 2021—Harlequin

Memorable Lines:

We had almost nothing by the end; it had all been sold or left behind when we moved to the ghetto. Still, the idea that people could go through our property, that we had no right to anything of our own anymore, made me feel violated, less human.

Once I could not have imagined staying in the sewer for so long. But there was simply nowhere to go. The ghetto had been emptied, all of the Jews who lived there killed or taken to the camps. If we went onto the street, we would be shot on sight or arrested.

Saul talked on and on through his tears, telling stories of his brother, as if pressing the memories of his brother between pages to preserve like dry flowers.

Bride for a Day–escape to Oklahoma

Bride for a Day

by Carolyn Brown

What a sweet romance! Carolyn Brown’s Bride for a Day is a simple, but pleasing story. Cassie has had a rough life. After her mother died, she lived a dirt poor existence with her mother’s friend. When she passed away too, Cassie was left in the hands of the friend’s husband, and he is not a nice man. Sexual trafficking is the dangerous threat, but nothing graphic is discussed. When Cassie runs away, Ted, a handsome stranger in a café, pretends very convincingly to local law enforcement that she is his fiancé.

Ted’s family embraces Cassie wholeheartedly because that’s just the kind of people they are and because Cassie is gradually bringing Ted back to life again. He had never come to grips with the death of his twin brother when they were in high school.

Because this is a romance, you can imagine that what started out as a rescue mission might well turn into a friendship where sparks fly. I really enjoyed the characters. Although wealthy, Ted’s family is down to earth and supportive of each other. Even though it is clear that the setting is a small town with a quick as lightning rumor mill, the author does not dwell on that aspect. Instead, she uses it as an opportunity to demonstrate that Cassie is a strong young lady. There are some fun and surprising plot twists and a very satisfying ending. It is a quick read with lots of smiles along the way.

I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Sourcebooks (Casablanca) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Romance, Women’s Fiction

Publication: March 29, 2022—Sourcebooks (Casablanca)

Memorable Lines:

Maria had told her that first day that breakfast was the time to set the mood for the whole day—yellow brightened the table, good food satisfied the appetite, and a loving family made the heart smile.

Ted had been dreaming of taking Cassie dancing after his boot came off and the cast on his arm, but right now he couldn’t two-step any faster than an armadillo could fly.

Evidently, she was in one of her Jesus moods, as her granny used to call them. Granny said that Cassie didn’t know what she wanted, wouldn’t want it if she got it, and Jesus himself couldn’t live with her.

The Sugarcreek Surprise–trusting again

The Sugarcreek Surprise

by Wanda E. Brunstetter

I was glad I returned to Wanda E. Brunstetter’s Creektown Discoveries series to read the second book, The Sugarcreek Surprise. Part way through the first book in the series, Brunstetter found her pace and upped her style. She maintained and even improved on it in this fictional tale of two young people who have been hurt by life and are afraid of renewed suffering if they give life a second chance—outside of the protective shell each one created.

Paul is betrayed by the woman he has been courting who drops him for his best friend. Lisa has survivor’s guilt when, as a child, her parents and grandparents are in a fatal car crash, but she alone survives. Fortunately, these two are mentored by loving relatives and friends. Life is not easy for either one of them and even more surprises are thrown their way as they cautiously try to open up to others.

I enjoyed this trip to Walnut Creek and Sugarcreek, Ohio. Lisa is a school teacher and I found the differences in her classroom
and the typical Englisch classroom fascinating. School extends only through eighth grade for the Amish. Although the children are typical for their ages in mischievousness and enthusiasm, they arrive with basic manners and parental expectations for good behavior. Paul has an excellent work ethic and is skilled in carpentry. Both are committed Christians and practice their faith through Amish customs. They learn to pray more and trust God more. Witnessing how Amish practices play out in our current world is interesting. This book makes it clear that there are benefits and hardships to contemplate about both Englisch and Amish lifestyles.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Barbour Publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Christian, Romance, Women’s Fiction

Notes: 1. #2 in the Creektown Discoveries Series, but could be read as a standalone because the main characters first appear in this book.
2. The book ends with recipes and discussion questions

Publication: March 1, 2022—Barbour Publishing

Memorable Lines:

Even snippets from the past, which sometimes flitted through her mind, caused Lisa to feel fearful and despondent. She’d convinced herself that the only way she could be happy was to keep her focus on the present and refuse to give in to thoughts of the past.

The Lord knows each of us very well. He also knows what needs to happen for each of us at the proper time.

“Fear doesn’t stop death; it stops life. And worrying doesn’t take away tomorrow’s troubles; it takes away today’s peace.”

The Walnut Creek Wish–freedom through forgiveness

The Walnut Creek Wish

by Wanda E. Brunstetter

Rhonda and Jeff Davis are a financially successful couple living in a townhouse in Canton, Ohio, where she manages a hotel and he has his own restaurant. They love each other, but they have a fairly testy relationship often exchanging hurtful barbs. Neither wants anything to do with God because each had deep-felt prayers that had not been answered the way that they wanted them to be. Rhonda’s dad had affairs and eventually left his family behind. Jeff’s mom passed away when he was a teenager.

Rhonda and Jeff’s lives intersect with those of Orley and Lois who own an Amish antique store in rural Walnut Creek, Ohio, when the younger couple try to rejuvenate their marriage by purchasing a beautiful house and commuting to their jobs. Orley and Lois take every opportunity to encourage Rhonda and Jeff to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. A lot has to happen in the young couple’s lives before their hearts are opened to their need for God.

The Walnut Creek Wish is a quick and easy read, but it deals with some real issues—satisfaction, childlessness, abandonment, and forgiveness. The writing, especially the dialogue, in the first part of the book is somewhat stilted. Then the author breaks into a pace that is much more comfortable after the character backgrounds have been established and the action in the plot develops. It is a clean read with strong Christian themes involving both Amish and Englisch characters with interesting comparisons and contrasts of their lifestyles and their problems and how they react to them.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Barbour Publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5

Category: Christian, Romance, Women’s Fiction

Notes: 1. #1 in the Creektown Discoveries series. I will be reading the next book in the series. I am interested to see if there is an overlap or continuation of characters and/or of setting and to see if the sudden improvement in style and pace in this book holds up in the next book.
2. Recipes for a cucumber dip and bacon cheese muffins are included.
3. There are questions for individual thought or book club discussions.

Publication: August 1, 2021—Barbour Publishing

Memorable Lines:

She and Jeff had been married twelve years, and all they had to show for it was a modern townhouse, an expensive sports car, a luxury SUV, and a chasm of disinterest between them.

“I don’t know all the reasons, but I’m sure the Lord directed that young man to our store for a purpose beyond looking at antiques.”

“Any time’s the right time to share God’s love and the redemption He offers because of His Son. Pray for the right words to say, and speak them from the heart with love.”

Bookshop by the Sea–second chance romance

Bookshop by the Sea

by Denise Hunter

Sophie Lawson knows about abandonment and the pain it leaves in its trail. Her father left her family to fend for itself in the midst of her mother’s fatal illness on the very same day her boyfriend Aiden Maddox pulled up stakes and moved five hours away to start a new life. Aiden knows abandonment too. His mother left him sitting on the porch steps as a little boy and never looked back.

Sophie and Aiden loved each other or thought they did. Seven years later, just as Sophie’s dream to open her own bookshop is about to come true, Sophie and Aiden are thrown together once more—by a wedding and a hurricane. Can love revitalize and conquer bitterness, hurt, confusion, family obligations, and distance?

In Bookshop by the Sea, Denise Hunter paints an emotional in-depth picture of Sophie and Aiden, their pasts and the possibilities for their futures. Disaster keeps striking for Sophie who really deserves a break, but it’s hard to see how she’ll get one in time for her grand opening and book signing event. Those stressors are the backdrop for their relationship drama as the threads weave together, breaking in places only to be retied to push the characters towards growth and healing.

Bookshop by the Sea is a clean book with Christian undertones as the characters mention praying over situations. I enjoyed reading it, not really knowing if it would have a happily ever after ending, but hoping so. The characters definitely have baggage to work through—even the more minor characters as found in Sophie’s family. There is a lot of realism as no one’s life is presented as a fairy tale. There is also a lot of hope, kindness, and community spirit.

I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Romance

Publication: April 13, 2021—Thomas Nelson

Memorable Lines:

He’d forgotten how easily words of affirmation rolled off her tongue. She’d always made him feel like he could do anything. Be anything. He let the admiration in her eyes wash over him like a cool wave on a hot summer day.

“Don’t borrow trouble. ‘Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?’ ’’ She gave him a wry look. “Did you just quote Scripture at me?” “Hey, there’s a reason I have it memorized. If I’ve learned anything it’s that worrying does nothing but stress you out.”

I guess somewhere along the line I started believing that when the going gets tough…people leave.” Sophie’s heart went soft and squishy at his words, his vulnerability. At the little boy who watched his mother drive away from him and never return.

All You Need is Love–teddy bear shop setting

All You Need is Love

by Jessica Redland

Boy meets girl, but everything after that is a complication in All You Need is Love. Some of the characters you’ll love, and some you’ll want to send packing. Jemma lives in London with three flatmates; the four are devoted friends. Due to her mom’s health problems, Jemma feels compelled to return to her hometown of Whitsborough Bay. Scott, who travels a lot for his job, and Jemma have a chance encounter and are immediately drawn into a relationship. Sam, a neurologist, has recently moved to London to escape memories of his much beloved Nikki.

The plot is much more interesting than it sounds in a skeletal summary, but almost anything above the basics would give away too much and ruin the reading experience. There are huge issues of secrets and trust. Grief and how to deal with it is another major theme. There are certainly happy moments in the book, but it deals with a number of hard challenges too. Often characters in this book respond to these difficulties by blunting the pain with alcohol which, not surprisingly, makes situations worse rather than better. The characters have moral decisions to make. One, in particular, involves adultery which one character proclaims she would never knowingly do to another woman and her family. Yet, she did take the offender back for a second chance. Either the author or the character is inconsistent in this one instance. Although I did not like the way the author jumped around in time and between characters prior to uniting the two plot lines, in general, it was an interesting read. As a bonus, if you like teddy bears, you’ll get warm fuzzies from the setting.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Boldwood Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: General Fiction (Adult), Women’s Fiction

Notes: There are a lot of casual vulgarisms—both British and American—in this standalone novel.

Publication: March 11, 2021—Boldwood Books

Memorable Lines:

She seemed to move from anger and frustration to listless disinterest in the space of a day, and back again. It was like having a hormonal teenager in the house, lashing out at anyone and everything.

Time seemed to slow down. The chatter, laughter and clinks of glasses faded into the background and it felt like there were just the two of us in a bubble on our own as he waited for my reaction, an expression of hope tinged with fear in his eyes.

How funny that we were from the same small seaside town yet we’d found each other in the third largest city in Europe.

The Girl at the Last House Before the Sea–the power of secrets and gossip

The Girl at the Last House Before the Sea

by Liz Eeles

The third book in the Heaven’s Cove series is quite powerful and touching. Freya’s life seems full and satisfying. She has a husband and a job as a caregiver—until her life falls apart and she loses both. Struggling to get her feet on the ground again, she accepts an offer from her half-sister Belinda to come to Heaven’s Cove to interview for a position as the full-time carer for the eighty-three year old Kathleen, a proud and independent woman who is harboring a powerful secret. Freya has secrets from her own past as does Belinda who is known as the town fixer and gossip. Despite their biological relationship, the sisters hardly know each other.

Kathleen’s son Ryan, a widower, has a guilty secret of his own that makes him suspicious of Freya. He locks himself away from most society focusing on the task of caring for his mother and his daughter Chloe. Chloe is struggling with the death of her mom, their move to a new town, fitting in with new friends, and the hormones of a typical twelve-year old girl.

Freya is a talented listener and people open up to her and tell her their secrets. Unfortunately, along with sharing their pasts, people often insist that Freya not speak of their disclosures with anyone. That request is not usually an issue as Freya is not a gossip. In The Girl at the Last House Before the Sea, however, things spoken in confidence can conflict with well-meaning promises Freya makes to various family members. She is honoring their wishes and motivations, but the secrets can still hurt if and when they are revealed.

Freya finds that Kathleen has lied about never having been to Driftwood Cottage on the cliff; the little cottage, now a B&B, holds both an attraction and a revulsion for Kathleen. What could have happened in Heaven’s Cove to draw Kathleen to move there after the death of her husband? Freya wants to help, but the request needs to come from Kathleen herself.

I loved this book. Its plot includes a part of history that affected many families painfully but is now thankfully in the past. The plight of the various characters is moving. The sadness and agony Kathleen suffers is heart-wrenching, but there is also hope in the book as secrets are laid open and the air is cleared. The final upset in the book comes from a surprise source, and the denouement is particularly satisfying.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Bookouture for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Women’s Fiction, General Fiction (A), Romance

Notes: #3 in the Heaven’s Cove series, but could be read as a standalone. Although there are a few minor characters who overlap from the first two books, the plot is self-contained.

Publication: February 28, 2022—Bookouture

Memorable Lines:

But today, a sea view was just what she needed, because the endless movement of the water was calming. Life might disintegrate into an unholy mess but the waves would roll on.

Freya spent some time inspecting the photos, which were of the village from decades ago and people long gone. The pictures were fascinating and made her realize that her current problems were merely a blip along the way of life.

Secrets held power—the power to surprise or delight, to hurt or harm—because they were so often bound up with primal emotions.

A Letter to the Last House Before the Sea–reinventing yourself

A Letter to the Last House Before the Sea

by Liz Eeles

Many series depend on the continuation of a character or a set of characters. The Heaven’s Cove Series does not. The continuity is found in the setting—the little village of Heaven’s Cove and Driftwood House perched on a cliff high above the ocean. Therefore, with only a few characters from the first book showing up in the second, anyone can easily jump into the series with this second book, A Letter to the Last House Before the Sea. I should add, however, that I loved the first book and immediately after reading it purchased the second book so I would be ready to jump into the third which was recently published.

Lettie has had a hard time finding her way in life. Her family tries to manage her personal life while depending on her to be on call for their needs—be they babysitting, shopping, or sorting repairs. When she is sacked from a customer service job five weeks after the death of her beloved great-aunt Iris, she does a runner to Heaven’s Cove where she hopes to fulfill the bedside wish of her aunt to “find out for me, darling girl.” Aunt Iris had secrets about her past. She left Heaven’s Cove as a teenager with her whole family, never to return. She bequeathed a delicate gold key to Lettie that was connected to her secret. Lettie is committed to discovering what the secrets are that make up Iris’ past.

Locals are suspicious and disdainful of outsiders so Lettie has trouble researching the history, but in the process realizes that maybe she is ready to rediscover her former passion for history and reinvent herself. Along the way she meets several handsome young men and some cranky old timers. She finds Heaven’s Cove calling to her. As she follows leads on Iris’ story, she discovers someone else in need of her skills to track down a long lost love, adding another emotional dimension to the plot.

Lettie is a very likable main character. You will want the best for her and feel her frustrations as your own. My second visit to Heaven’s Cove kept me turning pages and ended with me smiling in satisfaction.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Women’s Fiction

Notes: 1. # 2 in the Heaven’s Cove Series, but would be good as a standalone.
2. Clean fiction—no sex or violence and very little swearing.

Publication: May 19, 2021—Bookouture

Memorable Lines:

Truth be told, Claude had saved Buster that night, as the rain lashed down and the shivering stray risked being swept away by the waves breaking over the quay wall. But then Buster had saved Claude, in return, from the loneliness that often threatened to overwhelm him.

“People disappear from your life, but they always leave an echo,” said Claude quickly.

Much as she’d grown to love Heaven’s Cove, she would never get used to the village grapevine. In London you could drop dead and no one would notice.

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