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A Pho Love Story–kitchens in conflict

A Pho Love Story

by Loan Le

Perfect for Valentine’s Day—or any day for that matter! Loan Le’s A Pho Love Story, written with a teenage or young adult audience in mind, is a modern day Vietnamese-American “Romeo and Juliet” tale. Báo and Linh, seniors in high school, do not understand the family conflict that has gone on for as long as they can remember. Their families’ restaurants, serving authentic Vietnamese dishes, are situated on opposites sides of the same street. The parents, however, clearly dislike each other. In fact, the children are not allowed to talk or play together. Is this conflict a result of competition for economic survival or is there a deeper reason going back to their days in Vietnam and the dangerous boat trips to safety and freedom? Cultural norms for showing respect to their parents prevent both Báo and Linh from questioning them about the deeply felt social boundaries in the neighborhood.

Báo and Linh are sympathetic characters; Báo is trying to decide on a career and  Linh wants to make her passion and talent for painting acceptable to her parents. The Vietnamese flavor throughout is authentic and reflective of the author’s family heritage. Because both families own restaurants, food plays an important role. Vietnamese culture is also prominent in descriptions of the parents and the family dynamics. As someone familiar with Spanish, French, and Latin, I can usually read expressions from those languages when added to the text for authenticity, but the phrases included in this book sent me scurrying to a translation app. Most meanings could be divined from context, but I really like to know the exact meaning of words, whether in English or another language, for a deeper reading experience. A Pho Love Story was enriching in that respect.

I am sure most readers can predict the outcome, but not how the characters will arrive there. The journey is bumpy, but fun, as the author weaves literary magic within the plot. The story is told by the teenagers from alternating points of view by chapter, a technique which works really well in this book. There are several interesting  adults who act as mentors to the pair without telling them what to do. This would be an engaging read for teenagers and young adults.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Teen and Young Adult

Notes: There is some bad language sprinkled throughout the book.

Publication:   February 9, 2021—Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

Memorable Lines:

My parents—my mom, really—has now perfected the art of non-encounters; knowing their schedule right down to when they close and when they leave. In a way, their schedule has become ours. We’re background characters in each other’s stories.

She trusts Viet to do his job, as well as make sure I do mine. The concept’s not perfect: We’re the same age, and letting him watch over me makes as much sense as letting a horse and a pony run the show. But somehow it works.

I like the writer’s style. One person can say something that’s been said before but in a way that’s completely different; their unique experiences and personality infuse their words, their sentences.

Murder with Clotted Cream–cozy mystery with an emphasis on relationships

Murder with Clotted Cream

by Karen Rose Smith

You can jump right into Daisy’s Tea Garden Mystery Series with Murder with Clotted Cream, the fifth book in this series by Karen Rose Smith. The author does an outstanding job of providing information on the characters for the new or returning reader.

Daisy Swanson is co-owner of Daisy’s Tea Garden. In this book, Daisy is hired to provide a tea for the actors preparing a play for the Little Theater, newly built by a real estate developer and his actress wife. When a murder occurs at the tea, Daisy finds herself in the middle of yet another investigation. Other major parts of this plot are relationship oriented: Daisy and her boyfriend Jonas, Daisy’s daughter Jazzi and her biological mother, Daisy and her own mother Rose, and Daisy’s other daughter who suffers from postpartum depression. As you can see, Daisy has a lot on her plate, and it doesn’t help that the detective on the case has an ax to grind with Daisy’s boyfriend.

There are a lot of suspects to keep you guessing and some danger along the way for Daisy. The book also deals with important parenting issues across the generations. Some of Daisy’s investigations are digital or local to her town, but others involve a train trip to New York City. We get to view her not as a one-dimensional heroine but as an independent businesswoman, a caring mom, a widow exploring a friendship blossoming slowly into romance, and a careful observer of those around her.

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

Rating: 4/5

Category: Mystery

Notes:  1. #5 in the Daisy’s Tea Garden Mystery Series, but great as a standalone.

  2. Includes 3 original recipes

Publication:   May 26, 2020—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

“She knows how to ask questions, and she doesn’t treat everyone she meets as if they were hostile witnesses. You might be better served to do the same.”

November has descended with a cold grip, and today was a perfect example of a steel-gray day with the reminder of winter in any wind that blew.

Daisy heard Jonas gasp as if Zeke had punched him in his solar plexus. In that one statement Zeke just might have changed Jonas’s attitude about life, about love, and about moving forward.

The Blackwell Sisters

When is a series more than a series? When each book in the series is written by collaborating authors who have already worked together on another successful series. In this case, Melinda Curtis, Amy Vastine, Anna J. Stewart, Carol Ross, and Cari Lynn Webb have teamed up to create The Blackwell Sisters, a series set in Montana and centered around the Harrison sisters who have discovered that the man who raised them is not their biological father. He is the mysteriously missing Thomas Blackwell. This group of authors’ first series is The Return of the Blackwell Brothers in which the manipulating grandfather of the cousins in both series interferes in his grandchildren’s lives in what turns out to be a positive way. The books differ in that the Blackwell brothers are returning to their roots whereas the sisters are discovering a family heritage they never knew they had. The two series share characters that you will enjoy meeting. Both series make for a clean, heartwarming read, and either or both would be a fun present under the Christmas tree!

You can read my reviews for these books by clicking on the titles below:

1. Montana Welcome

2. Montana Wishes

3. Montana Dreams

4. Montana Match

5. Montana Wedding

Montana Wishes–romance in Montana

Montana Wishes

by Amy Vastine

Along comes another romance as the Harrison girls get slowly pulled back to their biological Blackwell roots and their Montana cowboy origins. In the first of the Blackwell Sisters series, Lily Harrison is a runaway bride who finds herself, a new vocational passion, and a handsome cowboy fiancée in Falcon Creek, Montana. 

In Montana Wishes, the second book in the series,  Lilly sends for her identical twin sister Amanda to help her plan a second wedding as well as move all her belongings to Montana. Amanda enlists her best friend Blake to help her make the drive. The timing could not be worse as Blake has just proposed to Nadia whom he has dated for only two months. Amanda is grieving the loss of her best friend, reeling from the impact of a medical decision, and angry about the intrusion into her life of a grandfather and a set of cousins she didn’t know she had. But, being Amanda, she steps up to the plate and tries to make everything right for everyone else. 

I like this book and its characters. Just as I thought the romantic situation was going to get stagnant, the author of Montana Wishes, Amy Vastine,  would throw in a twist or surprise that moved the plot forward and kept me turning pages. As we watch the interactions of Blake, Amanda, and Nadia, theoretical questions about love and friendship take on a personal meaning. 

Can men and women be best friends? 

Should you marry your best friend? 

Should your spouse be your best friend? 

There is also a question of the importance of fertility in a relationship. Although it is handled well, that issue may be an unintentional trigger for some readers. All in all, it is a fun read that segues into the third book in the series, Montana Dreams.

I would like to extend my thanks to Amy Vastine and to Harlequin Heartwarming for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Romance

Notes: 1. #2 in the Blackwell Sisters series, but could be read as a standalone as the author provides plenty of background information to bring the reader up to speed.

2. Clean and heartwarming romance

Publication:   September 8, 2020—Harlequin Heartwarming

Memorable Lines:

(Song lyrics): In the distance he sees what he never saw. Laughter ringing like wind chimes in a summer storm. Across rocky tipped horizons and cloudless skies. And just like that he knows…the sounds of home.

The worst thing in the world was disappointing Amanda. She was just so good. To the core. She did everything she could to do no harm, put others’ needs above her own and brighten the world around her. People like her were rare. When you were someone she loved, you wanted to be good, too.

“Just because we have a tiny bit of the same blood in our veins does not make us family. Family is the people you’ve created memories with, the people who have cared for you and let you care for them. It’s the people who are there for you when you need them…”

The Prayer Box–rebuilding after the storm

The Prayer Box

by Lisa Wingate

Decorated boxes and boxes of letters were stacked high in the closet of the old woman who had passed away. The letters told the story of a lifetime of racism, hardship, and misunderstanding contrasted with faith, generosity, and love. Tandi was at the end of her rope when she read these letters written by Iola to her Heavenly Father. They were a lifeline to this single mother trying to escape her past and build a new and better life in a tiny North Carolina coastal town where no one knew her or her dark secrets.

Befriended by kind townsfolk and absorbing the lessons of the letters, she learns how to trust others, herself, and God. The way is not easy, however, as she has always made poor relationship choices with men. She also needs to find a way to financially support herself and her children and establish a good mother-daughter relationship with a teenager who has been left in charge for much too long. Drug addiction born of a painful accident constitutes another hurdle for Tandi.

The sisterhood that welcomes Tandi at Sandy’s Seashell Shop is a delightful group of creative, caring, and wise women. Paul is an unlikely romantic interest, but extremely kind, likable, and reliable. Ross, Tandi’s boyfriend, is very self-centered and manipulative; he assigns Tandi’s children a low place on his metaphorical totem pole.  Tandi’s sister, Gina, shows up unexpectedly to do what she does best—stir up trouble. As we get to know all of these characters, we are also watching the character of Iola unfold through the letters in her prayer boxes.

There are forces who want to destroy Iola’s old Victorian home. Some investors in the area are looking at profiting financially. Other locals feel like Iola had no right to the house. No one is aware of Iola’s generosity. In the midst of her own troubles, Tandi makes it her mission to save the house and and honor Iola’s memory. This is a big undertaking, but Tandi is learning to rely on an even bigger God. 

Filled with images of water bubbling and flowing and lighthouses standing steadfast and firm, Lisa Wingate’s The Prayer Box tells a cross-generational tale. It is beautifully crafted both in the carefully selected words and in the plot that, through prayer letters of the past, weaves Tandi’s story with that of Iola; both are entrancing. This is a book I didn’t want to put aside to finish another I was reading. The Prayer Box won as I was quickly and thoroughly immersed in the plot, language, and characters.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Women’s Fiction, Romance, Christian

Notes: 1. This is the first book in the Carolina Heirlooms Collection which is a series of three books united by setting, not characters.

  2. The end of the book includes “A Note from the Author” and “Discussion Questions.”

Publication:   August 16, 2013—Tyndale

Memorable Lines:

He was wearing orange tennis shoes and red-flowered swim shorts, topped off with a lime-green Windbreaker with palm trees and lizards on it….All in all, he looked like he’d raided Jimmy Buffett’s closet and then gotten dressed in the dark.

It felt good to do something good for someone else. To add a few deep-fried droplets of kindness to the world. A little act of service. Is it possible that all service is worship? The words were still in my head.

After so many years of dysfunctional relationships that masqueraded as love, having someone offer real love and ask nothing for it in return was startling, sometimes too much to handle. I wasn’t sure I could trust it or was worthy of it.

A Long Walk to Water–impactful

A Long Walk to Water

by Linda Sue Park

You have probably heard of the Lost Boys of Sudan. In A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park tells the story of one of those lost boys, Salva Dut, who even as a refugee himself, took on a leadership role for 1500 boys in their very long, dangerous, and seemingly hopeless journey for survival. Salva, as a young adult, was chosen out of a refugee camp to emigrate to the United States. This book tells how he transformed his desperate situation into a life giving project for the people of Sudan based on hope, faith, and most especially perseverance.

Told in two timelines with apparently disparate plots, this book moves back and forth with both stories progressing forward in each chapter. It begins slowly, but soon picks up the pace and the reader’s interest. The book starts with the tale of Nya, an eleven year old girl in southern Sudan in 2008 who spends her day traveling from her village to a pond to collect dirty water in a jug which she then carries home on her head. She does this twice a day in extreme heat, traversing with bare feet a thorny path to bring home enough water for her family to survive.

Salva’s story also begins in southern Sudan, but much earlier, in 1985, when his village and school are attacked by armed men during an ongoing confrontation between the Muslim government in the north and the rebels of the south. Thus begins Salva’s separation from his family and his struggle for survival.

Although this book is aimed at a younger audience, as an adult I am so glad I read this story which is based on the lives of real people, Salva and Nya and their families. It reads quickly and lays out the need for clean, accessible water for South Sudan, pointing out the many rippling effects of pure water on a community. It also shows how diverse tribes can work together for a common good. The website noted at the end of the book provides more information and gives a practical way for those of us blessed with plenty to help those without the basic necessities.

Rating:  5/5

Category: Children’s Historical Fiction

Notes: 1. The suggested ages and grade levels vary according to printed reports, but in general: Grades 5-9 and Ages 10-14. The book does a good job of recording hardships and violence without graphic details. Because of the subject matter, I would not recommend it for younger children.

2. The reader will find links to lots of videos about Salva and his project at www.waterforsouthsudan.org

Publication:  October 4, 2011—HMH Books for Young Readers

Memorable Lines:

No one in the group had eaten anything for two days. Their water was nearly gone. Only the vision of leaving the desert kept them moving through the heat and the dust.

It did not seem as if the camp could possibly hold any more, but still they kept coming: long lines of people, some emaciated, some hurt or sick, all exhausted.

He felt as though he were standing on the edge of a giant hole—a hole filled with the black despair of nothingness. I am alone now.

It was hard to keep hope alive when there was so little to feed it.

The Crow’s Call–the taming of a crow

The Crow’s Call

by Wanda E. Brunstetter

The Crow's CallI like Wanda E. Brunstetter’s foray into mystery with The Crow’s Call  which begins the Amish Greenhouse Mystery Series. It is a spinoff from The Prayer Jars trilogy, but that association does not impact the reader’s enjoyment of this new series. Having read the trilogy, I did enjoy the  pleasant surprise of encountering a few familiar characters.

The Crow’s Call begins with a family tragedy that will forever affect the King family. Woven into that background are mysterious occurrences which damage the Kings’ greenhouse and livelihoods. Amy, frequently the focus of the narration, tries to bear the burdens of maintaining her family both emotionally and financially, but the job is really too big for one young lady.

With interesting Amish characters who work at their relationship with God and others, this book includes the characters’ thoughts and prayers and the Bible verses they rely on as they deal with issues in their lives. The mystery of vandalism is not resolved nor are the issues of the depression of a young widow and the rebellion of her brother. I assume these problems will be carried into the next book in the series. A new Englisch couple moves in across the road from the greenhouse. The wife in the family suffers from a physical disability, but also from an unreasonable dislike of the Amish. She is rather mean spirited, but I have the feeling there must be a story behind her attitude. Other plot threads are an unexpected suitor from the past for the matron of the family and the opening of a rival greenhouse.

It was refreshing to read a mystery with no murders. I enjoyed learning more about Amish customs and beliefs. Reading The Crow’s Call is a good antidote to current social upheaval as this book emphasizes treating others with kindness and trusting in God.

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

Rating: 5/5

Category: Christian, Women’s Fiction, Mystery

Notes: This is most definitely part of a series, meaning if you want total closure on all threads, then this is not the book for you. I enjoyed the book, want to learn more about the characters, and anticipate further interesting plot developments, so I am “all in” to experience the rest of the series as it is published.

Publication:   March 1, 2020—Barbour Publishing (Shiloh Run Press)

Memorable Lines: 

Things she used to take for granted that had once seemed like simple chores now felt like heavy burdens she could hardly bear.

“It’s best not to worry—especially about things that are beyond our control. We need to pray every day and put our faith in God. And it wouldn’t hurt to ask Him to put a hedge of protection around us.”

She couldn’t let her discouragement tear down her faith. The best remedy was reading God’s Holy Word.

Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut–explosive action

Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut

by Sarah Graves

Death by Chocolate Frosted DoughnutJake and Ellie continue to make delightful chocolate goodies at The Chocolate Moose when they are not being shot at, run off the road, or drowned. In Sarah Graves’ Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut, there is more than enough action, some strong female characters you will want to see survive, lots of suspects, and some confusing motives. I could relate more to the chocolate than the many nautical references which are, in fact,  extremely important to the plot.

Jake lives in an old home bursting at the seams with extended family. Her sidekick Ellie is instrumental and often the leader in Jake’s dangerous investigations. As you read about the remote town of Eastport, Maine, where Jake put down roots twenty years before, you can understand why she decided to stay. As autumn closes in, the town is hosting the Eastport Pirate Festival which draws a huge tourist trade and, in this case, provides the perfect atmosphere for explosive action.

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

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes:  1.This is #3 in the Death by Chocolate Mystery Series, but the author does an excellent job of supporting the reader so that this book can be a standalone.

  2. The book concludes with a recipe for Double-Chocolate Ginger Cookies, featuring chocolate chips, white chocolate, and crystallized ginger.

Publication:   February 25, 2020—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

His face, furrowed and grooved by age and the outdoors, was like something you might find carved into an old tree trunk, and his grip had felt as tough as bark.

I took a gulp of my hot drink and felt the brandy molecules percolating through my collapsed brain cells, reviving them. Or at least making them dance around very happily indeed, which was enough for me at the moment.

She was an overbearing old fussbudget, our Bella, but she would have stepped in front of a freight train for any one of us.

Fatal Roots–mystery of fairy forts

Fatal Roots

by Sheila Connolly

Fatal RootsMaura Donovan is as American as can be until she inherits a pub, house, and assorted pasture lands in Ireland from an Irish friend of her grandmother’s. In Fatal Roots by Sheila Connolly, Maura has lived in Ireland about a year and is becoming comfortable with her new country, role of ownership, and relationship with her boyfriend Mick and other new friends in the small town in Cork.

Life gets more complicated for Maura when Ciara, a post graduate student in archaeology shows up on her doorstep requesting permission to examine Maura’s early Irish fairy forts. Maura doesn’t know where her various acreages lie and doesn’t know what a fairy fort is or anything about the superstitions surrounding them. In the process of rolling out this tale, there is a grizzly discovery, Maura’s mother who abandoned her as a child comes to Cork on business bringing Maura’s half sister, and Maura makes changes to the pub so she can sell food.

Throw in Mick’s grandmother Bridgett and Old Billy who lives above the pub and you have a good basis for a plot. I liked the story, but repetition hampered the enjoyment for me. I had to hear over and over again of Maura’s background, the Irish attitude toward fairy forts, Maura’s angst about…everything—her family, her relationship with Mick, superstitions, decisions about kitchen remodeling, the student archaeologists. The plot was wrapped up nicely, and the epilogue provided emotional closure for characters that I really liked. I also enjoyed learning about fairy forts, which are a mystery in themselves and go by many names.

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

Rating: 3/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #8 in the County Cork Mystery Series

Publication:  January 7, 2019—Crooked Lane Books

Memorable Lines:

But it was beginning to seem like any time anything happened, it was like scraping off the present to see pieces of the past.

“I could show yeh, but it really doesn’t have an address.” “Neither does my place. So far it’s ‘the cottage halfway up the hill, past the yellow cottage. If you reach the piggery you’ve gone too far.’ This is all so not like Boston.”

Life was too short, with too many unexpected twists and turns, to wait for the one perfect moment, if there even was such a thing.

 

 

Matchmaking Can Be Murder–Amish and Englisch worlds collide

Matchmaking Can Be Murder

by Amanda Flower

Matchmaking Can Be MurderAlready familiar with the little town of Harvest through Amanda Flower’s Amish Candy Shop Mystery Series, I was a a little confused when I found myself in a familiar town, but with a new main character, Millie. Then I remembered that Matchmaking Can Be Murder is the first in a new series. Many of the characters in the first series, which focuses on Bailey, an Englisch candy maker are back in this series. The new series features a sixty-seven year old Amish woman with a knack for knowing if two people are compatible. She returns home after years of caring for Amish kin in various communities.

Harvest is a mixed community with its Amish and Englisch citizens getting along fairly well. It is interesting to learn more about the Amish while watching their interactions with their non-Amish friends and neighbors. Especially fun is the reunion of Millie with her childhood friend Lois, a gregarious lady who has had a lot of husbands and is quite outspoken. Her clothing and jewelry are as eye-catching as Millie’s style of dress is plain. Lois makes many references to contemporary technologies and cultural icons that go right past Millie. More humor is found in the trained goat duo of Phillip and Peter who are Millie’s pets, guard goats, and lawn keepers.

Although Millie is the main character, the mystery centers around her niece Edy, a young widow with three children, whose fiancée is discovered dead in her greenhouse shortly after she breaks off the engagement. Millie and Lois attempt to discover who murdered Zeke, but they uncover more crime and convoluted personal relationships than they could ever have predicted.

It is interesting watching Millie in action as she tries to find out the truth while staying within the limits of what is right. She and Lois have to work at keeping each other in check and out of trouble. A nice touch is the author’s inclusion of Amish proverbs as they come to Millie throughout her day. I enjoy the Amish Candy Shop Mysteries, but this spinoff series is even better!

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

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: The first book in the Amish Matchmaking Mystery Series, it is a spinoff but it is not necessary to read the series it came from.

Publication:   December 31, 2019—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

Sometimes it worked to a person’s advantage to be friends with the biggest gossip in the district. I just had to feed Raellen the right information, and she would take care of the rest.

…”they can only fully commit to the Amish life when they know what the Englisch one is like. If they see the way the rest of the world lives and then commit to our ways, they are more likely to stay here.”

There was no way to rebuild what was shattered, but what we could make was something brand-new, something that was different but stronger than before. That’s what I hoped for the very most.

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