Set a story in Chicago and I’m glad to read it: Review of Secrets of Sloane House by Shelley Gray

I first knew of Shelley Shepard Gray as an author of Amish fiction. Now I know her writing credits stretch beyond those boundaries. In Secrets of Sloane House, writing as Shelley Gray, she pens a novel of suspense, mystery and romance set against the Chicago World’s Fair. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book through the Booklook Bloggers Program in exchange for my review.)

sloane houseI love a story set in historical Chicago, and even though I don’t know much about the era, it’s still fun to read about the city I most love to visit. My husband recently read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a true story of events that happened during the Chicago World’s Fair. As I read Secrets of Sloane House, I got the impression that it was like The Devil in the White City meets Downton Abbey.

Rosalind Perry is a servant in Sloane House, but she’s there under false pretenses–investigating what might have happened to her sister who was a servant there and has disappeared. As she asks questions and tries to uncover the mystery, she begins to fear for her own safety when it becomes clear that everyone around her is keeping secrets and her questions are drawing the wrong kind of attention. Only Reid Armstrong, the heir to a silver fortune, agrees to help her. Remembering his middle class roots, Reid forgoes propriety to help Rosalind, a servant in another house, much to the dismay of some of society’s members.

Though it’s not a fast-paced action kind of story, it is intriguing and held my attention. I wanted to know what happened to Rosalind’s sister, and I was interested in the World’s Fair come to life in the lives of ordinary Chicagoans of the day. The relationship between Reid and Rosalind is full of potential problems and it was fun to see how their story played out.

Secrets of Sloane House is the first in a series that I would continue reading. If you’ve read any of Gray’s Amish fiction, you’ll find this a departure from those stories, but if you’re not interested in Amish fiction, this one is worth a try.

And it makes me wish for a Downton Abbey style show set in Chicago!

The missing key to joy {a OneWord365 reflection plus a 2015 revelation}

If you’ve been following along here for the past couple of years, you might know a little something about my OneWord365 participation. If not, you can read about the start of it here, or select the OneWord365 category in the righthand sidebar under the “what I write about” menu to see all the posts I’ve written about my words of the past two years.


In short, it’s a revolution rather than a resolution for the New Year. It’s a choice to focus on a word that leads to change or transformation. My first year, it was “release,” as I discovered the need to let go of some things I’d been holding too tightly.

This year, it was “enjoy,” as I realized my need to not be so serious or fearful about life all the time.

In a way, this year was a OneWord365 letdown compared to 2013 when I literally felt freer at the end of the year as a result of letting go. As this year comes to a close, I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed life as much as I could. Sure, there were highlights, and it’s not like we’ve had a miserable year. But I don’t feel like a major attitude shift has happened as a result of my One Word this year.

I take complete responsibility for that. And I think maybe I got ahead of myself. After my year of release, I reasoned that it would be easier to enjoy. And in some ways it was.

But I think for true transformation to happen, my 2014 One Word is going to have to work together with my 2015 One Word. (It’s coming, don’t worry.)

I start thinking about these things ridiculously early. Or maybe not, but even before this year was close to its end, I was contemplating my next year’s word. It’s not magic or a guarantee but I find having a One Word does help me focus a bit. I look for the word and its application, like a yearlong treasure hunt. And in some ways, it’s like speaking a truth over your year. This word, I declare, is what I want for my life right now.

It’s not a science, for certain.

For a month or more, I thought my word for 2015 would be “strong.” I have plans to work on my health in 2015, and “strong” is something I’ve not felt in a long time. But it didn’t sit the way the other words have. It seemed like a good concept but not the exact right fit.

So I brainstormed some other words related to “strong” and what I hope 2015 will mean for me. I tossed around “healed” and “free” and “light” and “open,” words that are good, too, but still not quite there. They were part of the idea I was working toward but none of those words by themselves represented what I wanted.

Then one day as I was leaning over the dryer pulling clothes out, a word settled in my soul. (That sounds strange, right? But sometimes that’s how it happens. The word finds me when I’m no longer actively looking.)

It’s the right word because it encompasses “strong” and “healed” and “light” and “free.”

For 2015, my word is this:


In an effort to enjoy, I rediscovered how much of me is still broken. And it’s not that I think I’m useless or need to be cast aside, but I’m certainly not where I want to be mentally, physically or emotionally.

To be whole next year means that I’m going to do some things for me, things that have taken a backseat in past years. As a wife and a mom, I’ve let others’ needs come before mine, which sounds sacrificial and maybe even a little bit spiritual but in reality, it’s put me in a place that isn’t healthy.

I’m not exactly sure what “whole” will look like, nor do I expect that in one year all the broken parts of me will be miraculously fixed and healed. For me, it’s a start. It’s a line in the sand that says, now it’s time to focus on me, not so I can selfishly demand the world revolve around me and my needs, but so that I can be the best me. It’s a gift to my family for me to be whole. And it’s a gift to me, too.

I’ve already taken a few steps toward wholeness. I’m on medication for high blood pressure, which means I’m also looking at ways to eat healthier and exercise more. I’ve started seeing a therapist because my mental health is probably as bad (or worse) than my physical health. (And it’s not that I want you to feel sorry for me, and maybe you don’t think I should be talking about these things, but putting it in writing keeps me accountable and frees me from fear.) Taking care of my mental health may also involve medication, a decision I’m still considering.

What else will “whole” look like?

Defining, and following, my dreams (and God’s) for my life. I’m an incomplete person without my writing, so that will take on a greater role in my days. How, I’m not sure yet. But I have a second kid starting school next fall, which means I’ll have five whole days a week without children starting in August. A taste of that free time this year has me dreaming about pursuing more writing opportunities.

I will start another novel next year. Though I’m not yet finished editing and rewriting the one I finished a first draft of this year, I’m desperate to start planning and plotting a new story, one that has been on my mind for years and is a completely different genre than the first one I wrote. It’s a story that I think will bring personal healing as I write it. (Expect to hear more about this next year!)

Beyond that, I don’t want to set up too many expectations for my One Word because it will turn out different than I expect. It has so far. Though I’m not a fan of surprises, even good ones, I want to leave room for the Spirit’s work in my One Word. I cannot plan what God has in mind.

Before I end this post, I need you to know that this is the scariest One Word yet for me. I’ve been thinking about the passage in the Bible where Jesus asks a man who has been an invalid for 38 years if he wants to get well. I always thought it was a ridiculous question. Who wouldn’t want to be well after being not well for so long? But it’s interesting how we adapt to our unwellness. It becomes comfortable and we know how to function, how to survive. Throw us a curve and make us well? Then we have to operate in a new way.

Next year, I turn 37. (That’s eerily close to the 38 years mentioned in that passage.) And while I’m not sure if I’ve been “unwell” that entire time, I know that next year marks a turning point if I truly pursue wholeness. And it scares me a little. Because wholeness will change me, and even if the change is good (and it will be), it will be different than what I’ve known.

Still, I don’t want to offer excuses to the Lord for the reasons I’m not well. I want to hear his call to wholeness, pick up my mat and walk.

It’s sure to be a shaky journey, and if you aren’t afraid to walk it with me, I know I will need your support.

I also can’t end this post without asking you to consider choosing one word for next year. You don’t have to make it official by registering on the site although that does have the potential for community and accountability. You don’t have to blog about it, either, or publicize it on Facebook. But if you take some time to think about it and a word settles in your soul, will you tell someone about it so they can ask you how it’s going?

You can a leave a comment here with your word, too, and we’ll encourage each other along the way.

Full of surprises from start to finish: Review of Price of Privilege by Jessica Dotta

I discovered Jessica Dotta’s Price of Privilege series almost reluctantly. Because it was on the list for Tyndale’s Summer Reading Program and I could check it out from the library, I gave it a chance. Sometimes I yawn at another offering set in 19th Century England, but I’m so glad I picked up this series. (You can read my reviews of books 1 and 2, Born of Persuasion and Mark of Distinction, on Goodreads.)

price of privilegeThe finale in the series, Price of Privilege, is a stunning and surprising conclusion. It also might be my favorite of the three books. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

Without giving too much away for anyone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series, I’ll say this: I want good things for Julia, the lead character, who is telling these stories in the first person. Her life has been marred by circumstances out of her control (and some in her control), and I just want things to work out for her. A friend who read the first book in this series had almost no sympathy for her character, so I’m not sure why I do, but I feel sorry for her. But sorry for her in the kind of way that I’m pulling for her.

I can say that almost nothing that happens in Julia’s life makes me feel good or happy. And this is not your light-hearted happily ever after kind of story, but it has a redemptive storyline that drew me into it. One of the highlights is a character named Jameson who adds a sprinkling of humor through some of the toughest scenes. His character is what made this book my favorite.

Now that I’ve finished the series, I’m a bit sad to leave these characters behind even though there were disturbing events in their lives. I felt their sufferings and sorrows, and what I’ve loved about Dotta’s writing is the kind of dark moodiness she’s able to convey on the page. Definitely reminiscent of the Bronte sisters’ works, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

If you’re looking for something different in the historical genre, love England and don’t mind a story with some darkness to it, then I’d whole-heartedly recommend Dotta’s series.

I wish I could say more about this particular story without giving away other details. This is another series I’d love to read again, straight through, to get a better handle on the turns of events, too.

The one gift I can give this year

We’re in a terrible rush these days.

Have you noticed?

It seems no matter where I am, someone is honking or speeding by or cutting someone off or ignoring the people around them. We’re so busy, looking for the shortest lane at the store, the fastest way from here to there.

So hurried.

Waiting is an obstacle to accomplishing tasks, patience no longer a virtue.

Life is just flying by, and what do we have to show for it?

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

I am not ready for Christmas. I am never ready for Christmas. I still have family photo cards from last year that never made it to the mail. (Confession: I’m tempted to send them out again this year. Do you think anyone would notice?)

I have a hard time planning ahead to send Christmas cards and shop for gifts. It’s not like Christmas comes as a surprise every year. I just fail to plan for it. Sometime after Thanksgiving (and after our son’s birthday), I start thinking about Christmas, but frankly, it stresses me out a little to add all these other things to my already cluttered life: decorating a tree, sending cards, buying presents, making cookies. I enjoy all of those things; I just don’t appreciate the pressure I feel to get it all done in this short amount of time.

What’s the point of Advent?

A friend asked this on Facebook recently. My answer was less than theological or educated, and her question is not at all surprising. Until a few years ago, I didn’t think much of Advent, that season of the year preceding Christmas. Maybe we opened a calendar with candy in it as kids. Maybe we tried to mark down the days somehow. Even now, with kids, making time for Advent activities seems like one more thing to add to the already busy time of year.

This year we’re using some Advent readings from Thriving Family magazine and twice already, we’ve gotten behind and had to catch up on the days we missed. Sometimes I want to just forget the whole thing. Is it really worth it?

And then it happens.

We find a cute tree. We make room for it in the house and decorate it. We drag out the kids’ nativity set and they begin to tell stories about “the time when Jesus came to be born.” nativity

And even though these acts are small and ordinary, they remind me that this is no ordinary time. It is a time to remember, yes. But also to pause.

A time to wait and expect.

The kids practically bounce off the walls with excitement now that the tree is up and there are presents under it. Christmas is special and they know it.

Do I know it?

I am obsessed with the idea of light breaking into darkness.

Light equals hope. Aren’t we all a bit happier when the sun shines after days of rain? Doesn’t something in us brighten also?

And this is what happens during Advent. We who bear the Light of God proclaim to those walking in darkness (we were once those people, too) that Light has come and Light is coming. Light is breaking through. The world will no longer be dark. There is hope. Hold on just a bit longer. Come with us and we’ll show you the Way to the Light.

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash


It is easier, sometimes, to pierce the darkness with light at Christmas. Sometimes we are kinder, more patience, more peaceful, more generous. Sometimes not.

I never quite understood the phrase “the Christmas spirit,” as if our mood during this time was limited to only a few weeks or a month out of the year.

Come January do we all turn back into misers? Is there something magical about this time that brings out the best in us? Or is it just easier to hide the worst in us when all around us is seemingly jolly?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Sometimes when I look at the world I see only hate, sadness, war, hurry, meanness, evil, harshness and greed. (I don’t have to look far. All those things are inside of me.)

So I find it interesting that the fruit of the Spirit is all the things lacking in our world, in my world, today: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These are small battles, for sure, in a war that rages across humanity.

But they are satisfying victories that allow a pinprick of light to shine in the darkness.

This is Advent.

Not a loud proclamation that life as we know it is over.

Not a terrifying battle cry that we’re about to be taken prisoner.

Not a forced servitude.


It is little bits of light in the dark.

It is the hope that comes with a newborn baby.

It is a promise that life goes on.

It is expectation that the world will not always be dark.

It is an invitation to join a revolution whose core value is love.

It is a hand extended in friendship and brotherhood, a voice that says, “Follow me. There’s another way to live.”

It starts with Advent and continues through Christmas, but heaven help us if it ends there.

If I could give the world a gift this year, it would be my own commitment to be Light and Love and Hope all year long.

Of course I’ll fail at that, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Do you celebrate Advent? What does it mean to you?

How does the Christmas season affect you?

The weird thing about grief

My cell phone rang while I was making a special lunch for my son’s birthday on Tuesday. I almost never get calls and almost never in the middle of the day, and when I saw that it was my mom, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

And it wasn’t. My uncle Bill had died sometime in the night. We’d known it was coming. His lungs were failing and his health was deteriorating quickly in the last few weeks. But it doesn’t make the sadness any less sad.

We talked briefly, my mom and I, and just as we were ending the call, her voice cracked, and I almost did, too. I wandered the kitchen, waiting for my husband to come back with our son from preschool (and the final ingredient I needed to finish lunch) when my phone rang again with a number I didn’t know or hadn’t saved since I switched phones. It was my cousin, whose father was the uncle who just died.

We’ve rarely talked on the phone, he and I, but that day, I was glad to hear his voice. (He lives in Colorado; I live in Pennsylvania.) We didn’t talk about much, but his voice, too, cracked as we ended the call. While we were talking, my husband came home and I must have had a distressed look on my face because he seemed to know, too. I ended that call, having not shed a tear yet and just sobbed into my husband’s chest while he wrapped his arms around me.

I cried for the loss and the pain that my family members were experiencing and the separation that kept me from being with them in their grief. My mom, my other uncle, my grandparents are at least all in the same state and have each other to grieve with. My cousin has his mom and my uncle’s friends and co-workers. I’m feeling a bit lost in the process out here in Pennsylvania.

And did I mention that it was my son’s birthday and I still had a cake to decorate? How is a person supposed to decorate a birthday cake and celebrate the passage of another year of life when death has just visited your family?


I don’t know.

When my tears subsided, I finished making lunch. We talked to our son about why mommy was crying. And then my husband played Legos with the birthday boy while I decorated the cake in the kitchen. grief_dad_boy legos

It was surprisingly therapeutic to create something fun and beautiful with my hands while sadness made its home inside of me.

We continued our birthday celebration. We told our daughter the news when she got home from school. We ended the day as normally as possible, though we did stay up late putting Legos together. Whenever there’s a tragic loss of life, especially if it is close to home, I always want to spend more time together with the people I love. It’s like grief and loss remind me that nothing is guaranteed and every moment matters.

I haven’t experienced a lot of grief for deaths in the family. At 36 years old, I still have both of my parents in good health, and three out of four grandparents. Our losses have been few in my lifetime, though I realize that somewhere in the not-so-distant future, the losses could accumulate more rapidly than I’d like.

I know almost nothing about the grieving process except that it’s different for everyone and takes varying amounts of time and really, there are no rules when it comes to how people process loss.

My uncle and I weren’t terribly close. He lived in Colorado for most of my life. But his son, my cousin, is like another brother. We are nearly the same age and my brother and I spent many summers with him at our grandparents’ house in Illinois. I have many memories of our escapades together. A few years ago, my husband and I got to fly to Colorado for my cousin’s wedding, and there I had the chance to get to know my uncle again and spend time with him as a grown-up. I’m so grateful we took that trip even though our basement had just flooded in a freakish rainstorm.

So, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to process this loss. How much do I grieve the loss of a man who is important to me because he is important to people I love?

The day after his death, my emotions were raw and I was feeling everything. Grief felt like a heavy blanket over my head and I couldn’t get enough air. grief_legosI played Legos with my son and again found a measure of relief. I don’t know if it’s the creating or the focusing on a task or doing something childlike but whatever it was, it lifted the fog a bit.

grief_birthday candlesThat night we helped decorate the church for Christmas, something I haven’t done yet at our house, and the joy and light of Christmas decorations reminded me that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (That’s in the Bible. Don’t ask me to cite it right now.) That hope descends to the hopeless. That love has the last word. (That’s a line from Jason Gray.)

I desperately want to spend time with my family right now, and I may get my wish over Christmas. Until then, though, this grief thing is weird. Yesterday and today life has been almost normal. But I can’t say whether that will last.

I am not sticking to a healthy eating plan right now because sometimes grief says, “Eat a cupcake.” But it also says, “Take a walk. Slow down. Be present. Notice what’s around you.”

I am trying to do those things.

Maybe I’ll be able to write a post soon telling you about my uncle and the things I appreciated and loved about him. But that’s not for today.

Today, I just want to say that grief is weird. And that’s okay.

No words of wisdom from me.

But maybe you have some to share?

Just what I expected: Review of Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund

Any time I read a book by one of my favorite authors, I’m expecting a good story. Yet, a part of me wonders, will this be the book I don’t like? Because, over time, it’s possible that I’ll not like a book by one of favorite authors. (Possible, but it hasn’t happened yet!)

LoveUnexpectedFortunately, Jody Hedlund’s new release, Love Unexpected, is another gem of a story, and the only “unexpected” part is how the story will unfold. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the author in exchange for my review.)

Love Unexpected kicks off a new series centered on Michigan’s lighthouses. Being from the Midwest, I have a soft spot for the Great Lakes but have almost no knowledge about the area’s lighthouses. Michigan is a treasure trove for lighthouse lovers, it would seem.

This book is set at the Presque Isle lighthouse on Lake Huron and is based on a real lighthouse keeper from the 1800s. (This is one of my favorite things about Jody’s books. She uses characters from history and fictionalizes their stories while keeping many of the facts of their life intact.) Even if this wasn’t based on Michigan history, though, it would be a good story.

Emma Chambers and her brother, Ryan, are searching for a new life when their boat is attacked by pirates and they find themselves shipwrecked in the lake. They’re rescued by Patrick Garraty, lighthouse keeper, who has just lost his wife and is struggling to care for his two-year-old son while maintaining the lighthouse.

Prompted by the circuit-riding preacher, Emma agrees to a quickie wedding to this stranger. Marrying him gives her what she’s always dreamed of: a home of her own, a husband and a child. But she soon learns she isn’t as up to the task as she thought. And her new husband hints at an unsavory past that feeds Emma’s doubts about her hasty decision.

As her love for the child grows, so do her doubts about her new husband. Is this marriage what she dreamed of or did she just enter a nightmare?

Love Unexpected is part love story, part history lesson, part mystery, and Jody crafts a page-turning tale. I literally tell myself, “One more chapter,” half a dozen times before I have to step away from the story to take care of real life.

If you’re a fan of lighthouses, Michigan history or just really good inspirational fiction, I’d encourage you to check out this book by Jody Hedlund. (You can also read her Beacons of Hope novella, Out of the Storm, for free on Kindle.)

If lighthouses or Michigan aren’t your thing, you can check out her other books. Here’s a list of ones I’ve reviewed.

I’m looking forward to more lighthouse stories from Hedlund. And now I want to take a trip to visit them!

To the boy who turns 5

All I did was write the title of this post, and already, I’m nearly in tears.

It’s not that I don’t want you to grow up. I do want that because that’s the way of things.

Sometimes, though, I wish it didn’t happen so fast.

Wasn’t it just a minute ago that you were barreling into the world via emergency C-section because you were bigger than life?



And seconds ago you were a smiley baby I snuggled tight while trying to balance your needs and your toddling sister’s needs.


Now you’re five. You’ll be on your way to kindergarten next year, and though I am looking forward to the days of having my own schedule again, I have to admit that I will miss you.Corban and mommy

You’ve never known anything but a mom who stays home with you. And these last two years, when your sister went off to school, it’s been just you and me, precious time I wouldn’t trade for anything because I saw your personality bloom.

You’ve become my helper. At grocery shopping. At running errands. At washing dishes and doing laundry. You’ve kept me sane through some insanity because you are funny and compassionate and easy to please, when the occasion warrants.

Corban cooks

I thought I knew everything about babies and children after your sister was born. Having a second child seemed easier than the first time around. But you’ve kept us on our toes–from the numerous ear infections as a baby to the urgent care visit in Illinois to our first trip to the ER for a “pediatric head injury.” You live life wild and hard and sometimes you have cuts and bruises and scars that appear from where you’ve tried to take out a wall on accident. (Even when you play soccer with your sister, we see the football–the other kind–potential in you.)

Without you, I wouldn’t know that it was possible for a person to be noisy from the moment they woke up to the moment they fell asleep. The house is quiet without you. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going on inside your brain, but occasionally, during the noise, all the thoughts and questions and ideas leak out. I can’t wait to see what happens when you’re in school.

Corban dragon

And speaking of questions: you have so many. I can’t really complain because I was the same way as a child. Even as an adult, I’m asking questions all the time, even if I don’t voice them. You love to know how things work and the reason for things. Just the other night, I was amazed by the workings of your little brain. We walked downtown in the city, you holding my gloved hand with your gloved hand. We hadn’t taken more than a few steps from the car and you were studying a building and a staircase, trying to figure out where it went and how it got there. The amazement I heard in your voice made me pause to be amazed, too.

This, too, is what you’ve done to me. You’ve made me notice things I wouldn’t otherwise see. Because of you I see trucks of all kinds on the road. I know the difference between a bulldozer and a backhoe and a skid loader because that’s what you want to read about. I’m learning about trains and bridges and trucks because those are the non-fiction books you find at the library. (And you want to read every word because you want to know how it works.)

Before you were born, I wondered if I had enough love for two children. In some weird way, my love wasn’t split; it was multiplied.

Corban batman

And now you’re 5 and the years have already passed so quickly. And I wonder if I’ll blink and you’ll be on the verge of manhood. Will I always see you as a little boy?

You bring so much life to our lives. I know we don’t have a lot of proof of our love, at least not in the form of pictures. It’s true what they say about subsequent children and the lesser amount of photos. We were too busy loving you and your sister, figuring out our life as a family of four, becoming a healthy place for you to grow up. You might never read these words, or maybe you will someday when you’re much older, but let them reflect all the love I don’t say, all the love you don’t see when you look for pictures of your childhood. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You are so very loved, wanted from the moment we knew you were coming, even though it scared us.

We can’t imagine our family without you.

Happy birthday, Corban. You are, and will always be, what your name means: a gift given back to God.

Feast your mind on these 5 tasty books

By the time you read this, I will have spent a couple of days preparing food and cooking food and eating food. You, too? Marriage to my husband turned me into a foodie. I’m not sorry, except when my grocery budget takes a hit or my kitchen ends up in disaster mode because of my experiments with new recipes.

My other favorite thing to do is read, and if I can do both at the same time, I do. (While waiting for water to boil or a soup to simmer, I’ll often stand near the stove with a book or Kindle in hand to pass the time.) And lately, I’ve read some really great stories that focus on food or cooking or baking, so I can enjoy a novel and be inspired to cook at the same time!

So, if you’re at the point of the weekend where you can kick back and stop cooking or baking (and you love to read!), check out these five tasty books that will leave your mouth watering while providing an inspiring story.

1. Under the Cajun Moon by Mindy Starns Clark. This isn’t a new book, but I only read it last year. It’s a mystery set in Lousiana around a family restaurant. I went through a phase where I read several of Clark’s mysteries and I remember liking this one the best because of its ties to the food business.

when i fall in love2. When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren. This is the third in a series about a family, but it takes place mostly in Hawaii when the main character, Grace, is sent by her family on a surprise cooking retreat. Grace is then paired with a hockey player for a cooking competition and well, let’s just say the food isn’t the only thing that cooks in the kitchen. Reminded me a lot of some of the Food Network shows I love.

3. Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano. Setting sold this one because the Isle of Skye, Scotland, is magnificent, but this story features a hospitality consultant aiming for a promotion and a celebrity chef with dreams of restoring the family hotel. Another mouth-watering read.

4. All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant. Another one with a cooking competition element, only this one love and cupcakesfeatures cupcakes. Summary: Best friends who want to be more can’t admit it to each other and don’t want the other person to have to give up their dreams for a chance at happiness. A sweet story and one that you’ll wish came with a cupcake!

5. A Table by the Window by Hillary Manton Lodge. Not necessarily my favorite among the foodie books I’ve listed, but still, it’s centered around a family in the food business–running a restaurant and writing about food. This one comes with recipes which might inspire readers to get off the couch and get cooking!

I feel like there might be others I’ve read recently but those are the first five that come to mind!

Do you have any book recommendations for readers who also love to cook (and eat!)?

Shake up your holiday shopping by making a difference in the world

I know it’s Thanksgiving and we’re not supposed to be online hanging with our virtual friends when we’re supposed to be spending time with family and loved ones (and don’t worry, I wrote this post yesterday!) BUT on the off chance you’re headed out to do some Thursday/Black Friday/I don’t know what to call it anymore shopping tonight or tomorrow or this weekend, I wanted to once again ask you to consider changing the way you shop this holiday season.

Because to hear the advertisers tell it, I’m not really thankful or happy this year unless I put in new carpeting or redecorate my house or buy the latest gadget or spoil my children with every.single.toy in the store.

You know that’s not true, right?

You know you have the power to change that story, right? For you and for others?

The holidays, Christmas, in particular, don’t have to be about accumulating more stuff or buying in a frenzy or going into debt. You can choose meaningful gifts, ones that even make a life-saving difference in someone else’s life. Really.

I think we can all agree that we have a lot of choices in our lives. Confession: I nearly had a meltdown in the bread aisle the other night because we had a dozen different choices about what kind of hamburger buns we could buy. (Kaiser. Potato. Wheat. Slider size. Regular size. On and on.) And somewhere on the other side of the world, a mama doesn’t have enough money to buy any bread. Period.

Let that sink in but don’t let it paralyze you.

You can do some good. Right here. Right now. For someone else who truly needs it.

There are hundreds of companies doing good with their goods, and that can be overwhelming, I know. So, here are a few ideas to help you shake up your holiday shopping, if you don’t know where to start.

1. Imagine Goods. This company is one you will hear/read about from me all.the.time. The co-owner is a friend who lives in the same town, but even if I didn’t know her personally, I would want you to shop here. They sell beautiful home goods like tablecloths, cloth napkins and aprons, as well as fashionable clothing for women, children and men. And the clothing is all made in Cambodia by women who have been sexually exploited or are at-risk of exploitation because of financial or family situations. Imagine Goods offers them decent working conditions and a livable wage. As a bonus, the company partners with other organizations doing good, such as Love146, making clothing and products for them, as well. (They’re running a 20 percent off sale through Sunday with the code “Thankful Hearts.”)

2. Ornaments4Orphans. I just learned about this organization last weekend at a Christmas open house another friend hosted. They sell handcrafted ornaments made in East Africa through fair trade practices, and the proceeds benefit programs that help orphaned and vulnerable children, particularly in Uganda. If you’re looking for unique Christmas tree decorations, look here.

3. Ten Thousand Villages. I had never heard of this until we moved to Pennsylvania six years ago (because it’s based here), but this is one of my favorite places to shop/browse. Everything sold in stores and online is made by artisans in countries all over the globe. These artisans are paid fairly for their work. You can find jewelry and home decor and wall art and more. If you don’t have a store near you, browse online. Unique gifts made with care.

4. Imana Kids. If you decide that you and your loved ones really do have enough stuff, you can still spend money and make a difference in the world. Another friend is involved with this great ministry in Rwanda, caring for orphans through safe homes, basic needs and education. They’re currently trying to furnish a home that can serve as a safe haven and meeting place for the kids until permanent homes are found. They are aiming to raise $30,000 and you can help by buying plates and bowls, blankets, sheets, furniture and one month of clean water. Check out their gift catalog for the full list of gift options. These are basic needs, not above-and-beyond needs.

Truly, you (and I) have no reason not to support organizations such as these. And not only at Christmas but year-round. Will it mean sacrifice? Yep. Will it mean discomfort? Yep. (Will it mean a meltdown in the bread aisle because you have so.many.choices? Maybe!) But I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Count the cost this Christmas. The cost of whatever it is you think you need compared to the cost of basic needs a fellow human being needs.

You don’t have to overhaul your whole shopping list today (or even this year). Start small if you have to. Make one better choice this year. And then maybe next time you need a gift, you make another choice like this. And then maybe next year you’ll be ready to make even more changes to your shopping list.

I know it’s not easy. Trust me, I do. We do not have loads of money to spend on things, but we have more than enough of what we need. And I can’t in good conscience live my life only and always for myself. I just can’t. (Though sometimes I try really hard to do just that.)

Maybe you have some other organizations to add to this list. Feel free!

Whatever you do, don’t ignore this post. I can personally vouch for Imagine Goods and Imana Kids, if you’re worried about accountability. They are good friends doing good work that is also very hard.

Any excuse you are thinking of right now, I’ve said it to myself.

This is not about guilt. (I’m sorry if it sounds that way. I’m a mom! I think it’s ingrained!)

And it’s not about charity.

It’s about justice. About making things right. About doing for someone what you would want them to do for you. In an honorable and dignified way.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to fall into a turkey induced coma.

Just think about it, okay?

That’s the last I’ll say about it. Today.

The new way to tell fairy tales: Review of The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson

Two things always surprise me about Melanie Dickerson’s books:

1. They’re considered young adult fiction (and I, a not-very-young adult, LOVE them).

2. They’re creative retellings of familiar fairy tales, often done so well that I don’t immediately recognize the original fairy tale!

princess spySuch was the case with her new release, The Princess Spy. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Zondervan through the Booklook Blogger program.)

When I first started reading Dickerson’s books, I was intrigued by the idea that she could take the basics of fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Sleeping Beauty, set them in the Middle Ages with princesses and knights and castles, and make a whole new story out of them. That’s what started me reading them. Now, it doesn’t even matter to me if they’re retellings, and when I read The Princess Spy, I wasn’t even thinking about The Frog Prince, a fairy tale I sometimes forget about.

Basically what I’m trying to say here is that even if these were stories without a fairy tale association, they would still be good, still worth reading.

In The Princess Spy, Margaretha is being wooed by Lord Claybrook, a man she hopes will be the true love she’s been waiting for. Until she meets an injured stranger, who is brought to the castle’s healer for tending his wounds. The man claims to be an English lord with dangerous information about Claybrook. He enlists Margaretha to spy for him, and soon, she is thrust into a daring plan to save her family and kingdom.

There is adventure, banter, danger, romance, chivalry and unexpected turns of events. Before I knew about The Frog Prince elements of the story, I caught influences of scenes in the movies The Princess Bride and Ever After. In short, it was everything a good fairy tale romance should be. (And the heroine is no weakling. I love a good strong heroine.)

You should know, if you read this, that there are characters from previous novels connected to this one. I now want to go back and re-read the ones that came before and make a family tree of some kind so I can follow along to how everyone is related. But, if you haven’t read her previous books (and WHY haven’t you?), you won’t be lost in this one.

I have to put Melanie Dickerson on my list of favorite authors, and I almost can’t wait (yes, I can) until my daughter is old enough to read these stories. For me, one sign of a good author is that I’m already looking forward to the next book as soon as I’ve finished the current one. That is how I feel after reading The Princess Spy. (Also, her book covers are some of my favorites ever.)

You can take a look at all of Dickerson’s books here. And if you’ve read one of her books, or if you do, let me know what you think!