Book Review: The Hope of Azure Springs by Rachel Fordham

Delightful, emotionally-charged historical fiction

The Hope of Azure Springs is an amazing debut title by author Rachel Fordham that I was pleasantly surprised by. Christian fiction can at times be dry as dust, but this novel surpassed all my expectations! It contained elements of romance, danger, mystery, and small-town charm.

Set in historical Iowa, our plain-Jane heroine is an orphan train sibling who shows remarkable strength and resilience. Of course, her personal experiences have left a mark on her, but she is just absolutely charming. I don’t want to elaborate too much because I don’t want to spoil the book, predictable as elements of it may be.

Our hero is the town sheriff and of course, depicted as being absolutely swoon-worthy. He has his own personal history to deal with and current obstacles that he has to overcome. He’s stoic, handsome, stubborn, and sometimes oblivious, but also good-hearted and courageous.

The depth of the story is in the lesson of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, to acknowledge that attractiveness is more than skin deep, to see beyond a charming face to the heart that lies beneath. The story also beautifully chronicled a tale of loss, self-worth, family, friendship, healing, and hope. I was moved to tears by the eloquence with which certain passages were written. This was a well-paced novel that I did not want to put down (and may have stayed up way too late reading.)

A 4.5-star rating for sure. This is a definite recommended read for anyone who enjoys squeaky clean historical romance. A delightful escape from the grey skies of February.

I was provided with a copy of this publication via NetGalley with thanks to the publisher and/or author. All opinions are my own.

Publisher: Revell Publication Date: July 3, 2018

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Meal Plan Monday: February 18 Edition

Ignore the fact that it’s Tuesday… I scheduled this post wrong.  No excuses…

We’re not doing anything too exciting this week as far as meals. I am going through one of the spurts where I don’t want to be creative in the kitchen. I want quick and easy and as few complaints as usual. Some of the recipes are new-to-us but still fairly basic.

  • Meatless: rice noodles with veggie stirfry and veggie spring rolls (I’ll shortcut these with a box of frozen PC spring rolls)
  • Green chicken & rice (from The Sugar Smart Cookbook for Kids – I was given a digital copy to review via NetGalley in exchange for my reviews – hard to review without testing out some recipes!) We’ll serve with steamed mixed veggies
  • Kaleb’s pick – soft tacos or burritos or something similar
  • Justin’s pick – salmon burgers (from the Yum & Yummer cookbook) with cucumber mango salad (these are a holdover from last week that we didn’t get to!)
  • Teriyaki boneless chicken bites, hand cut fries, veggie sticks
  • leftover ingredient day – mashed potatoes or twice baked potatoes with whatever meat and veggies we still have hanging out in the freezer and/or fridge – a pretty basic variation of meat & potatoes

At some point in the week, I’ll also make a pear & cheddar crisp (recipe also from The Sugar Smart Cookbook for Kids.) We don’t often do dessert, but it’s a nice treat once in a while.

What are your go-to classics or shortcut (but still healthy-ish) meals when you’re just not wanting to put in extra effort?

Book Review: Summer by the Tides – Denise Hunter

I have received quite a few new titles to read this week via NetGalley… and an actual, physical book straight from the publisher that I’ll be reviewing as part of a blog tour in March. (Eeek! That excites me…) I have posted a number of reviews on Goodreads of the titles I’ve read, and have a few extras to post in the upcoming days. Check them out and many others on my profile here: brownlin81. Today, I’ll quickly share my thoughts on a new title by an author I generally enjoy – Summer by the Tides, by Denise Hunter.

Likeable leads, hope, and healing
in a charming contemporary setting.

Reminiscent of Robyn Carr or Susan Mallery, this novel was an enjoyable tale set in an oceanside town where sisters spent memorable moments as a family in their childhoods. Rife with heartache, betrayal, love, and mistrust, our heroine and hero find true love and broken family ties are mended by the final chapter. With spunky supporting characters (I loved the grandmother) and likeable, well-rounded leads, this was a clean and enjoyable novel of second chances, hope, and healing in a contemporary, charming setting.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Published by: Thomas Nelson; Publication date: May 21, 2019

Sweet Potato Muffin Experiment

I had two organic sweet potatoes sitting on my counter just waiting to be used. My family is not a huge fan of sweet potatoes for a multitude of reasons – it’s annoying. I didn’t want these to go to waste. It’s another snow day here as well and I thought muffins with a blend of spices and sweet rich undertones might be delicious. Cue the experiment.

Sweet Potato Muffin Experiment

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, cubed, steamed and mashed
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup oil (I used olive because it’s what I had – canola or vegetable would work)
  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cups liquid honey
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons pumpkin pie spice blend
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Prepare jumbo muffin trays (lightly oil or line with parchment or muffin cups.)
  2. Peel your sweet potatoes and cut into 1″ cubes. Steam or boil until soft.
  3. While your sweet potatoes are cooking, measure and whisk together your wet ingredients. Set aside.
  4. Measure and sift your dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
  5. When your sweet potatoes are soft, remove them from heat and mash. Allow them to cool slightly.
  6. Slowly add your wet ingredients to your dry ingredients, mixing with a wooden spoon or spatula. Mix well.
  7. Add your sweet potato mash to your mix. Mix well.
  8. Spoon evenly into prepared muffin top trays.
  9. Bake at 350°F for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the top of a muffin comes out clean.
Fresh from the oven…

After preparing, I taste tested. The recipe that inspired these called for almost 2 cups of sugar… no, thank you! I think you could increase the honey to 1 cup if desired. I was personally okay with the level of sweetness and fresh out of the oven they were delicious with a pat of butter. They could, however, definitely use a bit more spice – so flavour away to your heart’s content. The additional spice is not included in the recipe. Next time I’ll add extra cinnamon with the spice blend. Overall, these muffins are a satisfactory, subtly flavoured cold-weather treat. Delicious for breakfast or lunch when winter is blasting away, served with an almond milk chai latte. Your house will smell amazing!

Note: I used jumbo muffin pans (similar to these) in my experiment and they yielded 11 good sized muffins (12 if I had divided my mix evenly.) That being said, it would be simple enough to bake in a bundt pan, loaf pan (or 2), or regular muffin tray. Just adjust your baking time accordingly. (More for bundt or loaves, probably less for smaller muffins.)

Book Review: The White City by Grace Hitchcock

Since my early days of hanging out with Wilder, Alcott, and Montgomery and more mature interactions with Janette Oke and Tracie Peterson, I’ve always had a soft spot for historical fiction. It is still my favourite genre to date. There is something about being transported to another time and place in history that absolutely thrills me – the experience without the discomforts.

I was hopeful when I requested a copy of The White City by Grace Hitchcock. I was excited when I received the notification that a copy was mine for the reading.

Intrigue & romance during the Chicago World’s Fair

The White City was set in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair. It is the perfect blend of historical fact and intriguing fiction. (I never knew the Fair was a hunting ground for a serial killer!) The elements of romance, danger, and intrigue were exquisitely intertwined resulting in a fast-paced, emotionally balanced tale.

I absolutely loved the headstrong, impetuous, intrepid, confident nature of Winnie, our heroine. She was also a book-lover, so what’s not to love? The romance element was delightful and I enjoyed the contrast between the two possible suitors. The portrayal of the era’s societal norms and conflicting desire for a woman to be her own person while being perceived as capable and intelligent was nicely depicted. There was no objectionable content for my friends who like their books G-rated (well, maybe PG with the focus of the investigation.)

An excellent read overall! I’ve already recommended it to a few of my friends. I look forward to exploring other titles from Ms. Hitchcock.

I was provided with a copy of this title via NetGalley, courtesy of the author and/or publisher. All opinions are my own, given with thanks for the opportunity to review this book.

Published by: Barbour Publishing, Inc., Barbour Books; 
Publication Date: March 1, 2019

Meal Plan Monday: February 11 Edition

Meal planning was soooo boring this week. I actually love trying to decide what to feed the family (in advance – not the actual day of. I hate trying to decide the day of.) This week, however, in an effort to stretch the paycheque a bit further (ahem, bathroom reno!) I took stock of everything left in the freezer. We didn’t need to buy any meat… so that’s good, but I don’t think I was as creative as I might usually be.

New cookbooks!

This disappointment may be spurred by the fact that 3 new cookbooks made it into our home over the last few days. I ordered Justin the Kid Chef book off of Amazon, I impulsively bought the Yum & Yummer one at Costco, and found a $2 copy of the Country Living Farmhouse Kitchen Cookbook on the clearance rack at HomeSense over the weekend. We have new recipes to explore for days and weeks and months!

Our meal plan this week is leaving an exception for food court food on Tuesday (dentist appointment at the mall right at the dinner hour) and a possible Valentine’s excursion with Justin & Kevin if Kaleb actually makes it to ski club this week. (Praying it won’t be cancelled again!)

Here’s our menu in no particular order:

  • grilled cheese & salad (possibly some broccoli cheddar quinoa bites with these. I had plans to make them yesterday, but plans went awry!)
  • eggs, toast, bacon, and fruit salad (Kaleb’s meal)
  • broccoli cheddar soup, salad, and fresh bread (Justin’s meal)
  • Ribs, hand-cut potato wedges, and veggie sticks (“Kevin’s” meal – I made him pick this one!)
  • Jerk pork quesadillas with salad (I have jerk pork left over from Saturday to use) – our meatless Monday meal will not actually be today
  • Asian salmon burgers (the recipe is the Asian Tuna Burger from the Yum & Yummer cookbook, but Justin read that you can substitute for salmon and decided he wanted to tackle two meals this week! I think we’re on to something!)

We still have some turkey strips and some bacon-wrapped medallions in the freezer if at any point we change our mind… plus, the remains of the 15lb bag of potatoes that doesn’t seem to be getting smaller! Options… so many options.

I ran out of time to do a full grocery shop… and again, am trying to stick to a food budget of sorts. I decided to use PC Express for our shopping. Our local grocery store has some amazing staff picking and packing and it just makes life so much easier in a hurry. Another bonus is that I strictly shopped from my list without the temptation of all the sales, end caps, and clearance racks. I loaded my cart online before bed one evening and picked up the next day at a set time in a designated parking spot with a quick phone call. I opted for no bags and just made sure I had laundry baskets in the trunk for easy unpacking of the cart. Bonus, they gave me a valentine and some chocolates as thanks! (Grocery shopping is always better with a Lindor at the end…)

Book Review: Worry Less. Pray More: A Woman’s Devotional Guide to Anxiety-Free Living by Donna K. Maltese

Fantastic Little Reminders – Perfect for When Worry Strikes

Devotionals are hit and miss for me. I love ’em or I hate em’. They’re such a personal thing to read and if you don’t connect with the writing, it’s hard to get anything out of the text itself.

I was provided with a copy of Worry Less. Pray More by Donna K. Maltese to preview. I will admit I haven’t read the entire book. I’ve skimmed through quite a few entries (there are a lot! 180 readings and Scriptures – all dealing with leaving worry in God’s hands and letting go of anxiety.) One of my favourite snippets was this one:


“Let God’s beautiful rainbow amid the clouds be a reminder that He will make something good come out of the storms…”

Here is my review, originally posted on Goodreads:

This devotional is filled with quick and easy to read snippets to remind us that we do not need to live anxious or fearful lives. The entries are not deep. They are not exceptionally unique. They are, however, fantastic little reminders – bite-sized doughnut holes of inspiration – to snack on once in a while in a world where it’s easy to be consumed with anxious thoughts. I’ll keep it handy for those days that my mind needs quieting. Maybe less of a guide, and more a collection of sticky notes to reference quickly.

I was provided with a copy of this title via NetGalley, courtesy of the author and/or publisher. All opinions are my own, given with thanks for the opportunity to review this book.

Published by: Barbour Publishing, Inc., Barbour Books;
Publication Date: March 1, 2019

Book Review: Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel by James Markert

Colourful Cover & Descriptive Writing

This week I took the opportunity to crack open my copy of Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel by James Markert. It’s published by Thomas Nelson and sounded fascinating when I requested it from NetGalley. However, I only gave it a 3-star rating on Goodreads. I waffled back and forth between 3 and 4 stars, but something about the book just didn’t synch with me.

Loaded with mythology, art, beauty, damaged souls, and so many memories, it was an incredibly descriptive work. Colourful, lyrical prose flowed beautifully – Markert has an aesthetic way with words. Differences in theology aside – there were a lot of reliance and parallels to ancient mythology which worked with the artistic references and theme of the novel – the pictures painted in my mind were vivid and from that aspect, I was more than satisfied.

The storyline, however, while magical left me feeling a little lost at the end. (and in the beginning, and in the middle….) Part of me wonders if this was intentional considering the subject of memory (and/or subsequently, memory loss) and the effect on the human soul. At times, it was a little dry and I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. Emotions were invoked, but as I set my tablet down when I finished the book I was figuratively scratching my head with a “huh.” It was a good book… but a strange book. It just didn’t hook me as an absolute favourite. One thing I loved, however, was the question of whether we should live our numbered days with fullness, or extend our days and live with less wholeness – is the return of memories lost worth it? My creative disposition appreciated the beauty of the arts so deeply woven throughout. The novel as a whole… enjoyed it? Yes; Liked it? Yes; Really liked it? Just not quite. 3.5 stars from me.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Publisher: Thomas Nelson; Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Thinking Outside The Box

If you live anywhere along the Great Lakes corridor, you were probably blasted with the ice storm. Slippery roads, mix of ice pellets and wet snow, yucky travel conditions. No one was surprised when they cancelled the buses for an inclement weather day yesterday… once again! (I feel like this is a record for January/February. Kaleb’s ski club keeps getting cancelled too – boo to that!)

My kids were home again. Emails and texts went around with leadership at one of my admin contracts regarding programs and meetings today – they were all postponed. I made the decision to work from home. Fortunately, I can tackle some of my essential commitments from the comfort of my couch and it also affords some time to dive into some of the research projects that get pushed to the side. (If you’d like to do a survey on what parents and caregivers look for in a playgroup for toddlers and preschoolers, click here.)

I called a pause to TV watching in the living room because I can only handle so much Spongebob before my irritability rises and my productivity plummets. Besides, the TV watcher had a speech to prepare. We worked side-by-side, laptops in hand, both investing in our projects. We broke for lunch. Then the contractor asked the boys to unpack the new vanity which took all of three minutes and me constantly reminding them to avoid scratching the vanity with their pocket knives, please and thank you.

The Box / 24 Home

We were left with a box. A big, beautiful box. A box in slight shambles and needing some TLC. The 11-year-old has transformed it into a hut of sorts – hinged windows, level on each side, double doors, and a shower mat as the flooring. It’s covered in green painters tape (whatever works) and is currently sitting in the middle of my living room. The construction alone (including things velcroed to the interior walls and ceiling) kept him occupied for hours. And I am thrilled. I am thrilled that he hasn’t outgrown the wonder of imagination. I am thrilled that a cardboard box still provides hours of entertainment. I am thrilled that he gets caught in the excitement of creativity.

I am, however, less than thrilled that I may have agreed to a 24-hour-box-fort-challenge (What? Something he learned on YouTube?) “Mom, you can fill up my water bottle and bring me snacks.” “If I put it the right way, I can still see the TV.” (Apparently, we’re not quite victorious over the screen yet…) “There’s enough room that I can have a pillow and blanket.” “I guess I can leave the box to pee.” (Oh, thank goodness! My relief knows no bounds.) As long as it leaves my living room, he can kill time in his box as long as he’d like to.

Here’s to big boxes and big ideas. Here’s to tape and pocket knives. Here’s to creativity and imagination. Here’s to thinking outside the box or, sometimes, being different enough and confident enough to even stay in it!

Little Bath Reno – Part 1

Our home is as old as I am. Unfortunately, she doesn’t show her age as well as I do. She’s a little more grey-haired and creaky-boned than a gal her age should be! She’s practical – ever practical – and does a fantastic job of keeping the elements off our heads (usually), but she seems to need a makeover rather desperately. She’s holding on to some elements of the 80s and she’s been reluctant to give them up (and not the good parts of the 80s like Cabbage Patch Kids or Sesame Street or side ponytails or neon leggings and bodysuits with leg warmers and headbands!) I really need to invest in some good wallpaper stripper – those borders and painted ceilings make me cringe.

When we moved into our home in late 2011/early 2012 we knew we would have some work cut out for us. We had grandiose plans of methodically taking our time and renovating the home on a shoestring budget, transforming the wrinkles and age spots into a comfortable modern, rustic nest. Unfortunately, the budget went to unplanned expenses and methodically became slowly became stalled. We’ve put paint on a few of the walls and my husband started to demo the second bathroom when we were at risk of falling through the floor due to the water damage caused by 30+ years of slow leakage. We’ve replaced hot water tanks, appliances, and our HVAC units. We’ve dealt with failing sump pumps, lawnmower expenses, and budget roof repairs. The house was livable, but not a thing like we envisioned.

After a year of my nagging, I believe Kevin got tired of the pressure regarding the bathroom. Before Christmas, he hired a contractor we know to come in and do the job for us. I am convinced this was a wise decision as the washroom was in worse shape than we realised when we started knocking tiles off the wall. Even though my wallet cries a little every time we make another decision, the overall project will be fabulous when it’s done!

I don’t think the bathroom will have quite the rustic charm I was initially hoping for, but every time I pop my head in to answer a question, I’m blown away by the transformation! No more mould-stained, crumbling and decrepit shower. No more cracked and stained vanity sink. No more ugly lighting. It will be a bright and clean usable space.

Source List:

*Funny story about the paint, I wanted to use the 2019 colour of the year – Blueprint – but I was vetoed. It doesn’t happen often when it comes to the design of a project, but he was having none of it. So I looked at a bunch of swatches in store and didn’t buy a sample can and made my selection. I hemmed and hawed over a ton of paint chips and, wanting to avoid “just grey” again, narrowed it down to two choices – Oceanic Climate or Half Sea Fog. I chose Oceanic Climate – just a shade lighter than Half Sea Fog – on the same sample strip. Then somehow we’re paying at the cash and I notice that it says Half Sea Fog on the can, but can’t remember what I asked for! (Was it my fault? Was it his fault? Did I pass the chip the wrong way? Am I going crazy? Regardless, I am living with the mistake… but not loving it.)

Overall, we’re thrilled with the change in the room. The shower is bigger and brighter (no more dark-tiled hole in the corner) and the finishes are more modern as well. The floors have been grouted today and the plumber is coming on Friday. The finishing touches are going into place this week. Soon it will be THE nicest room in our house and we’ll have two toilets again – which is great because one bathroom was getting rough!