Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review and Giveaway: Jane and the Waterloo Map by Stephanie Barron

Jane Austen turns sleuth in this delightful Regency-era mystery

November, 1815. The Battle of Waterloo has come and gone, leaving the British economy in shreds; Henry Austen, high-flying banker, is about to declare bankruptcy—dragging several of his brothers down with him. The crisis destroys Henry’s health, and Jane flies to his London bedside, believing him to be dying. While she’s there, the chaplain to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent invites Jane to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s fabulous London home. The chaplain is a fan of Jane’s books, and during the tour he suggests she dedicate her next novel—Emma—to HRH, whom she despises.

However, before she can speak to HRH, Jane stumbles upon a body—sprawled on the carpet in the Regent’s library. The dying man, Colonel MacFarland, was a cavalry hero and a friend of Wellington’s. He utters a single failing phrase: “Waterloo map” . . . and Jane is on the hunt for a treasure of incalculable value and a killer of considerable cunning.

For years, Stephanie Barron's Being Jane mysteries have been on my literary radar, but I took little interest in them, despite their Austenesque genre placement.  I'm not generally drawn to mysteries; in fact, the last few that I've read had almost put me off the subject matter entirely.  About a year ago I won a signed copy of Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, and I decided that at some point I would at least give Ms. Barron's work a try.  If nothing else, the Twelve Days cover art was enticing me to give it a go.  Yes, I'm that type of reader.

Fast forward a year, and I still haven't read the book.  Yet here comes another title in the series, Jane and the Waterloo Map. I'm intrigued with the battle of Waterloo and pairing it with Austenesque fiction heightened my interest in a mystery novel once again.  I was thrilled when I received an invitation to be a part of the Waterloo Map blog tour and danced a little jig when the book arrived on my doorstep.

As I'm a complete neurotic when it comes to reading books in a series, I simply could not begin my experience with the Being Jane novels with Book 13.  I quickly procured a copy of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor for perusal, and I was not disappointed! The novel was incredibly enjoyable, and I was thrilled that I'd begun with the first in the series.  Then I began to hear from other readers (including the author herself) that reading Book 2, Jane and the Man of the Cloth would also be a good idea, as many foundational lines are established in this title as well. I mentioned this to my husband, and he promptly found a copy in a used bookstore and brought it home for me. I had little time to get Man of the Cloth read, but once again Stephanie Barron wrote a thrilling tale that was easy to take in with speed and enjoyment.

Although I'd love to plow through Books 3-12, time was wasting away for this post's deadline, so I leaped forward to Jane and the Waterloo Map, which is set eleven years after the conclusion of Map of the Cloth. I found in short order that I needed to familiarize myself with one character in particular, who had been introduced in Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.  While I don't see it as completely necessary for all readers to do this, I quickly opened Twelve Days and got to know the character of Raphael West just a bit.  He plays a major role in Waterloo Map, and I'm glad I took the time to read a few of his opening scenes in Book 12.  Again, this isn't a requirement for other readers to enjoy this latest title. I just found it to be helpful in my understanding of his relationship to Jane.

As with Books 1 and 2, Jane and the Waterloo Map is a delightful mixture of fact (things we've learned from world history as well as Jane's actual letters), fiction (Jane Austen as sleuth!), intelligence, wit, and just a touch of chaste romance.  Barron's narratives rarely lag, and while I find the number of characters introduced into the story to be many, they always contribute to the plot and hold some significance, no matter how small.  As I do with many of the novels I read, I did a "Hollywood casting" in my head to keep the individuals organized.  At the conclusion of this review, I'll offer up some of the names of those who graced the "silver screen" in my mind.

I must say that near the end of Waterloo Map, Barron truly had me guessing as to what would be coming next in her plot choices, and she surprised me on multiple occasions.  My interest never ceased to be held, and I was particularly shocked at the revelation of one villainous character. I truly didn't see this twist coming at all. And just when I thought that the drama would be at its end, Barron threw in one more scene of peril and excitement, just for good measure. There is a bit of a bittersweet ending, and I closed the book with much satisfaction.  While I don't anticipate abandoning my primary interest in general Austenesque fiction, Stephanie Barron has restored my interest in mystery stories.  In her Being Jane series, she has captured the voice of Jane Austen as none I have read in some time, and has combined her ability to uniquely tell a quality story with a whodunit. I'm utterly surprised at how much I've enjoyed reading her these past weeks, and look forward to not only reading the remaining ten books in the collection but hope to see many more new works from her to come.

Hollywood Casting - Jane and the Waterloo Map

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in
Miss Austen Regrets (2008 at age 40)

Keep in mind, this is my brain at work.  I try to choose as many Brits as I can, with the proper ages, hair color, etc., but as is the case in the real world, this isn't always possible.  It's just a helpful tool for me to keep characters organized as I traipse through the worlds that my authors create.

Jane Austen - Olivia Williams at age 40
Raphael West (age 46) - Joseph Fiennes
Henry Austen (age 44) -  Jude Law
Prince George (age 47) - Zach Galifianakis
Benjamin West - Christopher Plummer at 77
James Stanier Clarke - Toby Jones
Dr. Matthew Baillie - David Bamber
Charles Haden - Michael Socha
Fanny (Austen) Knight - Jessica Brown Findlay at 22
Duke of Wellington - Rupert Penry-Jones
Madame Gauthier - Lily James at 22
Major George Scovell - James D'Arcy


Jane and the Waterloo Map Prize Pack!

Amateur sleuth Jane Austen returns in Jane and the Waterloo Map,
the thirteenth novel in Stephanie Barron’s delightful Regency-era mystery series.

Award winning author Stephanie Barron tours the blogosphere February 2 through February 22, 2016 to share her latest release, Jane and the Waterloo Map (Being a Jane Austen Mystery). Twenty popular book bloggers specializing in Austenesque fiction, mystery and Regency history will feature guest blogs, interviews, excerpts and book reviews from this highly anticipated novel in the acclaimed Being a Jane Austen Mystery series. A fabulous giveaway contest, including copies of Ms. Barron’s book and other Jane Austen-themed items, will be open to those who join the festivities.


February 02        My Jane Austen Book Club (Guest Blog)
February 03        Laura's Reviews (Excerpt)          
February 04        A Bookish Way of Life (Review)
February 05        The Calico Critic (Review)
February 06        So Little Time…So Much to Read (Excerpt)      
February 07        Reflections of a Book Addict (Spotlight)      
February 08        Mimi Matthews Blog (Guest Blog)      
February 09        Jane Austen’s World (Interview)           
February 10        Just Jane 1813 (Review)          
February 11        Confessions of a Book Addict (Excerpt)      
February 12        History of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Guest Blog)  
February 13        My Jane Austen Book Club (Interview)      
February 14        Living Read Girl (Review)      
February 14        Austenprose (Review)
February 15        Mystery Fanfare (Guest Blog)      
February 16        Laura's Reviews (Review)          
February 17        Jane Austen in Vermont (Excerpt)          
February 18        From Pemberley to Milton (Interview)          
February 19        More Agreeably Engaged (Review)
February 20        Babblings of a Bookworm (Review)          
February 21        A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life (Guest Blog)
February 22        Diary of an Eccentric (Review)


Grand Giveaway Contest

Win One of Three Fabulous Prizes

In celebration of the release of Jane and the Waterloo Map, Stephanie is offering a chance to win one of three prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any or all of the blog stops on Jane and the Waterloo Map Blog Tour starting February 02, 2016 through 11:59 pm PT, February 29, 2016.  (Comment idea:  When reading a book series, do you feel strongly compelled to begin with book one, or do you feel free to jump in wherever??)  Winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments and announced on Stephanie’s website on March 3, 2016. Winners have until March 10, 2016 to claim their prize. Shipment is to US addresses. Good luck to all!

About the Author 

Stephanie Barron was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written fifteen books. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about Stephanie and her books at her website, visit her on Facebook and Goodreads.


Book 1 Kindle

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Product Review: Online Proofreading Service - Grammarly

As an avid reader, the daughter of an English professor, and somewhat frequent blog writer, I have some pet peeves in the areas of poor grammar, incorrect spelling, and misplaced punctuation.  In fact, I consider myself to be an official member of the apostrophe police! My husband and I twinge at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe, and we have been known to edit words with (or even without) permission.  I have correction opportunities occasionally in my work as a Content Specialist at my job, where I frequently edit copy that comes in from customers who are setting up their new websites. I revel in the opportunity to fix any punctuation errors before they ever make it to publication on the web.

That being said, I do not consider myself to be a professional writer, or worthy enough to be an English scholar as my mother is.  I tend to end sentences with prepositions, use the passive voice far too often and sometimes use the word "it's" improperly.  In the past I have run my book reviews through a Word document, trying to catch some of my spelling errors and some minor grammar problems, and this has been helpful.  However, I recently was introduced to an online proofreading service called Grammarly.  This program not only spell-checks; it does so much more.

I quickly and easily installed Grammarly into my browser, and off I went! Before I knew it, the program was picking up errors that I would not have seen otherwise. In fact, it has the ability to notice over 250 types of problems, most of which won't get picked up by Microsoft Word. Commonly used phrases were highlighted, and the system made recommendations for other words I could use instead. On one occasion it even picked up a politically incorrect word.  I still chose to keep the word (because I'm not always politically correct), but I was impressed with its ability to notice that choice of language.

Grammarly has not only been helping me craft better-worded blog posts (including this one), but it also will interface with my Gmail.  It goes pretty much wherever I go on the web.  At the same time, I can also choose to disable the add-on, rendering it to the "OFF" position if I so desire.  I have found it to be very flexible and handy as I have been working, and encourage you to give it a try yourself.   A basic account is free and has many great features.  Here's what Grammarly has to say about their free service:

What products does Grammarly offer for free?

In addition to the online text editor, Grammarly also offers a free browser extension for Chrome and Safari, which corrects over 150 types of errors. Grammarly for Chrome and Grammarly for Safari bring Grammarly’s powerful algorithms straight to you wherever you are writing online, including Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr. You can correct mistakes in your text with a single click.
  • Grammarly® Answers, an online community for writers to ask and answer questions on English writing.
  • Grammarly® Handbook, an online guide explaining English grammar and style.
  • Grammarly® Words, an online dictionary-thesaurus hybrid.
  • The Grammarly Facebook community and Twitter account, both of which provide fans with fun grammar tips and discussions.
  • The Grammarly Blog, offers daily tips, fun commentary, and valuable insights from the wonderful world of writing and grammar.

Whether you're a fellow blogger, student, or someone who does any amount of writing on your computer, Grammarly could be an excellent tool for you.  Give it a try, and tell me what you think! Just CLICK HERE to get started!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Then Comes Winter Road Trip & Giveaway!

Yesterday the snow began to fall here in Greensboro, North Carolina, and it's slated to continue on and off until the evening today.  We have a lovely winter wonderland, and I'm still in my pajamas, with added sweatshirt, wool socks and bedroom slippers for warmth.  My boys were outside for most of the day yesterday, playing in the substance they've rarely seen throughout their lives.  Hubby has been working long hours, so we're all lying around, recovering and enjoying the peace.

While I have a spare moment, I thought I'd share a quick post with you.  Recently we promoted the book Then Comes Winter, edited by Christina Boyd.  This industrious woman has decided to send her book on a road trip, garnering the signatures of all of the book's contributors! To make this even better, she is offering to give away this collector's item to one of you!  Check out her note below, and enter to win.  Stay warm, and grab a good book.  That's what I'm off to do!

This past November, Then Comes Winter, a collection of winter themed short stories, embarked on a trip to visit the hometowns of the talented authors who contributed to its making. Along the way through three countries, the traveling copy of Then Comes Winter has been collecting autographs and souvenirs and visiting special places in each region.

The book's final stop is yet undetermined. Its wanderlust will end once a winner is chosen on February 14, 2016 through this rafflecopter drawing which will determine the lucky winner whose bookshelf will house the only paperback of the anthology signed by all the authors and the editor. Be a part of this unique journey and enter to be that final destination.

Birch Bay, WA

Baltimore, MD
Are you the one lucky reader to win the Then Comes Winter paperback that is traveling the world to be signed by all twelve authors? Enter today to be the final stop on it's road trip. In the meantime, enjoy some of the photos from the roadtrip thus far. And follow along on it's final stops through the US. 

This giveaway is open worldwide.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book & Audio Book Review: He Taught Me to Hope by P.O. Dixon

The legend of King Arthur meets the timelessness of Miss Jane Austen's endearing works in this delightfully entertaining Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

What if Elizabeth is promised to another when she meets Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the one man who captures her heart and imagination like no other?

Are the chances of Darcy and Elizabeth finidng their happily-ever-after as dire as they seem, or is there a measure of hope by way of a strong and enduring bond between them?

He Taught Me to Hope: Darcy and the Young Knight's Quest takes you back to a magical time of enchantment and romance and lets you fall in love with Darcy and Elizabeth once again.


I must say, He Taught Me to Hope is not what I expected, which I will explain momentarily. Initially however, I must share that after reading P.O. Dixon’s work Bewitched, Body and Soul, I naturally anticipated quality Austenesque writing, and she has once again delivered. Dixon knows how to craft her characters and story lines in ways that are not seen in many authors of her genre. She is quite the talent, and I wish I’d read this title sooner. It’s also whetted my appetite for more of her work, and as such I’m thankful that she is the author of over two dozen titles, including full length novels, novellas and short stories. He Taught Me to Hope is also the first in a short series of books, so I look forward to spending more time with the world she has modified here.

The unexpected aspect of the novel is its ties to King Arthur. Given the title and the description of the book, I was almost anticipating a complete “mashup” of characters, with Darcy truly taking on the role of King Arthur and Elizabeth taking on the role of Guinevere.  I assumed there would be a magical sword, and a possible wizard or two.  How Dixon would be able to pull this off I did not know, but the idea was intriguing and I looked forward to seeing how this idea might transpire.

Darcy as King Arthur is indeed referenced many times in this Austenesque tale, but it comes on behalf of the young Ben Carlton, son of the widowed Elizabeth Bennet Carlton.  Ben has a fierce imagination, and quickly brings Mr. Darcy into his imaginary world when they meet one day while Ben is out and about playing on his own. Darcy later meets Elizabeth Carlton, not knowing she is the mother of the boy he has come to care for very much.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth is engaged to marry another, which is where the book’s love triangle begins.

He Taught Me to Hope is not so much a magical tale in the sense that Darcy does not interact directly with elements of the Arthurian legend, but it is magical in that P.O. Dixon’s story is a wonderful one. I was surprised at her choice of fiancĂ© for Elizabeth at the beginning, but this provided delectable tension and a very satisfying plot turn within that relationship. While I felt that Darcy and Elizabeth catered to little Ben a bit too much, he was not completely spoiled by any means, but I did find him a bit annoying at times.  I felt he received more coverage in the book than was warranted, but on the other hand, I loved the relationship that was built between him and Darcy.  As the mother of two boys, I enjoyed the "love triangle" between Darcy, Elizabeth and Ben, which caused me to want Darcy and Elizabeth to have their happily-ever-after even more.

In true Austenesque fashion, much is made of Darcy’s tie to his cousin Anne De Bourgh, who frequently feigns illness so that she would have Fitzwilliam by her side. She becomes completely deluded, assuming that Darcy belongs to her, and that he has no right to pursue anyone else, much less a widow of little to no social standing.  This story line took a dominating position at the end of the book and went on a bit longer than I would have preferred, but its resolution was very satisfying and worth the wait.

Ms. Dixon does have a few spicy romantic scenes within the story, so in that sense I would give this title a PG-13 rating, but the amount of content in this area is very limited. She spends her time building characters, their relationships and the narrative, so romantic tension is very natural and not gratuitous by any means. This shows her talent in writing, that she has no need for repeated scenes of tawdry bodice-ripping in order to craft a lush romantic tale.

Once again I am very satisfied in P.O. Dixon’s work.  Do not expect an Arthurian mashup when you choose this novel, but do expect an excellent story with a memorable take on Jane Austen’s characters from Pride and Prejudice.

Audiobook Review Note:

The audio book version of He Taught Me to Hope is performed by the talented Pearl Hewitt.  Hailing from Newcastle Upon Tyne in England (but now residing in the U.S.), Pearl has read other works of Austenesque fiction from such authors as Abigail Reynolds and Maria Grace, in addition to several by P.O. Dixon.

My initial reaction to Jane’s voice was one of adjustment.  Her English accent is quite formal, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. After a while I adjusted to the sound, and it became very much a part of my experience with the story. I would switch between reading the text at home and listening to the book in the car, and while reading the book I would hear her voice in my head.  The only character whose voice never really settled for me was the voice she chose for young Ben.  I frequently found him irritating.  But this may have been a function of him as a character, as I felt that he was placated and catered to far too much in the story. It may have nothing to do with Jane’s choice of voice for him.  That being said, I enjoyed her performance very much, and I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

For more detailed thoughts (including more from me) on the Audible version of He Taught Me to Hope, check out the reviews HERE.

Recent Dixon

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Review: Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini

From Goodreads:

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini celebrates Christmas, past and present, with a wondrous novel inspired by the classic poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old familiar carols play/ And wild and sweet/ The words repeat/Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In 1860, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family celebrated Christmas at Craigie House, their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The publication of Longfellow’s classic Revolutionary War poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was less than a month hence, and the country’s grave political unrest weighed heavily on his mind. Yet with his beloved wife, Fanny, and their five adored children at his side, the delights of the season prevailed.

In present-day Boston, a dedicated teacher in the Watertown public school system is stunned by somber holiday tidings. Sophia’s music program has been sacrificed to budget cuts, and she worries not only about her impending unemployment but also about the consequences to her underprivileged students. At the church where she volunteers as music director, Sophia tries to forget her cares as she leads the children’s choir in rehearsal for a Christmas Eve concert. Inspired to honor a local artist, Sophia has chosen a carol set to a poem by Longfellow, moved by the glorious words he penned one Christmas Day long ago, even as he suffered great loss.

Christmas Bells chronicles the events of 1863, when the peace and contentment of Longfellow’s family circle was suddenly, tragically broken, cutting even deeper than the privations of wartime. Through the pain of profound loss and hardship, Longfellow’s patriotism never failed, nor did the power of his language. “Christmas Bells,” the poem he wrote that holiday, lives on, spoken as verse and sung as a hymn.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s resonant and heartfelt novel for the season reminds us why we must continue to hear glad tidings, even as we are tested by strife. Reading Christmas Bells evokes the resplendent joy of a chorus of voices raised in reverent song.

The holiday season is in full swing, and for many it’s a time of joy, celebration and memory-making.  For others, it’s a time of stress, heartache and painful reminders of what is missing or what could have been. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew this keenly as he struggled with the death of his wife, faced the uncertainty and troubles of the Civil War and worked to maintain his career and family.  In 1863 he penned the now-beloved poem “Christmas Bells”, which ultimately would be set to music and sung around the world:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The poem goes on to recount images and sentiments of Longfellow’s life as he felt despair, fear, but ultimately faith in light of all the calamity taking place around him and throughout the divided Union in the 1860’s. The novel Christmas Bells recounts a handful of these years as historical fiction, taking facts from Longfellow’s life and shaping them into an extended narrative. We see Henry as a doting husband, tragically made a widower by the loss of his beloved Fanny. He also plays the emotionally fragile father, desperate to keep his son from joining the army to fight alongside his peers. As a professional writer, he exhibits the struggles many have in putting pen to paper, eking out quality work in an effort to not only express himself, but also provide for his family. 

Christmas Bells also presents a later time period, our present day as seen in alternating chapters. Here we meet a wide cast of characters living in Longfellow’s hometown, all connected at least in part to St. Margaret’s, a historic Catholic church in Massachusetts.  We meet a music teacher, her accompanist, a faithful nun, a priest, a wife of a soldier in Afghanistan and others. Their stories all intersect differently, affecting each other in minor and major ways. In a metaphorical way, their lines form the verses as paired with the refrain of Longfellow’s story in the opposite chapters.

I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Bells. It has the feel of a classic tale with the 19th century setting, but the modern aspect of it is also warm and inviting.  I found Henry’s story to be a melancholy one, seemingly beset with constant anxiety over his family’s situation. That said, it was not mood-lowering at all. Henry’s struggle to keep his son safe from the war, and then later to overcome battle-related problems was compelling for this mother to read. Although I enjoy most things related to that era, my interest in the Civil War has never extended much beyond Gone with the Wind, and even my love for that has waned over the years. While raised in the American South, I don’t side with many of the agendas that were advanced on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. The racism and ignorance that remain generations later is repellent to me, so I do not prefer to read novels that are sympathetic to the Rebel cause or any descendant of it. Thankfully, Christmas Bells is told from the Union side of the story, with allegiances for the North being more prominent. War propaganda is not the main power behind these chapters, however. The focus is on the Longfellow family, and in particular Henry Longfellow.

The metaphorical verses contained within the modern chapters took me by surprise. When beginning Christmas Bells, I thought my preference would be to remain solely within Henry’s time, as that is what drew my interest to the book initially. However, Jennifer Chiaverini constructs such an interesting piece with the many voices of her modern narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her characters, both old and young. Their individual stories were compelling, and their corporate interactions were much the same. I was keenly impressed with how she managed to bring their voices in and out, much like a musical concert. My only complaint is that I desired more time with each one. As their individual stories concluded, I found myself wanting more. This was particularly felt in the tale of the musical director and her pianist. When their chapters ended, I was keenly disappointed that we didn’t have more details in their conclusion.

For those who adore the Christmas season and for those who anticipate it with at least a small sense of anxiety, Christmas Bells is an excellent choice for the holiday and weeks surrounding it. Moreover, it can certainly transcend the Christmas season. This is a tale of family, faith, and history. It is not so much an Advent story, but one of love in times of trial and uncertainty. I now have a greater appreciation for Longfellow’s classic poem, and will keep the verses presented in this novel in mind as I sing his lyric for years to come.  In a modern world of calamity and uncertainty, we can all have the hope and confidence that God is not dead. He does not sleep. Right will prevail over wrong in the end, “with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

About the Author

Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of several acclaimed historical novels and the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as six collections of quilt patterns inspired by her books. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, Quiltmaker's 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. About her historical fiction, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, "In addition to simply being fascinating stories, these novels go a long way in capturing the texture of life for women, rich and poor, black and white, in those perilous years."

Coming 2016

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Review: The Sparkle Box by Jill Hardie and Christine Kornacki

For the past couple of years we’ve made an effort to teach our boys about community service and giving to others.  This began with “Blessing Bags”, giving out gallon Zip-loc bags full of supplies that would be useful or enjoyable for those in need.  When we moved to Greensboro, NC about a year ago, we got involved with Families in Action, a local service group. Through FIA, we have prepared meals for the needy, baked cookies for local servicemen and women, worked on a landscape crew for an immigrant school and much more. There have been so many blessings as we have done these projects together as a family. Honestly, I think I enjoy them more than a group trip to Disneyworld, because in serving, the focus is off ourselves and onto those who could use some help and/or encouragement.

As we enjoy the Christmas season, sometimes it’s easy to get ensnared in all the material parts of this time of year—the gift giving, the food, the spectacle.  And while all of those things are fine and good, the most important thing for us to remember is that we are celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  It’s very common for Him to get lost in the shuffle of all of this. A new picture book has ventured to remind us of this fact in a very tangible way: What are some gifts that we would not buy for ourselves, but that we would instead give to Jesus?  Obviously He has no need of material things.  He mainly wants our hearts and our love. In The Sparkle Box by Jill Hardie and Christine Kornacki, a family uses a pretty box on the mantel to illustrate how our acts of kindness and charity can also be seen as gifts to Jesus, much like when he said in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Sparkle Box has lavish full-page illustrations at every turn, and while they are not the best artwork I’ve ever seen, Christine Kornacki's work still of high quality and heartfelt. The text by Jill Hardie is well-written and an appropriate length for the given audience. It’s long enough to craft the meaning of The Sparkle Box, but it’s short enough to keep the attention of little ones’ minds. And to top it off, at the back of the book is an envelope holding pieces which when assembled, make up a Sparkle Box that you can have for your very own.  What a great way to directly apply the lessons taught in this lovely book. 

As the main idea of The Sparkle Box is to fill an actual box (or another container) with scraps of paper, upon which are written “gifts” you have given Jesus, now would be a great time to introduce the box to your family. It could be kept out all year long, and at Christmas 2016 you would have the opportunity to relive your year and share all you have given to Jesus for His birthday.  These acts of charity should not be done in order to pat ourselves on the back; they are to be gifts for our Savior, as we act as His hands and feet in a world in need.

If you'd like more information on The Sparkle Box, 

plus free motivational materials, activities and more, stop by 

Monday, December 14, 2015

New Venture: The Odyssey Adventure Club


Adventures in Odyssey is a program that my family has been enjoying for years.  Primarily a radio show, it is an entertaining, educational and spiritually nourishing collection of dramatic stories, set in the fictional town of Odyssey.  There are hundreds of episodes, as they have been produced for decades now.  My ten year-old son in particular has been riveted for the last couple of years, listening to these 25-minute programs whenever he has the opportunity.  While the episodes are still broadcast on the radio around the world, there are many other ways to enjoy them, and he has primarily obtained them through borrowing CDs from our local library and in the collection found at our church.

Although he has listened to literally hundreds of episodes, he still wants to take in more of them.  Fortunately, Focus on the Family (Adventures in Odyssey’s parent company) has come up with the Odyssey Adventure Club (OAC), a portal to all things Odyssey.  There he can peruse any of the episodes that have been produced, even obscure ones he hasn’t been able to listen to yet.  He was especially excited this weekend when we first accessed the Club, as he was able to listen to an all-new episode that is a part of their latest collection of stories, Head Over Heels. This CD set will be released in March 2016, but as members of the OAC, we have the ability to listen to exclusive episodes like “Words from the Wise” from Head Over Heels.

The Odyssey Adventure Club offers much more than just Adventures in Odyssey episodes, some of which can be seen in the offerings below. If you’re a parent or loved one of a school-age child, a membership in the Odyssey Adventure Club would make an excellent Christmas gift. Not only will they have a great time in a safe online environment, but they’ll be educated and nourished spiritually along the way. Check out more details below for more information.


Tired of the Christmas shopping, the baking and sugar overload, the Christmas festivities that keep you away from your family during the season? Take time special time to spend with your loved ones and invest in your community—with Focus on the Family's help!

You can download a fun gift to give to your friends, family, and community! Each Christmas stocking stuffer card directs you to a special place to hear an Adventures in Odyssey Christmas episode. Plus, you’ll be able to read a special excerpt from Imagination Station #12, “Danger on a Silent Night.” Sign up here to download the free cards.

Plus stop by this page for a slew of crafts, recipes, and stories to share with your family during this special time of year!

If you're still looking for one last gift to give your kids this year, give the gift of the Odyssey Adventure Club (OAC). It offers safe and free content for everyone in your family, including an Advent calendar, a broadcast download with tips to create a memorable Christmas, AIO cutouts, and Christmas stocking stuffer cards. Membership to the OAC costs just $9.99 a month — or even less if parents make a six-month or one-year commitment. Enrollment provides more than enough content to keep kids engaged throughout the year:
  • Access to exclusive content and first looks at books and select Radio Theatre dramas.
  • On-the-go access to the OAC app for both iOS and Android users.
  • 24/7 streaming access to nearly 800 AIO episodes.
  • A new, members-only AIO episode every month.
  • A subscription to Adventures in Odyssey Clubhouse Magazine, and more.
To learn more about the Odyssey Adventure Club, visit, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


November/December 2015 Highlights

  • The Android app is now available! (Click for the iOS version.)
  • Exclusive content and early access to books and audio dramas every month
  • You can now choose to pay $9.99 each month, or you can pay for six months or a full year in advance with automatic renewal.

Things of Note

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Then Comes Winter Blog Tour Stop: Excerpt and Giveaway

Edited by Christina Boyd

Authors Beau North & Brooke West, Melanie Stanford, Natalie Richards, Erin Lopez, Sophia Rose, Anngela Schroeder, Suzan Lauder, Maureen Lenker, Denise Stout, Linda Gonschior, and Lory Lilian 

“Then comes Winter with bluster and snow, that brings to our cheeks the ruddy glow…” Gertrude Tooley Buckingham

If you long for a toasty snuggle on a cold winter’s night, this compilation of original short stories inspired by the magic of the holiday season—and more than a nod to Jane Austen—is fancied as a sublime wintertime treat. On the heels of the summer anthology, Sun-kissed: Effusions of Summer, and in concert with some of Meryton Press’s most popular authors, this romantic anthology introduces more promising writers. With a robust mix of contemporary and Regency musings, Then Comes Winter rekindles passionate fires with equal wonder, wit, and romance.

Welcome to the next stop in the Then Comes Winter blog tour!  Meryton Press has put together another anthology of fun short stories, and I believe several of them will please those of us who enjoy Austenesque fiction.  Today's post features an excerpt from the story Winter's Awakening by Anngela Schroeder.  It seems that Elizabeth is beginning to struggle with her thoughts in regard to Mr. Darcy.  After the excerpt, scroll down to our Rafflecopter widget and enter to win one of four paperback copies of Then Comes Winter to enjoy this season.  Thanks for stopping by, and best wishes to all the contest entrants!

The ladies of Longbourn exchanged looks as Darcy removed his greatcoat, jacket, vest, and cravat—remaining in his shirtsleeves.

“It is the long-standing tradition for Darcy men to chop down the tree themselves,” Georgiana explained.

“Of course,” Elizabeth said breathlessly, seeming not to know where to look.

“Not at all.” Miss Bennet shook her head and bit her lip to control the unabashed grin seeming to spread across her face.

“Only once a year does Darcy have to do such strenuous activity.” Bingley rubbed his hands together and laughed. “Believe it or not, I think he revels in it.”

Darcy bowed to the ladies, quickly brought the ax up, and began chopping at the tree.

Elizabeth was unable to remove her gaze from Mr. Darcy’s form. Other than her father’s tenants tending their fields, she had never watched the work of a man—and certainly never a gentleman! She admired Mr. Darcy’s arms as solid as the steel on the end of the ax blade. His sweat had dampened the fine lawn of his shirt and caused it to stick to his skin, defining his shoulders. He is magnificent. She tried valiantly not to stare but could not stop herself. After his next swing, you must look away, she would tell herself again and again, but to no avail. Finally, his swing powerfully knocked the tree over, and he turned to smile, his dimples winking at her. He caught me! She felt the heat rise to her cheeks at his penetrating gaze. The black pools of his eyes, which she once believed were examples of disgust, bore through her, and she realized they were far from it. Her heart raced, and she looked down quickly. However, her eyes settled on his chest, which was more splendid than his back, and she let out a gasp. Attempting to control the unladylike thoughts, she chirped, “It is a shame Miss Bingley could not come today.”

“Yes. Pity.” Mr. Darcy expelled a deep breath, handed the ax to a young woodsman, and picked up his coat from a nearby stump.

“Her business in the village must have been of some import.” Miss Darcy picked up her book and reticule while the two women followed her example and stood to begin walking back to the manse. “She has never missed the opportunity to come with us and hunt for our Christmas tree. She always seems to enjoy the activity.”

I can understand why! Elizabeth flushed and closed her eyes, shaking her head quickly to remove the vision of Mr. Darcy in his shirtsleeves. It is something I would not miss either if I could help it. She was surprised at her bold thoughts and attempted to dismiss them before they were conveyed across her face.

“Are you well, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked softly, his voice caressing her name as it rolled from his lips. He had silently fallen in step beside her, causing her to start.

“Yes, sir. I am quite well, thank you.” Her voice broke before regaining control. She could not look at him, for all she could see in her mind was Mr. Darcy, informally dressed, participating in the savagely masculine act of moments before. Her pace increased as she quickly caught up to Miss Darcy and linked arms with her. Indeed! Caroline Bingley must have had something of import to take her away from Pemberley this morning.

As I have not read Then Comes Winter, I inquired about the content of the book as a whole. The promoter informed me that the book would probably be rated PG. Love scenes happen off the page, only a few kisses and no F-bombs. I mention this for my fellow conservative readers, in case there was any concern about this issue.


Meryton Press has generously offered up several paperback copies of Then Comes Winter. Use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

About the Author

Anngela Schroeder lives in California with her husband of 15 years and her three rambunctious sons.  She has a degree in English with a concentration on British Literature and a Masters of Education. She has a slight obsession with Jane Austen and all things British.  She enjoys traveling, baking and making her family's world a magical place.  She has published two other novels, “The Quest for Camelot”- Book one in the Daughter of the Roundtable Series, and “Affections and Wishes,” a Jane Austen inspired modern day romance.  Follow her on Anngela Schroeder-Author on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Then Comes Winter Blog Tour Schedule

11/30: Guest Post & Giveaway at FLY HIGH
12/1: Excerpt & Giveaway at So Little Time…
12/2: Character Interview & Giveaway at More Agreeably Engaged
12/3: Excerpt & Giveaway at Jennifer Vido
12/4: Guest Post & Giveaway at Liz’s Reading Life
12/5: Excerpt & Giveaway at Best Sellers and Best Stellars
12/6: Guest Post & Giveaway at Delighted Reader
12/7: Review at Just Jane 1813
12/8: Review at Babblings of a Bookworm
12/9: Review at My Kids Led Me Back to Pride and Prejudice
12/10: Review at From Pemberley to Milton
12/11: Review at Diary of an Eccentric
12/12: Excerpt & Giveaway at The Calico Critic
12/13: Review at Margie’s Must Reads
12/14: Author/Character Interview & Giveaway at Austenesque Reviews
12/15: Author Feature at Songs and Stories
12/16: Author Feature & Giveaway at Tome Tender
12/16: Excerpt & Giveaway at Chick Lit Plus
12/17: Author Feature at Skipping Midnight





Friday, November 13, 2015

Review and Giveaway: Accidentally Yours by Robin M. Helm

Two worlds . . .
Two centuries . . .
Two men who love the same woman . . .
Two prayers fervent enough to shift time . . .
Endless questions and possibilities . . .
What would a man give for a second chance at love?
What would he sacrifice to keep it?
What if the proud, arrogant Fitzwilliam Darcy of Jane Austen's
Pride and Prejudice never changed after his disastrous proposal to Elizabeth Bennet at Hunsford?
What if the humbled man who successfully courted her was not the same Mr. Darcy?

Accidentally Yours, Book 1 of the Yours by Design Christian fantasy romance series, the lives of two men are turned upside down when they both fall in love with the same woman.

Austenesque fiction is known for utilizing the “What If?” concept. What if Jane Austen’s characters took a different turn? What if their reality was somehow skewed in a slightly different way? Robin M. Helm makes use of this motif in her three-part series, Yours by Design, which begins with the volume Accidentally Yours. In this initial title, we find a Fitzwilliam Darcy who is an actual historical character, not a fictional creation at all. Jane Austen knows of him through a relative, and will ultimately base her Darcy of Pride and Prejudice on this living, breathing individual.  Centuries later, another Darcy is alive and well in modern-day Atlanta, Georgia. His family roots can be traced back to England, and in one particularly remarkable moment, he utters a prayer which leads to the transportation of his consciousness into the body of the 19th century Fitzwilliam Darcy. Likewise, the form of the modern “Will” is now inhabited by the Regency-era mind of his ancestor.

Initially both men are bewildered and confused, but in due course they come to some acceptance of their new states of existence. Life in their new centuries begins to take on some sense of normalcy as they work to adapt and fit into the new time periods that God has seemingly sent them to. Modern Will seems to adapt with little hesitation, as he recognizes his world as that of the one found in Pride and Prejudice. He assumes he must be dreaming, but resolves to assimilate himself into the life of Fitzwilliam Darcy in order to meet the woman of his dreams, Elizabeth Bennet. Regency Fitzwilliam is not quite so nimble in his new role, finding the modern world to be strange and utterly foreign in both geography and culture. A friend of Will’s introduces Fitzwilliam to the world of Jane Austen, primarily through the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and he begins to see his 19th century life in a new way.

Accidentally Yours
is an interesting premise, one that I haven’t explored in my six years as a fan of Austenesque fiction.  The concept does require quite a suspension of disbelief, but Robin Helm writes in a light, entertaining manner that charms me into believing in this scenario. It is not an impossibility that Fitzwilliam Darcy truly was a real person. Perhaps we haven’t discovered the proof of this as of yet.  The swapping of consciousnesses is another matter altogether. Helm is a strong Christian and makes her beliefs very clear in her writing, and she attributes the altered states of the Darcy men as acts of God. While I’ve never heard of this type of supernatural happening, it doesn’t seem completely implausible when we consider the abilities of the Creator of the universe!

I’d heard rumors that the elder Darcy’s character was a distasteful one, and thus far, I would have to concur. He’s a pretentious, spoiled, prat of a man. In truth, I don’t like him very much. No sensible Elizabeth Bennet would ever be charmed by this man-child, no matter how wealthy he might be. In contrast, I highly enjoyed the chapters that were devoted to the modern Will, now seemingly residing in 19th century England. He is a man of honor, faith, integrity and more than deserves to be with Elizabeth.

I will withhold my opinion on the series as a whole until I’ve had the opportunity to read the entire trilogy, but thus far Robin Helm is off to a good start with Accidentally Yours. My hope is that she improves upon the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy, and also finds a way to fulfill the aspirations of the upstanding Will Darcy at the same time. Otherwise I would say that the story will be very lopsided, with a highly enjoyable Regency tale on one face, with a weak, frustrating narrative on the other. However, given the strengths that I’ve seen in Helm’s writing for Will, I have faith that she has some interesting episodes in store for us. We just might witness the metamorphosis of a pretentious man, struggling in our modern day world, to a man no longer lonely, abiding not only in our world, but also in the body of Christ.


Author Robin M. Helm has graciously offered two copies of Accidentally Yours.  One copy will be a Kindle edition for our international readers, and a U.S. winner may choose between an autographed paperback or the Kindle edition.  Contest period ends on November 28th at 12am EST. Please use the Rafflecopter widget below for your contest entry.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

About the Author

Robin M. Helm is the author of a modern Christian fantasy fiction series, The Guardian Trilogy, which includes Guardian, SoulFire, and Legacy. She has also published the Yours by Design series, a Christian Regency/Modern Romance with a paranormal element. Accidentally Yours, Sincerely Yours, and Forever Yours are all available for purchase in both e-book and print formats.

Mrs. Helm shares a blog, Jane Started It, with the other writers of the Crown Hill Writers' Guild, and is one of the founders and administrators of, a website for readers with common interests. She also has published three Regency short stories, "First Kiss," "The Prize," and "Treasure Chest," which can be read on Jane Started It on her author's page or at She has one husband, one granddaughter, two daughters, two sons-in-law, four family dogs, five part-time jobs, and six published books.

Mrs. Helm is the Associate in Music and Music Academy Director at her church, the interim choir director, a piano teacher, and an elementary music teacher. She formerly taught high school English.

She graduated with a BA from Piedmont International University. She is a member of the Delta Epsilon Chi honor society, the American Legion Auxiliary, JASNA, and the scholarship faculty of the United States Achievement Academy.

Connect with Robin M. Helm

Book 1
Book 2

Friday, November 6, 2015

Devotional Book Review: 5 Minutes with Jesus: Making Today Matter by Sheila Walsh

As the holidays are around the corner, many of us may find our schedules becoming more full, with less time for things in our usual routine. We may find ourselves falling into bed each night, worn out from the day’s activities, with our focus on the things we value somehow skewed a bit.  Or perhaps we awake to a busy day, already bleary-eyed, thinking of all that has to be accomplished in the next 16 hours.  It’s in times like this that I find devotional books to be an excellent way to refocus and remember the important things in life. My all time favorite devotional, My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers is an excellent example of how short passages of Christian thought can truly influence one’s day or end one on a good note.  You may already have a lengthy, in-depth Bible study in which you’re involved, or you may be doing absolutely nothing for a quiet time with God.  In either case, a short devotional book can be very beneficial to you.

Meeting Sheila at Women of Faith

I recently took up the title 5 Minutes with Jesus: Making Today Matter by author/singer/speaker Sheila Walsh.  Her book Let Go was one of my very first book reviews back in 2009, and it had a great effect on me. I’ve enjoyed her talks at Women of Faith conferences, and had the opportunity to meet her for the first time last month.  This little book of devotions may not look like much, but it packs a punch for the few minutes the reader spends on each mini-chapter.  Each begins with a short anecdote, usually an episode from Sheila’s past which held a lesson of its own for her heart and mind.  It’s followed by a summarizing sentence, and concludes with several short passages of scripture.  It truly does take mere minutes to read.

5 Minutes with Jesus has been a blessing to me as I’ve been going through it for this review.  I’ve read it in the morning before starting a hectic day. I’ve grabbed it during times of overwhelming stress, as a way to re-focus and catch my breath. And it’s been there at the end of a long day, helping me to get perspective on it all, to remember that the Lord is in control of all the craziness around me.  When I met Sheila to have her sign my review copy of the book, I thanked her for all she did to put this little volume together.  It has been a gift to me, and I most certainly recommend it to anyone.

Here is a sample devotional entry, one that had a great impact on me:

No Stone Throwing Here! (p.70)

The first cool breeze of fall was in the air when I boarded my flight from Dallas to San Antonio. It’s such a short flight that by the time you have your Diet Coke in hand, it’s time to give it back.

That evening I would be speaking to a group of women about moving from rage to restoration, from unforgiveness to freedom. That was a lot to cover in one forty-five-minute message, but the more I thought and prayed about what to say, the clearer it became…which explained the weight of my one checked bag.

“Are you checking any bags?” the man at the ticket counter had asked.

“Just one,” I said. “This backpack.”

He put on the appropriate luggage tag and then bent over to pick it up and move it onto the conveyer belt that would take it down to the baggage handlers.

The weight of the bag caught him off guard. “What do you have in here?” he asked. “Rocks?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” I replied.

He looked at me for a moment and then decided I was one of those women with whom one should keep conversation to a minimum.

I had six hundred and ten small river rocks tucked into my bag, a visual aid for the evening’s message on forgiveness.

Forgiveness can be one of the hardest things to do. How do you forgive a spouse who cheats on you? How do you forgive someone who slanders your name? How do you forgive the drunk driver who takes the life of your child? How do you forgive someone who’s not sorry? [emphasis mine] It’s a deeply spiritual issue that I don’t think we’ll ever understand this side of heaven. However, forgiveness is not a matter of reason; it’s a matter of obedience.

I carry a small stone with me everywhere I go. I have carried it for twenty-eight years, ever since God literally brought me to my knees over my reluctance to forgive someone who had devastated my life. When I finally surrendered to His command that I forgive that person, I realized that a stone was actually cutting into my knee. Now I carry that stone with me to cut into my heart and remind me of Jesus’ words: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7 NIV).

Make a pledge to live a life of forgiveness—and
find a stone to remind you of your promise.

Five Minutes in the Word
“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  Matthew 6:14-15

Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  John 8:6-7 NIV

O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive, so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help. Psalm 86:5

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Matthew 18:21-22 NIV

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  Colossians 3:13 NIV


Blog Post Update:  I completely forgot that Icon Media Group sent me an extra copy of the book so that I might share it with my readers!  This will be a short giveaway period (1 week), so get your entries in below via the Rafflecopter.  Thanks to all who enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

About the Author

Sheila Walsh is a powerful Bible teacher and best-selling author from Scotland with over 5 million books sold.  Her international ministry has reached more than 5.5 million women by combining honesty, vulnerability, and humor with the transforming power of God's Word.  Calling Texas home, Sheila lives in Frisco with her husband, Barry, her son, Christian, and three little dogs.

Connect with Sheila

A sample copy of this title was provided by Icon Media Group for review purposes only.


Related Posts with Thumbnails