Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: INTO THE FREE by Julie Cantrell

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, Into the Free by Julie Cantrell is a literary and romantic tale of love, hate, forgiveness and how the choices we make have the power to shape countless lives.


When she's not helping her mama through a bout of self-medicated depression or hiding from the violent mood swings of her father, Jack, Millie spends her time hanging out in Sweetie, the big tree she considers a friend. Each spring she watches from Sweetie's branches for the caravan of gypsies to roll into town — and for the white-shirted boy whose freedom and mystery have captured her fascination.

By the time she is 16, Millie longs to escape her small Mississippi town and all the things that tie her to it. When the gypsies arrive, she cannot seem to keep herself from following them to observe a ceremony. Finally invited around their campfire one night, she finds a seat near River, the gypsy boy she's watched for years.

There's more to River than meets the eye — and what meets the eye is beautiful. Well-read, thoughtful and dedicated to the traveler's life, River easily captures Millie's heart. But Millie's plan to escape with River is interrupted by Jack's violence. With her mother's life and sanity hanging by a thread, she cannot bring herself to leave. The gypsies move on — but an old woman leaves Millie with a mysteriously obtained key — and the promise that it will help her know her future.

Millie doesn't know how the gypsy woman got the key, but she knows what box it opens. With a Pandora-like threat hanging over her, she uses the key and discovers much has been hidden from her.

Clinging to River's promise of return, Millie must wade through tragedy and the heartbreaking secrets of her parents' pasts before finding out whether God has truly abandoned her — or if he is still at work, carving a painful path by which Millie might someday escape into the free.


When a novel begins with a strong taste of the literary, I tend to savor it slowly, pulling it out in between other, lighter fare and nibbling on its richness a bite at a time over an extended period. I couldn't do that with this novel, however. It begged to be devoured.

Cantrell's style of prose engages the reader as an intimate and contemporary friend, displaced for a moment in time. In the beginning, the voice of the narrator vaguely reminds one of Harper Lee's Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, but as the story progresses, Millie is shown to be a tenderly unique girl whose childhood has created a deep and abiding doubt in the love of God and the goodness of man.

Layering tension in a subtle way, Cantrell allows her characters to arc at a believable pace that neither slows the plot nor brings events too quickly to pass. Rich with both the sweet and the savory, I found myself utterly glutted by this story.

On every level, it's a hit.


It's been a long time since a book managed to break my heart, but Julie Cantrell's Into the Free did just that. The author didn't stop at breaking my heart, however; she also healed it, broke it again — and came back to heal it some more.

But just when I thought everything was coming together for Millie's poignant Happy Ever After, Cantrell threw in a gut-wrenching twist that, although foreshadowed, opened a raw gash in the heart. In time, however, the author provided an exquisite salve for the wound that, while unable to disguise its scar, added to the texture of her tale. When I reached the end it felt so right. So complete. So satisfying. But the author has promised that there is more of Millie's story to tell — and it will be exciting to see the follow-up to this stunning debut.

Certainly an author to watch, Julie Cantrell has penned a beautiful and literary coming-of-age romance that is as close to perfect as I've seen in quite some time. Into the Free is a heartbreaking triumph of a story — a beautiful depiction of how the choices we make determine how hard we fall — or how softly we can land after being broken.

(This review originally appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)

Serena's rating:

Stay tuned for my interview with Julie Cantrell... coming soon!

Monday, February 27, 2012

How to Haunt Your Heroine 101 by Laura Briggs (and giveaway!)

When I was writing the manuscript for Ghosts of Romances Past I wasn’t sure it would ever get published. After all, how do you write a Christian “ghost” story without somehow offending a major portion of your reading audience? And since there’s nothing in Scripture to support the idea of departed spirits dispensing helpful advice to the living, I knew I’d have make some creative decisions to keep this idea from edging into the secular market.

From the start, I intended for the book to be a modern re-telling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but with a humorous edge and a rekindled romance at its heart. My heroine, a spunky freelance illustrator named Alice, thinks she’s on the right track for happy-ever-after with her “perfect” boyfriend, Warren–until he surprises her with a ring and a question!

Still reeling from the unexpected proposal, Alice takes a tumble down the restaurant staircase and receives a nasty blow to the head. An injury with some very unusual side effects: visions of three female ancestors, women whose own romantic experiences seem to point Alice’s destiny in a different direction. Namely back to her first love, a fellow artist who just happens to be her current collaborator on a workplace assignment.

So here’s what I came up with:

1) Make two of the three so-called “ghosts”–Alice’s Aunt Phylis and Grandmother Ruth–alive and well, and therefore unable to haunt anyone. But instead of seeing them in their current forms, have Alice see them as years younger, the way she remembers them looking when she was a child. This way, it’s more like they’re “memories come to life” than supernatural beings.

2) Since the third “ghost” Alice encounters (her great-great grandmother, MaryAnne) is long dead and never actually met her, make sure they never have a dialogue exchange. After all, Alice has no memories of MaryAnne and wouldn’t be able to “imagine” her voice, mannerisms, or personality in a way the reader could find believable.

3) Alice’s visions of these women should lead her to something real and concrete–like faded letters and journal entries that contain the truth about her ancestor’s romantic experiences. She views discovering these truths as an answer to her prayer for guidance and credits God for opening her eyes to the lessons of the past.

Probably this sounds complicated but I hoped it would work–and it did! It took a LOT of editing, but the story’s most unique angles stayed intact, along with its somewhat edgier plot twists. Because aside from the whole supernatural thing, I faced one more obstacle in the world of Christian Romance Fiction–the fact that only two of the three “ghosts” has a happy ending to their love story.

But the trick remained of how to make Alice’s encounters with these female “ghosts of the past” anything but paranormal. Unlike the spirits in Dickens’s tale, I needed something that could be explained as divinely inspired, something readers would consider to be a sign from God rather than a phantom messenger.

Would traditional romance readers be okay with so many broken hearts and failed chances? I wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t be changed, since it’s those very disappointments that prompt Alice to seize her own chance at romantic destiny. A big part of me hopes readers will enjoy seeing something that deviates just a little from the norm, a story that bends the rules without breaking the standards that set the Christian Fiction industry apart.

Laura Briggs joined the publishing world in 2010 with Only in Novels, a short story from the White Rose imprint of Pelican Book Group. Her other White Rose titles include Ghosts of Romances Past and Christmas with Miss Austen. You can find her at her writing blog:

Here's an excerpt of Ghosts of Romances Past:
Ghosts were watching Alice Headley.

Photos that crowded her mantelpiece, a cacophony of people and places. Smiling faces and somber expressions, a handful blurred by shadows or grainy blemishes. A black and white image of her grandmother hoeing a garden plot; a color one of her favorite aunt, wearing a smile and a yellow silk dress.

They were friendly ghosts, on whom Alice bestowed a smile as she designed creations for Storyhour Books, one of North Carolina’s most respected publishing companies. Right now, the ghosts were watching Alice argue with her collaborator. Or perhaps argue was too strong a word for the playful tones that laced their lively exchange.

“How about a rainbow?” Jamie Lewison leaned towards the canvas, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Or maybe a couple of beating hearts overhead—something I can animate with the CG software.”

“A little cliché, don’t you think?” Alice let her brush play between her fingers as she studied the image of two lovebirds in green and pink, perched on a branch with wings intertwined and cheeks pressed close together. “I mean, romance isn’t all sunshine and flowers.”

“Well this is for Valentine’s Day.” Her partner’s dark brown eyes sparked with good humor. “Or do you think the most romantic day of the year is a cliché, too?”

“Of course not,” Alice said, tucking a stray curl beneath her do-rag. “It just seems like art should reflect more about real life.”

He snorted. “We are talking about the same project, right? A cute, colorful motif that fits the bill of requirements for a kid’s storybook website?”

“Well, maybe we shouldn’t be encouraging hopeless romantics.” She spun her stool around to face him, her chin tilted in defiance. “That’s how it starts, you know. Kids see stuff like this and they grow-up expecting the fairytale to come true.”

“So what’s wrong with that?” A boyish grin cracked his features. “Some of us like believing in fairytales. I still make a wish on the occasional falling star, for instance.”

“That’s exactly what I mean.” She turned away from the crooked smile that threatened to break down her careful philosophy. “And I still say these little birds are perfect as is. It’s an image that conveys loyalty, security, affection. That’s all most people can really expect out of relationships.”

You can buy Ghosts of Romances Past by Laura Briggs at Amazon or Pelican Book Group.

It's giveaway time!

Laura has graciously offered to give one lucky reader a PDF copy of her novel Ghosts of Romances Past. Between now and March 12 leave your name and email address in a comment below and she'll contact the winner!

Friday, February 24, 2012

A long time coming: my review of Lisa Bergren's MERCY COME MORNING

I promised to review this book a long time ago, but after reading the back cover copy, I kept putting it off. And putting it off. And... you guessed it. I put it off some more.

I knew the writing would be smooth. I knew the story would be rich. I knew the characters would slide inside my head and nibble at my heart. So why, you ask? Why would I delay reading a book I knew would be good, written by one of my favorite authors?
Good question.

Bad answer.

I thought it would be a downer.

And... even when I know a story is going to be good, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to get my heart ripped out. But... I had a break in my crazy schedule. And since two more Bergren books were coming up fast & furious on my review schedule (BOURNE, the highly anticipated #3.1 in the River of Time series is an e-novella scheduled for Feb. 28 release and GLAMOROUS ILLUSIONS, a 1920s novel, is scheduled to release June 1) I thought I'd best get it read.

It was wonderful, of course.

And, yes, I cried. I pretty much had a lump in my throat for the whole last 1/3 of the novel, but... once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. I finished it in one sitting (not counting the trip to the hall closet for a new box of Puffs Plus.)

(from the back cover copy)

There are no second chances.
Or are there?

Krista Mueller is in a good place. She has a successful career as a professor of history; she's respected and well-liked; and she lives hundreds of miles from her hometown and the distant mother she could never please. it's been more than a decade since Alzheimer's disease first claimed Charlotte Mueller's mind, but Krista has dutifully kept her mother in a first-class nursing home.

Now Charlotte is dying of heart failure and, surprised by her own emotions, Krista rushes to Taos, New Mexico, to sit at her estranged mother's side as she slips away. Battling feelings of loss, abandonment, and relief, Krista is also unsettled by her proximity to Dane McConnell, director of the nursing home -- and, once upon a time, her first love. Dane's kind and gentle spirit -- and a surprising discovery about her mother--make Krista wonder if she can at last close the distance between herself and her mother... and open the part of her heart she thought was lost forever.

Having seen the affects of Alzheimers and dementia -- as well as the gasping death of heart failure -- with dear grandparents, I must admit that there were some brief, but vivid scenes that I found a challenge, emotionally, to read. But more than a book on dealing with death, this book was about forgiveness -- and how difficult/impossible it is to forgive -- and to receive forgiveness -- without supernatural intervention.

This is a story about healing. About coming to understand that there is so much more to a person's inability to express love than a child's heart (even an adult child's heart) can understand. But it's also a story about giving love -- romantic love -- a chance, and trusting in someone bigger than yourself to end the cycle of relational dysfunction in your life.

But it's not all pain and trouble and heavy stuff. There's quite a bit of funny, too. And heartwarming romance. Krista has a wonderful, dry sense of humor and Dane is such a humble, patient pursuer of her heart. There's allegory if you want to call it that, and symbolism in the dance... but let's just call it love, okay?


Don't be like me and put it off out of fear. Just. Read. It.

(But do, please, keep your tissues handy.)

And now, a break from our regularly programmed review
to give you a little teaser about Lisa Bergren's next upcoming title!

Eat your heart out ladies, cuz last weekend I had the opportunity to read BOURNE, a novella numbered creatively as "3.1" in the River of Time series (expect that review in March!) And... all I can say (for now!) is "yum."

Now, be a dear and wipe the drool from your chin; there are plenty of other good books out there to read until our favorite Time Traveling Teens & their Super Hot Italian Knights reappear for another ride down the River of Time. (Nothing like a little teaser to get those Amazon cards you got for Valentine's Day all warmed up, right?!?)

SERENA'S RATING for Mercy Come Morning

+ a box of tissues.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sh....Crud....Book Reviewers Say

Don't let the title bunch your panties, what makes this video so funny is its element of truth (it's clean, promise). Sad so say, I've used a couple of these lines.

Can't say the name of the book blog where I found this without swearing, and since we wouldn't want our more delicate readers to faint away, I'll just link it here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Book Boyfriend- Travis McCoy from The Accidental Bride

Book bloggers highlight the characters they fell in love with in My Book Boyfriend, a weekly meme from Missie at The Unread Reader.

I've spent the last few nights with Travis McCoy from Denise Hunter's The Accidental Bride. Travis is a local boy done good. After hitting it big on the rodeo circuit, he returns home to help his childhood sweetheart save her ranch. Their story is heavy (HEAVY!) on the romance and this book boyfriend had my heart beating in my throat. Definitely a five star read!

Travis's description:
wealthy Rodeo star and rancher

"It didn't help that Travis McCoy had transformed from lean wiry boy to brawny cowboy, complete with bull-wide shoulders, slim hips, and long legs. And those stormy gray eyes...those hadn't changed at all. They still had the power to suck her under. Cussed man." (p. 10)

Stubborn jaw, crooked nose (p. 30)

"bold as a grizzly and twice as smug" (p. 176)

"His eyes danced, silver sparks igniting in the evening light. A hint of a smirk tugged at his lips. His jaw bore the stubble of a long day."

In my head Travis looks like...

...a brawnier Ryan Gosling. I can just picture him sleeping on Shay's couch!

What I love about him:
I'm a sucker for a good childhood sweetheart storyline. And there's something about Ryan's Travis's cocksure attitude and barely concealed smirks that are so adorable.

My favorite pick up line:

He pulled back and looked at her. "I love you Shay."

Something swelled inside of her, big and powerful. Her own declaration clawed for release and caught like a rock in her throat.

"If you don't hear anything else, hear that," he said. And then his lips were on hers again, and she was floating on a sea of rapture. (p. 207)

Want to know more about Travis? Here's the book blurb:
When a wedding reenactment turns real, Shay finds she's an accidental bride.

Shay Brandenberger is raising her daughter in Moose Creek, Montana, on her childhood ranch, nestled against the Yellowstone River. Despite the hard work, she can't seem to keep her head above water-and now the bank is threatening to foreclose. She prays for a miracle, but the answer she receives is anything but expected.

Having agreed to play the bride in the Founders' Day wedding reenactment, Shay is mortified to be greeted at the end of the aisle by none other than Travis McCoy, her high-school sweetheart-the man who left her high and dry for fame and fortune on the Texas rodeo circuit.

Then the unthinkable happens. Thanks to a well-meaning busybody and an absentminded preacher, the make-believe vows result in a legal marriage. But before Shay can say annulment, Travis comes up with a crazy proposal. If she refuses his offer, she may lose her home. If she accepts, she may lose her heart.

Shay isn't sure if the recent events are God's will or just a preacher's blunder. Will trusting her heart to the man who once shattered it be the worst mistake of her life? Or could their marriage be the best accident that ever happened?

Did you miss Serena's Accidental Bride review or Denise Hunter's recent interview?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Launch- Play it Again by Tracy Krauss

Tracy Krauss, author of edgy inspirational fiction, is launching her book Play it Again Feb. 21. You can help her achieve best seller status by purchasing the book at TODAY – and receive all kinds of cool free gifts while you’re at it!

Here’s how:
1. Go to the landing page on Tracy’s website.
2. Buy the book at Amazon.
3. Go back to the landing page and fill in the form with your name, email and purchase number.

It’s that easy! You’ll be directed to your free gifts and all you have to do is choose which ones you want.

About the book:

An unlikely duo meet in Play It Again, a story of love, life and faith. Sparks fly when an ex-rock and roll junkie and a stuffy accountant rendezvous at a local resort, but neither are prepared for the emotional entanglements, family complications, and threat from the past that unexpectedly resurfaces. Set in the 1980s, this story brings two opposing forces together in a clash of romance and danger, while its musical undertones highlight the theme that God can turn anything into beautiful music. Play It Again is the much anticipated prequel to Tracy’s debut novel And the Beat Goes On. Find out where Mark Graham’s journey began in this, the story of his parents.

What others are saying about PLAY IT AGAIN:

“This is one of the best contemporary novels I've read all year. . . Not only was it well-written, but it was edgy in that the story dared to be honest. . . I can see this touching a lot of people who have thought about God but have been afraid to move forward.”
- Michelle Sutton, author of more than a dozen inspirational novels

“This book is hot property, and grabs your interest from page one.”
- Yvonne Pat Wright, author of From Spice to Eternity

Author bio:
Tracy Krauss is a high school teacher by profession, and a prolific author, artist, playwright and director by choice. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan and has gone on to teach Art, Drama and English – all the things she is passionate about. After raising four children, she and her husband now reside in beautiful Tumbler Ridge, BC where she continues to pursue all of her creative interests. Her first two books were both nominated for the Indie Excellence Book Awards for religious fiction in 2011.


Here’s just a sampling of the FREE e-gifts from generous supporters:
-An e-copy of Lisa Lickel’s award winning novel Meander Scar
-Sample chapters from The Promise of Deer Run by Elaine Cooper, Warring Spirits by April Gardner, and The Right Person by Stacy Padula
-Beautiful downloadable art cards by author and artist Brenda Hendricks
-A free subscription to ‘PixApple’
-You copy of Frazzled No More by Shelley Hitz
-A cool ‘Daily Scheduler’ developed by author Janalyn Voigt
-And much more!

All if you buy your copy of PLAY IT AGAIN at on Feb. 21!

DISCLAIMER: This book launch has been coordinated with the help of the John 3:16 Marketing Network and many other generous supporters. The free gifts are deliverable electronically over the internet or by email by individual authors and supporters. They are not in any way associated with, nor deliverable by, or Edgy Inspirational Romance.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Do you write edgy Christian fiction?

Alternative Witness Magazine put out a call for submissions. Their debut issue is March 2012.

From their website:

There are circumstances of life, fact or fiction, which cause people to be in awe of faith. The faithful become living witnesses in a culture who have clung to alternatives other than God. They’ve forgotten Who came first and treat Him as though He is the alternative.

This magazine will showcase short fictional stories (800-3000 words) at a rate of one per week until we are firmly established. The authors who publish with us will be featured in our online ezine as well as have the opportunity to be in a printed ‘best of’ anthology. We’ll also host reader’s choice awards.

We want genre fiction. We want edgy. We want hot button issues that others shy from. Christian Horror, SciFi, Speculative, Contemporary with an Edge? - great! Story of Abuse and bullying – go there. But let’s keep it clean and inspirational. No swearing, no explicit sex or violence.

Send submissions to:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Has Allie Pleiter gone to the dogs?

A dog?

My fingers paused over the keyboard as Plug the firehouse dog popped his goofy head into my imagination. Really? A dog?

I’d never had a dog play a major role in one of my books. My So-Called Love Life had a rhinestone-collared Iguana named Marilyn, so I suppose she counts--sort of. She took center stage by sheer oddity, whereas Plug is more of a basic fellow. Simply put, he’s smarter than he looks.

At first, I worried I’d turn off the cat people. Lots of readers are cat people. But then I realized I’d really just appeal to the animal people, because Plug shows how all of us let our guard down around animals. They adore us, even when we mess up. Plug loves troubled teen Nick Nelworth just because that’s what dog do to boys (or anyone, I suppose). Plug gets straight to the heart of Nick’s mom Jeannie and her paralyzing fear of the firehouse across the street. I won’t say how, but it’s the kind of charming directness only a slightly portly, slightly drooly, beagle-ish mutt can get away with. He takes one look at Jeannie and knows what’s up.

Chad Owens, the fire marshall who would prefer not to get tangled up with Jeannie and her son Nick, has Plug to thank for all his new complications. It’s one of those great man-dog relationships: Chad tolerates Plug; Plug adores Chad. When Nick adores Plug who adores Chad---well, you get the picture. Plug sees what we as readers guess in the opening chapters: these three need each other.

My dog is the exact opposite of Plug. Bella is a dainty, uppity, fluff-ball who uses cuteness with ninja-like precision. Could she get me to fall in love?

She’d tell you she already has. I adore that furry diva. So in answer to the question in line one--yes, a dog.

An avid knitter, coffee junkie, and devoted chocoholic, Allie Pleiter writes both fiction and non-fiction. The enthusiastic but slightly untidy mother of two, Allie spends her days writing books, buying yarn, and finding new ways to avoid housework. Allie hails from Connecticut, moved to the midwest to attend Northwestern University, and currently lives outside Chicago, Illinois. The “dare from a friend” to begin writing has produced two parenting books, fourteen novels, and various national speaking engagements on faith, women’s issues, and writing. Visit her website at or her knitting blog at

Want more info about Allie Pleiter's Falling for the Fireman? Here's the book blurb:
There's something achingly familiar about the look in fire marshal Chad Owens's eyes. Widowed mom Jeannie Nelworth knows firsthand what it is: loss, hurt and yes—bitterness. Ever since the fire that changed their lives, Jeannie's young son has borne that same look, pushing everyone away. So she's grateful when Chad tries to get through to the boy with the help of his trusty fire station dog.

But the man who's all about safety and prevention keeps himself protected—from loving and losing again. Seems as if Jeannie will have to add his kind, guarded heart to her rebuilding efforts.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review: HALFLINGS by Heather Burch

In Halflings, the new YA novel from Heather Burch, a supernatural love triangle collides with hellhounds, wraiths, angels, demons and … high school.


When Nikki Youngblood took her sketchbook to the woods she certainly didn't expect to end her day racing away from a pack of crazed creatures that reeked of rotting death. Exhausted, with hellhounds on her heels and no escape in sight, Nikki calls on a God she's pretty sure doesn't exist – for help she's fairly certain will not arrive – and loses consciousness.

When Nikki awakens in her bed at home, she assumes it was all a dream. But if it was just a dream, why are her clothes torn and stained with blood? And if that is her blood – and it must be – where is the wound? Shaken and confused, she remembers the terror of the chase and a mysterious song on the wind -- but beyond that, all she can recall is a flash of light … and the most beautiful blue eyes she's ever seen.

Raven, Mace, and Vine are new to Nikki's high school. These three brothers are not just amazingly h-o-t, they are quite possibly the best-looking boys in existence. But Mace's mesmerizing blue eyes are more than a little bit familiar to Nikki, and it seems that no matter where she goes, at least one of those handsome brothers is nearby.

Determined to find out what part Mace and his brothers played in her frightening "dream," Nikki follows them home and discovers that these three gorgeous guys are more than just brothers, they are Halflings: supernatural beings who are half angel and half human. And they have been assigned to protect her from a menacing, mysterious evil.

Attraction doesn't even scratch the surface of how strongly Nikki is drawn to the beautiful, straight-arrow Mace – and the equally stunning bad boy, Raven. As if falling for two not-quite-human boys wasn't bad enough, however, when Nikki realizes what she may be – and how much of her own past has been kept from her – she begins to question everything about her life. What she cannot possibly understand – but the boys know all too well – is that, regardless of which Halfling Nikki chooses to love, if Raven or Mace let themselves fall in love with her they could lose everything – including their chance at Heaven.


Although Halflings is published by a Christian imprint, fans of current YA trends shouldn't flinch at the inspy label. A well-written, thoroughly thought-out, and utterly addicting read, Halflings draws inspiration from biblical passages – but it doesn't "preach at" the teens for whom it was written. Labels aside, this novel should be considered as competitive among the offerings of mainstream YA's paranormal romance.

Readers who've enjoyed novels by Cynthia Hand and Tammar Stein will find Burch's concept comfortably original, while fans of Stephenie Meyer will likely note themes reminiscent of Twilight. Similarly, while this book is being marketed to teens, it could easily spawn multigenerational appeal. Should T-shirts start popping up declaring "Team Mace" or "Team Raven" I wouldn't be too surprised if I felt led to purchase one.

For my daughter, of course. (Wink.)


Spunky, capable heroine? Check. Mysterious villains? Check. Motorcycle chases? Check. Romantic sweet guy? Check. Romantic bad boy? Check. Hunky dudes with mad ninja skills … and wings? Check, check and … check! Burch's novel captivated me from the word go – and the hits kept on coming.

Rumors of "Hollywood options" are already buzzing through the blogosphere and a (free) illustrated e-book prequel is now available through several outlets. Combining those tasty details with the way the novel's ending longs for the September 2012 sequel, well … the word "franchise" certainly comes to mind.

I can't say I object. Burch may be riding the coattails of a mainstream trend, but she's giving the fashion a distinctly fresh cut that will allow it to stand out on the angelic romance runway. I'm excited to watch this series take flight – and curious to see where the next book will take what's sure to become a devoted following.

Packed with action, Halflings is stocked with a feisty, likable cast and a fantastically impossible love-triangle that made my heart flutter, race and sigh. This hard-to-put-down novel kept me up late into the night and burrowed itself into my imagination.

(This review first appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)

Serena's Rating:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: Softly and Tenderly by Sara Evans and Rachel Hauck

Softly and Tenderly is the second in the Songbird series by Sara Evans and Rachel Hauck, and my review is a year (cough) a little overdue. But lucky for me, there is no time limit on great fiction. If you haven't read this series yet, now is the perfect time to pick it up since all three books have been released.

Evans and Hauck fill this story with women who are easy to like. Jade is your best girlfriend and her mother Beryl is an aging hippie with a lifetime of interesting stories. But my favorite character is Jade's mother-in-law, June, who volunteers her pink Cadillac for a road trip adventure Jade's not likely to forget. June is deliciously southern and deeply complex, and the dynamics of her marriage to Rebel make perfect fodder for book club discussions.

Women's fiction is not my genre of choice, but I make exceptions for any novel Rachel Hauck's name is attached to. Still, I knew I wasn't in romance-land anymore when I fell heels-over-kindle in love with a character who was not the hero. Seeing as how Jade's husband's name is Max, wearing my Team Dustin tee shirt to this review is probably inappropriate (but if Sara and Rachel ever give him his own book, I'm breaking it out of storage!)

Fans of women's fiction will find Softly and Tenderly a satisfying, if bittersweet, ride. Just be sure to pack your tissues because you will cry big, fat, chunky tears along the way.

Want more info? Here's the product description (from Barnes and Noble):
Maybe out there in the country she could catch her breath, learn to breathe again . . .

Happily married and owner of two successful boutiques, Jade longs to begin a family with her husband, Max. But when she discovers that Max has an illegitimate son-who he wants her to help raise-Jade's life is turned upside down.

She flees to her childhood home, a rambling Iowa farmhouse, with enough room to breathe. There-while her mother's health grows fragile, and the tug of her first love grows stronger-Jade begins to question everything she thought she knew about family, love, and motherhood. In the wide-open landscape, Jade begins to see a future that doesn't rest on the power of her past but in the goodness of God's tender mercies.

My rating:

Now we've reviewed this entire series. Here are the links in case you missed them:

Serena's review of Love Lifted Me

Christian Fiction Book Club discussion of The Sweet By and By


Monday, February 13, 2012

Do you lean towards loopy on Valentine's Day?

It’s way easy to get swept up in the romance of Valentine’s Day. Flowers, chocolate, love notes. And here’s a radical truth: not one of those things is bad. God loves a good love story, so there’s no shame in enjoying flowers, chocolates and sweet nothings. The problem only comes when we go overboard, when we compromise our values or give ourselves away or put all of those things above the one who loves us most.

So what can we do to keep ourselves grounded while enjoying the good things of Valentine’s Day?

Start with keeping your first love straight. Get swept off your feet by his love. Since God is the author of romance (shoot, he IS romance), let yourself get lost in him. After all, he loves in brilliant color, he writes love notes in the stars and paints sunsets for your pleasure.

Love him first. Then if someone catches your eye or presents you with roses, chocolate caramels and mushy words, you won’t go loopy and make decisions you’ll regret. You’ll be able to enjoy the moment, return the kindness and stay perfectly grounded.

And if you’re still worried – or you’re one to be overly wooed by wildflowers, then bring in some accountability. Ask a friend, parent or sibling to help keep your feet on the ground. It also helps to plan ahead. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re spending hours alone smooching or steaming up car windows.

Use good judgment, enjoy the day and if you’re weak, surround yourself with strength.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Your friend,


Elsa Kok Colopy is passionate about purity. As a Mother of Preschoolers (MOPS) author and former editor for Focus on the Family’s Thriving Family magazine, Colopy understands the profound impact of teen purity on the hearts of young women and on the health of their future families. Colopy is the author of five books, including 99 Ways to Fight Worry and Stress and The Single Mom’s Guide to Finding Joy in the Chaos. She and her husband live in Colorado Springs, CO and are the proud parents of four adult children.

Want to know more about Elsa's book?

Some facets of today’s society are hard to ignore, especially for those growing up. In our celebrity-driven, media-dominated world, teens are constantly exposed to temptation. Pop culture’s influence—with the likes of party-hearty Katy Perry and the reality show stars of the minute—may leave the impression that sin is in and wholesomeness is so last season.

But in Elsa Kok Colopy’s new book, PURE LOVE, PURE LIFE: Exploring God’s Heart on Purity, the well-known author uses an honest approach to help young women embrace a pure and unadulterated life by strengthening their relationship with God—demonstrating purity encompasses more than staying abstinent before walking down the aisle.

The book has realistic, heartbreaking, and often humorous anecdotes submitted by real teenagers. Through autobiographical tales of her own rocky teenaged journey, Colopy eloquently shows readers that purity should not be seen as a series of don’ts—don’t think that way, don’t look that way, don’t act that way—but is instead as a positive, God-centered approach to making the right decisions.

“Real purity is not just about virginity—it’s a whole life transformation and commitment that doesn’t have to mean living like a character on Little House on the Prairie,” Colopy writes in the book.

Colopy equips readers with real-life tools for dealing with emotions, dating and relationships, lust, marriage, broken choices, painful setbacks, and second chances.

By ending each chapter with a series of journal-ready discussion questions, Colopy further encourages readers to examine their own values and make connections from the book’s stories to their own lives. Colopy also suggests teen girls gather in a group to read PURE LOVE, PURE LIFE as a way to challenge each other, instill a sense of accountability, and open lines of communication. A rousing addition to any teen girl’s library, this book helps to answer the tough questions that many young women face about sex, love, and purity, as well as give readers a new, freeing view on life.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Valentine Abbey

Because these were too cute not to share....

(I first saw these at Ruth's Booktalk and More, who got them from Rachel, who I think got them directly from Chad)

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Denise Hunter began writing in earnest after the loss of a family member prompted her to live each day to its fullest — and to chase after her dreams. Since then she has published more than 20 novels and several novellas. Her latest release, The Accidental Bride, takes place in Montana. It is the second book in her Big Sky Romance series.

Serena: A lot of romance novels end with a wedding — but The Accidental Bride starts with one! Did you giggle just a little bit when you got the idea to build a romance … backward?

Denise: I have to say, I had a ball writing The Accidental Bride! Readers love a marriage-of-convenience story because the hero and heroine are in close quarters for much of the story, ratcheting up the tension. The "accidental marriage" is my twist on that, and since I love a story in which the hero and heroine have a rich, complicated history, I added that element also.

Serena: Shay likes to dance, but she tenses up at certain song lyrics. If Travis and Shay's relationship had a theme song, it might be …

Denise: Definitely "Bless the Broken Road" by Rascal Flatts

Serena: Your series often introduce new main characters in a series-familiar locale. In those cases, do you begin the series with each book's protagonist in mind, or does a particular minor character from one book capture your heart and demand her own story along the way?

Denise: Originally A Cowboy's Touch (the first book in the Big Sky Romance series) was supposed to be a stand-alone. Then single-mom Shay popped onto the page all spunky and begging for a hero, and … the Big Sky Series was born. Shay quickly wormed her way into my heart and became a favorite of mine. She's strong and feisty, and a mite stubborn, especially where cowboy Travis McCoy is concerned.

Serena: How much time do you generally spend in a particular location doing research before you feel ready to let your characters live there?

Denise: Usually several days. I'd love to linger longer, but with teens at home, it's hard to get away. Researching settings has become a thing my hubby and I do together. We had a blast gallivanting all over Montana for the Big Sky Series.

Serena: Of all the locations you've visited and/or written about, which are you most likely to return to for a pleasure trip?

Denise: I always choose places that I think my readers would like to visit — after all, they actually are going there in their imagination (and so am I!). I tend to gravitate toward small mountain towns like Moose Creek, Mont. — the setting for the Big Sky series. I've also had stories in North Carolina; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Nantucket; Vermont … I couldn't possibly choose between them!

Serena: The Big Sky Romance series features several horse-loving characters. Are you a horse lover? Do you ride … or, like Travis in The Accidental Bride, do you rodeo?

Denise: I do love horses, but frankly, I'm pressing my luck just to stay in the saddle. I wanted to get it right for the series, though, so for all those horsey details, I turned to a Montana rancher and his wife, Billy and Marci Whitehurst. They were so kind to explain the daily workings of a ranch to this greenhorn city girl.

Serena: Travis and Shay's love life takes an interesting turn when chores morph into a literal roll in the hay. Do you look at barns differently now (LOL) than you did before writing that scene?

Denise: Well, admittedly, a barn is an unusual place to consummate one's vows, but sometimes passion flares when (and where) we least expect it. But in all seriousness, I do like to leave these things to the reader's imagination by closing the, er, barn doors.

Serena: Your husband claims to be the inspiration for the strong romantic element in your books. Do any other friends or relatives inspire other story elements (or characters) in your novels?

Denise: "Claims" being the key word there (smiles). One of my relatives once said, "I hope no one thinks all this comes from our family!" LOL. Almost everything in my books is straight out of my imagination. Almost.

Serena: Describe the place in which you write.

Denise: I have a lovely office. It's large, nicely lit, with a built-in desk, and is beautifully decorated in my favorite colors. Do I write there? Of course not. I kick back on the living room sofa.

Serena: You've contributed to several anthologies/novella collections, such as the recently released Smitten (written with Colleen Coble, Kristin Billerbeck, and Diann Hunt). Do you find it easier or more difficult to pen a shorter story?

Denise: The thing I love about writing novellas is that I can write them quickly. A book is a long-term commitment — usually about six to seven months for me. Of course, there are challenges with a shorter format, such as realistically building a love relationship in 100 pages. Smitten was especially fun, because it was written with three friends. We had such a blast, and now it's a series, so there are more good times coming. You can read more about Smitten, hear the song written just for the book, and sign up to win free stuff at

Serena: What writing project is next on deck for you?

Denise: I just turned in the third book in the Big Sky Series, The Trouble with Cowboys (October 2012). It features a heroine who's contracted to write a lovelorn column — only problem is, she's never even been in love. When she turns to the town Casanova for answers, she ends up with more trouble than she bargained for.

Serena: Sounds like fun! Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or was it a desire/calling brought about by a specific event or time in your life?

Denise: I've always been an avid reader, but I didn't start dreaming of writing a novel until I was in my early 20s. By then I was busy with young children, and I put it on the back burner. It wasn't until my grandfather's passing that God pricked my heart with the truth: No one is guaranteed another day on this earth, and a dream worth dreaming requires a plan of action. I started my first manuscript the next week, writing while my boys napped. It was later published as Stranger's Bride (Barbour Publishing).

Serena: Have you had any formal training as a writer/novelist, or have you picked up skills along the way?

Denise: I actually majored in commercial art in college. Once I decided to take the plunge and write my first story, I must've read 100 library books on the subject. I still read books on writing and attend conferences. There's so much to learn. Writing is a craft to be honed, and I never tire of finding new ways to tell a better story.

Serena: Do you ever have two (or more) projects competing for supremacy in the battle for your time and/or imagination?

Denise: Oh, yes! Especially now that I'm writing a book every nine months and a novella (for the Smitten series) every year for Thomas Nelson. Which one wins? The one with the nearest deadline! But I'm actually thinking about multiple stories all the time. I'm often jotting notes on paper napkins, on the backs of church bulletins, or typing them into my iPhone.

Serena: As a mom, how do you structure your day to balance writing and family time?

Denise: I need quiet to write, so I get my work done while the boys are in school. Summers are a little more challenging — I find myself writing in the car during sports practices or holing up in the bedroom for a few hours. But somehow, it all gets done.

Serena: Do you read much outside of the inspirational market and, if so, what sort of books do you read?

Denise: I read in both markets. In the inspirational market I tend to read romance/women's fiction like Francine Rivers, Jenny B. Jones, Rachel Hauck and Susan Meissner. Reading in the general market helps me keep up with trends, so mostly I read best sellers like The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Serena: Is there one writer from your childhood or teen years who sticks out as a particular inspiration for your own storytelling?

Denise: The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder initially got me hooked on reading. I always had my nose in a book when I was a kid. Still do, in fact.

Serena: Are you a holdout to traditional books or have you converted to e-book reading?

Denise: I'm a convert! I own a Nook and read almost exclusively on it now. I say almost because sometimes when I'm browsing in a bookstore, a beautiful cover woos me, and I have to take it home.

Serena: Valentine's Day is just around the corner. How do you celebrate the Day of Love?

Denise: My hubby usually gets me chocolates, the really good stuff. But then, he's often bringing home little treats for me. I say spread the romance out a little — why confine it to one day?

Serena: Oh, I agree — one day isn't nearly enough! So where do you see yourself and your career 10 years from now?

Denise: When I started writing 15 years ago, my goal was simply to finish a full-length manuscript. I had no clue that God's plan for me would include 20-plus published novels. His dreams are bigger than mine (and infinitely better), so I'm just going to keep plugging away, writing the best novels I can, and leave the rest up to him.

I'm so grateful to my readers for trusting me with a few hours of their time. It's a privilege I don't take for granted. I love keeping in touch with my readers, so I'm active on Facebook and Twitter. I often have giveaways there and on my website for those who are signed up for my newsletter. You can also read the first chapter of The Accidental Bride there.

(This interview originally posted at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)

Friday, February 03, 2012

Review: ROSE'S PLEDGE by Sally Laity & Dianna Crawford

Saturated with vivid historical detail,Rose's Pledge introduces readers to Rose Harwood, the eldest of three British sisters who sell four years of their lives into indentured servitude in the colonies. Co-authored by Sally Laity and Dianna Crawford, Rose's Pledge is the first book in the Harwood House series.


Rose Harwood has always been the most responsible member of her family. It is no surprise that Rose takes it upon herself to rescue her family from ruin when one of her father's business deals goes awry. To save her home — as well as her father's business and reputation — Rose Harwood sells herself into indentured servitude in the American Colonies.

Unwilling to be separated from the sister who helped raise them, Rose's two younger sisters join her in the trip across the Atlantic. Assuming their indenturing papers will be purchased to serve the same family, Rose is distraught when each Harwood sister is sent in a different direction. So consumed with concern for her sisters, Rose gives little thought to the danger she will face heading into the uncivilized frontier with Eustice Smith, the grizzled old trader who, desiring a talented cook for his ailing belly, purchases her bond papers.

Nate Kinyon loves his life of freedom, working as a trapper alongside his half-Indian friend, Black Horse Bob, in the wilderness. When his path crosses with Smith's caravan of goods, he is drawn to Rose, feeling an unusual — and a tad unwelcome — drive to protect this dainty but determined young woman. Nate devises a plan to buy Rose's bond papers from Eustice — but can he see her settled in a more civilized location without having to "settle down" with her himself? The more Nate feels his heart tugged toward Eustice's gentle and beautiful cook, the more he wonders if, even if he is willing to give up his commitment-free lifestyle, will he ever be good enough for the lovely but pious Rose?


Rose loves her father very much and holds him in high esteem, but as a reader I found it exceptionally difficult to respect — let alone feel any affection for — a man who would allow not one, but all three, of his daughters to be shipped off to the Americas to help settle his debts. From his first appearance, Mr. Harwood came off as weak — and the brief explanation of how Lily and Mariah came to cross the Atlantic with Rose did nothing to improve my opinion of him. Instead, it expelled a fairly large hiccup in my suspension of disbelief and seemed like a device by which the authors could more easily turn their story into a multinarrated series.

On a positive note, once the girls were auctioned off, the story took on a much more authentic feel, focusing on Rose's experiences in this strange new land. The locales and details of this historical romance seemed very well-researched and were portrayed in a believable way. And, although Nate's thoughts were voiced in a little more refined vocabulary than that by which he spoke, overall the characters' voices were easily identifiable and remained constant throughout the story.


The authors do a good job of growing Rose's affection for her bondsman, as well as her more romantic feelings toward Nate. Although there are times when the story lags and the passage of time is a bit unclear, the authors have penned a pleasing, if not entirely believable, historical romance.

Rose's Pledge is sure to entice historically inclined inspirational romance fans to follow the Harwood sisters through the rest of the Harwood House series.

This review first appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)



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