Review of:  Rescued by the Hero: A Christian Firefighter Christmas Romance (Heroes of Freedom Ridge Book 1)

Mandi Blake

Reviewed:  September 29, 2020

This is a sweet and clean, faith-filled romance set in the charming setting of Freedom Ridge, CO at Christmastime.  The descriptions of the decorations and festivities made me want to be there myself!  The main characters, Joanna and Aiden, were immediately relatable and likeable.  I enjoyed seeing their relationship develop.  What I liked most about this book was how Joanna wasn’t afraid to talk about her faith and how Aiden grew in his own relationship with God.  This book is based on wonderful values and the messages really shine through the characters. I feel it is true treat to read encouraging stories like this one!



Win A Copy of The Puccini Connection by Sam Bond!!  One lucky commenter will receive their choice of e-book or hard copy!  Just enter a comment to win, and be sure to include a valid email address!  This contest will close at midnight on Saturday, 10/03/20; winner will be notified by email on Sunday, 10/04/20.

Me:     What led you to begin your writing career?

Sam:   I started writing about ten years ago on finding a lack of diversity in children’s books. I wanted my two girls (both adopted from China) to have characters that not only resembled them, but who were representative of their reality. There were plenty of books about adoption, but there didn’t seem to be too many books about regular American kids who happened to be adopted. This led me to write the CIA (Cousins in Action) books, an award-winning adventure series for readers aged eight to twelve set in various countries around the world.

Me:     Why did you want to write The Puccini Connection?

Sam:   I’ve always loved murder mysteries, especially English murder mysteries, but it wasn’t until a cozy murder mystery writer cornered me at a tailgate party about three years ago that I gave any serious consideration to writing this genre. Once my friend had suggested a change in direction I honestly wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. It was almost as if I’d been preparing my entire life to write cozy murder mysteries. There is barely a British cozy crime show that I haven’t binge watched (Midsomer Murders, Rosemary & Thyme, Grantchester and Agatha Raisin to name just a few), plus I grew up immersed in Agatha Christie, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter. It seemed inevitable that I would finally turn my hand to English crime stories.

Me:     I assume you have a background in classical music?   Are you a music teacher like Josie in the Puccini Connection?  Was this theme important in writing this book?  Will classical music continue to be an element in future books? 

Sam:   I have been playing the piano since the age of five so almost fifty years and play daily. My father was a self-taught pianist and organist and also had a fine voice he sang for Queen Alexandra when he was a young choir boy. Therefore classical music was always part of my life. By sixteen I played not only the piano, but the clarinet, the violin and in my spare time I sang in local amateur dramatic performances and then later Gilbert & Sullivan productions, playing several leading roles including Yum Yum in the Mikado. Most of my favorite music is classical, therefore it seemed natural to have Josie be a musician — albeit a better one than me. They say write what you know, and so I did. I’m also on a bit of a crusade to introduce people to classical music, as it saddens me when people dismiss it as being too boring. Try listening to Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and then tell me classical music is dull. As for the continuance of a theme, Josie’s love of classical music and her job as a piano teacher will definitely continue, and if I can make some classical music converts along the way — all the better!

Me:     What are some other things that you have in common with Josie?  What are some differences?

Sam:   When a friend first read an early version of The Puccini Connection she called to tell me that she loved it, but had one main issue. “In my head Josie is you,” she said, “but she’s just not as funny.” I took that as a great compliment both for Josie and myself. I didn’t set out to make Josie like me, but a lot of my voice is in The Puccini Connection and therefore I think it’s easy for readers who know me to see the similarities. So, other than being a musician, Josie is also terrified of blood and does not like egg whites — those traits are totally me and, of course, we are both English. Our differences are more subtle. I set out to try and make Josie something of a loner. Other than her summers with Aunt Rose her childhood was not particularly happy, and therefore Josie definitely has some trust issues that rise to the surface — I am incredibly open and trusting, so that’s not like me at all.

Me:     Is Milkwood a real place? 

Sam:   It is based on a real place, one that I actually mention within the book — Shere. My mother, my girls and I have been visiting for years, playing Pooh Sticks over the Tillingbourne (yes the river is real) and eating at The White Horse, which is the inspiration for The Dirty Duck. If you look at the map at the front of The Puccini Connection you will see that the compass is upside down! This is because whenever I drive into Shere I approach from the North and so when I drew the map I accidentally drew it upside down, because that’s how I see it in my head! Instead of going to the trouble of changing the entire map I decided to go for whimsy and turn the compass upside down!

Me:     You have a talent for creating immersive, richly-detailed settings as well as the nuances of colloquial speech patterns.  Why do you think this is? 

Sam:   Gosh, thank you. That’s a very kind compliment. My friend’s father and the man who the book is dedicated to, said he could tell I was extremely homesick after reading the book, so maybe that has something to do with it. As for the colloquial speech patterns, this turned into a bit of an issue with my editor. She’s American and therefore would often insert extra words to make it sound correct to her. To be honest, until I moved to the States I hadn’t realized how often the British leave out words — for instance Americans would say they are going to the hospital. British people say they are going to hospital. It was one of the reasons I made Josie an expat as she, like me, straddles this divide of language, sometimes using American English sometimes using British, I’ve been in the US so long that quite often I can’t remember which is which any more — and don’t even ask me to say the word schedule!

Me:     I understand that you also grew up in England like Josie – do you still have a British accent?  Do you visit often?  Do you plan to return one day?  How is Texas different, and what do you enjoy about both places?

Sam:   I was born in Surrey, where fictional Milkwood is located, and I do still have a British accent, although my mother would beg to differ, due to me using way more American terminology than she’s comfortable with. Up until two years ago my two daughters and I would spend each summer in London and I would return again during January (getting relief from the Cedar season here in Austin) to spend another month together. My mum and I were extremely close and it was important for me to spend time with her. My mum died in 2018 and the girls and I have been back a couple of times since, but have no plan to go back any time soon (especially with Covid). I’m so happy that my American girls have been so immersed in English culture over their lifetimes, and I love that the last dish my oldest requested before going off to college was roast lamb and roast potatoes! As for the differences between London and Texas, there are too many to mention, fish ‘n’ chips versus brisket, sun versus rain, but there are enjoyable things about both. While in England you will find me visiting stately homes and taking photos of the flowers (photography is my other occupation) and tramping  across the glorious countryside. In Texas I am more likely to be indoors because of the extreme heat for most of the year, but I do still love to hike when weather permits and we have a beautiful greenbelt here in Austin as well as some excellent state parks that I enjoy visiting.

Me:     Are you planning future books in this series?  Will they take place in Milkwood or in Texas?  (or both)? 

Sam:   I’m currently knee-deep in edits on The Unread Prophecy which is the second book in the Milkwood Murder series, and have started writing the third. I also have ideas for at least another three books — so yes, there will definitely be more books coming and they will be predominantly set in Milkwood.

Me:     Will Josie & Adam continue to be a couple?  Will readers see their romance develop, or will there be some complications along the way? 

Sam:   I’m not going to give anything away, so unfortunately you’re going to have to keep reading to find out. However I will say there are definitely some complications, as well as a bit of a surprise around book five or six that will come out of the blue, but in reality it’s something I’ve been planning since book one.

Me:     Will we see other characters featured in this book resurface in subsequent novels?  (ie. Lady Belle, Daisy, Finolla, etc.). Will we learn more about Josie’s family history? 

Sam:   I think they will all come back at some point, and more information about Josie’s past will be unveiled. Finolla is one of my favorite characters so she will definitely have to make future appearances — maybe with her latest Argentinian husband.

Me:     What are some of your favorite books and authors?  What is the current book on your nightstand? 

Sam:   If I had to pick just one book I would say My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, which is the only reason I managed to pass ‘O’ Level English. I will also read anything by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith as well as Elizabeth Peters and Kate Atkinson. I run three book clubs and I’m in four, so I read a lot of books. My favorite book from the last couple of years is the sublime A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles. As for my nightstand, the books are literally piled high, as well as having several that I am listening to on audio — I’m normally reading at least eight books at one time. I just reread James Herriott’s All Creatures Great and Small which is a total delight, but the book I’m currently enjoying most is Deanna Raybourne’s A Dangerous Collaboration featuring her Victorian heroine, Veronica Speedwell, who is an utter joy.

Photo of Sam Bond by Dave Wilson

Review of:  My Dilemma

Pixie Perkins

I think this book will most definitely appeal to kids ages 13 and up!  It's a clean YA romance featuring 17-year-old Megan whose middle-school crush moves in next door after his family returns to the city following a brief move out of state.  The two didn't part on good terms and now things are complicated by mutual attraction and all the pitfalls of the high school social scene!  The dialogue was totally on-point for this age group (I could just hear my own preteen daughter through the voice of Megan's younger sister, Hailee)!  I laughed out loud each time Megan tried to "hide" from Brayden out of embarrassment - I remember doing that at that age myself, lol!  The characters were fleshed out beautifully, especially Megan's family members and friends Lora and Holt.  It was wonderful to see Megan and her siblings having real talks with their mom and sitting together over meals as a family.  While I do wish Megan had experienced more personal growth and maturation over the course of the novel, I'd still give it a thumbs up as good choice for a sweet & clean romance geared for the YA age group.

Review of:  Marrying Matthew (The Amish Mail-Order Grooms Book 1)

Kelly Long.  Zebra, $8.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4201-5165-7

In this marriage of convenience tale, readers are introduced to Tabitha, the 20-year-old sole heir of her father’s successful lumber and wood-working company located in the remote Amish community of Blackberry Falls, PA [p. 1-2]. Due to fears of Tabitha being kidnapped for ransom, her father has insisted that his half-brother Abner serve as her security guard ever since she was born [p. 3]. Little does her family know, Tabitha has taught herself how to carve wood in secret, despite the craft being forbidden to women [p. 78]. She is determined to marry on her own terms, without the possibility of a suitor who is only seeking to inherit her father’s fortune. Hence, she takes an ad out in the newspaper for an Amish mail-order groom and is pleasantly surprised when it is answered by handsome Matthew King who comes to Blackberry Falls to wed [p. 1-22]. However, Matthew has secrets of his own, as do the other major characters in Long’s work [p. 3 ff]. Through the romances of Tabitha and Matthew, as well as Abner and housekeeper Anke, each finds the courage to trust that true love requires [p. 201 ff]. However, detailed descriptions of sexual desire are overly abundant throughout [p. 9 ff], and Long’s treatment of Amish culture borders on disrespectful (the Bishop is the town’s buffoon [p. 19 ff]; roles are reversed [p. 250, 252]; the characters are all obsessed with sex [p. 9 ff]; there are supernatural/ pagan elements [p. 43, 69, 133, ff]; and none of the characters act with the propriety, modesty, or biblical values of the Amish).  Definitely not a biblically-based book, and only superficially Amish (sadly).

Review of:  Locked Out in the Snow

Kim E. Kimmy (Illustrated by Hannah June)

This is a beautifully-written and illustrated book geared towards children ages 4-8 and their families especially approaching the Christmas season!  The story features Kim, a 7-year-old little girl who hurries home after school one wintry December day to show her family the holiday decorations she has made and join them for seasonal preparations and a warm meal.  However, when she reaches her house, where her mom is always there waiting for her, she finds no one home and the front door locked.  What is she to do?  Kim’s ingenuity proves to be a timely lesson for all, as she finds shelter in a nearby barn and sings Christmas carols to the animals, remembering the birth of Jesus and praying for herself and her family. When everyone arrives home after battling the snow and ice, the family enjoys lots of hugs and a celebration of the true meaning of Christmas. Kim even discovers a special present left just for her from Santa under the tree!  This would be a wonderful book for families with young children as well as Children’s Ministry leaders to stock up on this season. 

 Review of:  The Lakehouse

Joe Clifford


Publication Date:  9/29/20

Review Date:  9/20/20

I was excited to read this book, thinking that it looked like the perfect murder mystery to get me in the mood for fall and Halloween season, and I wasn’t disappointed!!  Clifford writes with an expert hand, shifting easily between his main characters’ perspectives.  I loved the psychological studies of each, as through each character and scene we learn more about the backstories behind the murder mystery and how everyone’s lives are linked together both past and present. Red herrings abound, and I kept changing my guess of who the killer was and their motivation until the shocking conclusion which will knock your socks off!!  This being said, I would have liked a cleaner ending as there were some leftover questions Clifford failed to wrap up completely. I think this book would make for a great movie – it really reminded me of tv shows such as “Criminal Minds.”  It was a quick, well-paced read that I couldn’t put down until I finished.  I’ll definitely look for more titles by this author!

Review of:  Charmed by the Cowboy (Blackwater Ranch Book 2)

Mandi Blake

Reviewed:  September 17, 2020

I absolutely loved this book!  I’d never read this author before, but was intrigued by the setting since I grew in Texas ranching country.  It felt like going home –the author’s descriptions were perfect and the Southern dialogue even brought out my own accent, lol!  I’d love to know where I can get those t-shirts Maddie was wearing with all the cute sayings!  The relationship between her and Lucas was tenderly written and completely believable.  I loved watching them learn that love takes a leap of faith.  What I loved most about this book was the Christian message and the examples of the characters’ strong relationships with God.  If you enjoy sweet and clean romances emphasizing the values of family and faith, you will definitely love this book!

Review of:  Murder, Forgotten

Deb Richardson-Moore

This is a wonderfully crafted, evocative murder mystery that will have you questioning everything you think you know!  Julianna, a gifted author of murder mysteries, is losing touch with reality, drifting in and out of her own fictional tales and back and forth through time.  Her memory is such that she even forgets that her beloved husband, Connor, was recently stabbed to death in their own home with her letter-opener!  Could she have committed the crime herself?  If not, who did it and why?  Julianna’s adult daughter, Logan, helps her investigate as she shifts through clues in the home and tries to connect with the mother she never really knew.  Could her mother’s unfinished original manuscript hold the key?  There are a lot of potential suspects and red herrings, and I didn’t figure out the true culprit until the very end when all was finally revealed!  This is a psychological thriller at its best, brilliantly imagined and expertly written. I especially enjoyed the addition of Discussion Questions at the end for digging deeper into the book’s themes (family relationships, reality vs. fiction, writing, mental illness).

Review of:  Love at the Fall Festival (A Sugar Maple Romance Book 1)

Belle Bailey

Reviewed:  September 14, 2020

If this book has not already been picked up for a Hallmark movie, somebody should give them a call!  Readers are guaranteed to fall in love with the picturesque setting of Sugar Maple, TN – the descriptions are so beautifully and tenderly written that I might just have to visit the area myself someday! The seasonal fall ambience lends itself perfectly to this heartwarming romance between a young woman seeking to find her true home, and a man who wants nothing more than to make up for past mistakes.  Brynn was enticed to venture beyond her small-town rural upbringing by the bright lights of a big city, only too quick to discover that big dreams come with a hefty price.  When she accepts a position as an event planner at Oakleaf Manor to help with the town’s fall festival, she is willing to do what it takes to save the family’s farm and main source of income for the local farmers and artisans. She adapts easily to farming life and befriends the townsfolk, including the Oakley family’s handsome, yet brooding, oldest son, Jack.  Jack made a terrible mistake once, but can he forgive himself enough to accept Brynn’s help and trust her hopeful instincts?  As they fall for each other, can they let go of the past and learn to trust again?  Grab a steaming mug of apple cider and cozy up by the fireplace as the town of Sugar Maple and its quirky residents will be sure to charm you this holiday season!  The only thing that would have pushed this into a 5-star ranking would have been a good editor/ beta reader – some typo’s and minor inconsistencies (see 1st chapter) would be easily corrected and worth the bit of extra effort for future series installments.

Review of:  The Puccini Connection (A Milkwood Murder)

Sam Bond

Reviewed: September 8, 2020

I was excited to read this debut cozy mystery series as it combines the element of musical appreciation with a fun contemporary whodunit, plus is set in the picturesque English countryside - what could be better?  I’m so glad this book grabbed my attention as I wasn’t disappointed. The author has a gift for creating immersive settings with richly described locales and examples of colloquial speech patterns that were a total treat!  I really felt like I was right there in Milkwood with the protagonist, Josie, who was instantly relatable as a newly-divorced piano teacher who returns to her native country to attend her half-sister’s wedding.  Of course, her plans go awry after she discovers the body of her Aunt next to the piano in the study and reconnects with family and friends from her past. I enjoyed the snarky humor throughout the book but would have liked Josie to have either displayed more shock/ grief at finding the body of her beloved aunt from her childhood, or else have had her aunt’s true character (she wasn’t such a nice person after all) more obvious from the beginning to explain the lack of sympathy from Josie and the townsfolk. I also think that this book could really have been split into 3 novels, as there are so many characters and a lot of backstory (some of which wasn’t explained sufficiently, like the sudden appearance of her mother’s long-lost sister). I would have actually liked to have had some threads left hanging at the end. That being said, there was a Cast of Characters at the beginning which was an extremely handy reference, and some fun “extra’s” like local maps, links to classical music pieces, and fun tidbits of information about the composer Puccini. I felt like I learned something in addition to reading a good mystery! All in all, a fantastic debut by a clearly talented and knowledgeable writer!  I look forward to seeing this series continue, and more from this author.

Review of:  The Amish Cookie Club Courtship

Sarah Price.  Zebra, $8.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4201-4919-7

Readers of Amish fiction are in for a treat with the third in Price’s Amish Cookie Club series featuring four best friends and their families in the community of Shipshewana [p. 1].  In this installment, Wilma suggests that Edna hire her 19-year-old unmarried twin daughters Rachel and Ella Mae to assist with her cooking and baking business [p. 3]. However, the members of the Cookie Club figure out that Wilma’s true intention is to set them up with Edna’s bachelor sons, Jonah and Jeremiah [p. 7].  Edna reluctantly agrees to hire the girls as she needs the assistance, but frets as they have a reputation for bickering and lack of work ethic [p. 7]. As she gets to know the twins, she realizes that behind their similar appearances are two very different personalities, each with their own gifts [p. 139]. She realizes that they have never been allowed to develop separate identities and encourages the two to engage in activities apart from each other, which helps them mature and softens their competitiveness [p. 96 ff]. Despite her initial misgivings Edna realizes that the girls would in fact be excellent love matches for her boys and plays matchmaker as she finds ways to set Jeremiah up with Ella Mae and Jonas with Rachel [p. 97 ff]. However, when Rachel develops an interest in Jeremiah rather than Jonas, things quickly go awry with Edna’s best-laid plans [p. 111]. Price’s coming-of-age tale will charm fans with good-intentioned characters and a community filled with faith and friendship. [Nov]