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Dining With Joy, by Rachel Hauck

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Description: Joy Ballard has a secret: she’s a cooking show host who can’t really cook.

When her South Carolina-based cooking show, Dining With Joy, is picked up by a major network, Joy Ballard’s world heats up like a lowcountry boil.

Joy needs help. Then she meets chef Luke Davis who moved to Beaufort after losing his Manhattan restaurant. A cook at the Frogmore Cafe, he’s paying debts and longing to regain his reputation in the elite foodie world.

Luke and Joy mix like oil and water…until Joy is exposed on national television. With her career and his reputation both under fire, they’ll have to work together to fix the mess. Is it possible that they can learn to feast on God’s love and dine with joy?

Yes, Dining With Joy is a lighthearted and humerous romance, and yes, it’s about food which automatically makes it fabulous because I’m a foodie-wanna-be. But this time it’s the deeper themes that really stood out. This book came at the right time for me, because I relate to a couple big things about the main characters, Joy and Luke. Both have loving yet imperfect relationships with their parents, and both come face-to-face with their parents’ mortality. Joy is close with her Mom and she’s struggling to find closure on the troubled relationship she had with her now-deceased Dad. Meanwhile, Luke’s Mom passed away years ago, and his Dad faces a serious health crisis. My Dad is somewhere in between, diagnosed with a terminal illness while we’ve watched bits and pieces of him die for the last six years. The book didn’t really delve into the grief I feel for my Dad, but the affection between parents and their grown-up children still seemed quite tender and nicely accented in the story.

But the most palpable struggle in this story, for me, was Joy’s haphazard career path which she almost stumbled onto by accident. It wasn’t in her plans, but she adapted to it nonetheless. It was originally her Dad’s small ’empire’ so to speak, but when he suffered a fatal heart attack his dying wish was for Joy to save it. Out of her love for him she sacrificed her dreams and her reputation to keep his wish alive. (I related to this quite a bit, given the dreams I’ve let go or postponed for the sake of my Dad’s well-being.) But time after time Joy is haunted by the disconcerting sense that she’s drifting aimlessly in life. (Very much like me.) She’s also nagged by periodic reminders of her true passion, which is to write. (Also like me.) But she despairs that at the end of her 20s she’s too old to start a new career. (You guessed it.) I began to look forward to the way Ms. Hauck would shape Joy’s journey toward a meaningful career, and the ending really did give me a better perspective on my own recent decision to pursue a writing-related path.

On another note, the spiritual themes in the book felt very easy-going, as opposed to Christian novels that are more heavy-handed with these things. But in Dining With Joy there’s no force-fed gospel message. Joy is just your average already-Christian girl facing average single-young-woman challenges. The author’s expression of her faith feels natural, honest and relaxed, and that’s what I hope to find in the Christian fiction I read.

Anyways, there’s always more I could say, but these are the things that mattered the most to me personally. I enjoyed Dining With Joy and recommend it to fiction lovers, whether or not you’re foodie, or a wanna-be like me. Rating: 4/5

A complimentary copy of “Dining With Joy” was provided to me by Booksneeze as part of the blogger review program. My thanks to Thomas Nelson for giving me this opportunity.

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Hood by Stephen Lawhead

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Stephen Lawhead gives a convincing argument for placing Robin Hood in Welsh country, as opposed to the much more familiar Sherwood Forest. I’ve been drawn to Welsh history ever since I watched Sir Derek Jacobi play a medieval monk in the Cadfael mystery series, so Robin Hood’s relocation to that time and place was a lot of fun for me.

In this story, Robin Hood actually goes by the name Bran. He’s the reckless and self-serving son of an angry Welsh King, whose lands are about to be invaded by murderous, yet extremely religious Norman conquerors. With his father soon dead, Bran, Iwan (Little John), and many of their people flee to the forest for safety. As more Welsh kingdoms fall to the Normans, Bran struggles to find his destiny, especially as his own plans don’t always coincide with the well-being of his people.

Did I find the story suspenseful? Let me answer that with another question: Was I blissfully exhausted after realizing I’d stayed up till 4am to finish the novel last night? The answer is a resounding “yes!” After really getting to know each of the major characters I was happily drawn into the drama.

The plot moved along a little slowly for part of the novel, but what was sacrificed was made up in character development. I was happy with it. And besides, there was plenty of action throughout to keep the overall story riveting. I also truly love Lawhead’s descriptions in this story, especially of the landscape, the lifestyle, and the action scenes. At some points his writing seemed exquisite to me. Love love love!

I loved Hood and I highly recommend it. Definitely worth 5 out of 5 stars. And I can’t wait to read book two in the series: “Scarlet.”

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The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead

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The story opens on Kit, a 27 year-old professional headed to his girlfriend’s place on a pleasant Sunday outing. (Now, I didn’t think anything could dampen my enthusiasm for visiting London one day, but Kit’s misadventure through England’s most notoriously convoluted transit system came uncomfortably close.) Happily, though, the Tube is soon exchanged for ley travel–much bigger and more adventurous, certainly more dangerous, and arguably easier to navigate! Throw in a hot commodity, a nefarious creep with his mob of iniquitous brutes, a handful of innocent mistakes, and the reader is swept into a lighthearted odyssey in pursuit of the skin map before it falls into the grasp of said creep.

This novel is a pleasure to read, partly due to Lawhead’s imaginative storytelling, and partly to his choice of interesting cultural settings. Here in Canada, our entertainment is usually presented through an American lens; so reading The Skin Map from the lead characters’ British perspective was a refreshing change. Discovering colourful British slang was also part of the fun. In chapter one, for example, I spiced up my vocabulary with “skint” (having no money), “up sticks” (to relocate), “sprogs” (children) and “old-timey” (old-fashioned).

The characters are entertaining, quirky and enjoyable to watch along their journey. If I have one complaint, it would be minimal character development. The leads, namely our amateur ley travelers, don’t exhibit any compelling inward struggle given the mind-bending nature of the experience–especially without a map to point the way home. Kit only begins to rise from the page in three dimensions near the story’s end. The villain, meanwhile, is also not a dynamic force, as he doesn’t appear to have a motive besides pure, self-serving evil.

I rate the book as 3 out of 5 stars for two reasons: 1) minimal character development, and 2) the story doesn’t give me the feeling of an epic, when compared to some of Stephen Lawhead’s other books. Still, I recommend “The Skin Map” to Lawhead fans and anyone else who’d enjoy an easy-to-read adventure through space and time. I look forward to the next Bright Empires novel.

A complimentary copy of “The Skin Map” was provided to me by Booksneeze as part of the blogger review program.

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