Monday, December 10, 2012

A Wreath of Snow - The Perfect Christmas Book to Curl Up With

Ah, Christmas is nigh.  But with all the manic schedules and demands of this holiday of peace on earth, what can one do to take a deep breath, slow the pace and get in the Christmas spirit?

I have just the thing – bake up a light, flaky batch of Scottish shortbread, brew up a steaming cuppa, curl up on the couch, snuggle into a warm throw and open up Liz Curtis Higgs’ novella, A Wreath of Snow.  If you can arrange all this on a snowy evening, you have all the elements for a perfect pre-Christmas respite.

Set in Victorian era Scotland, A Wreath of Snow takes place on Christmas Eve, when Margaret Campbell boards a train out of her hometown of Stirling, Scotland bound for Edinburgh where she works as a teacher.   Her attempt at a family Christmas falls apart because of a long simmering animosity between herself and her invalid brother.

Unfortunately, her train runs into a snowdrift not far from the village.  But on the plus side she meets an intriguing journalist, Gordon Shaw, who, unknown to Margaret, desires to seek forgiveness from her family for being the cause of an accident years ago that left her brother disabled.

After disembarking the stranded locomotive, Margaret and Gordon trudge through the drifts where he confesses his connection with her family.  Back in Sterling he manages to get an invitation to the Campbell home for Christmas eve, determined to seek forgiveness against Margaret desire for him to keep his identity hidden and not upset her family. 

A Wreath of Snow is a period novella that sweeps you away to the snowy streets of a Scottish village lit by gaslight and decorated with ivy and evergreen.  And although Higgs’ book is considered a romance, it is really a story of seeking and receiving forgiveness - a story of God’s redemption and faithfulness.

So if you are in need of a quiet afternoon to recharge and renew, open the pages of A Wreath of Snow, settle in, take a bite of shortbread, and unwind.

A courtesy copy of A Wreath of Snow obtained from Waterbrook Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nothing Is Impossible With God - A Still, Small Voice

Rose Marie Miller rocks.  Still in the mission field at the age of 88, she reaches out to the Asian women of London carrying the love of Christ into the Muslim and Hindu community.

Her latest book, however, is not a memoir of her work in England, although it does touch on it now and again.  And it certainly isn’t a self-aggrandizing autobiography.

Nothing Is Impossible with God is a sincere and gentle series of Miller’s lectures, reflections and meditations that she complied to encourage Christ followers in their own life journey.

Miller, whose husband Dr. Jack Miller founded World Harvest Missions back in the 70s, walks us through her struggles as a young mother, a pastor’s wife, and a widow learning to surrender completely to God’s will even when she couldn’t grasp it.

Women, especially, will be able to relate to Miller’s book.  As I read through the pages the verse from Titus, chapter 2 repeatedly came to mind:

Then they (older women) can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Unashamedly, she laid her own failures and mistakes out there in order that Christ would be honored and glorified in her weakness and that others will learn to lean on Him to guide them through the valleys. As she spoke of her spiritual battles over the decades of her life, especially after her husband passed away, I felt her arm around my shoulders, mentoring me through her words

Nothing Is Impossible With God doesn’t take your breath away.  Miller isn’t wowing us with tales of plane crashes in the Andes or being held hostage. (Although she did spend time in Uganda during the upheaval following the end of Idi Amin’s regime.) Her book isn’t an earthquake or windstorm.  It is a still, small voice.  A voice proclaiming God’s amazing strength in our incredible weakness.

A courtesy copy of Nothing Is Impossible With God was obtained through New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fight Your Way To A Better Marriage - Conflict Can Do Wonders For a Marriage

Conflict.  Every married couple experiences it. It can often end with slamming doors and sulking silence.  Marriage would be perfect if we could just get rid of the conflict. Right?

Not so, according to Dr. Greg Smalley author of the new book, Fight Your Way To a Better Marriage:  How Healthy Conflict Can Take You To Deeper Levels of Intimacy.

Conflict can be a good thing in a marriage when handled with understanding, and Smalley lays out the groundwork for approaching inevitable conflict between spouses.

Fight Your Way examines the dynamics of conflicts – how simple disagreements can spiral wildly out of control because our own heart issues, our tendency to listen to the enemies lies, and our unwillingness to step back and examine ourselves.

Smalley’s balanced, Biblical advice cuts through the confusion of cyclical conflict and gives a married couple a starting point to begin establishing a trusting, openhearted relationship. Smalley sees conflict, not as something to be avoided, but something to be walked through in order to draw closer to a spouse, to draw closer to God, and to examine issues in our own hearts that need dealt with.

Now it is true, there is nothing new under the sun, and, quite frankly, Fight Your Way To a Better Marriage really isn’t saying anything dramatically new.  But I found Smalley’s take on marital conflict easy to process, encouraging, and uncomplicated.  But I also found it spiritually well grounded; God taking center stage in the marriage journey.

As a bonus, Smalley’s writing style is humorous and engaging, balancing solid counseling advice with stories of conflict lifted from his own life.

Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage will definitely equip husbands and wives with insight to escape the bitter cycle of destructive contention and replace it with conflict-solving skills that will strengthen and deepen any marriage.

Courtesy copy of Fight Your Way To a Better Marriage obtained from Howard Books in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Bridge - Trite, Predictable, and Bah-Humdrum

Molly Allen is a poor, little rich girl under her father’s thumb, her destiny as heiress to her father’s west coast corporation already determined.  Delighted that her pater loosened the reigns a bit to indulge her desire to attend college in Tennessee, Molly wistfully finds herself in love with the handsome, talented Ryan Kelly, a middle class boy from Georgia.

Molly and Ryan often find themselves in The Bridge, a quaint, privately owned bookstore, looking into each other’s eyes - breathlessly quoting Jane Eyre as they encourage each other’s dreams.

Charlie and Donna Barton, the middle-aged owners of The Bridge, smile approvingly at the young couple, knowing romance in bloom when then see it.

But alas, the love of Molly and Ryan is not meant to be.  A paternally-induced misunderstanding separates our tragic pair for five years – each thinking the other is married to someone else.

The story of these star-crossed lovers is not the only catastrophe in this novel.  The Bridge, a Franklin Tennessee institution for over 30 years, is closing after a devastating flood.  Charlie and Donna’s insurance won’t cover the cost of reopening.  Depressed and hopeless, Charlie ends up in an accident, which leaves him on life support, just weeks before Christmas, his devoted wife anxiously wondering if he will ever wake up again.

Yep, Karen Kingbury’s latest, The Bridge, has all the elements of a Victorian tragedy.  Set right before Christmas, Molly and Ryan find themselves together again in an attempt to save The Bridge and the Bartons.

Truth is, I really wanted to like The Bridge.  The Kingsbury books I have read I have liked, even her last book, Coming Home, which her even her most devoted fans angrily denounced, vowing never to read another of her novels.

Say what you will, Kingsbury has been an institution in Christian fiction, and although her past two books were panned, she has penned some incredibly moving faith fiction.  It is because of her track record that I wanted to like this latest book, hoping that it would pull her out of her recent literary tailspin.

So at the risk of sounding like a Scrooge, this Christmas-time novella is, at its best, bah-humdrum, at it’s worst, trite and embarrassingly predicable.

The plot was as stale as last year’s fruitcake, and the characters were like something from an 8th grade girl’s creative writing assignment.

And the climactic Christmas eve ending?  It was so cheesy I had an undeniable craving for a big bowl of tortilla chips.

It pains me, it truly does.  Kingsbury can write better than this.  Unfortunately, The Bridge seemed nothing more than a hastily written novel timed to cash in on Christmas and the Kingsbury name.

Sadly, I must confess, this book is one bridge you will not want to cross.

Courtesy copy of The Bridge obtained from Howard Books in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Glorious Ruin - A Challenging View on Suffering

Humans, as a whole, don’t like suffering.  Our society, especially, does everything in its power to avoid it.  When we suffer, whether it’s a minor irritation or a major trauma, we treat it as an anomaly, something that should not happen in our world of rainbows and happy places. 

Even in the church, suffering can be seen as a lack of victory or worse, a lack of faith.
Glorious Ruin, by Tullian Tchividjian, unpacks the theology of suffering with no apologies; honestly examining the harsh reality that suffering is part and parcel of this fallen and sin-infused world.

According to Tchividjian within Protestantism there are two separate systems of theology: the theology of the cross, which claims that the cross is the only way to know God and how God saves and, the theology of glory, which is man-centered and places greater weight on human reasoning and ability.

Comparing and contrasting the theology of the cross and the theology of glory, (concepts coined by Martin Luther), Tchividjian proposes that we can’t avoid suffering. In fact, avoiding suffering isn’t the goal – the goal is to acknowledge suffering, embrace suffering, and find God in the middle of it.

Tchividjian is tough in his theology-of-the-cross-centered stance.  He takes the gloves off when dealing with the man-centered prosperity gospel, which equates lack of suffering with the strength of our faith. 
He also challenges the humanistic slant on suffering or what he calls the Oprah-fication of suffering, where we find meaning in suffering through transforming our lives into something better – a pathway to self-improvement.

Although I agreed with a majority of Tchividjian’s viewpoints, it was a convicting read, nonetheless.
Glorious Ruin is a book that confronts our demands to minimize and moralize suffering.  It’s a call to not ask “why” in the face of tragedy but to draw closer to the God in the midst of it. 

A courtesy copy of Glorious Ruin provide by David C Cook through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Ultimate Conversation- The Ultimate Prayer Primer

As the steam rises aromatically from my bowl of Spaghetti –Os, I clasp my hands together, bow my head and recite: “God is great. God is good.  Let us thank Him for this food.  Amen.”    I speak the prayer perfectly, or as perfectly as a lisping 4-year-old can. 

It was the first prayer I learned.  I later graduated to “please-bless-fill-in-the-blank” prayers as I knelt by my stuffed-animal-ladened bed.

As I got older my prayers became more sporadic – reserved for moments of pure panic, say, in the midst of a physic test I forgot to study for.

As I reached adulthood and began seeking Jesus in earnest, I realized there was so much more to prayer than recited graces and terror-induced supplications.

Taking my first baby steps in my Christian walk years ago, I could have used the gentle wisdom and Bible-based information found in Charles Stanley’s recent book, The Ultimate Conversation – Talking with God Through Prayer.
n it, Stanley offers his readers the ultimate primer on prayer.

What is prayer?  Who are you praying to? What might be hindering you in your prayer life?  Stanley covers the basics of an intimate conversation with God. What he comes back to again and again is simply this: God wants, more than anything, a deep relationship with his children, to connect with us in those moments of profound, extended prayer.

Sharing his personal experiences, Stanley makes spending time in prayer seem the most desirable experience on the planet.  Something to strive for.  Something to live for.

Over the decades, Charles Stanley has proven himself a steadfast bastion of Christian teaching and his book is a trustworthy explanation of all aspects of Biblically-based prayer.

But if I’ve given the impression that this is a new-believer’s book and it has no place on the shelf of a mature believer, I apologize.  The Ultimate Conversation is vintage Stanley, full of spiritual truth that will resound with all believers.  Stanley’s well-grounded writing on prayer does not disappoint.

Whether just beginning your spiritual journey or further along the path, The Ultimate Conversation will strengthen and revitalize your own conversation with God.

Free advanced reader copy of The Ultimate Conversation received from Howard Books in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Queen of Katwe - A Gritty Inspiration

Phiona Mutesi is one of the best chess players on earth.  At 11 she was her country’s junior champion, at 15 a national champion.  Soon after she traveled to Russia to participate in the Chess Olympiad, the most prestigious event in the Chess world.  Only in her teens, she sat across the board from experts several years older, yet she played with an intensity and instinct that had more experience players struggling to keep the upper hand – and not always succeeding.

Her command of the game at such a young age certainly had people talking.  Certainly she must have the best of coaches, the best education, and the best backing to be as good as she is.  Certainly the best chess players have the best pedigree.


Phiona Mutesi is from Uganda, a country at the bottom of the pecking order of African nations.  And she lives at the bottom of the pecking order of Uganda itself.  She’s a child of Katwe - one of the worst slums in the world.

The Queen of Katwe, by former Sports Illustrated senior writer, Tim Crothers, is a gritty inspiration.  Crothers introduces us to a culture where human life is cheap.  Where life, moment to moment, is not guaranteed.   Where a teen girl’s goal is to give herself to a man, or more than one man, in order to secure food and shelter – and hopefully support for children when she gets pregnant.  But in a country rampant with AIDs, it’s not uncommon for that male support to succumb to the disease and leave his offspring homeless and scraping for food.

This was the life that Phiona was born into.  A world of mind-numbing destitution and hopelessness. 

But while Phiona and other children like her fought to survive in the squalor that is Katwe, there were people who were determine to bring hope.

People like Robert Katende who grew up in Katwe and fought his way out.  A man of strong faith and a passion to mentor and love the kids who found their way to the Sports Outreach center every day to get a bowl of porridge and learn chess.

People like Russ Carr, on staff at Liberty University, who, 25 years ago, founded the Sports Outreach Institute that uses sports as an inroad to missionary work in third world nations.

And people like Norm and Tricia Popp who established the Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship to help Ugandan slum children get an education, after their son’s tragic death.

Crothers masterfully intertwines these stories until each life intersects at the moment when a shy, filthy little girl first placed herself in front of a chessboard.

Rooks, bishops, knights, pawns, queens and kings fought for survival and dominance on the board.  Each move that Phiona made would mean win or lose – a check- checkmate reflection of her life in the muddy streets of Katwe.

But her excellence at this game opened doors that would never have been opened to her.  Traveling around the world, sleeping in a real bed in a hotel with toilets and running water, and most of all food, more than she could possibly imagine.

Unfortunately, those tournaments that took her out of Katwe would end, and she would return to the only life she had ever known.

Phiona is still in Katwe, going daily to play chess at a little church outside of the slums.  She has dreams that she dared never to dream before – but getting out of Katwe won’t be easy.  But she has a chance.

The Queen of Katwe does inspire, but Crother’s doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of Phiona’s life in the slums.  Being a chess champion means very little in the mean streets. 

So as Phiona’s gutsy attitude and determination lifts the heart – her situation, and the situation of many Ugandan children like her, can’t help but convict the spirits of those of us who are first-worlders. 

The Queen of Katwe is an important book.  We tend to forget how most of the world lives.  Phiona’s story is a moving reminder that every life holds value, and we have the opportunity to influence the endgame.

Free advanced reader copy of The Queen of Katwe received from Scribner Publishing in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Be The Mom - An Encouraging Shot in the Arm

As a mother who stays at home with her kids, I must admit, I have had these awkward moments when asked what I do for a living.  After answering “Oh, I’m a stay-at-home mom," I see the slight frown and the look of pity and then accept the abrupt shift in the conversation to the weather.

I also admit that in response to that question I have downplayed my motherhood and replied with  “I’m a writer”.  (So cool and bohemian sounding.)  Or, “I’m a youth group leader”. (Never mentioning that I’m a volunteer.)

 To be honest my full-time vocation is a mother to my children. But looking around at our culture, it’s not easy to find anyone who will affirm the importance of motherhood, a voice that will state, without apology, that being a mom is the grandest career a woman could have.

That’s why I so appreciate Tracey Lanter Eyster’s book, Be The Mom.  Overflowing with good-natured advice and encouragement, Eyster clearly communicates her love of motherhood.  Seriously, this book bubbles over with the kind of   “Hey-I- know-what-you’re-going-through-and-I’m-in-your corner” inspiration that will make you want to run out into the street and shout OH YEAH, I’M THE MOM!  Well, okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat.  But if you are a mom struggling with your momhood, this book is a shot in the arm.

Not that Be the Mom is a cover-to-cover pep talk.  Far from it.  Eyster, chapter by chapter, points out the traps that moms can fall into that can damage their relationships with their family and take the wind out of their self-confidence.  From the “Just a Mom” Trap to the “Supermom” Trap, Eyster analyzes those perceptions of motherhood that can tie moms up in knots and cause anxiety-induced thoughts of self-doubt at three in the morning.

Be The Mom is a book that could have easily become a study in maternal shortcomings - the kind of book that makes you not want to a get out of bed in the morning.  But Eyster has the gift of encouragement with a coaching-not-criticizing approach.

Sure she points out the pitfalls of the “Martyr Mom” Trap, but she makes you feel like she’s right in there with you, urging moms on to see the big picture – to see what a gift from God motherhood really is.

Although Be the Mom is primarily a book that encourages the stay-at-home mom, Eyster certainly does not overlook the mom working full-time out of the home.  She admits some moms do have to work, but being the mom should always be of primary importance.

Speaking from experience, being the mom has come with some life adjustments for Eyster, who shunned the corporate ladder in favor of Chutes and Ladders, but she makes it clear, even through the most frustrating and difficult times, it is worth it.

 Advanced reader copy from Focus publishing through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Reason - Deeply Moving and Thought Provoking

In a small Michigan town an enigmatic stranger appears.   Kind, compassionate, and way too insightful…he can look inside a person’s heart, see the history of hurt and, speaking a few words, hold out hope of something better.  Oh, and did I mention the miracles?  Oh yeah, he does those too.

Now before you roll your eyes and determine this is yet another modern-day, stonewashed jean-clad-hipster-Jesus novel, please hold your judgment.   The Reason, by William Sirls is much more than that.  Sure, it doesn’t take reading more than a few pages to realize who the drifter is, but he’s not the center of this story.  Faith is, or more specifically, what it means to “Believe”.

Pastor Jim and his wife Shirley love God, although they are a bit weary keeping a church going that has seen better days.  Their joy is evident even though Jim is blind and they are taking care of their mentally challenged adult son.  But they love the Lord, trust Him and proclaim his faithfulness even under the most dire of circumstances.

 Under Pastor’s care are Brooke and her five-year-old son Alex. Brooke moved in with Jim and Shirley a few years earlier when she was going through a difficult time in her life.  A fairly new believer, she is finally piecing her life, and her faith, back together only to discover that her son has cancer.

Doctors Macey Lewis and Zach Harmon are determined to see Alex through, but they are facing some spiritual issues of their own that the mysterious stranger is going to make each of them confront, even if it means digging up a past that is too painful to bear.

Sirls has populated his novel with authentic characters – solid believers who press on, followers who are struggling with what to believe, and those who think this whole God thing is a crock – all wrestling with belief at one stage or another

Alex’s cancer is the impetus for a lot of soul searching and not just within the characters.  Sirls forces readers to ask themselves “What does it really mean when God asks us to only believe?”.

The Reason is a complex novel holding up the subjects of faith and God’s love and looking at them from various angles.

Yes, the definition of faith is on the line here between the pages of this book.  Can it be that if we have enough faith that the tide can turn in our favor?  Or are we placing our faith in the wrong thing?  Should our faith be in the gift or the Giver, the miracle or the Miracle Maker? 

And is it possible to hear from God and yet totally misinterpret His message?  When bad things happen to good people, is it a sign of weak faith or an opportunity to trust in someone bigger than the situation?  
And when life falls apart, does God really love us?

Sirls’ The Reason is encouraging, inspiring, and challenging – and it’s a good read. And when choosing a book, who needs a better reason than that?

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Romanov Conspiracy- Taut And Complex, Though Morally Questionable

The Russian Revolution was certainly a bloody affair.  Fear and chaos abounded.  It turned an entire nation upside down. And in the center of it all was the brutal assignation of the Tsar and his family.  A murder surrounded in a mystery, which became legendary.  Did the daughter of the Russian royal family survive?

Glenn Meades’ latest novel, The Romanov Conspiracy hits the ground running with a gritty and harrowing account of an attempted rescue of the Tsar and his family during the final days of the Russian revolution.

In the center of the story are Uri Andrev and Leonid Yakov.  Friends since childhood, they find themselves on opposite sides of the revolution.  Bitterness and anger rooted in betrayal and fueled by events spinning wildly out of control cause both men to seek to undo the other.  But even war can’t totally unravel the cords of deep friendship Uri and Leonid had woven over a lifetime.

Paramount to the plot is the Romanov family – the Tsar, his wife and children – including the willful Anastasia, held captive by Lenin’s men and soon to be murdered.  But help is coming in the form of a headstrong Irish gunner runner, Lydia Ryan, and Joe Boyle, a man of mystery who has been on more than one death defying mission.  Together with Uri Andrev they infiltrate Russia, making their way through the chaotic blood-soaked countryside, hoping to free the imprisoned Tsar and his family before it’s too late.

Meades' novel is taut, historically rich, and replete with complex characters.  It will quickly draw you into the horrifying upheaval that was the Russian Revolution and leave you breathless.

However, as an author known well to the Christian market, Meade does promote, albeit subtlety, the worldview that in the midst of heartache and turmoil it’s okay to “love the one you’re with”.  In The Romanov Conspiracy two of the characters find solace in the arms of someone other than their spouse.  The underlying feeling being that God understands.  That, for me, made a stellar novel less great.

A courtesy copy of The Romanov Conspiracy received from Howard Books in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Stars Shine Bright - Quick Paced, Smart and Savvy Mystery

The Stars Shine Bright, fifth novel in Sibella Giorello’s Raleigh Harmon series, is quick paced and quick witted, with special agent Harmon going undercover to discover who might be fixing races at a local thoroughbred horse track.

After almost losing her life in a locked stall when a fire breaks out and seeing horses come down with mysterious symptoms that are leading to their deaths, Harmon realizes there’s a lot more at stake here than someone lining their pockets.

Matching wits with the bad guys, her “aunt” (a Tennessee Williams quoting stable owner), and FBI agent Jack Stephanson keeps her on the top of her game and keeps the reader chomping at the bit for more.

Although it may be the fifth book in the series, it is the first Raleigh Harmon book I have read, and after tapping the last page on my kindle I asked myself how in the world I could have missed this fantastic crime novel series.  Raleigh Harmon has certainly risen to the top of my “favorite crime fighters” list.

Harmon is at her best with a case on her mind and a Glock in her hand, even as she struggles with affairs of the heart.   She’s smart, savvy, and sassy – all the while remaining sensitive to God’s leading.  She’s the complete package, not only a special agent but also a forensic geologist, which satisfies my geeky side. (Is that a bent toward creation science I sense, Ms. Harmon?)  She’s also a caring daughter desiring a mended relationship with her mother, who was admitted into a mental institution after a break with reality.

If you have read the previous Giorello’s books, I’m certain you will enjoy hanging out with Raleigh Harmon again.  As a newbie to the series, I am certain that I will buy the previous novels and get to know special agent Harmon a bit better.

With Kentucky-Derby-high levels of tension and excitement, The Stars Shine Bright bolts out of the gate like Secretariat on a dry track, so hold on tight.  

Courtesy copy of The Stars Shine Bright received from Thomas Nelson in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hidden In Dreams - A Psychological Thriller With An End-Times Slant

Dr. Elena Burroughs, professor of psychology and author of a controversial book on dream analysis, is trying to get her chaotic life back in order.  The last thing she needs are nightmares – dreams of imminent world-wide financial anarchy.  Visions so disturbing that upon waking she has the overwhelming desire to warn anyone who will listen. But what is even more disquieting is that she is not the only one having these same visions.  Several other people around the globe are waking up in terror, driven by the insatiable need to warn the world.

Indeed the dreams are proving prophetic.   As banks close and economic upheaval ensues, Elena finds herself the spokesperson for the dreamers.  But as a believer in Christ and a believer in dreams that can be prophetic, the question foremost in her mind is - are these dreams divine in origin or from a more carnal source, a source with eyes on a global power grab?

Davis Bunn’s latest offering Hidden In Dreams is a psychological thriller with an end-times slant.  The plot places itself in diverse arenas such as the pharmaceutical industries, economic institutes, and the field of psychology.  Although the pacing is tense throughout, it is not action driven by car chases or gunplay.  It is cerebral in nature – a cat and mouse  (or dreamer and deceiver) game played out on an international stage.

The heroine and her love interest are both devoted Christians, and through them, Bunn brings to the fore the necessity of trusting scripture over signs and wonders.  A valid point well executed.

Hidden In Dreams is an intriguing novel that doesn’t seem too far removed from today’s headlines.  It is an intellectually gripping yarn that will not leave you yawning. 

Courtesy copy of Hidden In Dreams received through Howard Books in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Coming Home - Inspiring Finale to the Baxter Series

After the brouhaha over Karen Kingsbury’s last book, I was almost afraid to read Coming Home, but because of her overall track record, I gave it a go and was inspired.

Over the years, Kingsbury has built a Baxter dynasty, a family so authentic that readers have to remind themselves not to pray for the characters because they are not real.  Unfortunately, because so many readers are invested in these fictional lives, emotions flare when the novels don’t deliver. (Case in point: Loving).

But I will plead to those disappointed Karen fans not to abandon the Kingsbury ship.  She has more than redeemed herself with Coming Home.

John Baxter, patriarch of the clan, is turning 70, and the Baxter family is returning to the homestead for a surprise birthday party.  Each sibling is writing a letter to their father to be read at the party, reminiscing about the role he played in their lives.  But due to tragic circumstances, the celebration doesn’t happen as planned, and the Baxters are swept into yet another emotional maelstrom where each of them seek the One who calms the seas.

I will not give away the main plot line.  Just have your tissues ready.

Karen Kingsbury has written yet another poignant novel centering on the lives of everyday people who put their trust in Christ.  As the Baxters struggle with tragedy, we, through them, experience God’s faithfulness all over again. 

Coming Home is a moving, bittersweet, beautifully written finale to the Baxter series.  Having the Baxters together one last time was wonderful.  You won’t want to miss out on the reunion.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sproul's The Work of Christ - Great Overview

R.C. Sproul’s latest contribution to Biblical studies, The Work of Christ, is a solid, no nonsense overview of the life of Christ from birth to His second coming.   Sproul’s goal was to examine the pinnacles of Jesus’s sojourn on earth in relationship to his redemptive work that He completed through the cross. But most importantly Sproul wants us to be able to understand exactly what it is that Christ did for us through his life.  Sproul, through this book, reminds us that Christ’s entire life was all part of the redemptive work and needs to be looked at and understood at a more profound level.

The Work of Christ would be an excellent study for a new believer or a great refresher for a seasoned saint.  Each chapter examines a pivotal moment in Christ’s life and the works He accomplished during that time.  From Bethlehem to His return, Sproul breaks it down so we can see the importance of every aspect of Christ’s works.

To be honest, The Work of Christ provided no new insights for me – it was an excellent overview – but nothing that made me stop and go “Wow”.  But that’s okay because what I loved about this book is that, after each chapter, there is a thorough outline of the important points that you needed to understand about that section. Even better there is a series of study questions that point you to more scriptures, allowing you to expand your study, if that’s what you desire.  If the reader takes advantage of these end-of-chapter studies, he will get even more from this book.

The Work of Christ will benefit anyone wanting a deeper understanding of what Christ did for us.  A great addition to the bookshelf of any believer.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Next Target Hits the Mark

The Next Target
will be released on June 1, 2012

Nikki Arana’s, The Next Target, is a gripping suspense novel filled with complex characters, faith - defined and tested, and a thrill ride of a plot you’ll definitely want to tuck into your beach bag this summer.

Ever since 9/11 Islam is a touchy subject.   Bring up Muslims, even in a Christian environment, and hackles are raised.  All Muslims blow things up, right?  I mean, whenever you see a burqa-clad woman on the street doesn’t your heart rate goes up just a bit?

Kudos to Nikki Arana and her latest book, The Next Target, for challenging my thinking on all things Muslim with a high action, thought-provoking novel that challenged that broad brush I’ve been painting with.

Meet American Austia Donatelli a widow whose husband was killed witnessing to Muslims in Kuwait. Struggling to find God’s way in her grief, she finds herself heading up a career center in the midst of an Arab neighbor on the south side of Los Angeles.  But her heart felt mission is more than finding jobs for recent immigrants; it’s sharing the love of Christ to the Muslim women in her English As A Second Language class.  But it’s dangerous work.  Accepting Jesus as Savior is an affront to Allah and is worthy of a death sentence to both the convert and to the person sharing Christ.  Extremist Muslim families don’t take this lightly, and Austia finds herself in the middle of an Islamic plot, which could lead to the biggest terrorist act on US soil since the towers came down.

Yes, sir, it’s a page turner that makes you stop and think.  Arana approaches her characters, both Muslim and Christian, with great compassion and understanding.   As Austia grapples with forgiveness for those who killed her husband, she finds that Christ’s love for her and for the Muslim people is sufficient not only to give her the courage to face opposition and danger at the hands of extremists, but to be truly family to Muslims she has come to respect and care for without looking down on them for not accepting the Savior she has devoted her life to.

Through her characters she shows that our perspective of Muslims and Christians may not be as clear as it could be.  There are Muslims filled with hate toward America, and Muslims who love this country – and are willing to die for it.  There are Christians who are heavy handed and clumsy in their approach, and there are Christians who love as Jesus would love.

If I were teaching a class on witnessing to Muslims, I would make The Next Target required reading.  Arana’s knowledge of Muslim culture permeates the pages of Next Target giving it an authenticity that makes the novel impactful.  More than just a thriller, it is a testimony.

Kindle copy of The Next Target courtesy of David C. Cook publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Son Of A Preacherman May Not Sweet Talk You

Romance is a predictable genre. It promises a happily ever after.  And why not?  Life is not full of happy endings –so why shouldn’t we enjoy the occasional feel-good moment after closing a book?

Marlene Banks’ novel Son of a Preacherman follows the faith-based romance template but with an encouraging difference.  Banks’ main characters are African Americans dealing with prejudice in the city of Tulsa, circa 1920s, a few months prior to a devastating race riot.

Romance novels don’t cause my heart to flutter, but I have, on occasion, been drawn into a good history-driven affair of the heart story, where history isn’t the background, it’s the main character.

That is what I was hoping for in Son of a Preacherman.  However, although Banks’ touched on the simmering powder keg that was Tulsa post WWI, the race riot and the events that let up to it, was merely the impetus that thrust the main love interests, Bennie and Billy Ray, into each other’s arms.

When Banks’ gives us glimpses into the affluent African American culture that was the Greenwood district of Tulsa, it is fascinating.  Also known as Negro Wall Street, Greenwood was the most affluent African American neighbor in the United States.

Its wealth and prosperity rubbed some members of the white community the wrong way, and when news of a perceived assault of a teenage white girl by a young African American made it’s way into that community, that was all it took to light the fuse that blew the top off the anger seething in the hearts of white Tulsa.

Now the history of that time and place was where I wanted to linger.  I wanted to know more about that young black shoeshine boy who was accused of assault, even if it would have been fictionalized backstory.  I wanted to know more about the whites and blacks who fought in the riot.  But instead they were minimized as side issues.

The subplot of Billy Ray’s former girlfriend, and the troubled marriage of Bennie’s brother Cordell and his floozy wife Savannah were the most intriguing aspects of the book, adding some tension to the predictability of the storyline.

Son of a Preacherman is a romance, pure and simple.  Not meant to be meaty or thought provoking – just boy meets girl, in another time and place.   If that’s what you enjoy, you will embrace this novel. 

In her latest novel, Banks delivered what romances are supposed to – a swept-off her-feet damsel in distress.  Although I am delighted African Americans are the central characters, not some best friends or background characters, I was hoping for a bit more.

Aretha Franklin sang, “The only man who could ever reach me was the son of a preacherman.”  Banks’ Son of a Preacherman will more than likely reach lovers of this genre, but for those who like a little more depth in their love stories this Son of a Preacherman may not sweet talk you.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Darkroom - Rapidly Paced Political Thriller

Her mother’s recent death, her father’s continuing estrangement, frightening visions associated with any photos she takes with her dad’s camera - photographer Xandra Carrick has a lot to deal with.   On top of that, she’s wanted by the FBI for a murder she did not commit, while nefarious forces want her dead.

Having recently arrived back from a trip to her mother’s birthplace, Vietnam,  Xandra is troubled by her father’s reticence.  And to make her life even more complicated, after taking several photos during her trip, she discovers images in her pictures that she did not see with her natural eyes.  She’s having visions of a supernatural nature – visions that will blow the lid off a major conspiracy – if she lives long enough to have anyone believe her.

Arrested for the murder of a local Julliard student, Xandra flees New York and heads to see her father in California, seeking answers to her visions concerning Vietnam.  FBI agent Kyle Matthews teams up with her to find some answers of his own. 

Darkroom, by Joshua Graham, is a political thriller with a spiritual undercurrent, driven mostly by Xandra’s mother, Grace, a Vietnamese immigrant who married Xandra’s father, Peter Carrick, after a harrowing escape from Saigon when the US troops pulled out.  We hear her voice through several journal entries - beginning when she first met Peter, a photojournalist embedded with a platoon in Vietnam; through the birth of Xandra, until her death.  Her voice brought a depth to the story that certainly tied the themes of purpose, God-given gifts, and the freeing power of truth, together.

Darkroom rips along rapidly, jumping from multiple points of view, from Xandra, her father, her mother, a presidential candidate, an FBI agent, and a hit man.

And because of this, Darkroom’s pace is set at a very high shutter speed, swiftly shifting character Point of Views from chapter to chapter.  Initially, I found this style somewhat ADHD – jumping from POV to POV in only a couple pages.  Soon, however, I settled into Graham’s rapid rhythm, which kept me interested in what was going to develop next.

Graham’s intricate weaving of truth and deceit keeps the pages turning, and with a wide-open ending hinting at the return of feisty and insightful heroine, Xandra Carrick,  Darkroom is a novel you won’t regret being exposed to.

I have given an honest review of this courtesy copy of Darkroom received from Howard Books.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Midnight In Peking - Gritty True Story of Murder and Mayhem in Pre-WWII China

Pamela Werner was a high-spirited, independent young woman living with her father in Peking, China during the late 1930s.

On a cold January night in 1937, Pamela was found brutally murdered at the foot of one of Peking’s well-known landmarks – the Fox Tower.

Pre-world war II Peking was a stressful place to live.  China was in the midst of a civil war and the Japanese had invaded and were waiting for the opportunity to capture the city. 
Nerves were frayed.  A cloud of doom hung over the streets.  Even the well-protected foreign nationals were feeling the shifting of events. But the brutal murder of Pamela Werner kicked the anxieties of the city up several notches.  Both the Chinese and foreign nationals fearfully wondered who could have butchered this innocent young girl.

Paul French’s Midnight In Peking is a masterfully woven non-fiction murder mystery peopled with smug British diplomats, harried Scotland Yard detectives, Chinese police officers with mysterious agendas, an American dentist with degraded, lustful designs, and a beautiful young woman who isn’t all that she seems.

French has done his research, and his findings from the papers of Pamela’s father are most intriguing.  Even after the British dropped the case, Werner doggedly pursued his daughter’s murderer asking help from the Chinese and even the occupying Japanese.  His determination to find his daughter’s killer is inspiring.

Midnight In Peking reads like a true-to-life Agatha Christie with a lot more carnality.  Peking, like most places, had a dark side that could lure a na├»ve young woman to her death, and French takes us there.
This is no stuffy history text.  It’s a blood and guts whodunit that twists and turns through the not so savory back alleys of the present capital of China and digs up dirt on some of her upstanding citizens and those not so upstanding.

French delivers history you can smell, taste, and feel.  Midnight in Peking transports you to an extremely turbulent time in China’s history and puts you in the middle of the events that transpired that frigid night. 
History and mystery.  As a fan of both genres, Midnight in Peking is a win-win.

(Courtesy copy compliments of Penguin Books via Net Galley) 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The World In Your Lunch Box - A Tasty Trip Through History

Getting complaints from your eight year old about his lunch?   Is he tired of the same old ham and cheese sandwich with an apple on the side?  Maybe the answer to his lunchtime tedium isn’t a new menu.  Maybe it’s a new perspective.

Colorfully and amusingly illustrated, The World In Your Lunch Box, written by Claire Eamer and illustrated by Sa Boothroyd, is packed with fun food facts that will not only entertain but educate.  What’s the origin of the sandwich?  Mustard? Apples? Ice cream?  This book answers all those questions and many more. 

Sectioned into a week’s worth of lunches, Eamer analyzes every item on the menu. She takes us through history to explore the origins of food in a kid-friendly way, each chapter stuffed with trivia, puns, and silly jokes.  She also serves up healthy doses of food science along the way.  (Ever wonder about how yeast works or the magic behind mayonnaise?)

The World In Your Lunch Box makes history and science intriguing and relevant to the elementary age cafeteria crew.  In fact, it is a fascinating and enjoyable read no matter what age lunch table you may find yourself at.

The World In Your Lunch Box is both a feast for the eyes and the intellect. It’s a tasty trip through history your kids will eat up.

Courtesy copy from Annick Press through Net Galley.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Worthy Writings in the Blogosphere

It seems everyone has a blog today.  Frankly, I find it difficult to discover a blog that draws me in.  Most posts I see are like public diaries.  I won’t post blogs like that because basically I’m pretty boring.  That’s why I’ve never journaled - I’d put myself to sleep.

So it is seldom that I actually subscribe to someone’s blog.  If I read about your life, I want to be inspired.  If you’re writing about your trip to Walmart to buy butter beans, it’s just not happening for me.

But I’d like to share a blogger with you whom I love.  This guy is inspiring, and not only that, the dude can write.

Adam Young is a twenty-something from backwoods Minnesota.  A devote Christ-follower he spent many years recording original music in his parents’ basement and playing at small local venues.  After posting some of his music on social media, he caught the attention of the music industry.   Yep, now Adam is living the dream, recording and touring around the world – as Owl City.

I stumbled across his posts on the internet one day, expecting a lot of shallow self-promotion.  Hardly, Young comes across as charming, vulnerable, and engaging.  His blogs cover a cornucopia of topics from music, his relationship with Christ, and even the creepy sound his refrigerator makes (recorded of course, to maximize the effectiveness of the post).

Yesterday, preparing for our Good Friday service, I came across this post from 2010.  It’s his cover of In Christ Alone.  It’s a beautiful arrangement sung with obvious emotion, but it’s the blog post itself that’s inspiring. But I won’t tell you about it -  here’s the link. Take some time and view it. Definitely worth a listen and a read – especially on this Easter weekend.  Enjoy.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Code Of Silence: Teen Suspense With A Solid Message

Halloween is just around the corner, but eighth grade pals Cooper, Gordy, and Hiro never expected three men wearing masks to burst into their favorite burger joint,  wave weapons, demand money, and critically injure the co-owner, Frank, right in front of their eyes.  Making their escape from the robbers they hi-tail it across town, but before they can make it home, Cooper is snagged by one of the baddies and threatened.  He and his friends and family are in danger unless Cooper turns over the security camera hard–drive he grabbed before leaving the diner and had successfully hidden from the robbers. A hard-drive that will reveal who stole the money and put Frank in a coma. Problem is, he can’t go to the police because he has every reason to believe some dirty cops are involved in the heist.

Code of Silence by Tim Shoemaker is a quick-paced nail-biter.   Main characters Cooper, Gordy, and Hiro are fast friends who find themselves in a dilemma that tests their friendship and puts them in a position which causes them to choose between the truth or deceit.

Shoemaker’s main characters seem to follow the formula of teen-fiction friendship: Cooper, the impetuous leader, Gordy, the light-hearted lover of all things edible, and quiet, introspective Hiro, the girl and spiritual anchor of the group.  But it’s okay if it is formula, because it works.  What might seem predictable to a middle-aged woman (like myself) will seem fresh to a middle schooler.  The characters are likeable – and wonderfully average.  And that’s why I liked this novel.

They aren’t vampires, they aren’t fighting aliens, they aren’t being whisked back-in- time to battle black knights and evil sorcerers, and they don’t have super powers.  They are incredibly average, delightfully so.  What makes this book tick is that Cooper, Gordy, and Hiro are ordinary kids placed in an extraordinary circumstance – but a circumstance that could, in the everyday world, happen.

The fact that they are Christians also adds a layer to the story line.  The moral quandary that Shoemaker explores is this:  If you are a Christian, is it okay to lie to your parents, teachers, and authorities in order to do what you think is best to protect yourself from a bad situation?  Are some lies legit? Some pretty deep waters for a book aimed at upper elementary to middle schoolers, but Shoemaker handles the topic with a style that is not heavy handed. 

Brimming over with bad guys, close calls, and subterfuge, Code of Silence drives home the point that God’s ways are the best ways – even if we can’t understand how that could be possible. 

(Courtesy copy of Code of Silence provided by Zondervan through Netgalley)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Flirting with the Forbidden - An Honest Look at Temptation

Reading a book about temptation tends to be the literary equivalent of a yearly employee performance review. The author acts like your boss pointing out all the places where you are performing below par, and if you’d only implement the company game plan you’d bring your performance up in no time.

 So you close the book feeling somewhat defeated. You just didn’t try hard enough, didn’t have faith enough, or the pitfalls are so overwhelming you are bound to keep falling into the adversary’s traps.

 Steven James’ Flirting with the Forbidden doesn’t come across that way. James does not sit across the desk stabbing a finger into your chest. It’s as if he’s hanging out with you at a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon passionately discussing common struggles over a steaming mug of Nicaraguan blend.

 The way James approaches the topic of temptation is incredibly engaging. With scripture as his template, he transforms Bible personas from flannel-graphed to full-blooded. Joseph struggles with lust, David agonizes with shame, Pilates’ wife wrestles with guilt. James crafts first-person accounts, which make the well-known people of scriptures become more human…men and woman who are relatable, who went through the same struggles we all face to some degree.

 Each story is a prologue to James’ own take on various temptations that so easily assail us all.

 What I appreciate is James’ transparency. He openly admits his own struggles, and his willingness to do so allows the reader not to be intimidated to look honestly into his own heart.

 What makes Flirting with the Forbidden such an encouraging book is that Christ is at the center of it all. James leaves no doubt who gives us control over those things of the world, which throw us off center.

 I loved its devotional style. I read a chapter each day and it gave me a lot to think and pray about. I would love to see James write a similar book but with a full year’s worth of material.

 James is the consummate storyteller who isn’t afraid to let his guard down. Flirting with the Forbidden challenges, convicts, and encourages. A fan of his fiction, I am thoroughly impressed with this insightful non-fiction work.