Monday, December 31, 2012

Book of Dreams by Davis Bunn

Dr. Elena Burroughs is a world reknowned authority in dreams, but when a new client comes seeking interpretation of a recurring nightmare, Elena finds herself examining her self-imposed emotional confinement.  Since her own husband died several years earlier, the doctor has lived a carefully guarded existance.  By helping her new patient, could she possibly be helping herself?

  An elderly friend of Elena bestows upon her a set of books depiciting the Lord's Prayer in carving and illuminated text.  While Mirian has been keeper of the texts for over 70 years, she has never felt any strong messages from God as a direct result.  No so, for Elena.  Immediately, she begins to feel divine "direction" including messages about how to proceed with her new patient, wife of an important diplomat and former banker.    Elena and key players travel from Oxford, to Rome (even the Vatican), to the banking centers of the United States, London, and Belgium. At times I found this books utterly confusing, then exciting, then confusing and underdeveloped, and then exciting again.  The compelling messages were never totally explained to readers, obviously to create suspense, but I feel that added to my confusion.  I tried to visualize the book in Indiana Jones movie-style because the settings were obviously important, but things still fell flat for me. Since I see our relationships with God as personal more than group-driven, I confess I usually have problems with these types of stories and don't often buy into the "mystical" object stories.  So, maybe, all the fault lies with me.   I know that Davis Bunn is an accomplished writer, (I loved Prayers of a Stranger) and in fact, the ending of this book is so intriguing that I just might have to read the second book in the series, Hidden in Dreams.

2012 has almost come to an end.  Just a few more hours left, which is why I posted twice today.  For the past eight or nine years, I have kept a written list of the books I read within a year, mainly so I would quit reading books twice because I forgot that I had read them!  When I was working, the lists would be around 85-90 books.  Since I always forgot to write down some titles, I always figured I read just under 100 books a year.  I assumed I would be able to almost double that amount after I quit working.  NOT SO!!  My list this year ends at 125, a very respectable number I think, considering the amount of time it takes to blog about a book after reading it.  And yes, I do read books that I never blog about.  Add in the time needed to keep up a house and garden, entertain grandkids, pursue quilting adventures and try to be physically active, and I think I have done quite well.  Many titles are quick reads, but I do frequently tackle more ambitious reads.  I hope that someone benefits from this blog and my observations.  I know that I find creative ideas and welcome recommendations from the many blogs I hop onto.  Let the fun continue in 2013  God Bless!!

Welcome Back to Pie Town by Lynne Hinton

Obviously Welcome Back to Pie Town is the sequel to Lynne Hinton's contemporary story Pie Town. Our story picks up months later as Father George and the townspeople have rebuilt the church which has become a welcoming place for all the townspeople, Protestant, Catholic, and doubters, alike. 
So it is not a surprise when Father George awakes one day to find someone sleeping in the church.  He is, however, shocked to see that it is Trina, the young woman whom he gave a ride to on his first day in Pie Town.  Now she is sleeping on the santuary floor, with her young daugher beside her, and she obviously is hurt and needs medical attention.  When Trina explains what happened and begs Father George not to call the authorities, he has little time to ponder his decision.

Meanwhile, Raymond Twinhorse awakens to shame and confusion, only vaguely remembering a night of drinking and violence.  A returning vet, only months earlier he had been hailed by the town as their hero, but his days and nights are haunted by sounds and actions he wishes he could forget.  Unable to face anyone, Raymond takes off into the desert on his own.  When a local bartender discovers a break-in, he points the finger at Raymond, and Sheriff Roger is drawn into a hunt for the young man by Federal authorities who are sure that the break-in is tied to drug activity in the area.

Behind the action of this story is the bigger story of PTSD and how it devastates the victims, their families, and even their communities.  While authorities see a potentional criminal, key community members decide to place their faith in the pre-war Raymond and fight to get the young man help.

I actually liked this book better than Pie Town, the original.  I knew most of the characters and reading about their lives was like connecting with old friends.  It also felt like the first book was a coloring book outline, and this book is the same basic picture, colored in and with artistic details added.  Author Hinton, through her characters, critically examines the cost of  our recent "war actions" in human lives.  Listen to the words of Francine, one of those villagers who decides to support Raymond, " We don't want to think that as the most advanced nation in the world we send healthy, bright, functional teenagers over there and they come back broken, changed, lost.  We want to think our national pride, our flag-flying patriotism is enough to keep our children from breaking under the stresses of battle." (141)

While I could give Pie Town a weak recommendation, mainly because I have liked Hinton's earlier titles, I can and DO give Welcome Back to Pie Town a much stronger thumbs up!  And check out Lynne's website to see a complete listing of her books  I just saw a couple that I've never read and two sound very compelling, not like any of her other stories!! I just love that!  More to read.

PS.  Welcome Back to Pie Town ends with some very tasty recipes from the diner of Pie Town.  And, unlike in the first book, our diner serves great pie!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Thicker than Blood by C. J. Darlington

C. J. Darlington hopefully has a long lived and successful career in front of her. 
Winner of the 2008 Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest, she has already shown talent and attracted the attention of publisher. For her first novel  Thicker than
Darlington drew from her expertise as an antiquarian bookseller.  Christy Williams has begun to excel at her job as a seller of old books.  Her boss even trusts her enough to train her as a buyer for pricey auctions and estate sales.  When Christy is unfairly accused of a dishonest scam and stealing a rare first edition, she loses her job.

With nowhere else to go, Christy returns to her hometown, a place she fled when still a teenager, abandoning a much younger sister.  Now grown, sister May has her own problems. Likely to loose her ranch to the bank, she also nurses an emotional void caused by her sister's unexplained disappearance years ago.  Although May willingly opens her ranch to the prodigal sister, it appears that reconciliation will go no further than the two civilly sharing the same residence for a few days.

I really wanted to like this book more than I actually did.  The world of book collectors drew me in, and I learned more about first editions, but the enjoyment ended there.  Most of the story unfolded like a movie made for the LIFETIME network. Action revolves around  Christy's guilt over hidden past and her sweet boyfriend who is turns out to be manipulative and abusive.  Another reviewer mentioned that the book seemed to end too quickly and left some relationships unsettled.  I would agree with that observation, but also feel that if those "loose ends" had been tied up (romantically), it would have been too convenient. 

This was a quick read for me and I finished it feeling that it was as entertaining as watching a
predictable "okay" movie.  If I had invested more time than a couple hours of reading, I would have been disappointed, but since I hadn't, all was okay.  I do wish Darlington success with future projects and hope she grows as a writer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Travels of Increase Joseph by Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps subtitled his novel about late 1800s Wisconsin, A Historical Novel about a pionerr preacher because the book is centered around the fictional preacher Increase Joseph and his Standalone congregation.   The group traveled as a whole from New York prior to the Civil War with Increase as their leader.  It wasn't religious persecution that pushed them west, but depleted crop land and the allure of fresh, untilled soil.  They find fresh soil, but also harsh lives, and limited acceptance.

Increase inspires and bewilders his congregation and neighbors with a message of our connection to the Land, supposedly the message from his private never-shared red book, and the powers of his secret recipe tonic.  Although Apps took the name Increase from  well known Wisconsin naturalist/scientist  Increase Lapham, I believe Increase Joseph's character is purely fictional.  Authenticity is woven throughout the book as Increase and the congregation are touched by historical events such as the draft of Wisconsin men for the North's war efforts and the Peshtigo fire.  I don't consider myself an expert on either Wisconsin or farming history, but I have enough background knowledge to know that small religious groups did populate small town Wisconsin in the 1800s, off shoots I believe of the Great Awakening movement.  Their influence has mainly died off and most communities today are home to only the major denominations. Also woven throughout the book is the conflict between technological advances and the old ways of farming.

Like other Apps' novels, these are books filled with local color and an underpinning of respect for our rural heritage.  That may make their appeal limited, but it also creates a sound, loyal following.  Jerry Apps himself was just the subject of a Wisconsin PBS special, showing his impact on Wisconsin literature.  Anyone who attended a rural school, was raised on a farm in the first 50 years of the 20th Century, or has imagined what those days were like will treasure this look back.  Apps has written a series of fiction books centered around rural life in a fictional central Wisconsin county.  He has also written many nonfiction books documenting our barns, farms, and rural past.  The lady who organizes the weekly men's coffee hour at the nursing home where my dad resides often uses Jerry App books as conversation starters.   According to her, when she reads a passage, the memories begin to flow, and elderly men who believe they have nothing in common, find they do - their memories.

Here is my question to you today-   Who are your local authors that have a mission to capture the uniqueness and color that is your region?  In capturing that, do they perhaps, like Apps, capture those feelings that unite us all?

Check out this link to Jerry App's website where you can read some blog entries, find a list of his books, and learn more about the man.  I just noticed that he released a new book in November.  My list of books to read just got longer again.   Isn't it great that it never gets shorter?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Good News of Great Joy by Kelly Pulley

Last year I blogged about not being able to find a suitable children's retelling of the nativity for our one year old granddaughter.  We did find one, but it wasn't a super favorite.  When David C. Cook Publishing made Good News of Great Joy available as an ebook for review purposes, I knew I wanted to read it. The target audience is definitely older than a one year old, but a toddler could listen to the story.  Older readers/listeners will understand more.

 Author and illustrator Kelly Pulley has brought a contemporary vibe to the age old story of our Lord's birth with his peppy, straight forward ryhmes and especially with his lively drawings.  The eyes of all the characters, whether angels, shepherds, animals or Mary and Joseph themselves just pop!  Of course, it is a little jolting to not hear the familiar biblical text, but Pulley does a good job of replacing complicated vocabulary with just the right modern words ( census = people counters; swaddled = snug and cozy)  One stanza (with appropriate pronoun changes) is repeated throughout the story "They were terrribly frightened as you would be too, If what happened to them happened to you" tries to make readers/listeners realize how they would react to the arrival of angels with messages of great importance.  I was surprised that the story ended with the angels speaking to the shepherds, not with the shepherds traveling to the stable. 

This book would be a good addition to Sunday School libraries and to home libraries alike.  Parents and church librarians should also check into other books in this Magnificant Tales collection which retell important biblical lessons with just a hint of humor.

I was provided with an e-copy for review purposes, but all opinions are mine.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Marriage Carol by Chris Fabry and Gary Chapman

As Christmas Eve approaches, Jake and Marlee plan to end their twenty-something year old marriage.
Both feel empty, sure that they have drifted too far apart to ever reconcile, but afraid to tell their young children.  Quietly the snow falls as the two drive together to the divorce lawyer's office, an agreed effort to end this charade civilly (and cheaply).  When Jake decides to take a side road to avoid slowing traffic, Marlee objects, but then quiets to "keep the peace."  Suddenly they are in the path of an oncoming truck and the car spins out of control. 

Dazed and bleeding, Marlee rallies a few minutes later to find that she is alone in the car.  Has Jake gone for help?  Cold and unable to just sit and wait for help, Marlee begins to walk toward a lit house in the distance.  There an elderly man kindly takes her in, listens to her pleas for help, and offers shelter.  Before he sets out to look for Jake, the man (named Jay) begins to ask Marlee about her marriage.  At first Marlee believes this is odd, but when she finds out that Jay's home is actually used for marriage retreats, she opens up to the older man.  Through that night Marlee will have her own personal "Christmas Carol" experience as she  sees her marriage through Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future.  Why had she forgotten how sweet their early years were?  Is she locked into the dismal future she sees in Christmas future?  Is it too late?  Can Jay find her husband?  Will he care about what she witnessed? 

Gary Chapman is the author of the well known Five Languages of Love, and Chris Fabry has written several successful Christian novels.  This short novella is an interesting addition to recent seasonal tales.  No big surprises in how the story unfolds except for the impact of that Christmas Future scene.  The authors clearly make their point that divorce affects not only the couple, but their family; and that effect reaches far into the future.  I am sure you've heard the saying that love is NOT a feeling, but a CHOICE.  In fact, I recently ran across it again in the Men of Sunday book I just reviewed.  Fighting for the survival of a marriage is also a choice, a choice worth the effort.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Men of Sunday: How faith guides the players, coaches and wives of the NFL by Curtis Eichelberger

Curtis Eichelberger, a sports reporter for Bloomberg News spent several years researching his new book by interviewing current and former NFL players, their families, chaplains, and even a few coaches.  The topic?  Not their training regiments, their signing stories, or even their best/worst game.  Eichelberger investigated the strong and needed, but often overlooked faith component to the NFL.

Ask almost any pre-teen boy what they would like to be, and a pro-football player will be among the most popular answers.  What they see in their mind is the glory of a Sunday afternoon touchdown or the pure power of a well aimed tackle.  They do not see the years of physical abuse to one's body, tough training schedules, and frequent disappointments.  They also do not see the hundreds of good players, who are, well just not quite good enough. 

Ask any high school kid, and well, unfortunately most adults, about the life of a NFL player, and they will weave images of young men awash in wealth, women, and fame. They may mention a tough training schedule and possible injuries, but they won't know or understand the reality of most NFL players.  Eischelberger paints a picture of careers dotted with uncertainity, frequent trades, and
a final release, often just a couple years after that first glorious "signing bonus."  Often these players have never truly focused on anything except football since they were 9 or 10 years old.  For years, they have been the center of attention within their families, their high schools, their colleges, and then their fans.  After the NFL comes unstructured days, fading fame, wounded bodies, and often finanical and relationship woes.  Too often poor choices made during playing days explode into major disasters played out beyond the notice of former fans.

Behind the scenes of many NFL teams are team chaplains, team Bible study groups, and even groups for the wives and girlfriends.  Chaplains and coaches alike say that teams with a core of "faith guys" (those who profess their faith and strive to live it) find that those members become the glue that
holds teams together.  Chaplains find ways to help players set life priorities in a correct order: Faith, family, and football.  Within the book, players give personal testament to finding a purpose beyond their fame, surviving temptation, getting on sound financial setting, and giving back to their communities.

Like most in Wisconsin, I am a Packer fan, but I don't really keep track of other teams and players, so some of the players in this book were unknown to me.  I am somewhat familiar with team chaplains because a man who grew up in our community was an asst chaplain for the Green Bay Packers back in the 1990's when Mike Holmgren coached.   One time Steve brought a couple Packers to our small community for an evening program.  Sponsored by a church, the program was held at our high school gym.  Both the players and their wives painted pictures quite similar to those described in Eichelberger's book.  I am not sure if the Packers have a chaplain program anymore, but I know that Steve later went to the west coast.  I believe he followed Holmgren to Seattle.

I found the book a little repetitive, yet I finished the book in a couple evenings.  If you have a true NFL fan in your family, consider this book.  I would highly recommend this book to pastors and men who work with youth.  Having some background on a few players' faith stories and challenges will be beneficial in their work.  To all of us, here's a heartfelt reminder that there are powerful stories behind those bended knees and prayers before games.  Let the scoffers question the displays.  Instead, let us focus on the heads bowed requesting guidance and then bowed again in gratitude. 

I received a copy of this book from BookSneeze for review purposes.  All opinions are my own.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Two Testaments by Elizabeth Musser

Two Crosses by Elizabeth Musser ended in such suspense that I knew I would need to request the second book of the trilogy immediately.  Thanks to our wonderful library system, I received a copy of Two Testaments very quickly and I was able to immerse myself into the dangerous story of Gabriella and David, two Americans caught up in the complicated Algerian War  for Independence.  Ethnic hatreds and past decisions made by certain factions force more and more refugees from Algeria's borders to France for safety.  Among them are Anne-Marie and an old friend Eliane.  Still working behind the scenes in Algeria are David, Eliane's husband Remi, and Anne-Marie's harki friend Moustafa. As each man worries about his love in France and each woman waits anxiously for her man to abandon war-torn Algeria, no one realizes that a traitor has infiltrated the small Castelnau, France orphanage which has opened its doors to the tiniest of refugees.

I learned so much history from the first two books in this trilogy.  Vengance, greed, need for oil, fear of those who are different -- these are stories we've heard before and unfortunately, they have shaped the modern world too many times.  As the story unfolds, you will see how they shaped the 1960's and beyond. 

Musser does a superb job of clarifying the opposing factions and the chaos that was Algeria then, but her real skill is in telling the redemptive stories of the characters. I can't decide which story is more powerful. There is young Hussein, merely a boy, who has been targeted by revenge-seeking Ali to become a murdering martyr.  Can the unquestioning love of those at the orphanage change his heart?  Then there is the love story between Anne-Marie and Moustafa, a victim of self-condemnation and pity, sure that she can never be forgiven or given a better life.  She deeply loves Moustafa, her childhood friend, but he is a harki and she fears no one will accept a mixed love.  David's heart has led him to help Anne-Marie and the escaping children, but he contests that he recognizes no God.  When he begins to care for Gabriella, he cannot help but wonder.  Perhaps my favorite character is the elderly nun who runs the orphanage.  As her story quietly unfolds throughout the two novels, you'll be witness to a strong story of faith in action. 

Now I can't wait to get the final copy of this trilogy Two Destinies  I already placed a hold through interlibrary loan.  The setting has jumped ahead to 1992 and civil war has erupted in Algeria.  Missionaries and Algerian believers were killed or forced into hiding, as militant fanatics seize power.  Again hatred, intolerance, revenge and greed will shape modern history.  Yet, as I am sure Musser will show, God is there and faith will touch lives.

As I went to Elizabeth Musser's website to grap a photo of this book, I noticed that she refers to her books as "entertainment with a soul"  I believe that is why I continue to read Christian fiction.  Too often, I am disappointed by simplistic writng, preachy attitudes, or unrealistic "goody, goody" settings, but quality Christian fiction from writers such as Musser, Lynn Austin, Liz Curtis Higgs, and Francine Rivers deliver "entertainment with a soul" consistently!   How often do we waste time on television shows, movies, or even books that do nothing to sustain us?  Bless these authors for their creativity and entertainment that nourishes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

All Things New by Lynn Austin

While many fiction titles have examined the tremendous devastation, both human and economic, of the Civil War, not so mnay have examined the first months after the South's surrender as well as Lynn Austin has done in her new novel, All Things New. During the last months of the war, Josephine Weatherly, her mother Eugenia, and younger sister Mary  had sought safety in their home of their city relatives.  Now after the war's end, they return to their plantation White Oaks to find it in ruins. Within days, David, the youngest son and only remaining male, makes his way home, a defeated, weary soldier.  Despite being almost penniless themselves,  Eugenia and David expect to cling to the old ways.  They treat Lizzie and Otis, the only former slaves who have remained on the plantation, as if they are still slaves, when really they have agreed to be share croppers/servants.  Out of desperation and boredom, Josephine begins to do a little physical labor - gardening, dishes, and sewing to help her family survive.  Her efforts are met with shock and disdain, but slowly Eugenia sees that the effort is necessay. Eugenia's changes are bolstered by her interactions with the family doctor, once considered beneath her social class, but now her best friend.  Josephine, despite her strong pronouncement that she will never pray again, finds her heart mending as she meets the young Quaker, Alexander Chandler sent to run the Freedmen's Bureau.  As both Josephine and Eugenia change, David holds fast to the Old South and becomes a member of what is definitely a precursor to the KKK.

Meanwhile Lizzie and Otis tread unsure waters as freed people.  They rejoice when their children are allowed to start attending the Freedmen's Bureau School, but remain frightened to travel at night or beyond the borders of the plantation.  Other former slaves basically live homeless and in limbo as they wait and wait for changes that have been promised.  Meanwhile hateful whites try to regain control that they feel they have been destined to have.

Lynn Austin's characters have depth and complexity which give the story a multi-layered richness.
An excellent example of such careful character development is Harrison, the amputee neighbor.  Although a relatively minor character, Austin has given him significant importance as she explores the themes of guilt and remorse.  I felt most everything in the novel was spot on realistic, except for one aspect.  It seems that all the slaves (former slaves) were virtual strangers to Eugenia.  She didn't know that Otis and Lizzie were a family and had children.  She didn't even know names.  Considering that she had lived on the plantation for over 25 years, I believe she would have known these things, even if her husband had been in charge.  Even if she had been demeaning to her house  and driver slaves, I think she would have still known their names. Despite that, Lynn Austin's newest work shows that she is an expert story teller.  Flawed people live with the consequences of their actions, but change.  Without spoiling the story, I must say, be prepared for one of the best examples of grace I've ever found in fiction.

Check out Lynn Austin's website to see her other books.  She has won multiple Christy Awards and her titles are always a sure hit.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury

While a librarian, I belonged to list-servs and read various newsletters to keep up on the publishing industry and its latest offerings.   For the last several years, the success or demise of local books stores (as well as major chains) has been a constant thread of concern. In Karen Kingsbury's new Christmas novella The Bridge, she examines the impact of one such closing.   Following a flood, Charlie Barton finds he doesn't  have the money to restock his Tennessee bookstore. When the building's owners want him to buy or vacate, he realizes that he will need to close his beloved store,The Bridge.  As he becomes overwhelmed with feelings of failure, Charlie considers taking his own life.

On the west coast Molly Allen, philanthropist and sole heir to a financial empire, faces another empty holiday.  They all seem empty since she walked away from what she thought was a budding romance with then best friend Ryan Kelly.  All that remains is her copy of Jane Eyre that they bought at their favorite college bookstore - The Bridge.  As she closes her eyes, she can imagine Ryan settled in his married life with his high school.  What she doesn't realize is that Ryan never married.  Having experienced a successful couple of years touring with Nashville's top musicians, he now longs for a more stable life.  When the web and twitter bring  Ryan and Molly news that Charlie Barton needs help, they both make trips to The Bridge.  Could second chances await them all?

Karen Kingsbury is often called America's top inspirational novelist.  To be truthful, I usually find her books too simple and straight forward.  However, when I sew, an audio version of a short, simple story is the perfect accompaniment.  My sewing/quilting area is set up so I can watch television if I want to, but sometimes I just can't follow the visual of a tv show/movie at the same time I am working on project.  This past weekend, I was finishing up some Christmas gifts on my embroidery machine at the same time I was sewing another project on the sewing machine.  Doing two things at once definitely meant I could not follow a movie, so I popped the audio version of The Bridge in the cd player.  Several hours later, I had finished two embroidered gifts and made two quilted crayon totes, and I knew what happened to Charlie, Ryan, Molly and the bookstore.  I'd call that a good
afternoon!!  If you have someone on your Christmas list who is a big Karen Kingsbury fan, then I am sure they would like this one, although I assure you there are no surprises in this story.  I know the print version would not have kept my interest, even for the short time it takes to read a novella.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony

Check your closet.  Do you see any lace?  Perhaps a camisole subtly edged with it, or maybe
a ruffled rich with a crocheted version?  Whether you find something or not has a lot to do with your personal taste or maybe it has more to do with current fashion trends.  Most certainly, the presence or absence of lace has nothing to do with its prohibition by the government.

When I first read a trailer to Ruins of Lace I was immediately intrigued.  I knew that lace was once made totally made by hand; my knowledge coming from a sister-in-law who took up bobbin lace making while she lived in London.  It takes hours and hours to make a bookmark or a lace collar.  To think that once all lace on shirt cuffs and dress adornments was made in such a manner is a little mind boggling.  When I read in the book preview, that Louis XIII in 1636 forbade the wearing and making of lace, I was astonished and intrigued. Like countless other tales of human nature, prohibition and restriction breeds an intense desire to possess, and with it, fertile ground for crime, greed, and inhumanity.  This is the story Iris Anthony tells in Ruins of Lace.

Just as the white threads from multiple bobbins are unwound and twisted to create a complex pattern of lace, the individual lives and stories of multiple people unwind and then twist together around a certain length of Flemish lace in this book.  Iris Anthony skillfully reveals fragments of each person's story, then moves on to another character and another bit of the story.  Finally all meld into one story.

In the end, I must give this book a mixed review.  I was swept into the story by the author's skillful story telling and character development, but the story itself, however authentic, is dark and disturbing.  Only the slightest glimmers of humanity can be found.  A dog plays a central role in the book, and its treatment will be shocking to most readers.  Anthony ( a pseudonym), herself, had trouble writing this aspect of the tale, but she bases its inclusion on documentation of thousands of dogs which were killed during this time period. For those reasons, my recommendation is a cautious one. As a commendation,  I believe I will always remember this book and the plight of lace makers such as Katharina and Mathild whenever I see lace in the future.  For that, I thank author Iris Anthony.   I received an e-copy of this book for review purposes.  I was not required to write a positive review.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Unstoppable by Nick Vujicic

Nick Vuvjicic, an Australian who was born without limbs (except for a malformed foot), has inspired hundreds of thousands across the globe through his inspirational ministry.  YouTube and his two websites ( and have broadcast his message even further.  His new book Unstoppable is another powerful addition to his work.

Although this book does share some personal moments from Nick's life, such as a recent visit with Rev. Billy Graham and Nick's courtship of his future wife, most of this book is about others Nick has met who have put their faith into action -- action that is unstoppable because they were acting not on their own dreams and goals, but on God's.

Personally, I can tell I am truly enjoying and benefiting from a nonfiction book if I am compelled to start taking notes as I read.  (Sorry, folks, but I cannot break my teacher/student habits).  Well, I have dozens of scribbled notations from this book and I spent a whole hour yesterday "googling" people and organizations that Nick wrote about. His writing made me curious about people who were living out God's purpose.  I wanted to know more about them and their missions.  Some of these people, such as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia and the founders of the Mercy Ships are recognized by the world's standards, but most like the father who started the Jeremiah Project 51 are recognized within a much smaller radius.  However, they, too are "unstoppable" because they are following the path the Lord has placed before them.

  At one point in the book, Nick talked about being in the short film Butterfly Circus where he met actor Eduardo Verastegui who almost walked away from a successful movie/television career because his ungodly life in Hollywood was killing him mentally and emotionally.  With the help of his language tutor, he needed to listen to the silent voice telling him to change - not his profession but his choices within that profession.  Now Eduardo seeks out projects that reflect positive images of his culture and his faith.  From that passage, I have a list of several movies to check out.

Although Nick spends much of the book focusing on other Christians, I still feel the biggest message comes from the many times he witnessed that his physical presence has been a strong catalyst of change for others.  Seeing him being joyful about life and finding purpose has helped others understand that we all have purpose in God's eyes.  I believe that is one of the reasons that teens flock to his engagements and his online sites.  Adolescence is a dark time when almost all question their value and purpose.  Many feel hopeless and unloved.  Nick's life, his videos, and now his writings answer back, strong and clear.  We are all loved.  We all have purpose.  Be patient.  Seek your father and you will know.  For those of us who know that message, Vujicic's book has one more message-
there is great power to be discovered if we take the step to put our faith in action.

I received this title from Blogging for Books for review purposes.  I was not required to write a positive review.

Monday, December 3, 2012

100th Anniversary- Wreck of the Christmas Ship


One hundred years ago Capt. Herman Schuenemann loaded his Lake Michigan schooner, the Rouse Simmons, with over 800 trees at the docks of Thompson, Mi (upper Michigan port) and began a journey to the Chicago River where he was known as Captain Santa.  As common on the Great Lakes in fall, a storm developed, distress flags were spotted off Wisconsin's Kewaunee, but by the time a rescue boat could be sent out, the ship had disappeared.  There were no survivors, so the exact happenings are not known; however, mariner experts expect that ice formed on the ship and on the holiday cargo, forcing the too heavy ship to the bottom.  The ship itself was found in 1971 in 170 feet of water mainly intact and with Christmas trees still onboard.

The Wisconsin State Journal featured an article about the ship yesterday and the Manitowoc Maritime Museum's current display to honor the Christmas tree ship.  Reading the article brought to mind two children's books we had in our elementary school library, both entitled The Christmas Tree Ship.
Jeanette Winter's book is an artistic gem. Wintry scenes created with simple illustrations and vivid contrasting colors capture young audience's attention.  The narration tells this tragic story simply and manages to end in an uplifting manner as the author shares that the captain's wife and children honored his memory by sailing another Christmas ship the following, succeeding in bringing trees to Chicago.  My idea of successful children's literature is exactly the same as successful adult literature - authors find or create unique stories told in a manner that captures the reader's imagination and emotions, widening our life experiences.  And of course, in children's literature illustrators add that wonderful visual dimension.
Rochelle Pennington's book is written for older, independent readers and tells a much more detailed version of the fateful voyage of the Lake Michigan schooner and its crew.  This book features the art of Charles Vickery, known for his maritime paintings. Despite being written for children, this would be a great read for anyone interested in Lake Michigan, the time period of the schooners, or shipwreck history buffs. 
I noticed that both of these books appear to be out of print.  Too bad, because they commemorate an interesting niche of our history.   If you're interested in them, be on the lookout at used book sales or in libraries.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Unending Devotion by Jody Hedlund

Some say the logging industry of 1880's northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota built the expanding cities of the entire midwest and beyond.  Dense virgin forests disappeared virtually overnight, leaving lands that were ill suited for farming.  It wasn't until reforestation projects of the twentieth century that these lands became the "up north" that I and thousands of others love so much.
Author Jody Hedlund rightly points out that historical societies in both Wisconsin and Michigan try to capture the important impact this industry made over its short life, but these displays and "camp replicas" are a "white-washed version" of the true wild logging towns that sprang up.  As Hedlund depicts in her new novel Unending Devotion, countless individual lives were as devastated as the landscape.  Gambling and alcohol abuse was rampant and the brothels that littered the towns were what we would call today places of "white slavery" as young girls were enticed north with the promise of genteel jobs in hotels and eating establishments.  What they found instead were lives as prostitutes trying to pay off never ending debts to the brothel owner.

Our novel opens as idealistic Lily Young helps a brothel girl escape in the wee hours of the morning as the drunken shanty boys sleep off their drunkeness.  This is not the first time Lily has risked her own safety to save another, and she promises that she will continue doing so until she finally finds her own teenage sister who Lily believes has become trapped in a life of prostitution at an unknown logging town. Orphaned at a young age, Lily has fought to keep her and her younger sister together.  Months before, she had left Daisy with a family while she earned some money to set up a housefhold of their own.  Shortly thereafter, her sister disappeared. Now,  Lily travels with her adoptive guardian Oren, who photographs the shanty boys. Oren's presence provides the protection that Lily needs as she moves from camp to camp.  When the pair arrives in Harrison, Michigan it appears that Lily's plans to rescue as many girls as she can may come to an abrupt end.  There she meets Connell McCormick, a lumber baron's son who is intent on winning his father's favor, but as he becomes involved with Lily he begins to wonder if the "blind eye" the bosses have turned toward the "dark side" of town might be a mistake.  While he is not ready to take a stand, he does know that he must protect Lily from harm and her own risk-taking.  Even doing that puts him on a collision course with James Carr, king pin of all illicit activities.

At first I thought that author Hedlund had created a melodrama with a heavy hand of "lily-white" thinking vs. the activities of a dark, dark villian.  I could almost imagine Carr capturing Lily and pinning her to a train track, with Connell, armed with his knife, arriving in the nick of time.   Then I read the afterward that explained that James Carr was a historical figure who did recruit young girls into life at his brothels through treachery.  In fact, he was tried for the murder of one young girl who refused his demands.  During that time period women spoke out for temperance and women's rights across the country, so I am sure that there were strong willed women like Lily creating their own movements against loose living and immorality.  I don't want to reveal too much about the novel, but I will say that the inevitable showdown between Carr and Connell is more skillfully written that my imaginary villain-heroine- hero scene.   I also applaud Hedlund for her portrayal of Daisy, a true "prodigal" sister.   If you like historical fiction or if you've read stories with western settings, give this novel a read.  The Michigan northwoods will deliver danger, romance, and a tale of right vs. wrong.  To read what others have said about this novel and Jody Hedlund's other titles, as well as read her blog, go to her website.  I received a copy of this book from Bethany House for my honest review.  I was not compensated in any way, nor was I required to write a positive review.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

 In the early 1990's Lourdes, a single mother trapped in Hondura's poverty made the decision to leave her two children with relatives and travel illegally to the United States.  Her intent was to make enough money that she could return to her country and give her beloved family a better life. 
What she finds in California and later North Carolina are a series of low paying jobs and dead ends; yet, this life still offers more opportunities than home.  Often barely scraping by herself, she sends money back to Honduras so that her daughter and son can stay in school.  For her daughter, life does improve some, but for her son Enrique, who has been left to live with his father and paternal grandmother, life is rough.

Only five when his mother leaves, Enrique feels abandoned and no one can fill the void her absence creates.  When his father establishes a new family, he leaves Enrique behind - a second abandonment.  Once taken under his uncle's wing, Enrique hopes for a more secure future, but then the uncle is killed and Enrique begins sniffing glue and smoking drugs to mask his pain.  He does not stay in school and his mother does not support him financially as much as she does her older daughter.  In his mid-teens Enrique decides to ride the "death trains" through Mexico to the northern border and then enter the United States illegally.  He plans to join his mother, believing all will be better once they are reunited. 

In 2000, author and journalist Sonia Nazario met Enrique in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico as Enrique was waiting for his opportunity to cross the border.  After interviewing him, she decided to write her series of news articles on immigration with Enrique as the focus.  She met with him several times, then later with his mother and also family in Honduras.  She traveled the same path he did, interviewing people as she went.  Her articles became the book Enrique's Journey for which she won a Pulitzer prize. 

This book definitely puts a unique face and story on the immigration debate at the same time it expands the debate into a wider look at the impact 11 million illegal immigrants have on our own country's resources, including schools and healthcare.  Those are no easy answers here.
You'll be appalled at the inhumane treatment and danger the young travelers face as they ride the tops of trains headed north.  Many are caught, beaten, and robbed, then sent back to their Central American homelands.  Enrique himself failed nine times before he made it to the border.   While druggees and thugs attack these vulnerable immigrants, others, very poor themselves, reach out daily with food, shoes, and clothing.  Alongside the same train tracks are evil and sainthood! 

Without being preachy, Nazario presents a tale of family and love undermined by poverty and abandonment.  She also recreates an epic journey.  In fiction, such journeys may be littered with obstacles and even tragedy, but they usually end in triumph, but this is reality; and Enrique and his mother Lourdes are still living out their journeys as illegal immigrants.  They have not earned enough to return to their homeland.  They live in a country which says it does not want them, yet readily takes advantage of their need to work.    At the same time, such illegal immigrants often receive entitlements and aid, many believe should be reserved for citizens.   Such a confliction of humanity, rights, and duties. 

Many colleges, high schools, and communities have adopted this book for "common book" programs or city-wide reads.  This was our book club's last book for the year -- actually, it was a sustitution for another book which we couldn't get enough copies of.  I am really glad I read this book.   I pray that countries like Honduras and Guatemala can begin to alleviate their poverty issues.  In our country - our politics and our businesses have added to their struggles, I hope we make improvements. 
I know the book will be a reminder to me that many of our problems are too complex for neat platitudes or swift action.  I also know that I need to be more grateful and more generous.  We are blessed, but blessings bring responsibilities, don't they?

Many in the book group felt the book was slow reading and quite repetitive (it was).  I suggest that if you are interested in this topic, you go to, read about his family, and then watch some of the videos that have been posted.  You will get a feel for the issues right there on the website. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Air We Breathe by Christa Parrish

The Air We Breathe is another winning novel from Christa Parrish, the author of Home Another Way, Finalist for the 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award for Fiction and Watch Over Me, winner of the 2010 ECPA Christian Book Award for Fiction.  Teenager Molly is trapped in an odd wax museum, a prisoner of her own inner fears.  As the pizza delivery boy tries to lure outside her "cell walls," he begins to wonder if she is forced to remain there by her secretive mother.  As the early story unfolds, it appears that Molly truly wants to leave her life behind and walk the Dorsett Beach sands with young Tobias.  Perhaps, the problem is really the mother and Molly is protecting her.

Just as I was settling into unraveling the perplexities of this story, Parrish switches the setting to seven years earlier, another city and state, another story.  Claire spends her days hiding behind the black and white squares of her crossword puzzles.  The world of clues and intersecting words protects her from the memories of her failed marriage and the death of her two children in a car accident -- an accident she feels was her fault.  Then one day she notices a young girl on a swing and feeling an odd emotional connection offers to give the little girl a push.  Hanna, the girl on the swing, speaks to Claire, telling her that she can see the hurt in Claire's eyes, the same hurt Hanna has hidden within herself.  Claire soon learns that Hanna, a victim of severe trauma, has not willingly spoken in weeks and Hanna's mother grudgingly believes that Claire may be a link in Hanna's recovery. Then suddenly, weeks later, Hanna and her mother disappear. 

Already you can see the similar themes  of "hurt hearts" that connects these two stories.  For now, I will let your imaginations begin to weave the stories together.  It will surfice to say that there were enought surprises to keep the suspense moving forward.  I liked how Parrish created Molly's faith journey despite her "walled-in life" and her nonreligous mother.    I especially like that this novel will appeal to a wide age range -- even the wax figurines that Molly tends and repairs are a way to extend the audience to include older readers, while the budding romance between Molly and Tobias will appeal to younger reader.

I received an e-copy of the title for review purposes.  Opinions are my own.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Two Crosses by Elizabeth Musser

Two Crosses is the first volume in a historical fiction trilogy.  Set in Southern France in the 1960s at a time when Algeria was fighting to get complete independence from France, Musser's writing will take readers from quaint bakeries with mysterious missions to the hidden rooms on the back streets of Algeria.  Caught in a complex division of factions are "pieds-noir" (black foots), those French nationals who had been born and lived their whole lives in Algeria.  A new Algeria would not want them and they did not feel French.  Also considered outsiders and undesireables were a group of Muslims.  An underground terrorist group plans to see that both groups are eliminated. As the book opens, Gabriella, a young college student and daughter of African missionaries, has come to Southern France to study.  Her program is under the auspices of a Catholic nun, who also runs an orphanage.  Little does Gabriella know that her Hugenot cross, a gift from her mother, will make her both an accomplice in a secret scheme to rescue young refugees from the Algerian conflict, and then a target herself.
This novel did a superb job in making the Algerian conflict come alive.  We are again witnesses to the destructive raminifications of resentment, prejudice, and revenge.  An innocent child is separated from her mother, who becomes the victim of a terrorist group.  The Protestant Hugenot heritage is woven into the story and the cooperation between the nun and her new Hugenot friend is heartfelt. 

Gabriella faces some hard truths as she faces life on her own in France, at the same time she experiences the first moments of romance.  However, secrets and danger seem likely to end that romance before it becomes a reality. 

As I've said numerous times before, I am delighted when a title adds to my understanding of the past.
This title certainly filled in some gaps in my understanding of that time period.  Although I knew from the first page that this book was part of a series, I was not prepared for the ending which demands that I get my hands on the second volume ASAP.  How unfair, when I have a stack of other books to read first and so little time for reading!!

Elizabeth Musser and her husband are missionaries in France.  This book was published in 1998, but I've noticed that the final volume was just published recently.  I don't know if it has taken that long to finish the series, or if the books were originally French titles and the final volume has just been published here.  Whatever the timeline, Musser is another Christian author who can weave a compelling story.  After this series, I hope to find out what else she has written.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Christmas Home by Greg Kincaid

If you ever saw the Hallmark movie A Dog Called Christmas (or read the book by the same title), you will be familiar with the special black lab Christmas and his family the McCrays.  As the sequel A Christmas Home opens, the holiday season again approaches; and Todd, now a few years older, has found success working at the same animal shelter where Christmas had lived.  Both his parents, George and Mary Ann, are pleased that their son has found a life of semi-independence despite his his disabilities, so both worry when the community receives the unexpected news that the city and county have withdrawn all financial support to the shelter.  The property must be vacated by January 1.  Not only will Todd and the shelter director be without employment, they must hurry over the next weeks to find homes for the fifty-some animals currently under their care.  Factory closings and foreclosures are common place in this Kansas area and each month it is harder to find new homes for the four legged victims of a "down economy."

I am sure you realize this is a "feel good" book for the holidays.  Too often those stories sink into sappiness or pit the "good side" (main character and family) against the "bad side"(the mayor, boss, or land developer). Author Kincaid did not fall into that trap, although I really doubt that a real shelter would be closed without more adequate notice.  This sequel to the popular first story offers lessons that go beyond the surface, "Love a dog" theme.  First, you will learn quite a bit about service dogs as Todd, with help from a service training center in Kansas, has trained a shelter dog to help his dear friend Laura, but perhaps the greatest lesson is on not judging people by their apparent weaknesses without recognizing their strengths. Todd's disability is a mental slowness that is not clearly defined in the story, but it is obvious that his shelter job is one within his abilities and one that he loves. Most around him think this is all he could handle, not realizing the real talent he has.  Todd himself is unsure of the future, but he does not want to fall back into the "safety net" of living with his parents and doing nothing.  For a while, his future seems as bleak as the dogs'  But all those hard learned lessons of self-sufficiency will pay off for the determined young Kansas man.

Greg Kincaid is a practicing lawyer in Kansas whose passions include improving the lives of animals (dogs, especially) and promoting literacy.  His website biography points out that he and his sister have always been voracious readers, mainly because his mother read to them daily. Aside from his career as a corporate lawyer, Greg also found time to represent those in need in rural Kansas, often children in trouble.  He observed, whether visiting them in their homes, shelters, or jails, one thing seemed to be consistently missing -- books.  That began a 20 year plus campaign to promote literacy.
That alone makes him a librarian's hero -- that he can write wholesome stories is an added bonus!

My husband and I spent the last few days at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin.  While there, I listened to an audio version of this book as I walked, ran errands, and worked on some Christmas sewing. The story was as warm as the woodstove fire that heated the cabin.  Maybe Hallmark will see another movie in this family story.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Declutter Now: Uncovering the Hidden Joy and Freedom in Your Life by Lindon and Sherry Gareis

A few weeks ago publisher Ambassador International contacted me with the opportunity to be part of a blog book tour for the nonfiction book Declutter Now by Lindon and Sherry Gareis.  I was excited about my first blog tour, and I expected that I would be receiving a book stocked with an orderly set of instructions of how to organize my home, the kind of book of which there are already dozens and dozens.  Although Lindon and Sherry do cover letting go of that stuff that is piling up in the garage or hasn’t moved off the dining room table in months, their definition of “decluttering” is much more profound.  Instead of focusing on our organizational flaws, they have honed in on the freedom and hidden joy we can have if we dump excess baggage, whether that baggage is a bulging wardrobe, an overdue credit card, animosity toward a co-worker, or an overscheduled calendar.

What does the couple mean by “freedom” and why is this book considered a Christian self-help title?  Let’s let Lindon and Sherry explain in their own words:

           FREEDOM! Freedom what’s less important so you can have more of what is (p.77)         

How can you love God with all your mind, if your mind is a cluttered, stressed-out and burdened mess?  The short answer is, of course, that you can’t  (p. 189)

Organized by varying topics (physical clutter in the home, relationships that pull us down, debt and financial pressures, personal health, and parenting), each chapter includes key biblical references.  The authors share mistakes and difficulties from their failed marriages and how their changed focus on God has allowed them to live fuller lives.  While the actual advice they give for fixing each “clutter” area is probably something you have heard before, the authors’ unique slant that all these life problems have the same common negative effect of dismantling our relationship with God is a strong message. The final chapters hit a solid homerun as Lindon and Sherry remind us that God will provide.  When we realize that so much of our stress, our negativity, and our obsession with things and money is really a refusal to trust God, then we can take the necessary steps to simplify our life and to discover the hidden joy God plans for us.  

Another reviewer mentioned that taking any action on any of these huge life problems as taking “baby steps.”  That term reminded me of Christian money expert and radio host, Dave Ramsey.  If you’ve ever listened to him, then I think you’d find validity in Lindon and Sherry’s ministry.  As I read the book, I kept highlighting sections and taking notes.  Each section “ticked’ some personal boxes for me, and I believe everyone will be jolted to find that there are areas where our priorities need realignment or “decluttering.”  And if you’re like me, you’ll be compelled to clean a few closets or drawers, even if that is not the major theme of the book! 
Lindon and Sherry Gareis
I received a copy of this title for review purposes from Ambassador Intl.  I was not compensated and am not required to write a positive review.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Prayers of a Stranger by Davis Bunn

Prayers of a Stranger by Davis Bunn is a Christmas novella, just right for an evening's read in your easy chair by the fire.  Just as some people like to indulge in "feel good" movies during the holiday rush, I like to leave a little time for new Christmas stories each year.  I hadn't planned to start reading Christmas stories so soon, but I got an email from our library system saying the e-book I had placed a hold on was ready.  When that happens I need to read the book within a limited number of days, so Sunday eve was my time for this title.

For the last 11 months, Amanda has worked in her Florida hospital's administration, serving as a go-between between a difficult head administrator and the staff.  Doctors and nurses alike have come to count on Amanda's gift for solving difficult problems and calming troubled waters.  Instead of basking in her success, Amanda realizes that she has not been able to calm her own personal troubles.  It has been almost one full year since her crisis and she still cannot enter the neo-natal unit where she used to be head nurse.  At home, she and her husband still "dance" a fragile dance of emotions, and neither enter the small room off the hallway, which once promised to be the life of home.  As the holidays approach, husband Chris knows his wife is not ready to spend time with his large extended family, so when Amanda has a chance to accompany an older neighbor on a trip to the Holy Land, he encourages the trip.  On her travels, Amanda will begin to refocus, seeing God's prescence next to others in crisis, and when she meets a woman by the wailing wall praying for a sick child, Amanda herself sees that prayers can be answered in unexpected ways.

I liked the realistic tone of this novella.  I found the friendship that arose between Amanda/Chris and their older neighbors Frank/Emily to be endearing and believable.  It also showed how easily we can minister to others if we just open up to the possibility of helping someone else.  Davis Bunn did a good job of developing characters, creating detailed setting, and even developing side plots within a short framework.   If you have someone who holiday books, why not consider finding a copy of this book?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Novel Crossing Launches Today

Another interactive website for readers has launched!  Novel Crossing focuses on Christian fiction and allows users to see reviews by fellow readers, learn the latest news about authors and new books.  You can keep a virtual bookshelf of books read and another for books you want to read. 

I received word about this site while it was in its beta stage and I had a great time looking over its various functions.  I have to admit that I am a person who likes to "judge a book's cover" and browsing through Novel Crossing is like a leisurely trip through the book store. Right now they have links to over 25 author videos and the collection will grow.  As registered members (free), we are able to write short reviews for Christian novels we have read. Personally, I love seeing other readers' reactions  It is like having a book club always in session.  Read a book not on their database?
Suggest that it be added so you can review it.

Give Novel Crossing a look!  It is another great resource.  And right now check out this video
of Rachel Hauck talking about her novel The Wedding Dress  which I reviewed earlier this year.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pie Town by Lynne Hinton

Lynne Hinton's bestseller Friendship Cake was among the first books that drew me to stories that revolve around community.  When I saw that she had written Pie Town , I thought she had moved from on from the Hope Springs series to a new community, probably populated with another group of humorous and even eccentric residents. And, oh yes, there would also be a new dessert -- pie -- at the center of the story.  What a surprise Hinton had in store for readers.  Pie Town, New Mexico is unlike any fictional community I have ever encountered and that is what makes it so real it could be our own community. 

First of all, there is no pie in pie town, no yummy morsels that bring the little town fame and accolades.  No pie to be the cornerstone that binds people together as they meet for a fresh slice with daily coffee.  Instead, we have a town and a church that may believe they are friendly and welcoming, but instead are rigid, set in their ways, and even judgmental.  In the notes that follow the book, Hinton shares this insight behind her New Mexico town:
             Most church people will proudly announce about themselves to any visitor that they are a "loving" place, a "welcoming and hospitable" place. And yet, in my experience, this is not always the case.  Yes, churches can be quite welcoming and hospitable to the longtime members, the families who are connected to the area, the children who grew up in the church.  But for newcomers, churches can often feel alienating and cold.  As communities, as churches, as towns, as people, we are often not what we appear, and we are not always as good as we think we are.  It was this irony that interested me when I began the story." (p.328)

Hinton's point is well illustrated in the novel Pie Town.  Long time residents are comfortably settled into their lives and believe their small town to be friendly, but as one conversation between the sheriff and two nursing home workers (one is his ex-wife)  points out, the town have a history of shutting down new ideas and new people.   The town does take a deserved pride in how they have rallied around young Alex. the sheriff's grandson who was born with spina bonfida and is confined to a wheelchair.  When two new comers, one an inexperienced priest assigned to Holy Family church, and the other a young female drifter, come into town,  how will the town react?  Will they embrace them as they have embraced young Alex?  Is this town truly a family that will accept all? Or will the townspeople watch from the sidelines, waiting for both Father George and mixed up Trina to make unforgivable mistakes?

This story's strengths lie in the messed up people within it.  It is not a story that will have you laughing and chuckling.  You will probably be disturbed by Father George's lack of pastoral caring and Trina's bad choices which in turn lead others astray. And I am afraid you may recognize yourself, your town, or even your church in much of the story.  But I can also assure you, you will  be moved by Alex's struggle and his open heart.  In him, you will see Christ's love and desire to bring reconcilation to all.  With a little help from Alex's guardian angel, Pie Town might just be worth visiting. 

Note:  This novel has language and some sexual references that are more graphic than most titles I review, but they are realistic portrayals.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

An Echo Through the Snow by Andrea Thalasinos

As readers may know, Lake Superior is a favorite place of mine and it is also the setting of some recent well written novels, the latest being An Echo Through the Snow by Andrea Thalasinos.  Two stories alternate throughout the book, one being the story of Jeaantaa, a Chukchi (native) woman of Siberia at the time of Stalin's persecution in 1920's; and the other story of Rosalie, a Red Cliff Native American living in 1990's Bayfield, WI.  I found the  early chapters of Jeaantaa's story difficult to follow and felt bogged down by the foreign terms (not explained) and mystical beliefs. I almost set the book aside, which is something that I NEVER do, and luckily, Rosalie's story was enough to keep me going past the first 50 pages. 

To anyone reading this book (which does come with my strong recommendation), I suggest that you go to Andrea Thalasinos's website and read the section called about the book. You will learn enough historical background to understand the Chukchi natives.  Knowing this will help you make connections between Jeaanataa's plight and Rosalie's story much earlier than I did.

As the story begins, Rosalie is trapped in an abusive marriage, a dead end job, and doesn't  even possess a high school diploma -- and she is not even twenty years old.  As she watches a "junk yard" watch dog be mistreated Rosalie is compelled to rescue him, knowing it means the end to her sham of a marriage. While she and the dog heal, she begins to train him and is noticed by two area dog sled team owners. They offer Rosalie a job and her life begins to take on meaning as she bonds with the dogs and quickly adds to her own rag tag group of misfits.  These cleverly interwoven stories will eventually connect two distinct places and peoples, both defined by the amazing sled dogs we know as huskies.

The book is filled with well drawn secondary characters whose unique stories add depth to both Jeaanataa and Rosalie.  Rosalie's father and her new boyfriend Dan are two that show  character and fame/wealth are not necessarily companions.  I appreciate how the author drew on Rosalie's Native American heritage (she makes extra money hand beading fine clothing), but does not stoop to make her a cliche.  I "read" Rosalie as a young woman caught in bad decisions, partly fostered by her setting and heritage, who is unaware of her strengths and potential.  Her chances to set herself free are fostered by others who care and by an unexplainable connection to the animals she loves.

Lake Superior lovers like myself will hear Bayfield, Squaw Caves, and Cornucopia and will think,
"This is a story I need to read."  Dog lovers will be drawn in by the eyes of the dogs.  History buffs will latch on to the struggle to survive of a native group far across the ice flows.  And those who love stories of self-discovery will cheer as Rosalie grows into herself.

Great book for book clubs!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Need You Now by Beth Wiseman

Darlene and Brad Henderson leave big city Houston for small town Round Top, Texas, hoping that a simpler country life will be a better environment for their three teenage children.  Despite their strong faith, all is not storybook perfect.  Middle child, Grace, is having problems fitting in at the new school and finds herself trapped in a secret world of cutting to alleviate her anxiety. The couple's son seems to have attracted a "perfect" girlfriend to both Brad and Darlene's relief since his circle of friends in Houston was a deciding factor in the move.  The parents' delight over the new girlfriend just shows how totally in the dark parents can be. 

As the children seem to settle into their new lives and Brad handles his longer commute and busy tax season, Darlene becomes restless.  For the first time since she became a mother, Darlene finds a job outside the home working as an aide in a private school for special needs children.  There she becomes attached to the young autistic girl she is teaching and eventually makes friends with the girl's father, David.  When Darlene and Brad finally find out about Grace's secret, their own relationship becomes estranged.  Darlene believes Brad blames her for missing signals of Grace's problem, and she feels she must quit her job.  Resentments on both sides build, and Darlene finds herself confiding in David and then regretting their growing closeness.  How can she save her marriage and keep her daughter safe?

I listened to this book on cd as I sewed.  It's a busy time of year for me and finding time to actually read is a chore.  I always like when I find an audio book that keeps my interest.  This was an easy listen, but I don't think it ranks high for realism.  I liked the friendship that blossomed between Darlene and her aloof neighbor, but I had didn't buy the whole "get a job - family goes bad - quit a job routine."  First, Darlene gets a job as a teacher's aide in a specialized school when she has no education or credentials for that job.  Then, in the story, the author keeps referring to her as a teacher, not as an aide.  Having been a teacher for my career, I was somewhat offended by that lapse, but mostly I was upset because I know the training that even aides who work with autistic children go through.  To have a character have that kind of responsibility and then so easily quit, I felt was a little too unrealistic.  All around us are families that have big struggles; many families face emotional catastrophes such as Grace's and yet having a parent quit a job just is not an option.  Real families must juggle counseling, emotional toil on the family, all the while still maintaining their workloads.   I questioned the author's choice to have Darlene quit her job, when she then kept writing scenes in which Darlene left the kids alone while she went to town (where she would run into Dave). For me, it did not compute!  I would have bought the mother's choice a whole lot more if she had spent her time taking the kids camping, horse back riding, or even painting the house!  But then those activities would not have been conducive to the plot of having David become a problem in her life.

At first I was tempted to say that Wiseman did not create a strong enough "problem" behind Grace's actions, but unfortunately I know that smart, talented, well-liked teens who look like they have it all on the outside can be a mess of skewed emotions on the inside. There is somebody like Grace is almost every school. And the author's portrayal of a strong marriage suddenly going sour under the strain is all too true. 

Beth Wiseman is known for her Amish novels and this was a first attempt at contemporary fiction.  Personally, I probably have a higher standard of expectation when I am reading contemporary Christian fiction.  I want it to jive with the world I see around me. I want a strong sense of authenticity in the characters. their choices, and how their faith affects those choices.  I hope that Beth Wiseman continues to write for both genres, but I will be expecting a deeper story next time.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Little Century by Anna Keesey

Little Century is the story of a town and two ways of life.  Set in the early days of the twentieth century in the western town of Century, Oregon, this debut novel by Anna Keesey follows young
Chicago city-raised Esther Chambers as she travels by railroad to a new life in the west where she has sought shelter with her distant cousin and cattle rancher Ferris Pickett.  Within hours of meeting, Ferris requests that Anna fib about her young age and apply for a homestead near Ferris's ranch.
Little does Anna realize that she will have to stay on the homestead by herself, at least at night, and that her presence on the recently abandoned land guarantees that Ferris will be able to continue watering his cattle there. Day by day the realities of life here become more apparent as Anna finds herself in the midst of an escalading war between the cattle ranchers and the newly arrived sheepherders.

Fans of old westerns will recognize that classic conflict between the open range cattle ranchers and the later arriving sheepherders.  Even though Anna Keesey's underlying plot may not be new, her treatment is informative and authentic.  The variety of people who make up the town add to the story,
especially the shopkeeper and the school teacher. I liked that readers were really kept in the dark about Ferris' true character.  You will suspect him because he is a rancher and appears not to be truthful with Esther, but you will see good in him, as does Esther.  At the same time, you will likely be cheering for Esther's new friend, Ben, who grazes his sheep near Esther's place.  When violence gets someone dear to Esther, it is clear that her loyalities cannot remain divided.  The ending to this story defies any movie formula ending, and the little epilogue at the very end was superb!

I listened to this title and the narration took me to a different place and time as I comfortably quilted in my sewing room.  The story was so much richer than anything I could find on television.  Railroad tycoons, hardscrap farmers, cattle barons, and buckaroos (cowboys), and a couple very courageous women.  Great entertainment and another historical fiction that added another realistic glimpse into our complicated past.  I recommend this tale and hope that Anna Keesey takes her pen to another time and place soon.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Reason by William Sirls

Bringing God's word to life in today's world is a basic tenet of contemporary fiction and most readers come away with a warm, fuzzy feeling after reading such titles.  We feel comfortable with the life and faith changes made by the characters and are assured that God has good things in store for their future.  Novels like William Sirls' The Reason moves beyond those comfortable boundaries into a modern setting which is visited by a presence that surely is directly from God.  When miraculous events begin to happen, observers must make the choice to "Just Believe." 

The Reason centers around a small Michigan town and the aftermath of a sudden thunderstorm which splintered the wooden cross outside St. Thomas Church.  When a small boy Alex tells Macey, an oncology doctor at the local hospital, about the cross, she spearheads a group to fix the cross.  Within the group is Kenneth, a carpenter she has just met and who appears to be part of a work crew at the hospital.

As the gathered "cross rescuing" group scatters to take care of repair details, only three are left by the broken cross -- Pastor Jim, the blind minister of the congregation; Charlie, his disabled, mute son; and the unknown carpenter.  Within minutes the scattered group gathers again at the cross to assess the damage and probably to haul away the unfixable structures.  What they find is a perfect cross, complete with fresh lacquer.  What has happened?  Pastor Jim can't say because he didn't see it, although he heard something.  Charlie obviously saw something, but cannot speak.  And Kenneth's only message is "Just Believe."

Uneasy to accept that the group has just seen the product of a miracle, each person within the group comes to some kind of relationship with Kenneth and with God over the ensuring weeks.  As the miracles continue, no one is left untouched by Kenneth's message.  Everyone's faith and resolve will be tested though as young Alex begins to lose his battle against leukemia.  How can this messenger from God stand by as the young boy slips into a coma?  Was his mother tricked when she was told to "just believe?"

I have to admit I am more comfortable with the nice, neat stories of those contemporary novels which portray the characters within the parameters of life as we "see it."  Stories with angelic strangers and miracles reach beyond that safeness, but it is a reach that we need to consider. I always wonder why
God would select a certain little town or group of people to visit, but then isn't that the real miracle of faith - that God choses each of us to love, choses us despite our mistakes and preoccupations and failures? And really miracles happen everyday, probably in every town, but we accept them as the way it was meant to be.  Stories like The Reason highlight who is really behind those happenings and why they happen. 

The story behind The Reason is its own plot of twists, turns, and changes.  Author William Sirls had the idea for a story about a child with leukemia and had sketched out characters and scenes.  When he was sent to prison for money laundering and fraud, Sirls had plenty of time on his hands.  Time to learn about forgiveness, faith, and new chances -- lessons which he translated into his book.
Determined to self-publish the book after his release, Sirls worked on all the details, when miraculously he received an offer from Thomas Nelson Publishing.  Months of fine tuning the book preceded the final release.  I believe Sirls has a real talent, especially in character development.  I can't pick a favorite, but Pastor Jim and Carly stand out.  They go beyond the typical side characters and instead add depth to the story.

I received a copy of this title from BookSneeze for review purposes.  All opinions are mine.  I am so glad for the opportunity to read and review this title since it is the type of book that I usually bypass.
I highly recommend it.  I also recommend a visit to William Sirls' website to learn more about the
author's life journey.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Slow Way Home by Michael Morris

When I read Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris I knew I would want to read everything he had written.  His writing has been called reminiscent of Harper Lee and he is credited with capturing the essence of the South.  I was not disappointed  by such praise when I read an advanced reader's copy of his latest work, Man in the Blue Moon, but I was even more moved by his earlier title, Slow Way Home set in the 1970s. 

Slow Way Home tells the story of young Brandon whose turbulent life is defined by the arrival and departure of a series of men in his mother's life.  The arrival of a new man brings an emotional high for his mother and a glimmer that this time Brandon may finally have a normal life, but within weeks the reality of alcohol, drugs, or physical violence will dash the young boy's hope.  An explosive parting of ways is inevitable.  When the latest man sets off for Canada, mom Sophie follows after abandoning eight year old Brandon at a Raleigh bus station.  She tells him to find his way to his grandparents and assures him that when times are better, she'll return for him.  Brandon settles into life in the country with his cousins next door and for the first time in his life, he feels safe.  Despite Sophie's destructive and erratic life, he has always felt loved by her, but now he really begins to blossom under his grandparents' care.  His mother returns months later and begins to stalk the farm house watching her son,  leaving Brandon's allegiance torn in opposite directions.  When his mother goes to the court to gain custody of the young boy, she wins despite her earlier abandonment.

Not wanting to see their grandson hurt again, the grandparents secretly take off for Florida, hiding out in a trailer in small fishing village.  Grandpa finds a job at the fishing docks and Grandma works at a local dinner.  Having the new name, Davidson, the family creates a new reality and settle into life in Florida.  Brandon makes friends and joins a local church called God's Hospital.  But not is all Florida sunshine here.  God's Hospital, an integrated church, headed by black Sister Delores, is attacked by an old Klu Klux Klan element.  In the aftermath of the destructive fire, the Davidsons' aliases are uncovered and Brandon's life is again shattered when plans are made to put him in foster care or return him to his mother.

Morris does a wonderful job of capturing Brandon's voice and point of view, from the ordinary days of a carefree child hanging with his new buddy to the emotional low of shoplifting with his mother to survive.
Especially powerful are the times when his reality recedes and instead he sees a vision of Jesus, as he hears a litany of his grandmother's and Sister Delores' words, "You are loved.  Remember, you are loved by many."

Reviews on Amazon seemed mixed for this title, but all reviews on Barnes and Noble rated the novel a 5.
I would highly recommend this title to readers of Christian novels, mainly because it goes beyond the typical plots and viewpoints giving us grittier but more realistic views than most offerings.  I was slightly disappointed in the ending, but feel it is an ending which offers room for lively discussions.
I love it when authors share some insight into their creative process. which Morris does at the end of this title. Morris reveals that traveling by a small, but densely packed trailer park in southern Florida, he thought that it would be easily to hide out in such a place, basically living an anonymous life.  He stowed that thought nugget away until the idea for Slow Way Home germinated.  Check out Michael Morris's website for summaries of his other titles and for more insight into his writing career.