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. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Light Between the Oceans by M. L. Stedman

Reading the prepublication press about M. L. Stedman's novel set in Australia on a remote lighthouse island, I was intrigued by the possible story. Several children's books and legends center around a lonely couple finding a baby who has washed ashore. Those stories have magical qualities and, of course, fairytale endings. Certainly an adult novel would focus on the myriad of problems of keeping a child that was not your own, wouldn't it? Wouldn't such a premise be the fodder for a complex, compelling tale? Well, The Light Between the Oceans does not disappoint. By the time I had read the first chapter, I knew that Tom and his life would be examined again and again by countless readers and book clubs.

Tom Sherborne had survived World War I, but his dreams and even his days are haunted by the visions of his ttrench mates being killed. Even worse are the memories of his own violence against men he would probably extended a hand to if they had met on the street. Partly because of these memories, and partly because he has nothing and no one to go home to, Tom has plotted a new life as a lightkeeper, being assigned to a remote island, Janus Rock, off the Australian coast. Supply boats only come once a season and Tom will remain on island for two years or more without shore leave, but Tom feels the daily routine of polishing the lenses, lighting the light, and meticulously recording each detail will be a perfect fit.

But Tom’s vision of the future changes before he even leaves for Janus Rock when he meets young strong willed Isabel.  She begins to write him letters and eventually convinces Tom that the solitary lighthouse life would be more rewarding with a mate.  And life is good at Janus Rock despite the isolation and harsh weather, but the Isabel’s joyful essence diminishes as the couple fails to have children.  Over the years there are two miscarriages and then a stillborn.  Each loss distinguishes more of Isabel’s zest.  Then just weeks after Tom had buried the stillborn boy in a lonely little grave, Isabel hears a baby’s cry.  At first she doubts her own sanity, but then she hears the sound again and sees a dinghy washing up on the shore.  Inside the couple find a man, apparently dead from exposure to the elements or perhaps from a heart attack, and beside him a young baby, not more than a few weeks old.  Immediate concern is to warm and fed the infant, but then the couple must decide what to do.  Officially, Tom knows he should report the find in his log and signal for help, but his heart is nudged by his wife’s pleas to let things rest for a time.  And that begins a lie that consumes their lives for the next four years as the couple passes the young girl off as their own child, an easy task since no one on the mainland knew about the stillbirth.  Little Lucy has a healing affect not only on grieving Isabel, but also on Isabel’s parents who have never gotten over their sons’ deaths in the war.  And Tom himself cannot imagine a moment without his little shadow as together they explore the island and care for the light.  But Tom’s delight in fatherhood is always tinged by guilt, a guilt that grows and grows each year.  Where does Lucy really belong and how can he and Isabel continue to live a lie?  But how can he possibly think about hurting the woman that he has pledged to honor and protect?

At this point, I believe this is my favorite book of the year.  According to my list, I am almost at the one hundredth book point for 2012, so ranking The Light between the Oceans as number one is strong praise.  Last time I looked there were over 60 holds on this title in our library system, so I believe others have heard the word that this is a great read!  Book clubs will delight over the complex issues of honesty, protection, and love for a child, all pitted against each other. As I watched Lucy grow and the “adopted” parents love increase, I kept seeing my granddaughters and all the sweet things they did at that age.  My strongest image was of my now two year old granddaughter and the precious love triangle that she, her mother, and her father have.  Over the past two years we’ve seen a family bloom.  Isabel and Tom experienced the same, except their family was a lie.   My recommendation – buy the book (e­-book or hardcopy) or get your name on a holds list at your library.  You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Beyond the Storm by Carolyn Zane

An entire town is changed within minutes as a deadly tornado hits on a late spring Saturday evening.  Buildings are demolished including the high school gym, site of the senior prom. Lives are lost and survivors will never react to a tornado warning in the same nonchalent way again. 

Although a fiction story, the determination and spirit evident in the residents of Rawston parallels that of the survivors in real places like Joplin, MO.  I felt the author's integration of radio weather updates between the daily actions of the characters built suspense.   Descriptions of people seeking shelter anywhere possible at the last moment was also effective.  I was probably most moved by the story of Bob Ray, a young man who feels trapped in his marriage.  Thinking he's earned some time alone, he stops off at the local tavern, a place where he often earns a few bucks stocking shelves and even  dancing for bachelorette parties.  When his new drinking friends including a "hottie" he had been flirting with refuse to let him into the closet where they've sought refuge, Rob Ray only has seconds to cram into a bar refrigerator before the winds hit..  As the winds pound debris against the refrigerator, Bob Ray sees the futility of his recent actions.  How could he be in such a no-life place while his young family is facing the storm in a rickety trailer?  Will he get a second chance?

Among the survivors who immediately take action to help others are Abigail and her new friend Justin. As they work through rubble around the town, Abigail begins to gather fabric fragments - a piece of wedding dress, probably from a friend's dress who was to get married within days, a man's tie, and a scrap most definitely from the local plumber's (and everyone's good friend) Bible cover.
Abigail has no idea why she saves the pieces until her aunt suggests that they start a quilt as a symbol that the town will piece itself back together. The pieces multiply and even Justin, the new carpenter in town, gives a piece of his shirt. As a diverse group of newly homeless find safety and hospitality in Aunt Selma's house, they also find healing in their rudimentary quilt making.

This novel by Carolyn Zane is book one in the Quilts of Love series.  As I've visited quilt shops and shows over the past few years, as well as spent hours on quilting blogs, I've learned that there really are heart warming stories that revolve around quilts, so I am sure that this new series will draw upon those legacies.  Whether it is a quilt that's survived generations, a new one stitched by a loving grandmother for a new arrival, or one pieced by a group of volunteers for someone whose life has been changed by illness or tragedy, quilts love in every stitch.  I like that Carolyn Zane has realized that such stories are worth telling.

I received an e-copy of this title from NetGalley for review purposes.  All opinions are mine.

Monday, October 15, 2012

River's End By Melody Carlson

River's End brings to an end the successful trilogy that follows the lives Anna, her daughter Lauren, and granddaughter Sarah in the river country of the Pacific Northwest.  Through the three novels, their relationships falter and heal with each woman having her own unique story.  Newly discovered faith, forgiveness, and fresh starts are the underpinnings of the series.  At the center of the three women's lives is the inn on the river that Anna and her husband Clark have built from the old general store Anna's parents had run.  Another strong element is Anna's maternal Native American lineage.

The setting of the first book River's Song is the late fifties and early sixties as Anna tries to raise her daughter after her husband, who has never recoved from WWII wounds, dies.  A domineering mother-in-law pushes a wedge between the young mother and her only child Lauren.  Book two River's Call follows Lauren and her mother through the turbulent sixties as readers witness Lauren marry too young and falter as both wife and mother.   As the young Sarah finds solace and comfort at the inn with her maternal grandmother, slowly Lauren finds the need for a new life.

As River's End opens, it is the late seventies and both Lauren and Anna remember Sarah's birth eighteen years earlier.  Neither knows where the young woman is, as the troubled teenager had fled home over a year earlier .  This book, like the others, is one of contrasts between society's destructive unstable path and the inn's solid foundation.  When Sarah finally arrives back at the inn, thin, weak, it quickly becomes apparent that her mind and heart have been led in a new, dark direction. Will her grandmother's love be enough to hold her at the inn?  And can anyone show her the power of forgiveness and new starts?  Or will the strange allure of cults and "spiritual leaders" win out?

I liked this series, but I felt  the characters and actions were not as fully developed as Francine River's Her Mother's Hope and Her Daughter's Dream even though both series followed
the troubled multi-generational stories of mother-daughter love.  That said, I still give this series a strong recommendation for those who like Christian historical fiction with a near contemporary setting.  I received an e-copy of this title from NetGalley for review purposes.  All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Long Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin

Last month my daughter emailed me to ask if I had read or heard about the book Long Shining Waters. She knows of my love for Lake Superior and thought I might want to check out this award winning title.  I am so glad she made the recommendation.  Sosin's novel covers the lives of three women, each carving out their lives on the most mesmerizing and dangerous of the great lakes.  Told in alternating chapters, the three stories combine with a fourth mysterious voice to craft a picture of
Lake Superior as varied and unending as the waves that pound its shores.

Grey Rabbit, an Ojibwe wife and mother in 1622, finds she cannot escape the dreams that haunt her as her young family faces near starvation in the Wisconsin winter.  The physical harshness of her subsistence, coupled with the eerie tone of her dreams, prepares readers for the equally bleak 1902 story of Berit and Gunner, Norwegian immigrants, who have settled on an isolated section of shore so that Gunner can fish.  Despite their troubles, both women offer tales of strength and resilience that perhaps find its roots in the lake itself.  Against that backdrop, Sison adds a third story, the contemporary road trip around the lake taken by Nora, a Superior, Wisconsin, bar owner who suddenly finds herself without a bar or a future.

I've read full length books based on the lives of those strongly independent Norwegians who settled Lake Superior's lonely shores during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I believe the hardships and isolation they endured rank right up there with the lives of settlers to Alaska and the western mountains.  Sison did an excellent job in recreating the same toughness mixed with fragility that I've read in historical accounts.  And certainly, Grey Rabbit's tale opens the reader's eyes to the reality of living a Northern winter totally dependent on nature.  Nora's modern day tale adds several quirkly elements that will affect different readers in different ways.  I connected with the physical journey she took, recognizing spots along the UP shore that I've visited and other Canadian/Minnesotian shorelines that are still on my bucket list.  Other readers may see themselves in the plight that leaves Nora without a business and without a future.  Or maybe it's really a future with endless possibilities?  Lastly, the fourth, unnamed narrator has a definite message and story for each of us, and just maybe, this is the voice that is most important.

The Milkweed National Fiction Award is given to one previously unpublished author each year, chosen from among the works published by Milkweed Publications, a publishing company known for its literary quality.  Although I have not read other works they published in 2011, I can still confidently say that The Long Shining Waters is a deserving winner.  Whether this title achieves national success or settles in as a regional standout, it has added another layer to the literature that explores the lore and mystique of our great lake.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dream New Dreams by Jai Pausch

A top ranked inspirational read a few years ago was the book The Last Lecture,based on Randy Pausch's actual last lecture to his students and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University.  Only in his forties, Pausch had long been a favorite professor whose influence spread beyond the classroom walls into the technology world of such places as Disney World and other cutting edge businesses. At the time he delivered his speech, he had already undergone surgery and chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, all the while knowing all efforts would only buy him a few more months.  His inspirational lecture challenged everyone there to live each day to its fullest, a sentiment we've all heard at graduations and other important life moments, but Pausch's call was different.  It so inspired the audience that the speech was soon posted on YouTube and Pausch became a celebrity to the greater world.  Soon all the talk shows wanted him to appear, and he was encouraged to parlay his speech into what would become a best selling book.

A great success story, except for that awful ending.  Randy's pancreatic cancer returns within months and despite every attempt to fight the disease, he dies in July 2008, leaving behind a young wife and three young children.  Dream New Dreams is a frank and equally inspiring story of the woman who was always at his side, Jai Pausch.  As she says early in the book, we make a marriage vow in just seconds, but we spend a lifetime living it.  Jai certainly expected to have years to live out her vow to Randy, but she was called upon to love and honor in the deepest darkness of illness and impending death.  At the same time, she needed to be the nurturing mother to three scared children under the age of five.  She reveals the complex and competent medical world they encountered, but also points out the great gaps which exist in preparing and supporting the main family caregivers.  Most often these caregivers are spouses, or perhaps parents, who at the same time they are trying to give the best support and care they can, are also taking on new family responsibilities (i.e., being in charge of finances) and daily preparing themselves for the inevitability of the approaching grief.

The couple's intellect drove their early decisions - where to live, who to ask for help, where to seek treatment, when to quit working, what to tell the children, but not even intelligence and education could prepare either for the emotional turmoil that accompanies the decline of Randy's health and energy.  All of us have been touched by cancer or  some other devastating illnesses.  If it has touched you directly, and you are a survivor or you were a caretaker, you will appreciate Jai's story. However,  it may be at times almost too painful to read.  If your experience has been from a distance, as mine has, reading this book will touch your heart.  You may, as I did, develop a better understanding and appreciation of the sacrifice that caretakers make in love's name.

Jai also gives us a window into her private world of the "firsts" that followed her husband's death - the first Christmas, the first Valentine's day, and more.  It is from those days that the title of the book springs.  The life she had planned with her mate is gone and with it are gone the old dreams, but she is not gone, her children are not gone, and she must dream new dreams.  Just as
Randy challenged all of us to live each day to our fullest, she challenges all caregivers to find their own new dreams, to continue the quest for a well lived life.  I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Grace by Max Lucado

Max Lucado's writings continue to bring Christ's love into our 21st century lives.  He opens the Bible, pulls out the most powerful scriptures, and plunks those meaning-packed words into the nitty gritty of carpools, job stress, troubled marriages, and even economic downfalls.  No way around it, the Bible is relevant, God still wants to have relationships with his children, and we have an open invitation to become members of the family.  In the new book Grace, Lucado defines and redefines what grace is, what this unfathomable gift really means, and how it can be the transforming point in our lives.

Following the text of the book is a reader's guide which looks back at each chapter by posing significant questions.  This reader's guide can be used by an individual for personal study and reflection, or it can be used as the starting points for a study and discussion group.  A DVD to accompany the book and a workbook are also available.  As I read the book on my nook, I was always stopping to highlight sections.  There were so many observations and analogies that I wanted to lock away for future reference. Think about these perspectives offered by Lucado.  The Christian is a person in whom Christ is happening.  (p.10)  Grace is God as heart surgeon, cracking open your chest, removing your heart -- poisoned as it is with pride and pain-- and replacing it with his own. (p.10) 

  I particulary love the historic quotes at the beginning of new chapters that provide other authors' and thinkers' take on grace.  Here are just a few:
        How great a God is He who gives God.               Augustine

        Grace is God loving, God stooping, God coming to the rescue, God giving himself generously in and through Jesus Christ.                                            John Sott

        Jesus Christ is what God does, and the cross where God did it.        Frederick Buechner

  And the thought-proving questions from one of the reader's quide pages will add more depth to your reading of the book. For example these questions will have you really thinking: Have you been changed by grace?  Shaped by grace? Strengthened by grace?  Emboldened by grace?  Softened by grace (I love that one!!) Snatched by the nape of your neck and shaken to your senses by grace?
To be truthful, I haven't finished all the study questions.  Since I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley for review purposes, I only have the copy for a limited number of days.  I've decided that this is one of those books which I need to own.  I will be buying a copy and remarking all those great passages.  I recommend that you do the same.