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.