Sunday, September 29, 2013

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers was first published twenty years ago and has been recently re-released.  If you have NOT read this one (or, if like me, you read it years ago) you need to read this story which is based on the story of Gomer and Hosea.  It is California gold country in the uncivilized 1850s.  Prostitute Angel knows nothing of love, except that her mother's trust in and spoken love for a married man, lead to the dark days of Angel's childhood.  Her darkest memory was her father's words that she never should have been born.  Then years later when Angel's mother dies destitute, her young daughter is delivered to Duke, supposedly for an adoption. But soon it is clear that she is trapped in the hellish world of a powerful man who keeps his pedophile life hidden.  Years pass for Angel, and despite attempts to escape, she never can leaves the world of prostitution behind.  Her beauty and aloofness makes her the center of attention at the Duchess's brothel.

Then one day farmer Michael Hosea comes to town, not to visit the shabby brothel rooms, but to get supplies for his struggling farm.  When he sees Angel and her body guard walk by, a voice speaks to him - he should marry this woman.  Michael feels he has received directions from God, but still he rebels.  Why would he want this woman?  The push to meet her and rescue her will not go away, and in the end, Michael obeys.

This is a book about redeeming love as demonstrated through Michael's choices, but like so many of God's children Angel can not leave behind her past, cannot accept forgiveness, or a fresh start.  Over one million copies of this book have been sold.  I received a copy from Blogging for Books for my honest review.  Like Rivers' series Marta's Legacy, this book is Christian fiction at its best -- not preachy, packed with a powerful message, and guaranteed to soften your heart.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Harriet Beamer Strikes Gold by Joyce Magnin

Want fiction loaded with eccentric characters whose lives provide more than a slight flash of humor? Want stories that examine human frailties and problems with sensitivity and a fresh approach, but still with Christian values?  Then you need to discover author Joyce Magnin.  I've already reviewed a couple novels from the Bright Pond series( Prayers of Agnes Sparrow and Charlotte Figgs Takes over Paradise). I hoped I wouldn't be disappointed when I started Harriet Beamer Strikes Gold and I wasn't.

Harriet whose cross country trip to her son and daughter in law's home in California is told in the book Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus has now settled in with Henry and Prudence.  Well, maybe her doughnut-eating basset hound has accepted their new home more than she has.  Harriet wishes she could set up her precious salt and pepper shaker collection (did I mention that Magnin is a quirky writer?) and she also misses her best friend Martha.  Plus she seems a little jealous that her writer son has a close relationship with an elderly neighbor lady.  But when Martha finds out that she will soon be a grandmother, life begins to look up.  Maybe it is that blossoming grandmothering instinct that causes Harriet to listen to a young teenage girl's woeful story and then secretly invest money in a gold mine venture offered by the girl's father.

As I've said before I am drawn to stories that provide protagonists of varying ages and backgrounds.  Not too many books offer heroines who have seen more than 70 summers!
I did not read the first Harriet book, but I am ready for book 3 of adventures.  Wonder if she'll be driving her son's beamer (BMW) or her yellow scooter? 

I received a copy of this title from Book Sneeze for review purposes.  All opinions are mine.

Harriet Beamer Strikes Gold

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Salt Garden by Cindy Martinusen Coloma

Salt Garden is the type of contemporary fiction that I like best.  It weaves together the story of several protagonists, in this case three women across age and time.  First is Claire O'Rourke, a young newspaper woman who finds herself back in her hometown working at a small town weekly. Never did she expect that this setting will challenge her investigative and writing skills at the same time it challenges her heart to see those around her in new lights.
Then there is the recluse Sophia Fleming whose painful past keeps her hidden at her Orion Point seaside cottage.  No one except her childhood friend Ben understands why she has put aside a successful literary career and hidden alone for decades.  Last there is Josephine Vanderook who in the early 1900s survived a shipwreck off Orion Point.  Her story and the true story of the shipwreck can only be pieced together through her long lost diary and a mysterious journal which washes up near Sophia's shore.

I liked how the story unwound layer by layer with connections building among the three women.
There are side stories such as Claire's brother's trouble with the law that add depth and interest.  Too often books which center around a place like this seaside town have an other world flavor - a knowledge that the town is fictional that permeates the whole book.  Not so in Salt Garden. The people, not the place predominated, but at the same time, place is important. Other reviewers on
Goodreads have commented that they felt the story moved too slowly or that the characters were too flat.  While this story didn't compel me to keep reading all night until I finished, it did keep my interest. I especially liked the importance of Sophia in the story.  Not too often does a woman of 70+ have a starring role in a contemporary novel.  Her story proves that love knows no age.

This book was first published in 2004 when I was only following a few Christian authors.  Despite being almost 10 years old, the story stands up well delivering romance, mystery and renewed faith in the goodness of others.

The Salt Garden

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd: A Christmas Tale

The Walnut Tree: A Holiday Tale

I'm not sure I realized that this was classified as Christmas fiction when I requested the book.
Somehow I ran across Charles Todd's name and thought his World War I British settings would be interesting - sort like revisiting Downton Abbey during the war years.  The Walnut Tree does have that flavor as Lady Elspeth Douglas must answer to her cousin who has been made her guardian until she is 30 years old.  When Elspeth decides she wants to train as a war nurse she must hide her upper class title to be accepted.  It seems class and advantage can be a burden, especially when a twenty-something female.

I like the quiet stories, old cottages, and remote villages peopled with interesting characters that tend to populate English period fiction, and in that, this book delivered.  I also enjoyed Elspeth's strength and her loyalty.  I did feel the book had too many chance meetings between Elspeth and childhood acquaintances.  Whether she was on the war front in France, the hospitals of England, or a train, she always seemed to be meeting someone she knew.  They were  "meet ups" necessary to advancing the plot, and would be the kind of chance meetings you might expect in a Downton Abbey episode, but I still found them to be too plentiful and frequent.  It almost made it seem like there were only a dozen or so people involved in the war effort.  Despite that, I enjoyed the book and found Elspeth an admirable character.

There is a little mystery to this book, but it is not a major element to the story.  Since Todd is known for his Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford mysteries, I wonder just how prevalent the mysteries are within those books.  I do have plans to tackle the Bess Crawford mysteries later this upcoming winter.  They are set in WWI and after, and also feature a nurse. So many authors, so many stories.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Money Secrets of the Amish by Lorilee Craker

Occasionally I listen to an internet radio program called Amish Wisdom.  Usually it is the podcast version since I never remember to tune in at the correct time.  Well a few weeks ago, I noticed that the interview was going to be with Lorilee Craker, author of Money Secrets of the Amish.  Unfortunately when I checked back to find the archived podcast, there wasn't one.  Never have found out why, but my curiosity was peaked enough that I searched out a copy of the book.  Lucky for me it was an audio copy because I don't really want to spend time READING about finances.

The author herself narrates this short but interesting book.  Since I live in a rural community that has hundreds of Amish families, I really didn't expect to learn much new from what is clear from my own observations, and to be truthful, I didn't.  Still it was worthwhile to hear the reasons behind their frugality.  It was also fun to hear how Craker herself took the Amish tips and applied them to her own suburban lifestyle.

Here are the main points covered in a nutshell version:
Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without
Rethink your gift giving
Repurpose, recycle, and reuse
Eat like royalty for a peasant's pittance

I must admit that I've wasted money over the years - made impulsive buys, feed my cookbook hobby, and built my quilting stash, but mainly I try to be conservative with money.  My husband is definitely of the "wear it out" mindset when it comes to clothes.  We have 6 grandchildren, 4 of them girls, and it is great to see the plastic storage crates of little girl clothes go back and forth among the three families.  Now that I'm retired and have a little more leisure time, I've found that thrift stores are fun places to shop.  When we built our cabin up north, I delighted in furnishing with repurposed and used items.  The towel rack, display shelves, and medicine cabinet in the bathroom were repurposed and unified by painting them white. I especially love the curtains and shower curtain which I made out of Walmart sheet and some "camping bear" fabric from my stash.  In fact, all the curtains were made from either remnants or garage sale finds. One bedroom sports a wardrobe, which in its previous life was an ugly fake wood laminate.  Now it has been painted green, had molding added to the doors, and has an antique glaze over it.  Its color is a perfect match for the greens and browns of this north woodsy cabin.  These little treasures make me smile more than any upscale Up North decor I could have bought.

I sewed while listening to this book and had to smile over Craker's chapter on eating like royalty.
As she praised the Amish for their large gardens, their canning and such, I thought about the apple cake I had baking in the oven, made with apples from my son's trees and also the huge peppers from my garden ready for stuffing.  While I don't think I'll ever be wealthy because of my gardening, thrift store and garage sale shopping, I do think these are good habits to continue.  And I certainly applaud any family that defies the culture's push to buy everything their kids want.

What are your money secrets?  I will share one more of mine.  As I've said, I've collected cookbooks since my college days and I still can't resist a good church cookbook.  It is my indulgence for not smoking, getting tattoos (lol), or being a fashionista.  But this is how I save. Despite reading over 100 books each year, I probably spend under $50 on books and that money is usually from gift cards.  I get my books from the library!!  Actually, before I got my Nook, I usually spent $0 on books.

I just found Lorilee Craker's blog Shoefly Pie where she continues her tales of repurposing, thrifting, and good plain cooking.  Check it out for some fun.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Visiting Tom by Michael Perry

Most watchers of Wisconsin Public Television and listeners to Wisconsin Public Radio will recognize author, essayist, and musician Michael Perry.  I first "met" Michael in his book Population 485  which recounts his days on the volunteer emergency crew of New Auburn, WI, the hometown he returned to after years away as a nurse.  I had selected that book to add some current nonfiction to our high school library.  My hope that the focus on rural life and the added drama as his volunteer firemen would attract some male readers.  Since almost all books are a hard sell to male adolescents, I can't claim amazing results when this title was added to the shelves, but I still maintain that almost reader who was raised in Wisconsin and who gives Michael Perry a chance will become a fan.

Currently, Perry also emcees the Tent Show radio program which features performances from the Chautauqua Tent Theater outside Bayfield, WI.  My husband happens to have a classmate who volunteers at the "big top" so when I saw her this summer at a reunion, I asked her about Michael.  
She confirmed that he really was a great guy and then said his newest book was really his best.  That, of course, led me to getting a copy of Visiting Tom from the library. 
 Screen Shot  In this title, Perry continues his journey of reflecting on rural Wisconsin, how it is changing including what is being lost and his thoughts of what should be preserved.  This time the book revolves around 1. Tom, his eighty+ year old neighbor, a sort of tinker who loves to shoot off a couple old cannons he has on his farm and 2. a year long tussle Perry has with the county highway commission regarding " a road improvement" which makes his family's daily drive more dangerous.  What comes across in the book is Perry's gift in valuing the small things in life, including those labeled as too old or too young by the rest of the world.  He has the ability to see that our heritage lies not only in the chapters of history book and the walls of museums, but also is found in the stories of a weary farmer and his wife of sixty years.  It is also found in the old silos and farm houses that unfortunately must be demolished for progress.  Perry has the sensitivity to recognize that the new highway bypass he appreciates when heading out to an accident or even a family drive has swallowed up the terrain of his childhood -- the rocks, fields, and wetlands that were the backdrop for some of his best memories.

I would give this book a high 4.5 and hope that Perry continues to balance his life as father, husband, sort of farmer, musician, comedian, and writer.  Just as we all have different moods, I think Perry's mood in this title is a tad more serious than that of my all-time favorite Coop.  In Visiting Tom, I found myself nodding in agreement and appreciating that someone was putting such thoughts into print, but when I read Coop I was laughing out loud, thinking this guy is something else!  In all, I appreciate meeting both sides of a talented writer!

Currently, more and more authors and publicists are creating video book trailers and other creative ways to promote new titles.  We, as readers, are a hotly pursued commodity.  To help a favorite Wisconsin author, here is a link to his website and also his Youtube video about Visiting Tom.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Little Red Wagon : a movie about Zach Bonner

In 2004 young Zach Bonner ( age 8 in the movie, but I believe the actual Zach was even younger) sees a news report of the devastation of Hurricane Charlie in a neighboring Florida town and decides he wants to help.  Encouraged by his mother, Zach and his teenage sister solicit donations of bottled water and other essentials throughout his neighborhood.  Zach uses his own red wagon to pick up the donations; then he loads them into the family van and they take them to the distribution center.  After returning several times, Zach is noticed by the press, and his efforts make the nightly news.

Once touched by the philanthropy "bug," Zach continues to want to help others.  Soon he has decided he wants to help the homeless, and he comes up with the idea to create backpacks of toiletries, snacks, and other personal items including a toy to be distributed at area shelters.  He solicits donations from companies and stores and soon is directed to start a nonprofit as his desires to help grow larger and larger.

This quiet movie packs a big impact.  First, there is a real Zach Bonner and in his short life, he has exhibited a selfless passion for philanthropy that few except the rich and powerful ever consider.  It is great that a movie has been made about his choices; hopefully, it will inspire the rest of us.  Like most movie versions, this one is "inspired by a true story" meaning something has been altered or added on. In this movie, there is tension between Zach's mom and his teenage sister.  Whether this was true really doesn't matter to me.  The part that I am sure was "fictionalized" is the parallel story of another single mother, Margaret Craig, who with her young son, find themselves homeless when she loses her job.  Frances O'Connor plays the role of the homeless mother powerfully -- a silent desperation that multiples with each blow that the pair faces. ( O'Connor played the wife on the PBS series Mr. Selfridge last year, another role that she played with understated power.)  Having this homeless scenario unfolding at the same time Zach is trying to raise awareness about homeless children adds strength to the movie.  For one, you can easily see how the Bonner family themselves could easily be in the same circumstances as the Craigs.  That realization should make all of us consider our own blessings.

I felt this movie was well cast and is a little gem that should be shared at family movie night, church youth groups, library movie times, and such.  When I finished watching this movie, I watched all the special feature clips which included press coverage of the real Zach Bonner's walks to help the homeless.  Much good has come from the tender heart of a little boy who has been encouraged and nurtured to follow his dreams.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Orchid House by Cindy Martinusen

Julie Morrison accompanies her grandfather's body back to Hacienda Esperanzo (Plantation of Hope) in the Philippines, the family land he had loved so much but was forced to leave during political unrest years before.  Emotionally shaken after her former boyfriend tries to make amends, Julie hopes this trip will give her the space and time she needs to re-evaluate her future.  Will it include Nathan or not?
Soon she is swept into life at the hacienda - the beauty of the islands, the enormity of the family land's and the responsibility that she now faces, as well as the joy of getting to know her distant, colorful family.  As she learns the history of the family's lost orchids, she also learns why those who live and work on the hacienda consider her grandfather a hero, even though he has been absent for decades.
While Julie begins to feel a natural peacefulness in her new surroundings, she remains ignorant of the political turmoil and danger that she faces.  An erupting volcano adds even more drama.

There were parts of this book that I really liked and parts that I wished had drawn me in more.  I like books set in exotic places, especially ones which have a "history"  and culture to unravel, and for the most part, this book delivers in this category.  There are stories of long ago loves and strong women, and even stories about food.  I like stories with unusual characters, and here too, Orchid House delivers, especially in the three Lolas who are the vehicles for revealing much of the hacienda's history and young Emman, who takes it upon himself to be Julie's bodyguard.  It was the "villians" of the book, the disenchanted guerrilla fighters, and their actions that I felt fell flat. I guess what transpires makes sense (although it is sad), but I just felt the whole antagonist part of the novel was weaker than the "Julie" side of the plot.

I obtained this title through interlibrary loan, along with Salt Garden, a title which Martinusen received a Christy award for in 2004.  I'll be reading Salt Garden over the next week.  Hopefully, I'll be able to give that title a total thumbs up!!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hopelifter by Kate Wunnenberg

Kate Wunnenberg has made lifting up others who are suffering her life's work.  At times, it is simply a hug, cup of tea, a specially prepared meal, or an attentive ear.  Many of us may regularly do something similar, but there may be times when we do nothing because we don't know what is the right thing to do.  Kate and others who have contributed to her book (and organization) Hopelifter turn to scripture as their guides.And that I believe is the power behind her book and her work.  Most of us have good hearts and we want to help others in need.  We want to encourage those who are struggling, and as I said before, we try.  But do we make our purpose that our actions are extensions of our faith in Jesus Christ, the great Comforter.  Through the stories shared in Hopelifter, it is clear that giving others hope is a ministry within the possibilities of many of our gifts, and it can be a joyous ministry because hope quickly spreads.  For Wunnenberg, she has been able to draw from her own grief of three miscarriages and an infant who died after birth to write two other book and organize retreats for other mothers facing loss.

The book is divided into three parts:  Discovering Hope, Embracing Hope, and Giving Hope.  The section Giving Hope contains what Wunnenberg calls one hundred recipes for hope, which are actually one hundred short testimonies from people who have either reached out to others or from those who have been on the receiving end of hope gifts. Often the scripture verses that touched these people are included.  I recommend this book, for yourself or as a gift.  Let's all be prompted to act conscientiously to be bringers of hope.  This does not mean that we have to be pillars of strength or problem solvers.  The little things that we've always done may be all we're called to do and all we'll able to do, but we can do those things with a "right heart" and purpose.

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

Monday, September 2, 2013

It Happened at the Fair by Deeanne Gist

As President Grover Cleveland prepares to speak at the opening of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, crowds pressed closer and closer, causing Della Wentworth, a young teacher of the deaf, to be nearly crushed.  Panicking, she calls out for help which brings inventer Cullen McNamara to her rescue.  With the help of a few other tall fair goers, Cullen lifts Della over the crowd to a place of safety.
So begins Deeanne Gist's romantic historical fiction title It Happened at the Fair.  (Read the notes at the end of the book to see what inspired Gist to write this scene.)

A few weeks ago, I was able to watch a live bookchat held by Gist and her publisher.  What fun to see her writing office and to follow other readers' comments about the book.  I was especially delighted with the event because I won a free copy of the book.  One of my favorite parts of the book itself is how Gist incorporated authentic photographs from the fair into each chapter, actually captioning each photo with a line from that chapter.  This technique magnified the significance of the setting for this story -- the power that the fair itself would have had on participants and visitors.

The real fair was a complex mix of American showmanship, entertainment, and scientific/technological advancements that lasted six months during 1893, a time when most of the United States faced a looming economic depression.  Gist brings all of this into her story --  Della, who teaches the deaf lip reading, a method advocated by Alexander Graham Bell, brings a flavor of how this time period treated those with impairments.  Cullen represents those young people who were the "idea men" behind the great technological changes and scientific advancements of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Of course, the story is primarily a romance, and as such, it is quite a simple story.  The fair provides the backdrop that makes the story a worthwhile read.

I read the highly popular Devil in the White City by Erik Larson last year when it was our book club pick.  Actually I listened to most of it, finding the oral narration very compelling despite the heavily detail oriented format of the book.  That nonfiction title replayed in my mind continually as I read It Happened at the Fair. Did that add or detract from this novel?  For me, it actually did both.  I noticed and appreciated the historical details Gist wove into the story, especially those that also had been mentioned in Larson's book (such as the Ferris Wheel, international sections, and the island)  But on the other hand, I actually wished that Gist had created a story with more characters and more history because I found the romantic story just a little too simple.  In the end, I say, "Learn more about the 1893 fair.  It is a fascinating part of our history." Fiction or nonfiction?  You pick the genre!

It Happened at the Fair