Saturday, November 30, 2013

The War on Christmas edited by Bodie Hodge

When I was given a chance to review The War on Christmas: Battles in Faith, Tradition and Religious Expression I was intrigued enough to request the book.  Every year we hear cries that Christ is being taken out of Christmas and we can clearly see by tales of mounting credit card debt amid lavish spending that for many the emphasis is totally askew.  I guess I expected the book to cover some of those statistics and maybe point out recent court cases against religious displays, etc.  I was wrong.

The book concentrates on the connection between Adam and Eve, the beginnings of man and the need for Christ.  The authors' main point is that we need to bring others to see that connection/need, and then the reason for celebrating Christmas will be clear.  They are saying that keeping the baby in Christmas is an empty attempt if you don't fully embrace why the baby came.  Although I agree, I did not find the book a total literary success.  Being basically a collection of essays, I found the writing quality varied greatly.  Having different authors also resulted in major repetition and overlap.  New essays or topics, despite having bold titles and chpater headings, often seemed to lack clear introductions or conclusions. Despite that, the whole book has a beautiful artistic layout, making it a visual success.

I did find the historical and archaeological discoveries that help clarify the facts behind the scriptural account of the nativity vs. our popular view of it to be very interesting.  Much of what they proposed made sense.  And I do agree that many people have a "cinematic" view of the nativity that is probably far from accurate.   While I may have a creche with three wise man in attendance, and that number and the time of their visit may be inaccurate, the authors helped me refocus on what they represent -- fulfillment of prophecy and an example of adoration of the child.

I am not sure to whom I would really recommend this book.  Ministers and lay leaders may find a nugget or two of historical information that is new.  Nonbelievers would probably feel brow beaten with a repetitive message.  As I read, I did not like that there was no information about any of the authors or their credentials. That in itself made me uneasy as I read despite agreeing with much of what they wrote.  I felt it was worth my time because my husband, adult daughter and I discussed some of the book together last night.  Those conversations are always important.

I received a copy of this title from Handlebar for my honest review.

War on Christmas: Battles in Faith, Tradition, and Religious Freedom

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Forever Friday by Timothy Lewis

Timothy Lewis's first novel, Forever Friday, is a gentle, contemplative story similar in tone to the works of Nicholas Sparks or Richard Paul Evans.  As he sorts materials for yet another estate sale, Adam Colby stumbles upon a series of photo albums, filled not with treasured family photos, but hundreds of post cards, all written by Gabe Alexander to his wife Pearl.  When Adam learns that Gabe sent his wife a postcard with a new poem each and every Friday of their 60+ years of marriage, Adam wonders what kept this romance alive for decades when his own short marriage has ended in divorce. Where had he (and his wife) failed?  Adam sets out to learn more about this couple and their deep love, not an easy task since they have no children or close relatives.  When he locates the daughter of the couple's long time house keeper, Adam begins to learn more about the life of Gabe and Pearl.

Despite the alternating modern day chapters and flashbacks to Gabe and Pearl's life, this book was a fast, entertaining read. I especially liked Pearl's spunk and the Texas oil country setting.  I am sure others will be warmed by this story.

Check out this link to learn more about Timothy Lewis and his first novel.  You can read the first chapter by following this link.  I received a copy of Forever Friday from Blogging for Books for my honest review.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Born of Persuasion by Jessica Dotta

Born of Persuasion by Jessica Dotta is the first in a trilogy entitled Price of Privilege.  Readers who are caught up in 17 year old Julia Elliston's plight will find the dramatic and suspenseful ending difficult to handle since the second and third books will not be published until 2014.  Fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters may find this tale to their liking.  It is 1838 and following her mother's (her father died previously) death, Julia finds herself under the control of an anonymous guardian who seems intent on sending her from England to Scotland to work as a lady's companion.  Sure that marriage is her only escape, Julia plots to return to the home of a childhood friend where she plans to reconnect with her childhood sweetheart and hold him to his promise to wed.  When she learns that he has become a vicar, Julia is crushed.  Years before, her father, an outspoken atheist, was treated badly by the church and the young seventeen year old has accepted his view that God does not exist.  It seems that she and her dear Edward will not wed after all, and Julia must find another husband in haste or be sent to the wilds of Scotland.  As she settles into a bargain with Lady Foxmore, a dark cloud of mystery settles over the story.  Frankly, as readers, we will never know who to trust or what the great secrecy is about Julia's past, but then neither does Julia.  A huge, remote estate is the scene for much of the book. It's winding hallways, locked doors, and gossiping servants attempts to create a tone of foreboding and impending danger similar to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and other Gothic romances. Unfortunately, I didn't care for Julia nearly as much as I did Rebecca when I read her story years ago. I believe that in telling a story so long and complicated that it takes three separate books, authors create a risk of taking too long to develop a strong reader-heroine connection.  I think that the surprises in Julia's life, her poor choices, and her past will lead her to profound changes in the future books (a relationship with a God she denies??), but I haven't connected deeply enough to care.  That may short changing the trilogy, since I've found many other series to build as they continued.  I hope that Price of Privilege is that way.

I received a copy of this book form Tyndale in exchange for my honest review.  I was ot compensated in any way.  All opinions are mine.

Born of Persuasion

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Song of the Broken Hearted by Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen Coloma

Like In Leah's Wake which I recently reviewed, Song of the Broken Hearted tells the story of a family in crisis. Although the elements of crisis were just as serious and life changing, I never felt that the family or the reader were thrust into total despair. As the story begins, Ava, who has felt the security of a loving husband and his successful career in the financial world, devotes her time to leading a Bible study group and organizing a crisis ministry.  We learn immediately that Ava is alienated from her extended family and has been for many years.  It appears that it has something to do with her father, a former preacher, who is now in prison.  Within pages of meeting Ava. we will see her world change, and neither Ava or readers will understand why at first.  Her college aged, engaged daughter comes home unexpectedly without her intended; son Jason (star athlete) sits on the bench during an extremely important game; and husband Dane begins to spend all his time at work, while imploring that Ava not use any credits cards.

As the community begins to sense that problems have hit Ava and Dana's household, one church member tells Ava to look within herself for the source.  Ava is stunned and hurt.  While that statement is cruel and unsympathetic, readers will have a nagging feeling that Ava does have a hidden unresolved issue. This nagging feeling is accentuated by the symbolic story of a willow tree in the family's back yard which appears to be dying.

This story of crisis is just as serious as In Leah's Wake. Readers will cheer as both families make life-changing discoveries in the midst of crises that have destroyed other families; both stories are peopled with destructive secondary characters which you hope you never meet in real life. Yet, I certainly enjoyed reading Song of the Broken Hearted more.  There is a light touch of humor and caring between Ava and her best friend that keeps this story from sinking too far into gloom.  While both families have basic values and faith tested, I never felt that Ava was teetering on abandoning God while Leah's family in the previous book certainly was.

I read this book on my nook, having gotten the e-copy from Wisconsin Public Library Consortium.  Thanks, WPLC for another entertaining read at my fingertips.

Song of the Brokenhearted

Friday, November 15, 2013

In Leah's Wake by Terri Guiliano Long

WINNER, Literary Fiction - IndieReader Discovery Awards (IRDA), 2012
Winner - Global eBook Award, 2012
Book Bundlz 2011 Favorites - First Place
Book Bundlz 2011 Book Club Pick
CTRR Reviewer Recommend Award, 2011

Author Terri Guiliano Long has received the above awards, most of them for her contemporary novel
In Leah's Wake. an emotional tale of a talented 16 year old soccer star who, amidst the normal angst and fight for independence, goes terribly astray.  Her downward spiral does not just disappoint her parents; it thrusts them onto their own self-destructive paths.  And Leah's younger sister, a near-perfect 8th grader, finds herself left to flounder alone.  Readers will find just how quickly the American dream can plunge into tragedy as father, mother, and young sister crumble in the tumultuous "wake" left by Leah's poor choices.

As a mother (thankfully my children are grown), grandmother, and someone who worked with teenagers all my career, this book was almost too much.  Both Leah's self-destructive choices and her parents' lousy parenting skills made me want to scream!  The undeserved guilt that younger sister Justine heaps upon herself is heart breaking.  Maybe the emotion was just too much for me, but I almost quit reading this book.  I doubt if I have put aside more than five books in my entire life without finishing them, so I didn't quit.  Instead I skimmed many pages, getting the facts but not delving too deeply into the lowest points of the drama.  Obviously, the list of awards that Long has won shows that other readers connected a little better to her story and style of writing.  Before I end the review I want to talk about Officer Jerry.  I can't reveal much about him without sharing spoilers, but I wonder how others responded to his presence in the story. I found that his actions and decisions really impacted much of the story, and I am not sure how I feel about that.  Often it takes a third party to defuse the destructive behaviors within a family as volatile as the Tylers, but I wonder about the author's choice to create a personal story between Jerry and Leah's mother.

In Leah's Wake - Terri Giuliano Long

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln by Kate Clifford Larson

Mary Surratt, mother of Charles Surratt ( a known Southern sympathizer and courier), was the first woman to be executed in the United States after being found guilty of taking part in John Wilkes Booth's plot to assassinate President Lincoln.  Perhaps the best description of her role is this one --"She kept the nest where the egg was hatched."  Mary and her husband had run a tavern in Surrattesville, MD, but when he died unexpectedly she leased the tavern to another and set up a boarding house in Washington D. C.  Over the months that preceded Lincoln's death in April 1865,
John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators met several times at the boarding house, often talking with Mary's son and with Mary herself.  Lewis Paine, who would later brutally attack Secretary Seward, stayed at the boarding house multiple times, under more than name.  It is speculated that Mary's daughter Anna, a naive 22 year old, had a crush on the famous actor Booth.

It can not be disputed that Mary and her son had southern sympathies, but whether Mary was an active participant in the actual assassination conspiracy continues to be debated.  Author/historian Larson expected that her research would add credence to those that questioned the military court's finding in July 1865 that Mary was guilty.  What she found, instead, was a preponderance of strong, credible evidence that can't be cast aside -- Mary knew what was being planned and she in several ways aided the effort.

I began listening to an audio version of this book and within ten minutes I knew that I had to save my listening experience for a time when both my husband and I could hear the book.  This past weekend we did just that as we drove to our cabin.  We were both so captivated by the complexities of her story that we listened to several chapters at the cabin both Saturday and then again on Sunday.  We were able to complete the book on the drive home.  Historical books such as this one which are packed with names, dates, and locations can be  confusing and tedious to listen to, but both of us had enough basic knowledge of the assassination to be able to follow along.  My book club just finished discussing Killing Lincoln so many names and theories were fresh in my mind.  Instead of being tedious, it was compelling.

I strongly recommend this book.  Even with all that I've read and studied, I still can't wrap my mind around the extreme hatred that the conspirators felt for President Lincoln, but it is fascinating to delve into the minutiae of their actions and of Washington D.C. that fateful April.  I downloaded the audio book through WPLC, our Wisconsin library consortium for digital and audio books.

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Distancers: An Ameriocan Memoir by Lee Sandlin

While many families have a historian who keeps track of marriages, births, deaths and that sometimes complicated family tree, few families have someone whose been able to capture the dreams, disappointments, and virtual essence of the key players within past generations.  Lee Sandlin has done that under the guise of telling how a single house became the glue that kept multiple generations of his family connected.  Only as an adult did Lee question why he, his siblings, and cousins spent their summers at this house with four adults they knew little about.  As he delved into finding out more about them, he never imagined that their stories would reveal lessons about the midwest, its values, his own family's secrets, and
a long valued family tradition of "keeping one's distance."

This book definitely shows that there are stories everywhere, even in those frame houses and four squares that have lined the fields and village blocks of the midwest's smallest towns since the last days of the nineteenth century While interesting to read, a sad thread of truth runs throughout this book.  Seldom do we reach our potential; our dreams seldom come true, yet the years tick away.  Those people you've always known as close mouthed, serious adults may have at one time been busting with desires -- desires they've now kept buried so long that they can no longer acknowledge them.  This brings another question -- do we really want to know the whole story of everybody's life?  Reading this book makes me think of the distant cousins (several generations back) on my mother's side.  I think there were 7 or 8 siblings, and not one, not a single one married or had children.
I believe that as adults all lived and later died in their childhood home. What story lies hidden there?  How could not one of them found love or companionship?  Do I really want to know the answer?  Or is it better to sink my thoughts into another fiction story instead-- where the pain, disappointments, and yes, the happy endings are only made up?

Truthfully, The Distancers is an interesting look back, perhaps telling more than any sociology textbook.

The Distancers book cover art

Monday, November 4, 2013

An Amish Country Christmas by Charlotte Hubbard and Naomi King

Charlotte Hubbard/Naomi King

Christmas Visitors
Charotte Hubbard, who also writes as Naomi King, has several Amish romance series.  Recently I blogged about
Winter of Wishes, a Seasons of the Heart novel set in Willow Ridge.  For the first novella in the Amish Country Christmas two book volume, Hubbard returns to Willow Ridge and nearby Cedar Creek to introduce readers to spunky ( and romantic dreamers) twins Martha and Mary and vistors Bram and Nate Kanagy.  The two brothers believe they stumbled upon a chance afternoon of fun and adventure, with even a kiss or two.  Little do they know that the girls are as scheming and adventuresome (within reason) as they.

Kissing the Bishop
: As the New Year’s first snow settles, Nazareth Hooley and her sister Jerusalem are given a heaven-sent chance to help newly widowed Tom Hostetler tend his home. But when her hope that she and Tom can build on the caring between them seems a dream forever out of reach, Nazareth discovers that faith and love can make any miracle possible.

If you need a stocking stuffer for someone who reads romantic fiction, then these seasonal stories will slide into the stocking quite nicely and will deliver a few hours of pleasurable reading.  Christmas Visitors offers the smells and traditions of an Amish Christmas a midst not one, but two, whirlwind romances.  Add in the humor of a "twin switchero" and you have a fun read.  At just 150 pages a piece, both Christmas Visitors and Kissing the Bishop offer some quick, but satisfying reading for a cold winter's eve.  I received my copy from Pump My Book for review purposes.  All opinions are mine.

An Amish Country Christmas

Gunpowder Tea by Margaret Brownley

Check the cover of this title carefully and you'll get a preview of the book.  A handsome ranch hand is looking up with just a hint of suspicion and defiance in his eyes.  His mouth -  is that a look of determination or a look of questioning?  And the lovely lady?  Why she is politely serving tea, a polished, civilized action.  But at the same time, she is ready to take action with her hidden derringer. Not a likely mix.  In this latest addition to the The Brides of Last Chance Ranch, we travel to 1897 Arizona Territory as Pinkerton agent Miranda Hall goes undercover as Annie Beckman to locate and capture the mysterious bank robber known as the Phantom, whom some believe is hidden out at the Last Chance Ranch.  When Miranda's (Annie's) train is robbed on the way, she is sure that the robbers are somehow connected to the Phantom.  What is most disturbing to her is that prior to the robbery one of the passengers had caught her attention with his striking blue eyes. When she later recognizes those same blue eyes behind a mask and then learns that the same man who goes by the name Branch has taken a new job at the ranch, Annie is sure that he is part of the Phantom's gang.  Meanwhile, Jeremy Taggert, or Branch (his latest alias), is sure that the fiesty woman who's just arrived at the Last Chance must somehow be involved with the gang and sets out to investigate HER.

Physical attraction, budding romance, mistaken identities, and two private investigators intent on showing their worth in an increasingly dangerous situation make for a fast paced, lively western which is told with a well crafted mixture of drama, humor, and even some spiritual insight.  I especially liked the short "detective" quotations which began each chapter, such as this one: Sign outside private detective's door.  In God we trust, all others will be treated as suspects." (p.38)  

I received a copy of Gunpowder Tea from Litfuse Publicity Group for review purposes.  All opinions are mine.  Litfuse and Thomas Nelson Publishing are sponsoring a blog tour of this book.  Check out this link to learn more about Margaret Brownley's giveaway, her facebook party, and the other reviews.

More about the author

 Thrills, mystery, suspense, romance: Margaret penned it all. Nothing wrong with this---except Margaret happened to be writing for the church newsletter at the time. After making the church picnic read like a Grisham novel, her former pastor took her aside and said, "Maybe God's calling you to write fiction." So that's what Margaret did. She's now a New York Times bestselling author and a Romance Writers of America RITA finalist with more than 25 novels to her credit. Her first non-fiction bookGrieving God's Way: the Lasting Path to Hope and Healing has won much critical acclaim. She is currently working on the third book in her Brides of Last Chance Ranch series. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Not What I Designed: The Story of An Extreme Heart Makeover by Betcky Dietrich

At a slim 136 pages, Not What I Designed: The Story of An Extreme Heart Makeover might be overlooked as being simply too short to offer any significant insight.  Such a judgment would be wrong.  Dietrich offers a powerful memoir that details how she affirmed her faith during her college years, despite being a child of the turbulent sixties, witnessed how God should be number one in her life, and then over the next 40 years slowly let the desires of her heart and her family's troubled finances usurp the first place spots in her heart and mind.

An interior designer by talent and later as a career, Becky created beautiful homes, not to be ostentatious but to offer hospitality, warmth, and comfort to others,  But when her pastor husband lost his job, the family unwisely became entangled in a new lifestyle and over the years stress, financial failures and multiple bad decisions moved Becky further and further away from God, until at age 60+ and bankrupt, Becky had a "heart makeover" when she was finally able to put aside what she describes as her "idols."   Becky's tale makes it clear that things, goals, and pursuits, that in themselves are not bad or wrong, can become toxic when they allow someone to put a barrier between himself and God.
As I said earlier, there is a strong message in this tiny volume.

I received a copy of this book from Deep River Books and Tell Us the Truth Reviews for review purposes.  All opinions expressed are mine.

Not What I Designed: The Story of an Extreme Heart Makeover  -     
        By: Becky Dietrich

Friday, November 1, 2013

When Mountains Move by Julie Cantrell

Cantrell is a fresh voice in the Christian fiction market whose first book Into the Free won two Christy Awards, and who now returns to complete the story with When Mountains Move.
This newest novel set in the early 1940s takes up exactly where Into the Free leaves off. Seventeen year old Millie (Millicent) has decided she will marry Bump (Kenneth) and leave with him to run a Colorado ranch for Mr. Tucker.  She's put aside any dream of reuniting with the young gypsy boy River, but cannot quiet the nightmares that remind her of Mr. Miller's cruel attack.  As the young couple work tirelessly to restore the long abandoned buildings on the ranch and prepare it for the cattle and horses that will soon arrive, Millie finds herself pregnant.  Wishing she had told Bump about Miller's attack before their wedding, she tries to hide her pregnancy as long as possible.   Shortly after their arrival in Colorado, her grandmother joins the young couple in their rough new life, and Millie begins to learn more of her family history, including the generational violence that haunted her childhood.  When a beautiful neighbor seems to be seducing Bump, Millie wonders if she will ever have a chance for a happy life.

It had been more than six months since I had read Into the Free, but Cantrell so successfully plunged me back into the story that I quickly remembered Millicent's troubled and emotional story.  Mountain lions, a ranch hand with a mysterious past, memories of the gentle gypsy, an unwanted pregnancy, and
tales of her Choctaw heritage all add to this rich story of a young, struggling marriage. Find copies of both books and read them as one story.  You will not be disappointed.  I received an ecopy of this book from NetGalley for review purposes.  All opinions are mine.

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