Monday, October 17, 2011

Belonging - Robin Lee Hatcher


Robin Lee Hatcher does it again with another fabulous novel in Belonging, book number one in her new "Where the Heart Lives" series.  When I was offered the chance to review this novel I jumped on it, as Robin Lee Hatcher is one of my favorite historical Christian fiction writers.  Her characters are charming and honest, drawing you into their stories as her gracefully written narrative transports you to another time and place.  In Belonging we are taken to 19th century Idaho on a journey filled with emotional and spiritual revelations that speak to God's promise to work all things together for his good purposes.

The story revolves around Felicia Kristofferson, a teacher looking for a fresh start in the dusty desert town of Frenchman's Bluff.  Orphaned as a child and separated from her brother and sister, Felicia has not had the influence of love and family in her life.  Still, her faith is sure, and she believes God has sent her to Idaho so that she may provide the children with a strong education.  Felicia just has to win over the widowed general store owner, Colin Murphy, who is certain she has come only to find a husband, not to be the teacher his daughter Charity so desperately needs.  As their relationship grows over a mutual concern for Charity, the merchant owner finds that he is the one who is falling for the teacher.

This is such a sweet book, I loved reading every word of it.  Belonging is a wholesome love story that speaks biblical truths and paints a bright hope and future for its characters.  The subtle layering of story lines keeps the plot moving along and provides some wonderfully surprising elements.  Robin Lee Hatcher creates the world of Frenchman's Bluff with charm and ingenuity.  From the school house to the townspeople, everything is written with an emotional validity that goes straight to the heart.  I especially enjoyed Felicia's back story of being separated from her siblings on the orphan train and look forward to exploring that connection in future novels from this series.  Hopefully book #2 will be arriving soon!

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Zondervan. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Irish Healer - Nancy Herriman


I have always wanted to visit Ireland.  Perhaps one day I will, but for now it is a place relegated to random daydreams and the occasional novel that transports me its green hillsides.  So, imagine my disappointment when The Irish Healer by Nancy Herriman does not happen to take place in Ireland at all!  Despite this unfortunate circumstance, The Irish Healer is a solid piece of historical fiction.  I never found myself at the edge of my seat, greedily turning pages so that I could discover how the story ends.  But instead read quite leisurely, enjoying the characters and the novel's conclusion.

Rachel Dunne's journey takes place in the dark and dirty streets of London.  After being wrongly accused of murder, Rachel flees her homeland and takes refuge with the friend of a distant relative.  The irony lies in the fact that by leaving her role as a healer in Ireland, Rachel runs straight into the arms of an English doctor desperately in need of an assistant during a cholera outbreak.  Both James and Rachel must let go of past hurts in order to discover the hope God has for their future.  Their love story unfolds despite social and racial barriers, broken families, death, sickness and bitterness.   

The Irish Healer is a testament to God's grace and the power of forgiveness.  I very much enjoyed Rachel Dunne.  She is a wonderfully smart character, displaying grace and maturity in extremely trying situations.  Her conversations with James often showcase a bit of her Irish spunk, which makes her even more delightful to read.  The story was at times predictable, and I personally could not get past the sickness and death that prevailed throughout the novel.  But the beauty of The Irish Healer is Rachel's ultimate realization that true healing comes from God.

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Worthy Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Longing - Karen Kingsbury


I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of Karen Kingsbury's highly anticipated new book, Longing.  This aptly titled novel is book number three in the Bailey Flanigan series, and one that I have been itching to get my hands on since I stayed up all night to finish the previous installment.  Let's just say that I stayed up way too late finishing this one as well.  Kingsbury has a way of writing characters that wrap you around their fingers, making you care deeply about their fictional lives.  After reading every single book in the Baxter series I have an investment in the love story between Bailey Flannigan and Cody Coleman, and Longing finally took a definitive step towards the future of their angst filled relationship.  To say that it is a step I am conflicted about would be a gross understatement.

Longing picks up where Learning (book number two in the series) left off.  Bailey Flanigan is living her dream as a dancer on Broadway, performing in Hairspray seven days a week.  She is also dating Brandon Paul, a famous movie star and new Christian who has pursued her relentlessly since they met.  Meanwhile, Cody Coleman is excelling in his football coaching career and dating Cheyenne, a beautiful girl whose needs make him feel important and useful.  As Bailey and Brandon's relationship grows, Cody and Cheyenne face devastating news, and both Bailey and Cody realize that closure is necessary in order to move beyond their broken past and towards the future God has planned for them.

I have a hard time criticizing Kingsbury's books because I love her messages and the scriptural truth she weaves into her novels.  At times I did feel as though I had read this book before.  The direction that Bailey and Brandon's relationship is taking reminds me heavily of Dayne and Katy's journey in the Baxter series.  Also, Kingsbury's writing style has gotten a little bit preachy, and not even about the spiritual elements of the book.  It was as if I was being force fed the plot, line by line, often discovering a character development or new storyline in a heavy handed way.  This was most evident with the author's Forever in Fiction character, whose biography spilled out in the same way an obituary might be read.  It was uncreative and uninspiring.  Still, Longing hooked me from the start and I'm so desperate to know how Bailey's story ends that I can forgive a few literary misgivings.

I'm still trying to process the journey that Karen Kingsbury took me on in this novel.  I have to be truthful in saying that I have been "Team Cody" since day number one.  I believe this was the intention of the author, as Kingsbury writes Cody and Bailey's complicated relationship in a special way.  It seems that she has always been rooting for them, choosing a difficult path for their relationship, but believing that their future ultimately lies with each other.  She has brought Bailey and Cody together and torn them apart in many different ways, but their love has always been honest and real, it was never in question.  Until now.

Because this is an advanced review and the book does not officially release until November 22nd, I don't feel like I can fully explore the direction in which Kingsbury takes Longing.  I do not want to ruin the story, or even reveal any of the little surprises that pepper the book from beginning to end.  I do feel the need to point out that I was ultimately a little disappointed in this novel.  I'm afraid Team Cody might not even be in the game anymore.  Maybe my heart broke a little, even though all the characters seemed to reach resolutions they were happy with.  I just wasn't happy with them, not yet anyway.  But Brandon's character has won over Bailey, he's won over Karen Kingsbury, and maybe by the end of this series he will win over me.

Of course, there is still one more book until Bailey, Cody and Brandon's story is ultimately complete.  The final installment, Loving, is due out early next year.  It goes without saying that I will be counting the days.  

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Zondervan. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Baker's Wife - Erin Healy


This is an excellent book.  Don't let the name fool you; The Baker's Wife is not the story of a happy cook in an idyllic hometown.  This story is about pain, forgiveness and fear.  It will take you to the edge of your seat in suspense and make you ask deep questions about your faith.  The entire read was dramatic and thought provoking, leading you down a twisted path of betrayal and lies.  The kicker is that this all takes place within the Christian community, within in the Church.  It's enough to make you rethink almost everything you thought you knew about forgiveness and loving others.

Audrey is the baker's wife, but she used to be the pastor's wife.  The church board decides to fire her husband when their son is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a deacon's daughter.  As the allegations and lies continue to unfold, Audrey mysteriously runs into a scooter on a foggy morning.  There is a lot of blood, but no body.  The scooter belongs to Julie, the head deacon's wife.  As you can imagine, the blame is heaped onto Audrey and her family.  This leads the deacon, the ex-pastor and the baker's wife into a tension filled race to discover what has happened to Julie.  The web of deceit threatens to entangle them and the spiritual journey they take as their world begins to unravel is a thrilling, wild ride.

This is Christian suspense writing at its best.  Despite not having a huge affinity for the murder mystery genre, I loved every minute of this story, from the way the weather foreshadowed the plot to the deep spiritual questions author Erin Healy asked of her characters.  I really had no idea what was coming next, flipping each page with anticipation of learning the truth, and not finding a moment's rest until I did. Not often does a piece of fiction grab hold and teach me lessons about my own personal walk with Christ.  The Baker's Wife encouraged me to address some long, unanswered questions.  I have discovered a wonderful new author and I hope you do too!

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Something New - Dianne Christner


Something New by Dianne Christner is a bit of a mixed bag.  In some parts it is so perfectly written that you practically forget you are reading a piece of fiction.  You begin to believe the characters are real, even thinking about them long after you've put the book down.  But, there are times when the plot moves along so tediously you also begin to wonder why you even picked the book up in the first place.  Luckily, these moments are few and far between, and Something New ultimately delivers an interesting take on a classic coming of age romance story.

Lillian Landis, a conservative Mennonite in Plain City, Ohio, has a dream that runs against the grain of her simple faith.  As a child she has always craved excitement and attention, pursuing a culinary degree despite the wishes of her parents.  Lillian is on her way to reaching her dreams and making head chef when she is forced to return home to care for her clinically depressed mother.  After a series of unlikely circumstances, Lil begins a romance with a veterinary student who does not adhere to the same conservative values as her family.  As she begins to explore the desires of her heart, Lil discovers that the path she has set herself on might not be the same one that God has planned for her life.

I greatly enjoyed the detailed look into the conservative Mennonite faith that author Dianne Christner provides.  Most of the characters were well written and believable, although a few of them could have used a bit more development in order for the reader to care about them.  Lillian is a very likeable protagonist, and I often found myself rooting for her and Fletch, hoping that somehow God would weave their hearts together despite the many circumstances that developed to keep them apart.  Also, I found it a fun coincidence that both main characters had careers that I at one point intended to pursue, so I did relate to them in a way that others might not.  Lil is constantly cooking and I enjoyed all the culinary talk, including the extra recipes tucked away in the back of the novel.  Moreover, the spiritual growth that both characters experienced was fulfilling to read, even though things seemed to clean up just a little bit too easily in the end.

Something New does offer "something new" to the world of Christian fiction, and I am happy to recommend it.  It is book number two in the Plain City series, and I look forward to reading the conclusion as soon as it is available.

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing, Inc. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

There You'll Find Me - Jenny B. Jones


When I rate a novel I typically look at others books I have read in the same genre and apply a number based on how the current offering measures up.  So, when I give There You'll Find Me by Jenny B. Jones a four out of five, I am basing that on other Christian fiction written for the teenage audience.  While this book is certainly not the best I have ever read, it is a wonderful story that stands heads above the rest of chick-lit.

There You'll Find Me centers around high school senior Finley Sinclair, who decides to study abroad in Ireland after the tragic death of her older brother Will.  Finley is trying to finish composing her audition piece for the New York Conservatory of Music and hopes that the change of scenery will inspire her.  Her brother had previously studied abroad in the sleepy town of Abbeyglen, so Finley decides to retrace his steps in order to find the inspiration, peace and closure she so desperately needs.  But not everything goes according to plan, and when Finley forms an unexpected friendship with a local movie star she begins to realize that the real reason she is in Ireland is to escape her hurtful past.  Through a series of difficult relationships, Finely discovers the strength of her faith in an unfailing God.

I very much enjoyed Jenny Jones' writing style, especially her quick-wit and sarcastic humor.  Although Jenny Jones tackles difficult topics such as death, eating disorders and bullying, the novel was a light and easy read.  The characters were funny, the setting beautiful, and I often wished I was right there with Finley, experiencing everything that Ireland has to offer.  In particular, Beckett the local movie star was written with such a fun and charming personality, I found myself wanting to go see one of his movies - and he is not even real!  The spiritual side of the story was not heavy handed, but I found myself encouraged by the scriptures used and the truths Finley discovered on her journey.

If you're in the mood for a witty teenage romance with great depth of character and fantastic story lines, There You'll Find Me definitely fits the bill.  I truly enjoyed every minute that I was immersed in this novel and hope there are more stories to come about Finley's adventures.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ascent from Darkness - Michael Leehan


Satan is real, if you had any doubts.

In Ascent From Darkness: How Satan's Solider Became God's Warrior, Michael Leehan details his twenty year journey into Satanism and how the God of mercy and grace rescued him from the pit.  The testimony of Leehan is incredible, showing how God is relentless in his pursuit of us and the power Light has over darkness.  Oh, but the darkness is so black, and Ascent is at times almost impossible to read, lifting back the curtain on a spiritual battle that is raging for the souls of men, and exposing an adversary so evil that the darkness almost seeps from the pages of this biography.

How does one turn to Satanism?  Michael Leehan takes the reader down a dark and twisted path of depression, lies and despair.  Raised by unloving parents who only paid lip service to their faith, Leehan is reckless and troubled, already addicted to alcohol and prescription medications by the time he is twenty.  After a series of near fatal accidents and a painful divorce, Leehan gives himself over to the Devil to do as he wills.  In gruesome detail, Leehan describes the dark spirit of power that comes over him as he pledges his life to Satan, offering his own blood as a sacrifice of allegiance.  Over the next twenty years Leehan gives his soul over to the dark side, praying to demons and offering animal sacrifices on demonic altars.  He falls into "hell on Earth" as a slave to his flesh, overcome with visions of murder, suicide and lustful passions, often spending time in jail and isolated.  The bottom drops out when Leehan hears Satan tell him to murder the pastor of the church his daughter and girlfriend attend.  With weapons and ammunition hidden under his coat, Leehan waits for the pastor to end his sermon so that he can finish the evil assignment.  The events that follow can only be attributed to the transforming power of Jesus Christ and the love he pours out of His people, the Church.

Leehan's account is remarkable, but I often struggled with it.  There was a lack of cohesiveness with the content and the author often jumped around, making it difficult to place the order of events that were occurring.  Another difficulty was reconciling Leehan's fascination with both Christianity and Satan.  I suppose the two go hand in hand, as God and Satan have been battling over creation since the Garden of Eden, thankfully we know who wins!  But Leehan felt as if his Satanic mission was to infiltrate churches, seeking out believers who were weak, unsure of their theology and teetering on the edge of the world.  He openly explains how he would memorize Scripture with the intent to twist it, spewing lies into the hearts of those who claimed to know Christ.  He also reveled in lustful passions, claiming he could pick up more women at small groups than at bars, wrecking havoc in hearts through affairs, pornography, one night stands and sexual perversions.  He delighted in attacking God's church, and yet, he was strangely drawn to its light.  The juxtaposition of these opposing viewpoints was difficult to understand.

I came away from this story stunned by the power Satan can wield in the lives of believers, making them ineffective to the Kingdom.  As a Christian you grow up with knowledge of the temptation and lies the "accuser" uses.  But the delight Leeham describes in defiling the Church, the absolute demonic nature of his thoughts and the power he had to inflict evil, goes without saying that it was just plain scary.  Sin is black, it ensnares us, we justify and glorify it in worldly living, and Leeham portrays an adversary who is dancing over our iniquities, fighting tooth and nail to carry us farther away from the Truth.

It is easy to focus on the darkness of this story, as it makes up the majority of the physical content of the book.  However, the redeeming nature of Jesus Christ is just incredible.  This book is dark, but darkness does not win!  In the end, Leehan comes face to face with the powerful love of Jesus, and nothing else can hold a candle to it.  While the dark details in this book might not be for everyone, the message is!  God is alive, God is love, God wins.  Satan is out to destroy this world, but he has already been defeated in Jesus' death on the cross.  The testimony of Leeham reflects this truth over and over again.  I walk away from this book even more convinced in the absolute power, grace and mercy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Praise God for Michael Leehan and his courage to testify to it!

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Forsaking All Others - Allison Pittman


I really did not want to give Forsaking All Others by Allison Pittman such a low rating.  In all honestly, I love this author and I do not want to discourage anyone for reading her wonderful novels.  I just did not enjoy this book.  I'm not even sure if I can put a finger on the reason why, because it was very well written.  In fact, everything I've read by Allison Pittman is superbly done, specifically Stealing Home and The Bridegrooms - both excellent!  It is obvious that the topic was well researched, the time period came to life, and Pittman's writing style is both eloquent and descriptive, drawing you into her characters lives almost without effort.  But everything about this novel left me a little flat, in fact I was often tempted to skim pages, look for any interesting dialogue and blatantly wished that I could just skip to the end.

Forsaking All Others is the conclusion of the two-part Sister Wives series and focuses on the life of Camilla Fox, recently estranged from both her husband and the Mormon Church.  Camilla is found wandering in a snow storm after running away from her family, leaving behind two daughters and a husband in an attempt to flee from a faith she can no longer claim.  After being rescued by a handsome Army Captain, Camilla eventually finds the strength to cut ties with the Mormon community and start her life over as a follower of Jesus Christ.  Forsaking All Others focuses on this journey of healing, both physical and spiritual, and the path Camilla takes to gain custody of her daughters and introduce them to the true Christian faith.

I have to admit that I did not read the first book in this series, so that put me at a handicap for enjoying this novel.  I missed out on a lot of the chemistry that Pittman built between Camilla and her husband Nathan in the first novel.  I did not feel any sort of ties to him as a character and could not understand the draw and power he held over the Camilla.  Even more baffling was his willingness to let go of his children and give them up to his estranged wife.  Pittman spent much of the novel showing how faithful Nathan was to Brigham Young and the Mormons, it was the wedge that drove so deep between him and his wife that she chose to run away.  Nathan was willing to die for his Mormon faith and Camilla for her Christian faith, there was no way to reconcile those differences.  So in the end, I just did not believe that he would let his daughters go so easily, knowing that their Mother intended to raise them to oppose the Mormon faith.  Again, this is probably because I did not read the first novel and missed out on a lot of character development.  I had to trust that Nathan really did love Camilla and was willing to let her "win" because of this.

Ultimately, I just couldn't fall into the story as I hoped I would.  Pittman writes Camilla's character very well, doing a beautiful job of capturing the Mormon culture, historic locations, and many nuances of that time.  I enjoyed the first half of the book much more than the last, feeling that the final 100 pages or so were filler until the moment she is finally reunited with her children.  Although I did not fall in love with this novel, I do enjoy Allison Pittman and hope to read more from her in the future!

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Love You More - Jennifer Grant


Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter by Jennifer Grant takes a look at God's heart for adoption and tells the author's personal story of falling in love with her daughter.  Adoption is something that is very close to my heart and I have read many articles by Jennifer Grant on adoption websites, so I was looking forward to learning more about her journey.  I was not disappointed, as the author fearlessly explores the hope, hurt, pain and joy of adoption.

Grant begins her story with a detailed look at her past.  She shares about about her pregnancies, the birth of two biological children, and the pain of two miscarriages.  Jennifer believes that all of these events unfolded in her life so that God could lead her to pursue adoption from Guatemala.  In heart wrenching detail she describes the process of being matched with her daughter, the agony of waiting for her to come home, and the painful goodbye to the foster mom and country that hold her daughter's heritage.

Adoption is a beautiful tragedy.  It is a tragedy that it even has to exist.  It is beautiful because it reflects God's deep love for us.  Love You More explores the truth of these statements and does so with great justice.  Grant explores poverty and corruption in the adoption system, but also exposes the hopelessness that an orphan in a foreign county experiences. Many scriptural and biblical examples of adoption are discussed and I believe she explains God's heart for the orphan in a simple but profound way.

This book appealed to me as a mom who has a desire to add to our family through adoption.  You are given an inside look at the adoption process, the struggles and the joys.  But as a Christian, Love You More spoke to me about the hopeful plans God has for all his children and the redemptive story he weaves as he builds families together.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hour that Matters Most - Les & Leslie Parrot w/ Stephanie Allen, Tina Kuna


I wanted to like The Hour that Matters Most a lot more than I did.  That's not to say that it is a bad book, in fact it is most definitely not bad at all.  The premise behind the book is excellent - that the dinner hour is the most valuable hour a family can spend together.  Subjects range from talking to your children, instilling manners, and cultivating dinnertime wisdom.  The authors talk about how the dinner table should be a safe place for your children, a respite from the world that they can come to each and every day.  I really appreciated the psychology behind why eating as a family is so important, I have to say that I agreed with almost everything the authors said.

Still, I feel like the authors fell a little short of the mark in the actual execution of the book.  It basically reads like a magazine, with little tidbits here and there that gloss over issues but provide no real subject depth.  At times it felt as if I were reading various unrelated articles; let's just say that cohesiveness is not this book's strong point.  I was also disappointed with the scant recipes that were offered.  I was left wanting more ideas of how to create meals that the family actually wants to sit down and eat.  For some people the hardest part about family dinners are the meals themselves.

The Hour that Matters Most does offer wonderful ideas for creating a happy family mealtime.  I find it hard to fault a book that is trying to resurrect the long lost art of eating dinner together.  If anything, this book does a great job convincing the reader that it absolutely does matter whether you sit down to eat with your children.  I came away convinced of the value of eating together and determined to continue this practice within my family.  If you're interested in why this is so important, or just need a kick in the pants to get started, this book is for you.

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cherished - Kim Cash Tate


Kim Cash Tate is a wonderful author of Christian fiction.  Her characters are typically African American, but she chooses to emphasize their community in Christ - not skin color- a fact that has always made her books interesting to me.  In order to understand the novel Cherished, you also need to have an understanding about the place the author is writing from...the message that resonates in her heart.  To give you a little background, Kim Cash Tate is an African American woman.  However, Tate considers herself 'Colored with Christ', and since coming to know Jesus as an adult has aligned herself with Christ first, before any skin color.  This was a dramatic shift in the author's world view and she writes her novels with a firm belief that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, with a spiritual heritage that transcends any racial boundaries.  I absolutely love this about all of her novels.

Cherished is the story of Heather Anderson and Kelli London's unlikely friendship.  Both are young women who have distanced themselves from God after traumatic life events leave them broken.  Weighed down by sin and guilt, Kelli abandons her first love- writing music that glorifies God.  Heather, damaged by her own impure choices, longs for unconditional love.  When Kelli and Heather come face to face with their past they find the hope and redemption they have been looking for.

I enjoyed reading this book and found that I could relate to many circumstances that the characters faced.  I also appreciated the strong gospel message, particularly the emphasis on forgiveness and loving as Christ loves.  Still, there were times when things seemed to wrap up a little too neatly for my taste.  Life is messy, and we often have to crawl out of the pit by the grace of God just to survive.  At times, it felt as if the characters would just "pray it out" and then everything would work out the way it was supposed to.  I absolutely believe in the power of prayer, but many times the answer is no...or wait.  In Cherished, everything seemed a little too perfect, and the moments that were supposed to be beautiful were actually cheapened by the ease with which they seemed to arrive.

Still, this was a really good read.  Cherished was uplifting and encouraging.  I particularly loved how the theme of music was central to the story.  We got to take a peek into the Christian recording artist's world, something I enjoyed thoroughly.  If you like reading feel good fiction with spiritual depth, I would recommend any of Kim Cash Tate's novels.  

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Little Blue Truck - Alice Schertle


When you have an 18 month old you are always on the look out for good board books.  You just never know what is going to hold a toddler's attention for more than a few seconds.  Some books will only make it two sentences before they are thrown back onto the shelf, never to be read again.  But occasionally, when the story, pictures and words are just right, a book will make it all the way to the end, only to be re-read again!  Such was the case with Little Blue Truck.  This gem is written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry.  It was given to us as a gift from a relative and is currently the first choice every time we read.  We have read it over 10 times today...he obviously loves it!

Little Blue Truck is a sweet story about a cheerful truck who helps a preoccupied dump truck learn the value of making friends.  It is the perfect length, long enough to be interesting but short enough to hold even the smallest of attention spans.  The words are wonderfully lyrical, evoking a song-like quality.  The reader gets to mimic animal sounds and truck sounds, rhyme along (my son can already say some of the words at the right time in the story), and learn a valuable moral lesson.

The illustrations are also lovely and we are still finding new things to look at on each page.  My son is captivated by the little truck, shouting out "beep" every time we turn the page.  And as soon as it is over, he asks me to "peese" read it again.  Of all the books we own, this is my favorite.  It does not sing songs, make noise, flash lights, pop-up pictures, have touch and feel pages, or fluorescent coloring.  It is just a special story.  That is what makes it perfect.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cure for the Common Life -Max Lucado


Cure for the Common Life by Max Lucado is about finding your "sweet spot" in life.  After reading about this book I thought that it might be better suited for my husband, as he is actively pursuing God's call in regards to his career.  Therefore, this review will be a little bit different...since my husband read the book I decided to interview him!  Here is his take on it:

Rene': What is the overall message you took away from reading Cure for the Common Life?
Josh: That God created us uniquely and gave each of us talents and passions to accomplish tasks for His glory .  By looking back at our own personal history, the things we've enjoyed doing, things we felt a great sense of accomplishment in achieving, we can recognize our personal "sweet spots". 

Rene': So what are some examples of "sweet spots" and how do they influence your choice of career?
Josh:  According to Max Lucado, "sweet spots" are where God's glory, your every day life, and your personal strengths intersect.  There are so many people who do not enjoy going to work, who live a mundane life that is built around preserving a lifestyle instead of glorifying God.  If we can find our sweet spots, the place where God has created us to serve, then we can wake up with energy, willing to make a big deal out of God every day of our life.   To use your gifts to make God known, that is essentially our career.

Rene': Did you enjoy the author's writing style?
Josh: Very much so, I enjoyed his use of real world examples.  He also had a good sense of humor and the book was fun to read.  At times it did seem choppy- he liked to use short sentences to get his point across, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.

Rene': Did Cure for the Common Life encourage you spiritually?
Josh:  In a sense, yes.  He uses a lot of Scripture to illustrate his points and reflected on many people from the Bible and how their sweet spots were used by God.  It is definitely a motivational book, but the use of Scripture makes it less a self-help book and more a glorify-God book.

Rene': So, have you discovered your sweet spot?
Josh: Yes, from this book I was able to look back on my life and discover areas that God has gifted me in, things that he uniquely created me for.  Cure for the Common Life was a tangible tool that helped me ask the right questions so I could see these patterns in my life.  I would absolutely recommend it!

Obviously, my husband really enjoyed reading this book.  If you feel as though you're living a common life and you want to discover a passion for pleasing God and not men, pick this book up.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

my first Hands On Bible - Tyndale Kids


My first Hands-On Bible was produced by Tyndale Kids with the hope that preschoolers can "experience the fun!" and "live the truth!" of the Bible.  I have to say that I am very impressed.  I currently have a 1 1/2 year old little boy who loves to read books and flip pages. Although he is too young to sit still and read through the bible stories with any consistency, he is captivated by the pictures and activities that are included in this Bible. 

What truly makes this product unique is that it is the only preschool Bible with actual text from the Bible.  It features the New Living Translation. I have always had issues with preschool Bibles because they tell stories about scripture but do not include any Scripture text!  This Bible not only has NLT passages that are age appropriate, but it indexes them with both the biblical chapters and verses.

My first Hands-On Bible also includes many activities, prayers and picture lessons to engage your child in learning while they are reading.  An example is the story of Jesus as a Boy in the Temple, taken from Luke 2:41-52.  The scripture in this Bible is interspersed with colorful hand-prints that lead to an activity you can do with your child.  The story includes activities such as dancing at the festival, hiding a toy and playing hide and seek (to mimic Mary and Joesph searching for Jesus when he disappeared), and making worried faces.  All biblical passages conclude with what they call "The Jesus Connection" and offer suggestions for further learning, such as going on a church walk, building a special fort, or saying personal prayers.

This is a wonderful Bible that I look forward to sharing with our family.  The hard back cover and thick glossy pages make it very sturdy and easy to handle.  If I have any complaints about My first Hands-On-Bible, it would be that some of the things included might go over the heads of preschool aged children and might be more appropriate for ages K-3.  However, I appreciate that they did not make the Bible too simplistic and take away from the truth of the stories and the power of reading actual scripture to your children.  I believe that My first Hands-On Bible would be a wonderful addition to any family's prayer and devotional time.

Disclosure of Material: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Crazy Love - Francis Chan


I really wanted to like this book.  I had heard that Francis Chan's latest book was in the vein of Radical by David Platt, and that if I liked Radical I would love Crazy Love.  Well, I didn't.  I can see where this idea would take root, as both books are calls to abandon the mediocre faith walk that today's American Christians seem content with.  Both authors make "radical" claims, challenge believers to give up material things for Jesus, and highlight truths in the gospel that make what the Church is teaching today seem almost unbiblical.  But that is where the similarities end.

Throughout the first few chapters I found myself agreeing in many ways with what Francis Chan was laying out.  But his writing often seems simplistic and I found myself longing for David Platt's explanation of the crucifixion in his book Radical (a beautiful description of God's wrath poured out on Jesus) instead of Chan's continual expression of  "crazy, amazing love".  He is of course correct in saying this, Jesus's love is crazy, amazing and beyond belief.  I appreciate how Chan explains that there is more to the Christian walk than being comfortable, praying occasionally, attending church and giving a respectable tithe.  I really enjoyed the Chapters on Love and how as Christians we will be known by how well we love God and love one another.  It was a refreshing wake up call to how we treat each other and how Jesus expects us to die to ourselves in order to live out this call to love.

However, in his most controversial chapter of the book on lukewarm Christians, Chan takes a stance that I can not get behind.  He basically says that the lukewarm Christian is not a Christian at all, and we will not see them in heaven.  Wow.

To understand this statement you have to recognize the difference between salvation theologies.  Within the conservative Christian doctrine there are two different ways to interpret salvation; Lordship theology and Free Grace theology.  Francis Chan is clearly in the Lordship vein, as he boldly asserts that you are not a saved Christian if you are lukewarm.  He also asserts that you are in need of salvation if you are not in the 10% of Christians who lead an "obsessed" life, 100% committed to the Christ walk.  In stating this, Chan is making the claim that although you are saved by grace through faith, you are not an actual Christian if your life is not bearing the fruit of this decision through works. He uses scripture to back up this assertion.

While I agree with many things that Crazy Love calls us to consider, I can not come down on the same side of salvation theology as Chan.  I came away from this book almost feeling fearful for many people who might question their salvation experience.  Yes, faith without works is dead.  Yes, we are called to obey Christ, to live this life committed to him.  I believe that Christians should look different from the world, and that there is absolutely nothing in this life that should hold more appeal to us than falling madly in love with Jesus.  But, I do not believe that you can cheapen grace by tying it down to works.  Grace is free.  Salvation is Jesus + nothing.  I can not agree with the statement that lukewarm Christians are going to hell- nor do I agree with the way Chan interprets the Scripture in Revelation about the church at Laodicea.  I also do not believe that unless you are one of the "Super Christians" that Chan highlights in his book you are not walking with Christ and are therefore not truly saved.

There are many things to appreciate about Crazy Love, so this is a mixed review.  I can only hope that anyone reading this is spiritually mature enough to take away the call to action but not succumb to fear based theology.  If, according to Chan, going to heaven is tied to how well we follow Christ on Earth, then we are ultimately saying that Jesus died for works. It is important to remember that we will be known by our good works, but His Grace is enough.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Treasuring Emma - Kathleen Fuller


As I have mentioned in previous reviews, I am quite familiar with the Amish fiction genre, but I have never had the privilege of reading a novel by Kathleen Fuller. I have been missing out, as I thoroughly enjoyed Kathleen's unique take on the Amish community in Treasuring Emma.  Unlike offerings from Beverly Lewis (who I do love to read for different reasons), Kathleen's novel was not bogged down by constant descriptions of Amish jargon and lifestyle. In fact, at times I forgot I was reading a story about an Amish woman as I was drawn into the actual plot instead of being force-fed Pennsylvania-Dutch vocabulary.

Treasuring Emma by Kathleen Fuller is book #1 in the Middlefield Family Series. It revolves around the lives of the King family, specifically Emma and her sister Clara.  Emma is an unmarried Amish woman, still heartbroken over her childhood love who left their community for the English world.  Clara, is married and disillusioned with her loving but unemployed husband, stewing in the bitterness of depending on their community for money.  Both sisters have to face what it means to depend on God and to trust in his provision as they deal with the death of their parents, the return of old flames, and past family tensions.  When an evil relative brings trouble to the community, Emma and Clara realize that God is truly the only one who can bring them happiness and hold their world together.

It is clear that Kathleen Fuller writes about a less conservative Amish community in this novel.  In response, the novel has a more "real world" feel to it.  The story touches on jealousy, greed, sex, lust, anger, evil, depression, financial worries and more.  The characters struggle with emotions and feelings that are typical of all humans, and I appreciate that the author does not gloss over these difficulties with pat answers and platitudes.  Even more encouraging was the fact that Emma is overweight and not particularly beautiful. It is very rare to see this description for a main character of a novel, and I commend the author for writing Emma with honesty and spiritual beauty, allowing her to find happiness in the end.

I would highly recommend picking up Treasuring Emma for your own library, especially if you appreciate Amish fiction.  I look forward to completing the Middlefield Family Series.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rumors of God -Daren Whitehead & John Tyson


Rumors of God is just what I needed to read right now.  Written by Daren Whitehead and John Tyson, it explores what it means to be a christian today, so far removed for the first church of believers at Pentecost.  Reflecting heavily on the biblical book of Habakkuk, the authors lay out a foundation for Christianity that will renew your spirit and answer questions about how God has called us to live.

I have read a few other books that also explore this idea of a "shallow Christianity", namely Radical by David Platt. While I found those books a little more life changing and motivational, I appreciated the message that Rumors of God delivers.  Lately, I have found myself burdened by the lack of desire in our church culture to get to the root of who God is and what he asks of us.  At times, I feel as though the gospel message has been so watered down that we are merely operating inside tried and true formulas, mostly based on tradition.  The shallow Christianity that the authors discuss stands in opposition to the model of Jesus in the Bible.  The Jesus/God we have created in our Christian culture often conflicts with truth from Scripture.  The reality is that we are far removed from the missional life that God calls us to live.  I think that Radical addresses the idea of the Great Commission more thoroughly, but there is a place for what the authors are trying to say through Rumors of God.

I enjoyed reading this book   It seems like a good starting place for the believer who is jaded by how the church operates or with their own spiritual walk.  It nails down the tenets of the faith and irons out misconceptions with Scripture and stories.  The authors call us to abandon a life of mediocrity and to strive for the abundant life that Jesus promised us.  I would also suggest the above mentioned book for further reflection.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Place Called Blessing - John Trent with Annette Smith


A Place Called Blessing, written by Ph.D John Trent, is an attempt to describe the method of "bestowing a blessing onto a relationship" from a fictional point of view.  I have not read The Blessing, the author's previous non-fiction book that delves much deeper into this psychological theory.  Still, it was not difficult to pick up on what "the blessing" is and the ways it was eventually communicated to the protagonist of the novel.

The story chronicles the life of Josh, an emotionally abandoned little boy who loses his mother and father and is separated from two brothers.  He is shuffled through the foster care system, unpacking his scant belongings at many houses, but never staying long due to his deep-seeded fears and issues.  At six years old, when it finally seems as though Josh might be forever reunited with his brothers, an unfortunate accident changes the course of his life.

Through adolescence Josh often acts out in anger and trusts no one, but through the first person narrative the reader gets to see a glimpse of the broken little boy who so desperately wants to be loved.  As Josh turns eighteen he rents a room from a mother and son who turn out to be the family he is so desperately searching for.  The journey they take together is painful and difficult, but Josh eventually finds the peace he seeks.

I very much appreciated the message of this book, especially the inside look at orphaned children and the foster care system.  However, the writing style is not especially proficient, often feeling jerky and simple.  Seeing as how the book is told from Josh's point of view, this at times works to the novel's favor, but often I found that detail and depth were sorely lacking.  Still, I would recommend reading this book as it beautifully portrays how a life can be changed by unconditional love.  I also think it calls attention to the failing foster care system in this country and hope it inspires people to look into how they might love another child and give them the gift of "the blessing" too.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Redeeming Love - Francine Rivers


This book deserves a 10/5.  It is unbelievably good.  In fact, I think this might be my favorite book...ever.  And I read a lot of books.  Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers is so beautifully written it moved me to tears.  I have never before had the privilege of reading such a well thought out, well executed piece of historical fiction.  That fact that it deals with hard weight issues like prostitution, abuse and forgiveness, make it a most special piece of Christian fiction.

Redeeming Love is the story of Sarah, a little girl with an unfortunate childhood, who at the age of 8 is sold into prostitution.  Michael, a strong Christian who happens to see Angel from the street while selling produce hears God tells him, "she's the one".  From that point on begins a beautiful and emotional journey for Michael and Angel as they learn how to love and be loved unconditionally, despite past hurts, scars and sins.

Francine Rivers has modeled the story after the book of Hosea in the Bible.  The truth of God's unconditional love is beautifully portrayed in the way that Rivers explores the relationship between Angel and Michael.  She touches often on how hard it is to let go of sin, even when Jesus has wiped it away for us and we are loved beyond measure.  It is not until we recognize and accept the gift that we can truly be free from the chains of our past.  Angel's journey to this realization is written with brilliant sensitivity and honesty.

I could not recommend this book more if I had written it myself- and how I wish I had!  It is a nearly perfect read.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Waiting Place - Eileen Button


The Waiting Place by Eileen Button is one of those books that you don't intend to read in one sitting, but happily find yourself staying up way too late to finish.  This collection of essays is beautifully written, both humorous and poignant when it needs to be.  I found myself reflecting on various 'waiting places' in my life while enjoying the insight and refreshing honesty in which Eileen shares hers.

The author walks us through various times when her life felt as if it were on hold- and at times she admits that she is barely holding on through it all.  What makes these stories so lovely is the way that Eileen shares personal insights and revelations about experiencing God in the midst of her waiting places. She is candid about her feelings and takes us through an emotional journey, riding waves of joy, laughter, tears and heartbreak as she honestly reflects on life.  From fishing moments with her father, beauty lessons with mom, visits with various grandparents and the birth and death of family members, Eileen covers all the moments that can take you for a loop and make you wonder what God is thinking!

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Waiting Place, as I have struggled with the stagnant periods in my own life.  I am so thankful to have read this book and had no clue how easily I would relate to the moments the author chose to share.  I feel as though God used these stories to tell me to deliberately slow down- to enjoy this period of my life and stop straining towards to future.  It is with heartbreaking clarity that The Waiting Place reminded me how often I wish away today to get to tomorrow.  Today is a gift, and Eileen Button writes an inspiring narrative reflecting this very truth.

I would highly recommend reading this book, no matter where you are in life's journey.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Spring for Susannah - Catherine Richmond


Spring for Susannah by Catherine Richmond is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Being the first time I have read this particular author, I wasn't sure what to expect from the characters/storyline, and I was pleasantly surprised.  The author writes her characters with great detail and emotional depth.  I found myself truly looking forward to how the relationships of the characters unfolded, almost wishing that the story could continue when I reached the end.

The novel begins with Susannah Underhill, a mail order bride, preparing to meet the man she is to marry.  She has traveled from Michigan to the great Dakota territory, trying to flee the nightmares of her past (a loveless childhood and a physical attack from a stranger).  She enters the marriage with fear, reservations and the inability to speak for herself- characteristics that her new husband Jesse finds bewildering.  As they begin to earn each others' trust, their marriage is tested by a series of trials characteristic of living out on the great frontier.  When Jesse has to leave his wife and homestead to find work, Susannah discovers the strength and purpose God has for her life.

The Spiritual message rings through loud and clear- we get samples of scripture, hymns and prayers all throughout the narrative.  I also appreciated how this book touches on the intimacy of marriage without shame.  Of course there is nothing graphic, but the loving relationship between a husband and wife is explored in a refreshing and lovely way- especially for Christian fiction.

I truly did enjoy this story and look forward to more by Catherine Richmond.  I did find that the story at times drug on, especially during the period when Susannah and Jesse are apart.  I found myself skimming a few pages to see what was going to happen- the interlude between their reunion did not keep my interest.  However, that section of the book is well compensated for by the beginning and end of the story.  I very much enjoyed the glimpse into prairie life during that time period and the vivid portrayal of the Dakota landscape.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Promise of an Angel- Ruth Reid


I have read many Amish Christian fiction novels, but never one quite like this.  In fact, I have to admit that it was refreshing to find that The Promise of an Angel by Ruth Reid did not rely on the same tried and true formula that other authors of Amish fiction have made famous.  I felt that this novel was contemporary and realistic in the way it treated the Amish culture and the emotions and experience of the characters within the story.

Judith Fischer lives in an Amish community in Michigan, where she is happy to tell stories to children, cook, and ready herself to be married to Levi Plank- the man she has been waiting 2 year to court.  However, after a tragic accident paralyzes her younger brother, strains her relationship with her family and exposes new truths about the man she has been waiting to marry, Judith begins to realize that God ordains the steps of her life. 

I truly enjoyed the spiritual aspect of this book as it touches on a topic that is rarely discussed.  Judith's visits from an angel and the faith she places in the things that are revealed to her leave her at odds with her community.  Her willingness to risk everything she has to stand up for God's promises truly inspired me.  I finished this book with a better understanding of biblical truths and a reminder that God still uses miracles to speak to us today.

Overall, I look forward to reading more books by Ruth Reid and exploring her Heaven on Earth series.  The Promise of an Angel (Book 1 in the series) is a lovely book with refreshing new insight into the Amish faith.  I couldn't put it down and highly recommend it.

Disclosure of Material: I received this book free from the publisher via Book Sneeze. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Radical - David Platt


Wow.  This book has changed my life.

When I first set out to read Radical by David Platt, I didn't really know what to expect.  I had heard things.  I had witnessed some changes in friends who had decided to dig into the book.  I knew what the word radical meant. But I really had no idea what a little orange book could say that I hadn't already heard throughout my life from pastors and mentors and various religious books.

After the first chapter I decided that this wasn't just any old book.  Halfway through the book I was crying (I do not cry).  By the end of the book I had changed in ways that I didn't even think I was ready for.  God knew better than I did about what kind of change I needed!

Radical is a book by mega church pastor David Platt.  In a sense, its purpose is to get us to discover the radical nature of Jesus Christ.  Platt argues that our culture has so watered down the message of the gospel that we have created our own ideas of who Jesus is and what He would ask of us.  Instead, he encourages us to go straight to the source- scripture.  Through various passages, parables, and personal experiences, Platt lays out a radically simple but honest truth: Jesus wants our all.  He wants all of our love, time, money, hope, worry, future.  He wants our life.

The book also opened my eyes to the idea of global ministry.  It is so easy to get consumed with our daily lives that we forget the community and world that God has put us here to minister to.  Platt makes a case for taking not just the gospel, but ourselves to the isn't even an option but our call according to Christ.

I won't go into the steps that Platt recommends to begin living this "radical life".  I do appreciate that he gives the reader small steps to take on a path to complete surrender to Jesus.  But to be honest, after reading this book I was ready to sell the house, pack the bags, and start sharing Jesus with Africa!  Of course, I quickly realized that would be crazy, right?  Jesus doesn't want us to be that radical does He?

Platt would argue that he does.  And I have to say, after reading this book, I agree.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Judgement - Beverly Lewis


The Judgment is the second novel in the Rose Trilogy from popular Amish fiction author Beverly Lewis.  I have a soft spot for Amish fiction and have enjoyed many novels by Beverly Lewis, including the first in this series (The Thorn).  However, as many 2nd novels of a trilogy tend to do, this one fell a little bit short for me.  I found myself want more answers, more plot development and caught myself skimming pages, which is something I rarely do!

In this second installment, Rose Ann must come face to face with the truth that her betrothed has feelings for a girl from his past.  All the while, Rose Ann is dealing with her own yearnings for Nick, the foster son of their bishop who has run off to the "English" world.  Meanwhile, Rose Ann's sister, Hen, is struggling with an impending divorce from her worldly husband, and the tension threatens to tear apart her family and marriage.

There are not many plot twists and turns in this book, only a straightforward and somewhat predictable path leading to the final novel, in which I believe the story lines will all come together nicely.  The Mercy (#3) is due in stores September, 2011, and I look forward to reading it!

Overall, The Judgment is a solid read and offers all the charm, spiritual heart and honest characters that I have come to expect from a Beverly Lewis novel.  I would recommend this book, if only as a bridge between the first novel (The Thorn) and book number three (The Grace).