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.