Friday, November 1, 2013

Little Book of Great Dates - Erin & Greg Smalley


The Little Book of Great Dates by Erin and Greg Smalley is a neat concept- a chronological resource to carry you through a year of dating.  The first devotional starts on January 1st and each date throughout the year corresponds with various seasons and holidays.  For example, the first date involves laying out a plan for hopes and dreams in the New Year.  There are 52 devotionals so you can use one each week to carry you through the year.

Marriage takes work, most anyone who is married knows that!  The Smalley's book is a wonderful tool for creating intimate and inventive dates for the typical husband and wife who have run out of ideas.  They encourage couples to make time each week to set aside time just for each other.  Some of the suggestions are pretty basic and if you've ever read a couple's devotional you've probably already visited many of these topics. However, I appreciated how many dates did not involve going out and spending money, as sometimes this can be hard to do on a consistent basis with tight finances and young kids at home.  Each date also ends with conversation suggestions, which have actually sparked some pretty interesting discussions between my husband and I.

Overall, Little Book of Great Dates was a nice reminder that you can not give up on loving your spouse.  It is so important to continue to "date" your husband or wife throughout your marriage.  Sometimes it is easy to stop being as polite, well manned, romantic, or thoughtful as the years tick by, but all these things are attitudes that Christ calls us to have toward one another.  When we put our spouse's needs before our own we are truly investing in our marriage. I have thoroughly enjoyed using this little book to put a spark back into our weekly date night and encourage other couples to give it a try as well!

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Governess of Highland Hall - Carrie Turansky


The Governess of Highland Hall by Carrie Turansky was a very enjoyable read.  I finished it in two days, practically read it from start to finish.  It was addictive, almost like the literary version of Downton Abbey!

Julia Foster is a young missionary from India who finds herself seeking employment at Highland Hall, a majestic estate worlds away from the simple life she has always led.  Julia works diligently as a governess and finds that as time passes she is falling in love with not only the estate, but with her employer and his children.  The social and financial implications that follow threaten to destroy Highland Hall and the cozy security that Julia has found.  As she leans on her faith, Julia finds that true comfort and security can only be found in trusting Jesus.

The Governess of Highland Hall was such an entertaining novel.  I would highly recommend it, especially to those who enjoy romantic historical fiction.  Turansky does a remarkable job of transporting the reader to 1900s England.  Her descriptive details are magnificent, and I often found myself daydreaming about the gorgeous gardens, cavernous hallways and opulent surroundings of Highland Hall.  There are many secondary characters with fabulous story lines.  Catherine, the Lady of Highland hall, has a particularly interesting plot line that nicely compliments the romance between Julia and William.  I throughly enjoyed learning about all the servants and their respective duties.  Every time I sat down to read I couldn't help looking forward to experiencing another holiday, meal, or romantic encounter with the characters of this novel.  Reading fiction is sometimes an escape from the mundane stresses of every day life, and The Governess of Highland Hall is a perfect example of an exciting literary getaway.  Turansky's novel includes elements of intrigue, suspense, tension, romance and heartwarming happiness.  I can't wait to read book two in this series and be carried back to Highland Hall!

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

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Outcast - Jolina Petersheim


The Outcast by Jolina Petersheim takes us into the conservative, secretive world of the Old Order Mennonites.  The author does a brilliant job of telling a modern story against the backdrop of a people who live as though time stood still many centuries ago.  The twists and turns of the plot were most unexpected, and I found myself taking guesses as to how the story would be resolved and being pleasantly surprised when I was completely wrong!  Petersheim's debut novel is a compelling retelling of The Scarlett Letter, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Rachel Stoltzfus is the independent and vivacious counterpoint to her twin sister Leah.  They are opposite in almost every way except looks, but the bond they share runs deep.  When Rachel suddenly turns up pregnant and refuses to name the baby's father, her strict Mennonite community shuns her as an outcast.  The heartbreak that follows is told through the perspectives of Rachel, her sister, and her sister's husband as they come to terms with betrayal, forgiveness and ultimately, redemptive healing.

The Outcast is told in two different first person narratives, with one point of view being a deceased person who almost acts as a reliable witness to all that is happening, one without bias.  I enjoyed this interplay between Rachel, who is so personally involved in every act of betrayal and sacrifice born from her sin, to Amos, the deceased minister who has an otherworldly perspective of his community's thoughts and feelings.  The characters that Petershiem creates are rich and vibrant, particularly Ida Mae, whose rough edges and deep feelings make for a most interesting read.  Although at times I felt the story was tending toward the melodramatic, is held a very real and visceral grip on the realities of our world and how choices we make can result in devastating consequences.

I would highly recommend this novel and author to anyone who enjoys a good piece of inspirational fiction.  It was neither predictable nor heavy handed.  The spiritual nature of the book was very understated, but I did not have a problem with that as the themes of forgiveness and healing were very prevalent throughout the novel.  I look forward to reading Jolina Petersheim's next offering!

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

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Heiress of Winterwood - Sarah Ladd


The Heiress of Winterwood (Whispers on the Moors) by Sarah Ladd had all the components of a novel that I should eagerly devour, and I sat down to read it with great anticipation.  Perhaps these unrealistic expectations contributed to its downfall, for I found myself flying through the pages in search of an ending that never quite arrived.  That's not to say that this is an unenjoyable read, for the narrative is truly well written and peppered with complex characters and interesting plot twists.  Still, I found I reached the end of the novel with feelings of apathy as to the outcome of the story.

Sarah Ladd's debut novel takes place in 1814 on the moors of Danbury, England.  Due to a deathbed promise to a dear friend, Amelia Barrett finds herself raising the infant daughter of Captain Graham Sterling, who has yet to return from sea.  Amelia is willing to break her current engagement in order to raise little Lucy, who has stolen her heart.  But in order to remain heiress of Winterwood, she must convince a man she has never met to accept a most unorthodox proposition.  The lies and deception that unfold from this plan lead Sarah, Graham and Lucy down a dangerous path.

The Heiress of Winterwood hit all the right notes for historical romantic fiction.  There are beautiful settings, flawed characters, and nuggets of insight into the lives of those in 1800s England.  The author describes Winterwood Manor with great detail and while I appreciated this precision, at times I longed for a bit of dialogue to break up the descriptive narrative.  In the end, the story wraps up nicely and with a few surprises.  Overall, this is a good read and I would recommend it if you're a fan of historical fiction.  It was not my favorite foray into this genre, but I will gladly read Ladd's next offering.

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

Take A Chance On Me - Susan May Warren


Take A Chance On Me by Susan May Warren takes us on another journey to Deep Haven, MN and it might just be my favorite one yet.  Revolving around the Christiansen family of Evergreen Lake resort,  this piece of romantic fiction is exquisitely woven together to tell a story of forgiveness and redemption.

Darek Christiansen is learning to accept his new role as father and resort manager after the death of his wife, Felicity.  Ivy Madison is looking for a place to call home after surviving the foster care system and growing up alone.  Jensen is struggling to earn forgiveness for a mistake that haunts him, and Claire is looking for her purpose after losing faith in God's kindness.  The author writes this story from the perspective of four different characters, each struggling with anger and un-forgiveness related to the same tragic accident that killed a loved one.  As each person grapples with decisions that will change the course of their lives, they come to find peace and joy in the reality of God's love.

I enjoyed Take A Chance on Me so much that I finished it in two sittings- that's quite remarkable for someone juggling two kids and sleepless nights!  Revisiting Deep Haven was a treat, and I am so excited that this is just the first in a series of six new books, as I will get to read many more beautiful stories about the Christiansen family.  I feel privileged to share with you an interview with the author, Susan May Warren, and an excerpt from Chapter 1 of this novel.  I also encourage you to spend a rainy afternoon getting acquainted with the idyllic town of Deep Haven, you won't be disappointed.

Author Q & A witSusan May Warren 
1. This is the first installment in a brand new six-book series. Can you give us a bit of background on this series?
I love stories about families watching the members interact and grow together through challenges and victories and I conceived this series as I watched my own children begin to grow up and deal with romance and career and futures. I love Deep Haven, and it’s the perfect setting for a resort, so I crafted a family, much like the families I know, who run a resort. They want to pass on their legacy to their children...but their children don’t know if they want it. It’s sort of a parallel theme to the legacy of faith we instill in our children. As they grow older, they need to decide whether it is their faith too. It’s a saga about family and faith and what happens when those collide with real life.

2. This Christiansen Family series is set in Deep Haven, Minnesota. Tell us about this setting.
Deep Haven, Minnesota is based in a small vacation town in northern Minnesota where I spent my childhood. It’s located on Lake Superior, surrounded by pine and birch and the sense of small town and home. Populated by everyone from artists to lumberjacks, it’s Mitford, or perhaps Northern Exposure gone Minnesotan. Quaint, quirky and beautiful, it’s the perfect place to escape for a vacation.

3. What was your inspiration for this particular book and the main character Darek Christiansen?
As I started to put together this series, I began to think about our culture and our children today. I started to take a look at the big questions we are faced with as parents and as young people; the issues that affect us as a culture, as well as personally. I wanted these books to go beyond family drama, beyond a great romance to raise bigger questions and stir truths that we might pass along to others. This story is about our propensity in our culture to blame others for what goes wrong in our lives and how this alienates us from each other, and ultimately, God. Darek is the oldest brother in the family; the leader and a real hero. He’s a wildland firefighter and a widower who’s had to give up his job to come home and run the resort and care for his young son. Darek doesn’t realize he has a problem – he lives with anger on his shoulder, hating the man who killed his wife (his best friend). His real problem is that he can’t forgive himself. In this first story, readers meet the family, hang out at the resort and discover that God can redeem even a heart of stone, if we take a chance on Him.

4. What lessons or truths will your readers find in the pages of this novel?
This book is for the person who feels they just can’t get past the anger they have for someone else to live in joy again. It’s for parents who see their children making bad choices and don’t know where to turn. It’s for people who believe that no one will ever really love them because of who they are, or the things they’ve done. It’s for people who need the courage to take a second chance on love and faith and family. I’m hoping readers walk away with a sense of how much God loves them, and that yes, He can heal the angry and broken-hearted.

5. How do you expect this new series to resonate with your audience? How do you want your books to make them feel?
Great question! I love a story that brings me on an emotional journey from anger to laughter to hope. But most of all, I want readers to be wrapped up in joy, that feeling we get when watch our football team win, or when we’re hands up in a convertible on a hot summer day, or digging our feet into a sandy beach, or hugging our loved one when they return home. Ah. The sense that, just for a moment, all is right in the world and everything tastes and feels delicious. I write romances, and in the end it’s worth the journey to the happily ever after.

6. As a writer, what did you particularly enjoy about crafting this story?
I loved Darek’s transformation. His relationship with his son is so precious, but when he truly lets go of his anger, he becomes the hero I always knew he could be. I love writing about broken heroes who find healing.

7. What advice do you have for budding novelists?
Read! Then write the book you’d like to read. But, along the way, learn the craft. In fact, a good writer never stops learning.

8. What is the best advice or encouragement that you have received?
Just keep writing. If you want to be a career novelist, you just have to keep writing.

9. In your writing career, what are you most proud of?
After over forty novels, I’m always striving to keep the stories fresh and unique; so I guess I’m proud that every book is bathed in prayer, has a message singular to that story, and has unique characters and journeys. Every story is a new adventure for me, and the reader. 

Continue Reading if you would like a preview of Take A Chance on Me by Susan May Warren

(Prologue Excerpt):

My dearest Darek,
Even as I write this letter, I know I’ll tuck it away; the words on it are more of a prayer, meant for the Lord more than you. Or maybe, in the scribbling upon this journal page, the words might somehow find your heart, a cry that extends across the bond of mother and child.

The firstborn child is always the one who solves the mystery of parenthood. Before I had you, I watched other mothers and wondered at the bond between a child and a parent, the strength of it, the power to mold a woman, making her put all hopes and wishes into this tiny bundle of life that she had the responsibility to raise.
It’s an awe-filled, wonderful, terrifying act to have a child, for you suddenly wear your heart on the outside of your body. You risk a little more each day as he wanders from your arms into the world. You, Darek, were no protector of my heart. You were born with a willfulness, a courage, and a bent toward adventure that would bring me to the edge of my faith and keep me on my knees. The day I first saw you swinging from that too-enticing oak tree into the lake should have told me that I would be tested.
Your brothers shortened your name to Dare, and you took it to heart. I was never so terrified as the day you came home from Montana, fresh from your first year as a hotshot, feeling your own strength. I knew your future would take you far from Evergreen Lake. I feared it would take you far, also, from your legacy of faith.
Watching your son leave your arms has no comparison to watching him leave God’s. You never seemed to question the beliefs your father and I taught you. Perhaps that is what unsettled me the most, because without questioning, I wondered how there could be true understanding. I held my breath against the day when it would happen—life would shatter you and leave your faith bereft.
And then it did.
It brought you home, in presence if not soul. If it hadn’t been for your son, I might have done the unthinkable—stand in our gravel driveway and bar you from returning, from hiding.
Because, my courageous, bold oldest son, that is what you are doing. Hiding. Bitter and dark, you have let guilt and regret destroy your foundation, imprison you, and steal your joy. You may believe you are building a future for your son, but without faith, you have nothing to build it on. Evergreen Resort is not just a place. It’s a legacy. A foundation. A belief.
It’s the best of what I have to give you. That, and my unending prayers that somehow God will destroy those walls you’ve constructed around your heart.
Darek, you have become a mystery to me again. I don’t know how to help free you. Or to restore all you’ve lost. But I believe that if you give God a chance, He will heal your heart. He will give you a future. He will truly lead you home.
Lovingly, Your mother

(Author, Susan May Warren)

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

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe - Sarah Mae & Sally Clarkson


Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. -Titus 2:3–5

Before I became a Mom, I obviously had no idea what it meant to be a mother.  I remember wondering if I would love my children more than my dogs (ha!).  If I would be a good Mom, be able to see past my own needs and desires in order to nurture another human being.  And then my son was born and in an instant my heart was beating outside of my body, it was no longer my own, he held it in his hands.

I remember the surprise of my second pregnancy- a little life I had not anticipated and would never have sought on my own.  I wondered if I would ever love this next baby as much as my first.  If there was any way I could handle two little ones day in and day out.  And then my daughter was born, and she looked into my eyes, it was love as first sight.

Nobody tells you how hard it is, this incredible job of raising children, of molding young souls to know and love the Lord.  I had no idea there would be so many sleepless nights, days where I literally make myself get up in the morning to change another diaper or cuddle a child to sleep.  I had no idea that I would second guess every word, every decision, every moment, asking myself- did I teach them something?  Have I crushed their spirit?  Do they see God in me?  Do they notice I'm struggling right now?  Do they know how much I love them?  Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe by Sarah Mae & Sally Clarkson was a breath of fresh air to my soul.  I am convinced this book is for every Mom.  For the joyous Mom celebrating their baby's first steps to the exhausted Mom patiently discipling her screaming toddler or rebellious teenager, this book gives you hope that God has a plan and purpose for motherhood.

The authors start with an honest confession about their own struggles with raising children.  Sarah Mae goes so far as to say this, "Let me pull back the curtain on the idea that just because you love and are thankful to be a mother, parenting will come easily or naturally. The lifetime commitment that is motherhood will, many days, stretch you beyond what you think you can handle."  Author Sally Clarkson, who treasures her role as a mentor to young Moms, explains Desperate in these terms, "We are making a plea for older women to remember the tired years and come alongside young mothers, so that our children and our children’s children will know how to serve and to receive help."  Each Chapter of the book begins with a question or struggle from young mother Sarah Mae and then an answer of wisdom from Sally Clarkson.  There are also scripture verses, journaling questions and an activity to drive home the lesson from each section.

I often find myself struggling with the monotony of being a stay at home Mom to young children.  It is easier to stay in than lug around all the necessary equipment required to leave the house with two children.  Nap times and early bedtimes mean we're usually tied down to the house.  Honestly, having little ones is not at all conducive to having an exciting social life.  Then, taking into consideration my need for quiet in order to recharge....well, we don't have a lot of that around here!  Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe, reminded me that we must first turn to God in order to have the strength to parent.  Family and friends are here to help recharge and love on our littles ones so that we can take a step back and focus.  Clarkson stresses the importance of surrounding yourself with wise women who can help you grow in the Lord.  She believes that it is helpful to find women who are strong mothers and raised children in the knowledge of Christ so that we might emulate them.

Desperate was such a wonderful book.  It reminded me about the beauty of motherhood and the high calling it is to invest in our children's lives.  The scripture, stories and encouragement truly breathed life into my tired mommy moments.  I felt encouraged both spiritually and mentally- knowing that it is ok to feel overwhelmed at times, as long as you remember Who to bring your burdens to.  Jesus uniquely equips each of us to parent the children we have been given and, as we turn to him, he gives us all we need to succeed.  I will never be a perfect Mom, but I can love God with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself.  My children will see the love of Christ in me, and in the end, isn't that all they need?

Get this book my mommy friends, it is honest, hopeful and helpful!

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, March 8, 2013

The Call to Wonder: Loving God like a Child - R.C. Sproul Jr.


This book was such a joy to read.  These Reformed authors (Piper, Platt, Sproul) sure do know how to convict you with their writing while encouraging you to grow in Christ.  In The Call to Wonder: Loving God Like a Child, R.C. Sproul calls us not to just love God, but to know Him.  Many of us can say we love God, but I wonder at times how many would actually deign to say that they know God.  Of course we can not fully understand His sovereignty, but the miracle of Christianity is that not only can we know Him, but that He wants us to know Him!

I've had this book for awhile and was just now able to read it.  Between the time that I received this book and actually read it my life has changed tremendously.  I've had a beautiful baby daughter, survived 2 months of bed rest with a toddler, my husband changed jobs, two separate friends both experienced heartache with the loss of a son and the diagnosis of cancer.  I've even struggled with a little bit of post partum anxiety.  And through it all God has quietly been encouraging me to rest in Him, to trust Him despite the circumstances that have tried to blow my faith away like dandelion puffs.  So I picked up this book, decided to read it so I could finally get back to my book reviews that I love so much, and only God could have known how this book would move me into His arms.  With faith and wonder like a child, just as the author describes.

One section in The Call to Wonder really stuck with me.  Sproul's daughter was diagnosed with a serious medical condition, and his father called to ask how he was handling the grim news.  Sproul Jr. replied, "Dad, I have been preparing for this moment my entire life. There is no faith on the planet that more strongly affirms the sovereignty of God than the Christian faith. We know this did not catch God by surprise. We know that Shannon, Denise, and I all rest in His loving hands. We will, by His grace and in His power, be able to manage."  Wow.  This is knowing God.  This is the kind of faith that the author calls us to experience throughout the book.  I would recommend this read to any Christian who is looking for encouragement to renew the joy and wonder of their walk with Christ.  I came away with a desire to please God, an eagerness to take Him at His word and revel in his majesty.  The Call to Wonder: Loving God like a Child, opened my eyes to what Jesus meant in Matthew 18:3.  I encourage you to discover it as well. 

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