29 February 2012

Review: First Date by Krista McGee

Addy Davidson has been chosen as the representative for her school in the new TV reality show, The Book of Love, with the prize being a date to the senior prom with Jonathon Jackson – the son of the President of the United States. Addy is an orphan, bought up by her Uncle Mike, and although she is a Christian, like many of us, she is nervous about sharing her faith, so she doesn’t want to be on TV representing her Christian school, least of all on a show where the ‘prize’ is a date with such a public figure. But as the competition progresses and she starts getting to know Jonathon, Addy finds herself wanting to stay on the show.

First Date is a fun YA retelling of the story of Esther. I had to remind myself of this a couple of times when the plot seemed to veer off into overly-contrived situations – but situations that were consistent with the Biblical story, so had to be included. I found some of the passages a bit juvenile, but then I'm the YA's mother, so (ahem) am a little out of the target age range.

But I'm sure my daughter would love First Date, as it has all her favourite things – celebrities, reality TV, a talent show, people being voted off, tears, nasty contestants, an even nastier producer/host, bribery … all in all, quite a few lessons about the nature of 'reality' TV, underpinned by a clear Christian message.

Overall, First Datewas a fast and enjoyable read that will be sure to appeal to older girls and teenagers. A sequel, Starring Me, will me available in July 2012. This will feature Kara McKormick, Addy's best friend from The Book of Love.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and BookSneeze® for providing a free ebook for review.

27 February 2012

Review: Beyond Molasses Creek by Nicole A Seitz

Beyond Molasses Creek is told in the first person, present tense, with changing narrators, and this meant I found it extremely difficult to get into the book. I don’t mind a third-person novel changing between two storylines, but I find two first-person narrators annoying, and I don’t usually like stories told in the present tense. In fact, I stopped reading it twice. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did.

The first narrator is Ally, a 60-year-old woman who has returned home to Molasses Creek following the death of her father. She is helped by her old friend, Vesey Washington, a man of a similar age to her, who was never more than a friend because of his race. Vesey also narrates some passages later in the book. Between them, they tell a story of a friendship going back fifty years.

The other narrator is Sunila, a 37 or 38-year-old woman living in Kathmandu, Nepal. She is an untouchable working as a stone-cutter, and is now going on a journey with a mysterious book to find Mr Monroe, an American diplomat who helped her many years ago. I initially thought Sunila was a man, based on the occupation. The ambiguity surrounding Sunila was probably intended to be mysterious: I found it confusing.

As the story progresses, Ally tells us her history through a series of flashbacks, and we begin to guess how the two plot lines are related. Although the first part of the book was a struggle, it improved steadily and the last third was outstanding – happy, sad, sentimental but without being maudlin.

From a Christian point of view, Vesey had a strong faith but Ally was much more wishy-washy, and even by the end of the book, I didn’t really know where she stood. I think this could have been developed further. Despite these comments, overall, Beyond Molasses Creek was a strong book that proved that I can enjoy a well-written character-driven saga.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and BookSneeze® for providing a free ebook for review.

24 February 2012

Review: The Scroll by Grant R Jeffrey and Alton L Gansky

David Chambers is a biblical archaeologist who once explored the biblical sites because of his faith, but now that faith is as dead as King Herod he is contemplating a change in career direction. In this slightly futuristic thriller, a chance telephone call from a colleague in Israel brings the opportunity to lead a project that will potentially change the world forever (The Scroll is set in 2012-2015).

The Copper Scroll is a list of the temple treasures and, more importantly, where they were hidden before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. As the search for the artefacts described in the Copper Scroll progresses, the threats increase and the danger intensifies. The likelihood of danger is brought home to the team when a local student is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Another complication is the presence of Dr Amber Rodgers, David's ex fiancée, the relationship that she broke off when David lost his faith as a result of the slow and painful death of his mother.

I have always enjoyed archaeology mysteries, and The Scroll was no exception.  It was well researched, with flashes of humour, and conspiracy theories almost two millennia old. The explanations of the underlying research and technology were clear, and the evident research made it hard to determine where fact ended and fiction began, which is always a good start. There are certain aspects to The Scroll that suggest it is targeted more towards the male audience (like always telling us the make and model of the aircraft Chambers is flying in), but that is not to say that women won’t enjoy it.  I certainly did.

Thanks to Waterbrook Press and Bookbloggers for providing a free ebook for review. Grant R Jeffrey is internationally recognized as a teacher on Bible prophecy and as the author of many non-fiction books. For more information, see his website. Alton L Gansky is a well-known author of intelligent Christian thrillers, and you can find out more about him at his website.

By the way, WaterbrookMultnomah give away free books at random to those readers who rank reviews of their books.  You can rank my review using the buttons below, or read and rank more reviews on their website, http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/bloggingforbooks/book-lovers.  This will also help me - the more people rate my reviews, the bigger the selection of books I get to choose from.

22 February 2012

Review: Why We Have Creeds by Buck Parsons

Why Do We Have Creeds is one of a series of over twenty booklets on various aspects of the Christian faith. It is only a short book (42 pages) but it contains some profound statements about the nature of belief. Parsons states that our doctrine is the basis for the way we live (whether that doctrine or belief or faith is conscious or unconscious) and that we cannot be effective Christians if we try to isolate our doctrine from our intellect.

While the basis of our faith is our relationship with God, Parsons calls the outworking of that faith 'religion' and points out that real faith, real religion affects the way we deal with others. This was an interesting idea to me, because many Christians I know take great care to point out that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Parsons effectively points out that one cannot exist without the other.

We all believe something (even atheists and agnostics). Our creeds are simply statements of those beliefs. Quoting C.S. Lewis and St. Paul, Parsons makes the point that while an open mind is a useful thing, as Christians we believe in an ultimate foundation, and that to be open-minded about these basics can lead us astray.

Although short, Why Do We Have Creeds? is not simplistic. The ideas are complex, as is some of the vocabulary (thank goodness for the Kindle dictionary – except that this book is not available on Kindle and it should be). One point I would make - Parsons clearly beleives in the primacy of the Bible, which is classic Protestant theology. Those who do not agree with this may object to some of what this book says. Personally, I found it excellent.

Thanks to P&R Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

20 February 2012

Review: Back to Resolution by Rose Dee

Bay embraces the hedonistic LA lifestyle following the death of her mother, until a drunken argument with her stepfather results in an ultimatum - leave the city or lose the generous allowance he provides. He has even arranged a temporary job for her, as a photographer in Australia, the country of her birth and the country where her unknown father lived. Bay takes the opportunity, recognising both the destructive nature of her current lifestyle and the need to find that there is more to life than the LA party scene.

In travelling to Daintree, Queensland, she begins to read the Bible she received as a parting gift from Richard, her previous boss and photography mentor, and in a moment where everything seems to be going wrong, turns her life over to Jesus. A series of coincidences then lead her to Resolution Island, the beautiful but run-down and isolated resort her father owns. Here she meets and befriends Flynn while learns more about her heavenly Father as she waits for her earthly father to return. But all is not well on their island paradise, as someone else wants it too…
Back to Resolution opens at a funeral, which is a little unusual, but it was immediately engaging. This is probably because characters were flawed yet likeable, which is pretty much true to life (and who wants perfect characters in fiction or in real life?). The story was well thought out, and got stronger as the book progressed. The writing broke several current writing conventions, but despite these potential faults, it worked. I particularly liked the emphasis on Bay's developing relationship as a Christian, and the suspense elements around her father, and around the others who want the island. Overall, a good read, and I will look forward to reading more by Rose Dee.

The second book in the Resolution series will be released in April 2012. Beyond Resolution will feature Jed (Flynn’s brother), and a Kings Cross stripper named Samara (Flynn’s ex-girlfriend). This sounds as if sparks could fly!

Thanks to Even Before Publishing for providing a free ebook for review.  For more information about Rose Dee, visit her website.

17 February 2012

Book Review: Falling to Pieces by Vannetta Chapman

In Falling to Pieces, Three young Amish mothers, Deborah, Esther and Melinda, have been friends and quilting partners for years. With the death of Esther's husband and the rare illness of Melinda's son placing financial pressure on them, they sew traditional quilts to sell to tourists in Daisy's Quilt Shop. But when Daisy dies and her niece Callie inherits the shop, they have to persuade her to reopen the shop and try and sell their quilts at ibby (they mean online via an eBay auction - I thought that ‘ibby’ was quite funny).

Callie is hiding her own hurts, having lost a child and her husband. She is reluctant to commit to staying in Shipshewana, but no longer has any ties to Houston and the home she shared with her husband. The friendship of the Amish women persuades her to stay temporarily, but an argument with the local newspaper editor and his subsequent murder may mean she has to stay longer than intended...

I have read a few mysteries lately, which is a new genre for me. I have to say that I am enjoying them, and Falling to Pieces is no exception. The plot is typical for the genre – most scenes are from the point of view of either Callie or Deborah, with the occasional scene from the murderer’s viewpoint. There were the potential suspects, the requisite red herrings, the surprise at the end when the culprit is revealed, and a potential touch of romance for Callie. All in all, Falling to Pieces is a very satisfying read.

Most of the Amish books I have read have been romances, and it has to be said that they can get very repetitive. The standard plot line seems to feature a teenage girl who hasn’t yet been baptised into the Amish faith, who then has to choose between the Englisch world and her family (with the Amish hero often playing a large part in that decision). As someone who is (ahem) no longer a teenager, I’m over the angst of teenage romance (although I can quite see myself encouraging my almost-teenage daughter to read them in a few years).

But I have read a couple of other mysteries set in Amish communities, and I have to say that I enjoy them. The women are older, usually married with children, and they seem more intelligent (or that could just be more mature). The Amish romances tend to stress the separation of the Amish from the Englisch world, while the mysteries feature a combination of Amish and Englisch characters living and working together in relative harmony – at least, until someone gets murdered. So while I’m not going to be hurrying out there to get another Amish romance, Vannetta Chapman and Falling to Pieces have convinced me that Amish mysteries are worth looking out for. (Others I have read and enjoyed include Secrets of Harmony Groveby Mindy Starns Clark and Hide in Plain Sight by Marta Perry, and I have a couple more in my to-be-read pile).

The second book in the Shipshewana Amish series, A Perfect Square, will be released on 6 March 2012 (Kindle edition) or 1 April (paperback edition). It has always been a standing joke with my parents that no one who wants to live should be anywhere near Miss Marple, Inspector Morse, Taggart or the village of Midsomer. It sounds as though Shipshewana might be joining this list of places that have far too many murders...

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Vannetta Chapman on her blog or her website.

15 February 2012

Review: The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin

A snowstorm and a closed airport bring two strangers together as they charter a small plane in an attempt to outrun a storm system. Dr Ben Payne attended a medical conference, then spent a few days indulging in his hobby of mountain climbing. Ashley Knox, a successful journalist, is heading home for her wedding. As the plane is flying over one of the harshest wilderness areas in the United States, the pilot suffers an unexpected heart attack. He miraculously manages to land the plane, but does not survive the impact.

Both Ashley and Ben are injured in the crash, Ben with cracked ribs and Ashley with a broken leg that renders her immobile. Fortunately, Ben has the medical skills to treat them both, and the survival skills to keep them alive in the unforgiving whiteout conditions. However, he soon realises that there will be no rescue, and if they are to survive they must break the first rule of air crash survival and leave the site of the crash to seek civilisation, safety – and food.

Interspersed with the highs and lows of their survival trek are the recordings that Ben makes for his wife, Rachel. As the story progresses, we learn about their meeting, courtship, marriage and, gradually, their separation – although the cause of their separation, that mountain between them, is not something that Ben discusses. Meanwhile, as Ashley listens to the recordings, she considers her own relationship with her fiancĂ©, and wonders how their relationship compares with the obvious love Ben has for Rachel.

It has to be said that I tend not to read books written by men, as they are often long on testosterone and explosions, and short on character development and plot. The Mountain Between Uswas therefore a very pleasant surprise, with its dual focus on the physical survival of Ben and Ashley, and the emotional survival of Ben and Rachel’s relationship.

Overall, this is a beautifully-written bittersweet tale that examines the nature of love and fidelity against a backdrop of survival in a harsh, unforgiving environment. Although it is published by a mainstream rather than a Christian publisher, it contains no swearing or other objectionable content, and it has an underlying premise of faith – not any words or anything I could put my finger on, just a sentiment (a quick Amazon search found that some of his earlier books were published by Thomas Nelson, a prominent Christian publisher). I very much enjoyed this book, and am glad that I stepped out of my literary comfort zone to read it.

13 February 2012

Review: Before the Scarlet Dawn by Rita Gerlach

Following the death of her father, Eliza Bloome must find a place to live and a livelihood. She seeks work on the Havendale estate nearby, hoping to catch the eye of the handsome Hayward Morgan, recently returned to England from the Maryland colonies.

Eliza and Hayward enter into marriage - one of convenience from Hayward's point of view, but from genuine love from Eliza's. With Hayward being cut off from his inheritance over the marriage, the couple leave immediately for Hayward's estate in Maryland. Eliza longs for Hayward to fall in love with her, but Hayward is a product of his upbringing and believes that love is a weakness that men should not feel.

Soon after their arrival in Maryland, Hayward leaves to support the revolutionary cause leaving Eliza and two servants to manage River Run and cope with war, separation, the threat of Indian raids and a handsome (unmarried) neighbour who falls in love with Eliza.

Eliza is impulsive but has a heart for God and a solid love for her husband and their baby daughter. She often struggles as she is left to face trials and loss without Hayward’s presence or support, and despite almost no communication from him during the years he is away. She is an obedient wife even when faced with situations where obeying was a difficult choice to make, and I admired her for this. But she is not without her faults, and one mistake changes everything. If you would like to find out more about Eliza, she was interviewed on Margaret Daly's blog (well, as Eliza is a fictional character, Rita Gerlach actually provided the answers).

My problem was that I did not find Hayward to be a likeable character. In the beginning he was proud and arrogant, without any personal faith, and he later added stubborness and unforgiveness to his character traits. He must have had some positive characteristics for Eliza to love him so much, but I never worked out what they were. The male characters were all secondary in that there was little from their point of view, and little character development.

Although the beginning of Before the Scarlet Dawn suggests it might be romantic, it is really historical fiction. It is unusual in that the historical attitudes are more accurate than in many books. Unfortunately, these are not the historical attitudes that we admire. So while I do recommend Before the Scarlet Dawn as a novel worth reading, I must also point out that it is not a sweet and light-hearted Colonial romance. If that is what you want to read, I would suggest A Bride Most Begrudging by Deeanne Gist.

Thanks to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

10 February 2012

Review: Something New by Dianne Christner

Lillian Mae Landis considers herself a plain woman in every aspect – birth, upbringing, church, clothes and looks.  She has always dreamed of being something more, specifically, being head chef at a restaurant, despite the teaching of her Conservative Mennonite church that married women don’t work outside the home, and that such ambitions are prideful and therefore sinful.  There are also problems at home – the family farm is almost bankrupt, her brother has left their Conservative church, and her mother is experiencing depression, which has (in their Conservative circles) a stigma of personal and spiritual failure.

Fletch Stauffer is also a Mennonite, but from a more progressive sect.  He is a missionary kid, now training to be a vet at the advice of Marshall, a long-term financial contributor to his parents’ mission.  His dream is to be ordinary, because living in Africa as a child meant he’d always been different from everyone else.  Lily and Fletch meet after she backs into his car in the parking lot of the restaurant where she works.  They are quickly attracted to each other, and get the opportunity to spend time together when Fletch’s vet internship brings him to the Landis pig farm. 

Conflict arrives when Fletch is asked to undertake some voluntary work at an animal shelter, then makes an error of judgement that loses him the trust of the Landis family, including Lily.  He then has to work through what he should have done, and make amends.  Meanwhile, Lily is facing her own challenges, including what to do if her relationship with Fletch progresses, as she can’t imagine him joining her church, yet she knows it would hurt her family if she were to leave.

The story was initially confusing, as it started with three ten-year-old Mennonite girls at summer camp, then skipped forward several years without making clear exactly how old the friends now were.  My initial reaction was that I’d accidentally stumbled on a Young Adult novel, which was not what I was expecting (while I have no objection to reading YA, I like to know in advance).  While it soon became apparent that the three friends are now adults (as one had just married), parts of the novel still had a rather YA feel to them.  I’m not sure if that was because of the young age and level of maturity of the protagonists (early 20’s, I think), because of a lack of worldliness in the Conservative Mennonite Church, or because of my personal views on the scriptural basis for some of the church rules, but it did mean that it took me a while to get into it.  I also found the ending a bit abrupt, almost as though the last chapter was deleted to make room for the epilogue.

Something New (Plain City)follows on from Something Old(the story of Kate and Jake), so I’m guessing the next in the series will be Something Borrowed (the story of Mercy, the last of the three friends), possibly followed by Something Blue? They don’t have to be read in order, although many people do prefer to read in order to avoid spoilers.  However, it’s a romance, which, by definition has to have a ‘happy ever after’.  How much more of a spoiler could there be?  I did enjoy Something New (Plain City), but it was not, for me, a great novel.  I would read more novels by Dianne Christner, but she won’t be one of those authors I read or buy automatically.

Thanks to Barbour Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook to review.

8 February 2012

Review: Accused by Janice Cantore

Las Playas Police Detective Carly Edwards is 33, her divorce has just come through, and she is frustrated, having been moved from patrol into juvenile investigations after a shootout that killed a civillian. Carly has no time for things of God, nor respect for her 'Jesus freak' mother who spends her time trying to save people. She also has no time for men, after her husband of eight years cheated on her.

Carly is surprised to be called into assist in a homicide investigation, at the request of the juvenile gang member who is caught driving the Lexus belonging to the town mayor, who has been missing for four days. Unfortunately for the teen, the body of the mayor is in the trunk of the car. The murder investigation is soon closed despite evidence that the teens in custody are innocent of the murder. Further events make Carly wonder if the case is being shut down deliberately to hide something. Is there corruption in the force? If so, who is behind it?

I enjoy romantic suspense novels, and Accusedticked all the boxes for me. An intelligent, feisty heroine who was on a spiritual and emotional journey, a hero that was both strong and humble, a page-turning story and a bit of romance thrown in too. I do admit that it took me a while to get into the book, but after about six chapters I was totally hooked. However, not everyone will like it, as Accusedis most definitely a Christian novel. It contains an unashamed gospel message, although I did not consider it 'preachy' as the prayer and Christian discussion were a natural part of a story of one woman coming to terms with her personal background and the possibility of a loving God.

Author Janice Cantore spent over twenty years in the police force, so the novel has a ring of authenticity, even down to the veterans making fun of rookie cops spouting unintelligible ‘cop-speak’. Accusedis the first in the new Pacific Coast Justice series, with the second book, Abducted, due out in mid-2012.

Thanks to Tyndale Publishers and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

6 February 2012

Review: Lent for Everyone by Nicholas Wright

As a Christian in a denomination that does not formally acknowledge Lent, I picked up Lent for Everyoneout of curiosity, and was very glad that I did. It is a devotional for the 40 days of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter, with the reading each day focussing on a different aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry. The New Testament quotations are from the authors' own translation (The New Testament for Everyone series by N. T. Wright). Some people won't like this because they are married to their own preferred translations; others find that reading an unfamiliar translation can bring out Bible truths in a new way. I would have appreciated knowing the date of Ash Wednesay (for those who are interested, it is 22 February).

This is my favourite kind of devotional, and one I often struggle to find. It has a scripture reference, with the key verses written out. This is followed by a relevant lesson based on the quoted verses, and a short prayer. The daily time commitment is no longer than ten minutes, and will leave the reader with a thought to ponder throughout the day. Overall, I like the format, I like the style and I really like his spiritual insights. I would certainly look for more devotionals by Nicholas Wright. Recommended.

Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

3 February 2012

Review: A Life of Joy by Amy Clipston

Since her parents died four years ago, Lindsay Bedford has lived with her Amish Aunt and Uncle in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  She is now eighteen, and her friends are planning on taking the ‘Instruction for Baptism’ classes, after which they will be baptised and become full members of the Amish faith, responsible for fulfilling all the rules of the Ordnung.  While her friends expect her to join them in the class and get baptised, her sister, Jessica, who is attending college, is encouraging Lindsay to complete her high school education and consider further education.  As Lindsay is pondering her choice, she is asked to spend the summer back in her old hometown in Virginia, helping a close family friend recover from a broken leg.  This brings her into contact with some of her old friends, and helps her decide which life she will choose.

A Life of Joy is the fourth in the Kauffman Amish Bakery series, following A Gift of Grace, A Promise of Hope and A Place of Peace.  However, it can easily be read as a stand-alone, as the relevant events from the previous books are covered in enough depth that the new reader understands the background, without providing so much detail as to bore the regular reader.  I suspect these titles are more focused at the Young Adult than then Adult market.  While there was nothing wrong with the book, I am old enough that I don’t really want to read about teenagers any more – but I can fully see that these would be worthwhile books for my daughter to read in a few years.  A Life of Joyemphasised the importance of making your own decisions based on your own faith in God, and not allowing external pressures or ‘worldly’ people to influence that decision, and this is certainly something I expect that many Christian parents seek to teach their children.

There were a few things that puzzled me in A Life of Joy, but these are more a commentary on US life in general and Amish life in particular than any criticism of the book.  I found it amusing that while the Amish are not permitted to own or use most modern technology, it is permitted for them to sell souvenirs like “books, maps, postcards, magnets, keychains, collectible spoons and note cards”, all of which must be mass-produced (probably in China) using manufacturing methods that the Amish would not themselves be permitted to use.  And is it a cash-only business, or are they permitted the electronic machinery necessary to accept credit cards?  I found it frustrating when one character reminds another that “the Bible tells us not to judge one another”, when the central plot feature of so many Amish books (although not this one) is shunning – casting ‘sinners’ out of the Amish community until they repent.  And I just shook my head when Lindsay passed her GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma).  How hard can it be if a teen with no formal high school education can pass by studying one book for only a month?  No wonder most American teenagers seem to spend their high school years in a mainstream equivalent to the Amish rumspringa (‘running around’). 

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.