30 April 2012

Review: Spirit Fighter by Jerel Law

Jonah Stone is thirteen when he flunks the school basketball tryouts but notices something strange about the way he can kick a soccer ball. He tells his parents, who not only believe him but tell him a family secret – Jonah’s mother is one of the Nephilim, one of the half-human, half-angel beings referred to in Genesis, and Jonah and his siblings are quarterlings, which gives them special powers and the ability to see angels.

But then his mother goes missing, and it seems that others of the Nephilim have also disappeared. Together with his sister Eliza, Jacob must fight the forces of evil to rescue their mother and the other missing nephilim before the captives can be forced to work for the Destroyer. In their search, they learn to put on the armour of God (from Ephesians 6), to walk by faith and to trust in the name of the Lord.

Spirit Fighter is well written and fast paced. Many of the ideas are reminiscent of Frank Peretti's books, but with a strong youth focus and not so frightening. There are parallels between Spirit Fighter and some of the popular secular fiction available for this age group – the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books spring to mind.

Jonah can see the fallen angels and feel the despair they exude, similar to Harry Potter and the dementors. Like Percy Jackson, Jacob is part-human and part-superbeing, which gives him extraordinary powers. The difference is that in Spirit Fighter, these elements are given has a sound basis in the Bible. (And, at the end of the day, this is fiction. But it will introduce children to the concept of the spiritual realm and the battle being fought).

An adult might find elements of Spirit Fighter simply too fantastic and criticise it for being too plot driven with insufficient focus on the development of the characters. While this might be true, I don't see that the target audience of middle school boys will be bothered. They just want to see the bad guys get wasted, and should therefore be well satisfied. Despite the presence of Eliza, I imagine Spirit Fighterwill be more appealing to boys than girls, and will be enjoyed by fans of TV shows such as Bibleman and Angel Wars.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. Jerel Law speaks about his inspiration for Spirit Fighter at A Novel Bookshelf.

27 April 2012

Review: Illusion by Frank Peretti

Mandy's death in a car accident means the end of her forty-year career in magic in which she and her husband, Dane, had performed around the world. Or does it? Because Mandy is not dead. She's nineteen again, but nineteen in 2010, not the 1970 she remembers. Mandy struggles to adjust to modern life, trying to practice her father’s advice: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Meanwhile, Dane is struggling to adjust to life without his wife, until one day he sees a young magician who reminds him of a young version of Mandy.

As is typical of a Peretti novel, nothing is what it seems. Characters that appeared harmless at first then appear to have some ulterior motive. There is Mandy’s new manager, who helps her get a valid social security number. There is also the mysterious Mr Stone and Mr Mortimer, who appear at Mandy's funeral, then follow Dane to his new home in northern Idaho to spy on him. And underneath, there is they mystery of how a dead woman has suddenly appeared again, forty years younger. It's like there is more than one Mandy, but she is real because she eats and sleeps and talks, and other people talk to her, so it's not like she's a ghost - just a teenager in 2010 who only knows the sixties songs and slang.

I try not to read other people's reviews before I read a book for review, because I don't want to be influenced by someone else's ideas. But I did happen to glimpse a couple of reviews before starting to read Illusion, and one commented that they found the beginning of the book confusing. Well, yes, it was. But I think that was the intention. Just imagine it. One moment you’re nineteen and enjoying the County Fair with your friends. You sit down to eat lunch, and the next thing you know, the Fair has vanished, everything that is familiar is gone, and people are talking into small plastic boxes and telling you it is 2010 when you know it is 1970. What's not to be confused about?

So, yes, Illusion was confusing. It was also engaging and intriguing and I wavered between trying to work out who was who and exactly what was happening, and just wanting to read more and read faster so I could find out for myself. And weird things keep happening. Illusionis not a spiritual warfare novel like Peretti’s early Darkness novels, but it is a fast-paced thriller with a touch of science fiction, albeit from a Christian point of view. I was reading at night and found it hard to keep my eyes open, but even harder to stop reading. Recommended.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

25 April 2012

Review: Hiding in Plain Sight by Amy Wallace

Ashley Walters has recently moved to Montezuma, Georgia, a small town with a sizeable Mennonite community. She is still mourning the death of her brother, Eric, who died ten years ago when she was eighteen, an unsolved crime that inspired her decision to join the police. One night, a callout to a store robbery introduces her to Bradley Yoder, a thirteen-year-old Mennonite boy who is searching for his birth mother following the death of his adoptive father. She befriends Bradley and his handsome uncle, Jonathan, and finds that Bradley is implicated in a series of accidents at the Yoder farm.

She has also started dating for the first time since Eric’s death, after being set up by a neighbour. Patrick is a marriage and relationship counsellor and a Christian (even though Ashley hasn't been on speaking terms with God since Eric died). He is on the town's revitalisation committee, which has plans to revitalise Montezuma by capitalising on its Mennonite heritage. But the investor wants to forbid the Mennonites from sharing the faith that defines them as a group, which causes friction.

I thought I knew where Hiding in Plain Sightwas going after the first few chapters, but then it changed to become more of a romantic suspense, with the addition of the farm accidents and occasional scenes from the point of view of the vandal, as we try to puzzle out his identity. I liked the subtle way the author introduced this, and the way it gradually grew in importance as the story progresses, while other plot points that I had thought would be important turned out not to be.

I really liked the way Hiding in Plain Sightdealt with Ashley's attitude towards God. She softens gradually throughout the story, in a way that felt a lot more realistic than many Christian authors manage. I also liked the strong underlying theme of faith and forgiveness, and the way the author built it in without preaching, but without compromise. 

There were a couple of conversations that I had to reread to work out who was actually speaking, although that could have been because I was reading an ARC with some formatting issues and a couple of typos. (An ARC is an advance reader copy of the book, provided to people like booksellers, librarians and reviewers in advance of publication. Sometimes these are the 'clean' ebook version of the printed book, but often, as in this case, they are unproofed copies so there can be mistakes.)

Overall, Hiding in Plain Sightwas a well-written book with a solid underlying Christian theme, and some lovely poetic language hidden between the more suspenseful scenes. Thanks to Harvest House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

23 April 2012

Review: Cuts Like a Knife by MK Gilroy

The opening chapter of Cuts Like a Knifeis narrated by a psychopath planning his next event, and is spine-chillingly outstanding. The main narrator is Kristen, and her point of view is interspersed with short chapters from the murderer and from a online vlogger.

Kristen is a Chicago Police Department detective, soccer coach for her niece’s team, and almost-ex girlfriend of Dell (it would be a lot easier to become the ex if Mom didn’t keep inviting him home for dinner). She’s just been appointed to a team investigating the murder of a young woman, because the FBI suspect she isn’t a lone victim: instead, she is the 48th victim of a serial killer that has struck six previous cities.

Kristen is a very matter of fact narrator with a dry sense of humour. She's not a girlie girl, but that fits her tough persona, a hardnosed cop in a family where her sisters have achieved as stereotypical women (one is a pastor's wife, the other is a beautiful TV news reporter). Kristen is not even close to perfect, unlike many Christian fiction heroines. She has anger issues stemming from her father's death, she disobeys orders and while she can hold up her end in a fight, she is not great with a firearm.

It soon becomes apparent to the reader that the killer is setting Kristen up to be his victim, which raises the ante and makes finding him even more important, but then there is a twist... I don't put spoilers in my reviews but I have to say that this one kept me on the edge. Gilroy is good at employing flashes of humour to cut through the tension, and at giving us a feel for the level of horror without needing to spell out the gory details.

As a Christian literary agent, Mark Gilroy will have seen thousands of manuscripts, and must have a pretty good idea of what is good and what sells. Knowing what is good and what is not does not automatically mean that you (or I) can write something that actually is good. But Mark has managed to cross this barrier, and I recommend Cuts Like a Knifeto anyone who likes a good thriller.  I hope the ending is setting us up for a sequel, because this is an excellent first novel, and I would certainly read more from Mark Gilroy. Just not late at night...

Thanks to Worthy Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Mark at his website.

20 April 2012

Review: Making Life Matter by Shane Stanford

Making Life Matter: Embracing the Joy in the Everyday begins with the stories of three historical figures, and how they overcame significant personal challenges to achieve, to make their lives matter. In the same way, the author of this book, Shane Stanford has overcome his own challenges. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986, having caught the disease from contaminated blood. Remember that at this time there was a huge stigma attached because AIDS was seen as a homosexual disease, God's punishment on the gay community. I first heard of AIDS in around 1984, and a diagnosis was seen as a death sentence. I am amazed that someone diagnosed that long ago is still alive.

I started reading this one Sunday afternoon. The theme of that Sunday’s sermon was to 'choose life' and that was exactly the choice that Slade was faced with after his diagnosis. His grandfather challenged him to choose life, “choosing to live each day to the fullest, choosing to make his life matter”. But this book is not about Pastor Shane Stanford (as inspiring a story as that would be). It is about you and me, working to improve our relationships, to change, to make our lives matter.

Why is this important? Stanford quotes a study from Willow Creek Community Church, famous for leading many changes the way church functions, from worship music to how people joined in community. They found that these changes “provided little to no impact” on whether or not people remained in the church. Put simply, “the people studied said they felt shortchanged by the glitz and glamour”, and “what they really wanted were ministries that drew them closer to God, closer to each other, and closer to who God had created us to be from the beginning. The real issues on their minds and on their hearts were about identity—about what really made life matter.”

While this is a short book, it is not intended to be a book that one reads and forgets in the hurry of reaching for the next book in the pile. Rather, it is meant to be read slowly, one chapter at a time, and to be meditated upon. This is not a long book - just an introduction and seven chapters and an epilogue that takes the message of the book for the indivdual and applies it to the organisation, the church (I’ve decided that I like reviewing non-fiction, because I can say what happens at the end without it being a spoiler).

At the end of each chapter is a weeks' worth of Bible readings, a Psalm, some questions for reflection or discussion and a prayer. Making Life Matter could therefore be used as the basis for personal devotions or for a weekly group study. Recommended.

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

18 April 2012

Review: Whatever is Lovely by Marsha Maurer

Based on the product description, I was expecting a themed 'how to' book looking at our spiritual values (“design for an elegant spirit”). Instead, Whatever Is Lovelyis a compendium of musings, stories, and quotations from throughout history, divided into 52 chapters taking us from Anticipation to Wisdom. It can be read from cover to cover, or it can be dipped into in random order, a subject at a time, as each chapter is complete in itself.

When I read a novel, I tend to read it over a couple of days (the more I am enjoying it, the faster I tend to read). Books like Whatever Is Lovelycan't be read in the same way. It needs to be read slowly and savoured a chapter or two at a time. The passages are meant to read slowly, and savoured to relax and open our senses to the beauty that surrounds us. Whatever Is Lovelyis not a page turning thriller. Rather, the evocative language invites us to be calm and at peace (and I was). Maurer has a beautiful way with words that both illustrates and echoes the beauty and simplicity she seeks in life and relationships.

It is apparent that Marsha Maurer is widely read across a range of writers, and her education and experience is that of a life lived, not merely books read. As well as having the expansive worldview that comes from having lived in different countries and cultures, the author also has the authenticity and authority that comes simply through age and experience.

Whatever Is Lovely would make a lovely gift book, something to browse through as a pick-me-up, although the format means that I think it would work better in the hardcover edition than as an e-book – the black-and-white pictures disrupt the flow of the text and don’t show to their best advantage on a Kindle screen.

Thanks to Carpenter’s Son Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

16 April 2012

Review - Eyes of Justice by Liz Wiehl and April Henry

The Triple Threat Club is back in Eyes of Justice. Cassidy Shaw, Allison Pierce and Nicole Hedges met in their exclusive Portland high school, but only became close friends six years ago at their ten-year reunion, when they realised they all worked in different aspects of law enforcement, Cassidy as a TV reporter on the crime watch, Allison as a prosecutor and Nicole as an FBI agent. Over the years they have covered many of the same cases, and it appears they have made enemies.

When one of the Triple Threats is found under her kitchen sink, murdered, the other two are soon seeking justice. But investigating a case they have no official right to be investigating is going to tread on someone's toes... possibly even those of the murderer. The police quickly make an arrest, but the women are concerned that the police may not have the right man, which means the real killer is still out there, planning his next move.

This is a well-written and fast paced thriller, and the fact that the victim is someone that readers of the series know and care about brings the whole thing closer to home in a way that an unknown victim doesn’t. The main characters are likeable but not perfect, and we get to know a little more about some of the secondary characters as well. If there is a weakness, it is that there is a lot of focus on the crime and the Triple Threat women, and not much development of their family and colleagues.

Eyes of Justice is the fourth of the Triple Threat Novels, following Face of Betrayal, Hand of Fateand Heart of Ice. It can be read as a standalone, but is probably more enjoyable if read in sequence. I thought Eyes of Justice was excellent, and I will certainly be keen to read the next in the series. Although published and marketed as Christian fiction, only one of the main characters is a Christian, and there is very little ‘preachiness’, so I think this would appeal to all thriller fans, not just those in the Christian market.

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

13 April 2012

Review: Always the Designer, Never the Bride by Sandra D Bricker

Two years and three months ago, Audrey Regan left Atlanta for New York, hoping to make a name for herself as a wedding dress designer, but Audrey is in desperate need of a career break to keep her dream alive.  She is now on her way back to Atlanta, to the Tanglewood Inn, where she will be acting as chief bridesmaid for her childhood best friend, Carly, whose dress she also designed.  With Audrey is Kat, her assistant, and she meets all the characters from Sandra Bricker’s two previous Wedding novels, including J.R., the handsome Harley-riding brother of Carly’s new husband.  But J.R. has a wanderlust that means he never stays long in any one place, which does not make him the ideal candidate for a relationship no matter what sparks there are between him and Audrey.

I have to admit that I got a bit confused with all the characters and their relationships once Audrey arrived in Atlanta, but once I got all the characters straight in my mind, I found Always the Designer, Never the Bride to be an enjoyable novel, funny and heart-warming with likeable characters, with a sweet romance and without the bittersweet aspect of Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride. I particularly liked Russell, the Australian movie star, who provided comic relief on the side. While Always the Designer, Never the Bridewas a good read, it was not particularly memorable, but those who read and enjoyed the first two books in the series will no doubt want to read this to find out how the characters are progressing.  The final book in the series is due to be published later in 2012.

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

11 April 2012

Review: The Quakers of New Garden (Novella Collection)

The Quakers of New Gardencovers four generations of Quaker women from New Garden, Indiana, and provided interesting insight into their beliefs, as each novella shows how the Society of Friends react to the situations of the day. I don’t know much about the Quakers beyond their pacifism and opposition to slavery, and these stories brought out both these beliefs well, and gave me a better understanding of the beliefs of this group.

In New Garden’s Hope by Jennifer Hudson Taylor, Josiah Wall and Ruth Payne are engaged, but Josiah upsets Ruth by postponing the wedding - again. Ruth breaks their engagement, believing that if Josiah isn't prepared to marry her when he promised that he doesn't love her enough. Josiah has to decide where his priorities lie – with Ruth, or with his own interests (specifically, campaigning on behalf of the Federalist candidate in the 1808 US Presidential Election).

At one point, on of the characters says of the election “if the campaigns were not over and the votes cast. In a few months, we’ll know the results”. This delay between the end of polling and the final result being known was an interesting point I had never thought of, as in modern politics we almost always know the result the day the polls close, or a day after at the latest.

The second story, New Garden’s crossroads by Ann E. Schrock, follows Deborah, daughter of Josiah Wall, who is a furniture maker and abolitionist in Indiana. Nathaniel Fox is a slave hunter, a long way from his own Quaker roots. An accident brings them together, and they develop feelings for each other but Nathaniel must recommit to the Society of Friends before they could marry as Deborah will not leave the faith. I liked Nathaniel, because his apparent worldliness underpinned a pragmatic realism that I felt the Quakers perhaps lacked:

Plain or lofty speech, plain dress or not, makes no difference to me.” He took another deep breath. “I’ve been out in the world and am not convinced that a man can be completely non-violent.”

In New Garden’s Inspiration by Claire Sanders, takes place during the War Between the States (the US Civil War), as the Quakers must decide if they will remain true to their non violent beliefs, or if they will fight to end slavery. Leah Wall marries widower Caleb Whitaker in order to care for his two children while he is away serving in the Union army in the war. This was a marriage of convenience story with a difference, in that Leah thought it was going to be a real marriage, so works to make it one.

The final story was my favourite, New Garden's Crossroads by Susette Williams. Set in the present day, it introduces Catherine Wall, a nurse who starts volunteering at a local youth centre after she meets the director, Jaidon Taylor, at a gang shooting. However, Jaidon is not a Quaker, so to marry him would mean leaving her church. I felt that this story gave a solid gospel message and showed the power of God to change lives.

I enjoyed The Quakers of New Garden, and I would be interested in reading more about the origins and practices of the Quakers (officially known as the Society of Friends), perhaps examining some of the companies they founded.

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

9 April 2012

Review: Lady Anne's Quest by Susan Page Davis

In the first book in this series, The Lady's Maid, Lady Anne Stone left England with her maid and friend, Elise Finster, to travel to America in search for her Uncle David after the death of her father. David Stone doesn’t know it yet, but he is the heir to his brother's earldom. Anne and Elise hear that David is in Oregon, so they join a wagon train, and The Lady’s Maid tells the story of the dangers they face from both the geographic challenges and from persons unknown. Lady Anne's Quest opens shortly after their arrival in Oregon (and Elise’s marriage to Eb). 

Lady Anne heads south from Eugene to Corvallis to search for her uncle, accompanied by Daniel Adams, who fell in love with her as hey journeyed across America in the wagon train. But the man they find claiming to be David Stone is an illiterate impostor, trying to claim an inheritance that is not his. Anne and Dan find that David owns a mining claim, so they continue to follow the trail. But it soon becomes apparent that they are not the only people searching for David, and that the dangers they faced in their first journey are still following them.

It has been a few months since I read The Lady's Maid, so I had forgotten some of the details. Normally, that wouldn't matter, except that Lady Anne's Quest jumped straight into the action, leaving me struggling to remember what was what and who was who. However, all became clear after a couple of chapters and I was able to start enjoying Lady Anne's Quest. Overall, it was a solid historical suspense with a hint of romance as Anne gets to know Dan better. I think I would have liked a bit more detail about the development of their relationship – I like the fact that it was build on friendship and respect, but I still would have liked a little more sizzle.

The third book in the series, A Lady in the Making, is due to be published later this year, which is good because there is still a mystery to solve, and, as Jane Austen says, a single man in possession of a fortune must be in need of a wife...

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

6 April 2012

Review: A Perfect Square by Vanetta Chapman

A Perfect Square brings us back to Shipshewana, to Callie and her Amish friends, and to what looks like another murder, when the Amish women find a teenage girl drowned in Reuben’s pond. Their discovery is observed by a hidden stranger, who escapes unseen and narrates his portion of the story through a series of flashbacks.

As A Perfect Squareunfolds, we find out that the victim is newly-wed Katie, and the reader is left to uncover the mystery that links her with the mysterious stranger, Reuben and the four women. In the middle of this, Callie receives a visit from an old man who wants her to find his daughter. The problem is that Ira Bontrager has dementia, and his son says he was an only child. This is potentially another mystery: is there a missing daughter, and how does this relate to the murdered girl?

There are aspects of Amish culture that I find strange, such as the way they answer direct questions but will not volunteer additional information even when it might be relevant. Reuben is particularly reticent. This has the potential to be misleading and could be seen as an obstruction of justice. And this time, withholding information is going to get Reuben into trouble. The rules of the mystery genre dictate that the culprit is a character we know. This gets a bit awkward, as we get to know the cast and don't want it to be any of them, not even Reuben, who is definitely hiding something.

One of the things I like most about these books is that the characters seem very real. Callie is reluctant to date either Andrew or Trent because she just feels herself pulling back. It seemed like the natural reluctance of a young widow, and I liked it. The characters are by no means perfect. Even the Amish have tempers and meltdowns and question God just like the rest of us (I say ‘even’ because so much Amish fiction romanticises the Amish to the point that they all appear to be ‘perfect Christians’). And I really liked the ending. It was beautiful, full of understanding, grace and forgiveness. But you’ll have to read it yourself to find out why.

A Perfect Square is the second in the Shipshewana series, following Falling to Pieces, and the third book, Material Witness, is due to be published in August 2012. More information about Vanetta Chapman can be found at her website or blog. Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.