30 May 2012

Review: Five Conversations You Must Have With Your Daughter by Vicki Courtney

Five Conversations You Must Have with Your Daughteris full of sensible, biblical advice backed up by extensive social and medical research, and relevant quotes from the Bible. The author also reassures us that “God is more than enough to make up for my parenting insufficiencies along the way”. She makes it clear that the five conversations referred to in the title are not one-off conversations, but ongoing life lessons, to be modelled and reinforced at any available ‘teachable moment’. The five conversations are:

1 You Are More Than the Sum of Your Parts
2 Don’t Be in Such a Hurry to Grow Up
3 Sex Is Great and Worth the Wait
4 It’s OK to Dream about Marriage and Motherhood!
5 Girls Gone Wild Are a Dime a Dozen—Dare to Be Virtuous

Courtney comments that “when girls in the nineteenth century thought about ways to improve themselves, they almost always focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior”, whereas the modern focus is on physical attractiveness and (often) sexuality. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.” (a description of Susan, quoted from The Last Battle by CS Lewis). How true this can be!

As is typical with any book of this type, some of the information I knew already (“many studies have found that those who live together before marriage have less satisfying marriages and a considerably higher chance of eventually breaking up”), some I really don’t want to know (apparently, thong underwear can be linked to recurrent urinary tract and vaginal infections. Thanks for sharing!), and there were also some great one-liners (“a decision to pierce or mark her body needs to wait until she is out of college and off our payroll”, “if you’re not worth dating, he’s not worth kissing” or “should any of my three children opt to live together outside of marriage and then decide to marry for real, this momma won’t be paying a dime toward wedding expenses”). I like this woman.

And I like this book. Part of me thinks I should now buy and read the companion volume, 5 Conversations You Must Have with Your Son, while part of me will be happy to continue to bury my head in the sand. And I know that will a 12-year-old daughter, there are only so many opportunities to share this kind of information in a non-threatening way, so I need make the most of them. Recommended for mothers with daughters aged 10-18.

Thanks to B&H Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

28 May 2012

Review: Swipe by Evan Angler

Swipeis set in a technologically advanced near-future dystopia, in which all those over the age of thirteen Pledge their allegiance to the unified world government and receive the Mark, which enables them to vote, purchase goods, hold a job and a range of other ‘privileges’. The Markless, those who have chosen not to Pledge, are forced to survive on the edges of society.

Logan Langley will soon turn thirteen and take his Pledge. Most kids his age are excited, but he is nervous – his older sister, Lily, never returned from her Pledge, and he has had the feeling he is being watched ever since. As a result, he feels increasingly isolated at school, although the new girl, Erin, catches his interest. Although she is already Marked, she resents her new home, a result of her father’s promotion. He does Government work – for the Department of Marked Emergencies (DOME), who control the Mark programme and associated problems. Little do Logan and Erin know that their combined problems are about to bring them together…

As dystopian fiction, Swipeplays homage to authors such as John Wyndham. John Christopher and Lois Lowry, as well as the more obvious similarities to the Left Behind series based on their common base in the Mark of the Beast prophesied in St. John’s Revelation. Swipe’s futuristic world is well-imagined, with a combination of the new, the familiar and the adapted (e.g. the children playing rock-tablet-laser instead of rock-scissor-paper). I found that the early development of the world of the Marked detracts from the development of the characters and the plot, but the book improved and picked up pace as the story progressed.

Swipehas been described as “the Christian alternative to The Hunger Games.”

It isn’t.

Although I have purchased The Hunger Games trilogy, I have yet to read it (long story). But I know it is clearly aimed at a teenage (Young Adult) audience, both in terms of the themes and the age of the main characters. Logan, the central character in Swipe, is just twelve, which suggests its target audience is younger (Middle Grade). My view is that the level of peril is just too low to attract the typical teenager, although future books may well ‘grow’ with the reader, as the Harry Potter books did.

Overall, Swipeis a good read, set in a world where there is no war, no conflict and no religion. It’s a sound debut novel in a popular genre. Readable, interesting even, but not original or memorable like the dystopian fiction I read as a teen.

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

25 May 2012

Review: Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame by L L Samson

Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, fourteen-year-old twins Linus and Ophelia Easterday have been left to live with their aunt and uncle (also twins) in Kingscross, home of the famous (fictional) Americal university, while their parents go on a five-year research trip to do something important (well, something they think is important, anyway).

While exploring the old house they are now living in, Linus and Ophelia find a hidden attic filled with the belongings of the mysterious Cato, who used to own the house before he simply disappeared one day. The attic has a lot of strange books and bottles, and a large circle has been drawn on the floor. An ‘accident' with a magic circle brings the fictional Quasimodo out of the classic Victor Hugo novel and into the Real World.

The twins find that Quasi will be with them for sixty hours, and that if they do not follow instructions exactly, he might end his days fizzing down to a pile of dirty rags. As they befriend the fictional hunchback, they find someone else knows about him, and wants to harm him. So, they join with Walter, their new neighbour, to protect Quasi and return him unharmed to fictional Paris (and providing the reader with the formulaic two boys-one girl mystery-solving trio that has worked so well in other series for this age group).

I don't read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, so I'm not entirely sure what represents the best of the genre (although having read a few of the High School Musical, Hannah Montana and Mary-Kate and Ashley books, I have a good understanding of how shallow and trite Middle Grade fiction can be). I enjoyed Facing the Hunchback of Notre Damefor what it was: a fun adventure story for 8-12 year olds, with a little classic literature and a few thoughts on good writing thrown in for educational value.  For example:

“It is within my nature to explain a bit of the writing process as I proceed. You may choose to either use these tidbits of information to increase your knowledge of English and the fine art of writing, or ignore the opportunity to learn literary technique from an expert and simply skip over my explanations. If you choose to ignore the input that I have so generously provided regarding the writing craft, then you may also choose to ignore the simplified definitions of some of the rather advanced words I’ve used within the story— words that I’ve explained at the request of Linus, who seems to think my vocabulary rather too advanced for the average reader.”

Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dameis a humorous and enjoyable story that would be a good book for reading aloud, and I can see it fitting well into a home schooling curriculum. There is even the odd interjection for the sake of the parents, and this humour, combined with the distinctive voice of the narrator (Bartholomew Inkster, janitor at Kingscross University) reminded me of Roald Dahl. There are a few too many exclamation marks for my taste, but I suppose it is the distinctive voice of the narrator and the age group the book is targeting.

Although it is published by Zondervan, Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dameis not an obviously 'Christian' novel, but it is a fun read, with a plot device that is well set up for a series (it is Book 1 of The Enchanted Attic series). Thanks to Zonderkidz and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

23 May 2012

Review: Wish You Were Here by Beth K Vogt

Alison Denman is marrying Seth Rayner in five days, and is having second thoughts about the frou-frou dress with the huge train that her future mother-in-law ‘encouraged’ her to buy. She’s having second thoughts about the 350-guest wedding. She’s having second thoughts about the bouquet. She’s looking at her board of ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcards from Seth’s older brother, Daniel. But that’s got nothing to do with why she’s having second thoughts… and then Daniel kisses her while helping pack up her apartment five days before the wedding. And she kisses him back. Now what?

My initial impression of Seth was that he was too good to be true. I found myself quite disliking him as Wish You Were Herewore on. Part of me didn’t like the idea of Alison leaving her long-term boyfriend at the altar; another part of me saw that there was something a bit ‘off’ about him, so didn’t want Alison to get back together with him.

I liked Seth’s brother, Daniel, although I am always a bit hesitant about too big an age gap between a couple (and, at eight years, this was pushing my limits). But Daniel is a gentleman with a strong code of personal honour, and I could respect that about him.

As Wish You Were Hereprogressed, we found out more about Alison, about why she was prepared to marry Seth, the safe choice, and what happened that made ‘safe’ such an important choice for her. We also met Alison’s best friend, Meghan, who knows the secret even Seth doesn’t know…

Despite the almost-cliché ‘Runaway Bride’ beginning, this book is a fun debut novel. I found the beginning almost too fast-paced, in a ‘I had trouble catching my breath’ kind of way. But it calmed down and turned into a very enjoyable story of a young woman trying to sort out what she wants from life, unimpeded by a boyfriend/finance with a very strong personality, fighting an attraction to his older brother, and trying to reconcile herself to the God she has all but forgotten. While this is a Christian novel, the Christian element is quite understated. An enjoyable debut.

Thanks to Howard Books and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

21 May 2012

Review: Leaving Lancaster by Kate Lloyd

Almost forty years have passed since Esther Gingerich and Samuel Fisher ran away from their Amish upbringing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and headed west to live in a hippie commune and sing on the streets of San Francisco. They married, Samuel was drafted, shipped off to Vietnam and declared MIA, leaving Esther to raise their daughter alone because she was too proud to return to her family. Holly grew up believing her grandparents were dead, so it comes as a complete shock to her when Esther announces her intention to visit their Amish family, and wants Holly to come.

The story alternates between being told in the first person (by 37-year-old Holly) and the third person (from the point of view of Esther, Holly's mother). I continually found myself backtracking to the beginning of the chapter because I hadn't picked up the change. Call me fussy, but combining first person and third person doesn't ring true for me. It reminds me that I'm just reading a story about a bunch of made-up characters. This meant that I was noticing the writing rather than being carried along by the story, and as a result, I kept finding more things that bothered me While these were mostly minor, many of which were addressed later in the story, I found these glitches were pulling me out of the story.

For example, should I really be getting distracted by a Wikipedia article on how the Vietnam draft worked in the US when I am reading a contemporary novel set in Amish Pennsylvania? (How does a homeless hippie get drafted anyway? And when is this novel set? Holly is 37, and Wikipedia tells me the US stopped drafting men in 1973, which means this novel is set in 2010, not 2012. Yes, that is exactly how picky I get when the story isn’t grabbing me sufficiently).

There were also contradictions. At one point, Esther thinks “According to her folks’ bishop and preachers, if she didn’t obey the Ordnung, God would never allow her into paradise”, then later “[Amish] ways centered on obeying God”. So are these Amish obeying God or the Ordnung? Jesus and the New Testament Pharisees taught us that obeying the rules is not the same as obeying God, and as a Bible-reading Christian, Esther should know that.

And I found Holly a little hard to relate to. I could understand her anger and resentment towards her mother for having hidden her very alive family for so many years. I could not understand someone living in a shop selling Amish goods yet knowing so little about the Amish and their customs. She also struck me as very self-centred, and I didn’t really see this change as the story progressed.

Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed Leaving Lancaster. Plot-wise, it wasn’t bad, with an underlying theme of honesty and forgiveness. But I found the writing style too distracting to allow me to get into and enjoy the story, so I had to struggle to finish it.

Thanks to David C Cook and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

18 May 2012

Review: Stardust by Carla Stewart

When O’Dell Peyton’s body washes up in the East Texas bayou, his wife Georgia knows that her cheating husband really has gone for good. Left to raise two daughters with no source of income, Georgia is trying to find an alternative to moving in with Aunt Cora when she unexpectedly inherits the Stardust tourist cabins. Georgia eagerly takes on the project of restoring the Stardust to its former glory, propelled by her childhood memories. Room 5 of the Stardust was the last place Georgia saw her parents before they abandoned her, leaving her to be raised by Aunt Cora.

As the story progresses, we meet more characters from Mayhew (where Georgia lives) and Zion (the colored settlement on the other side of the bayou), and we see that “people, we’re all connected even when it doesn’t seem like we are”, just like the local legend of the cypress knees that connect the trees up and down the bayou. (And that is kneees, not trees. )

Some authors feel the need to practically hit the reader over the head with their research. Stardust is obviously well researched and feels historically accurate, but I never felt that I was being preached at or lectured to. By halfway through I was thanking God for the medical advances over the last half century that mean I never have to worry about my children getting polio. The novel is also a fascinating insight into the lives and attitudes of Southerners towards 'colored' people in 1950's Texas.

Stardust is written in the first person from Georgia’s point of view, with a voice that is immediately engaging. This is lovely story, well-plotted and beautifully written story of secrets and forgiveness, set in the backdrop of the 1952 polio epidemic and the March of Dimes, a national charity dedicated to supporting polio victims and eradicating the dreaded disease. Reading Stardust was an unexpected pleasure. Recommended.

Thanks to Faithwords and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. Click to read an ACFW interview with the author, Carla Stewart.

16 May 2012

Review: Arms of Love by Kelly Long

On her deathbed, Mary Yoder extracts a promise from young Adam Wyse that he will give up the love of her daughter, Lena, until he is free from his father’s harsh rule. Adam makes the promise, but reluctantly because of his love for Lena, and decides that he will go and fight in the Revolutionary War, despite the pacifist stance of his Amish faith.

Arms of Love is different to most Amish novels, in that it is set in 1777, near Lancaster in William Penn’s Wood (which we know from modern Amish novels becomes Lancaster County, Pennsylvania). This historical setting provided for some external conflict, both literally and figuratively, as many Amish apparently did abandon their pacifist beliefs to fight for the Revolutionary cause in the War of Independence.

The historical setting meant that the novel focused more on the internal conflicts in the relationships between the families, and when the Amish were distinguished from their neighbours by their dress rather than their old-fashioned way of living. After all, in 1777, everyone baked their own bread and electricity hadn’t been discovered.

Most Amish novels use a combination of English and German to convey the fact that most Amish speak German at home, even today (although the Yoder family obviously didn’t speak German at home, because there was no reference to the language issue when Ruth, the English wet nurse arrived).

But I found that Arms of Love took the use of German too far, to the point that it detracted from the story. Using 'gut' for 'good' was manageable, but some of the German words used were not so common or easily translatable (e.g. Derr Herr for God or fesh washa for the ceremony of foot washing). There was a glossary at the beginning of the book but it is irritating enough to continually have to skip back and forward between the glossary and the story in a physical book. It is almost impossible on an e-reader.

The passing of time was another issue. It seems to be only a matter of days or possibly weeks between the death of Mary Yoder and her husband's remarriage. He had barely had time to mourn the loss of his wife, yet we were expected to believe that he had fallen in love with another woman.

As a result, I found Arms of Love hard to get into, and didn’t really ‘get’ the story, so didn’t enjoy it at all. I found the first half quite disjointed - several characters, especially the men, seem to suffer from having multiple personalities - cruel one minute and kind the next, with no explanation. Sometimes this technique is used to introduce hidden secrets; here I found it to be confusing and distracting rather than mysterious and exciting.

As well as the usual discussion questions at the end of the book, Arms of Love also includes a four week Bible study, with a deeper focus on some of the themes of the story. I just suspect the author focused too much on creating a story that people could learn from, and not enough on creating a story people would enjoy reading.

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

14 May 2012

The 2012 Christy Award Finalists

The Christy Award is named for the novel Christy by Catherine Marshall, an author who first became famous with the publication of her first book, ‘A Man Called Peter’, about her deceased husband, a popular pastor who had also been Chaplain to the US Senate.  Her first novel, Christy, was published in 1967, and with more than 10 million copies sold, is one of the most popular and influential Christian novels ever.  The Christy Award was started in 1999 when a group of Christian publishers confirmed the need for establishing a Christian fiction award to recognize novelists and novels of excellence in several genres of Christian fiction.
The Christy Award is designed to:
  • Nurture and encourage creativity and quality in the writing and publishing of fiction written from a Christian worldview;
  • Bring a new awareness of the breadth and depth of fiction choices available, helping to broaden the readership;
  • Provide opportunity to recognize novelists whose work may not have reached bestseller status.
Entries open in October each year to all books published and/or distributed in the United States in that calendar year, with the finalists announced in May and the winners announced in July the following year. So, for example, the 2012 Christy Awards are for books published in the 2011 calendar year.
If you are new to Christian publishing and don’t know what to read, you could do a lot worse than start with some of the Christy Award finalists and winners in a genre you enjoy. However, as with any award, winning a prize is not going to guarantee that you will enjoy the novel (while I have read and enjoyed many of the finalists and winning novels, there is at least one that I thought was a wall-banger, even though it was in a category that I usually read and enjoy. The finalists for 2012 are:

Contemporary Romance/Romantic Suspense

Contemporary Series, Sequels and Novellas

Contemporary Standalone

First Novel


Historical Romance



Young Adult