30 July 2012

Review: Central Park Rendezvous Novella Compilation

Most Barbour novella collections are four separate but related romances, usually four friends or siblings, four people in the same location, or four members of the same family in different generations. While Central Park Rendezvous follows this general pattern, the actual execution is different and I really liked that originality. Each story features a romance that is some way related to Central Park (the title of the collection is a big clue), gold coin from the Civil War, a soldier who has been changed by his wartime experiences, whether physically or mentally.

The first story is Dream a Little Dream, by Ronie Kendig. It is set in the present day, and is unusual in that it is actually told in several parts, so that it forms both the beginning and the end of the collection, introducing and rounding out the four stories. Jamie Russo meets Sean Wolfe, who has recently returned from Afghanistan.

A Love Meant to Be by Dineen Miller is set in 1973, in the Vietnam War. Alan James is off to war and plans to reunite with Gal Gibson when he gets home. But Gail’s sister foils their reunion, until Jamie, his niece, finds out and trys to make things right thirty-eight years later.

To Sing Another Day by Kim Vogel Sawyer was my favourite individual story. Set in World War II, it was the story of Helen Wolfe, who has to relinquish her dreams of being a professional singer when her fiancé abandons her and she has to care for her family. She pawns a family heirloom, a Civil War gold coin, to feed her family, an act which changes everything.

Beauty From Ashes by MaryLu Tyndall provided the Civil War perspective, through the story of William Wolfe, who gave his fiancé, Annie, a gold coin engraved with his initials before going to fight in the Civil War. When he returns home, he finds Annie changed from her letters… and her sister has the coin.

Central Park Rendezvousis the best Barbour novella collection I have read, both because of the quality of writing of the individual authors, and because of the originality of having four stories so interwoven that story one is actually told in four parts, yet manages to fit into the whole, and all centred around a reunion in Central Park. An excellent beach read.

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

27 July 2012

Review: A Simple Mistake by Andrea Grigg

Lainey Sullivan is happy with her life as a schoolteacher, going to church and playing at weddings as part of a string quartet. But one wedding changes everything, because the best man is Nick Cusack, and she’s the girl he left behind in his search for pop stardom.

Nick is thrilled to reconnect with Lainey, and can’t believe that A Simple Mistake like the wrong address has kept them apart for the last ten years. His band, The Mavericks, have reached the peak and he has an emerging acting career. As they begin dating, they both find that all the feelings are still there. And so is the thing that has the potential to part them: Lainey’s Christian faith, and Nick’s unbelief.

A Simple Mistakeis the debut novel from Australian author Andrea Griggs. It’s a sweet tale of love lost and love rediscovered, but it’s much more than that. The old saying is that the path of true love never did run smooth, and that is certainly the case for Lainey and Nick. Lainey has a secret that she is afraid will destroy the relationship, and there are other forces that might keep them apart. While A Simple Mistake follows the conventions of the romance genre, it doesn’t do it the easy way. Both Lainey and Nick have a road to travel before then end. They each have decisions to make, decisions that aren’t made overnight.

Australian Christian fiction isn’t quite as sophisticated as American Christian fiction, but that means it has a realism that is often missing in the highly- polished American offerings. And that realism is why I found A Simple Mistake so enjoyable.

Thanks to Andrea Grigg for providing a free book for review.

25 July 2012

Review: The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield

If you’ve ever wondered what members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture answers the question and looks at the influence Saints have on business and politics in the USA, and why. It’s fascinating. He covers the history of the LDS Church, from the visions of Joseph Smith, the establishment of the Church, its initial theology, the reason their beliefs have changed over the years, and the practices and values that have led to Saints having a disproportional impact on the US today.

Although Mansfield is writing from a Christian perspective, he is very respectful towards LDS beliefs, writing from an impartial stance and leaving the evidence to speak for itself. From the point of view of the doctrine, the evidence is flimsy at best. The entire story of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon is eerily reminiscent of fable of The Emperor's New Clothes, except that there is no little boy to tell the truth and thereby break the illusion. However, Mansfield points out that doctrine and theology is not what draws people to or keeps people in the church (after all, popular sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica was loosely based on Mormon theology, but this is much more believable–and better TV-than the Scientologists and Battlefield Earth).

What makes the Mormon machine successful, at least according to Mansfield, is that the Church’s respect for family, service, education and hard work mirror the American Dream. So a large part of the Church’s modern success is because of their commitment to community and prosperity. So while I can see the holes in their beliefs, I can also see why Mormonism is attractive. Recommended. But members of the LDS Church probably won't like The Mormonizing of America.

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

23 July 2012

Review: Not This Time by Vicki Hinze

Not This Time is the third book in the Crossroads Crisis Center series, and it gets straight into the action when Jeff Meyers arrives late to a wedding reception and finds all the guests lying lifeless on the ground. Unfortunately, this is about where the confusion started, as my first reaction was that this was some kind of elaborate joke, and my second was that the author had just killed off fifty people. Neither reaction was correct: it was a deliberate attack but there was only one (accidental) fatality, as the guests had actually been knocked out by a gas.

It is determined that this is an attack by NINA (Nihilists in Anarchy), who have been behind two previous incidents in Seagrove Village, Florida (I assume these were the subject of the earlier books in the series). It is then discovered that Robert Trayton has been kidnapped, and when his wife, Sara, is admitted to hospital it falls to her business partner, Beth, to assist the police and come up with the ransom money.

The first chapter is from the point of view of Jeff Meyers, and the second from the viewpoint of two policemen, who find a blood-soaked mattress in an abandoned house that was previously used by NINA in their criminal activities. The third chapter then introduces us to Beth, Sara, and everyone else of any importance to the plot. There were a lot of characters, with confusing relationships, and it took several chapters to actually work out who and what the story was about (it turned out that Jeff and the blood-soaked mattress are both sub-plots, despite the fact that most novels open with the main characters and main plot).

This, frankly, seemed strange. Most modern novels make an effort to introduce the main character in the opening pages, and, where there is a romantic subplot, to introduce the hero quickly as well (we meet Joe in Chapter Four), but Joe and Beth don’t actually see each other in person until well into the story, which makes it difficult to for the author to develop a convincing romantic interest. I liked Beth, I liked Joe (and I particularly liked his Cajun pet name for Beth), and I liked the idea of Beth and Joe, but their romance could have been better.

I did enjoy Not This Time once I worked out who was who, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already read and enjoyed Forget Me Notand Deadly Ties. I still have questions about aspects of the suspense part of the plot, and the romance, while sweet, wasn’t enough to make up for the confusing beginning.

Thanks to WaterBrook Multnomah and BloggingforBooks for providing a free ebook for review.

20 July 2012

Review: Starring Me by Krista McGee

Kara McKormick and Addy Davidson were roommates on The Book of Love, a reality TV show searching for a prom date for the son of the President of the United States. Neither girl won the date, but Addy won the boy. Now Kara has been asked to audition for the female co-host of a new teen TV show. She gets through the first round of auditions and finds herself in Florida for a month with nine other girls, all competing for the same role.

Chad Beacon, winner of a nationwide TV talent show, teenage pop sensation and friend to Jonathon Jackson (hero of First Date, Addy’s story). He has been offered the chance to co-host a new teen TV show, but his parents insist that they get to decide who the female co-host will be, because they want her to be a Christian. The station agrees to allow the family the choice by having Flora, their housekeeper, live with the girls and make the decision.

I thought the initial introduction to Flora was a little weird – it made her out to be a bit of a flake, when we later see her as a long-serving, trusted and responsible member of the Beacon household. And the behaviour of some of the teen girls in the house seemed a little over the top—until I thought of the last reality TV show I watched, which left me shaking my head at the shallowness of both the male and female contestants.

But this was more than made up for by the positive aspects of Starring Me, including Kara’s spiritual journey, the scenes with Addy and Jonathon (it’s always nice when the characters in the first book are still part of the second), and the clear gospel message. I’d recommend Starring Me to any tween or teen girl with an interest in celebrities (isn’t that all of them?).

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

18 July 2012

Review: The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved by J Phillips

I usually steer clear of books that debate or discuss theology, and I can't really remember why I selected The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (although I have a hunch that the selection of review books on offer was not inspiring, and this may have been the best available). This book basically argues that the fourth gospel was actually written by Lazarus, not John, and that Lazarus was therefore the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.

I am sceptical of any author who claims to bring a new interpretation of the Bible. After all, there is a long tradition of this–Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy spring to mind–and these new interpretations generally contradict mainstream Christian theology. If John really didn’t write the fourth gospel, why has this ‘error’ persisted?

If I had read to the end of the book, I might be able to answer these questions. But I didn’t, partly because I felt there were gaps in the author’s logic. As an example, one of the author’s early pieces of ‘evidence’ is that when John is referred to by Jesus in the other three gospels, it is as one of the ‘sons of thunder’, which contradicts the idea that John didn’t name himself as the author of the gospel because he was too humble. The fourth gospel was not (obviously) written during Jesus' lifetime, and one of the central beliefs of Christianity is the power of God to change hearts and minds, as He did with Saul/Paul. Is it too much to believe that John, son of thunder, could have learned humility later in life? Equally, it is possible that John was always a humble man and that the ‘son of thunder’ refers to his father, Zebedee, as being like thunder.

However, the main reason I couldn’t finish the book was that in reading it, I felt what can only be described as a check in my spirit, the feeling I get when something is wrong.

So, I stopped reading, and went to look at the other reviews on Amazon. There were a lot of five-star reviews, including one by the author (which is a big no-no on Amazon), and the author was refuting some of the one-star reviews (which, in my opinion, is another no-no). Many of the five-star reviews have an unusually large number of ‘helpful’ votes, the reviewers have no other reviews (which is often the sign of a fake review), and several of these reviewers referred to themselves as ‘Bereans’, making me wonder who the Bereans are.

Out of curiosity, I Googled the term. Apparently, there are two separate Berean denominations. One, the Berean Fellowship, appears to be a Baptist denomination.

But this is not the one that the author is aligned with. Instead, it appears that he is a Berean Christadelphian. Christadelphians seem to place the teaching of two early leaders ahead of the teachings of the Bible and may reject the doctrine of the Trinity. although this is not universally believed. Phillips appears to be a Berean Christadephian, placing the Bible above the teachings of the early leaders, but I am not convinced that this author represents mainstream Christian thinking, so would not recommend this book.

Thanks to BookCrash for providing a free ebook for review.

16 July 2012

Review: The Guest Book by Marybeth Whalen

Macy Dillon works in a local supermarket and satisfies her artistic bent by painting the store windows, because a single mother can't afford art school. She cares for her daughter, Emma, rescues and bails out her part-boy brother, Max, and spends time with her mother, who is still mourning the loss of her husband after ten years. But now her mother thinks it is time to move on, and proposes the family spend two weeks in their old vacation haunt of Sunset Beach, at Time in a Bottle, the house they always leased.

Macy goes to the beach house hoping that she will be able to reconnect with the artist who drew her pictures in The Guest Book at the house they always rented. She is surprised to be courted by three men, all of whom could be her mystery artist: Nate, the pastor; Wyatt, the boy next door; and Dockery, who is volunteering at the art camp Emma is attending. But, more importantly, she begins to rediscover the faith in God she lost after her father died.

I really enjoyed The Guest Book.  I thought it was going to be general Christian fiction, but it actually turned into a very nice romance with lots of chemistry, and an interesting and original plot. However, I haven't read The Mailbox (also by Marybeth Whalen), and another reviewer makes the point that the two are very similar, except that a mailbox substitutes for a guest book. So maybe this not quite so original as I thought...

However, the language was beautiful, and I really liked the way the author wove Christianity into the plot and how Macy’s search for the artist worked on different levels. I particularly liked the way we were drawn into the story, with the author giving us tiny clues about what has happened and perhaps even what is going to happen.

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

13 July 2012

Review: Menu for Romance by Kaye Dacus

Meredith Guidry is the head event planner for her parent’s company, presiding over parties, weddings and balls to ensure that everything goes without a hitch and the hundreds of guests enjoy themselves. But her New Year’s resolution is to give up her unrequited love for Major O’Hara and get a boyfriend. She meets a handsome building contractor in the hardware store, who asks her out. Maybe this is the start of something… Major (named for a character in a John Wayne film) is the head caterer for the company, and has been in love with Meredith, his boss, for eight years. But his mother is in psychiatric care, and he doesn’t want anyone to know, least of all Meredith. But the sight of her with the contractor makes him wonder…

I don’t really like the ‘big secret’ plot. I thought Major made too big a deal out of hiding the details of his background, especially considering that Meredith was his boss (I would have thought the concept of dating your boss scary enough for most men). It seemed as though he didn’t trust her, yet he was in love with her. Go figure. Having said that, I did really enjoy Menu for Romance. I liked the Guidry family’s relationships, and I liked the way that Meredith and Major got together. I really like Dacus’s characters and writing style, and I am slowly working my way through her back list, so I was very pleased to find this available as a review copy.

Kaye Dacus was a Christy Award finalist for the first book in this trilogy, Stand-in Groom, which centred on Meredith’s cousin, Anne, a wedding planner. The final book in the trilogy, A Case for Love, focuses on two characters from Menu for Romance, lawyer Forbes Guidry and TV reporter Alaine Delacroix. So that is next on my wish list…

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

11 July 2012

Review: Two Crosses by Elizabeth Mussler

It is September 1961, and Gabriella Madison is on a one year Franco-American exchange programme in Castelnau, near Montpelier in France. The programme is headed by Mother Griolet, who Gabrielle herself has met before, as a child of six, even though the nun does not mention the fact. This gives us an early sense of hidden secrets and unsolved mysteries. And Mother Griolet is not the only one with secrets. It appears that the handsome young professor, David Hoffman, has some of his own, and these are about to involve Gabriella.

David invites Gabrielle out socially (obviously student-teacher relationships are not an issue), and she begins to fall for him despite the fact that she is a strong Christian, the daughter of American missionaries in West Africa, and he is a half-Jewish atheist. Ophélie is the six-year-old daughter of Anne-Marie Duchemin, a pied noir, a French woman born and raised in Algeria. Anne-Marie is missing, and Ophélie finds herself in Castelnau, in the orphanage run by Mother Griolet. Like Gabrielle, Ophélie wears a Huguenot cross necklace, but doesn’t understand its’ significance.

The background to Two Crosses is the Algerian war for independence from the French. The early chapters therefore have quite a bit of explanation of the historical context, which some readers might find slow or off-putting. Personally, I have always enjoyed history, and one of my personal bugbears is authors who set novels in a particular time and place but get the facts wrong. So while there was quite a bit of information in the opening chapters, I liked the fact that the author knew the time and the area. The story is very well plotted, and the disparate strands come together as the story progresses.

One of the characters says, “The war is over independence, but still religion divides”. Rick Warren recently tweeted that church splits are less often about differences in doctrine than they are about a clash of egos. It seems that the same could be said of many wars. Are they really about religion, or are they a fatal clash of ego? Two Crosses would seem to confirm Rick Warren’s view.

The writing style reminds me of Michael Phillips, particularly his 'Secrets of the Rose' series. Both cover a similar period of history, both feature American protagonists in living Europe, both have characters with a strong Christian faith and both are written with varying third person points of view. I particularly liked the character of Mother Griolet, the wise old nun who provides Gabrielle and others with practical and spiritual guidance.

Two Crosses is not a light read, nor an easy read. But it is a worthwhile read. While telling a story about the recent past, the stories of the Huguenots’ reflect on the more distant past, and encourage the reader to think of the present and the future. As the old saying goes, those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. Well worth reading, particularly for those who enjoy solid historical fiction.

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

9 July 2012

Review: Oregon Outback by Elizabeth Goddard

Oregon Outback is another four-in-one romantic novella collection, set in the high desert country of Oregon, apparently referred to as the Oregon Outback (sorry, Australians). The stories centre around the four Love brothers:

In A Love Remembered, FBI agent Jonas Love is back in Oregon after a mission went wrong, and uses the opportunity to try to reconnect with Darcy Nicholls, the girl he left behind;

In A Love Kindled, Rancher Carver Love has cattle rustlers on his ranch, and has to turn for help to the In attractive Sheriff Sheridan Hall, who he once dated and still has feelings for;

A Love Risked is the story of adrenaline junkie Lucas Love, who finds himself falling for his bookish accountant Sierra, who has been warned against falling for Lucas the heartbreaker;

And finally, in A Love Recovered, bail bond recovery agent (bounty hunter) Justin Love is back home in Oregon, avoiding his brothers and falling for Darrow Kincaid while he waits for her brother, a fugitive, to pay her a visit.

While these stories are all nicely-written, simple romances with manly heroes and likeable heroines, I didn’t find that any of them had that extra something that lifted them beyond ordinary. It’s nothing I can pinpoint: they simply didn’t inspire me. An easy read.

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

6 July 2012

Review: Veil of Pearls by MaryLu Tyndall

The plot and writing style of Veil of Pearls reminds me of authors such as Jamie Carie, Linda Chaikin and Lori Wick, so I’m sure that fans of these authors will love this book.

Unfortunately, I didn’t. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

Veil of Pearls heaps formula upon platitude upon cliché – Adelia, the beautiful young girl, orphaned and forced into slavery yet with a faith in God and a strong desire to make her world a better place, escaping and meeting Morgan, the rich young man who doesn't want to fulfil the destiny his father has dictated. He is intrigued by the girl, who initially rebuffs him because she detests everything he stands for, then  accepts his invitations with a view to missionary dating (1811 style), in the hope that she can reform the rake and convert him to Christianity. Veil of Pearls also features Emerald, the Other Woman with insides “splattered … the color of her name”, and Doctor Langston Willaby, the misguided protector, who hides mail from Morgan to Adelia. How very original.

Adalia is one quarter Negro, and pale-skinned enough to pass as white, yet identifies strongly with 'her people' (whether this is because of her racial background or her seven years as a slave is unclear). It got old quickly, because it seemed that every reference to her background was merely an excuse to include yet another sermonette on the evils of slavery or the sufferings of the poor Negros. There were also allusions to Morgan, the poor little rich boy, being a slave to the expectations of the rich, which I found rather distasteful in the light of actual slavery, both in the past and in the present day.

I got annoyed by the anachronisms, factual errors and some very strange uses of the English language, all of which served to pull me further out of a story that I was finding it hard to get in to in the first place. There was also a fair sprinkling of cringe-worthy words and phrases, including 'she spat the words' and ‘he ground out’. I can only conclude that I’ve grown out of this kind of writing.

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

4 July 2012

Review: Godspeed by Britt Merrick

Godspeed: Making Christ's Mission Your Own is specifically directed at American Christians, but the principles apply in other Western countries. It would be easy for me, sitting here in New Zealand, to say that because this book is specifically focussed on American Christians, it is not talking about me, my friends or my church. But it is. While the American church might display more of the faults Merrick speaks of, that is merely a function of size. Those same faults exist in New Zealand and in England (where I lived for ten years), and no doubt in other countries too.

Merrick speaks about “Incarnational Christianity”, which means that “we’re called out of the world in worship to God while being sent into the world as witnesses of God”. This struck me as an interesting point, and one that many Christians miss. I know many Christians who homeschool their children to prevent them being influenced by worldly things, yet Merrick would say they were missing half the message.

As with many of the best Christian non-fiction books, the author is giving their personal testimony, sharing what has impacted and changed their life. It is 'I found' rather than the lecturing 'you should' tone that some authors take. Godspeed is much more readable and teachable because of that underlying spirit of humility.

But the message of Godspeedruns the risk of being obscured by the vocabulary, especially in the opening chapters. Most authors tend to follow the rule of never using a complex word where a simple one will do. Merrick (or perhaps his collaborator) seems to take the opposite approach. I thought I had a good vocabulary, but I have never heard of terms like missiologically, ecclesiocentric, cosmocentric and anthropocentric (I find that am not alone. My 2010 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, which defines over 350,000 words, has only heard of two of these words, implying that the other two are either very new, or the author made them up).

Fortunately, these terms were explained, even though some others were not. Perhaps a Bible college graduate can explain the concept of the Biblical metanarrative. I can't. Nor can my dictionary. Godspeedbecomes much more readable after the first chapter, after the author abandons the theological terms and starts using more everyday language. Well worth reading, if you can get past the opening chapters.

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