30 November 2015

Review: Deadlock by DiAnn Mills

Unconvincing Romance but Excellent Suspense

Amazon Description

Two murders have rocked the city of Houston. Are they the work of a serial killer, or is a copycat trying to get away with murder?

That is the question facing Special Agent Bethany Sanchez, who is eager for her new assignment in violent crimes but anxious about meeting her new partner. Special Agent Thatcher Graves once arrested her brother, and he has a reputation for being a maverick. Plus, their investigative styles couldn’t be more opposite: he operates on instinct, while she goes by the book.

When hot leads soon fizzle out, their differences threaten to leave them deadlocked. But an attempt on their lives turns up the heat and brings them closer together, and a third victim might yield the clue that will help them zero in on a killer. This could be the case of their careers . . . if they can survive long enough to solve it.

My Review

I’m a longtime fan of DiAnn Mills’s romantic suspense novels—I love her plots, her characters, the fast pace, and the way she weaves in the romance. After all, that’s a vital part of any romantic suspense novel!

The suspense plot in Deadlock was excellent, with a series of murders which might be a serial killer—or might be a copycat killer imitating a serial killer. The plot was fast-paced, with plenty of twists and turns, and an end which surprised me (no, I didn’t see that coming!) and pleased me (I actually don’t like working out whodunit halfway through).

What was less good was the relationship between Bethany and Thatcher, professional and personal. A lot was made about how they were opposite characters, but then they both did things which were out of character at some point in the story. But what I liked even less was the complete lack of romantic tension between the two.

In some of Mills’s novels, like Breach of Trust, the tension between the lead couple sizzled (without ever being inappropriate for a Christian novel), and as a reader I could almost feel the fireworks without a word being said on the page. In contrast, Deadlock felt like I was being told they were attracted to each other, but never really seeing it. In fact, at one point I questioned whether Thatcher was actually the Other Man, and I’d missed working out who the hero was. Oops.

Deadlock is the third book in the FBI Houston series, but can easily be read as a standalone novel (I actually thought it was the first in the series, even though I’ve actually read the first—Firewall—because none of the characters seemed familiar.) Read it as a pure thriller/suspense novel and you’ll probably think it’s great. Just don’t expect much from the romance.

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

27 November 2015

Friday Fifteen: Erin Burnett

I'd like to introduce Erin Burnett to Friday Fifteen. Erin is a teen from Northern Ireland who has recently released her first fantasy novel for children and young teens, Liza's Avenger.

Hikari once lived an idyllic life in the far-reaches of the Maysea Continent, but when her sister Liza is killed by the mysterious Kellua race everything changes. She is plunged into a perilous journey filled with epic battles, life or death situations and new friends that share her determination to stop the Kelluas. However, will destroying her enemies really bring her peace?

Hikari must decide what is best: revenge or reconciliation.

Welcome, Erin!

It was difficult to narrow my list of authors that have inspired me to just fifteen! They are listed in the order I read them, childhood up to present day. Thank you, Iola for the opportunity.

1. CS Lewis

Just about every Christian fantasy author names the Northern Irish born Lewis as an inspiration, which is proof of how impactful his books are even after sixty-five years. The Chronicles of Narnia are a triumph, as are his other books such as Mere Christianity.

2. Alexa Tewkesbury

When I was younger my main issue with Christian middle grade books, especially those from the big publishing houses, was that there was very little Christianity in them. This wasn’t the case with Tewkesbury’s Topz series. It was relevant, meaningful and entertaining – what all children’s Christian fiction should be!

3. LM Elliot

Another example of a great middle grade author, even if her books are not explicitly Christian. Elliot writes historical fiction very well using turbulent periods such as the world wars and Vietnam.

4. Michael Morpurgo

Morpurgo was the UK Children's Laureate when I started primary school. I believe is one of the best children’s authors out there and his books were great to study in the classroom.

5. Cornelia Funke

Funke is a master of writing fantasy. Her books resound with all ages and the worlds she creates are so detailed and rich. They are the sort of books you can read time and time again without them losing their charm. My personal favourite is Dragon Rider.

6. YĆ«ichi Suzumoto

I’m straying from the brief slightly, because Suzumoto writes visual novels as opposed to physical ones. Regardless, his stories never fail to be extremely moving and have influenced me greatly. His visual novel Planetarian use Christian themes and hymns as part of the story.

7. HG Wells

The most impressive thing about Wells is how he wrote such futuristic science fiction in the 1800s. His political writings are also interesting and he helped promote equal rights for all races during the time of the Second Boer War.

8. Nick Downing

The first time I read Christian science fiction was Downing’s Talon’s Test and the Shield of Faith. It took all the classic elements of space opera – adventures through space, futuristic worlds and chivalric romance – and gave them a Biblical twist.

9. Jo Zebedee

Zebedee is a fellow writer from Northern Ireland. Her space opera Abendau’s Heir has excellent character development that is established early and continued throughout. The overall plot and world building was very good. She always supports local writers.

10. David Mitchell

The reason I like Mitchell’s novels so much is how he entwines several seemingly unrelated plotlines into one, the most obvious example of which is Cloud Atlas. I enjoy novels that require some figuring out. He has also written books set in Tokyo, which is a city I love.

11. Lee Strobel

Moving on to non-fiction, Strobel’s book The Case for Christ was instrumental in my coming to Christ. It details his own journey from atheism to Christianity. He logically sets forth the historical evidence for the events of the New Testament and refutes many so-called contradictions within the Bible.

12. John Calvin

I genuinely can’t remember how I first came across reformed theology, but I quickly wanted to study further into it. No-one has ever produced a more extensive, well thought-out summary of it than in Calvin’s Institutes. Of course, we must remember no man is infallible.

13. Stewart Dinnen

Dinnen writes very practical guides about the Christian life and service, weighing up the pros and cons of different areas of ministry and encouraging the reader to seek out their own calling.

14. Takashi Nagai

I had never heard of Nagai until I visited Nagasaki, Japan, and purchased his book Leaving My Beloved Children Behind on a whim. It was written as he died from radiation-induced cancer during the aftermath of the atomic bombing which claimed his wife. There isn’t a hint of self-pity or anger in his writings even as he endures such suffering. I was extremely glad to hear that this year his story has been adapted into a film. Hopefully more will be able to learn about his life.

15. K.P. Yohannan

Yohannan is founder of Gospel for Asia and his book Revolutions in World Missions is available for free, including international shipping. It tells of the encouraging missionary developments in Asia. A strong desire to see the lost saved is evident in every chapter.

About Erin Burnett

Having enjoyed writing from a young age Erin Burnett felt compelled to write for Christ, and wrote the first semi-readable draft of Liza's Avenger on a school computer when she was thirteen. Since then she has joined Belfast Writers' Group and strives to improve her writing. She firmly believes that with God, nothing is impossible.

In addition to writing Erin enjoys cycling and travelling. Of the 58 countries she has visited, her favourite is Japan. She is currently a sixth form student and lives with her wonderfully supportive family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She aspires to study theology at university level.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lizasavenger
Amazon: Liza's Avenger

25 November 2015

Review: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

A Play

Depending on which conspiracy theory you follow, William Shakespeare is either the most brilliant and influential playwright England has ever seen, or William Shakespeare never existed (or was an actor with little talent) and the plays were penned by Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, or any one of a number of other possible candidates (although no women, as far as I could tell).

The whole debate probably isn’t important: what’s important is that we have the plays, they are considered culturally and historically significant, and they have been used as instruments of torture for generations of schoolchildren the world over (and it's all Blackadder's fault).

I can remember studying Othello, and I know I studied at least one other, but I can’t remember which. I do remember thinking Shakespeare wasn’t as bad as people made out.

Then I attended excellent outdoor Shakespeare performances in Greenwich Park in London, and watched Clare Danes and Leonardo diCaprio fall in love in Romeo and Juliet on film. Shakespeare was great—good plots, great characters, plenty of pace and action, and even some humour.

Then I read Romeo and Juliet. Well, the play hasn’t changed in the almost-twenty years since the movie came out . . . but it’s almost unreadable. Yes, there are flashes of humour, but there is also too much time devoted to minor characters, and all the characters are far too prone to unnecessary unintelligible speechifying. It reminds me why I don’t read the 1611 version of the King James Bible (actually, almost no one does. They might think they’re reading the ‘original’ KJV, but most of them are reading the 1769 version).

Overall, I think plays were made to be watched, not read.

This counts towards my 2105 Reading Challenge as a play. Yes, it’s a little predictable and I should have chosen something more contemporary.

23 November 2015

Review: Emergency Response by Nicki Edwards

Enjoyable Australian Medical Romance

Amazon Description

Intensive care nurse Mackenzie Jones is no stranger to running. As a teenager she fled her family home, leaving tragedy and loss in her wake. Now, after fifteen years alone in Sydney, with the strain of working in a city hospital wearing her thin, she's tempted to run again.

Mackenzie jumps at the chance to work in a mining town in the Western Australian desert – anything to lift her spirits. Though she barely dares to hope, she wonders if she might find the kind of love that can ease her loneliness.

In the outback, Nathan Kennedy is at a loose end. He's been making money in the mines for years, and pressure from his family to return to the east coast, settle down and get married is reaching fever pitch. The problem is, he hasn't met the right woman.

When Mackenzie turns up in town, there's an instant attraction between her and Nathan, maybe even true love. But tragedy's not done with Mackenzie Jones – the past is about to catch up with her in more ways than one.

Can Nathan convince Mackenzie to stop running, or is this just another tragedy in the making?

My Review

Mackenzie Jones meets the handsome Nathan Kennedy at a wedding, then finds herself on the other side of the country, but working in the same tiny rural town as Nathan. They start seeing each other, but the relationship is cut short when Mackenzie is called back home—her estranged father is dying, and as the oldest child, the unattached child, and the nurse in the family, he becomes her unwelcome responsibility.

The writing was very good. There were some intentionally humorous lines (“she’s got a better backside than Pippa Middleton”) and some I found funny even though they weren’t intended to be (“she had a strong New Zealand accent”. Really. Have these Aussies ever listened to themselves?).

And one part of the story was unexpectedly poignant—a visit to the degazettted town of Wittenoom, site of the blue asbestos mine made famous (to me, at least) by Midnight Oil and their song, Blue Sky Mining. That’s not for the faint-hearted.

Although Nicki Edwards is a Christian, Emergency Response isn’t Christian fiction. This means there is some content you wouldn’t normally see in a Christian novel (e.g. consumption of alcohol), but it is still classified as a “clean read”. Well, except for the blood. But I guess a little blood is to be expected with a medical romance set in rural Australia. Recommended. As long as you don’t mind the blood.

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

20 November 2015

Review: A Fair to Remember by Suzie Johnson

Excellent Historical Suspense!

Amazon Description

Clara Lambert attended the Pan-American Exposition as a Kodak girl, never dreaming that she would end up photographing the attempted assassination of President McKinley.

James Brinton, a disgraced police officer now working security at the Expo, wants only to redeem his good name…and perhaps earn a new position with the president’s security.

When Clara is accused of being involved in the assassination attempt, James has to put aside his own ambitions to try to prove the innocence of the young woman who has captured his heart as surely as her camera captures the world before its lens.

But in the face of investigations, arrests, and mounting danger, they must do the hardest thing that could be asked: forgive.

My Review

At first I thought A Fair to Remember was going to be about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, but it was actually about the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Clara, our heroine, was a Kodak Girl recruited by Mr Eastman to take snapshots of visitors to the fair. Eastman apparently hired young women to show people how easy it was to use a Kodak cameras—so easy, even a woman could use it (yes, more than a little sexist in hindsight, but an accurate reflection of attitudes towards women in the 20th century).

A Fair to Remember starts with the shooting of President McKinley. I’m not American, so I didn't know whether McKinley would live or die, and this added suspense for me (but I hope all Americans know the answer!). Clara is present, and takes several photos before and after the shooting, and the police want to take the camera and the film into evidence. Unfortunately, it appears not only the police think Clara might have captured something important on film, as Clara soon finds herself and her camera targeted by unknown assailants. Fortunately, police officer James Brinton is there to protect her.

I think the romance moved a little too fast. The whole story took place over only a few days, and it seemed a little unlikely that James and Clara would declare their undying love for each other in such a short space of time, and there were times when I got frustrated with James for hiding things that need not have been hidden. These small deficiencies were more than made up for by the strength of the suspense plot, which was a full-on chase, more reminiscent of a James Bond movie than historical fiction, and made even more fast-paced and suspenseful by the fact someone seems to know James and Clara’s every move, and be one step ahead . . .

The writing was excellent, the cover is beautiful, and I look forward to whatever Suzie Johnson writes next! Recommended.

Thanks to the author for providing a free ebook for review.

18 November 2015

Review: The Dubliners by James Joyce

A Book I Didn’t Read in School

I loved reading even as a child, and I always read all the books I was supposed to read in school, so this challenge was always going to be difficult.

In my first year of university, I signed up to English 101, Twentieth Century Literature. But I missed the first week of classes, which was when we were supposed to have read the first assigned book: Dubliners, which is a short story collection based in Dublin, and is set in the early years of the twentieth century (which was why it was the first book on the class reading list).

I made it to the second lecture, and all I can remember is the lecturer talking about Ulysses—apparently some of the characters in The Dubliners also feature in Ulysses (which I also haven't read). The result was the lecture made no sense to me, and I wasn't at all motivated to rush out, buy and read Dubliners.

Anyway, now I have read The Dubliners, and all I can say is I didn’t miss much. I’ve never been a fan of cliffhanger endings, and it seemed like all these stories ended just when they were starting to get interesting. Too many of the stories didn’t have a satisfactory resolution, to my mind. And too many of them didn’t have happy endings (hey, I’m a romance reader. I like happy endings).

The writing was understandably dated, with lots of old-fashioned description, telling, and omniscient point of view. But there were pearls in there. This quote sums up how I saw Dubliners:
The poor lady sang Killarney in a bodiless gasping voice, with all the old-fashioned mannerisms of intonation and pronunciation which she believed lent elegance to her singing.
I can hear that voice. It’s like the overacted movies from the 1940’s, before method acting was discovered, and it’s like some writing from newer writers, who haven’t read enough modern writing to know they are writing in a distinctly twentieth century voice.

There were also excellent examples of subtext, of subtly implying what he didn’t want to show:
He had never been violent since the boys had grown up.
There was an underlying racism that we’ve hopefully grown out of:
Is it because he’s only a black?
There were excellent examples of showing class and accent through vocabulary choice and word order:
The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.
There was some writing which was strong in any time:
. . . too excited to be genuinely happy.
. . . laughing as if his heart would break.
And there was humour (although I’m not sure if this was intentional):
. . . a young man of about forty.
If only! (And this was written when Joyce was in his mid-twenties.)

No, I didn’t enjoy Dubliners in terms of the stories or the characters. But I can see why my university selected Joyce as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

This book counts towards my 2015 Reading Challenge as a book I was supposed to read in school but didn't.

16 November 2015

Review: Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray

Excellent Historical Romance/Suspense

Miss Lydia Bancroft works in the Lincoln Lending Library in Chicago, and is newly engaged to the handsome, popular and wealthy Mr Jason Avondale, at the encouragement of her widowed and impoverished mother. Mr Sebastian Marks is a man from the wrong side of the tracks who has become rich through his club, the Silver Grotto, which offers the gentlemen of Chicago the twin evils of drink and gambling (although not the third evil of women). He frequents the Lending Library partly to better his knowledge, and partly to watch the librarian …

There is an almost unbearable sadness about Sebastian Marks in the early chapters, as we learn about his upbringing, his current employment, and his efforts to become the gentleman Lydia believes him to be, and he knows he will never be. Despite his dubious profession on not-quite-the-right side of the law, he was an honourable man who was loyal to his (few) friends and did his best to be respectable, not merely appear respectable.

The story incorporates the developing relationship between Lydia and Sebastian, the understated relationship between Mr Vincent Hunt (Sebastian’s man of business) and Bridget O’Connell (his servant), and a thread of suspense which comes to the forefront in the second half of the book. The characters were excellent, as was the plot and the way each of the characters were introduced and linked. There was also some excellent writing, and a low-key but evident Christian message.

But the focus of the novel was on the bittersweet relationship between Lydia and Sebastian, and that was its’ real strength. This could have been an almost-perfect read except for two things. There were some weird lines (e.g. the overused “he bit out” speech tag), and the ending came too fast—by which I mean the pace picked up and all the outstanding plot points were fixed in a couple of short chapters, which was out of kilter with the rest of the novel (which wasn’t slow, but wasn’t a fast-paced thriller either). These might be minor glitches but they were glitches all the same, and did affect my enjoyment of what was otherwise an excellent historical romance.

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

13 November 2015

Friday Fifteen: Dan Buri

I'd like to welcome debut author Dan Buri to Iola's Christian Reads. Dan has recently released Pieces Like Pottery, a collection of short stories:
The first collection of short fiction from Dan Buri, Pieces Like Pottery is an exploration of heartbreak and redemption that announces the arrival of a new American author. In this distinct selection of stories marked by struggle and compassion, Pieces Like Pottery is a powerful examination of the sorrows of life, the strength of character, the steadfast of courage, and the resiliency of love requisite to find redemption.

Filled with graceful insight into the human condition, each linked story presents a tale of loss and love. A collection of nine stories, each exquisitely written and charged with merciful insight into the trials of life, Pieces Like Pottery reminds us of the sorrows we all encounter in life and the kindness we receive, oftentimes from the unlikeliest of places.
Welcome, Dan!

I want to thank Iola for this wonderful opportunity. I told her directly, but she has a fantastic blog doesn’t she? What a great avenue for us to indulge in our shared love of reading. Thank you, Iola!

My pleasure, Dan!

Growing up in Minnesota, my parents mandated “reading time” from noon-1pm everyday in the summer. Growing up with four rambunctious brothers and a lovely sister who all enjoyed sports, I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it was for us to come inside from our follies in the summer weather. While some of “reading time” was simply to give my mother a little peace and quiet for an hour, it instilled in all of us a lifelong love of reading. I recall some amazing summer afternoons with a book.

I won’t bore you with the caveat that my Friday Fifteen was difficult and could be a hundred books. I know as readers and writers we’re inclined to judge people’s selections regardless of how long the list is. (“Oh no, I don’t agree with that at all. A John Grisham book? This guy clearly isn’t serious about his writing. I don’t like that at all. I’m definitely not going to read his book.”—I’m smiling if that’s not showing through your computer screen. And while Grisham isn’t on this list, I do enjoy his books.) I will say, however, that I have tilted the list to include more of my Christian favorites.

I think this is the test of a real reader: that something which sounds easy actually turns out to be rather difficult. As you say, who to leave out?

1. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis.

Reading some of the previous Friday Fifteens from this year, I realize this is an entirely unoriginal answer, especially for Christian readers/writers, but it needs to be number one on my list. I have read it a half dozen times or so, but the first time I read it was with my mother. I think I fell in love with storytelling hearing my mother read this book to me. It’s a beautiful fable. I can recall lying up at night before bed as she made the world of C.S. Lewis a reality for me.

2. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevski

A quote: “Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

3. Uniformity With God’s Will, St. Alphonsus Ligouri

I don’t know if I have read a shorter, more difficult and impactful book in my life. 32 pages in total, it is more a booklet than a book, but the simplicity with which it guides us on how to become closer to God is tremendous.

4. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

I love Christmas time. I absolutely love it. There's just something about the kind heartedness everyone seems to display around the holiday season. People are willing to talk to complete strangers and give just a little bit more. Some of my favorite books and movies are about the holidays, and this one may be the best of them all.

5. Bridge to Terebithia, Katherine Paterson

I can’t quite place what it always was about this book, but I’ve loved it ever since I was a little boy. This book transports the reader simultaneously into the world of the loneliness children can experience and at the same time into a magical world they create in their imagination. Young kids handle far more difficult situations than we often times give them credit for, and this book certainly broaches some difficult questions for kids.

This was the first book I remember crying over.

6. In My Own Words, Mother Teresa

This book contains some of the most beautiful collection of quotes and stories. It is a simple, yet profound book of hope and faith.

7. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I must give my wise and lovely wife a nod for turning me on to the true beauty of this book. I read it and enjoyed it in my youth, but being my better half’s favorite book, she convinced me to look deeper and longer into this novel. I am grateful. It is a tremendous work of literature. (It also helps that Fitzgerald hailed from St. Paul, Minnesota, the place where I was born and will always call home.)

8. Intentional Dating, Dr. John R. Buri

This is a book written by my father. He is a professor and a marriage and family psychologist. Yes, I am clearly biased, but I truly believe it is a must-read for anyone in a relationship. Even people with years spent in a relationship have lauded the accessible advice in this book. My father has shared many things with me, but most important of them all may be his faith. He has taught me how to hope and love. I am grateful.

9. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

I have a term that I like to use about books—sticky. I use this term for books that stick with me well after I’ve completed them and put them down. The characters and themes in the books just keep turning over in my mind. They may not be on a list of “You Have To Read This,” but they’ve just stuck with me. This is one of those books.

10. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein

I realize there are some of you that may find it absurd that I would choose The Hobbit over The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but a family friend didn’t read the entire trilogy to me when I was little boy. She did , however, read The Hobbit. Just as I fell in love with story telling when my mother read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I fell in love with it all the same when a family friend read us The Hobbit.

11. A Vacation With the Lord, Thomas H. Green

If you find yourself struggling to make a very difficult decision in your life—it could be a job change or a family move or choice of school for you or your children—whatever it may be, I recommend this book. It will help greatly throughout your decision making process.

12. The Chosen, Chaim Potok

This is a striking book that explores a number of themes through the eyes of a young Hasidic Jewish boy. I found poignant three themes in particular: (1) the father-son relationship, (2) the strength of friendship, and (3) the search for truth.

13. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

This books never ceases to blow my mind, despite having read it three times. Exploring everything from the Big Bang to the discovery of quantum mechanics, Bryson takes some of the most instrumental discoveries in science and makes them accessible and awe-inspiring. With an engineering background, the scientist in me loves this book.

14. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

This is another one of those “sticky” books for me. McCarthy creates a beautiful depiction of a father and son struggling in a post-apocalyptic word. It captivates me to this day.

15. Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh

I think we are all communicative beings and life is intended to be shared with those around us, but a deep interior life is paramount to finding personal peace and satisfaction. I try to foster a deep interior life as much as I can, which, I hope, allows me to offer more to those I encounter in my life and into my writing. Balance in life is incredibly important. I find balance both in prayer and in meditation. Mindfulness is important to me—focusing on staying present. This book is a powerful introduction to mindfulness.

About Dan Buri

Dan Buri's first collection of short fiction, Pieces Like Pottery, is an exploration of heartbreak and redemption that announces the arrival of a new American author. His writing is uniquely heartfelt and explores the depths of the human struggle and the human search for meaning in life.

Mr. Buri's non-fiction works have been distributed online and in print, including publications in Pundit Press, Tree, Summit Avenue Review, American Discovery, and TC Huddle. The defunct and very well regarded Buris On The Couch, was a He-Says/She-Says blog musing on the ups and downs of marriage with his wife.

Mr. Buri is an active attorney in the Pacific Northwest and has been recognized by Intellectual Asset Magazine as one of the World's Top 300 Intellectual Property Strategists every year since 2010. He lives in Oregon with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Pieces Like Pottery currently at promotional pricing!

Barnes & Noble

11 November 2015

Litfuse Tour + Reading Challenge - An Endless Christmas by Cynthia Ruchti

There's no getting out of Christmas now, despite Katie rejecting Micah's marriage proposal. Cozy up this holiday season with Cynthia Ruchti's new novella, An Endless Christmas. The Binder family celebrates every Christmas as if it were their last. Too many people, too much snow, and too little room should be a recipe for disaster. But sometimes too much is just enough. Especially when it’s Christmas.

Celebrate the holidays with Cynthia and An Endless Christmas by entering her $100 Target gift card giveaway!

endless christmas-400 

One grand prize winner will receive:
  • A copy of An Endless Christmas
  • A $100 gift card to Target
Enter today by clicking the icon below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on November 30th. The winner will be announced December 1st on Cynthia's blog.

endless christmas-enterbanner

My Review

I enjoy reading Cynthia Ruchti’s online devotions, so was looking forward to reading this novel. While it had the same excellent writing and spiritual insight her devotions had, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. To start with, I felt like I’d been dumped in the middle of something as Katie Vale doesn’t accept her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, made in front of his entire extended family on the first day of their week-long Christmas celebration (we then backtracked, which made me wonder why we didn’t start with the backtrack and move forward).

There was also Katie’s personal insecurities which led her to turn down Micah’s proposal, and her unwillingness to talk about them:
“It frustrates me when I read a novel about a conflict between people that goes on and on when all they need to do is sit down and talk to each other for a few minutes. And listen to each other.”
I agree. This bugs me as well. So why did it take until the halfway point in An Endless Christmas for Katie and Micah to have this conversation? The other thing that bugged me was the Binder family: there were so many of them it became difficult to keep them straight, and they were too perfect. Yes, I know they weren’t actually perfect, but even their imperfections seemed perfect, which meant it didn’t ring true for me.

However, there were things we can all learn from the Binders, even if they are a little too perfect. The importance of family. The importance of God in our lives. The importance of finding joy where we are, of finding delight, of being satisfied with what we have.

Thanks to Worthy Books, Litfuse Publicity and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

This book counts towards my 2015 Reading Challenge as a book set during Christmas.

9 November 2015

Review: A Reason to Stay by Kellie Coates Gilbert

Not my idea of a "hero"

While A Reason to Stay is the third in the Texas Gold series, it’s a standalone novel. I’ve read the first in series, and I don’t recall any similar characters, although there are certainly similarities in location (Texas), structure, and theme.

The structure is unusual: it starts in the present, with news anchor Faith Marin reporting from Johnson Space Centre when a tragedy occurs and she ends up in hospital, where we find she’s having problems in her marriage. We then flash back to the beginning of her career, and her meeting with and marrying Geary Marin.

This back-and-forward technique worked well for me in the first book in the series, A Woman of Fortune, as I was hooked on both the present and the past plots and anxious to know how the perfect past had imploded and led to the imperfect present. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy that aspect of Here to Stay nearly as much, because I didn’t like the back story.

Specifically, I didn’t like Geary, which is a big oops in a book where a major part of the plot is restoring the broken marriage relationship. I didn’t like his complete inability to communicate (although that at least seemed true to life, unlike most fictional heroes!). I didn’t like his attitude that his family was normal and always right, and that Faith had to fit in with them. I didn’t like his attitudes towards Faith’s job—it wasn’t as though she’d changed jobs, and he actually met her while she was at work so his before-and-after attitudes seemed inconsistent to me, and which, frankly, reeked of 1950’s male chauvinism. It’s not that his beliefs were wrong, more that he expected Faith to agree with him simply because he was the man. A real man communicates, and is willing to admit that he might not know everything. I also didn't like the fact that his relationship with Faith was focused so much on the physical. One scene in this regard left a sour taste in my mouth, and reinforced my view of him as being more interested in his own 'needs' than in Faith.

And I found it incomprehensible that a man who was a Christian would marry a woman who wasn’t. Well, I assume he was a Christian. His father was a pastor and he attended church, and seemed to expect Faith to act like the church women he knew, despite knowing it was completely foreign to her. This made no sense, and as a result I blame Geary for most of their marriage problems: he’s the one who grew up in a Christian home, the child of a solid Christ-based marriage.

He’s the one who had the good example, yet he didn’t follow the advice his father gave him. He’s the one who told Faith a successful career would never fill the hole inside her, but never told her about Jesus. Instead, he implied she should give up work and have a baby, that staying home and raising children would fill the gap. Babies are wonderful, but bringing a baby into a marriage with fundamental issues is a recipe for disaster. Fail, Geary. Fail.

I’m not saying Faith didn’t have faults. She did. A lot. But she had a broken upbringing and was trying to rise above it the best way she knew how, in a world where she had learned professional and financial success were the only successes which count. It was Geary’s responsibility—as a Christian and as her husband—to show her the way by showing her The Way.

It’s hard to rate Here to Stay. The writing was strong. The theme of restoring from brokenness was excellent. The plot was fine. The supporting characters were infuriating—not necessarily a bad thing. But I didn’t like Geary, and that made it hard to want him and Faith to be together. Overall, while there are many reasons to commend A Reason to Stay, I didn't enjoy the novel.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

6 November 2015

Friday Fifteen: Connie Almony

Today I'd like to welcome author Connie Almony to Iola's Christian Reads. Connie has recently released Flee from Evil, where a pastor with a past uses his underworld connections to try and save the child of the woman he wronged many years ago. 

Connie is here today to share her favourite 15 authors. Welcome, Connie!

Who are my Friday Fifteen? The authors who impacted my writing and my life? And how? Here’s my list (in no particular order) …

1. Jane Austen

I always loved her sense of irony, and her feel for the contradictions in human nature. She often had characters who believed things about themselves that were the opposite of the truth, and the most marvelous ways to portray this.

2. George MacDonald

I loved his varied depictions of what a Christian looks like. Some tidy and stoic. Others messy and creative. Some loud and engaging. Others quiet and contemplative. Some living by the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and others delving into The Word before making a move. And yet each worked, in their own ways, to live biblically as best they could.

3. Charles Dickens

His rich, layered and textured characters!!!

4. Georgette Heyer

Like Dickens, she wrote colorful characters, but it was her humor that grabbed me, and the way she could write intimacy between romantic leads where they didn’t even touch each other.

5. Numbers Five through Eight

These would have to be my critique partners, June Foster, Mildred Colvin, Gail Pallotta, and Vanessa Riley. These are the ladies who took my amateurish scrawling, each using their particular giftings, and turned it into interesting prose.

9. Denise Hunter

I love the intense way I get to know her characters thoughts and how this drives everything they do.

10. Ronie Kendig

Action pacing!!! She writes action in the speed it takes place. When I read it, I want to hold my seat, catch my breath, and still my heart.

11. Jenny B. Jones

Jenny has a number of books that deal with serious issues, and yet she inserts just the right amount of humor to make it palatable and not so heavy.

12. MaryLu Tyndall

I was a fan of MaryLu’s before she “went indie,” but I’m an even bigger fan now. It’s amazing how much better a story can be when an author is unleashed to write her heart. Her Christian pirate adventures get better with every story. She has also been very generous to me with her author and character interviews on my group blog, InfiniteCharacters.com. Whenever I want to show anyone what a great character interview looks like, I send them a link to one of hers.

13. C.S. Lewis

There are so many little things that have helped me understand God and His plan for us, not to mention how Satan attempts to thwart it (ie. Screwtape Letters). One of my favorite concepts of his is from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I can’t remember the exact line, but it is how he described Aslan as scary (he’s a lion, I tell you), but good. What a fantastic picture of God. He has the power to incinerate us at a word, and yet He chooses to sacrifice His very flesh to save us, instead.

14. J.R.R. Tolkien

There are so many wonderful metaphors in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but my favorite concept is how the small Hobbit, Frodo, is chosen for the great task of carrying the ring. Why? Because he is the ONLY one humble enough not to be destroyed by it. And yet, still, the journey leaves him wounded. Such depth in that story.

15. Holy Spirit (Paul)

Of course, as a Christian, I am thoroughly changed by all the Words of God’s holy book, inspired by His Holy Spirit, penned by His empty vessels. At the same time, if I had to choose the words that resonate with me the most it would have to be Paul’s writings on The Body of Christ. I don’t think this is because they are more important than any of His other writings. I think it’s because this is the theme the Holy Spirit has called ME to write about, reminding people that not only were we made different from each other, but we were meant to function differently—complementary to each other—as different parts of a whole. That’s what I try to write into my stories. Different gifts, used together for His glory.

About Connie

Connie Almony is trained as a mental health therapist and likes to mix a little fun with the serious stuff of life. She was a 2012 semi-finalist in the Genesis Contest for Women’s Fiction and was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Winter 2012 WOW Flash Fiction Contest. Her latest release, Flee from Evil, is about a pastor with a past who uses his underworld connections to try and save the child of the woman he wronged many years ago.

You can also meet her at these social media outlets:

4 November 2015

Review: The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay

For Bronte Fans

Lucy Alling works runs the showroom/antique store of Sid McKenna, a well-known Chicago interior designer. She’s also in charge of the books, and that’s how she meets James Carmichael and finds a kindred soul. Almost …

The Bronte Plot is definitely aimed at those who love classic English literature, with an emphasis on the female authors: Austen, the Bronte sisters, Gaskell. I have to say that while I’ve read them all, I’m not as much of a Bronte fan as Lucy (or, I guess, the author), and I did find the continual literary quotes and allusions got tiring. I felt as though I’d have gotten more out of The Bronte Plot if I’d have read the complete works of the three Bronte sisters before reading The Bronte Plot, as though I was missing out on something (kind of like when you pick up the fourth book in a series and the author assumes you’ve read and memorised the first three, so doesn’t introduce any of the characters because they assume you know their life history).

The result was I found the first three-quarters of the novel less than captivating, even though some of the writing was outstanding and insightful. This could be because Reay’s last novel was one of the best novels I read last year, and I was expecting something similar. The last quarter of The Bronte Plot was excellent, and the whole story had a strong theme around truth, and I liked the way Reay approached that … even if the theme was occasionally a little heavy-handed, and made it feel as though Lucy was a less-than-reliable narrator. On the other hand, people do lie to themselves (surely one piece of chocolate cake won’t hurt my diet), so I guess that made Lucy ‘normal’. If there is such a thing.

But there were flashes of brilliance in the writing, such as these quotes:

“ There is no greater mistake than giving a client what she thinks she wants rather than something reflective of who she is.”

“Reading forms your opinions, your world view, especially childhood reading, and anything that does that has an impact.”

(Why it’s so important to read books with good messages … and why Lucy’s character doesn’t entirely make sense).

Lucy also has one revelation which will appeal to many of us: one character says he has “figured out how to make my passions pay.” I wish!

My other comment about The Bronte Plot is that I don’t see it as Christian fiction. Sure, Lucy and James don’t sleep together, but nor is there any suggestion either of them (or any other characters) are people of faith (although it’s pretty obvious the author is writing from a Christian world view). I would have liked to have seen more Christian aspects, although I guess that isn’t Reay’s style, and a Christian character who continually stretches the truth might have been a stretch to write believably and a stretch to read. As one character says:

“We’re all wired to crave and worship something.”

As Christians, we believe that ‘something’ is God, and we watch as people around us behave like some of the characters in this novel: chasing and craving and worshipping the wrong things. Not God.

Recommended to Bronte fans.

Note: there were a handful of errors in the London scenes which hopefully will have been fixed before publication. Covenant Garden? Oops.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

2 November 2015

Giveaway: Intertwined by Jennifer Slattery

2 - 6 November
is introducing


(New Hope Publishing)


Jennifer Slattery


I have a new paperback copy of Interwined to give away to one lucky commenter. Thanks to New Hope Publishing for providing a free book.

About the Book:

After being abandoned by her husband, an organ procurement coordinator fighting to keep her job and her sanity encounters an old flame facing an unthinkable tragedy.
For Tammy Kuhn, being an organ procurement coordinator is more than a job. It’s a ministry. But when her husband of sixteen years leaves her for another woman, struggles with childcare, her absentee ex-husband, and an altercation with a doctor threaten her job. Embittered and overwhelmed, she fights to maintain her sanity when a late night encounter with an old flame stirs emotions long since buried but the ICU is no place for romance.

About the Author

Jennifer Slattery writes missional romance novels for New Hope Publishers. Her debut, "Beyond I Do", releases in August. She also writes Christian Living articles for Crosswalk.com and devotions for her personal blog, JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud; Internet Cafe Devotions; and Takin' it to the Streets', a ministry serving Omaha Metro's working poor and homeless. 

When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, hanging out at the mall with her teenage daughter, enjoying her real-life hero husband, or serving in her church or community.