Sunday, May 17, 2015

Searching for Sunday~

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

"Perhaps being disillusioned is a good thing if it leaves you facing the Truth."
That was my thought after finishing Searching for Sunday.

Rachel Held Evans knew who she was. She was a pastor's daughter, ensconced in a tight-knit Evangelical community. Her family was a link in a chain of giving and receiving, of visiting the sick and sending casseroles to new mothers. All of her childhood memories were bracketed by those familiar people and that particular expression of Christianity. And it was, in some ways, a very good thing.

But in other ways, that same sense of unity would leave a growing Rachel wondering where she fit. She makes an excellent point partway through the book: In Evangelical circles, we call ourselves "a community of believers." Because we're afraid of faith becoming mere rote routine and ritual, we emphasize the personal beliefs. And we often ask our people to believe far more than just the Nicene Creed. We mine the Scriptures for dozens of other principles and doctrines, and we package it together as a whole.

So when Rachel could no longer swallow the whole Evangelical serving, when she could no longer sign off on the doctrinal statement, she felt that she'd lost her place in her childhood church.

She unfolds her stories a sensitive touch, holding on to the things that blessed and nourished her even as she describes her strong disagreements with the American Evangelical culture.

When did she begun to trust her place in the Body again? When she found a place at the table of communion, a place on the path of pilgrimage, a place in the row of footwashers, a place where the healing oil flows. When she couldn't bear the weight of belief any more, it was tangible, tactile sacraments that re-introduced her to Christ and His people.

I requested this book because I had heard that it was arranged around the sacraments, and that idea piqued my curiosity.
Rachel chose seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage.
She writes several chapters about each one, telling us what they have come to mean to her and drawing in dozens of thoughts from saints both ancient and modern. She manages to meditate on the essence of each one, revealing them to be so compelling and beautiful that it seems to me like the sacraments must preserve the church, instead of the other way 'round.

And she does a wonderful job showing how the sacraments apply to all of us. (Typically, marriage would seem to have no bearing on the single, and holy orders would be reserved for the ordained.) Rachel expands on those ideas, exploring marriage as the mystery of our union with Jesus and holy orders as the calling of every man and woman to recognize and live their sacred calling.

Buried about three quarters of the way through the book is one of my new favorite quotes: "Scripture doesn't speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God." Excellent point. I never like the whole "I found God," thing. It doesn't make theological or logical sense. But walking with God? Oh yes. That points to ongoing relationship, and that's what this book is about.

I thank Traci at Traces of Faith dot com and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Seven Revolutions~

Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again

"Seven Revolutions" is going to be one of my favorite books of 2015. It's a history lesson and a course-correcting challenge all at once. 

First, here's a list for you. What do these things have in common?
The inherent dignity of every individual. The concept of universal "human rights" that stems from such belief. 
Philanthropy. Care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant. Reverence towards the dead. 
Freedom of religion and conscience. The basic notion that God is love.   

All these concepts may seem disparate at first, but one thing is evident: These ideas permeate Western society. 
Everyone I know believes these ideas are all true and good, that they're something to be guarded because we recognize they're precious.
We Americans can't picture our country without these undergirding. Indeed, they're what made us great. 

Yet where did these concepts come from? Where they latent in every fine civilization? Did they flower at some point in the evolving human consciousness? 
Do they spring from the Enlightenment? How about the French Revolution?
Did George Washington invent them for America? Can we trace these ideas back to a discernible beginning?

Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea are here to make a fascinating argument: It was the Church that first began to burn with these ideas, and it lit the culture on fire soon afterwards, and the world as we know it is warmed by the Church's flames. 

Now, that's quite a claim- that human rights and religious freedom came from the Church. Humph! 
Some people will spit milk out their nose just reading it. 
The repressive, bigoted, backwards, totalitarian Church is to be credited with positive, progressive things? Never! 
So, Messers. Papandrea and Aquilina, you'd better have some facts to back this schtuff up. 
{This book has over 150 footnotes, so yeah, you can spy on their research if you're interested.}

The authors make their case in ten chapters that are both dense and extremely readable. The topics are Human Dignity- A Revolution of the Person,  the Home- a place for loving relationship, Work- Labor being holy, Religion-Worship by choice and conscience, the Community- love for our neighbors, Death, and then The State-Government as Stewards. 

In each case, they look at what we know of the Roman world first. After all, the Church was birthed in the Roman world. If the Church was going to have some spectacular effect, we should see it in comparison to Rome. 
A small band of people, claiming to follow the Resurrected one, in an empire that was the height of culture and a veritable beehive of competing philosophies. 

Historians disagree as to whether life in Rome was a "paradise" or a purgatory. It probably depended on what class you were in- and how you defined pleasure. Although no culture is homogenous, there were mainstream schools of thought and majority attitudes. 
The tenets of Christianity came in conflict with many of these attitudes. So what would have been compelling about the Christian vision and the converts' lives? What did the Christians have to say that was relevant in Rome? 

A great deal, it turns out. 
I suggest that if I've piqued your interest at all that you go get ahold of Seven Revolutions. It will be far more fun for you to argue or agree with the authors than it will be to read more of this review. I thank Image Books for providing me with a complimentary copy. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Grief Undone~

Grief Undone: A Journey with God and Cancer

I am very glad that Elizabeth Groves and her children chose to share this story, "Grief Undone: A Journey with God and Cancer."

Those words are so like the words of my Grammy, who died one year ago at the end of May 2014. She consistently referred to the whole process of life with sarcoma as "My God journey" and "My cancer journey." In an odd way, it makes me smile to think about that, and hear her voice saying it in my memory. She would not- could not- see her life outside of God, and she did not separate God from her cancer. 

Just as Nancy Guthrie explains in her endorsement that is quoted on the back cover, Elizabeth Groves is both honest and insightful. 

Through her words, she shows us the heart of her husband, Al Groves. He was a man who knew that he lived and moved and had his being in God, even as his living turned to dying. Amidst his physical discomfort and waning health, he tried to take every potential fear or trouble captive to his Lord. 
He preached redemption-in-suffering to everyone, beginning with himself. He focused on Christ, sought to imitate Christ, and fell on the love of Christ in broken dependence. 

He had spent years studying and teaching all of the grand truths about God's compassion, mercy, comforts, provision, hope, peace, and everlasting life. 
We somehow think those are very abstract, ethereal things, that float above our world. They aren't. God's gifts take root and grow in one place- reality. That means the cancer ward, the hospital bed, the hospice room. The Groves experienced this. 

During this journey, God trained them to spot His gifts. He called their names over and over with perfect-for-the-moment, particular-to-them kindness. One beautiful example was a football game that Al got to experience with his boys. The kind detail was a wall, just right for a footrest, that happened to be in front of their seats. Al was in a great deal of pain from blood clots at the time, and elevating his legs gave him a measure of relief. The presence of that wall reminded Elizabeth that God knew, and cared. 

As they recognized the gifts given in this hard season, the Groves gave a "sacrifice of praise." Elizabeth includes a piece that Al wrote for his blog, about flossing his teeth. When you have terminal cancer, he wryly observed, you may as well quit flossing- especially if you've always disliked the task. Yet he chose not to, because something as pedestrian as tooth flossing was an act of hope when he viewed it rightly.   

I think people will find themselves understanding the Groves' experiences if they've walked a loved one towards death- the focus on Heaven, the step by step trust in God, the blessings dispensed at just the exact moment. Elizabeth's experience of grief will also resonate with readers. Absence permeates everything- the "important" and the "ordinary." Al would not be their for the college graduations, the weddings, or the grandbabies. He also would not be there to eat mushroom's off the kid's pizza anymore, or to pray them through a rough patch. 

Near the end of this book, Elizabeth describes prayer and worship- those moments when we come before the Throne of God, together with all of His saints. 
She writes, "In those moments in my imagination I feel as if.... I might glimpse Al's face in the crowd. It's almost like being together in the same place at the same time, since we are both before God's throne- he in actuality, I by faith. Someday we will be there together. And in the meantime it is a privilege, a joy, and a sweet refreshment to stand in faith in the radiance of God's presence, to close my eyes and feel the light of his glory on my face." 

I thank New Growth press for publishing this true story, and for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Restoring all Things~

Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World through Everyday People

The first few lines of the introduction let you know you're in for something interesting. Why, the authors ask, is God so into 're' words, such as resurrection, restoration, and redemption? What does this tell us about God's heart, that these are the ways He relates to His creation?

When we Christians look at the culture/geopolitical landscape, do we adopt a different set of "re" words?
Do we tend towards reaction, rejection, and resistance? Could we take a page from God's book and replace those negative concepts with something like renewal, revival, and reconciliation? And wouldn't that make our witness clearer and our efforts more fruitful?

This book starts off by asking some worldview questions, and they're foundational.
What is the world? (Accident, Illusion, or Creation?)
And what are we? (Images of God with a responsibility to fellow man, or chance arrivals in a chaotic galaxy?)
And what we we to do with the world? (Do we have a role, do we have a purpose, can we make a difference, is it worth trying?)

The heart of this book is stories of people who decided to make a change, to extend their hands and roll up their sleeves. What I love most is that these people looked at the same disturbing news stories that the rest of us saw. Yet instead of seeing all the wrongs as evidence that Earth spins abandoned on its axis, they looked and said, "My God is restoring all things. How do I participate?"

What made the difference between disgusted resignation or apathetic acceptance and creative intervention?
The Gospel.

So we read about Friend's Ministry, a productive 61 acre community garden. Their mission? "To give people a dignified place to work in exchange for help." Gardening contracts trade 37.5 hours of work for the payment of a bill up to $300.00. Along the way, gardeners form friendships and mentoring relationships, and learn life and job skills.

We read about New Horizon's Ministry, which serves an otherwise invisible demographic in Colorado. If a woman gives birth while in prison, the state takes her child. On the surface, this seems to make sense. However, the deadline to reclaim the child falls within most prison sentences. So the mother forfeits her child, losing any chance to rebuild her family. That's where New Horizon's steps in. They take the children, and place them in loving Mennonite homes. When the mother is released, she too is cared for and shepherded as she reintegrates. If all goes well, mother and child begin a new life together surrounded by a great support system.

We read about The Rare Genomics Institute, a group dedicated to sequencing the genome of people with rare diseases. They service mostly children whose diseases are unknown and so far incurable. By isolating any genetic abnormalities, they hope to give researchers and doctors more information to work with. The "ordinary people" come in because the services are crowd funded - the $7,500 procedures are paid for by donations.

The authors even discuss the arts world, and point to the way song and story and image all convey truth, goodness, and beauty.

All in all, this is a good read. It's a reminder to think before we begin pontificating about the decay of our culture- after all, there's more than a few chances to do good right there amid the bad.

Or as one guy said, "Let your light shine before men, so that they can praise our Father in heaven."

I thank Baker Publishing for providing a review copy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Reservations for Two~

Reservations for Two (Two Blue Doors #2)

Oh, I have been waiting for this book! 
Ever since last spring when Hillary Manton Lodge seated me at "A Table by the Window," I've been hoping for "Reservations for Two." When it arrived, I dug right in. 
{A witness described me as "glued to that book."} 

Right away, I remembered why Juliette D'Alisa is a favorite character. She's intense- she lives life with a passion that may be partly genetic, her being French and Italian. She's insecure too, just unsure enough about who she is and what she should do that I can understand her. And the author nails this character's voice. Juliette, Etta, Jules... whatever name you call her, she doesn't falter as she narrates events and shares her emotions. 

And she can cook! This story made me hungry for every recipe Juliette mentions. Like the first volume, this isI one fine literary feast. 

And then the humor- various quirky characters provide funny lines throughout this book.
Example: "I can clean an oven like no one's business. My skills with an oven brush are show clap worthy. Children dream of one day being able to clean an oven like me. Old men weep." 

Most of all, mixed in with the food and the humor, I love the aspect of family.
I wanted more time with the D'Alisa gang, both those related to each other by blood and those chosen as friends. And they're all here...
Clementine, the meticulous pastry chef. Alex, the quiet eldest brother. Comic Nico, who says what he's thinking. Wise Caterina, whom Juliette leans on. Opinionated Sophie, who really does care. Adrian, the sous chef who's a little to close for Juliette's comfort. 
They're all integral parts of the D'Alisa clan. They're the sort that will pitch in with prep work during the dinner rush or support you during an ER visit. They're the kind who will distract your worry with Bananagrams in the middle of the night.

There's plenty of tension, or shall we say "growth opportunities," in this book, so all that familial support is absolutely necessary. Reading this, I felt like I'd been listening to a friend who has familiar concerns about family and identity and work. 

So, was the sequel worth the wait? Yes. I so enjoy reading about this restaurant family whose world revolves around cooking food and sharing it to nourish other people. 
So, now I guess I have to wait for 2016 for the conclusion to the Two Blue Doors' Series. 
I'll be waiting with eager anticipation. That's for sure. Thank you Blogging for Books for my review copy!

Sunday, May 3, 2015


Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better

So we look at the world and we think "Oh, the road rage and the internet unkindness and the short tempers and long grudges! Oh it's all so unpleasant." 
Now imagine if somebody boiled it all down to a personal challenge for you and for me: Become "unoffendable." 
Take yourself right off the market of being mad, get off the bus to bitterness, deal with injustice without outrage. 
That would be really hard. 
And maybe really beneficial. 
And maybe it's even got roots in the Gospel. 
That's what Brant Hansen is here to try to persuade you of. 

Living life unoffended (by other people's snappy responses and inconvenient stupidity and downright sinfulness) will set you free to do God's work during the day and to sleep better at night, and maybe it's what Jesus called us to all along. 

There are about a hundred objections to this theory- "What about righteous anger? What about anger that fuels constructive work? Shouldn't I be angry at evil?" - and I think Brant answers most of them. 
When Brant starts leading us to Scripture, showing us things like James 1:20, we wonder why we've never heard about this before.
For the last decades we've been told all these things about how anger can be positive, while personal experience tells us it's a cruel and ugly master.
No wonder we're confused!

Brant knows what we are as humans. We're concerned about our rights, we want to get back at those who insult us, we check out everybody's behavior and respond to them accordingly- often with anger. And he knows who God is. God is the only One with the right to be angered, and only He can handle anger's power with perfect justice and mercy. For the rest of us, anger is really effective if we're attacking someone, and really unhelpful when we're solving problems. 

And the whole time you're reading this book, trying to swallow the curative pill of releasing your right to be angry, Brant will make you laugh. He has some terribly funny stories to tell, most of them him picking on himself. 

This book is a shove in the right direction- toward rest and release and restoration for us and the world.
Go read it.

Thank you Booklook for providing me with a review copy.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Chance of Loving You" Novella Collection

Chance of Loving You

"Hook, Line, and Sinker." 
I was having Deep Haven withdrawal between Christiansen books, so I read Susan May's story first. 
On the surface, this sounds like a comic little tale- two groups of college students compete for the fishing contest jackpot. 
When you dive down deep into the characters' hearts, however, you'll find there's much more going on. 
Susan May has brought her classic emotional depth to this short novella. 
For me, this is the hallmark of her writing. I start off thinking "Oh, cute story!" And then next thing I know she's wrenching my heart around. 
Abby and Ross are both precious, in their own way. She's a New Testament Greek scholar, he's the class charmer. 
And you'll be delighted to get to know them, to see how much they mean to each other, to wish they would tell each other the truth, to laugh at all the fishing misadventures, and then to treasure the ending. Susan May always gets me, hook, line, and sinker.  

I read Candace Calvert's story next. "The Recipe" is the tale of Aimee Curran, a girl who has found her calling. Ever since her first "apron time" with her mom, Aimee has loved nourishing people. First in her own kitchen, then as a hospital dietary assistant, and now as a rising culinary star. A scholarship to culinary school is within reach- all she has to do is win a Vegan Valentine Bake Off. 
She did not need a mix-up at the hospital, that lands her at the bedside of an old lady who is refusing her food. 
How involved should Aimee become with this compelling patient? And with the lady's protective grandson? 
Will that budding friendship be a help or a hinderance to Aimee's dreams? 
"The Recipe" combines life's strongest flavors- loss, love, regret, and new hope. It all bakes into a tasty, come-back-for-seconds kind of read.

And last but not least, Terri Blackstock's contribution. Terri crafts incredible suspense, and I wondered how she's do with the novella format. She has a winning premise, pardon the pun: How would you split a fortune with a complete stranger?  And "For Love of Money" is full of twists and turns. 
It's a roller coaster ride of "Yes, no, maybe- stop, go- left, right, slam on the brakes!" 
And the two characters driving the story? Well, they've come unmoored. 
To continue the driving metaphor, I kept wishing someone would take their license away before they crashed us all. I had to keep reading to find out what happens, turning pages, following Blake and Julie through comedy and catastrophe.
This tale will make you reconsider that ubiquitous wish of winning the lottery, and make you glad to have love instead of money. {Blake and Julie, at the end, could probably teach us a lesson or two in this area!} 

I thank Tyndale House for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion. :-) 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Until the Harvest~

Until the Harvest

Sarah Loudin Thomas's second novel has all the charm and truth that we encountered in her first, while providing a fresh plot that ripens like a Summer garden- sure and slow. 

The combination of winsome storytelling that reveals almost magical moments and glimmers of God's glory led me to christen Miracle in a Dry Season "an Appalachian fairy tale." Until the Harvest carries on this tradition. 

Assuming you've read Miracle, you'll be so happy to meet Perla and Emily and Casewell again. If this is your first book by Sarah, rest assured that it stands on its own. You'll meet the earlier cast through Perla's son, Henry Phillips, our main character.

On New Year's Eve, 1975, Henry is a college student at West Virginia University, studying agriculture. He's a beloved son to Casewell and Perla, and he's an upstanding young citizen in their community. If he was asked what his coming year might bring, he wouldn't have included a sudden death that derails his world. He wouldn't have seen himself taking an opportunity that's more like a hand grenade- safe for a moment, then explosive.
He wouldn't have pictured the peculiar Hoffman sisters, Mayfair and Margaret, becoming such a part of his days. 

In short, Henry never imagined that 1976 would be such a time of grief and trouble, and he never expected such pure rays of light to come through the dark. You may just love this Phillips boy by the time his story ends.

And we also get the Hoffman girls' stories too. Mayfair, age twelve. She has frail health and a sensitive soul- and both are guarded by protective Margaret. Because I have a sister, I appreciate sister relationships in literature. This one is a keeper. 
And Margaret by herself is a character worth knowing as well. It's her dreams that made me love her. She has lovely, wholesome wishes for her future... they just always seem out of reach. 

Thankfully, Henry and Mayfair and Margaret have Emily Phillips....but you'll just have to read the book if you want to find out all the surprises this tale has in store. It is a lot like a fairy tale, with a '68 Barracuda instead of a charging steed, a little gray house with daffodils instead of a castle, and an elderly farmer's wife instead of a good fairy.

Until the Harvest will feed your heart like a slice of Perla's wedding cake, and memory of its sweetness will linger in your mind. 

I thank Bethany House and Sarah Loudin Thomas for the chance to review this book.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When Call the Heart Season Two...

If you loved "Love Comes Softly," then you'll adore "When Calls the Heart."
Thanks to FlyBy Promotions, I was able to experience the Season Two Premiere Episode.

I hadn't watched Season One, but I have read the Janette Oke novel this is based off of.

This episode has everything that would make a fan happy. There's beloved characters, a small-town feel, lovely scenery, beautiful costuming, and inspirational story lines.

This episode includes half a dozen little plots that all weave together. There is action without violence, a tiny hint of suspense, dashes of humor, and a dose of heart-pattering romance.
An hour and a half will almost fly by.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

True Scientists, True Faith

True Scientists, True Faith

You'd have to be living under a rock in an inaccessible forest to avoid the discussion of "science" and "religion" and whether the twain can meet. 
For some people, this discussion is a civil, rational one, with the goal of reaching understanding. 
For others, it's all foregone conclusions and strident opinions. Too often "science" is pitted mercilessly against "religion" - as if there should be a solid brick wall between the two.
As a lay Christian, I was really delighted when I encountered this book "True Scientists, True Faith" and read about its premise. 

Essays from twenty contributors form this volume. They represent psychiatry, astrophysics, botany, ecology, chemistry, metallurgy, materials science, ornithology, conservation biology, nanotechnology, neonatology, marine geophysics and engineering, just for examples. 

Obviously, these are men and women with advanced degrees who work in specialized fields. Collectively they have studied and taught at prestigious schools, they've pioneered research, they've headed up international programs and they've experienced (and contributed to) the changes brought about by scientific discoveries in their work and in the world. 

This book is not a treatise on why "science" and "religion" are compatible. Instead, this is testimony from men and women whose lives are living proof that you can be a person of faith and of free inquiry. 

Most of the essays followed a basic outline. The author often starts by describing their youth, pointing out the seeds of scientific interest and/or spiritual growth, before going on to their school experience and eventual career choices.

Most of them had a neutral or nonexistent exposure to religion during their "formative years." They certainly weren't indoctrinated by fundamentalist parents! A scant handful were raised in some type of Christianity, and even they didn't absorb it all as truth right away. 

For most of these writers, they came to their faith as they pursued science: with their reasoning powers turned up, following the evidence, and compelled to trust their conclusions by the coherence of what they were seeing and hearing.  

After telling us about their journey to Christ, they meditate on how faith and science complement each other in general and the synergy between Christianity and their work in specific. The personal implications of their Christian convictions are fascinating. As they make clear, being a Christ-follower involved in cutting-edge science brings a weight of responsibility and a horizon of opportunity. 

This is a great resource to have on your bookshelf, and I found it a very interesting read. It reminded me to elevate the debate- can God be known from investigation and revelation both? When we come to a question that pushes the limits of a scientific answer- an ethics or morals or meanings question-can a spiritual answer be intelligent and trustworthy?

A student with a fascination in science or theology or both would benefit from reading "True Scientists, True Faith." 

I thank Monarch Publishing for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Wood's Edge~ A Pathfinder Novel

The Wood's Edge (The Pathfinders, #1)

So. What do I have to say about The Woods Edge?

Simply this- this story is a world in and of itself. 
Turn the first page and prepare to disappear within.
There are so many characters to meet and eventually to love. 

Lori Benton crafted all her fictional people- men and women, youthful and mature, Indian and English- with complex emotions and nuanced perspectives. Some of the most broken characters become the spiritual giants, being forgiven and transformed. Some characters become warped and embittered, choosing to wreak destruction on each other at least for a time.

The spiritual elements come through this story in a vibrant way, with each faith journey belonging specifically to the character as an individual. I won't forget the word-picture one man painted, saying that the Gospel covered him with the red blanket of Christ's goodness. 

The story is panoramic and personal all at once. 
We get to witness things that happen in Indian villages and in small colonial towns and over the sea in England and Wales- and all those events affect and shape the same people. 
The wide angle view is American history leading up to the War of Independence. 
The closer view is a portrait of a family raising a stolen son, and the havoc and grace they all experience because of their choices. 

Lydia became dear to me early on. At first, she's an outside witness to the main story. 
Lydia is a young girl with an interest in healing, and when wounded Major Aubrey comes to her family home, she pays careful attention. She comes to adore the Major with the devotion of a child. 
While the Major's wife struggles with terrifying memories, Lydia helps look after the Aubrey children- William and Anna Catherine. 

Skillfully rendering the passage of time, the author moves us to Anna Catherine's youth. 
This girl became my second favorite female character. Anna Catherine is open-hearted, and quick to be a friend. That's how she comes to know an Indian boy, who will grow up alongside her over several years. Without ever intending it, Two Hawks takes root in Anna's heart and she in his, and somehow they help each other grow. 

Behind all of this story is the interesting question of Nature vs. Nurture. Twin boys, raised so differently from each other... would they be anything alike? Could they share the same values and love the same family? 

The Woods Edge. Read this book to be taken away into a totally different time and place. 
Read it for the adventure and the love stories. (Yep. There's a couple heart-breaking love stories...) 
Read it for the courage that you'll see, and for the fears that you'll recognize. 
Read it for the writing- it's like watching 383 pages worth of movie unfold in my head. 
I could see Anna in the sunlit berry patch. 
I could see Lydia in the sickroom with Major Aubrey. 
I could see Two Hawks deep in the forest, wrestling with his purpose and identity, forever shadowed by his missing brother. 

The Woods Edge is an extremely satisfying read, but it will leave you with two questions. 
A. How on earth is Lori going to bring the larger plots to resolution in book two "A Flight of Arrows"?
B. How does she expect us to wait for that until 2016? ;)

Well, I'm going to post this review and then get ready to loan my copy to an aunt, who already wishes to borrow it. I'll just have to draw up a lending contract, because I want my book back when she's finished.
And avid readers can't be trusted on matters like that. 

Thank you to the Waterbrook Publishers and author Lori Benton for providing me with an early review copy.

Lori Benton Lori Benton was born and raised east of the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by early American and family history going back to the 1600s. Her novels transport readers to the 18th century, where she brings to life the Colonial and early Federal periods of American history, creating a melting pot of characters drawn from both sides of a turbulent and shifting frontier, brought together in the bonds of God's transforming grace.

When she isn’t writing, reading, or researching 18th century history, Lori enjoys exploring the mountains with her husband.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Tomb~ A Living Water Novel

The Tomb: A Novel of Martha (The Living Water)

Every Stephanie Landsem book I've read has gone straight to my heart. Sometimes it was a character refreshing my heart, sometimes it was a scene putting hairline cracks in it, but the story was always a treasure.
First came The Well, then The Thief, and now The Tomb. 

The best part of the Living Water series is the way it's crafted. While the spirit of each installment is the stories of Scripture, Stephanie develops plots and subplots that twine and weave and layer together. She puts story-flesh on Biblical people, and invents other men and women who could have jumped from the pages of the New Testament. When you immerse yourself in these novels, you encounter a piece of the Gospel, you meet the Good News.

In this case, you find the Good News through Martha's story. 
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are the grown children of a devout widower, who observes the rules of his religion as carefully as possible. 
Martha runs her father's house like a matron twice her age, attending to the duties of hearth and family. She watches Mary with a bittersweet affection- the younger sister is burdened by nothing. Mary laughs and loves like a child, and people either appreciate her kind heart or resent her freedom.

He may indulge Mary, but their father is proud of Martha's gravity and piety. He defines her as a girl who always uses her head instead of following her heart. Even that praise becomes a chafing yoke for Martha: her father loves her stability, but he overlooks her dreams. 
The Tomb is the story of the one time Martha follows her heart, and what happens after. 

Oh, this story! 

Scripture hints that this trio of siblings were deeply beloved, one to another, and they invited Jesus into the home made by their love. Those themes come out strongly in this tale. Because they were human, their relationships also had conflict- we see that frustration in the classic Mary/Martha scene.

The sisterhood between the girls- it's tenderly described and rings true to life. My sister is my best friend, and we know when we're seeing each other's "real self." The brotherliness of Lazarus is also precious- he wants to make things well for both of his sisters. 

When Lazarus rises in this tale, the author takes pains to give him "hope and a future." Scripture lets us wonder about the specifics of what happens after, and Stephanie gives him something beautiful. 

Without giving away any secrets, I also love what she does with another main character. The man who lived among the graveyards, tormented, who scraped himself with the broken rocks? And he meets Jesus, and Jesus restores him? I love that story. And Stephanie re-imagines it here. 

I wish the Living Water series could go on and on. That's how good it is. 
I'm grateful I have had the chance to read and review The Well in 2013, The Thief in 2014, and now The Tomb in 2015. 
Thank you Stephanie and Howard Books for my review copies over the past seasons. 

Stephanie Landsem Stephanie writes historical fiction because she loves adventure in far-off times and places. In real life, she’s backpacked through Germany and Eastern Europe, studied in Salzburg, enjoyed gelato in Italy, rode a camel in Morocco, and floated in the salty Corinthian Sea. Her favorite cities are Rome, Berlin and Budapest. Her travels kindle her imagination, fuel her love of history and foreign culture, and introduce her to one-of-a-kind characters. 
Stephanie is equally happy at home in Minnesota with her husband of 22 years, four children, three fat cats, and a tortoise named Moe. When she’s not writing, she’s feeding the ravenous horde, volunteering at church and school, battling dandelions, and dreaming about her next adventure - whether it be in person or on the page.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cookie Love by Mindy Segal.

"Cookie Love," a new cookie cookbook by Mindy Segal of Chicago's HotChocolate restaurant and dessert bar.
I was so excited about getting a review copy of this. I requested it with my sister, an avid baker, in mind. This is our combined review.

A cookbook should be made to last for quite a while. (Cookie Love seems to be. A weighty tome, bound in hardcover, with sewn binding so that it lays flat on the counter, or on your knees when you're reading in bed. Yes, cookbooks make good bedtime stories.)
A good cookbook should make you hungry as you read it. (Yes. Indeed. Hungry for raspberry rugelach!)
It should have lots of photos. (Check. Full color and full page.)
The narration- recipes and introductions- should be detailed and conversational. (I loved the personal stories she included. What's the first cookie Mindy distinctly remembers eating? A brownie krinkle, the day her kindergarten teacher came to lunch. When did get get serious in the kitchen? Age thirteen, when she received a KitchenAid mixer as a Hanukkah gift.)

Mindy is serious about baking. It's art, craft, work, love, and science. That's why this book is such delightful reading, and why it will lead to delicious kitchen adventures. There are recipes for every kind of cookie. Drop, sandwich, shortbread, biscotti, thumbprint, and all of them have been taken to new heights. You'll see expected ingredients used in unexpected ways, and you'll see unlikely ingredients used to make new favorites.

Does she call for some things that you may not have right in hand? Yes, occasionally, but there's usually a good reason for it. Goat butter adds a "mild tang," sorghum syrup adds a "rounded sweetness," and Cyprus salt is "assertive and crunchy." Could you stick with cow butter, Grandma's molasses, and Morton salt? Probably. But when you're ready to try something different, Mindy will encourage you.

The stated purpose of this book is to arm you with foundational technique and then turn you loose on the world, reading to do bold, beautiful things in the name of baking. "Make my recipes your own," says Mindy. "Riff on them... make some mistakes in the process."

I think that even if you never follow one of these recipes to the letter, you will find simple, awesome ideas to incorporate into your kitchen. One I've gotta try? Freeze a sheet of peanut butter and break it into the dough, so each cookie has "a ribbon of peanut flavor running through it."

There's an appendix called "My Cookie Pantry." This section is fun and informative. She introduces us to seven different chocolate products; she talks about the nuances of butter and milk and eggs, and she describes the properties of various flours and leavening agents and salts and sweeteners.

After that is "Tools of the Trade." She talks about what she uses and why it works. Evaluate your own pantry or use this chapter as a gift-list for your favorite baker. She's convinced me to supplement my plastic spatulas with a bench scraper.

The book closes with "Tricks of the Trade," to answer your "How did she do that?" questions. There's hints and instructions for using a double boiler, dipping cookies, working a pastry bag and a few other things that expand your repertoire.

In my house, I think this book will get quite a bit of wear. I read with pen in hand, marking what I'm craving for myself and what might ship well to a cousin in Florida.

Mindy says it more than once: Making cookies is a generous act. Create them, enjoy them, share them. And, she insists, the best part is the smile when people try one.

I thank the authors, and Ten Speed Press, and Blogging for Books for providing me with my review copy.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mary Colbert's new book.

13 Women You Should Never Marry: And How Every Man Can Recognize Them

I think I would have titled this book "13 Women You Should Drop Everything and Marry." That way, we could have focused in directly on the positive qualities, and looked at their opposite negative traits in passing. This book, 13 Women You Should Never Marry, does get around to the good traits, but it works its way there from the negatives.

What good qualities do we want to manifest, and find in others? We want to be content in Christ, able to choose joy for ourselves. We want to keep problems in perspective. We want to love others based on our status as Beloved of God, not based on those people's performance. We want to speak words of life and affirmation. We want to see the best in others and point it out to the world. We want to be safe people, who can be trusted with broken hearts and painful secrets.

Mary Colbert makes me want to be that kind of woman. Despite the focus on a negative trait in each chapter, she shows how desirable the good qualities are. So I think, overall, this could be a helpful book. The author does try to see most of the negative traits in context, with a sympathetic eye, even as she calls them out as red flags.

For example, she reminds us that a critical person may have grown up heavily criticized, a negative person may have had a lot of bad experiences, an angry person may really fear rejection, etc. For every one of these mindsets, there is help to be found in Christ. But it isn't the role of this book to guide women to help, so much as to warn men away from the women. I understand both sides of this.

Any woman, with the right guidance and care, can overcome any of these attitudes and grow into a wonderful, healthy soul. And yet, I wouldn't want my hypothetical brother to marry an unhealthy woman with the goal of "fixing" her. We'll all be marrying a sinner. The only question is, are they moving toward wholeness, holiness, and happiness, or will we have to drag them? I think this question will require a lot of soul searching. Where does 'bear one another's burdens' come in? Is it right to look for a spouse who appears to be carrying light burdens to begin with?

There are some valuable things to be learned here. All of the negative traits are ugly, and they drain away life. And we all manifest them, over and over in various degrees, throughout life. Are we willing to own them, to look them in the eye, to choose goodness and wisdom instead?

I thank Worthy Publishing for my review copy.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everyday Grace~

Everyday Grace: Infusing All Your Relationships with the Love of Jesus

Relationship. What does the word make you think of? For me, I'd say there's a hundred things that come to mind. In a relationship we're chosen, seen, and heard. We have security, acceptance and loyalty. We experience generosity, hospitality, and welcome. We find honesty, vulnerability, and kindness. 
We get to give and receive all of these things, and that's what makes relationship so wonderful and life-giving.

{Of course, we also get to give and receive pettiness, slights, offense, bitterness, criticism, anger, tension, and a host of negative drains that us dry. The human condition guarantees broken relationships.} 

We dream about the wonderful experiences, and yet we know the hard ones all too well. So who hasn't read a few books on the subject, hoping to get some wisdom and insight to make the whole thing smoother?
Likely that's why you picked this book up, because you want to learn more about relationship grace. 
Prepare to be surprised and refreshed!

*Everyday Grace* by Jessica Thompson is a great read, because it isn't a book focused on what we should do. 
Relationships are already based too much on performance- the last thing we need is a "Try harder!" 
This book doesn't say try harder- it says "Look, meditate, and rest. Christ has done everything." 

This is one of those books that saturates your soul with the goodness of the Gospel. It awes you, because it magnifies the Lord- turning on the zoom lens, as it were, and showing you Christ's beauty up close. It floods your mind with the knowledge that because He's so good, we're so very safe. Because He is perfect Love, we're securely loved. Because He laid Himself bare on the cross for us, we know we're perfectly understood. Because He is our High Priest, He is interceding for our every sorrow and every happiness. Looking at the evidence of His care that this book presents, we see that there's nothing but hope. 

We see the way Christ relates to us, and then we look at how these truths resonate in our human/human interactions. Christ is our Friend, our Older Brother, our Savior. 

And oh, this book will spur you to praise Him!

Thank you Bethany House for my review copy, provided in exchange for an honest opinion. You folks have published some awesome titles recently- Timothy Willard's Longing for More, Matt Papa's Look and Live, Peter Chin's Blindsided by God, Jeff Kemp's Facing the Blitz, and Jessica Thopmson's Everyday Grace. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Facing the Blitz~

Facing the Blitz: Three Strategies for Turning Trials Into Triumphs

{Thank you to Kirk Farrell for the review.}

In the 60's, 70's, 80's, I was much more of a professional sports aficionado than I am now. It was Bill Russell's Celtics, followed by Bird, Parish and Michale. The Pittsburg Steelers and now to a lesser extent the New England Patriots. 

I knew of Jack Kemp, a quarterback, politician, and head of government housing and urban development. The author of Facing the Blitz, Jeff Kemp? Nope, never heard of him. 

This book has enough about sports and Jeff's own professional career to tickle the interests of died in the wool zealots or casual observers like me. 
However his message, his book, has more to do with Christian faith than it does with sports.  His breakdown on pages 95, 96, and 97 are worth the price and time it would take to read the book. 

Jeff Kemp breaks it down to two mindsets: What can I get? vs What can I give? Will I be a consumer in life, or an investor? 
Me, I've been both. Shamefully often a consumer, occasionally an investor. 

Go and get this book. It's a touchdown. For an extra point I'm going to re-read it. 

Thank you Bethany House for providing me with a review copy.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Savor~ Living Abundantly

Savor: Living Abundantly Where You Are, as You Are

The packing box was weighty when the UPS man handed it to me. I saw the HarperCollins label, and my eyes grew wide. Could this be it, the book I had been waiting a month for? I quickly cut the tape and pulled the flaps open. There, among the crunched paper, was Shauna Niequist's "Savor."

In the words of my Dad, "That book's got one heck of a cover." Indeed. This devotional is linen bound, and the page edges are dyed indigo. 
This looks like the kind of book that would make a superb birthday present- the recipient would be oohing and aahing as soon as they saw it.

And the subtitle? "Living abundantly where you are, as you are." That conjures up images of freedom, acceptance, grace, and peace.

OK. So we've established that this book looks and feels beautiful, but I don't use my books as decorations. 
What's inside the cover? That's what I wanna know.

I was new to Shauna Niequist, so I did a wee bit of Googling. She's written three other books: Bittersweet, Cold Tangerines, and Bread and Wine.
A Starred Publishers Weekly review used the adjectives "humorous," "contemplative," "brave," "poetic," and "profound." 
And now I can see why. 

You see, Savor is 365 devotions, with a portion of them coming from her earlier works. This was perfect for me, because now I know that I want the full-length editions of her books on my shelf. Similarly, a long-time Shauna fan may want to add Savor to the collection because the devotional format presents the familiar material differently.

And what is the material? A whole bunch of lovely meditations on what it means to be human. As I read, I found myself thinking about so many things, asking myself little questions, and wanting to grab my favorite people and ask them questions too. 
"What takes your breath away? What makes your heart beat faster? What private anniversaries do you grieve on dates you'll never forget? What memories do you cherish? Whose arms do want around you? What wrenches you to the core? Whose smile helps you face the world? And.... what tastes so good to you that you close your eyes to eat it?" 

Shauna strikes an excellent note in her writing. It's urgent- live now, open your eyes, be present, stir the soup, kiss that beloved one- and it's reflective too. It's personal- after all, her inspiration is her life!- but by paying attention to her particulars, she somehow reaches the rest of us. 

I was lamenting to my mother as I read that this will probably be sold as a "Woman's Book." It turns out Shauna already addresses this. I found an interview where she said she doesn't write for women, she writes for people. Like Timothy Willard's beautiful devotional was not only for men, Shauna's is not only for women. If you're a man and I catch you reading this, I'll smile, because you'll be absorbing good thoughts from your sister Shauna.

Let me close with a few quotes from the lady herself. 

"I want to make God glad that He gave life to someone who loves the gift." 

"Sacred and surprising things happen when we gather around a table and share food made with love and by our own hands."

"In many cases, change is not a function of life's cruelty but instead a function of God's graciousness." 

"This is it, in the best possible way. Normal, daily life ticking by on our streets and sidewalks, in our houses and apartments, in our beds and at our dinner tables, in our dreams and prayers and fights and secrets. This pedestrian life is the most precious thing any of us will experience."

Thank you Shauna and Book Look Bloggers for providing me with a review copy.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Sparrow in Terezin.

A Sparrow in Terezin (Hidden Masterpiece #2)

A Sparrow in Terezin, sequel to The Butterfly and the Violin, the second Hidden Masterpeice Novel.

Despite dehumanizing treatment, victims of the Holocaust left behind works of art, some of it created within the death camps. Kristy Cambron is writing a series of books about these "Hidden Masterpieces," imagining a story for each artist. 

The way Kristy brings her characters together is something to behold. Just like in life, all the steps and stops add up, and leave you facing your enemy, facing your friend, facing yourself. And when various characters meet, they must decide whether to help or harm, give or ignore, recognize fellow humanity or close their eyes. 

Along with the compelling history lesson we receive as we follow Kaja's exodus from Prague, we get a modern day story too. 
If you read book one, you remember Will and Sera. They solved the mystery of a haunting painting in the first book, and when you begin this book you'll find yourself attending their wedding. 

Of course, Sera and Will don't immediately experience wedded bliss. There's another mystery for them to solve, one that requires delving into history's secrets for answers and wisdom.

These two books belong together, read in order, because they forma panoramic view of several stories. They are an excellent example of redemptive storytelling- these books are accessible, respectful tributes to the survivors and victims of the Holocaust. 

Thank you Litfuse for my review copy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Summer by Summer, a Novel.

Summer by Summer

This story begins with starry skies above a tropical paradise. Belize is an amazing place to work as a nanny over school vacation. 
And 18 year-old Summer hopes that this experience will help bring about a new beginning for her. She doesn't expect it to work a miracle, but she does hope for light at the end of the tunnel. 

You see, Summer is jaded and wounded from an experience that scarred her deeply. Even the people closest too her don't know the depth of her turmoil. And she certainly never intended to unpack her baggage with a stranger.
Especially not one like Bray. 

The college-age son of her employers, Bray is everything Summer can't stand. He unsettles her, and she tries to avoid him.
On his part, Bray thinks that Summer hides behind a guarded persona because she is afraid of life.
And she may dismiss him, but he finds himself unable to ignore the genuine, complex girl he catches glimpses of. 
Deep down inside, he believes they aren't so different after all. At the very least, they should give each other a chance! 

An uneasy truce made between them is soon tested when an island adventure goes wrong. 
They had hoped to "survive" the summer's tension, and suddenly they're working together on actual survival. 
Be prepared for suspense! 

Without giving anything away, this is a book you won't want to put down. Stranded on a lush-and-lethal island, Bray and Summer find themselves working together, protecting each other, and eventually understanding each other. 
And for Summer, that might be the scariest thing of all. 

This is a story about losing somebody you love, and somehow learning to hope again. 
Heather Burch avoids cliches and pat "answers," opting to explore emotions and feelings in a realistic way.  

This story reminded me of another worthy Young Adult read, Nicole Quigley's "Like Moonlight at Low Tide." 
If you're looking for two captivating-and-meaningful beach reads this summer, these are the two I suggest.

I thank Blink YA Books and BookLook for providing me with a review copy.