Sunday, September 23, 2018

Fiction Review: A Secret to Die For

After reading all of the Nikki Boyd books, I was excited to have the opportunity to read another Lisa Harris novel, and I have to say, as much as I loved the Nikki Boyd books, "A Secret to Die For" beat every one of them. Here, Lisa truly balances edge-of-your-seat suspense with poignant, dramatic moments. Although spiritual topics don't really enter the picture until the end of the book, there's plenty to relate to, from the affects of divorce to the trauma of loss. Harris also steered away from the stereotypical romance setup, giving her two leads time to get reacquainted without any of that love (or hate) at first sight stuff. I had a hard time putting this book down and read it in just three days (it would have been less if I hadn't had to work!).

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Review: A Christmas By The Sea

Despite my reservations about the author's writing style, Melody Carlson has become a holiday tradition for me. It's pleasant to sit and read a quick Christmas-themed book right around the time fall rolls around. And A Christmas By The Sea is definitely one of the better Melody Carlson books I've read. The ending is abrupt and I'd enjoy more in-depth conversations between the leads, but the pacing of the story is well planned (until the end), and I felt I had a solid understanding of the characters. This is truly light fare. There is very little spiritual content outside of a few mentions of church and trusting God. But again, it's just a very simple story to pass the time.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Review: The Edge of Over There

Shawn Smucker still hops around a lot in point of view and tense, but the author's creativity and overall writing style have improved vastly since the first book in this series. One thing is for sure... I'm hooked. Although I would recommend readers get the first book in order to fully understand the events of "The Edge of Over There." There are a few surprises straight out of Genesis in this young adult Christian novel that sets up a world between earth and heaven. Young Abra finds herself with the responsibility of keeping each Tree of Life from growing and reach the hands of mankind. The mythology of this series doesn't necessarily fit neatly in with what the Bible tells us about the afterlife, but the story and characters are very intriguing. I couldn't put the book down and can't wait to see where the characters go next!

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Nonficion Review: Breaking the Fear Cycle by Maria Furlough

Maria Furlough surprised me with nugget after nugget of Bible-based wisdom in her book "Breaking the Fear Cycle." Maria tells her own heartbreaking story of a lost child and how God met her in the pain and helped in her desperation. We are not in control of the circumstances of our lives, Maria writes, but God does have control. The one thing we do have control over is our heart, which we should focus on God's wisdom. Our fears are unworthy of our attention, but God loves us. He is trustworthy. He is truth. His promise of peace is real. Maria also gives practical advice for application with tips on how to pray without focusing on the details of our fears.

This is a book I have already taken notes from and will want to return to for further digesting. I am also anxious to share the book with friends and family... and you.

As a side note for those more sensitive to doctrinal differences: At one point Maria mentions baptizing her baby and at another point she quotes from the devotional "Jesus Calling."

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Christian Nonfiction Review: Sex, Jesus, and the Conversation the Church Forgot

Lately, there have been so many books, sermons and cultural issues revolving around sex and the "conversation the church forgot" that I feel like the conversation is no longer being forgotten. When I first started reading Mo Isom's "Sex, Jesus, and the Conversation the Church Forgot," I expected this would be the same old look at what the Bible has to say with bits of testimony thrown in. However, I found pieces of myself in Mo's story, and as I read, Mo's talent for words and getting to the heart of a matter caught my attention... at least for the first half of the book. I almost wish Isom had expanded more on some of the original ideas she presents early in the book: true purity, false exaltation of self, and the relationship between our inherent worth and purpose and God's purpose for sex. However, my markups stopped around page 46. I do think I'll keep this book for a second read and more markups later on, though.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: Long Before Luther

Nathan Busenitz's "Long Before Luther" is a good overview of church history from the perspective of reformation doctrine. However, I expected the author to include more historical context, and the majority of the book reads more like a college essay than an academic book for the lay person. And much of the content is repetitious. I did appreciate that Busenitz made it a point to define the doctrines at stake before moving forward, and that he actually included some excerpts from early church fathers' writings at the end of the book in addition to the many quotes he uses throughout the book. The subject matter is certain important, and the first few chapters alone make the book worth a read, but I imagine there are better books out there that address the questions more thoroughly.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Fiction Review: The Theory of Happily Ever After

Kristin Billerbeck's "The Theory of Happily Ever After" is a charming romance novel filled with surprising and enjoyable pop-culture references and realistic, relatable characters. While Dr. Maggie Maguire's recovery from a breakup does include a few too many emotional ups and downs, her search for purpose and and self-understanding is ultimately simple, but profound.

Some readers may complain that the dramatic conflict with her ex is resolved too easily off-page, but the story really is more about Maggie's character development than it is about a crazy "kidnapped" trip on a single's cruise ship. I do think there was more opportunity for surprise that was lost on the early revelation of who Maggie's publisher was, as well as a harmless "boy toy" bartender, initially under suspicion.

Billerbeck writes in first person present tense, which normally would bother me, but in this case reads easily enough. The author clearly knows how to tell a captivating, descriptive story.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Fiction Review: First Impressions

Like most women, I'm a great fan of Jane Austen's tales of romance. So reading "First Impressions," a modern retelling of "Pride and Prejudice," I didn't really care that there wasn't much character development or detailed descriptions. I just enjoyed the novel for what it was. I chuckled at the irony of people whose lives so closely resemble the characters in a play version of "Pride and Prejudice" they are acting in, and took pleasure in discovering the minor changes author Debra White Smith made to adapt the story to a modern sensibility.

If you know anything about "Pride and Prejudice," you'll know the plot. A man and a woman (Eddi and Dave) initially dislike each other, but come to love each other over time. The initial attraction happens perhaps too quickly in this version. I felt like I had missed a good portion of the story when the first chapter began. Also, Eddi (Smith's version of Elizabeth Bennet) is a strong female lawyer, and I would have liked to have experienced some of her court cases to get a better sense of her as a person. I did, however, love Smith's take on Eddi's younger sister and Dave's younger brother, which I won't spoil here. But there is a strong spiritual undercurrent to their stories.

For those who are nit picky, there are a few things worth mentioning. Smith implies once or twice that she would support couple pastoring (and by implication female pastors). According to her bio, she and her husband actually co-pastor a church. Smith also chose to start telling a piece of the story from a third person's point of view more than 80 pages into the book, which always throws me off and is a pet peeve of mine. The last thing that slightly bothered me is that in the town play the characters are putting on, Calvin (aka Bingley) and his sister are slated to play Bingley and Jane in the play. Brother and sister as lovers. No thank you.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Fiction Review: Pelican Point by Irene Hannon

I read the first book in the "Hope Harbor" series by Irene Hannon a while ago and was not too impressed. Unlike her suspense novels, the original "Hope Harbor" was slow-going and lacked a satisfying conclusion. Still, Hannon's talent for creating characters and situations the reader will care about is very much-so prevalent.

A few "Hope Harbor" books later, "Pelican Point" is still slow-paced, but a definite improvement on what I had read before. However, when it comes to putting to words how I felt about the book, I have an easier time describing what I didn't like than what I did like. So first, let's just say that, yes, it's a worthwhile read that I never put away for long before picking it back up to read more. But I have to be honest about the faults of the book. I cared more about the side characters than I did about the main couple. Some things happened too quickly, and what was probably meant to be a suspenseful finale felt like an afterthought. And one of my pet peeves is when a romantic interest sparks too soon, goes through a "I think he may like me, but what if he doesn't" sort of phase, and then never really gives us enough memory-making, shared moments to establish a believable relationship.

By the way, a question for Ms. Hannon... why in the world are you so fascinated with the word "pussyfooting"?

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Nonfiction Review: Talking About God

"Talking About God" narrates real-life conversations the authors have had with non-believer friends. However, given that the authors never really state where these stories come from or how they were recorded, I'm not sure how accurate the dialogue is, especially when so much of it felt preachy and tailored to meet the authors' purposes. The conversations all come at a point in time when God has already worked on the friend's heart and the person is as close as they can get to salvation before making the final crucial decision to follow Christ. While the backstories of these people are good to consider, I would have appreciated at least one or two conversations that better show the reality of resistance most Christians meet when discussing matters of faith with non-believers.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Fiction Review: A Song Unheard

Roseanna M. White seems to become a greater author with every book of hers I read. I missed out on the first book in her "Shadows Over England" series, and now I feel compelled to go and buy it.

In "A Song Unheard," the romance is never rushed and the plot development is laid out at a perfect pace. The banter between characters often made me chuckle, and the slight suspense was just enough to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Willa Forsythe is the best of thieves, assigned to find a hidden "key" to breaking cryptic codes during World War I. The key belongs to violinist Lukas De Wilde, left behind by his father, and it does not turn out to be where you expect. Lukas has escaped Belgium, but eagerly seeks to find and save his family from the terrors of the German army. Meanwhile, Willa has another hidden talent that connects her with Lukas: the violin. Of course, with her street smarts, Willa would never fall for a man like Lukas. And Lukas, once a playboy of sorts, finds a change in heart, both from the war and from meeting Willa.

The spiritual themes here feel natural, too. Willa with her self-dependence and Lukas with his fickle past both face a deep need for God and the question of where God is in the midst of suffering. Other minor characters, such as the German commander staying with Lukas' family, give the reader extra perspective on the facets of war and the conscience.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Study Review: "His Last Words"

"His Last Words" isn't really about Jesus' last words. In fact, reading through the day-by-day studies, I had difficulty connecting the dots and finding a common theme. And the last week or two of the study where we actually read Jesus' final words are quickly glossed over. Author Kim Erickson also asks a lot of those personal questions that I tend to not have answers for or tend to find pointless. However, I greatly appreciated that Erickson opened each day's study with the relevant passage split up, line by line, with space for the reader to write down what each line tells us about God. I found I was able to glean a lot just from this focus on what the Scripture actually says. As Erickson pulled in other verses, I took away a lot of individual lessons. She doesn't do a detailed study of John, but she does have a way of making a point. I also appreciated that Erickson took space to make sure the reader reflects on what she's learned over the week. I would not mind reading through this study again. I probably still won't answer any of those personal questions. That's just not my learning style. But, hey, maybe it's yours.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: "Good Night Tales"

"Good Night Tales" is exactly the kind of story book I would have loved reading with my father when I was a child. The illustrations are lovely, and, combined with the stories told, create a beautiful fairy-tale land. C.S. Fritz takes passages from the Bible and turns them into stories and characters that children will easily engage with. The stories are short, and I wish Fritz would developed the world he has only just begun creating in this book. The only thing I found odd about the book was that there were two or three stories with no text and that were not as easy to understand or follow.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Review: 60 Days of Happiness by Randy Alcorn

I love Randy Alcorn books. When I sit down to read a Randy Alcorn book, I know I can expect a deep examination of Scripture. But "60 Days of Happiness" really didn't make all that... well... happy with Alcorn. Maybe it's because of the devotional format. Maybe it's because Alcorn had to reformat a full book into short devotions. In any case, "60 Days of Happiness" felt repetitious. While each devotion includes a Bible passage and relevant quote or story, I wanted even more Scripture. Alcorn's basic premise is that happiness is Biblical and good, and he certainly proves his point. But I expected more from an Alcorn book.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: Why I Believe by Chip Ingram

Books on "Why I Believe" seem to be the popular trend these days, going off of the success of Lee Strobel's books and the need in this modern age to have a "reason for my defense." And I try to read as many of these kinds of books as possible. The thing is, with so many books touting the same "reasons" out there, the information can get a little flat without a unique frame or angle. While I appreciate Chip Ingram's testimony and his framing of the topic by questions and reasons to believe, I didn't find anything new in his book. And honestly, other books do a much better job of providing compelling arguments for the Christian faith. I've had real-world discussions with atheists and agnostics, and the evidences given are simply not enough. While "Why I Believe" may be a good book for those new to the topic or for Christians who just need a reason to hold onto their faith, Ingram really only skims the surface.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fiction Review: Where We Belong by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin's "Where We Belong" has compelling Christian themes and interesting characters, but slightly suffers from a rushed ending and a lack of descriptive language. The book is several hundred pages, so the reader expects more from their investment.

Sisters Rebecca and Flora have inherited a large sum of money and a passion for knowledge from their father. These factors eventually lead them to the Sinai desert searching for ancient documents that will prove that the Bible has not been altered over the years. Along the way, Lynn Austin alters course to tell the reader about the girls' past. She also spends two small sections of the book telling the story from the viewpoints of servants Kate and Soren.

The back and forth between time periods provides an opportunity to better get to know the characters, and Austin gives the reader enough to earn her investment. However, Flora comes across as a stick-figure character, too reliant on Rebecca, while I never could decide if Rebecca was helpful or too forward in her demands and manipulation of her sister. Even when Austin gives us an entire section from Flora's perspective, it is difficult to understand her character or to read from Flora's perspective so soon after reading from the perspective of Rebecca's strong personality.

Toward the end of the book, Rebecca develops a romantic relationship with an agnostic, largely driving her quest to find proof for the Bible's reliability. That quest, which provides the outline of the majority of the book, does not lead to much adventure (beyond some trouble with a Bedouin) or discovery, and its conclusion was a bit of a let down. And when Rebecca finally gives the conversion of her beloved to Christianity over to the Holy Spirit, his "aha" moment comes in a quick and unbelievable manner. Perhaps this part of the story would have been best served by saving a section of the book to be told from his perspective, so the reader could know how exactly God prepares his heart for that final moment of realization.

The redemptive and religious themes of the story are woven well, however. I greatly enjoyed the sisters' desire to find God's purpose for their lives and their mantra that only God knows the time our lives will end. Soren and Kate's street backgrounds also lead to happy endings reminiscent of God's own adoption of Christians through Christ.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.