Monday, April 27, 2015

Thick as Thieves by Susan K. Marlow

About this young adult novel:
Fourteen-year-old Andrea Carter would rather ride her beloved palomino, Taffy, than do anything else. But life on the Circle C ranch in 1882 is busy. Between school and chores, Andi is left with little time to prepare Taffy's first foaling. Then when the event finally arrives, it nearly ends in disaster.

Returning to school keeps Andi hard-pressed to find time for foal training. And she now has a new problem on her hands – Macy Walker, who has been assigned as Andi's seatmate. The new girl's crude manners and cruel behavior bring storm clouds into Andi's life, as does the news that cattle rustlers have moved into the valley.

When the cattle rustlers turn to stealing horses and strike the Carter ranch, Andi's only hope for recovering her precious colts lies with Macy. Can Andi trust this wild girl? Does she have a choice?

My review:
This is a delightful novel for young teen girls. Andi loves her horse so this would make a great novel for young horse lovers. It also gives young readers insight into ranching life in the late 1800s. Even girls had chores before they went to school. There are many lessons in this book about family, trust, caring for others, and handling tough situations.

I loved the character of Andi. She struggled with going to school, especially when there are new colts to love and train. And when she gets to school, she has to deal with a crude girl assigned to sit next to her. I was glad to see Andi responded to the Holy Spirit when dealing with the obnoxious girl. There is a definite encouragement in the novel to deal kindly with those who have a difficult home life, or almost none at all.

There are other great characters too. Macy is a tough and obnoxious girl on the outside, a result of her tough home life. On the inside, well, you just have to read the book. Macy's brothers are the gruffest and meanest ones a girl could have. In stark opposition are Andi's brothers, tough but loving. The contrast in characters was a lesson in itself about the difference between a Christian home and one that is not.

The story was exciting and held my interest all the way through – and that from a senior citizen. This is the only one of the Circle C novels I have read, but one wouldn't need to read the earlier ones to thoroughly enjoy this one. It is a great story, complete in itself.

I highly recommend this novel to 12-14 years olds. There is so much action in the book, I think boys would like it too. It is encouraging to know that there are great series for young readers like I enjoyed at that age.

You can find out more about the entire Circle C series here and follow Andi's blog here.

Susan K. Marlow started writing when she was ten years old. She writes, teaches workshops, and shares what she's learned as a homeschooling mom. She enjoys relaxing on her fourteen-acre homestead in Washington state. Find out more at http://www.susankmarlow.com/.

Kregel Publications, 176 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Whispers in the Branches by Brandy Heineman

About the book:
Abby Wells has a hole in her soul. Now that her mom has died and she has lost her job, Abby thinks maybe leaving Ohio and going back to Georgia and searching out the mystery in her ancestry might help fill the void. Her Aunt Ruby is welcoming but is mute when it comes to secrets seventy years old. Abby accepts her aunt's offer to live in the family's old, and supposedly haunted, house. She meets the unassuming Will, Ruby's handyman and sort of all around caretaker. He has a past he keeps hidden too.

Abby is able to uncover hints to a tragedy long ago that might be the key to the family's secret past. In the process she meets an angry uncle with a chip on his shoulder. She find out there is much more to the mystery of her absent father than she could have ever imagined.

My review:
This is a novel for people interested in genealogical research. Hitting a wall with her aunt's silence, Abby must find other sources to unlock the mystery of her past. It was interesting to read about the various ways she went about her investigation.

In general, I found the novel a little confusing to read. There were allusions to many past events in the ruminations of characters, such as Aunt Ruby, that left me a little unsure of what was actually to be communicated to the reader. It may have been my Pacific Northwest Yankee brain trying to get around southern thinking and speaking.

I found Abby to be somewhat of a hard person to like. She was a troubled young woman and frequently acted out of her own selfish insecurity. She treated past and potential boyfriends horribly. She was also compulsive, acting on the spur of the moment resulting in getting herself in trouble. Abby made an about face at the end of the novel that seemed a bit out of character to me. Aunt Ruby was also a hard character for me to like. She was bent on keeping an event from her past secret. When Abby finally discovered the truth, I did not understand why Ruby tried so hard to keep it a secret. Ruby's intensity seemed too much for what was being hidden.

I felt the male characters had the most personality. That Uncle Blake was a mean fellow. He reminded me of a southern man at his worst. That character was well developed. I really liked Greg. He was a man who wanted the best for Abby, even if he went about it in a bumbling manner. I found it interesting that it was he who unlocked the key to Abby unlocking the relationship to her dad.

Readers who like a slower paced novel may like this one. There was a little excitement near the end, otherwise the novel moves along rather slowly. There is a little in it about the possibility of ghosts and a haunted house and some may like that. There is a good lesson for readers, that Jesus is the only One who can fill that hole in a person's soul.

Brandy Heineman writes dual time fame novels from a Christian worldview. Whispers in the Branches was a Genesis finalist. She is an alumna of Wesleyan College. She and her husband live in metro Atlanta. You can find out more at http://brandyheineman.com.

Elk Lake Publishing, 292 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through the Book Club Network for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

God Breathed by Josh McDowell

McDowell is convinced Scripture is reliable and that its words are God's words with power. He wants readers to experience the power of those words every day.

This is a personal book from McDowell. Unlike some of his earlier books of precise logical argumentation, this book is much more of a conversational style. He sets out to first convince readers the Bible has power that can be experienced, then argues for the reliability of it.

The first part of the book covers the power in God's Word, its purpose, how it is mean to be interpreted, how it is relevant, and how one develops a love for it. The second part of the book is a defense of the reliability of Scripture. McDowell excels in the latter subject, giving readers much about how both the Old Testament and the New Testament have a great deal of external and internal evidence toward reliability.

Much of this book seems to be driven by McDowell's emotional experience of successfully acquiring fragments of ancient biblical manuscripts. He tells the story several times, all or in part, of Dr. Scott Carroll finding artifacts for McDowell's ministry and the fragments' unveiling. McDowell also tells many personal stories as to how the Bible has shaped him and informed him over the years. He has even created a few fictional vignettes to illustrate some of his points.

This is definitely an introductory level book. It would be appropriate for someone who does not know how the canon came to be, how manuscripts were copied, about the discovery and importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or may not even be convinced faith in Christ is the only way to God. McDowell covers each of those topics well. I feel the strength of this book is in the second half, attesting to the reliability of the Bible. That is McDowell's strength and it shows in that section. (Discriminating readers who check McDowell's footnotes will find that he quotes scholars like F. F. Bruce and William Albright whose books date fifty to sixty years ago. I do wish the sources cited were of a more contemporary nature.)

I recommend this book to Christians who are somewhat biblically and apologetically illiterate. It is a good introduction to the relevance and reliability of the Bible.

You will find many resources at the book website, including a study guide.

Josh McDowell has been sharing and defending the essentials of the Christian faith for over five decades. He is the author or coauthor of 142 books. He and his wife have four children and ten grandchildren. You can find out more at http://www.josh.org/.

Barbour, 224 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Deception on Sable Hill by Shelley Gray

I have mixed feelings about this novel. But first, let me give you a synopsis of the plot. Eloisa is the daughter of the wealthy Carstairs of Chicago. In the first novel of this series, Eloise was sexually assaulted. She still has nightmares of the attack, even though the man has drowned. While at a society event, Eloisa meets Detective Sean Ryan, part of the police presence to protect women from a slasher who has been attacking beautiful women and scarring them. An unlikely romance begins to develop.

The strength of this novel, I think, is in pointing out the great gap between those in the wealthy society of 1890s Chicago and those of the common class. Eloise is of the former while Sean is from the latter. This gap and the snootiness of the wealthy is very clearly pointed out. Also a strong point of the novel is the exploration of what makes a woman beautiful (inside verses outside). Parallel to that concept is Eloise's feeling that she is not fit for any man, since she had been violated. Her finding self worth again is a struggle she experiences throughout the novel.

The novel was lacking, I think, in setting the external stage for its story. It takes place during the Chicago World's Fair but there is actually very little about the fair in the book. When an author is writing a historical novel, adequate description is essential. That was missing. For me, the action just floated and was never grounded in well described places. There was dialog in ballrooms and sitting salons, the locations seeming the same. Part of the novel takes place in the poor section of Chicago but I could never really visualize it.

The romance seemed a bit simple to me. A good romance involves some insurmountable obstacle the two must overcome. One might have expected that to be the gap in society between Eloise and Sean, but it never seemed to really come between them. With a few fits and starts, their romance progressed predictably.

The “mystery” aspect of the novel was almost nonexistent. The action requiring police intervention all happened off scene, until the very end. It almost seemed as a side issue, the romance taking center stage by far. I wish there had been a little more about the police procedure of the time too. Sean and Owen spent weeks, months on the case, but there was very little about what they did.

I thought a few of the characters were great. Sean's younger sister Katie was a kick. She was a little ball of fire. Eloise's maid was charming. What a delightful young woman, caring so much for Eloise's well being, drawing her out for emotional healing. Eloise and Sean seemed a little flat to me. Owen, the wealthy son who became a policeman, seemed like a nice fellow but really lacked a characteristic personality.

I would recommend this novel to those who really like a romance that emphasizes the class distinctions as seen in Chicago in the 1890s.

Shelly Gray is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, a finalist for the American Christian Fiction Writers' Carol Award, and two-time HOLT Medallion winner. She lives in southern Ohio, where she writes full time. You can find out more at  www.shelleyshepardgray.com.

Zondervan, 328 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

God, Adam, and You edited by Richard D. Phillips

Does it matter if Adam was a historical being? Many Christians today think Adam can be relegated to mythology or symbolism without compromising too much of the Christian faith.

These authors disagree. They hold that Adam was a historical being and that his existence is necessary to our faith and witness. What one believes about Adam's existence makes a difference to how we understand God, mankind, the person and ministry of Jesus, the Bible, and the gospel. It is essential, they argue, to defend the Bible's teaching on creation and Adam.

Derek Thomas writes on the essence of Genesis 1 in one essay and the views on the days of creation in another. Joel R. Beeke argues for a real, historical Adam, using the Bible alone. He also has an essay on Jesus as the second Adam. Kevin DeYoung explores whether man is here by chance or by design. Liam Goligher shares the spiritual ramifications of the first chapters of Genesis. Richard D. Phillips reveals the kind of theology we end up with if we incorporate evolution into it. He also writes on gender and marriage. His third essay is on what was lost in the Fall and when it will be regained. Carl R. Trueman writes on original sin and how the doctrine has been changed by modern theologians.

As is often the case with a variety of authors, the quality of the essays differ and there is some repetition. As a lay person, there were a few of the studies I greatly appreciated. Beeke pointed out the problems of rendering the Bible through the lens of science as well the importance of defending the historicity of Adam. “The denial of the historical Adam brings with it a host of ideas contrary to the Christian view of creation, human nature, human relationships, and the fall of man.”

I really appreciated Phillips' remarks on evolution. “The attempt to show that the Bible, when properly interpreted, makes allowance for evolution simply does not work.” He is very clear about what is lost when a Christian embraces evolution. “Evolution cannot be grafted into the structure of biblical Christianity, but replaces it with a different structure, a different ethic, a different story of salvation, and a different religion altogether.” I also appreciated Phillips' study on gender and marriage. He notes, “...it is vital for Christians to know the difference between biblically prudent accommodations to culture and issues on which we cannot faithfully compromise.”

This is not a definitive work by any means. It is a good introduction, however, to the historic Reformed view of the first few chapters of Genesis. It is also a good reminder of what we loose in doctrine and practical theology when we begin to compromise on the historical nature of that Scripture.

The studies in this book come from the 2013 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, sponsored by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Richard D. Phillips, editor, is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is a coalition of pastors, scholars,and churchmen who hold to the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed faith and who proclaim biblical doctrine in order to foster a Reformed awakening in today's church. You can find out more about their broadcasts at www.AllianceNet.org, their online magazine at www.PlaceforTruth.org, the theological conversation at www.ChristwardCollective.org, and cultural and church criticism at www.reformation21.org

P & R Publishing, 256 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Last Sicarius by Van R. Mayhall Jr.

This novel is the sequel to Judas The Apostle (see my review of that book here), starting exactly where the earlier novel ended. While there is some back story given I would certainly recommend you read the first novel. So much of this novel depends on the information and action in the first novel, I doubt one could really enjoy this one on its own.

Judas The Apostle dealt with finding an ancient jar containing a manuscript. Dr. Clotile Lejeune's father had happened upon a collection of ancient jars during WW II when he tumbled into a cave in northern Africa. He had kept one. Upon his death, Cloe, her son, and some from the Vatican faced great danger in order to maintain possession the jar and uncover its contents.

In this novel, Cloe is called to the Vatican and is given the task of finding the rest of the jars. While the powerful man who opposed Cloe in the first novel is dead, his successor is every bit as ruthless. He will stop at nothing to gain the collection of jars for himself.

In a sense, this novel is a repeat of the first one. A few new characters are introduced and there is a surprising twist near the end, but the plot is pretty much the same.

As with the first novel, there is a good amount of interesting archaeological and historical information in the novel. We read about Masada, first about Herod building it and then about the Jewish rebels making their last stand there. While it was thought all the rebels had died at Masada, there were some that survived. Known as the Sicarii, they have, through the centuries, protected the ancient manuscripts stored in the jars. The hunt for the jars is intense as there is a possibility they might contain writings from the time of Christ that may change our understanding of Christianity.

The end of this novel leaves us with a surprise revelation. I am sure there will be a sequel. I look forward to reading it.

I recommend this novel to those who love adventure and suspense with its roots in early Christian history. The novel is action packed and very informative. But do read Judas the Apostle first to get the entire background on the jars and their significance.

You can find out more about the book at the author's website.

Van R. Mayhall Jr. is the senior partner in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana law firm where he practices corporate and business law and handles selected litigation. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, he was educated at Louisiana State University and Georgetown University.

iUniverse, 372 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through NetGalley for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

This Strange and Sacred Scripture by Matthew Richard Schlimm

Do you have trouble reading the Old Testament? Do you find it contains strange behavior, harsh laws, and apparent contradictions? Maybe you have trouble reconciling a vengeful God in the Old Testament with a nonviolent Jesus in the New Testament.

This book, written by a Christian for Christians, aims at helping us see that God has incredible things to say to us in the Old Testament. We should not ignore it. It is three quarters of the Bible. Schlimm says the Old Testament is our friend in faith. It has much to teach us but it does require a little extra work to bridge the cultural barriers.

Beginning at the beginning, Schlimm advocates balancing a firm commitment to Scripture with scientific evidence. He explores identifying genres and notes that what we think the genre is determines our interpretation of the passage. He takes Adam and Eve symbolically.

He next addresses the passage describing creation in seven days. He then looks at the messy stories describing the troublesome behavior of Old Testament characters. He goes on to look at violence, noting that this is the most challenging issue. His identification of flawed assumptions is great. He also addresses the treatment of women, strange laws, apparent contradictions, laments and raging at God, the wrath of God, and biblical authority.

I like the way Schlimm gives options in each of the areas he explores and then defends his own view. He encourages us to think deeply and reflect theologically on Scripture passages.

I really liked his insight on Numbers. If we are disgusted with the characters and their constant complaining and want to stop reading, we are reading it well, he says. We begin to understand how things were for the Israelites - and for God. We are challenged to think about our own complaining.

Schlimm's thesis is, “The Old Testament is our friend in faith.” I like that model. Friends are sometimes brutally honest, may sometimes act illogically, may be argumentative one moment but helpful the next. It takes frequent and deep dialog to understand a friend and reap all that the friendship offers.

I recommend this book for pastors and church leaders, not for all the conclusions Schlimm reaches (I disagree with some of them), but for the way he deals with the troublesome aspects of the Old Testament. The way he takes readers through a difficult aspect of the Old Testament is insightful and is a good model. His way of approaching Scripture is thoughtful and allows for constructive dialog.

He has included lots of footnotes, blocks of information and quotes, and a section at the end of each chapter For Further Study. There are also several indexes at the end of the book. Schlimm has also provided discussion questions, artwork, quotes, and other resources at http://www.matthewschlimm.com/resources.html.

Food for thought: “People who associate the Old Testament with wrath and the New Testament with grace have not spent much time carefully reading either Testament.”

Matthew Richard Schlimm (PhD, Duke University) is assistant professor of Old Testament at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is the author of From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis and coeditor of the CEB Study Bible. He and his family lives in Dubuque, Iowa. You can find out more at http://www.matthewschlimm.com/.


Baker Academic, 272 pages.

Monday, April 20, 2015

From Good to Grace by Christine Hoover

Do you think God will bless you only if you are good enough? Or do you think you are sick or suffering because you have not been good enough in God's eyes? Are you consumed with what you think you ought to be doing, with what your life should look like?

We want to feel like we are doing the best we can – being a good mom, a good friend, a good church member, a good Christian. Hoover felt that way. But then she discovered her faulty thinking. She came to realize that the most important thing to do is not be good, but to trust God and acknowledge her weakness. Let's admit what we all know from experience, she writes. “We can't live this Christian life. We need help.” (95)

And that's good news for us. Sometimes we allow our external activity to take priority over internal transformation. That's because we're gospel illiterate. Oh, we know the gospel, but we don't know how to apply it. “We know what the gospel means for salvation, but we have no idea what it means for every day.” (46)

Hoover has many insights for goodness obsessed people, people who try to live by the “goodness” gospel. She reminds us of the danger of seeking man's approval, and of trying to win God's approval too. “The Christian life really is impossible,” she writes. (92) Yet, “God gives us what we need to live the Christian life, and he gives it in the form of himself.” (93)

Two of her insights were particularly meaningful for me. I found that spiritual disciplines are not meant to be replacements for the Holy Spirit. They are intended to be ways to ask for the Holy Spirit and hear from Him. (103) I also understood from this book that living by the goodness gospel will lead us to doubt God when we suffer. We might think we've done something wrong and not been good enough for God's blessing. But that is wrong thinking and takes us away from God's plan for our lives.

If you feel caught in that trap of trying to be good enough for God, this book is good news. Hoover is committed to live in grace and has done an excellent job in helping you do that too. There is a good Discussion Guide so this would make a great choice for a woman's study group. As Hoover writes, “We can live in grace and offer the same grace to others.” (122) I highly recommend this book. Live in grace.

Food for thought: “The more we fear God and what he thinks, the less it matters what others think and say about us.” (119)

Christine Hoover is a pastor's wife, mom, speaker, and author of The Church Planting Wife. She has written for The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and Christianity Today. She lives in Virginia. You can find out more about her and follow her blog at http://www.gracecoversme.com/.

Baker Books, 224 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.