Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Art of Losing Yourself by Katie Ganshert

I really liked this novel. Great characters, superb writing, tantalizing plot – it's a very good novel.

The story centers around Gracie, the younger teen-aged daughter of an alcoholic mom who runs away and ends up living with her older sister and her husband. She is a fierce character, honest to a fault. She's been hurt so many times her outer shell has reinforcements. Just maybe Elias, the nice Christian football receiver who befriends her, can break through the facade.

Gracie's older sister, Carmen, has enough trouble of her own. After six miscarriages, her burning desire to be a mother has singed her relationship with her husband, the high school football coach. Carmen struggles with her own frustration and having Gracie in the house isn't easy.

There is much to think about and discuss in this novel. Perhaps the biggest one is how God directs lives and causes events to work out for good for those who love him. Other issues include alcoholism, the inability to have children, trust, family loyalty, and what it really means to lose yourself.

This is a novel about confronting issues, about growth, about forgiveness, about restoration. It is an exceptionally well crafted novel with characters so realistic I'd forget I was reading a novel. I highly recommend it for youth and adults alike.

Katie Ganshert is an award winning author, born and raised in Iowa, where she lives with her family. She has a degree in education from the University of Wisconsin. You can find out more at http://katieganshert.com/.

WaterBrook, 320 pages.

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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Undercover Bride by Margaret Brownley

This is the second in the series about women working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and it is every bit as good as the first one. Pinkerton is on the trail of a train robber and murderer. All the signs point to Garret Thomas, a widower with two kids. When he posts an advertisement for a wife, Pinkerton assigns Maggie Cartwright to respond. Using an assumed name and a made up family history, she corresponds with Garret and then goes to the Arizona Territory to meet and supposedly marry him. In reality, she is going to investigate him and prove he is the wanted man. The only problem is that he seems too nice to be a murderer. He is so nice, in fact, Maggie is having second thoughts.

There are some interesting issues brought up in this novel. One is how we handle an unsavory past. Maggie's father was an outlaw and was hanged when she was young. As she grew up, she told people he had died in the Civil War, not wanting people to know the truth. Might we do something similar to make our past socially acceptable?

Another issue is how our past influences our career. Maggie chose working for Pinkerton because it helped alleviate the shame of an outlaw father. She found that working undercover, lying about who she was, was actually easy because she had done it about her own past.

I really like the way Brownley writes. For example, Maggie gives a beggar some money. Elise asks why she did that. Because God wants us to help those in need, Maggie answers. Elise wants to know why God doesn't help them Himself. “Because God doesn't want to keep the fun of helping others all to Himself.” I like that! There's a good bit of humor in the book too. The church scene with mischievous Toby trying to steal the cross was a laugh out loud one.

Brownley's characters are delightful. That little Toby, wanting to go to the moon and constantly designing ways to get there. And then there is Garrett's aunt, a wonderful woman, even if she is a hypochondriac. I appreciate it when the main characters are well developed and the supporting ones are very entertaining.

I also appreciate learning about something in a novel and in this one it was about imprisonment during the Civil War. Given rice to eat but no way to cook it, Garrett learned to make a pot from his canteen. He made spoons from brass buttons and cups from wood. That led him to a career as a tinker after the war. And all that information about chess! Who would have thought it was a game of love? And the novel was based on an actual train robbery from 1871.

I really liked this novel. It had great characters, was an entertaining story, and had a pretty suspenseful end. I recommend it.

Margaret Brownley is the author of more than thirty novels and a RITA finalisty and INSPY nominee. You can find out more at www.margaret-brownley.com.

Shiloh Run Press, a division of Barbour Publishing Inc., 320 pages.

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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 2 by Nathan Holsteen and Michael Svigel

Why would we need to study theology? The authors remind us that spiritual truth is important. It makes a difference what we believe. The authors have compiled this book to help us understand what the Bible declares and the church has affirmed on the topics of creation, the fall, and salvation.

The book is written from the evangelical protestant viewpoint. The authors affirm what I would call the traditional evangelical view. They do provide information on a variety of interpretations of the doctrines from both history and contemporary writing but do affirm an evangelical position.

The first part of the book covers creation, the nature of man, and the fall. God is affirmed as the Creator of all things. “He is the sovereign Director of the course of history toward the fulfillment of His will.” What we believe about the origin of mankind makes a difference, the authors write. They emphasize the uniqueness of the biblical account and how it helps us comprehend who we are and why we exist.

Different views of original sin and the depravity of man are given. Although the doctrine of original sin “is under attack today, Scripture teaches it and believers throughout church history have affirmed it.” They give a good review of history so if someone mentions Pelagius or Calvinists and Arminians, we will know who they are talking about. Good comparative charts are included too.

The second part of the book is about salvation with the authors affirming the traditional evangelical doctrine. “Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; this is the testimony of the Scriptures and has been the confession of the orthodox protestant evangelical tradition from time immemorial.”

The format of each section contains an overview, then an exploration of the Scriptures important to the doctrine. That is followed by a review of how the church has understood the doctrine over time, key truths to remember, dangers to avoid, and principles to put into practice. They then give an extensive sample of writings from theologians throughout the history of the church. They follow this with an extensive list of books for further reading, identifying them as beginner, intermediate or advanced. Last are the footnotes. There is a Scripture index at the end of the book, a glossary, as well as verses to memorize and several charts of information.

This is a very readable introduction to the doctrines of creation, fall, and salvation. I was glad to see their affirmation of the traditional evangelical positions. I really do not see the value of the extensive quotes from theologians through history. This seems to be an introductory book to me and the long sections of quotes just did not seem to be something a beginner exploring theology would appreciate. I did appreciate their inclusion of principles to put into practice. This is not merely a book of theological theory but also includes an exploration of how that theology impacts life and is lived out.

I do recommend this very readable book to those interested in an introductory level exploration of the foundational doctrines of creation, humanity, the fall, and salvation, affirming the traditional orthodox protestant belief.

You can download an excerpt here.

Nathan D. Holsteen, ThM, PhD, is associate professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he teaches all areas of systematic theology. He and his wife and their two children live in Fort Worth, Texas.
Michael J. Svigel, ThM, PhD, is associate professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife and their three children live in Garland, Texas. Find out more at www.retrochristianity.com.

Bethany House, 272 pages.

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Your Blueprint for Life by Michael Kendrick

Kendrick has a passion to help people live with purpose in light of eternity. If you feel unsatisfied with your life or incomplete, this book may just help you get moving in the direction of a fulfilled life.

I like the way he has written this book. He covers a number of topics and gives the biblical foundation first before moving on to practical instruction. He lays a foundation of spirituality, knowing that we cannot have a fulfilled life without a relationship with God. He reminds us of the overall purpose in our life of glorifying God and knowing Christ. True joy comes from using our passions and gifts to glorify God, maximizing all that we have been given.

He reminds us that God will reward us in heaven for how we steward our lives on earth. How we use our talents and gifts is important. Just like a blueprint is required for building a house, Kendrick suggests we develop a blueprint for life. That will help us identify what God had in mind when He designed us, allowing us to live with purpose.

To develop that blueprint, Kendrick helps us identify our passions and gifts and then our calling. I was encouraged by his emphasizing each person's uniqueness. God's design of skills and talents means each of us has a unique calling to fulfill God's purposes. He asks many great questions to help us identify our passions, skills, and gifts.

He continues by covering what he calls the big five areas of life: spiritual, relational, physical, financial, career. He makes sure that in each area we understand the spiritual principles underlying the area before he gives practical suggestions to maximize it.

I really like the way Kendrick has developed this book. Some may think that they will just fall into their calling, that they won't have to create opportunities. I appreciate him reminding us that God might be preparing the way but we have to step out and pursue our calling. He shares his own story of changing professions to ultimately do what he feels God has designed for him. He draws on a number of sources, including stories and good teaching from other authors.

I'm a picky reader but I really enjoyed this book. Kendrick gives a wonderful balance of biblical principles, practical suggestions, and enthusiastic encouragement. If you are looking to redirect your life in a more fulfilling direction, I recommend this book.

Food for thought:
A life of value is defined by those things that will make a difference in eternity.”

You can find more information about his ministries at https://www.idisciple.org/ and www.BlueprintForLifeBook.com.

Michael Kendrick is a senior partner and cofounder of Roswell Capital Partners, his Atlanta based investment banking firm. In 1999 Kendrick founded Ministry Ventures Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to launching new ministries for Christ. He also serves as CEO and President of the Blueprint for Life ministry organization. He has written previous books, holds a master's degree in business administration and a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering. He and his wife and their three children live in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Thomas Nelson, 256 pages.

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

The Beast of Stratton by Renee Blare

About the novella:
Architect Aimee Hart, determined to locate her missing father, infiltrates Miles Stratton's engineering firm as a secretary. Her presence wrenches the shaggy, wounded man from his penthouse, and the quest begins. Betrayed by his best friend, Miles would rather hide than help, especially from the man's daughter. But something's not right. Someone is trying to destroy Stratton Industrial. A decorated war veteran, he's defended his own before and the Beast of Stratton can do it again. Even with the enemy at his side.

My review:
This is a quickly moving novella of around 150 pages. Most of the action takes place in about a day. The novel starts with immediate action and remarks from characters indicate there is much more to the story than what we are seeing. There are times when I was a bit confused at the way the information was revealed.

The dialog is taut. There was rarely a “he said” or “she said” and I sometimes had difficulty recognizing the speaker. The sparse writing moved the action along quickly but I would have preferred more clarification as to who was speaking and, sometimes, who was doing the action.

Since the story develops so quickly, there was not very much character development. 

Mile's has just come back from a tour and is suffering from PTSD. I wish there had been more back story about his military duty. He did two tours, we find out, and he flew a helicopter. But he is also the CEO of Stratton. Becoming a helicopter pilot in the military is a multi-year commitment yet it seems he has been gone from the company only a few years. I didn't really understand that aspect of the novel. There could have been a few pages of explaining it.

The romance happens really quickly, basically in one day. It was pretty intense too. I think it could have been expanded a bit. Generally a romance has an obstacle that must be overcome. In this case, I think it was Miles' PTSD. His quickly changing emotional level made for an interesting interaction between the two. Miles would be caressing Aimee one moment and totally distrusting her, it seemed, the next. I do enjoy it when the two people work on the obstacle together, to resolve the issue, but that did not happen here.

The story did contain a strong Christian message of forgiveness.

I think this novella has great potential. I would have liked to see it about 50 pages longer. An explanation for Miles' military service could have been included. I would have liked to see the romance a little less intense and covering a longer time, maybe a week. The suspense went quickly and it could have been expanded. Also, the resolution to the Stratton company mystery could have used some more setting up to make it acceptable.

Renee Blare was raised in Louisiana and Wyoming. She and her husband and son live nestled against the Black Hills, where she serves a community in northeastern Wyoming as a pharmacist. You can find out more at www.reneeblare.com and read her blog at https://reneeblare.wordpress.com.

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 172 pages.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight

What is the church supposed to look like? McKnight notes that the church we grew up in has a great influence in how we see the church and the Christian life. He wants us to rethink both of those concepts.

He uses the illustration of a salad bowl. He suggests all kinds of “differents” coming together in fellowship is the church God intended. He reminds us the early church was made up of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and social groups. That's how God designed the church to be. He knows it's not easy. But that's the point. “The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family.”

Rather than a mixed salad, the church today is like a plate with all the salad makings separated and distanced from each other. Most individual churches seem to be all the same, all lettuce or all tomatoes. Ninety percent of churches draw ninety percent of their people from one ethnic group.

If the church is supposed to be a mixed salad, then what is the Christian life to look like? He explores several areas. Grace welcomes people and makes a place for them and means that the church is a place for transformation. Love is a commitment to be with and for, benefiting others. It is a reflection of how God loves us. Table signifies the coming together, the unity, transcending differences, sharing life. Holiness recognizes the work of God. It means devotion to God and learning to avoid sins. Newness represents freedom from the shackles of sin (but it doesn't mean we get to do what we want). Flourishing is living in the Spirit Who gives gifts and transforms and produces fruit (including suffering).

McKnight includes a number of stories illustrating how some of these aspects of the Christian life have been lived out. He has added some commentary, such as a section on politics.

This would be a good book for church boards and pastoral staff to read and discuss. There are no questions included to stimulate discussion. There are also no practical suggestions on how to develop a mixed salad church nor how to develop the characteristics of the Christian life he explores. So this book would be only a spring board, perhaps stimulating church leaders to develop a vision for the church McKnight describes.

Scot McKnight (PhD, Nottingham) is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, Lombard, Illinois. He is the author of several books. You can find out more at www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/.

Zondervan, 272 pages.

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dead Dog Like Me by Max Davis

Paul tells us that Old Testament stories are included in the Bible as examples. We are to learn from them. But how do we? Davis has used an innovative technique to help us learn a lesson from the story of Mephibosheth.

The novel starts out with the very successful author and megachurch pastor, Nick Gregory, self destructing. His wife is leaving him and his ministry is imploding. Giving in to the dark voices in his head, he tries to kill himself by driving into a traffic barrier. When he comes to, he is no longer Nick but a crippled and broken young man in 800 B.C. He is Mephibosheth, trained to be a king but now a destitute outcast. Nick wakes up from a coma, again in the present. While most of the novel takes place in the present, once more Nick continues his experience as Mephibosheth.

The stories are not exactly parallel but Davis does a great job of drawing out the lessons for contemporary life from the biblical story. Mephibosheth was royalty, a descendant of Saul. And we are royalty, being in Christ. Mephibosheth had declined into the state of thinking of himself as a “dead dog.” Perhaps we have ruined our life and Christian witness. Perhaps we have come to the point of feeling crippled and like a dead dog too. Is there any possibility that God's mercy and grace can rescue us and restore us to His service?

The novel is very honest about the experiences of the one being broken and those around him. It was not easy for Nick to lose everything. He fought what God was doing for a long time. It was not easy for Abbi to be the wife of the man God was breaking. It is not an easy nor enjoyable task to come alongside and be a support in that situation. In the end she had issues she needed to face too.

This novel has a great message. Although we are broken, although we are ruined, God can restore us to be the person He has designed us to be. It won 't be easy. Cutting away the bits God does not want in our lives can be painful. We may lose possessions, reputation and status. But what we find in a life surrendered to God is worth it.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Max Davis is the author or co-author of over twenty published books. He holds degrees in journalism and biblical studies. He and his wife live in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana. You can find out more at http://www.maxdavisbooks.com/.

Worthy Publishing, 320 pages.

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Anchored by Kayla Aimee

Becoming a first time mommy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After years of infertility, Kayla Aimee was thrilled to be pregnant and highly anticipated the day she would give birth to her daughter. When that day came at only 25 weeks in the womb, Kayla's faith was shaken and she feared for her tiny newborn.

This is an extremely well written and compelling account of a premie birth and the months afterward. Besides great communication skills, Kayla has a sense of humor that comes across loud and clear. I found the book a delight to read, even though it deals with a difficult subject.

When Scarlette was born, she weighed less than six cubes of butter, not even a pound and a half. Kayla takes us into the NICU, through the emergencies, the pulmonary numbers, the sounding alarms, the hole in Scarlette's heart, the oscillating ventilator, the heart surgery, the clinging to life.

Kayla is honest about her broken faith and her questions toward God. She shares her feelings of failure and her inability to pray. She writes of being stripped to the barest of hope at yet another code. She also shares her change in confidence when she noticed a problem a nurse overlooked. She began taking an active part in monitoring her daughter's care. She also shares the pressure that was put on their marriage, including their finances.

This is a great book about a very hard experience, made pleasantly readable because of Kayla's writing ability and sense of humor. The book is very informative and is good for anyone wanting to know about how premie babies are cared for in the NICU. Reading the book may be hard for a mother who has had a similar experience. Scarlette survived yet many in the NICU did not. I would not recommend the book for parents who have lost a premie child. For others, however, this is a very honest and informative book.

Food for thought:
What we choose to do with our own suffering is what we send out into the world, and well stewarded it can bring forth beauty from ashes, hope for the hopeless.” (181)

Kayla Aimee is a writer, mother and slightly spirited southern girl who spends her days uncovering hope and humor in unexpected places. She makes her home with her husband and daughter in northern Georgia. You can find out more at http://kaylaaimee.com/ and follow her on Twitter @KaylaAimee.

B&H Publishing, 208 pages.

I received a complimentary galley of this book through Icon Media for the purpose of an independent and honest review.