Monday, September 1, 2014

Making Marion by Beth Moran

This is a delightful novel. It is an excellent debut effort.

Marion travels to Sherwood Forest to find out her father's mysterious past. He died when she was seven and her dysfunctional and distant mother is no help. All she has is a photo of him taking part in a Robin Hood reenactment.

When Marion lands at the Peace and Pigs campsite, looking for a place to stay, she is mistaken for another and set to work at the registration desk. She lands a job with the big-hearted and gregarious camp owner, Scarlett. But when she begins to ask questions about the photo from the past, her life is threatened. She finds out her father was like a brother to a young man who died under mysterious circumstances. That's when her father left the area and changed his name. Marion is bent on finding the truth, even if it means death to the ideal of a loving and gentle father.

I really liked this novel. Marion is a young woman who was traumatized by her father's death and her mother's subsequent accusations that it was all Marion's fault. If her words killed him, Marion thought, then she would not speak. And she didn't for years. How she came to speak again is a great part of the story.

Being at the Peace and Pigs campground is a sort of coming of age experience for Marion. She finds out who she is, in both uncovering her father's past and in revealing character qualities she never knew she had. It was just a delight to see Marion become the woman she was meant to be. And the possibility of romance? Well, that was just an added joy.

There are serious times in the book and there are funny ones. There are sad times and times to celebrate. There are quirky characters and there are tender ones. All of it is wrapped together in a writing style that is superb. The characters are well developed, the scenes well described, and the story line well thought out. I will certainly be looking for more from this excellent author.

This book is from England and there is the usual differences in language. I mean, caravans for staying in? Also, the Christianity is a little different than we are used to in the U.S. Nonetheless, the book was so well written it was a delight to read.

Beth Moran lives in Nottingham with her husband and three children. When not writing, she helps with a national woman's network.

Lion Fiction, distributed by Kregel Publications, 320 pages.

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Evergreen by Susan May Warren

This Christmas novella about the Christiansen family carries an emotional punch for which I was not prepared.

We've followed the lives of the Christiansen siblings in the previous novels about the family. They have all left home and now their mother, Ingrid, is not looking forward to a Christmas without them. John senses something in his wife that needs fixing. He's got just the thing to renew the romantic fire between the two of them that has cooled. He's planned a surprise Christmas trip to Europe and a renewal of their vows in Paris.

But life interferes when Ingrid agrees to take in her teen nephew while her sister is in treatment. And then their beloved family dog, Ingrid's last emotional link to her children's happy childhood, needs an expensive operation. And to top it off, Ingrid had long ago agreed to organize their church's living nativity.

This is definitely a different focus on the Christiansen family, on the parents. I had trouble liking John, the father and husband who thinks he can fix whatever needs fixing. When he can't fix it, he comes across as harsh. That was a bit surprising for me and I didn't like it. In the end, he had to learn that sometimes it is only God who can fix it. Often His fix doesn't look at all like what we had planned.

I sympathized with Romeo, the sweet nephew so misunderstood by John. It irritated me that John could hurt Romeo so deeply, doing what he thought was the right thing. What an arrogant man, thinking he knew how to run other people's lives.

I sympathized with Ingrid, trying so hard to be the wife and mother she knows she should be when her heart is grieving. Her daughter-in-law's troubled pregnancy brought back the emotions of Ingrid's own loss and the hurt deepened. I was amazed at the love she showed John, even when he did not deserve it.

Evergreen ended up being a very rewarding novella. It showed so dramatically that God works out all things for good, even though the path to that end can be very troubled. I recommend it.

Susan May Warren is a bestselling Christy, Carol and RITA Award-winning author of more than forty novels. She served with her husband and their children as missionaries in Russia for eight years. She now writes full time as her husband runs a resort on Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. You can find out more about her and her books at www.susanmaywarren.com.

Tyndale House Publishers, 208 pages.

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Beautiful Defeat by Kevin Malarkey

Total surrender to God. We know we are to be surrendered, but saying it is much easier than doing it.

Malarkey shares his thoughts on surrender. He suggests the starting point on the journey is honesty, with God and with others. He looks at the nature of sin. He says we need to know our enemies so he explores Satan, the world, and our flesh. He reminds us that God graciously provides a way forward in our mess, if we are willing, and that the central teaching of Christianity is that we must die. He has suggestions for finding our mission from God and preparing for it. He encourages us to let others help us in our struggles, even though it will be messy. We are to become addicted to our need for Go, he says. We are to look at what might be difficult for us and have a battle plan, remembering that we can learn from others.

Malarkey had serious problems with anger and he shares several of his experiences. His story is good evidence of God's grace, that He always provides a way forward in the mess if we allow Him to do so.

This book is a good reminder of the journey to a surrendered life. That journey is going to be messy but God will be there with us.

If you have not read much on the surrendered life, this would be a very readable and honest look at it. If you have read other books on the topic, you may nit find anything new in this one.

Food for thought:
Struggle is a team sport.” (104)
The surrendered life is the life of obedience to the clear, obvious, everyday things he asks of you and me.” (117)

Note: The author and his wife have apparently divorced. She has repeatedly stated that Malarkey's previous book about their son and his experience in heaven includes falsehoods. I have serious reservations about this author and this book.

Kevin Malarkey is a New York Times best-selling author and popular speaker. He owned a Christian psychotherapy business for many years and has an undergraduate degree in sociology and religion and a graduate degree in clinical counseling.

Thomas Nelson, 192 pages.


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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Home to Chicory Lane by Deborah Raney

Synopsis:
Audrey's dream if finally coming true. Now that their five kids are grown, she and her husband Grant are turning their family home into a bed and breakfast near Langhorne, Missouri. The opening weekend celebration is interrupted by the arrival of their youngest, Landyn. She has just driven from New York with a U-Haul. Chase, her husband of six months and an artist struggling to make a name for himself, had taken on a new living arrangement without even informing Landyn. It was far away from her work and very small. She has come back home to think things through. Audrey and Grant try to make their dream come true even as they help their daughter and son-in-law work through shattered dreams. The situation gets even more complicated when Landyn reveals that she is pregnant.

My review:
I really enjoyed this novel. Raney has given us much to think about. Landyn and Chase's marriage has hit a rough spot. Chase made a huge decision in signing the lease on a studio apartment without consulting Landyn. Even though it would be a better location for his art work, it would mean long hours in commute for Landyn, whose job was currently supporting them. She is upset. He thinks he did what God was telling him to do. There is much to think about in this situation. The wife is supposed to obey her husband but the husband is supposed to love his wife and sacrifice for her as Christ did for the church. And what about Chase's career? Should he get a job so he could support them while his art career is getting off the ground? Isn't he supposed to be the breadwinner?

Another thought provoking issue is knowing the will of God. Chase is sure he heard God when he signed for that studio apartment. Was it really God or his own desire speaking to him? How does one know when he has really heard from God?

In the background to these issues is the relationship between Audrey and Grant. Their marriage has stood the test of time and is weathering a rough beginning to the bed and breakfast business. Both of them try to be supportive of Landyn and Chase without interfering too much. It is a delicate endeavor and much prayer helps them pursue a firm yet loving attitude.

This is a great novel about second chances, about imperfect people trying to follow a perfect God. It is encouraging to see what God can do with the messes we make of our lives.

Discussion questions are provided so this would make an excellent choice for a reading group.

Food for thought in words from Landyn's grandmother to Chase:
Quit beating yourself up over this. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that God rarely works in ways that make sense to us while they're happening. All too often, it's only after we look back, sometimes many years later – often, truth be told, peering over heaven's balcony – that we can make sense of the way He was working.”

I am taking part in a blog tour of this book and you can read other reviews here.

Deborah Raney has won many awards, including the RITA, National Readers Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, the Carol Award, and has twice been a Christy Award finalist. She and her husband live in Wichita. You can find out more about her and her books at http://DeborahRaney.com.

Abingdon Press, 272 pages. Please visit your local Christian bookstore to purchase this book.

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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Safe Haven by Anna Schmidt

I really like this series by Schmidt. I have learned so much about WW II, while at the same time enjoying well written novels.

In this, the third in the series, FDR has arranged for nearly one thousand WW II refugees to come to America. Included in the group are some of those from previous novels. The main characters in this one are Suzanne, a journalist who needs to redeem her career, and Theo, a Quaker dairy farmer from Wisconsin and relative to one of the refugees.

This is a great continuation of the story. The refugees, many of them Jews who have escaped from concentration camps, were placed in a “camp” near Oswego, NY. Many locals were sympathetic to the needs of the refugees while some were suspicious and exhibited anti-Semitic feelings. The director of the camp wanted to see to the immediate needs of the refugees but also help them to prepare psychologically for life after the war. The refugees had signed an agreement to return to Europe when the war was over but that became a political issue as many wanted to stay.

I love it when I learn some history as I read a historical novel. And that is the case here. The Fort Ontario Refugee Shelter, also known as Safe Haven, was the only refugee center established in the U. S. during WW II. Schmidt has crafted an excellent novel based on these historical facts. We readers get to experience the anxiety of the refugees, their hesitation at being in a foreign country, and their celebration when the war was over.

To add interest and a framework for the historical narrative, Schmidt has added an investigative reporter, a bossy congressman, a wonderful Quaker farmer, and other well developed characters. This is a very good WW II novel and is part of a very good WW II series. I highly recommend it.

Anna Schmidt has three times been a finalist for the coveted RITA award for romance fiction and has twice been recognized by Romantic Times magazine with their Reviewer's Choice Award. She has written twenty five novels. Find out more about her and her books at www.booksbyanna.com.

Barbour Publishing, 320 pages.

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dancing on the Head of a Pen by Robert Benson

Benson was asked, when you think you have a story to tell, how do you go about it? Hence this book. He shares how he writes a book. It works for him and maybe it will help you. He offers no guarantees, however.

Some of the ideas in the book include deciding what to write, making the barest of plans, getting through to the discipline of writing a certain number of words a day, determining specifically to whom you are writing, writing slowly and rewriting, wearing the various hats of a writer, being influenced by other authors, journaling and practice cages, strolling, sharing your work (when and to whom), and knowing when a book is finished.

This is not a how-to book. Benson gives us musings on the craft, not specific steps nor practical techniques. He often rambles, telling stories of personal experiences, ultimately illustrating a principle about the writing life.

Benson is a writer. It is who he is, not merely what he does. He shares his writing journey and, although his path may not be the same as yours, I think you'll enjoy the views he describes.

Food for thought: “I know I am finished with a book when I never want to see it again.” (159)

Robert Benson is the author of numerous books and a retreat leader, writing and speaking often on prayer, contemplation, faith, spirituality, and writing. He is a graduate of and an adjunct faculty member for the Academy of Spiritual Formation. He and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee. Find out more at www.robertbensonwriter.com. (Note: this site is about a year out of date.)

Waterbrook Press, 192 pages.

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Merlin's Nightmare by Robert Treskillard

Synopsis:
Sixteen years have passed. Arthur is now eighteen. Merlin is older, married and has children. He is tired of fighting enemies and wants to spend his days with his family, training Arthur for his role as king. But Britain is facing war on three fronts. When Arthur heads south to aid Vortigern, thinking he is following the right path, Merlin is desperate to find the reckless young man and keep him safe from the man who killed his father. Merlin and Arthur must ultimately rally Britain's warriors against three overwhelming enemies: Saxenow (Saxon) hordes in the south, Picti (Painted Ones) raiders in the north, and a new enemy. Morgana, Merlin's sister, has set an army of werewolves loose to destroy Britain. While Merlin and Arthur are away, disaster happens at home as the Picti attack. Arthur must finally take his rightful place as High King. Yet Britain appears to be headed toward destruction.

My review:
While this is the third in a series, it can be read on its own. The author has included enough information at the beginning of the book that the reader is caught up to the present action. There is also a Glossary in the back, very helpful for all the unusual names and terms. That the Glossary is fourteen pages long tells you how many names and places you need to know. There are maps and village layouts at the beginning, again essential for following the action.

The characters have changed since the last book as sixteen years have passed. That caused a little disconnect for me. Merlin is married with children and is fearful and unsure of himself. Arthur is an adult, is brash and ready to move forward. We have missed the growing up years of Arthur and the influence Merlin had on him.

Soon I was right back following the action, however, and there is plenty of it. There are battles galore. There is the stone with the embedded sword. There are druids and hideous sacrifices Arthur and the Britons detest. There is a powerful fang and a magic orb. There are murderous man/wolves and werewolves and a dragon.

I was surprised that the end of this book does not wrap up, at least in some sense, the story. In fact, I felt like this book could have been the first in a series, not the last. We have experienced the background to Arthur becoming High King, now the next adventure begins. It seems it will in the series the author is working on, the Pendragon Spiral.

I found the spiritual aspect of the novel very interesting. Merlin, Arthur, and others are believers in Jesu Christus and call upon Him for help. In opposition are prominent pagan religions. It really gives the reader a sense of the spiritual struggle to control Britain.

Lovers of King Arthur fantasy will like this book. This entire series provides a new take on the background to King Arthur's life and the role Merlin played in it. Teen fantasy readers will enjoy it.

I wish the author had included an historical note informing readers of the aspects of the novel based on historical fact (at least as much as we know). He suggests researching names in the Glossary with asterisks for “a wealth if information.” So I did a Google search for Saxenow (a term with an asterisk) and found only references to Treskillard's books and a person's surname. I did not pursue that idea. Further general searching found one history site saying Vortigern died around 457, with Hengest being defeated (for the first time) then. That is quite different from the dates in this book. Granted, the chronology of the era is an educated guess but a short historical note with a timeline would have helped me understand Treskillard's dates. A page on his website on the history behind the series would be another way to help us put this series in historical context. I read books like this one to learn a little history, not just for escape. I appreciate when the author provides the information for me as a reader.

You can read a sample chapter here.

You can read my review of Merlin's Blade here and Merlin's Shadow here.

I am taking part in the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour of this book. You can read the reviews of others listed below:


Robert Treskillard has been crafting stories from his early youth, and is a software developer, graphic artist, and sometime bladesmith. He and his wife have three children and are still homeschooling their youngest. They live in the country near St. Louis, Missouri. Visit the author's website here. http://www.kingarthur.org.uk/

Blink (a division of Zondervan), 432 pages. Please visit your local Christian bookstore to purchase this book or get it here.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, through the CSFF blog tour, for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Generous Justice by Timothy Keller

This is a challenging book. It is one every church congregation should read.

Keller suggests there is a current disconnect between the desire to do justice and how we actually live it out. The church has concentrated on the soul and salvation, forgetting the body. He shows us that God wants us to exercise justice. He then explains how it can be done.

He begins with passages from the Old Testament and how God saw to it that the vulnerable had rights. He explores business, government, care for the poor within the church, the difference between relief and development, defining justice and our own attitude toward helping the poor.

Here are just a few of the challenging concepts Keller writes about:
  • Jesus “is saying that we should spend far more of our money and wealth on the poor than we do on our own entertainment, or on vacations, or on eating out and socializing with important peers.” (47-48)
  • Our attitude towards the poor reveals our attitude toward Christ.
  • Anyone who has truly been touched by the grace of God will be vigorous in helping the poor.” (54)
  • If you insult the poor you insult God.” (185)

This is a spiritual issue, Keller says. If you are willing to be challenged about your attitude towards the needy, read this book. You'll find there are no excuses. We have experienced God's generosity and grace. We are now called to exercise a generous and gracious justice to others.

Timothy Keller started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989. Now they have five thousand regular attendees as well as the members of hundreds of new churches around the world. He is the author of several books and lives in New York with his wife and family.


Dutton, 231 pages.