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Archive for September, 2011

Speaking of Jesus

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Carl Medearis. 187 p. Published 2011 by David C. Cook. Advanced review copy provided by Speakeasy in return for my honest opinion.  (Book excerpt read by Carl here).

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Anyone who loves Jesus but finds Christianity frustrating.

Short Bio: Carl does his best to offend just about anyone who is attached to all the trappings of Christianity – but he does it with a sense of humor, a touch of reality, and with the obvious filter of being one of Jesus’s number one fans.  He challenges the traditional ideas of evangelism and salvation by pointing out not only their lack of scriptural foundation (especially when looking at Christ’s example) but also by laying out what most of us know to be true – they are terribly ineffective and often get the opposite result!

Carl makes the case that our current idea of “evangelism” is the result of believing we “win” people to Team Christian by convincing them logically that all the elements of Christian doctrine are true, but in the process end up having to defend a whole history of sinful and misguided actions committed in the name of Christianity.  He advocates that we have moved away from the heart of the gospel – that Jesus said he himself was the only way to come to God (relationship, not logical belief).  If you simply and joyfully point to Jesus rather than try to defend man’s religious version of Jesus’s message, you’ll witness some amazing things.

Eyewitness Account:  I LOVED this book.  I’m ashamed to admit that I could relate all to well with Carl’s many examples of how we can we get so distracted with Christianity (ooh, shiny!) that we sometimes miss Jesus.  In fact, although I would call myself a Christian, I found that Carl was definitely “evangelizing” to me – because I needed the reminder that it always boils down to how you respond to Jesus’s call to “Follow me”.

I loved how accessible and readable this book was – I could give it to a 5th grader, to my grandpa, or to my pastor.  Carl’s humor and humility are sugar that helps the medicine go down (I’m sure I annoyed my fellow bus passengers at several points by laughing out loud).  Ultimately, I finished the book excited and energized to know Jesus more and follow him more closely – which I think Carl would appreciate! (Apparently Carl and I are BFFs and on a first name basis – try reading his book and see if you don’t feel the same way).

Highly recommended, and I think that people of other faiths would also like this book!

Notable Quotes: 

“When we preach Christianity, we have to own it. When we preach Jesus, we don’t have to own anything. Jesus owns us. We don’t have to defend Him. We don’t even have to explain Him. All we have to do is point with our fingers, like the blind man in the book of John, and say, “There is Jesus. All I know is that He touched me, and where I was once blind, now I see.”

“We have an unfair advantage. We know the Creator. We’re friends with the King. We know where truth is found and its name. We know what brings life and what gives life and where eternal life resides. It’s not fair. While others are explaining and defending various “isms” and “ologies,” we’re simply pointing people to our friend. The One who uncovers and disarms. The beginning and the end of the story.”

“There is a place for doctrines and dogma and science and history and apologetics, but these things are not Jesus—they are humanly manufactured attempts to make people think that having the right ideas is the same thing as loving and following Jesus.”

” . . . Jesus can go toe-to-toe with anything.  There is no person in human history who holds a candle to Jesus.  When we make sharing our faith a war of ideals, we create casualties on both sides of the boundary.  We fight an “us versus them” campaign trying to show that our religion, our logic, our reason, our theology is better than everyone else’s.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None, but Tea with Hezbollah is on my list.

What are other people saying?  CNN Article on Carl’s Book (and its 73 pages of comments), Will’s Blog, Sister Chat, Rick Love  

Rating:

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★


A Reluctant Queen

Reviewed by   Cathy

Just the Facts:  A Reluctant Queen by Joan Wolf Thomas Nelson 2011  

Verdict: ★★☆☆☆

Who Cares? Romance readers of all ages

Short Bio: Esther is coerced into submitting herself as a candidate to the new Persian King because her guardian uncle believes she can save the slave nation of Israel in Babylon.  She is a Jewess but was admonished to tell no one.  To her amazement, the King chooses her as queen.  For the next year, Esther falls in love with the King and the two of them become physically and emotionally intimate.

While she is queen, Esther begins a social justice program, namely disbanding the harem which she is ever jealous of.  She resents her uncle and God for placing her in a trapped environment in which she has a husband that she now loves and has lied to about her background.  As their love grows, the king and Esther spend whole summer vacations together and he declares to her that her influence in his life is supreme and he will deny her nothing.

Haman, the Edomite, who has a lone prejudice against Jews in general and her uncle in specific, plans and implements (in the king’s absence)an edict to kill all the Jews.  When Esther finds this out, she determines that the only way to save her people and her uncle is to risk her life by entering a male only ceremony, in which the king must raise his sceptre to grant her her life.  The entire palace staff come to her support and assure her that the whole country supports the Jewish community and she heads off to the ceremony assured that her influence with the king is strong enough to conquer all.  After the king grant Esther her life back, she confronts Haman in the presence of the King, acknowledging that she is a Jew and her people are in danger.  The king, disturbed that his reputation will be ruined if the country believes he is prejudice against the jews, rescinds Haman’s edict and hangs him.  He sends messengers to every part of the land to ignore the edict and the country, who all respect the jews, obey.  Esther and the King live happily ever after

Eyewitness Account:  

Historical Fiction can be a tricky genre.  The authors that do it the best, keep the skeleton of the events true and embellish the characters and the relationships.  Wolf wove a wonderful story, the characters were engaging and the plot moved at a lively pace.  But it was no more the story of Esther than Abraham Lincoln as short, fat and bald, or a Joan of Arc so fashion conscious she spent her days as a courtier.  She missed the entire love story as it truly was.  It went more like this…

The almighty God-bridegroom picked a bride/queen – Israel.  His bride was kidnapped by Babylon and sentenced to a life of slavery far from her home. When rumblings through the kidnap country threatened His bride, the bridegroom stepped into action to save her.  He picked a woman to be the symbol of his nation-bride and placed her in the kidnappers harem.  She was incognito and managed to stay out of the radar until it came to her attention that she had to appeal to the enslaver to acquire the freedom of her people.  

She had no friends in the harem and every reason to believe that her enslaver would kill her for initiating contact, which was strictly forbidden. She had no support save her bridegroom God and prayed unceasingly (as did the entire Jewish nation) for his power to go with her.  She approached the throne room knowing that she didn’t want to live if her people were all dead and wanted to die with them.  But the bridegroom God, worked a miraculous act and the enslaver remembered putting her in the harem while in a drunken stupor.  Esther has no basis with him to ask for a favor so she spends the next week, trying to establish a relationship of some sort by inviting him and Hamaan  to dinner on three different occasions.  On the last night, empowered only by the bridegroom God, she implores him to have mercy on her and her people.   But alas, it is too late,  a king’s edict once sealed is irrevocable.  But the enslaver, is touched by the power of the bridegroom God’s symbol of his love and permits the Jews to defend themselves.  A battle of  Lord of the Rings proportions ensues and the Bridegroom God again supernaturally rigs the battle and his bride not only is free of the enemies wishing to annihilate her, but it is the beginning of returning home to be reunited with her true love.   WOW!  Her story pales in comparison.

Notable Quotes:   “Esther feared that God would take her husband as punishment for her obedience.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None

Rating:

☆☆☆☆ Plot Development

★★☆☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★☆☆☆ Original Idea

★★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall

★★☆☆☆

River’s Song

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Melody Carlson. 288 p. Published August 2011 by Abingdon Press.  Advanced review copy provided courtesy of the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Inspirational Fiction

Short Bio: Anna Larson journeys through a mid-life crisis of sorts when she returns to her hometown for her mother’s funeral and takes care of her late parents’ estate.  She finds that living by the river helps her to deal with the disappointment of wanting a deeper relationship with an uninterested teenager daughter and the trauma of living under a manipulative mother-in-law.  In her old hometown, she rediscovers her Native American heritage through the research of a doctoral student, Hazel, and gains the help of Hazel’s contractor son to transform her parents’ local mom-and-pop store into a riverside inn.

Eyewitness Account: Although I have been a Melody Carlson fan in the past, this book was a bit of a disappointment.  It just might not have been my particular brand of tea, but I thought that the plot moved very slowly, the main character seemed oblivious and wimpy, and the relationships rather stereotyped (teenage daughter who is bratty and disinterested, overbearing and manipulative mother-in-law, etc.).  Anna’s relationship with her mother-in-law is complicated by her dependence on the woman, and that situation is resolved much too quickly and easily.  Similarly, for such a shy mouse of a person, her new romance blooms into marriage far too quickly.  However, I did like a few things – at the top of the list, I really enjoyed the emphasis on Anna’s Native American heritage and exploring the idea that we often come to value later in life what we despised when we are younger.  Anna’s mom and grandmother were the most interesting characters in my opinion, but got much less development than the other living characters.  If the book had been centered around them, I probably would have liked it more.  Anna was just a hard person for me to like since she just came across as a naive doormat to me.  I thought this series would have the same warmth and charm that Carlson’s older Whispering Pines series, but it didn’t have the same feel to me.

Other Books Read by This Author:  These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking, Whispering Pines Series

What are other people saying? A Mom with a BlogEmmegail’s Bookshelf, Book Nook Club,

Rating:

★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★☆☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★ Original Idea

★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


Lone Star Trail

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Darlene Franklin. 272 p. Published August 2011 by Moody Publishers.  Advanced review copy provided in electronic format by the publisher in exchange for my honest review, courtesy of NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Historical/Inspirational Fiction

Short Bio:

The six-book series about four generations of the Morgan family living, fighting, and thriving amidst a turbulent Texas history spanning from 1845 to 1896 begins with Lone Star Trail.  Judson (Jud) Morgan’s father died for Texas’ freedom during the war for independence.  So when the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas (the Verein) attempts to colonize a New Germany in his country, he takes a stand against them.  After Wande Fleischers’ fiancée marries someone else, the young fraulein determines to make new life for herself in Texas.  With the help of Jud’s sister Marion, Wande learns English and becomes a trusted friend to the entire Morgan family.  As much as Jud dislikes the German invasion, he can’t help admiring Wande.  She is sweet and cheerful as she serves the Lord and all those around her.  Can the rancher put aside his prejudice to forge a new future?  Through Jud and Wande, we learn the powerful lessons of forgiveness and reconciliation among a diverse community of believers.

Eyewitness Account:

The last four fiction novels I’ve read have not been page turners, so it was nice to finally pick something up that I didn’t want to put down!  Not only did I love the setting (Texas settlers, both “American” and German, just after the state joined the U.S.), but I loved the characters and their own personal journeys.  I felt like the relationship conflict was more realistic, with just the right amount of communication struggle vs attitude hang-ups (pride, anger, jealousy, insecurity, bitterness, etc.).  Some books make relationship conflict all about a lack of communication, but the characters in Lone Star Trail acted much more like my own friends and family do.  I admired the way Franklin perfectly wove in the themes of prejudice and forgiveness.  I finished it the day I picked it up – very well done!

Other Books Read by This Author: None

What are other people saying? Reader’s Roundtable, Along the Way, Ausjenny

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★★★ Characterization

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★


The Week-By-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Ron and Jennifer Kujawski. 200 pages. Published in 2010 by Storey Publishing.  Received as a gift on my birthday this year.

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Nonfiction – Home & Garden

Short Bio:

“Timing is everything,” they say, and vegetable gardening is no exception. Knowing exactly when to start seeds indoors, what day to transplant them into the ground, when to pinch off the blossoms, and when to pick for peak flavor is the secret to enjoying bountiful harvests all through the gardening season.

In Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook, authors Ron and Jennifer Kujawski take the guesswork out of gardening with weekly to-do lists that break gardening down into easily manageable tasks. Suitable for all gardening zones, the book offers easy instructions for setting up a personalized schedule based on your last frost date. The Kujawskis are an inspiring father– daughter team who share their own triumphs, mistakes, and misadventures over many years spent together in the vegetable patch. Readers will enjoy the friendly direction and advice these veterans offer. Easy-to-read boxes, bulleted lists, charts, and detailed how-to illustrations make each week’s activities clear and doable. Spots for record-keeping encourage readers to track their own successes and fine-tune their weekly schedules from year to year.  Inch by inch, row by row, week by week, gardeners will move confidently through the gardening season. Whether it’s planting the strawberries, pinching off the pumpkin blossoms, checking for tomato hornworm, or harvesting the carrots, they will know exactly when and how to do it for the most bountiful harvests and the most enjoyable vegetable-growing experiences ever.

Eyewitness Account:

My husband and I ventured out into the great world of gardening this year, planting squash, tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupe, beets, radishes, artichokes, and herbs.  We stumbled through the internet looking for advice on when to plant, which seeds to start inside and which to plant in the ground, what kind of soil they need, how often to water . . . OVERWHELMED!  If you can relate, then GRAB THIS BOOK!

The book is organized into small, bite-sized clips of information and steps to take each week of the year.  You start in the winter by planning your garden, researching and ordering seeds, and sharpening/repairing gardening tools.  The book tells you when to start indoor seedlings, when to harden and plant, what diseases to watch for, when to fertilize . . . all in digestible chunks!  I actually didn’t mean to just sit down and read it (it’s supposed to be weekly, right?) but I got sucked in (and finally discovered what the leathery brown stuff was on the bottom of my tomatoes and how to prevent them!).  This book is invaluable, and I plan to re-read it at least twice more as well as use it as a reference.  I can’t wait until winter to start planning next year’s garden!

Other Books Read by This Author: None

What are other people saying? The Retro Housewife, Publisher’s Weekly

Rating:

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★


Lonestar Sanctuary

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Colleen Coble. 320 p. Published in 2008 by Thomas Nelson.  Listened to audiobook narrated by Aimee Lilly, borrowed from my local library.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Inspirational Fiction

Short Bio:

In the quiet safety of the Bluebird Ranch, old promises resurface and unexpected love brings new hope. Though tragedy has wrecked her life, Allie Siders holds on to the hope that her five-year-old daughter, Betsy, will speak again. But with a stalker out for revenge, all Allie can think about now is their safety. She must sever all ties and abandon life as she knows it. She heads to the peaceful Bluebird Ranch, nestled deep in Texas hill country, and to the only person who can help them. The ranch is a sanctuary for abused horses, and also for troubled youths: the perfect place for Betsy to grow and recover. Ranch owner Elijah DeAngelo eagerly welcomes the duo. But Rick Bailey—the ranch foreman and DeAngelo’s right hand man—hasn’t decided to let his guard down… yet. Promises made long ago soon force Rick and Allie to work together to escape danger. Will they discover love along the way?

Eyewitness Account:

I’ve been grabbing audiobooks from our library to listen to on my phone while commuting to work, and this was the second one I picked up.  Texas ranch, single mom stalked by a murderer . . . sadly, it wasn’t quite as gripping as I thought it would be.  If it hadn’t been something I was listening to while doing other things, I probably would have had trouble finishing it.  It was a little too predictable to be really engaging – the characters were okay, but not terribly distinct from most Christian Fic heroes and heroines.  It would make good summer beach reading for those who like Christian romantic fiction, seems like there are a lot of other readers out there who appreciated it more than I did.

Other Books Read by This Author: None

What are other people saying? Cindy’s Book Club, Kel Mel Blog, Romance Readers Connection 

Rating:

★★☆☆☆ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Tony Reinke.  208 p.  To be published Sept 30, 2011 by Crossway Books.  Advanced review copy provided in electronic format by the publisher in return for my honest opinion, courtesy of NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Nonfiction – Christian Growth

Short Bio:

A call for Christians to reclaim the priority, privilege, and practice of reading.

Christians are identified as people of the Word—submitted to the authority of God’s written Word, called to center our lives on it and not on the image-driven world that vies for our gaze. But how do we build such lives, and what do they look like?

Tony Reinke’s answer is that we are to be readers of the Word of God and of the many other books that reflect God’s truth, goodness, and beauty in the world. In Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Reinke lays out a theology of reading built around the gospel, developed from Scripture, and corroborated by church history. He offers guidance for exercising discernment in what we read, and practical advice on how to read regularly and well. Reinke also explains how to foster a culture of reading in our churches and homes. The book stresses that we may find truth, help, insight, or beauty in many different forms of literature, from theology to fiction to fantasy to business. Reinke reminds us that God is the author of all knowledge, and we read every book under his illumination.

Eyewitness Account:

The book blurb on NetGalley immediately intrigued me – someone wrote a whole book on why Christians should read (and written by an admitted “non-reader”)?  I snatched it up quick and wasn’t disappointed.  Reinke has a great writing style that is engaging, yet succinct (I didn’t do a whole lot of skimming because he moved from point to point fairly quickly himself).  The content was great; the first half of the book is Reinke’s “theology of reading”, his own thesis on why any Christian (or any person, really) who wants to grow and mature should read. I was most struck in this section by Reinke’s discussion of how when we rely more and more on visual media to communicate, we lose out on the precision of meaning found in words.

The second half is pure nuts and bolts – how to find time to read, how to highlight and annotate so that you get a lot out of your reading, how to make personal priorities for choosing what to read, and how to pass on a love and discipline of reading to your kids (to name just a few).  His chapter on priorities was so timely for me – I have been feeling overwhelmed these last few months with the sheer volume of what I want to read and how little time I have to read it in (as my backlog of NetGalley manuscripts can attest to!).  I took his advice and made a list of the goals I have for reading and it was so helpful to approach my TBR list with actual priorities and criteria for picking the next book!

The only thing that seemed odd about this book is the fact that he is really writing to people who don’t read – and it made me wonder how on earth he would get his message out to such people using a book? (Christmas present from those who do read?  My spouse just might get this one in his stocking . . .!)  However, they aren’t the only people who can find some juicy nuggets in this book – I loved it, and would highly recommend it to anyone.

Notable Quotes:

My priorities help me determine the value of a book. My priorities set the highest value on the rarest books (like theologically sound books on the person and work of Christ) and place the lowest priority on the most abundant literature (like best-selling secular fiction). This prevents me from allowing the abundance of literature in a category to dictate my reading diet. The categories prove valuable when I walk into a bookstore.

Literature is life. If you want to know what, deep down, people feel and experience, you can do no better than read the stories and poems of the human race. Writers of literature have the gift of observing and then expressing in words the essential experiences of people . . . The rewards of reading literature are significant. Literature helps to humanize us. It expands our range of experiences. It fosters awareness of ourselves and the world. It enlarges our compassion for people. It awakens our imaginations. It expresses our feelings and insights about God, nature, and life. It enlivens our sense of beauty.

This is a matter of conscience for each believer. And while there are no rigid rules for what Christians should or should not read, we must each be sensitive to our own conscience and the consciences of those around us. As we establish our own understanding of what books we will and will not read ourselves, we must respect the parameters that other Christians have chosen to set for themselves and for their children.

“Literature and art are God’s gifts to the human race,” writes literature scholar Leland Ryken. “One of the liberating effects of letting ourselves ‘go’ as we enjoy literature is to realize that we can partly affirm the value of literature whose content or worldview we dislike. If God is the ultimate source of all beauty and artistry, then the artistic dimension of literature is the point at which Christians can be unreserved in their enthusiasm for the works of non-Christian writers.”14 This point is critical for book readers. Our freedom to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of non-Christian literature does not require us to first endorse the author’s worldview or personal ethical choices.

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? The Biblical Bookshelf, Tom Farr’s Blog, Thoughts on Theology

Rating:

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★