Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Deadlock by DiAnn Mills

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
Bethany Sanchez is determined to be professional on the job, no matter how dysfunctional her family. Thatcher Graves (... I know... the names!) is looking out for her as they become friends as well as work partners. Some of the story lines were a stretch - but the story kept moving forward and drew me in.

I didn't see the cover until I'd finished the book: I was expecting more detecting and less romance. The teamwork and complication of relationships was fun to explore. I'd be happy to read the next book in the series to get to know the people in the story better.

Recommended for light reading when you want to be entertained rather than educated.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

All Is Calm, All Is Bright A Colleen Coble Christmas Collection by Colleen Coble

★★★☐☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
Two shortish stories in one. If you like animals, enjoy stories of feisty women, and are ready for a tale of romance in the Wild West of a ranch, you'll enjoy Coble's story.

Lauren takes her life into her own hands and runs from her involvement as a witness to crime. Her boss needs to recover from illness. They hide out together ... but a killer is after them.

An easy read that will amuse and entertain. Read the second novelette on a trip from here to there during the holidays. You won't be smarter, but you may feel like you get there faster.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
What happens when your whole life unravels? Challenges of health, relationships, marriage?

You take time off to evaluate and refocus, even when time is short.

At times humorous, other times poignant and sad, the novel takes us into the process of dealing with a terminal illness. Libby takes herself from her routines, shakes up her world by traveling and trying new adventures, and considers what's important to her after she's diagnosed with cancer.

This is not fun reading but encourages emotional engagement and consideration of what it means to be human.

Church History (Vol. 1) From Christ to Pre-Reformation by Everett Ferguson

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
This text is a worthy addition to the church history library, beginning with the setting for the New Testament and the life of Jesus. It explores the early writings of the Church and categorizes the Church Fathers in simple charts and paragraphs.

This is an excellent reference for beginners, introducing them to church history in the cultural context. The illustrations and maps are useful additions to the text. Resources are provided at the end of most chapters for deeper study.

I'd recommend it.

Between Midnight and Dawn A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, compiled by Sarah Arthur

★★★★★  The publisher provided a copy for review before publication.
I read a draft (not yet completely formatted), but I look forward to reading this again during Lent. Sarah Arthur compiles historical readings in poetry and prose with prayers and time for reflection.

Each week of readings is designed to draw us into the story of God with us. The combination of secular and sacred writers based around a theme is compelling. I can't wait to explore the literature in the season before Easter.

Well worth adding to the library. Will help those considering options for celebrating spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season of reading, contemplation, and silence.

Tough Justice: Exposed (Part 1 of 8) by Carla Cassidy

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
I'm not quite sure where this is headed, but it was an exciting story so far.

Sometimes it's easier to leave the past behind than at other times. Agent Lara Grant brought down a crime boss and required protection. Now she's gotten her life back after coming out of a witness protection program. When she is tracked, singled out, and identified, she stays on the job.

But her life goes off the rails. The internal turmoil is well-described. The author wrestles us into scene after scene, wondering what is coming. if you like crime dramas shot through with romance, you may find a compelling reading.

I can't wait to read what happens next.

Just Fall A Novel by Nina Sadowsky

★★★☐☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
This was by turns exciting and confusing, hence the mixed review. The book goes back and forth between locations and times. 

I rooted for, hated, and wanted justice for the characters. By turns, I was angry and sickened, and then felt hope and sympathy for them. There was a ton of violence - that seemed overdone and shocked me. I don't read many murder mysteries. 

Maybe the author intended to develop the characters through action rather than description. I kept hoping for redemption. I'm not sure what I left with.

The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.
I was surprised to like this as much as I did. The characters kept me interested the more I learned more about them. 

The reality of marriage and family challenges, of neighbors and neighborhoods, of what we assume about people we meet ... all these made this book fun to read.

Dogs are being poisoned and no one knows who's behind it. Who are the dogs of Littlefield and who wants them out of the way? 

Read this novel and find out.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tiny Games for Work by Hide Seek

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review

Having a long day at work? Might be time to wake it up with a few diversions. That is ... games.

This was a fun book. The illustrations are amusing and none of the games is difficult or complicated. They use simple materials that we find in most offices (or no supplies at all).

The interactions are a great way to rethink how you respond to people and information on the job. If you're getting bored with the same-old same-old work routines, grab Tiny Games and wake up enough to get yourself back on track.

You might discover the people who work next to you or just down the hall are a lot more fun than you first thought, too.

Practical Sins for Cold Climates by Shelley Costa

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review

Take a trip far from city life with Val Cameron, Senior Editor, who is sent on an assignment by her boss. Far from the lights of New York, she takes up a challenge to get a contract signed for personal as well as professional reasons. I initially picked this up and put it down. Then I started over.

And I’m glad I did. The unexpected turns in the story became more and more interesting. The trip through the wilderness unfolds with vivid descriptions of water and land, making the mystery come alive. Stories within stories made me wonder what would happen next. The bravery of the characters – doing the kept me engaged.

AS a Canadian who lived in the USA, I enjoyed the description of the Ontario lakes = from the viewpoint of an American city-dweller. I ended up really enjoying the plot and the outcome. Worth reading.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Cana Mystery by David Beckett

★★★☐☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
I had mixed feelings while reading this novel. Parts of it kept me at the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen next. But parts of it seemed farfetched and made me shake my head at the worldviews and assumptions of the characters.

Of course scientific conclusions are shaped and data interpreted by scientists. The strong waft of Catholic secularism permeated the scientific descriptions in the book: I felt a strong agenda that defined in a particular way the archaeological discoveries in the story. (So 3 stars instead of 4: I'd rather draw my own conclusions than be told so definitely what to think.)

That said, I had fun with this caper. The characters were interesting and mostly believable as they circled the Mediterranean coast. The adventures at times seemed fantastical and over-the-top, which made it all the more riveting. I'd take this book along on a long plane trip in a heartbeat!

A Girl's Guide to Moving On by Debbie Macomber

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
A young woman and her mother-in-law deal with cheating spouses and life as they leave their deadbeat husbands behind. This novel was both sweet and bittersweet. Macomber is good at developing likable characters, encouraging us to cheer them on and hope for good outcomes.

The author shows how life - with all its challenges and opportunities - is rich and full of possibilities. I liked the style of alternating voices: in different chapters we get the viewpoint of Leanne or Nicole. The friendship of the women touched me.

An interesting read that makes you happy you're living your own life. It's a chick-flick with the message that life goes on: we get to choose how we respond to circumstances.

Enjoy the book on a weekend getaway when you want to cozy up to the fire and put your feet up.

The Psychology of Christian Character Formation by Joanna Collicutt

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.
Just in time! Soon I'm teaching a course on Spiritual Formation for Leaders. Of course I have most of my notes and classroom aids done. But in the spirit of continuing education, most professors keep looking for more information and better ways of thinking about the subject.

Therefore I was delighted to run across Joanna Collicutt's new book. The three sections flow together with theological, practical, and provisional insights. A pastor or spiritual leader can use the book to analyze character and spiritual strengths and weaknesses of themselves as well as those they serve.

The book is helpful because it is thoughtful and well-researched. I felt it was a pragmatic and theologically sound volume that I certain will recommend to my students. I heartily recommend it.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Out of Sorts: making peace with an evolving faith by Sarah Bessey

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.
Ever wonder why life is not what you expected? Sarah Bessey says, "I’ve come to believe that there is always a bit of grief to the sorting out of a life, to making sense of the stories and the moments and intersections, in our ability to move forward with integrity. We figure out what we need to keep, what we need to throw away, and what we need to repurpose."

With real-life examples we can relate to, Bessey explores the process of grieving what is past and moving into the future with hope and vision. She deals with the life issues of theology as they impact living and thinking. 

Well worth reading.

Time to Get Ready: an Advent, Christmas Reader to Wake Your Soul by Mark Villano

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.

Can you feel it? Christmas is coming! Mark Villano presents ways to to meditate on and absorb scriptures and stories related to the birth of Christ. If you're preparing your heart for the season through reflection and and imagination, you'll enjoy this Advent book.

You may also find yourself thinking of ways to engage life and service in practical ways.

Be prepared for meaningful transformation of the soul as you engage the retelling of the events leading up to Christmas and the stories told by the author.

Villano offers pastoral encouragement for the Advent and Christmas weeks. He'll help you make the most of the season, regardless of the fluff and frills that surround Christmas.

The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book by Vinita Hampton Wright

★★★★★ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
A prayer book hardly sounds like an exciting read, does it?

Yet this arrangement of historical prayers, devotions, and reflections comes at the right time for me. I'm teaching a graduate course this fall: The Spiritual Formation of Leaders.

I felt I got to know St. Teresa as a person as well as a spiritual director and supplicant. The well-organized presentation kept my attention. As a Protestant, I'll omit the prayers included to saints and Mary.

That said, this remarkable collection presents me with opportunity to spend my meditations with this remarkable woman and scriptures. Can't wait to see how God transforms my heart in the process. 

I recommend it!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Year without a Purchase: our family's question to stop shopping and start connecting by Scott Dannemiller

 ★★★★★ The publisher has provided a copy for review.

This progressive unfolding of family in transition and transformation made me rethink my priorities and possessions.
How do you respond to a challenge? We take so many things for granted - things we say we need (when they are a want). But how do you sort out what you have to replace and what you can live without?

Dannemiller and his wife decide to measure their consumption (or rather non-consumption) by their purpose: "To tirelessly seek God's will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing together in faith, and serving God's people to build a world without need."

How do you set rules for such living? Imagine living by these: 1) buy stuff that can be "used up" within a year. 2) Fix stuff that breaks. 3) Give gifts only in the form of charitable donations or "experience gifts." Sounds like a challenge?

The commitment to the family and to their principles has Dannemiller and his wife thinking through assumptions about the very essentials of life. For example, we're used to throwing away things that are ruined or aging. How could the commitment to repair and reuse affect the world around us - beyond our circles?

The author exposes the unexpected successes and failures of the process of replacing "stuff" with quality of life and deliberate simplification. It's fun to read but beyond that ... if you compare your life to the Dannemiller family's life that year, you'll be surprised, challenged, and amazed at this reality check.

The summary and 8 Practical Ways to handle ownership, grow in faith, and serve are a bonus that wrap up the the story.

How much influence does your "stuff" have on your life? Is this a challenge you need to take?

Closer to the Edge: walking with Jesus for the world's sake by Ron Ruthruff

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
This personal and personable look at spiritual transformation caught my attention. I'm teaching a class on spiritual formation in a week or two - so I was interested in the story of how God changed the author. I lived in Seattle for 30+ years and the "who is my neighbor?" resonated with me. 

Ruthruff retells the parables and examines the scriptures in his challenges to mindful obedience. He asks us to move from our isolation and beyond our comforts into the world of the poor and hurting. He presents issues of justice, mercy, culture, and self-sacrifice in light of "following Jesus in the Way of the Cross."

He says, "This is the message of the Cross - great power concealed in weakness." The book concludes with questions for small groups that offer us opportunities to reexamine what is taken for granted and things that are overlooked. 

"Where are you willing to go?" the author asks. By the end of the book, you will have made decisions to open your heart to those Jesus loves and accepts or to stay in the safe zone of people who don't see themselves as needy or poor in spirit. What not take the challenge of this book and step into transformational service!

The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergovic

☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
I was revolted, amused, confused, and finally had to let this one go before I finished it. There was too much psychoanalysis and dredging around in convoluted psyches to be an enjoyable read.

Very "Eastern European" characters - how else can I describe the small-village penchant for digging in everyone's business and the charm and dismay of looking too deeply and intensely into the past and present? (My parents were European immigrants and I "know these people.")

I didn't grow to like or cheer for the characters, so that killed it for me, too. Glad to have a chance at this: the orientation was too "literary" for the read I expected. I may have a PhD but I want to be entertained and captured by fiction (or movies.)

Cold Girl by R. M. Greenaway

The publisher has provided a copy for review.
This is a Canadian novel. The language, insights into BC's culture and its people, and the way the plot unfolds is thoroughly Canadian.

I was surprised. I haven't lived in Canada for 30 years but I was transported to the winters in mid-province. I could hear the accent of my childhood friends in the conversations and the idioms.

I got lost a few times but in the end, the plot was full of satisfying twists and turns. (hence 4 stars) I kept going back to the next chapter.

And bam bam. Just when I thought I had it figured out, something in the plot surprised me. This is worth a read and worth a few winter evenings with the characters. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Christmas at the Vicarage by Rebecca Boxall

The publisher has provided a copy for review.
★★☐☐☐ I had high hopes for the book. Maybe I had in my head a sweet "Life in Medford" tale because of the title. And I was in a Christmas mood, considering decorating a tree or two (though the weather is in the 80s where I live).

Isn't Christmas all about God's faithful love and goodness? So what's the draw in two immoral bed-hopping daughters and their friends. Their dad (the vicar) is so "loving" that he looks the other way? Yikes. I cringed at inappropriate twists in the story and left feeling a bit stunned. (You'd have to be really jaded to think the interactions in the vicarage were wholesome.)

The setting was pretty. The book was an easy read once I got past the plethora of adjectives. But I'm getting frustrated by the insertion of gay characters in every modern novel. C'mon people! We don't need blatant cultural agendas in every book (and every film or sitcom). I started to check out completely when I realized I could never trust a vicar who thought it humorous to turn the lovely invitation of God upside down by choosing a lesbian couple for Mary and Joseph. I guess I also wouldn't consider trusting people as blatantly uncommitted to their friends and spouses as the novel's characters.

Sigh. So the story line wasn't appealing. I stayed hopeful to the end, wanting a redeeming story - but the premise of "no one gets  hurt if I'm the unfaithful one .. but oh how it hurts when someone does the right thing" was jarring. So sadly, I can't recommend this.

I gave it 2 stars for the setting, the cover, and the title. I love British villages. And Christmas. And committed pastors who shepherd their flocks carefully and well.

Monday, November 2, 2015

God for Us, ed. by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe

The publisher has provided a copy for review.

★★★★★ Have you ever celebrated the rhythms of the weeks before Easter? In some traditions of the Church, Christians are surprised by Easter when it appears on store shelves loaded with Easter bunnies and egg baskets. In many modern denominations, Easter is just one more long weekend that culminates in a special church service. There is no Lenten meditation for a thoughtful pause in the calendar.
This year, I challenge you to find a good Lenten reader. A new one this year is God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter. (Look for it in your local bookstore or online.)

For those who experience Easter as "Just-Another-Long-Weekend," this is a godsend. The book is divided into categories: the feasts and fasts, the beginnings and weeks, and Holy Week and Easter. Each unit includes a bit of liturgical or church history as well as scriptures, thoughtful reflection and study, and prayer. The daily readings may make your heart sing.

The scripture groupings for daily meditation and the explanations from new points-of-view will encourage and enlighten. I loved the personal prayers in spoken English:

Lord Jesus, even two thousand years after you moved to heaven from our planet 
I want to be your companion, your disciple. 
You promise to be with me now, 
walking my life along with me. 
Put your strong arm around my shoulders. 
Teach me what your suffering means to me. 
And if need be, hold me close 
when I myself must suffer. 
Amen. (148)


Slow me down, 
push me deeper, 
enlarge my trust in your timing. 
May I never frustrate your purposes by imposing my own timetable. 
I pray this in your powerful name. 
Amen. (153)

So - we may be looking forward to Christmas now (see my review of Advent readings here) - but Easter is coming! Wouldn't this book be a nice gift for those you care about?