Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Third Grace

by Deb Elkink
Greenbrier Book Company, 2011

The daughter of hard-working Mennonite farmers, Mary Grace's life takes a dramatic turn at the age of 17 when a French exchange student visits her family's Nebraska farm and skillfully weaves his way into her heart. Using Greek mythology to woo her, Francois upsets Mary Grace's childlike faith with his fanciful pagan tales. When he is unceremoniously sent packing, Mary Grace's heart goes with him, and she turns away from God and her family.

Now fifteen years later, Mary Grace, who has legally changed her name to Aglaia and moved to Denver to pursue a new life and career, has the opportunity to visit France through her employer. She is determined to find Francois and reconnect with him, or at least bring closure to the story of their youthful love, since her remembrance of him and obsession with him, has stopped her from opening up to any other man or developing transparent relationships. Aglaia's mother, Tina, wants her to find Francois for another reason - to return to him the Bible he left at the farm, in the margins of which he had made notations whose meanings she does not understand.

As Aglaia reads through the notations she remembers that summer of love, all that happened in it, and how it changed her forever.

At a recent meeting of one of my writers' critique groups, I was admonished for the level of vocabulary apparent in my work, and told that the "rule" is to write at a fifth grade level. Deb Elkink breaks that rule entirely - no fifth grade level readers here, please. The language is elevated, and I think you have to have an intense interest in Greek mythology as well. (I took a Greek and Roman mythology course in university, and still the content in this book is a bit too much for me. I admit that further along in the book, I skimmed a few, but not all, of these parts).

Aglaia is a three-dimensional character the reader invests in and cares about. The other characters are in a way types, but that does not make them less interesting or provocative. The story's plot is complex, but extremely well developed, with a satisfying resolution. Although this is Christian fiction, it is not at all preachy and I'm sure there will be some readers who wish the book was more 'Christian'. I am pleased to recommend this book to the more erudite and open-minded reader.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finding Sarah: a Duchess's Journey to Find Herself

by Sarah Ferguson
Atria, 2011

This is a woman who has struggled all her life to find self-worth. Challenging enough for anyone, but especially for someone who's lived much of her life in the public eye, and made so many public blunders.

It was such a seeming-blunder that set Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, on the path to self-discovery. She needed to know why she continually made poor choices and wound up in scandalous predicaments.

While I am not a fan Oprah or New Age philosophy, and can therefore not agree with the spiritual conclusions Sarah reaches, I do admire her for taking on the difficult task of "finding" herself. At the end of each chapter, she offers "nuggets" to help the reader who may be on a similar journey or be strugging with the same sorts of issues. Some of these "nuggets" would seem common sense to many of us; some, I would opine, are on the "flaky" side.

Sarah emerges from the latest scandal a stronger person for finally facing her past and gaining self-understanding. She is blessed to have many resources at her disposal that the ordinary person would not have. Not everyone can go to Thailand, Hawaii, or the Northwest Territories as part of their healing process. Not everyone has the circle of friends Sarah does.

The best conclusion Sarah comes to is that God loves her and God has forgiven her of all that she has done. With all due respect, her definition of God is suspect, but otherwise it's a statement that could potentially be true.

One of my favourite lines from the book: "Pouncing on your pride is a greater sign of strength than pounding on your chest." (p. 81)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

99 Ways to Get Your Kids to Do Their Homework (and Not Hate It)

by Mary Leonhardt
Three Rivers Press, 2000

This book covers schooling from elementary through high school grade levels. The author is a teacher with 25+ years of experience. I think this book would have been more helpful to me if I'd read it before my kids got to high school. A lot of it seemed like common sense advice to me. That being said, I think this book could be helpful to someone on the starting-out end of things. For me, the best parts of the book were the "case studies" (ie student profiles, written by the students themselves). And the point about putting your child above whatever grades s/he may receive.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


by Nicolas Dickner; translated by Lazer Lederhendler
Trumpeter, 2009

The book's opening line, "My name is UNIMPORTANT", is a great hook. Why is the narrator's name unimportant? Who is he or she? Why does s/he have such a self-effacing view? etc.

A bit confusing for the first while as the story alternates between points of view (the "unimportant" narrator and two other protagonists - Noah and Joyce). Once they are clear in your head, though, the story is quite compelling. All three characters have come from different places to settle in Montreal. All three are on a psychological journey of sorts. And all three are connected, but don't know it.

Reminds me a bit of Melville's classic, Moby Dick, in the sense that you learn an awful lot about subjects you may not have much interest in (in this case cartography, fish, and archaeology). But a lot less boring than Moby.

While it's not a book I would ordinarily have plucked from the bookshelves, I thought I'd give it a shot since it's on the list of a book club I'm thinking of attending this month. I'm not sorry.

Winner of the Prix des libraires du Quebec, the Prix litteraire des collegiens, the Prix Anne-hebert (Quebec), and the Prix Printemps des lecteurs-Lavinal (France). Shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award, the Grand Prix litteraire Archambault; the Prix du public du Salon du livre de Montreal/La Presse, and longlisted for the Prix France-Quebec Jean-Hamelin.        

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Madeleine: Our daughter's disappearance and the continuing search for her

by Kate McCann
Bantam Press, 2011

When the McCann family of five left England with friends for a holiday in the Algarves, little did they dream that only four of them would be returning. Just shy of her fourth birthday, their daughter Madeleine would be snatched from her bed by a stranger. This book is their story.

While the subject matter is difficult, the story is important to read. For one thing, it accomplishes its objective, which is to keep Madeleine's name, face, and the event of her abduction, in the public memory, with the hope that someone, somewhere, sometime, will see her, recognize her, and aid in returning her to her family.

No matter what you've read or heard about the case before, here you get the whole story, no private thing hidden, in great detail. And it will astonish you, make you angry, grieve you, and cause you to pray not only for Madeleine and her family, but for all stolen and missing children and their families. It will also make you hold your own children a little closer and to think about how you can let them experience life while providing for their safety to the best of your ability.

Please read this. Then take action - for the sake of the world's most precious resource - its children.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Farewell, Miss Zukas

by Jo Dereske
June Creek Books, 2011

Alas, as the bard said, parting is such sweet sorrow. This is the final installment in the Miss Zukas mystery series, starring the indomitable Helma and her colourful sidekick,  Ruth. I will miss them both.

Helma has finally said 'yes' to Chief Gallant's proposal of marriage, hence the double-entendre in the book's title. Miss Zukas is to become Mrs. Gallant, and we are indeed wishing her a bon voyage.

Shortly after the book opens, Miss Zukas finds herself in the middle of a case. Her mother and aunt's apartment has been broken into, and a young man lies dead in the parking lot below, having fallen, or been pushed from, their apartment window. Aunt Em's memory has become increasingly unreliable, and her claim that she herself pushed the victim to his death, seems incredible. Helma's mother, Lillian, was out of the apartment at the time, and is unable to confirm Em's story.

Helma to the rescue! Will she be able to sort out the mystery? Was robbery really the only motive? And if so, why were only minor items apparently stolen? What is the identity of the second thief, and why has he or she been returning all but one of the stolen items? What, if anything, was in Aunt Em's Stelmuze box, and what exactly was she buying from the young Lithuanian man in the apartment building lobby? Does the crime have anything to do with the death of Rimas Klimas, a fellow member of the Lithuanian club to which Aunt Em belonged? And will Mr. Dubois, former make-up artist to the "stars," be able to transform Helma into something beautiful for her wedding day?

Stay tuned, or better yet, read this wonderful finale to Dereske's enchanting series.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hannah's List

by Debbie Macomber,
MIRA, 2010

Dr. Michael Everett is a lonely man, still grieving the loss of his wife Hannah to ovarian cancer a year earlier. On the anniversary of her death, his brother-in-law, Ritchie, gives him an unexpected "gift" - a letter Hannah wrote him when she knew she was going to die, a letter in which she asks him to do her one last favour.

There's nothing Michael wouldn't do for Hannah, his soulmate and the love of his life. But Hannah asks the unthinkable - she asks him to move on with his life and to find love again. So determined is she that he find a suitable second wife that she gives him the names of three women she thinks would be a good match, and urges him to get in touch with them.

With additional pressure from Ritchie and great reluctance on his part, Michael begins dating. Will one of the women on Hannah's list capture Michael's heart? If so, which will it be? Hannah's cousin, Winter, a wonderful cook and owner of the French Cafe? Leanne, an oncology nurse who treated Hannah with such compassion and care during her illness? Or Macy, an irrepressible artist with a penchant for collecting pets and people?

Macomber has written an engaging story and populated it with compelling characters. If you're looking for a gentle romance that will tug at your heartstrings, this is it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

They Almost Always Come Home

by Cynthia Ruchti,
Abingdon Press, 2010

Libby's lacklustre marriage is on the verge of complete disintegration when her husband, Greg, disappears in the Canadian wilderness during a solo canoe trip. The authorities conduct an investigation and have searchers fly over the area of Quetico Park he was supposed to be in, although they suspect he's not run into trouble, but deserted his wife.

Despite their marital problems, Libby knows Greg is too faithful and loyal to leave her. Taking the search into their own hands, she, her father-in-law Frank, and her best friend Jen, decide to follow Greg's route to see if they can find him, or at least discover what happened to him.

This is a fascinating and well-written story on the subjects of love, loss, and faith. While the author seems to have only one other story in print, I look forward to reading it along with any future books she may write.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What I've Been Reading

I had hoped to report on these titles individually, but time is passing and I'm remembering less and less about them. If you click on the title(s) you're interested in, I'll take you to Amazon or Chapters, where you can read up on content and reader reviews.

You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded) by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. Waterbrook Press, 1999. Parenting. Discipline. Strong-Willed Children. Highly recommended.

Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom by Kristin Van Ogtrop. Little, Brown, 2010. Parenting. Motherhood. Marriage. Also see this review, which first spurred me to read the book.

Glom Gloom by Jo Dereske. Backinprint.com, 2006. Juvenile Fiction. Teen Fiction. Fantasty. For the record, I really enjoyed this one.

Devil's Food Cake Murder  by Joanne Fluke. Kensington, 2011. Mystery. Hannah Swensen novels are usually an entertaining and enjoyable read, and this one was no exception.

All That is Bitter and Sweet: a Memoir by Ashley Judd. Ballentine Books, 2011. Memoir. Celebrity Biography. Though we're not on the same page on everything, after reading this book I have an increased respect and admiration for this talented actress and activist.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The River

by Gary Paulsen
Random House, 2002

It's been over a year since Brian made his way out of the wilderness, armed only with a hatchet. At first, there was much media interest and curiosity, but now life has returned to normal, though Brian himself has changed, with a greater appreciation for the smallest amenities and pleasures.

Then three men show up at Brian's home with a proposition. They want him to go back into the wilderness with a government psychologist so they can learn how Brian survived - not the mechanical stuff, but the psychological - so they can teach others who might find themselves in similar circumstances.

At first Brian is reluctant, but he changes his mind after giving it some thought. If he can help others survive where they might otherwise die, he has to do it. He and the psychologist, Derek, are flown out to a remote location to begin their journey home. Before their plane lands, Brian knows that they can't take with them all the equipment the government has provided, or they will depend on it for survival, instead of on their wits alone. He insists that they take the barest equipment - a knife - and agrees to bring an emergency radio as well.

Their wilderness experience is off to a satisfying start when lightning strikes their camp. Derek is rendered comatose and the emergency radio destroyed. Brian knows that he has to get Derek to civilization or the man will die of dehydration. He fashions a raft, lashes Derek to it, and sets off down the river in a desparate bid to get help before it's too late.

This book was in the children's section of my library, but I think it more properly belongs in the teen collection, since Brian himself is about 16.

Highly recommended for readers of all ages.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

unPlanned: the dramatic true story of a former Planned Parenthood leader's eye-opening journey across the life line

by Abby Johnson, with Cindy Lambert
Tyndale House Publishers, 2010

Abby Johnson was a 19-year-old junior when she attended a volunteer fair at Texas A&M and was recruited by Planned Parenthood. Raised in a Christian home, you might think she'd be reluctant to partner with an organization known to provide abortions, but Abby believed in Planned Parenthood's stated mission of offering health care, contraceptives and counseling to women in order to reduce the number of abortions, and the talking points and semantics used by Planned Parenthood were convincing. Furthermore, she agreed that if women didn't have access to places where abortions could be performed safely, they would be forced to seek elsewhere with possibly devastating consequences.

From initial volunteer work as a part-time escort, Abby moved to part-time employment, then full-time work within the organization, eventually becoming director of a local clinic. Over a period of eight years, Abby counseled women on their choices, performed administrative duties, and supervised other employees. She married, divorced, remarried, and became a parent. Along the way, she made a number of pro-choice friends and encountered many positive pro-lifers, whose genuine care for the women Planned Parenthood served equaled or exceeded her own. Through the prayers of Coalition for Life members, church sermons and liturgy, and various experiences, God worked to reveal His heart to Abby, and to change her views on the hot topic of abortion.

This is Abby's powerful story - how she moved from a committed pro-choice perspective to working for both the rights of women and of the unborn. Well-written and captivating, I recommend it to anyone looking for a better understanding of Planned Parenthood and what they do, from someone who knows both sides and now stands with the Coalition for Life. Also for Christian readers who may not have a solid footing on the abortion debate and want to better understand the issues.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Grandfathers (DVD)

Ethnographic Media, 2007
Starring, Jesse Saint, Steve Saint, Mincaye Enquedi

Jesse's grandfather, Nate, was one of five missionaries killed by the Waorani people of Ecuador in 1956, a story that made headlines around the world. Two years after Nate's death, his sister, Rachel, and Elizabeth Elliot, the wife of one of the other slain missionaries, returned to the Waorani and continued the evangelical work. On Rachel's death in 1994, Steve Saint, Nate's son, went to Ecuador to settle his aunt's estate. The Waorani people encouraged him to come and live among them, and after some consideration, Nate moved his family there for a period of time. It is this period and beyond that is captured in The Grandfathers.

While Jesse had occasionally visited his great-aunt in Ecuador, it was something quite different to live with the people who had murdered his grandfather. Jesse hears first-hand the story behind the killing of the missionaries and what the Waorani were like prior to knowing Christ. Previously fierce warriors, they have become a people who love to laugh; now instead of killing each other, they show love and service. Jesse comes to "adopt" three of the senior men (Dewey, Mincaye, and Kimo) as his grandfathers, and enjoys a special relationship with them - a picture of the power of forgiveness and redemption. Through these relationships, Jesse finds a greater meaning and purpose for his life, and he and his own family continue to work for the Waorani to this day.

I really like the creative way the story is presented in this movie - you have to see it to understand what I mean. It's a complete story in and of itself, but also an excellent complement to Beyond Gates of Splendor and The End of the Spear.

Bless This Mouse

by Lois Lowry,
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011

This story of a community of church mice who live at St. Bartholomew's under the authority of Mouse Mistress Hildegarde, is one of Lowry's sweetest children's novels.

Hildegarde is admired by church mouse Roderick, who does everything in his power to capture her heart, while rival Lucretia does everything she can to usurp Hildegarde's position. Add university-educated Ignatius, whiny young Harvey, and the threat of extermination to the mix, and you've got the makings of a captivating plot.

Will Hildegarde successfully save her subjects from the Great X? Will Roderick win her heart? Will Lucretia take the "throne"? Will the mice escape the dangers of cats at the Blessing of the Animals? Read this delightful story to find out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Fred factor : how passion in your work and life can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary

by Mark Sanborn,
Doubleday, 2004

Sanborn's encounter with the original Fred - an unusual postman who went out of his way to deliver exceptional service to the customers on his route - provides the basis for this book, which describes (as the subtitle indicates) "how passion in your work and life can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary." And let's face it - who doesn't want to be considered a phenomenal human being?

After outlining the four "Fred principles" and providing other examples of real-life "Freds," Sanborn gives a blueprint, including three simple difference-making strategies, for becoming a Fred yourself. Success is built on relationships, so he offers seven Bs of relationship building that are easy for anyone to implement. A 10-point crash course in creating value for others, and boom, you're well on your way to transforming your life and your world.

If you're an employer or boss, you'll want to read the section on developing Freds in your company; otherwise, you can skip to the end of that part - "Go Spread Fred" - and conclude with the last section of the book, in which the original Fred summarizes what motivates him to do what he does. Those same points become our motivation for emulating his example.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is dissatisfied with his quality of life and/or employment. As usual, though, your results will depend on more than reading - they will depend on the actions you take thereafter.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Against all Odds: My Story

by Chuck Norris with Ken Abraham
Broadman & Holman, 2004

Chuck Norris tells the story of his life from birth to the present (2004). A "blue baby" at birth, he certainly had good reason to be blue, living with an abusive, alcoholic father until his mother finally walked away from the marriage when Chuck was fifteen. After her divorce, his mother met and married Chuck's stepfather, George, who became a positive, encouraging figure to her three boys.

Immediately after high school, Chuck enrolled in the military, and it wasn't long before he was serving in Korea. While on base, the men had three options for filling their spare time - drinking to excess, taking academic classes, or studying martial arts. Not being a drinker or academic, Chuck opted for the martial arts, and the rest - as they say - is history.

Norris talks about his martial arts schools; his fights; his friendships with the likes of Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, Arnold Schwarzzeneger, and George Bush; getting married too young and his divorce years later; his remarriage;  life as a father; and his involvement with charitable organizations, including the one he founded - KICKSTART - to help youth in impoverished communities. A believer in Christ, he also talks about his journey of faith and how it has transformed him over the course of his life. He admits that he has been far from perfect, and points to God's grace and work of salvation.

I found this book really interesting and well-written. If you enjoy celebrity biographies and are looking for a change from the usual sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, you will find it here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reshaping it All: Motivation for Physical and Spiritual Fitness

by Candace Cameron Bure with Darlene Schacht
B&H Publishing Group, 2011

Sharing personal experience and advice from Scripture, Candace (of Full House fame) encourages the reader to get physically and spiritually fit. In fact, she says that physical fitness depends on spiritual fitness, and that a robust faith life precedes weight loss and healthy living.

Over the course of eighteen chapters, Candace describes her own journey to physical and spiritual well-being, offers practical tips that help readers achieve their personal goals in these areas, responds to fan mail, shares inspiring quotes from Scripture and elsewhere, and provides healthy recipes from her home kitchen. Along the way, you'll learn more about Candace and her family, and glean some helpful parenting and Christian living ideas as well.

The book is easy to read and well laid out, and I highly recommend it for purchase. Though some of the information is repetitious, those of us on the path to fitness often need to hear the same thing said over and over again before we get it!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Too Small to Ignore: Why Children are the Next Big Thing

by Dr. Wess Stafford,
Waterbrook Press, 2007

Over the years I’ve had a variety of experiences with children. I started off as one, as we all do; babysat them as a teenager; took children’s literature courses in library school; had two children of my own; and wrote the text for several as-yet-unpublished picture books. Yet I don’t think I ever really thought about children – except in the sense of enjoying them, engaging them through library programs, or parenting them to the best of my ability (with liberal doses of heavenly guidance, to be sure). That is, until I read Dr. Wess Stafford’s book, Too Small to Ignore: Why Children are the Next Big Thing. This book turned my beliefs about children upside-down.

Too Small to Ignore should be required reading by church leaders, children’s advocates, parents, and Christian adults. Stafford, the president of Compassion International, is a humble, yet passionate proponent for children around the world. It’s his goal in this book to prompt a paradigm shift in the rest of us, that we too would see the value and importance of children and be motivated to change our actions (more often thoughtless than malevolent – though sadly, the latter can also be true) toward them.

Stafford’s premise is that children matter to God. He supports this with a number of Scripture references. Of course, if children matter to God, they also matter to Satan, whose absolute hatred of the Almighty motivates him to attack that which is closest to God’s heart. Children have no power, no voice in this world, and so Stafford reminds us that, if we call ourselves believers, it is our duty to take up their cry, work for the betterment of their world, and protect them from preventable pain. And even if our own resources or mobility are limited, we can still do something for the children within our sphere. We can get down on their level, make eye contact and smile; we can offer a kind word, prophecy into their lives, or talk to them about Jesus.

This book contains far more than I can tell you in a few short paragraphs. I hope you will read it. Before you do, pray that God will use it to change your heart, your attitude, your thinking toward children. Pray that He will show you what to do with this newfound information. I truly believe that if we all acted on its principles, we could create a ripple effect that would change not only ourselves, but our church, our community, and the world, to make it a better place for “the least of these” on planet earth.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

by Francis Chan,
David C. Cook, 2008

In this perspective-changing life-changing book, Chan argues that Christians have a wrong view of God, and consequently, of ourselves. In the first three chapters, the reader comes to truly understand and appreciate that God is holy, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, fair and just. We are reminded that He wants us and that our time on earth is short. The final seven chapters warn against being spiritually lukewarm and serving God leftovers. Chan advises us of our high calling and purpose and urges the reader to surrender completely to the God who loves us. He gives powerful examples of those who have lived a radical, love-motivated life and exhorts us to follow suit.

Read this book once, then read it again with your highlighter in hand (make sure it's not a library copy!). Let its truths guide your life and make your time on earth time well spent, so that when you face your Heavenly Father, you will hear those longed-for words - "well done, good and faithful servant."

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Full House of Growing Pains: a Hollywood mother's journey...

by Barbara Cameron with Lissa Halls Johnson,
Bridge-Logos, 2006

Penned a couple of years before son Kirk's autobiography, this tells the story of Barbara Cameron, mother, wife, and entrepreneur.

Growing up in a loving but rather strict environment, Barb had self-esteem issues from a young age. She met her future husband when she was eighteen and married him within about a year. Several years older, Robert had a university education and a career as a teacher. He also had loads of confidence. It wasn't long before Barb's low self-regard plummeted even further.

Four children came along in quick succession and Barb was busy with all the duties of motherhood. When Kirk was nine years old, he and his siblings auditioned for one of the best Hollywood agents. The three youngest went on to have success in commercials and/or television at one time or another, and from the outside everything looked rosy. But eventually, terribly unhappy in her marriage, Barb surprised everyone by leaving her husband and beginning a new life on her own. Her story is largely about the events that led up to that decision and about what happened afterward.

Although Barb's book was written before his, I actually found it quite helpful to read Kirk's book first. Without having read Kirk's, I'm not sure I would have had the same interest in his mother.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in women's biography or books about women of faith.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Meet Mrs. Smith: my adventures with six kids, one rockstar husband, and a heart to fight poverty

by Anna Smith and Carolyn Johnson,
David C. Cook, 2011

This is the companion book to Delirious (see previous post), and tells the story of Anna Smith, wife to Martin, former lead singer of the Christian band. It's an interesting  read that describes what it was like to be along for the ride, building a family and keeping the home fires burning when the kingdom work of the music ministry grew bigger than the two of them. It gives a perspective that complements (and in some ways, differs from) the first book, and is good reading for anyone who wonders what it would be like to be married to a "rock star." The mother of six children, Anna is an incredible woman who surely has done better in her role than I could hope to have, had I been in a similar position. She sounds like someone who would make an excellent friend and this book is written as if she is sitting with you in her living room, sharing a chat and a cup of tea.

My review of this book was not influenced by the fact that I received it for free, courtesy of The B & B Media Group, Inc.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Delirious: My journey with the band, a growing family, and an army of historymakers

by Martin Smith and Craig Borlase,
David C. Cook, 2011

In this book Martin Smith, lead vocalist of the now-defunct group, Delirious?, wants to tell a story of God's grace, to show others how God "can take anyone and give them a life of faith and hope," and for people to recognize how Christian music needs to be in the mainstream so that everyone can hear the "sounds that can pry open the hardest of hearts, allowing people to know that God is God."

The stories of Martin Smith and Delirious? (yes, that's a deliberate question mark) are fascinating. Until I read this book, I hadn't realized that I'd actually listened to the group's music and sung their lyrics in congregational settings. I Could Sing of Your Love Forever; Lord, You Have My Heart; Shout to the North; and Did You Hear the Mountains Tremble? are just some of the songs that have been penned by its members over the years. I have to admit that on learning this, my preconceived opinion of the group went up several notches as it cut through my stereotype and perhaps disdain of the oxymoron "Christian rock band."

Delirious?, the book, is very well-written and describes how the band went from playing Sunday morning worship services in their local church, to playing different venues on weekends while maintaining "day jobs," to quitting their jobs and committing to life as full-time musicians. It tells how they managed to balance (with reasonable success) their work and family lives, and how they went from playing in intimate settings to playing for crowds numbering in the thousands, even fronting for the secular group Bon Jovi on its UK tour. The decision to disband after 17 years together was easy in some ways, difficult in others. Martin went on to found CompassionArt, a fundraising venture whose purpose is to help the most-poverty stricken people in the world. Today, his main roles are as husband to Anna, and father to their six children, as he waits on God's direction for the future.

I think this is an important book for anyone who is interested in music ministry. It troubles Martin to receive e-mails from people asking him how they can have a career as a worship leader, and reading this book would help people understand why such a question should trouble us as well. It's also a valuable book in terms of allowing the reader to see the hearts of a particular group of Christian song-writers and musicians. I was encouraged by what I read, and I think you will be too.

My review of this book was not influenced by the fact that I received it for free, courtesy of The B & B Media Group, Inc.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Still Growing: an Autobiography

by Kirk Cameron,
Regal, 2008

If you're familiar with the old television series, Growing Pains, you'll remember Kirk Cameron, who played likable goofball, Mike Seaver, during the show's seven-year run.

In Still Growing, Kirk shares his story of growing up in a pretty regular family, with three younger sisters and parents who loved and guided them well. He tells how he was introduced to the entertainment business at the age of 9 after his friend Adam Rich (Nicholas Bradford on Eight is Enough) put the Cameron family in touch with legendary Hollywood agent, Iris Burton. After learning the ropes of the audition process, Kirk landed several television commercials before being selected for his famous role on Growing Pains, which also starred Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Tracey Gold, and Jeremy Miller as main characters.

Solid family grounding coupled with Kirk's own personality kept him miraculously away from the traps that snare many young celebrities  - drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, run-ins with the law. At age 18, as he began contemplating the larger questions of life, he started dating the sister of a "very pretty girl on the set," and was invited to attend their church. After listening to several sermons and doing a lot of independent reading, Kirk made the decision to follow Christ. It was a decision he took seriously and it gave him a new lens through which to view his television character and Mike Seaver's choices. Often enough it caused problems with the writers and directors of the show, who were accustomed to Kirk's previous willingness to go with the flow.

Much was made of Kirk's conversion to Christianity, and his conversion has informed and transformed  his life. Kirk admits that he made some mistakes early on in his faith as he was figuring things out. His stance on moral issues and on roles he is willing to play have certainly cost him work. He quotes one famous scriptwriter as saying "for an actor in Hollywood, you sure picked the one unacceptable religion, didn't you?" (p. 200). That must be the understatement of the century, and one has to give Kirk a lot of credit for standing firm in an industry where pretty well everyone is willing to compromise and it is difficult to see the difference between actors who self-identify as "Christian" and those who do not.

I admired Kirk before I started reading this book, and I admire him even more now. Here is a worthwhile role model for those who wish to live out their Christian faith, whatever their chosen profession. Here is a book worth reading.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Between a Rock and a Grace Place: Divine Surprises in the Tight Spots of Life

by Carol Kent,
Zondervan, 2010

After reading Kent's earlier books, When I Lay My Isaac Down  and A New Kind of Normal, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the author's latest book on my (public) library's bookshelves.

Like the previous two books, this one deals with the subject of life after, and in the midst of, difficulty or tragedy. Kent knows her subject well. Her son, Jason, was incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole after killing his wife's ex-husband in 1999. An only child, raised in a good home with caring Christian parents, Jason was the last person anyone expected to commit murder and wind up a custodian of the prison system. As you can imagine, the outcome was devastating - for Jason, his parents, his new wife and her children, and for the fiancee and family of the murder victim.

While the new normal is not what anyone would have wished for Jason or anyone intimately connected with him through his crime, his mother points out that unexpected blessings have come out of his incarceration, not least of which is strengthened faith.

Peppered with stories of other people who have dealt with a variety of challenges and experienced "divine surprises in the tight spots of life," this is an excellent read for anyone, but especially for those who are going through struggles of their own.

Monday, February 21, 2011

They Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: a True Story

by Kevin and Alex Malarkey
Tyndale House Publishers, 2010

On a November morning in 2004 Kevin Malarkey was travelling home from church with his son,  Alex, when they were involved in a horrific accident. Alex, who defied all medical and human expectations for his survival, was airlifted to Children's Hospital for emergency surgery. While he remains a paraplegic in a wheelchair to this day, his recovery has exceeded the predictions of his surgical team, and he and his family remain firm in their faith that with God's help, Alex will walk again someday.

This book tells the story of the accident, Alex's hospitalization, and what happened during his time of unconsciousness, including a period in which he was comatose. Alex went to Heaven where he spent time with God, Jesus and angels, and he is able to tell us many things about his experiences with them, both in Heaven itself and on earth. It is an amazing story and is shared, not to draw attention to Alex, but to glorify God and give hope to people.

Although the family has an unfortunate last name, I completely believe the truth that is shared with us here, and look forward to the day when I, too, might see my real home with my own eyes.

This is exciting stuff, folks! Let's keep this boy and his family in our prayers and join with them in believing Alex will walk again during his earthly lifetime. They have an amazing attitude that is inspiring to others.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Charlotte Sometimes

by Penelope Farmer,
William and Charlotte Rayner, 1992
(first published in 1969 by Chatto and Windus)

The setting opens in late 1940s England. 12-year-old Charlotte Makepeace has been sent to boarding school, where nothing is familiar and she knows no one. Even so, when Charlotte wakes up that first morning, she is sure that there hadn't been a cedar tree outside the bedroom window, though there is one there now. And the girls in her room aren't the same girls who laid down in the beds next to her the night before.

Charlotte soon discovers that, by some mystery, she has exchanged places with a girl named Clare, who spent time in the same school in 1918, near the end of World War I. Charlotte and Clare continue to switch back and forth until one day they become stuck in the wrong time period. Will Charlotte ever be Charlotte again? Will she ever make it back to her own generation? And what will happen if she doesn't? Get hold of the book to find out the answers to these questions.

A great read. Originally intended for children, the book can easily be enjoyed by teens and adults alike, especially if they don't mind an "older" style of writing. Just one caveat - there's a seance scene that could be disturbing to some readers.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Living With Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults

by Missy Buchanan,
Upper Room Books, 2008

A collection of devotionals for senior adults, I found each entry an unexpected delight. The author is lyrical and minimal in her prose and quickly gets to the heart of each subject. Examples of topics covered include sleep, clutter, friendship, reduced mobility, diet, etc.

I was a bit disappointed that there were only 41 devotionals, however. It's unfortunate the author couldn't have produced 365, one for each day of the year. It might have made for a large and too heavy book for the target audience, though, seeing as the entries are in large print and each one is allocated one or two pages. A suitable alternative, in my mind, would have been to provide 52 devotionals (one for each week of the year) or 31 (one for each day of a typical month).

Most suitable for the frail elderly, the majority of whom I would imagine to be 80 years old or better and accommodated in assisted living facilities.

This book was provided free of charge to me from the publisher, but my review was not in any way influenced by this fact.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snow Day

by Billy Coffey
Faith Words, 2010

Peter Boyd, his wife and two children, live in the foothills of Virginia, where Pete is employed at a local factory. When he wakes up one morning and finds himself the beneficiary of an unanticipated snow day, he decides to use the day to reflect on his life and what his future might hold. The factory is in the process of downsizing and he fears he may not have a job there much longer.

Through the course of one day Pete is reminded of a variety of truths and rediscovers what is important in life. He discovers that there really is a Santa Claus, but more importantly, there's a God who loves him, who has a plan for his life, and wants to shower him with all good things. Pete's faith increases as these lessons hit home.

A very enjoyable read, the contents deserve our careful attention. Well worth reading more than once.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett
GP Putnam & Sons, 2009

The Help tells the story of Jacksonville, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Three white women - Hilly, Elizabeth, and Skeeter, friends since elementary school - brought up by their mothers to treat colored maids as inferior, though "the help" do everything to simplify their lives, including raising their children. Hilly is the trend-setter, the rule-follower, the enforcer. Elizabeth is the oppressed, in many ways an unwilling wife and mother, who nonetheless toes the line. Skeeter is the nontraditional one who puts education and career first, although she longs to be loved by a man just for who she is. It is Skeeter who rebels against "the way things are."

Aibelene is Elizabeth's maid. Minny initially works for Hilly's mother, Miss Walker, until Hilly puts her mother in a nursing home, and makes it impossible for Minny to be hired by another white family in town. Skeeter, a budding journalist who answers the Dear Myrna housekeeping letters for the local paper, starts meeting with Aibelene so she can keep her job, but longs to write something more meaningful. One day she hits upon a theme - why not interview the help to get their perspective on what it's like working for white families?

At first her request falls on deaf ears - why would a white woman be interested in their stories? and anyway, it's too dangerous. Blacks are being beaten without provocation, and whites who support integration suffer their own consequences. Eventually, though, a couple of the maids agree, and Skeeter starts penning their tales.

This is an incredible read. The characters are fully drawn, complex individuals. The plot is thick with tension, peppered with comic relief at the appropriate intervals. I could not put the book down. I went to bed and woke up thinking about the characters and what was to become of them, hoping that their secretive meetings would not be found out. The book would translate well on the big screen, and I fully expect it will be made into a movie before too long.

Read this - it's the book that has everyone talking.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Imam's Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom

by Hannah Shah,
Zondervan, 2010

This book tells the fascinating true story of Hannan (now anglicized to Hannah), the daughter of a Pakistani Muslim Imam. Growing up in northern England and attending a public school, Hannah learned early on how very different her family was from that of English families. Watching the abuse of her mother by her father, and then experiencing his abusive hand herself, made her long for another kind of life.

At the age of sixteen, Hannah discovered that her parents were about to send her back to Pakistan for an arranged marriage to a man she had never met. Determined to resist this fate, Hannah ran away and took refuge in the home of a kind Christian teacher. As she got to know her teacher's family and attended their church, Hannah found something she'd never known before: a God who loved her just as she was. One Christmas Eve, she made the decision to leave her Muslim faith and become a Christian.

While not all Muslim families are like Hannah's, the book does have value for the window it opens into the world of some. Hannah's aim is not to bash Islam or people who practice its faith, but to share her own story and how she survived so that anyone in similar circumstances may know that there is hope and a way out. Hannah is a highly sought after speaker and her website offers resources for those who want to help women in distress, or those who are themselves such women. The Imam's Daughter is a book I couldn't put down, though it might be difficult for some, particularly if that reader has lived a parallel story.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Woman I Was Born to Be: My Story

by Susan Boyle,
Atria Books, 2010

I remember seeing Susan Boyle's first audition on Britain's Got Talent, then showing it to my son when he got home from school. When she opened her mouth, he said, "That's not her singing, is it?" He thought it was a trick. No one expected that voice to come from that visual. But God truly uses the humble things of this world to shame the proud, and He gave Susan a beautiful talent.

Susan tells her own story in The Woman I Was Born to Be. After a brief prologue, she begins with the story of her birth in Bangour Hospital, Scotland. It's ironic that she was born on April 1st, considering how everyone was fooled by first appearances. God's sense of humour, perhaps, knowing what was to come? Doctors told Susan's parents from the start that since she'd been deprived of oxygen, they wouldn't be able to expect much of her, and this early determination coloured much of her life afterwards. School was a struggle, though Susan persisted; relationships were challenging. She was somewhat spoiled by her mother and one sister, but the love of her family was a blessing, and Susan enjoyed a very special connection with both of them.

Raised in the Catholic faith, Susan draws much strength and comfort from her religion, and gives thanks to God and "Our Lady" for all good things that have come her way. She is down-to-earth despite her new-found fame, and seems like she would be great fun to have as a dinner guest (you might just want to save the beans for another meal).

This is a non-traditional celebrity bio - you won't find any drinking, drugs, or wild sex here. Susan has lived a life of few regrets, but her story is fascinating nonetheless.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mistletoe Murder: a Lucy Stone Mystery

by Leslie Meier
Kensington, 1991

The first of the Lucy Stone mysteries, set in the fictional seaside town of Tinker's Cove, Maine, takes place at Christmas. Lucy is mom to three, wife to Bill, and telephone operator for the community's biggest employer, Country Cousins.

When Lucy finds her employer, Sam Miller, dead in his car, what looks like suicide is murder.  But who would want to kill the company's likable boss? Though Lucy is busy enough with Christmas preparations, she can't resist doing a little investigating of her own. When friendly local policeman, Barney, loses control of his vehicle and ends up in a coma, the stakes rise. What did Barney know that made him a threat to the killer?

Lucy is an amiable intelligent amateur sleuth. Readers will relate to her conundrums as she tries to find the work-life balance and they'll enjoy nosing around with her to determine whodunit. Twenty years after the beginning of the series, Meier is at book 18 and still going strong. Perfect for the person looking for a new series.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Q&A with Missy Buchanan

Even when age creeps up on the body and mind, and life changes from what it once was, is it still possible to have a purpose in life? When it is no longer possible to venture out and do the things you once loved, can you still find a reason to look forward to each day? Missy Buchanan, a leading expert and advocate for senior adults, believes that you can. Buchanan wants to encourage older adults to find their purpose, share their stories, and make an impact on those around them.

Q: What made you decide to start ministering to and writing books for older adults?

Well, as a middle-aged adult, I never had any intention of becoming an author of books for older adults. But because of the journey that my own aging parents were on, I realized how they had become disconnected from their church as their lives changed. They started off as active older adults and then that circle got smaller as they had more needs and physical limitations. As I would visit them at their retirement community, I would also see so many others that were just like them. They needed spiritual encouragement. And so that’s why I got started. The first book began as a project just for my own parents. I wrote devotions and kept them in a loose-leaf notebook. But others started asking for them and things just spiraled from there.

Q: What do you think children need to know about their aging parents?

What I realized personally was that I had been so caught up in my parents’ physical needs that I had neglected their spiritual needs. They were no longer connected to their church, at least in regular worship attendance, and that had been such a huge part of their lives. I almost made that mistake of just totally missing that, and that was the point where I began to write. I looked and there were other books written about older adults but not very many that were written to them and for them. So the first thing I would tell their children is to pay attention not only to their physical needs but also to their spiritual needs.

Q: What is your opinion about role reversal with children and their aging parents?

I hear the whole idea of role reversal where the older parent becomes a child and the grown children become the parent, and I understand what they are talking about because my own parents became more dependent on me. But I think that when we refer to it as a role reversal, and we begin to think of our aging parents as children, we strip away their dignity. We rob them of respect and we overlook the fact that they are not children. They have had a lifetime of experiences that a child has not had. And I think that is an important difference that grown children need to think about and pay attention to. It’s more of a role shift in responsibilities and not a role reversal. I know how much it hurts an aging parent to feel like they are being treated like a baby or like a child.

Q: Other than aging adults, who else has benefited from your writing?

A friend of mine in an assisted living facility asked me to bring some books for one of her tablemates. Her tablemate explained that these books were for her adult children. “They don’t understand what it feels like to grow old, and I can’t seem to make them understand, but your books say it better than I ever could.” My books are all written in the first person as if an older adult is speaking directly to God. There are a lot of adult children that are buying them for themselves and older adults buying them for their grown children.

And I’ve heard of different youth groups that have been reading my books in order to better understand what it’s like to grow old. Instead of just mocking their older peers, they are learning that they share a lot of the same feelings—feelings of insecurity, feelings of fear. As a result of reading the books, one youth group in Tennessee has even adopted the residents of the senior living center across from their church.

Q: How can faith change our idea of growing older?

So many see aging as a punishment, and they dread it so much. But even though it is difficult to be limited by an aging body, they need to look at it as a gift that God has given them. They still have so much to give. They have great wisdom to share and stories to share. I always tell my older friends that their story is not yet over.

Missy Buchanan is the author of Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms and
Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books).

Visit Missy Buchanan’s website, http://www.missybuchanan.com/, and blog, http://missybu.wordpress.com/.

Become a friend on Facebook (Aging and Faith) and follow on Twitter (MissyBuchanan).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Smooth Stone

by Marcia Lee Laycock
Castle Quay Books, 2007

Winner of the 2006 Best New Canadian Christian Author Award (the Word Guild), One Smooth Stone tells the story of Alex Donnelly, a man on the run from his past, a man who believes he can trust no one.

Orphaned by his parents and then by his adoptive parents, Alex grows up in the foster care system, moving from one family to another until he is taken in by an abusive couple where he suffers neglect and torment for several years. Faced with the accusation of raping a 13-year-old girl in Vancouver, he runs away at the age of 16, and hides in the Yukon.

But God has a plan for Alex, and one day a man named George shows up on Alex's property. The lawyer says Alex is the heir to one million dollars - he just needs to go to Seattle to be positively identified and to sign the paperwork. Alex is skeptical. Is this for real? Do they have the right Alex Donnelly? Isn't the past safest left in the past?

In Seattle, Alex meets Kenni, the researcher who traced his whereabouts. After spending a few days with her and her family at their secluded cottage, Alex's semi-healed-over emotional wounds begin to reopen. The tension is too great for him to bear. Then, given a package from his mother, Alex discovers something he didn't want to know and takes off for the wilderness without his inheritance.

Will he survive the dangers that face him in his isolated winter job? Will Kenni be able to find him to share the missing letter from his mother? Can God find a way to reach him even in the place of desolation? Can Alex share the truth and find it sets him free?

A powerful first novel from prolific freelance writer, Marcia Laycock. Endorsed by Mark Buchanan: "tells a crackling good tale of crime and punishment, damnation and redemption that is at once grimly real and deeply hopeful" and by Phil Callaway: "makes me smile, nod my head, and furrow my brow. She makes me question, and long, and wonder. Plus she makes me glad I spent fifteen bucks!"

Friday, January 7, 2011

This Pen For Hire: a Jaine Austen Mystery

by Laura Levine,
Kensington, 2003

Jaine Austen, writer-for-hire, finds herself in a pickle when a client is charged with murder after Jaine's personal letter wins him a date with the object of his affection. Jaine doesn't believe the crime possible of the meek-mannered geek she's met and sets out to prove the authorities wrong.

Turns out there's no shortage of people who might want Stacy Lawrence dead - men she's used and jealous female rivals among them. Jaine has to narrow down the suspects before she winds up the killer's next victim. He or she is on to her plan to find the truth and will do anything to stop her from succeeding.

Jaine is likable and self-deprecating, with a weak spot for her cat, Prozac. Female readers will be able to identify with her insecurities, but her desperation for a sexual connection gets to be a bit much. Though she never does "get lucky," that whole theme wears as the plot moves along.

An entertaining read, but the avid mystery buff will figure out whodunit long before the book comes to a close.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

No New Reading List

After discovering that I really do not read the books I intend to over the course of the year, I decided to dispense with an annual (published) reading list and go with the flow. I do think I'll read a little less mystery this year, though I still enjoy them, and read more books that are edifying and support my personal growth goals.

Here's to a year of great reading for all!