Saturday, December 27, 2014

2015 Reading Challenge

I've decided to attempt the 2015 Reading Challenge from Popsugar. It's kept popping up to my attention from several difference sources . As I read down the list I thought it sounds achievable, although not necessarily easy. Several of these categories will force me out of my normal reading comfort zone, which may prove to be a good thing.

I believe we are to stick to one title per category, even if a given books does fit into two or three. I don't think it's necessary to tick them off the list in order. It's fine to do it randomly, as long as we end up covering everything on the list. So each week, I'll aim to tick one off among my reviews, to cover all 50 (or 52 counting the trilogy).

My question is who would like to have a go with me? I like the thought of accountability and encouragement. I challenge everyone to make it a goal for 2015. Otherwise, I hope you'll follow my attempt to carry this out anyway.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The First Christmas Presents

A couple of years ago at Christmas time, I bought this little box at the Community Aid Abroad shop down in my city. On the box is a picture of the three kings, and inside is a gold candle and two little bags, full of chunks of frankincense and myrrh. The idea is to place the little rocks in the candle flame to fill your room with fragrance. So far, I've preferred to leave them intact, for a sniff every so often around this season. They are a beautiful, sensual Christmas keepsake.

A small roll of parchment tells how these three items were presented to the Baby Jesus by the Magi, after their long trek from the east to follow his star and find him. Once, one of my sons said, "They weren't very thoughtful presents, were they? Why would a baby or toddler want those last two things? It sounds like they were giving him what they would have wanted to receive rather than what he would have wanted." I was glad he was thinking about the principles of gift giving, but had to laugh to think of the Wise Men toting rattles and building blocks across miles of desert on their camels. I've even heard theories that Mary and Joseph themselves might have been bemused by those last two items, after saying, 'Thanks very much for the gold.'

But things in the Bible always carry great significance. A lot of thought did go into those gifts, and in retrospect, they were proven to be perfect for the recipient. Maybe the Magi themselves didn't even know how prophetic they were to be. Here's a quick summary, to show how perfect they were.

Gold represents kingship. It has always been an extremely precious metal valued by royalty, and symbolises Jesus' kingship over us, and all his creation. He is Sovereign over things on earth and in heaven.

Frankincense is a luxurious perfume or incense made from the resin, or gum, of a particular tree. It's highly fragrant when burned. This may symbolise Jesus' priestly role in our lives. He was the ultimate High Priest, willingly born to be a bridge between God and mankind, identifying perfectly with both. Nobody else could intercede so perfectly. What he achieved by his life and death allows us directly into God's presence. The frankincense in my little kit smells awesome.

Myrrh is an anointing oil obtained from another specific tree by making incisions into the bark and allowing the gum to flow out. This gift looked ahead to that baby's sacrificial death on our behalf, enabling us to stand clean and right with God. The baby grew up to be somebody who would take the punishment all men and women deserve on his own shoulders. Now, as well as being assured of a heavenly afterlife, we know we can shake off all guilt and feelings of unworthiness and being unable to measure up in this life too. The myrrh also smells really lovely.

I love pondering the men who brought these gifts to Jesus too. They had the best ever reason to embark on a long, gruelling trek through scorching sun and driving wind. Their route no doubt varied from appearing totally God-forsaken to containing dangerous brigands and crooks, anxious to prey on passers-by. I can imagine their satisfaction when they finally made it to the modest abode of the infant boy, and were able to say, "Here he is. Not many know his significance, but we do."

These men are the perfect examples of the benefits a well-read life may produce. Their vigilant reading and studies enabled them to grasp what was taking place in history. If they hadn't been so vigilant, they would have missed it and been none the wiser. It reminds me of the great things that can happen, and the insights we can receive, when we delve into books. Fiction and non-fiction alike can contain lots of treasure we may miss. Here's to a good year of reading in 2014, and more ahead of us in 2015.

I wish you all a wonderful and blessed Christmas. See you back again soon.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

'Love Unexpected' by Jody Hedlund

A Perfect Blend of History and Romance, with a Whisper of Mystery

All she's ever wanted was a home. But stranded at Presque Isle port after their steamboat sank, Emma Chambers and her brother, Ryan, couldn't be farther away from security. While Ryan at least can find work, Emma can't even find a place to stay. An unlikely solution arises when the lighthouse keeper, who recently lost his wife and is struggling to raise his young son, arrives in town. A traveling preacher believes they might be the answer to each others' problems, and after a hasty marriage, Emma is headed back to the lighthouse with this handsome but quiet stranger.

But nothing in her wandering life has prepared her for suddenly being asked to raise a child and keep a house. Struggling at every turn, Emma also suspects Patrick may be keeping something hidden from her. In town she hears whispers about strange circumstances surrounding his previous wife's death, and it seems as though Emma's answered prayer for a home and family may actually be something much more dangerous.


I like books with lighthouse settings. What an important job to take on, yet with a feeling of isolation and freedom for those inclined to live a quiet life. I've sometimes thought it would be perfect for an introvert who still wants to make a difference. It seems Patrick Garraty thought so too.
The setting creates a nice, melancholic feel for the plot, in which two people have their own desperate reasons to get married, having just met each other.

Gentle-natured Emma, who hadn't been brought up to be domestic, is thrown in the deep end! I felt her side of the arrangement involved a lot more stress than Patrick's. Most women get a chance to ease themselves into housework and childcare, without suddenly shouldering the full load with no experience. At times, she seems a bit saintly to be true. I hope not to sound like a grouch here, but I've had to babysit kids like Josiah, and find it incredible that never once was Emma tempted to call him, 'Little Menace' instead of that never-ending, 'Little Love', even in her thoughts. He was running rings around her, and she was letting him be boss. Although Bertie Burnham is not the most lovable character, I was pleased when she pointed this out.

Although I found the novel a breeze to read, I did get frustrated with the two main characters. Their nervous and secretive attitudes cause many hassles. Emma quietly decides what she thinks will work best for those she cares for (Patrick and Ryan) without giving them any idea what she's thinking, so she has no way of getting feedback from them. Perhaps it's natural that Patrick returns the same treatment, withholding important family information which Emma would surely want to know. No wonder when trouble comes, they are both left reeling, because they still don't know each other as well as they could at that stage.

It's good when child characters strengthen the plot instead of being just tacked on. Josiah controls a lot of the action. I'm sure we've all come across toddlers like him (or maybe you've had one or two). He has such a big, overbearing personality, they have to plan their own schedules around when he's in bed. He's demanding, he pushes boundaries, sometimes he makes me exhausted reading about him. There's nobody like a two-year-old for clinging to someone's leg one moment and throwing a tantrum the next. Not every character can believably undergo mood transplants to suit the story, but Josiah can easily.

I think my favourite character is Emma's brother, Ryan. He's always direct, a refreshing change from all the bottling up done by the two main characters. Ryan seems to have a more common-sense and decisive approach than his sister's, and I wouldn't mind reading a novel with him as the main character.

I like the nice little teaser for Jody Hedlund's novella, with the same setting. A fascinating bit a history between another young couple at the same lighthouse is hinted at within the pages of this story, and intrigued me enough to go and get hold of their story, 'Out of the Storm' which I'll review soon.

Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Top Ten Reads for 2014

I've shared this Top Ten list with the Australasian Christian Writers blog. Now, I'll going to share it here too. In a rough chronological order, here are my outstanding reads for 2014.

1) Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown.
Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey This was the first book I read in 2014, and still makes the list as one of my favourites. It's about four very different women who decide to take a spiritual retreat, and not only do we share their experiences but get to benefit from the course notes too, making the novel a virtual retreat for any of us who would love to attend something like this, but can't.
My review is here

2) A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr.
A Cast of Stones (The Staff and the Sword, #1) The two sequels, A Draw of Kings and The Hero's Lot, would have to be included here too, as it was a wonderful fantasy trilogy whose characters stayed in my mind long after I finished the books. I'm taking the liberty of squeezing three books into the slot of one here.
My review of A Cast of Stones is here

3) Making Marion by Beth Moran.
Making Marion: Where's Robin Hood When You Need Him? It was very interesting to read a Christian novel from Britain, to compare with those from elsewhere. This one is set at a caravan park in Robin Hood country, Sherwood Forest, as the heroine seeks her father's past. It's full of mystery which unfolds at just the right time.
My review is here

4) Keepers of the Covenant by Lynn Austin.
Keepers of the Covenant (The Restoration Chronicles #2) Set during Old Testament times and featuring the prophet, Ezra, as the main character, this book spans several years and cleverly highlights ways in which his times were similar to ours. Novels such as this are great to be read in conjunction with the Bible itself.
My review is here

5) The Road to Testament by Eva Marie Everson.
The Road to Testament I liked this novel because it's fun and helps us to think again, if we've been unconsciously using stereotypes in our assumptions. The story uses some mystery and romance to achieve this.
My review is here

6) Out of the Storm by Jodie Hedlund.
Out of the Storm (Beacons of Hope, #0.5) This one is a novella which may be read in an hour or two. I'm including it on my list because it shows that a story doesn't need a lot of space or an extensive cast to be great.
My review is here.

7) A Most Inconvenient Marriage by Regina Jennings.
A Most Inconvenient Marriage One of the last novels I've read this year, it's just plain fun. This novel incorporates an unusual plot situation with characters who are easy to admire and understand. Two of the best ingredients for an enjoyable romance.
My review is here

And now for some non-fiction highlights for the year.

8) The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski.
The Sacred Year: Mapping the Soulscape of Spiritual Practice -- How Contemplating Apples, Living in a Cave, and Befriending a Dying Woman Revived My Life The author does what some of us may have dreamed of trying. He puts aside a year to try several different spiritual disciplines and writes about his attempts. It really helped me to delve into the meanings behind several practices which sounded extreme, not to mention the features of our 21st century lifestyles which inspired him to make the attempt.
My review is here

9) Good News for Weary Women by Elise Fitzpatrick.
Good News for Weary Women: Escaping the Bondage of To-Do Lists, Steps, and Bad Advice Several of the principles she mentions would apply to men too, of course, but women are the consummate jugglers of commitments. A great read for those of us who may have ever had anxiety about measuring up to society's expectations. Her revelation of the one important thing is something we should keep in mind always. And I do appreciate books which expose the ridiculousness of traditions which have been keeping us bound.
My review is here

10) Grace for the Good Girl by Emily Freeman
Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life This is essential for those of us who have always tried hard to do the right thing. Freeman writes for a class of people who many may believe wouldn't even need books to be written for them, and shows how desperately we do.
My review is here

Friday, December 12, 2014

'The Songs of Jesse Adams' by Peter McKinnon

Set in the turmoil of social change and political unrest of Australia during the 1960s, The Songs of Jesse Adams traces the meteoric rise of a boy from the bush - a farmer's son who breaks away to follow his heart, his dreams and his love of music. But as Jesse travels with his band and the crowds gather, it becomes clear that something else is afoot. This rock singer captivates and transforms the host of fans who hear his songs and encounter his touch.

Lives are changed in unexpected ways and the enigmatic Jesse becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for those on society's edge. But not all will celebrate the rising tide of influence of this charismatic figure whose words and actions challenge those in power - the media, the politicians, the church. In one tumultuous week this clash of ideals comes to a head - with profound consequences.

Awash in all the protest and collapse of conservative Australia, the colour and madness that was the sixties, The Songs of Jesse Adams is a tale of conflict, betrayal and tragedy, but ultimately the triumph of love.

It doesn't take the canny reader long to realise that Jesse Adams is an analogy for somebody else. His story evokes how the four New Testament gospels might have looked, had the events taken place in Australia in the volatile 1960s instead of ancient Palestine.

Peter McKinnon uses strokes of genius to translate Biblical events to a more modern and local setting. Jesse is a talented singer/musician and his band is originally comprised of hard-working shearers willing to give the spotlight a try, as they are down on their luck. It's intriguing to match this novel's characters with their biblical counterparts. To mention just a few, the apostle Peter is the loyal and spontaneous Big Al, and you'll recognise James and John, the Sons of Thunder, in Johnny and Dean Moyle, the 'Chunder Brothers.' Annie Martin, a burned-out journalist who senses something special in Jesse, is this story's Mary Magdalene. Melbourne becomes the Jerusalem Jesse breaks his heart over. Then there's Flash, the Judas character, with his gripe that Jesse refused to sign a recording contract. And the Last Supper takes place in 'The Doubtful' hotel, after which Jesse retreats to the beer garden. He is crowned with the unofficial title of 'King of Pop' instead of King of the Jews. His songs, of course, are this story's version of Jesus' parables.

I found reading this story in a twentieth century, Australian setting extremely moving. It challenged me to wonder if I would have willingly followed Jesus, as I was always certain I would. Reading this book makes it harder to fault those ancient people who decided to turn away from Jesus without at least understanding the position they found themselves in. It's easier to sense the clout and power the ruling class and Pharisees would have wielded, presented in the form of three formidable men; Timothy Grady, the Cleric, Frank Pigdon, the Premier, and Bob Craven, the Media Mogul, each with their own reasons to want to silence Jesse Adams permanently.

The character of Jesse must have been a challenge to fine-tune perfectly from start to finish. At times, I felt he might have been unduly taken by surprise by some of the lines his detractors delivered to him, while at other times he seemed to lash out rather more reactively and emotionally than I would have expected. Then, at other moments, I wondered at his letting others talk him into their plans against his better judgment. Still, other readers may well disagree with me. As the historical Jesus caused stirs, rifts and factions wherever he walked, it seems reasonable that the character Jesse Adams may well do the same.

I recommend this thought-provoking book to to anybody willing to read the familiar gospel story in a fresh and imaginative way. Prepare to have your pre-conceptions challenged.

I received a copy from RISE Magazine, for the purpose of writing a review

3.5 stars

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

'A Most Inconvenient Marriage' by Regina Jennings

A Marriage of Convenience Turns Most Inconvenient in this Historical Charmer

Having fled a difficult home life, Civil War nurse Abigail Stuart feels like her only friend in the world is sweet but gravely wounded patient Jeremiah Calhoun. Fearing he won't survive, the Confederate soldier's last wish is that Abigail look after his sickly sister at home. Marry him, return to his horse farm, and it'll be hers.

Left with few choices, Abigail takes him up on his offer and moves to Missouri after his death, but just as the family learns to accept her, the real Jeremiah Calhoun appears--puzzled to find a confounding woman posing as his wife. Jeremiah is determined to have his life back to how it was before the war, but his own wounds limit what he can do on his own. Still not fully convinced Abigail isn't duping him, he's left with no choice but to let the woman stay and help--not admitting to himself she may provide the healing his entire family needs.

This is one of my favourite books of the year, and we're into December.

Abigail Stuart is a war nurse who makes an agreement to marry a dying soldier who calls himself Jeremiah Calhoun. She's estranged from her family and needs a new home, and he claims to need a nurse to care for his ailing sister, and a competent horse woman to help with the family business. Abigail will have to break the news of his death to his fiance, but he's sure she'll understand. Everything seems to be going to plan, when the real Jeremiah Calhoun arrives home from the war. It seems the dead soldier was an imposter, playing some sort of twisted game, which sets these two up for a very rocky start.

I'm proud to say that I figured out the identity of the pretend Jeremiah, including his motivation for the act he played, on my own. It was great fun watching it dawn on the characters. There's a very lovable cast in this novel, including Josiah and Betsy, two very mischievous children from a neighbouring property, who steal the scenes they are in with their comic relief. There were plenty of humorous incidents to keep me smiling. Being an Aussie, I can only imagine the stench of a skunk.

As the novel isn't set during, but in the aftermath of the Civil War, there is a hopeful overall impression of building up and restoring. A lot of the action deals with some sneaky crooks who don't hesitate to kill.

Most of all, I adored the two main characters. Abigail is a capable, resilient woman who has made up her mind to guard her heart, determined to never experience hurt like she received from the hands of members of her family, but her tendency to love deeply is her vulnerable point. I found a scene where she cries silent tears at night most poignant simply because she's not the cry-baby type. The 'hillbilly boy' she'd made up her mind to resist has broken through her defenses, and he couldn't even seem to be bothered trying.

Jeremiah is a young man who was made head of his family too early, which may explain the control freak tendencies he's accused of during the story. He really only wants his family to be happy and prosperous. Jeremiah has learned to assume a gruff, suspicious persona through necessity, but hides a tender heart. Some of his revelations are great, such as what really constitutes a true home. Through him, we see that sometimes when things appear to be going haywire, they are really the best things that can happen.

I'd recommend this novel to anybody who wants a fun historical romance with a bit of depth.

Thanks to Net Galley and Bethany House for my review copy.

5 stars


Saturday, December 6, 2014

'The Bracelet' by Dorothy Love

The mystery surrounding Celia's home in Savannah threatens her family reputation . . . and her very life.

Celia Browning is counting the days until her childhood sweetheart Sutton Mackay returns to Savannah after two years in Jamaica looking after his family's shipping interests. She's certain he will propose marriage, thus joining two of the city's most prominent families. But just as Sutton returns, an unsavory newspaper reporter arrives in town, determined to revive interest in the secret tragedies that occurred in the Browning mansion on Madison Square when Celia was a child.

A series of mysterious notes arrives at the house, followed by an anonymous gift--a bracelet imbued with a sinister message. Is it merely a coincidence, or is someone out to harm her?

As war clouds gather over Savannah and her beloved father's health worsens, Celia determines to uncover the truth about what really happened all those years ago.

Inspired by actual events in one of Savannah's most prominent 19th-century families, "The Bracelet "combines romance, rich historical detail, and breathtaking suspense as one young woman embarks upon a dangerous quest to free herself from her family's tragic past.


The story is set in the time of political turbulence prior to the American Civil War. Celia Browning is reunited with her childhood sweetheart, Sutton Mackay, who has been abroad. She expects a proposal any day, but her happiness is marred when a snooping journalist threatens to write an expose about a scandal in her family's past. Celia never really grasped the details. If she doesn't ferret out the truth, it will wreck their reputation. Especially since somebody is sending her threatening messages and the gift of a bracelet with a sinister meaning.

It's a fairly long book which I found a bit slow at times. There are detailed conversations about politics and business, and plenty of small talk about peripheral characters. There are also quite a few shopping expeditions, horse rides, afternoon teas and dress fittings. I was expecting these to have some plot significance, but a lot of their purpose seems to be simply to show what shopping expeditions, horse rides, afternoon teas and dress fittings used to be like.

The story did hold my interest despite the slower patches. The general feeling of time and place was well evoked. In modern times, having such a scandal exposed wouldn't be such a big deal for all concerned as it was for Celia and her family. There are plenty of sudden, shock revelations for those who persevere and discover the mystery. So many that even though I predicted some, others took me by surprise. 

I'm sure every reader will agree when the 'baddie' is revealed, that it's a complex, non-stereotypical villain. There may even be discussions about whether this person deserves censure or pity. I certainly found it easy to feel sorry for the perpetrator, and understand where they were coming from.

Thanks to Tyndale House and NetGalley for my review copy.

3 stars

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

'The Secret of Pembrooke Park' by Julie Klassen

Abigail Foster fears she will end up a spinster, especially as she has little dowry to improve her charms and the one man she thought might marry her--a longtime friend--has fallen for her younger, prettier sister.
When financial problems force her family to sell their London home, a strange solicitor arrives with an astounding offer: the use of a distant manor house abandoned for eighteen years. The Fosters journey to imposing Pembrooke Park and are startled to find it entombed as it was abruptly left: tea cups encrusted with dry tea, moth-eaten clothes in wardrobes, a doll's house left mid-play . . .

The handsome local curate welcomes them, but though he and his family seem to know something about the manor's past, the only information they offer Abigail is a warning: Beware trespassers who may be drawn by rumors that Pembrooke contains a secret room filled with treasure.

Hoping to improve her family's financial situation, Abigail surreptitiously searches for the hidden room, but the arrival of anonymous letters addressed to her, with clues about the room and the past, bring discoveries even more startling. As secrets come to light, will Abigail find the treasure and love she seeks...or very real danger?

Abigail Foster and her family are struggling financially after a failed investment. They are offered an anonymous tenancy by a distant relative. Pembrooke Park turns out to be a wonderful, rambling old manor house which is grand enough to satisfy her choosy mother and sister. But the mystery surrounding the house is a bit creepy. The Pembrooke family who lived there previously suddenly disappeared one day, leaving food on plates, tea in cups, clothes in cupboards and a partially completed chess game. And there are rumours of a hidden treasure left by previous owner, Robert Pembrooke, which apparently sent his mercenary brother, Clive, almost mad searching for it.

Abigail is the sort of heroine we may recognise from other historical novels. She's like Elinor Dashwood, a sensible older sister with a good head for business who considers herself plain and has a secret fear of being left on the shelf. Her younger sister, Louisa, is the shallow coquette who is considered the family beauty and demands the best of everything for herself. However, not everybody is immune to Abigail's more modest charms.

During the course of the story, an abundance of young men take an interest in Abigail. They either have romantic intentions, secrets to conceal, or both. I was very sad about one of them, when I considered his back story along with what ends up happening to him. Still, the story is written in such a way to leave no doubt that, as far as Abigail's hand is concerned, the best man wins.

I've compared Julie Klassen's novels to old English authors in the past. This one put me in mind of the writing of Wilkie Collins. It's full of mysterious secrets, sudden surprises, concealed identities, and rumours of treasure attracting several hunters. And there is both an unidentified veiled lady and a sinister man in a cloak hanging around, each for their own reasons.

I've got to mention William's sermons. He is the young curate who has received mixed feedback of compliments and criticism for their shortness. One of the samples we got seemed only a few paragraphs long, making me think I could understand any parishioner for feeling ripped off. However, their premises were sound, and on a personal note, as I sat on my kindle and broke it while on holiday, the one about where our treasures are hit home for me. All ended well.

Thanks to Net Galley and Bethany House for my review copy.

4 stars