Thursday, August 30, 2012

Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day by Garry R. Morgan

Very easy to read and understandable! This book is split into forty very short chapters of only a few pages each, which makes it easy if you just want to read a little bit every day. Some of the religions featured are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Animism and folk religions, Scientology, Neopagan religions, variations of Buddhism, Secular Humanism, and some different cults.

The author starts out by explaining the origins of the religion, some of its history and key figures, and how it ended up where it is today. He explains some of the practices, worldviews, and ways that it branched off or split into different groups. He also clarifies some of the differences and similarities between some of the similar religions and even within the same religion, including Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical. He explains everything in a factual way and doesn't put in his opinion one way or the other, so this would be a good book for someone of any faith or even no faith at all to read. A fun ending to each chapter is called "An Extra Minute" where he gives an interesting trivia note about the topic.

I learned a lot reading this book. Even though I've taken a Comparitive Religions class in college and learned some in church too, it was a good refresher and had religions I don't remember studying before. It's a nice overview and would be helpful for someone who wants to learn the basics about a religion's history and beliefs.
I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Inescapable by Nancy Mehl

An enjoyable mystery with a Mennonite twist! Lizzie Engel left Kingdom, Kansas when she was eighteen, a single mother with a baby, feeling rejected and judged by her family and the townspeople of her small Mennonite community. Living in Kansas City, she's made a life for herself and her daughter, but she starts to receive threatening blue notes and has noticed an orange car following her. She's soon fired from her job, accused of embezzling funds and threatened with criminal charges. With threats to her daughter's safety from both sides, she decides to return to Kingdom where she figures no one will be able to find her. She and her daughter flee to Kingdom where she's not sure of what kind of welcome she will receive, but ends up pleasantly surprised. After getting a job and a place to stay, she and her daughter start to settle in and are getting reacquainted with the family and friends she left behind. Then a body appears and soon after, she receives another blue note.

There's some romance to the story, too, when she runs into Noah Housler, who she used to be best friends with when she was younger. Her daughter insists he looks just like Prince Philip from their favorite movie Sleeping Beauty, to her mortification. To complicate matters, another man from her past reappears and she's not sure who she can trust. Will she turn back to the God she rejected and trust Him for her future?

Nancy Mehl writes this book in the first person, so we really get inside Lizzie's head. Her daughter made me laugh many times; she had such cute and funny things to say. This is the first book I've read featuring Mennonites and found it interesting to learn about their culture and religious beliefs. I did get frustrated with Lizzie's naivete concerning a choice she makes, but I had to remind myself that she grew up in this small town for eighteen years and probably couldn't really fathom how evil someone could be. However, you'd think after a dead body shows up, she would have been a little more careful! Overall, very enjoyable and I'm looking forward to book two of Road to Kingdom out next year.

Thanks to Bethany House for the free review copy that I received in exchange for my honest review.
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Friday, August 24, 2012

Wildflowers from Winter by Katie Ganshert

               Wildflowers from Winter by Katie Ganshert  I really enjoyed this book.  It draws you in immediately with the first sentence: "The summer I turned twelve, I tried to kill myself."  We don't find out until near the end why exactly she did, though there are hints.  Bethany left the little town of Peaks as soon as she turned eighteen, not to return for ten years.  She receives a call from her estranged mother that her former best friend's husband is in a coma, then finds out her grandpa had a heart attack.  She decides to visit for just one week, then back to Chicago and she can feel like she's done her duty. When she arrives, she's surprised to find a man helping her grandfather on his farm and living there besides!  They're immediately at odds; she has a hard time facing Robin, her former best friend; and she can't stand running into her mother and the pastor from her childhood.  Needless to say, she can't wait to get back home.  As soon as she gets back to Chicago, however, her life starts falling apart and then she gets really bad news.  So back she goes to Peaks to try to sort it all out.

This is Katie Ganshert's first novel and I thought it was really well done.  I thought the characters were written very realistically. Bethany has to work through a lot of issues related to her childhood, including her distrust of God.  She writes emotional scenes well and I really liked the love story. I also liked that Bethany's profession was an architect, which was a nice change, and how she made her career a reflection of her life.

She's a very descriptive writer, which I enjoyed, but she did go on a bit about Bethany wanting to leave Peaks.  I wish we would have gotten a little more interaction between Bethany and her mother with more of a resolution to their relationship, but there's going to be a book two focusing on her friend Robin, so maybe we'll get more of it then. Overall, this was a solid first novel and I look forward to traveling to Peaks again to revisit Bethany and Robin next year!

I received a free copy of this book from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Safely Home by Randy Alcorn

This was an amazing book and a Gold Medallion Book Award winner!  If you missed it the first time around like I did, pick it up now. You won't regret it. Most of the book takes place in China, where Ben Fielding has gone to visit his old college roommate Quan. Ben is a successful businessman who's lost sight of the important things in life, such as his family and faith. He goes to China to look into business opportunities and figures Quan can help him navigate the country.  However, instead of the college professor he expects to see, it's a poor locksmith who's a devoted Christian no matter the consequences.  Quan's father and grandfather were martyred for their faith and Quan wonders each day if this is the day he, and his wife and child, dies.

Ben thinks he knows the true China, but his eyes are opened to the persecution Christians there face every day.  At first he's very skeptical and thinks Quan is exaggerating, but he can't deny the things he sees with his own eyes.  He also can't believe Quan would choose to be a Christian and choose to live the difficult life he leads instead of taking an easier path.  He asks him hard questions and Quan explains about what Christians there go through and some of the history of China, which is all fascinating.  Their journeys throughout this book are amazing.

Quan goes through some really hard things in this book, but it actually felt encouraging.  It was very informative about China, past and present, and really opened my eyes to what persecuted Christians there and in other countries go through. It also encouraged me to pray for the persecuted church more often. I think this book needs to be on everyone's must-read list!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Abducted by Janice Cantore

Very suspenseful and action-packed! Carly Edwards is a patrol officer whose life finally seems to be getting on track, but just when she thinks her ex-husband and her might make a go of it again, he starts to retreat.  Then her partner's wife gets mysteriously ill and while at the hospital, their baby is kidnapped.  Meanwhile, her roommate seems upset about something, but Carly doesn't know what. The story hits the ground running with her and her partner catching a burglar red-handed, though his partner gets away.  It goes into setting up a tip line for calls about the baby and canvassing the neighborhoods for witnesses.  It explains some of the police procedures but doesn't dwell on them overmuch.  There's too much action going on! 

This is actually book two in the Pacific Coast Justice Series and I hadn't read book one yet.  There is some explanation of what happened in book one regarding Carly being a suspect and we know about some of the background for why Carly and her ex are divorced, but also that they both had become Christians since then and have been working toward reconciliation.  Carly's ex is also a cop and was hurt prior to this book so she has been helping him in his physical therapy.  With so many things going wrong, it's understandable that she's stressed out, but she tries to depend on God and trust Him for her future and the future of those she loves, though she doesn't always succeed.

This was a quick enjoyable read. It had plenty of action so there wasn't a chance to get bored, but it also dealt with emotional issues, such as trust in God and in your spouse.  Carly seemed believable in the way she dealt with her problems, but she wasn't perfect.  I liked the little touches of her having a dog and loving to swim.  They made her feel more human.  The author is a retired police officer herself, so explanations of procedures and situations felt very genuine. I wasn't lost with not having read book one, but I'm definitely going to and also looking forward to reading book three when it comes out next year. I received this book free from Tyndale in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Chase by DiAnn Mills

This suspenseful novel follows Kariss Walker, a former television reporter turned bestselling novelist, who decides to switch her writing focus from women's fiction to suspense.  Five years ago she covered a story about a little girl who was found starved to death.  No one ever discovered who she was or who had let her die and Kariss couldn't forget.  She uses her connections to get an in with the FBI and starts shadowing an agent named Tigo Harris to learn the lingo and procedures while trying to convince him to help reopen the case.  Tigo already has his hands full trying to take down the Arroyos, a cartel involved in drugs and guns and who don't hesitate to murder anyone who gets in their way.  He definitely doesn't want a shadow and Kariss immediately gets under his skin. 

Once the case is reopened, they finally get a lead and soon after she is caught in the middle of a shoot-out, involved in a car chase, and kidnapped not once, but twice!  Tigo splits his time between trying to solve both cases while doing his best to keep Kariss alive, though this is no damsel in distress.  I was impressed more than once with the way she's able to keep her wits about her and actually help with both cases.

I really liked both characters; they were well-rounded and had interesting back stories.  I also liked the minor characters; the good guys, not the bad guys!  The action was well-done, but I got a little bogged down in the day-to-day operations of the cases. I would have liked more romance between the characters; there was just a hint of feelings starting to percolate which I can see being developed more in the next book. Another interesting aspect is the case about the child is based on a real-life solved cold case. Some of the details in the book are true to the real story.  One thing I found odd is there often seemed to be a sentence inserted that didn't fit with a conversation or paragraph.  I found myself wondering if I wasn't understanding a regional difference or if it was an editing issue. I do plan on reading the next one and I think this is definitely a book men or women can appreciate. I also think it would be good for unbelievers since Tigo isn't a believer and Kariss has turned her back on God after a tragedy, and it's interesting to watch their journey.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pearl in the Sand by Tessa Afshar

A fascinating account of Rahab's life!  It starts out when Rahab is 15 years old and her father tells her the family needs her to become a prostitute to bring in money to feed her family. There were two kinds of prostitutes in Canaan, the temple prostitutes and the others who fended for themselves.  Rahab has turned her back on the gods of Canaan after seeing child sacrifices and other despicable things done that were supposed to provide wealth and blessings to the people, but which did nothing.  She makes the choice to not become a temple prostitute and instead make her own way in the world. She eventually is able to buy the inn on the wall of Jericho, where she becomes an innkeeper, which in Canaan was synonymous with prostitute.

As the Israelites are conquering the different people and getting closer to Jericho, rumors start flying because the Canaanites have heard about the miracles surrounding these people and the amazing defeats of their neighbors by these nomads.  Rahab hears about their God from one of her clients and can't stop thinking about Him. She decides to trust in Him as the one true God. She quits being a prostitute and a couple months later she saves the two spies from Israel and her life is never the same. The book continues with her and her family learning about the Hebrew laws and culture as they try to fit in with the Israelite people under the guidance of Salmone, a leader of the tribe of Judah.  He is very suspicious of her and her family at first, but as he gets to know Rahab, he starts to see her for the God-fearing woman she is. Their love story is amazing and we obviously know the outcome since she is named in the lineage of Jesus, but the journey is well worth it.

This was a great book!  Characters are well-developed, flawed but likeable.  Sometimes it's hard to look at Biblical characters as real people and not put them on a pedestal, but the author does a good job of showing that they dealt with problems and sins and had insecurities just like the rest of us. Some of the emotional obstacles Rahab deals with in feeling loved reminded me of another great book, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Very well-written and showing great insight into what Rahab might have thought and felt, I would highly recommend this book to everyone!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gone to Ground by Brandilyn Collins

This was a very interesting murder mystery.  Five women have been killed in the small town of Amaryllis, Mississippi over the past three years and now there has been a sixth.  The serial killer has been labeled the "Closet Killer."  Three women all think they know who the Closet killer is, but they each think it's somebody else.  The story splits between their different viewpoints, with an older black woman named Cherrie Mae thinking it's one of her clients, a young pregnant woman named Tully thinking it's her husband, and a woman in her thirties believes her brother did it.  They come together to share the information they have and try to figure out which one's the killer.  They continue investigating, at great peril to themselves, each one sure that their suspect is the right one.

This was very well-written, with a southern flavor to each of the three distinctive voices.  The story kept me guessing, as I suspected it was one person, then the next, though I did figure out part of it toward the end.  I really liked how she wrote it from different viewpoints, each one bringing pieces to the puzzle to make up the whole.  Brandilyn is known for writing Seatbelt Suspense and has won numerous awards.  With this book, it's definitely easy to see why.  It was suspenseful and definitely worth the read!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke

This historical novel starts right before the Titanic sets sail from Ireland to England and then on to America.  Michael is a young teenager who stows away on the Titanic and runs into Owen, a young man going to America to help his aunt and uncle with their gardening business. He hopes to get his sister Annie out from under the control of their hateful aunt in England and bring her to America, but can't do that until the business is established.  He has felt responsible for her since their parents passed away a few years ago, but all of his plans change the night the Titanic sinks.  Michael ends up going to the aunt and uncle in Owen's stead and vowing to bring Annie over as soon as he can.  Annie goes into a deep depression after her brother dies and she blames Michael for a while, but they soon start writing letters to each other and eventually feel something more. Years have passed by now and she is nearing her eighteenth birthday, after which she plans to leave for America.  But her aunt has a few tricks up her sleeve and no one has anticipated the depth of the aunt's hatred for Annie or what lengths she will go to to ruin her life. World War I breaks out and Annie decides to disappear without a word to anyone in order to abide by her aunt's wishes, but that doesn't sit too well with Michael, who determines to track her down. 

My thoughts as I read this book was that it was very wordy.  It seems like the characters' emotions were explained to death.  I was also frustrated that questions were raised about what happened to Michael's sister, but were never really explained.  That felt like a possible opening for a sequel.  I like history, so I was a little disappointed with the little time her characters spend on the Titanic, but I did appreciate the section focusing on World War I.  It was interesting to learn about the nurses and ambulance drivers in France. I did like the characters, but Annie seemed extremely self-sacrificing and not quite believable.  Sometimes it seemed like she didn't do the logical and seemingly obvious thing that could have prevented these complicated situations, but I guess we wouldn't have a book then!  I felt frustrated with her, her aunt, and the whole situation the aunt creates because of her bitterness and anger.  The author does show what havoc these emotions can wreak on yourself and others, but I would have liked a little more back story as to why the aunt is this way. We are told that her father was also like this, but her sister, Owen and Annie's mother, turned out differently.  Michael was my favorite character in the story because of the amazing journey he takes, not just physically crossing oceans, but emotionally and spiritually.  He came from an abusive childhood and because of one man's brief influence, was welcomed into the first home he'd known since his parents died as a member of the family, was introduced to the Savior, and was able to help toward building a business with this new family of his. Owen was also very admirable for the brief time he was in the book. His example is something to aspire to.

Cathy Gohlke has won two Christy awards for previous books, which I will definitely check out.  Even my favorite author has had some books I just haven't liked, so that might be the case with this one.  Overall, I somewhat liked the book.  Parts of it were interesting, but a lot of parts felt long and drawn out.