Blue stained wood with crimson carnations

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: To Win Her Favor

Ah dear fellow readers! Another year has past and spring is here again- which must mean that it's
time for another Tamera Alexander book! As you all should remember by now I am an avid and devoted fan of Tamera's work and I have been delighted to be included again on her blogging team for the release of this book!

"To Win Her Favor" is the next fresh installment of the Belle Meade Plantation Series and focuses on the lives and goings on at the next farm over, Linden Downs. Our heroine is Maggie Linden who, at a mere 20 years, is a gifted horsewoman and the sole companion to her ageing, ailing, father (all the rest of their family being lost to the war). The effects of the war on the once booming farm have had its toll as well and now, drowning in tax debt Linden Downs races their only remaining thoroughbred, Maggie's prize possession, Bourbon Belle in the hopes of clearing the debt and changing their future. Her father it seems, has other plans. Before she knows it she has entered a marriage of convenience with an Irishman (of all things!) in order to save the farm- an Irishman that is adamantly against going anywhere near a horse race! As Maggie and Cullen McGrath come to grasp with being in each other's lives and restoring the farm, the biggest racing stakes ever offered- the one that was the answer to all of Maggie's prayers- draws closer. But does God have bigger plans for Maggie and Cullen than either of them ever dreamed of? And has He already been answering Maggie's prayers for her future?

Tamera Alexander writes the realest characters ever put to paper in Christian fiction. Her style and execution is flawless with writing that expresses the keenest observations about both man, beast, and God's fine creation. I am always amazed and delighted to be transported into one of her novels through her beautiful engaging descriptions and I often find myself stopping short and rereading a sentence or paragraph because I've realized what a lovely turn of phrase something is! With this kind of effortless styling the reader is whisked along through through Maggie and Cullen's story and I found myself quickly attached to the both of them.

Something that is done so well in this book, like her others, is the portrayal of real people making real choices about real life. Maggie is young and inexperienced with the harsher realities of men judging against a persons skin tone or nationality- until life as Cullen's wife makes her a wiser woman and forces her to evaluate the way she herself treats people. Cullen too experiences great growth as he moves from his more colorful past behavior and actions in his native Ireland and England to desiring to be the kind of man that Maggie's father assessed him to be, a man of honor and loyalty who will care for his daughter and his land. It is so easy to assign a certain perfection to the characters in a Christian novel, a certain aura of saintliness that proclaims the hero or heroine to be all together despite their flaws. But I never find that to be the case with the Tamera's characters. There is no guile, or pretense, or pomp in the way that these characters find themselves changing. These characters are as living and breathing as you or I. They have differing opinions and are hurt by words and misunderstandings, they fight and makeup; and in the end they reach a place of trust, and even love, despite their rough beginning.

In light of reading others review's on this book I feel the need to address a reoccurring theme in the lower rated reviews, the objection to Ms. Alexander's supposed indecency in writing 'sex scenes'. I assure my readers that there are no 'sex scenes' in this book. Period. What this book does contain is brief, discrete glimpses into a married couple's intimate relationship. There are detailed kissing scenes which do often lead to 'married people activities' ;) but that never extends into anything graphic or objectionable in my view, every scene is always a 'fade to black'. In a day and age when persons of any age have so few positive Godly role models in a healthy marriage relationship I find it endearing that we would get to see a little bit into the ups and downs and imperfections of what a real married couple looks like. Couples often seem manufactured to live relationships that are always roses or wanton pleasure and even Christian books fall guilty in portraying that type of relationship. Maggie and Cullen's move from strangers to loving couple, however, is gradual and tender, showing both restraint and passion. And I wholly approve of how it was showcased.

Now lest you get the idea that this book is full of nothing but fluff and cuddles I should let you know that is certainly not the case! In setting her writing in the post- Civil War South Alexander gives herself a rough hewn canvas to work from. Gentry, freedman, and immigrant all have challenging and heartbreaking stories to tell in the period of Reconstruction, and I always walk away from one of Tamera's stories having learned something or gained an angle of perspective that I didn't have before!

The minor nit pick that I have with this book is that there is a single curse word near the very beginning, and if you are sensitive you will want to be aware that there is usage (by wicked men) of strong ethnic slurs that are in keeping with the era. But overall I really loved everything about this book! When I went back over my marked pages it was so evident the Spiritual lesson contained herein was that all our life is a gift from our maker and you can never go back and erase the past, but by God's grace you can go forward. It was a lovely theme and one that is sure to stick with the reader for a long time! I enthusiastically recommend that you pick this book up and enjoy it for your summer reading!

Final Rating: 5

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and opinion of the product.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: The Soup Club Cookbook

Everybody loves a good cookbook don't they? Well they should! This cookbook caught my eye with it's striking cover and interesting premise, and my love with its heart and purpose. The premise of the book is simple, four friends band together to once a week deliver soup to each other's homes for the evening meal. The friends rotate on a schedule so that each person is providing soup once a month and the rotation continues week in and week out through the entire year. Rich and hearty soups are created for the harsh winter months and lighter refreshing ones for the heat of the summer and they along with any needed accompaniments or sides are dutifully doled out to provide each family with one ready to heat-and-eat meal a week.

The book starts you off with a good look at just how to begin a soup club of your own before launching into a thorough primer of broth building and flavor boosters. Everything is laid out clearly and in a well organised manner with good tips and engaging cooks notes stories for nearly every recipe. The majority of the rest of the book covers a myriad of delicious looking soups that I'm eager to run a few batches of myself! I'm a big fan of chili's and the like and can easily see myself whipping up a pot of the Cuban Black Bean Soup, or the Beck Chicken Chili, or the Chicken Tortilla Soup. What surprised me was that I was equally drawn to recipes like the Potato Leek Soup, and the Carrot Coconut Soup- and I may just get the nerve to try them someday! One soup that has me utterly intrigued is the Filipino Healing Soup and it's almost legendary status among the soup club group has me eager to try it out at the first crack of chilly October air this fall! The book concludes with a good stash of recipes for filling out your soup meal. From Cheddar Cornbread, to Kimchi, to Summer Corn Hash they all look like recipes that will fill the stomach with good things!

Each of the soup recipes in the book are geared for producing a high volume of soup so you shouldn't expect to make a pot of soup for two. But that is kinda the point of this cookbook- and the soup club in the first place. This food is meant to be shared and it's always better when more people are involved! Food isn't just about providing nourishment for your body it's about providing nourishment for your soul. Food- good food- is about people and relationships- anyone who has a favorite dish from mom or grandmom knows that. The food we create to share with others is the best food we will create because as cliched as it sounds that food is seasoned with love. The recipes of The Soup Club are recipes that are meant to be shared, whether that is with a group of soup enthusiasts of your own, or as a gift to the elderly shut in across the street or the struggling new mom at church and what you put into that batch of soup can't be matched with what you will get out of it when you share it.

I really enjoyed reading The Soup Club Cookbook because in reading of these four women's culinary history and friendships it reminded me of a lot of good things from my own past. Reading good cookbooks like this makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to be the person who likes squash, and doesn't blink at garbanzo beans, and the one who shares what she has freely and with warmth. And that sounds like a pretty good cookbook to me!

Final Rating: 5

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and opinion of the product.

Book Review: The Set-Apart Woman: God's Invitation to Sacred Living

Leslie Ludy and her husband Eric have been popular Christian and homeschool conference speakers for the better part of the last two decades. Last year I had the opportunity to attend via simulcast the Set-Apart Girl Conference held from the Ludy's own ministry center, Ellerslie. The conference was my first encounter with the Ludy's and their teaching and it turned out to be a great experience with lots of challenging and encouraging teaching!

Fast forward to present time and to me getting my hands on my first Ludy book, this one written by Leslie, I suspected from the title, would focus on much the same as the conference had and I was right! "The Set-Apart Woman: God's Invitation to Sacred Living" is your own personal guide to hearing and implementing God's sacred calling on your life.

In these ten chapters Leslie reminds the reader of who God is to us and about His willingness, and indeed power, to transform lives that are wholly His. In today's culture there seems to be a growing disconnect with Christians as to what exactly it means to be a Christian and what a Christian looks like as they go about their daily life. There seems to be a prevalent attitude that says 'I can act this way over here and and do these things- and still go to church twice a week and love God over there'. Its a dangerous mindset that Leslie confronts both head-on and lovingly. Those who would cry 'legalism!' at her call to Spiritual focus in our lives are reminded that part of the issue that the church currently faces in winning the world to Christ is that we have come to resemble the world so much that we have nothing to offer them. Her call to be different is indeed a call to win people, not repel them. "Legalism chokes life, but true set-apartness gives life." (pg.32)

Leslie calls her readers to pursue a deep relationship with God, and pursue it despite our feelings or difficulties that may arise, pursue it until our feelings align themselves with the word of God. She quotes A.W. Tozer who said, "The man who would know God must give time to Him." It is wise advice. She then encourages readers to eliminate the time wasters from our life that keep us from giving God that time He deserves. Everything from the ways we spend entertaining ourselves to the idols we allow in our lives are under fire from the author as she systematically pulls the rug out from any arguments that excuse a divided focus in our lives. Instead she recommends many helpful ways for us to find fulfillment in establishing an eternal focus in our lives.

I admittedly found some of the beginning chapters of this book a bit slow reading but that was really more to do with having already heard much of what Leslie wrote at the conference I attended. If it had been my first time hearing it I think it really would have been a much smoother read for me. When I had reached the two-thirds mark for the book I did lay it aside for several days as I had gotten busy and I was pleasantly surprised to come back to it and find everything from that point on much fresher. Chapters 8 and 9 on 'The Solid Rock" and being "Strong and Courageous" really impacted me deeply, in part, as they connected exactly where I was studying in BSF with the Life of Moses study! The challenge to set aside fear and to put feelings into their place, to live with "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow" was both very convicting and comforting to me.

In wrapping up Leslie offers her readers one last challenge and that is to turn outward. In a world that is passionate about preaching it's causes and green-lifestyles (or whatever the flavor of the week is) we as Christians are commanded by Christ to be passionate and active as well! I was challenged and delighted by the thought that we are to 'be Christians not humanitarians' and that even as we reach out for the weak and oppressed and become God's hands on earth to the orphans, the neglected, and the abused, we do so to introduce them to the only One who can change them or us, Jesus Christ.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone that is looking for a fresh and energizing look at their Christianity, or to any Christian woman who is struggling with who God is and how He fits into her daily life! The chapters are easily read in about half and hour's time and include inspiring quotes at the beginning and thought provoking scriptures and study questions at the end. The end of the book also provided a reading list of Christian discipleship texts and biographies that are sure to continue your reading and growing for a long time to come!

Rating: 5

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and opinion of the product.

Book Review: Dauntless

Spoiler Alert- Due to several serious issues I found with this book I will be explaining my objections in depth.

Today I'm reviewing a new author to me! I was excited to see "Dauntless" by Dina L. Sleiman in the queue for reviews and I chose it based on it being a 'Robin Hood' like adventure novel- well- that and the fact that the book has great cover art and title!

The book centers around the 17 year old noblewoman Lady Merry and the group of youngsters she rescues and hides the night her family is killed and their village is burned to the ground by orders of the vindictive King John. Merry and her band have hidden in the forest, surviving and thriving, for over two years and going largely undetected except for the rumors of 'The Ghosts of Farthingale Forest' that are whispered in surrounding villages whenever food and clothing go missing from their cottages.
Upset and danger fall on Merry's band after they nab a small chest they find contains gold coins bound for the king and the 'ghosts' become a little more living and breathing than they can conceal. Merry and her trusted men pick up and move their camp to another area but in doing so they are placed into another danger they didn't count on- that of Merry's past intended husband, now loyal to the king, stumbling into their midst. Merry, now faced with the collision of her past and present must look to the future, and is faced with many choices about how to protect those she loves and is responsible for- even as her heart is pulled towards the potential to fall in love again.

As I have always been a fan of 'legend' stories like Robin Hood, and of bold female protagonists when I saw the option of girl!Robin Hood my reaction was pretty much 'yes, please and thank you, sign me up'!  Reading the book, however, I turned out to have another reaction altogether. While I think that the structural bones of the plot are good- protection of the innocent and defenseless, the fight of good vs. evil, and characters that have potential to be lovable and engaging- there is a whole lot of crooked drywall that's been slapped up and questionable interior decorating that have gone on inside!

Some of my major objections lie in the romance side of the book. In truth Merry has not just one but two suitors and while a good love-triangle can be entertaining and add to the drama of a story, this wasn't it. I don't think that in a book that (as it turns out) is YA (young-adult) and geared for 14-18 year old girls its necessary to inject that type of drama. With a heroine of 22 or 25 this could have been a plausible plot element as she tries to decide her future, but this girl is 17- and that is still a child- despite the era in which this book is set. This heroine, a girl of noble birth and breeding, while being capable and responsible is clearly not mature and throughout the book childishly flip-flops between her two prospects like her two favorite dolls. In one scene after passionately kissing one boy and declaring her undying love for him (before sending him away for his protection) she immediately turns around and tells herself that she'll just have to learn to love the other boy because he's what she's left with!! Literally in the space of a page turn, in seemingly the next breath she takes, this is her decision!

Some may call me a prude for saying this, and there may be some who do not object to 17 year olds passionately kissing, and 'feeling the heat of each others body's pressed against each other', but in my world that's a big no, nope, not gonna happen. I do not care about the context of the era,  I care about what teenage Christian girls are having modeled in the books they read.  I won't lie- while this is surely a book that would have loved to read at 13-14 and up it is exactly what my mother would have kept me from reading- and what now I would keep any young girl I knew from reading!! As Christians we are supposed to model a better standard about relationships and romance and this falls short woefully in my opinion.

Unfortunately there is another area that in my opinion falls short of Christian standards and that is in the use of two curse words towards the end of the story. While it may have been historically correct to refer to a child's illegitimacy with such a term it is not acceptable to do so now, however correctly employed, and I find it especially offensive in a Christian book.

An issue that really rubbed me the wrong way at the climax of the narrative is that the killing of an enemy is forced on our heroine, a girl, when it was well within the male lead's power to take it on and execute it himself. I surmise that Sleiman intended to make Lady Merry the 'hero of the hour' as she rescues and protects the children and herself but this is not an example of Biblical, sacrificial, male protection and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Really, if we are to compare this scenario with something from a secular counterpart I would easily compare it to The Hunger Games series and to Peeta's consistent sacrificial love of Katness and to his willingness to kill to protect her, and kill to keep her from having to kill in order to protect her heart and mind.  If a secular book can do this effectively why can't a Christian one? I think you'd be hard pressed to say that Katness is any less of a hero for how Peeta protects her, so why then does it feel that Lady Mary was foisted into this to make her 'more of a hero' for not needing a man?

My last main concern is theological and historical. There are several points here and I'll try and be brief in recounting them but I feel strongly about them being pointed out.
In an age where it is hard to find a young person that can tell you accurately about American history I find it a bit laughable to assume that one would know and understand all the background of British history and the complexities of the Catholic and Christian churches and the 'divine right of kings' theology that was the cause of so much suffering. To try and explore that theme as the male leads do as they struggle with where their allegiances lie without offering any clear structure to hang it on in a forward or afterward does not help the reader to discern better what is discussed and leaves them to their own assumptions of history that may not be accurate.
The inclusion of the scene of the resurrection and healing of one of Merry's children (who falls ill and dies), complete with  'in the name and blood of Jesus' type prayers and swirling beams of light nearly knocked me out of my chair!! I've never seen anything like it in this type of book and I was shocked! Jesus does indeed hear and answer prayers, but in this situation I had the uncomfortable feeling of watching a 'healing' that was worthy of a late night TV evangelist! I really think the reader would have been better served learning to overcome a loss in a Christ honoring way than being subjected to such mystic charlatanism.  

I had great hopes for this book- with a name like 'Dauntless' who wouldn't? But I just found it sorely lacking in all areas and I would not recommend it. Even the theme of being 'dauntless' while having much opportunity to was never woven throughout the book and left to a single statement at the end of Merry's spiritual revival. I felt like 'Dauntless' was this book's "Rollings Reliable"- a post script added in with the intent of tying up loose ends and coalescing around a theme- and in the end I am simply left as dear Anne Shirley was, quite befuddled and aghast at the whole thing.

Rating: 1.5

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and opinion of the product.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: Behind the Shades: Erotica, Intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman's Heart

Today I'm going to be reviewing "Behind the Shades: Erotica, Intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman's Heart" which centers around a Biblical approach to the current hot-topic of the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' series which has become a phenomena among even Christian circles. Content of this post is adult in nature and should be read only by adults. Please, no younger readers!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: Snuggle Time Devotions~ That End with a Hug!

I really really like these toddler devotionals that have been created my Stephen Elkins! They really are the perfect thing to sit down with a small child and teach them a creative little lesson about God's love, and historic Bible characters. This installment of the 'Hug' series walks your little one all the way through the Bible- from Adam in the garden naming the animals to Jesus coming again for us someday 'when everything is ready'. It even includes spots for The Fruit of the Spirit and The Armor of God!

These devotions are easy to read and easy to get a child interested in~ and if they're anything like my nieces when one story is done they will be flipping to the next page before you can stop them! One of my favorite things though has to be the artwork! This book is filled with colored pencil drawings of round little people with cute button noses and eager smiles, and of sweet animals that bring charm to every page. It's fun to go through and spot the pairs of bunnies or the birds or the mice that hang out in a corner of each story and hug~ and once you get the kids started looking for them they will always hunt for them when you open the book! :)

A neat feature in this volume is a corresponding 'Bible Time Activity' that has little crafty suggestions for making or doing something that reinforce the lesson. All the crafts seem pretty age appropriate and not too taxing on mom or auntie- or grandma either! :) I can easily see my girlies having a ball doing things like playing with pasta shapes for Ezekiel's bones, or playing a game with pennies and cups for the Widow's Mite, or making 'empty tomb' buns for Easter.

Over all, this is a really cool book for your really cool little person. It starts teaching Biblical truth at a very early age but at a level that is graspable and retainable. And who can go wrong with that- especially if it ends with a hug!

Final rating: 5

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and opinion of the product.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: The Secret of Pembrooke Park

A few years ago you couldn't have gotten me to pick up a Julie Klassen book. Having read one of her first novels, "The Apothecaries Daughter" and not enjoyed what I considered to be sentimental silliness I had decided to skip any of her subsequent works. Then last year I end up reviewing her book, "The Tutor's Other Daughter" and my whole opinion was changed! I''m really glad that I got the chance to change my mind back then, and give this author a second chance-  otherwise I might have missed out on snapping up and devouring "The Secrets of Pembrooke Park"!

Cracking the fabulous and richly colored cover of this novel you will find yourself quickly dropped
into almost-spinster Abigail Foster's life.
Reaching an age where all other men have passed her over Abigail doesn't mind terribly because she is comfortable and confident in the intentions of her best friend from childhood Gilbert Scott. Until that is, she is brought to the crushing and disappointing revelation that Gilbert and her younger and prettier sister have been developing their own tender relationship. Adding to Abigail's burdens and falling fast on the heals of her first, personal, disappointment it is learned that catastrophe has struck hard at the whole family and due to some bad investments they have lost the majority of their fortune.
Being the family's pillar and guide Abigail is tasked with downsizing and relocating everyone. When an offer almost too good to be true comes from a mysterious distant relation for the twelvemonth use of an abandoned family property Abigail makes a blind faith-filled leap into the shelter it offers her and her family. While her family remains in town for the season she goes about the restoration of the house- strangely abandoned in the middle of daily life. Hearing whispered secrets she begins to poke about and dig up rumors about the house's previous tenants and the reported treasure that lurks somewhere in the mansion.
Along the way Abigail befriends the family of the estate's crusty caretaker, forming friendships with both his elder and younger daughters, and their handsome brother William, who turns out to be the curate of the little chapel in the Park. As Abigail and William live and work side by side and search out the mysteries- and odd occurrences like anonymous letters and the appearance of a strange hooded figure in the night- she begins to wonder what she's gotten into coming to this strange old house and if the treasure she seeks to restore her family's fortunes is really the treasure she desires to have.

"The Secret of Pembrooke Park" is a regency novel set in the standard issue Jane Austen world of balls and bonnets, stately manor houses and even statelier manners. But beyond the standard issue backdrop is a deeper world of family secrets and mystery and treasure hunting that is rarely seen in this type of book but turns out working really well! I loved mystery novels as a kid and am well versed in them so it was really cool to see a genuine mystery plot running throughout this book and keeping me guessing! One of my favorite things in a book is to have a deep, meaty story- one that takes time to tell and time to read, and I have to say that I really did enjoy the long read as I sat in bed sick over Christmas! I also like a story that has things really hidden and kept over till the reveal at the end and this book really followed through on those things as well. At 460 pages there is definitely a lot of story here with lots of twists and turns, there was also plenty of surprises left over for the end, and a nice wrap up at the end where everyone's due came to them!

Klassen has paid close attention to details in researching her settings and it shows. From the descriptions of the architecture and windows to the people and places all rings true for a regency novel. One thing that bothered me a bit, if I were to get picky, was some of the personal contact that William and Abigail have. One on one time together was really never heard of for a couple of the time period and in the book you will find several occasions of this occurring- be it an innocent 'we were both caught in the rain' or a slightly less innocent 'I was sitting in the dark thinking when you came for a midnight dip in the lake'.  Typically I avoid anachronisms like the plague but here I felt Abigail's honest, steady, self-deprecating character had already been shown and that was reason enough for her to act the was she allows herself to. After all, she is quite grown and is expected by her family to be the one who takes charge of everything- she is used to being left to know her own mind and make decisions accordingly. Both the above mentioned scenes and other scenes in the book where the couple have a romantic moment are simply that, sweet moments where she begins to allow herself the prospect of a future.

Overall I appreciated the heart and the humor, the secrets and surprises, and the really charming step back into Regency England that "Pembrooke" offers. I was pleased to see that Klassen continues to improve by leaps and bounds as a writer as time goes on and I'm quite sure that with writers like her proffering clean romantic novels like this that the Regency novel market- nevermind the Christian literary market will be all the better for it- and you the reader all the more satisfied after finishing this delightful book!

Rating: 5

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and opinion of the product.