Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Odyssey by Anne Perry

Anne Perry write mysteries taking place in nineteenth century London.  I have read all of her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series and am working my way through her Monk novels.  For the last several years Perry has come out with a Christmas novella centering on one of the minor characters in her series.
The novella for this season is the darkest one she has written.  Granted, since she is a mystery writer, one expects a murder or two in the story.  In this novel, however, one travels to the very depths of the dark part of London to opium dens and prostitution houses.  Most of the novel centers there with only a bit of light at the end. 
Maybe I want Christmas to be all goodness and light and not about a father's request to find his son lost in the dark underground of London.  Maybe I don't want to be reminded that it took a friend and a small band of misfits to find the son and offer him freedom from his bondage.  This story was a good reminder that Christmas is not just tinsel and trees but really is about rescuing the lost trapped in their own desires for pleasure.

Ballantine Books, 194 pages.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Her Daughter's Dream by Francine Rivers

This is the second half of the somewhat biographical story Rivers has written about her family, begun in Her Mother's Hope.  The strained mother daughter relationships continue down to the next generations.  The misunderstandings and hurt fester as sins and life-changing events are not shared openly.  It is not until the last daughter takes a drastic chance does reconciliation come to her mother and grandmother.
Rivers is a great writer and the story captured my interest.  As with any epic tale covering several generations, there are times when conversations are detailed while at other times years go by without even a mention.  I found that a little disturbing in this novel as it seemed to me that some of the detail recorded was not nearly as important as some of the events that were just noted as having happened.
The events in this book are within my generation so I did not learn as much about past times and different places, as I did in the first book.  I know one theme Rivers works in her novels is each generation repeating the sins of the previous one.  I got a little tired of that happening in this book. 
Nonetheless, it is a good read.  For those who like to curl up with a good book for a few days, at nearly 600 pages, this will do fine.

Tyndale House Publishers, 564 pages.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Under the Cajun Moon by Mindy Starns Clark

I like the way Clark writes.  I consistently read her books because her characters are real Christians.  They struggle and have doubts while they are in troubling life situations.
I also like her writing because the reader learns something about the people of the area or its history.  This novel takes place in Cajun country and you end up learning quite a bit about their history, character and customs and well as some about the early history of New Orleans. 
I also like her books because they are just good mysteries.  This one involves the early efforts of the French to get people to settle in this relatively unknown territory in the new world through deception involving gold statues.  The current story is woven through the older one.  The two stories collide in danger and intrigue .  And then there is also the hint of romance.  Just enough to make it interesting but not too much so that it dominates the mystery.

Harvest House Publishers, 332 pages.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Good is God? by Philip Yancey

Regardless of how Yancey begins his book, this is not a book you would give a nonbeliever to encourage him to understand that belief in God is a good thing for society.  (There are other books that do a much better job in that area.)
Yancey's book contains stories of his travels and the texts of talks he has recently given.  "I go in search of faith that matters," he says in his afterthoughts.  (284)  While he does give some great examples of faith that is making a difference, he also gives many glaring failures.  "Admittedly," he writes, "the church has at times contributed more to the problem than to the solution...in my writing I bend over backwards to acknowledge rather than deny the historical flaws of the broader church."  (284)
Atheists don't need any more reminders of how the church and Christians have failed to live out the gospel! 
I think Yancey truly wants to encourage Christians to live out their faith.  He concludes that God has called us (believers) "to demonstrate a faith that matters to a watching world."  (287)  There are books that do a much better job at that, however.  The Hole in Our Gospel (Richard Stearns) and Radical (David Platt) are two that come to mind.
Perhaps Yancey should have titled his book, "What good are Christians today?"  And I would have to answer, based on Yancey's book, not much.  While he does give some great examples of Christians living out the gospel he also reminds his readers of so many failures to do so (his Bible college experience, apartheid, the civil rights movement).  He even asks the quesion he admits atheists must delight in, "...for what will the church be apologizing 150 years from now?"  (177)
I puzzle as to why Yancey wrote this book.  I've like his earlier books.  But the message this book conveys is certainly mixed.  I'd skip it.  If the title suggests to you that you give it to someone, please read it first!  You may very well change your mind.

FaithWords (Hachette Book Group), 287 pages.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

When China became open again to visitors from the West, we were glad to hear that the church had survived the severe communist years. But we may have forgotten the sacrifice that many early missionaries made establishing the church in China.
Bo Caldwell has given us a tender novel about her maternal grandparents, missionaries who went to China in 1909. As young Mennonites, Will and Katherine independently realized God had called them to China missions.
After being on the mission field for a time, they discovered their love for each other and married. They ventured three day's journey from their home base to establish a new mission compound. Ministering to people who were suspicious of them, they began to see converts and make trusted friends. They survived the emotionally painful death of their infant daughter, the turbulent time of rebellion against the Manchu regime and the rise of Sun Yat-sen. They provided medical help and encouraged hygiene and prompted their women converts to not wrap their daughter's feet.
Six years after they had arrived in the village they had fifty six members in their congregation. They were plagued by bandits and suffered illness. Yet they persevered.
The 1930s saw the rise of communism and it became evident that there was increasing hostility toward foreigners. Where their presence had at one time provided protection for the city, now they realized they must leave to keep their friends from harm.
They gave up their dream to live the rest of their lives in China and returned to the U. S. after 27 years in China. The culture shock upon their return was much greater than when they had gone to China.  And their adventure was not over as more trials awaited them in their latter years.

Caldwell has written a wonderful novel. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to know what missionaries endured to establish the gospel in China a century ago.

Henry Holt & Co., 304 pages.

For a conversation with the author, go to: http://www.blogger.com/tbbmedia.blogspot.com/2010/11/author-inspired-by-her-missionary.html

Publisher's information: http://us.macmillan.com/cityoftranquillight

This book was provided for review by The B & B Media Group.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead

Ley lines provide the way to travel the Neolithic pathways between worlds.  The visible universe occupies only one dimension of our common reality.  There are other dimensions and where these dimensions impinge on one another, lines of intersection form.  Humans can move from one dimension to another along those lines.
Kit, late in meeting his girlfriend, hastens down an old London alley and finds himself transported to a London of generations ago.  His great grandfather encourages Kit to help find the skin map.  This was a map tattooed on the man who had investigated the lines of intersection.  Adventure follows
We find that it is possible to travel into the past and it is possible for someone from the past to travel to this time.  Where we readers live is the Home World and all other worlds and histories are in the past.  No one can travel to the future of this world as it has not happened yet.
In general I am critical of fantasy but I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  The plot and action are well done.  The only miss-step was at the very end where a rescue happens "out of the blue," so to speak.  This series will continue but we have to wait nearly a year for the next installment.

Thomas Nelson Publishers, 400 pages.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Surprised by Worship by Travis Cottrell

Surprises. We love the good ones, like a surprise birthday party with friends. Yet there are surprises no one wants, like the unexpected late night phone call. There is also the anticipated surprise, waiting for the results of the medical test. Travis knows, “God is into surprises. Huge, life-altering surprises.” (30)

Travis is all about worship. He has been the worship leader for Beth Moore for 13 years and is the worship pastor at a Baptist church in Jackson, TN. He shares his insights about God's surprises in this slim book.
We want God as long as He is safe. How do we feel when His unexpected surprises turn our thoughts and theology upside down? Do we still worship Him when facing pain and loss?
Travis writes about a variety of worship issues. What place does feeling have in worship? How can we worship when we are in pain, when we are waiting? Is there form and order to worship? Do our personal preferences about worship prevent us from receiving God's surprises? Can we worship God through the arts? How does worship heal hurts?
Travis says, “...worship rightly entails all of who we are.” (73) “We know God with our minds; we experience Him in our spirits; and we express the joy of His presence through our voices and bodies.” (47) Worship is more than what we do on Sunday morning. “Worship consists of submitting to God and His will in every facet of your life, and then loving and praising Him whatever the outcome.” (131)
Through telling the events of his own life and those of biblical characters, Travis encourages us to long to worship God even when we are in placed we never wanted to be. Travis knows God will meet us there.
This book is not an in depth look at worship. It might be appropriate for a new believer but a seasoned believer will find nothing of significance here.

Zondervan, 158 pages.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Tandem by Tracey Bateman

Vampires in a Christian novel? With the success of the Twilight series of vampire novels, Bateman has given Christians an alternative reading experience.

Tandem is the sequel to her earlier vampire adventure, Thirsty. Bateman has created a world where some vampires give in to the craving for human blood while others take a higher moral road and only hunt animals. Vampires with the differing views clash and it appears for a time that the evil ones will win.
An interesting aspect of this novel is that Bateman addresses the issue of God and redemption. Can a vampire be redeemed? One of the vampires is convinced hunting for blood is morally wrong and the only way to God is to withdraw from doing so. Without the nourishing blood, he dies. It is left to the reader to contemplate his eternal destination.
Bateman's vampire novel, would be an alternative to the Twilight series for older teens. I can see them being discussed in Christian youth groups or teen reading groups. There is plenty of meat in here (no pun intended) for discussion regarding God, redemption and vampires.

Waterbrook Press, 312 pages.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Secrets of Harmony Grove by Mindy Starns Clark

Sienna had made a B & B with the property she inherited in Lancaster County. Now she finds out she is under investigation by the government. Could it involve the B & B and the man she hired to manage it?

So begins Sienna's troubles. She discovers her old boyfriend dead on the B & B property and two employees near death. There are claims of a beast spitting fire. What could possibly be going on?
I like the way Clark writes. Her main characters are Christians and they are so believable. They seem real with the same kinds of spiritual struggles we face. On top of that, Clark is just a good writer. Her plots are well thought out and you always learn something – in this case, about the Amish and WW II.
If you like thoughtful fiction with intelligent characters you'll like anything by Mindy Starns Clark.
Harvest House, 364 pages.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Oak Harbor Library book group. Revealing the childhood of a very successful British novelist is so deftly done in this story that I was captured. Vida Winters hires Margaret Lea to listen as the dying weaver of tales recounts her childhood. Lea is to then write a biography of the famous author.

I would not classify this book as a “mystery” yet it was full of mystery. Is Miss Winters telling the truth or merely creating another compelling story? And what of Margaret? How will her own secrets survive the ones she hears?
It has been a while since I have been “lost” in a book. The story is so well written I was drawn into the characters' lives.
Well done, Sno-Isle, to pick such a good book for the library's book group. The book is 400 pages long but you'll be finished before you know it!
You'll be able to find or request this book at any Sno-Isle Library.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Follow by Floyd McClung

“[I]f Jesus is indeed God, then to truly follow Him is to pattern everything in our lives after His Life.” (12) This is the backdrop for McClung's book. He believes that following Jesus, “should invade every area of our lives and transform everything about us.” (12)

McClung is not bullish on the church. “I have written this book, “ he writes, “ with the underlying belief that any hierarchy and all institutionalization of the church lead us directly away from Jesus Himself.” (13) “Most churches are boring!” (186) He questions “the purpose of any form of church that does not call people to radical obedience.” (186) “Church buildings and paid church leaders are the greatest hindrance to the growth of a movement.” (208)
At first his attitude put me off but as I read on, I realized he had a point. The early disciples did not squeeze church in before going fishing or shopping. The gospel was their life. The Christian community was at the center of their life.
McClung found he had inherited a Christian culture that he had mistaken for the teachings and practices of Jesus. “We must study His teachings, look deeply at His example, and ask hard questions of ourselves and others about what it means to follow Jesus.” (15)
This is exactly what McClung does in his book. He looks at three basic truths of followers of Jesus: worship – love Jesus, mission – love the world, and community – love one another.
McClung suggests D-groups (discipleship groups) be formed to empower believers to share their faith. “We teach that a D-group becomes a church when they baptize their own converts and share the Lord's Supper together.” (232) This seems to me to go against his earlier criticism of churches, that they were not, in fact churches unless they met certain criteria. He also says that being connected to a network of small discipleship groups is important. How does that happen unless there is some organization involved (and he does not like “organized” church)?
McClung's “simple church” ideas are simply a bit of a twist on the house church movement. If you do feel called to get out of your comfort zone you can contact his ministry in South Africa. McClung and his wife are permanent residents there as he is convinced a massive discipleship movement that will touch all of Africa and beyond is going to happen there.

This book was provided for review by The B & B Media Group, Inc.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Almost Heaven by Chris Fabry

Free Kindle download.  Billy is sort of an ordinary fellow in West Virginia.  He ends up building a radio station and therein lies the tale.
The first half of the book (200 pages) was slow going.  I had to almost force myself to read it.  The second half, however, really caught my attention.  The story comes together in that second half so don't give up on the book too soon.
There are various issues dealt with in the book: teen molestation and pornography, dealing with hurts and disappointments in life, the meaning of music in one's life, and trusting another person with the deep things of the heart.
There is an angel involved with short chapters from his perspective from time to time.  I think those detract from the book.  The angel's experiences seem to be a little "off" to me.
All in all a pretty good read. 
Tyndale House Publishers, 400 pages. 

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The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Only science has the answers to the great philosophical questions of life, the authors say. Philosophy is dead, they declare. “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” (5) The purpose of their book is to give the answers suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances.

Be prepared to be puzzled. Much of the science the authors talk about appears to violate common sense. (7) For two thousand years or so scientific thought followed general observation and intuition. With recent increase in technology, scientific experiments showed phenomena that was not what we observed in everyday life nor followed human intuition (such as particles acting like waves or appearing and disappearing in “empty” space).
To deal with such paradoxes, the authors use what they call “model-dependent realism.” “If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other; we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” (7) We make models in everyday life to interpret and understand our everyday world. The closer the model represents what we observe and the more simple it is, the more highly it is held. “These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality.” (172)
Scientists seek the ultimate theory of the universe that would include all forces and predict every observation. While scientists aren't sure one even exists, there is a candidate the authors discuss, called the M-theory (which is actually a whole family of different theories). Each theory in the M-theory is good at describing its area and where the areas overlap, the various theories agree.
The M-theory includes a universe with eleven dimensions. It can also contain vibrating strings, “point particles, two-dimensions membranes, three-dimensional blobs, and other objects that are more difficult to picture...” (118) “The laws of M-theory … allow for different universes with different apparent laws … 10500 different universes...” (118)
According to the M-theory, ours is not the only universe but is one of many created out of nothing. Their creation does not require a supernatural being but arise naturally from physical law. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states in the future. We see only those universes that are compatible with our existence. (This is an extension of Feynman's “all possible histories” concept from the subatomic level to the universe level.)
The authors break up the serious nature of the subject with humor along the way such as in this explanation of symmetry. “In physics a system is said to have symmetry if its properties are unaffected by a certain transformation such as rotating it in space or taking its mirror image. For example, if you flip a donut over, it looks exactly the same (unless it has a chocolate topping, in which case it is better just to eat it).” (114)
The authors point out that, “the initial state of the universe had to be set up in a very special and highly improbably way.” (135) The properties of the solar system that allow life are “lucky.” (149) They note that the fundamental forces of nature and their interplay had to be just right in order for us to exist. (156) The fundamental constants in the theories are “fine tune,” (160) and the laws of nature are “extremely fine tuned.” (161)
The authors describe this as “serendipity” and “coincidence.” (159, 161) “...[T]he fine-tunings in the laws of nature can be explained by the existence of multiple universes.” (165) Ours is only one universe among many and happens to be the one we inhabit because it is habitable.
The authors suggest we are at a critical point in the history of science. The idea of goals and what makes a physical theory acceptable must be altered. A “self-consistent mathematical theory” is essential.
Since quantum physics is often at odds with our limited human sense observations, scientific theories can also seem to contradict our daily experience. According to M-theory, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” (180) If the M-theory “is finite – and this has yet to be proved – it will be a model of a universe that creates itself.” (181)
This book is a good overview of current thought in physics. While it is aimed at the lay person, it will be easier to understand if you have had high school physics. The authors use physics terms at times without explanation. And no, you won't understand it all. Even I, with my B.S. In physics from 1970, was puzzled at times. But we are in good company. Richard Feynman once wrote, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” (74)
The authors want to answer the great philosophical question, “Is there a God?” Their answer is that based on their theoretical constructs, one is not needed. But then, the authors note that there is no test for reality outside of the model. According to them, “If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other; we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” (7) Then I am free to choose that God exists, and I do!
Publisher information: Bantam, 208 pages.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent

I am a little leery of reported trips to heaven.  The apostle Paul didn't talk about his trip to heaven so why should I pay attention to someone who so freely tells his heavenly trip now?  But what about when the individual is under four years old? 
Colton Burpo had a ruptured appendix that was misdiagnosed.  After another doctor finally figured out what was wrong and operated, Colton had almost died.
Months later Colton began saying odd things about heaven or seeing Jesus.  His parents hesitantly realized Colton had been to heaven.  Not wanting to bias the child's statements, they were very careful to elicit more information.
Colton's father, Todd, is a pastor.  As Colton told more of his experience Todd was amazed to find that it agreed with Scripture time after time.  Many of these biblical truths Colton would have had no way of knowing, except that he had been to heaven and seen sights right out of the book of Revelation.  Colton was recognized by his grandfather who had died years before Colton was born.  He met a sister he never knew he had (a miscarriage before Colton was born).
I was intrigued by Colton's description of Jesus and the painting by another child (reproduced in the book) that Colton said was right on.  Still, Todd Colton admits, "We do not have all the answers-not even close."  (149-50) 
Even if you have been skeptical of near death accounts I would recommend you read this one.  It will build your faith to hear about heaven from this young boy's account.
This book was provided for review by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Nelson, #9780849946158, $16.99, 154 pages.