Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Art of Losing Yourself by Katie Ganshert

I really liked this novel. Great characters, superb writing, tantalizing plot – it's a very good novel.

The story centers around Gracie, the younger teen-aged daughter of an alcoholic mom who runs away and ends up living with her older sister and her husband. She is a fierce character, honest to a fault. She's been hurt so many times her outer shell has reinforcements. Just maybe Elias, the nice Christian football receiver who befriends her, can break through the facade.

Gracie's older sister, Carmen, has enough trouble of her own. After six miscarriages, her burning desire to be a mother has singed her relationship with her husband, the high school football coach. Carmen struggles with her own frustration and having Gracie in the house isn't easy.

There is much to think about and discuss in this novel. Perhaps the biggest one is how God directs lives and causes events to work out for good for those who love him. Other issues include alcoholism, the inability to have children, trust, family loyalty, and what it really means to lose yourself.

This is a novel about confronting issues, about growth, about forgiveness, about restoration. It is an exceptionally well crafted novel with characters so realistic I'd forget I was reading a novel. I highly recommend it for youth and adults alike.

Katie Ganshert is an award winning author, born and raised in Iowa, where she lives with her family. She has a degree in education from the University of Wisconsin. You can find out more at http://katieganshert.com/.

WaterBrook, 320 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Undercover Bride by Margaret Brownley

This is the second in the series about women working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and it is every bit as good as the first one. Pinkerton is on the trail of a train robber and murderer. All the signs point to Garret Thomas, a widower with two kids. When he posts an advertisement for a wife, Pinkerton assigns Maggie Cartwright to respond. Using an assumed name and a made up family history, she corresponds with Garret and then goes to the Arizona Territory to meet and supposedly marry him. In reality, she is going to investigate him and prove he is the wanted man. The only problem is that he seems too nice to be a murderer. He is so nice, in fact, Maggie is having second thoughts.

There are some interesting issues brought up in this novel. One is how we handle an unsavory past. Maggie's father was an outlaw and was hanged when she was young. As she grew up, she told people he had died in the Civil War, not wanting people to know the truth. Might we do something similar to make our past socially acceptable?

Another issue is how our past influences our career. Maggie chose working for Pinkerton because it helped alleviate the shame of an outlaw father. She found that working undercover, lying about who she was, was actually easy because she had done it about her own past.

I really like the way Brownley writes. For example, Maggie gives a beggar some money. Elise asks why she did that. Because God wants us to help those in need, Maggie answers. Elise wants to know why God doesn't help them Himself. “Because God doesn't want to keep the fun of helping others all to Himself.” I like that! There's a good bit of humor in the book too. The church scene with mischievous Toby trying to steal the cross was a laugh out loud one.

Brownley's characters are delightful. That little Toby, wanting to go to the moon and constantly designing ways to get there. And then there is Garrett's aunt, a wonderful woman, even if she is a hypochondriac. I appreciate it when the main characters are well developed and the supporting ones are very entertaining.

I also appreciate learning about something in a novel and in this one it was about imprisonment during the Civil War. Given rice to eat but no way to cook it, Garrett learned to make a pot from his canteen. He made spoons from brass buttons and cups from wood. That led him to a career as a tinker after the war. And all that information about chess! Who would have thought it was a game of love? And the novel was based on an actual train robbery from 1871.

I really liked this novel. It had great characters, was an entertaining story, and had a pretty suspenseful end. I recommend it.

Margaret Brownley is the author of more than thirty novels and a RITA finalisty and INSPY nominee. You can find out more at www.margaret-brownley.com.

Shiloh Run Press, a division of Barbour Publishing Inc., 320 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 2 by Nathan Holsteen and Michael Svigel

Why would we need to study theology? The authors remind us that spiritual truth is important. It makes a difference what we believe. The authors have compiled this book to help us understand what the Bible declares and the church has affirmed on the topics of creation, the fall, and salvation.

The book is written from the evangelical protestant viewpoint. The authors affirm what I would call the traditional evangelical view. They do provide information on a variety of interpretations of the doctrines from both history and contemporary writing but do affirm an evangelical position.

The first part of the book covers creation, the nature of man, and the fall. God is affirmed as the Creator of all things. “He is the sovereign Director of the course of history toward the fulfillment of His will.” What we believe about the origin of mankind makes a difference, the authors write. They emphasize the uniqueness of the biblical account and how it helps us comprehend who we are and why we exist.

Different views of original sin and the depravity of man are given. Although the doctrine of original sin “is under attack today, Scripture teaches it and believers throughout church history have affirmed it.” They give a good review of history so if someone mentions Pelagius or Calvinists and Arminians, we will know who they are talking about. Good comparative charts are included too.

The second part of the book is about salvation with the authors affirming the traditional evangelical doctrine. “Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; this is the testimony of the Scriptures and has been the confession of the orthodox protestant evangelical tradition from time immemorial.”

The format of each section contains an overview, then an exploration of the Scriptures important to the doctrine. That is followed by a review of how the church has understood the doctrine over time, key truths to remember, dangers to avoid, and principles to put into practice. They then give an extensive sample of writings from theologians throughout the history of the church. They follow this with an extensive list of books for further reading, identifying them as beginner, intermediate or advanced. Last are the footnotes. There is a Scripture index at the end of the book, a glossary, as well as verses to memorize and several charts of information.

This is a very readable introduction to the doctrines of creation, fall, and salvation. I was glad to see their affirmation of the traditional evangelical positions. I really do not see the value of the extensive quotes from theologians through history. This seems to be an introductory book to me and the long sections of quotes just did not seem to be something a beginner exploring theology would appreciate. I did appreciate their inclusion of principles to put into practice. This is not merely a book of theological theory but also includes an exploration of how that theology impacts life and is lived out.

I do recommend this very readable book to those interested in an introductory level exploration of the foundational doctrines of creation, humanity, the fall, and salvation, affirming the traditional orthodox protestant belief.

You can download an excerpt here.

Nathan D. Holsteen, ThM, PhD, is associate professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he teaches all areas of systematic theology. He and his wife and their two children live in Fort Worth, Texas.
Michael J. Svigel, ThM, PhD, is associate professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife and their three children live in Garland, Texas. Find out more at www.retrochristianity.com.

Bethany House, 272 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Your Blueprint for Life by Michael Kendrick

Kendrick has a passion to help people live with purpose in light of eternity. If you feel unsatisfied with your life or incomplete, this book may just help you get moving in the direction of a fulfilled life.

I like the way he has written this book. He covers a number of topics and gives the biblical foundation first before moving on to practical instruction. He lays a foundation of spirituality, knowing that we cannot have a fulfilled life without a relationship with God. He reminds us of the overall purpose in our life of glorifying God and knowing Christ. True joy comes from using our passions and gifts to glorify God, maximizing all that we have been given.

He reminds us that God will reward us in heaven for how we steward our lives on earth. How we use our talents and gifts is important. Just like a blueprint is required for building a house, Kendrick suggests we develop a blueprint for life. That will help us identify what God had in mind when He designed us, allowing us to live with purpose.

To develop that blueprint, Kendrick helps us identify our passions and gifts and then our calling. I was encouraged by his emphasizing each person's uniqueness. God's design of skills and talents means each of us has a unique calling to fulfill God's purposes. He asks many great questions to help us identify our passions, skills, and gifts.

He continues by covering what he calls the big five areas of life: spiritual, relational, physical, financial, career. He makes sure that in each area we understand the spiritual principles underlying the area before he gives practical suggestions to maximize it.

I really like the way Kendrick has developed this book. Some may think that they will just fall into their calling, that they won't have to create opportunities. I appreciate him reminding us that God might be preparing the way but we have to step out and pursue our calling. He shares his own story of changing professions to ultimately do what he feels God has designed for him. He draws on a number of sources, including stories and good teaching from other authors.

I'm a picky reader but I really enjoyed this book. Kendrick gives a wonderful balance of biblical principles, practical suggestions, and enthusiastic encouragement. If you are looking to redirect your life in a more fulfilling direction, I recommend this book.

Food for thought:
A life of value is defined by those things that will make a difference in eternity.”

You can find more information about his ministries at https://www.idisciple.org/ and www.BlueprintForLifeBook.com.

Michael Kendrick is a senior partner and cofounder of Roswell Capital Partners, his Atlanta based investment banking firm. In 1999 Kendrick founded Ministry Ventures Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to launching new ministries for Christ. He also serves as CEO and President of the Blueprint for Life ministry organization. He has written previous books, holds a master's degree in business administration and a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering. He and his wife and their three children live in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Thomas Nelson, 256 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

The Beast of Stratton by Renee Blare

About the novella:
Architect Aimee Hart, determined to locate her missing father, infiltrates Miles Stratton's engineering firm as a secretary. Her presence wrenches the shaggy, wounded man from his penthouse, and the quest begins. Betrayed by his best friend, Miles would rather hide than help, especially from the man's daughter. But something's not right. Someone is trying to destroy Stratton Industrial. A decorated war veteran, he's defended his own before and the Beast of Stratton can do it again. Even with the enemy at his side.

My review:
This is a quickly moving novella of around 150 pages. Most of the action takes place in about a day. The novel starts with immediate action and remarks from characters indicate there is much more to the story than what we are seeing. There are times when I was a bit confused at the way the information was revealed.

The dialog is taut. There was rarely a “he said” or “she said” and I sometimes had difficulty recognizing the speaker. The sparse writing moved the action along quickly but I would have preferred more clarification as to who was speaking and, sometimes, who was doing the action.

Since the story develops so quickly, there was not very much character development. 

Mile's has just come back from a tour and is suffering from PTSD. I wish there had been more back story about his military duty. He did two tours, we find out, and he flew a helicopter. But he is also the CEO of Stratton. Becoming a helicopter pilot in the military is a multi-year commitment yet it seems he has been gone from the company only a few years. I didn't really understand that aspect of the novel. There could have been a few pages of explaining it.

The romance happens really quickly, basically in one day. It was pretty intense too. I think it could have been expanded a bit. Generally a romance has an obstacle that must be overcome. In this case, I think it was Miles' PTSD. His quickly changing emotional level made for an interesting interaction between the two. Miles would be caressing Aimee one moment and totally distrusting her, it seemed, the next. I do enjoy it when the two people work on the obstacle together, to resolve the issue, but that did not happen here.

The story did contain a strong Christian message of forgiveness.

I think this novella has great potential. I would have liked to see it about 50 pages longer. An explanation for Miles' military service could have been included. I would have liked to see the romance a little less intense and covering a longer time, maybe a week. The suspense went quickly and it could have been expanded. Also, the resolution to the Stratton company mystery could have used some more setting up to make it acceptable.

Renee Blare was raised in Louisiana and Wyoming. She and her husband and son live nestled against the Black Hills, where she serves a community in northeastern Wyoming as a pharmacist. You can find out more at www.reneeblare.com and read her blog at https://reneeblare.wordpress.com.

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 172 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through the Book Club Network for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight

What is the church supposed to look like? McKnight notes that the church we grew up in has a great influence in how we see the church and the Christian life. He wants us to rethink both of those concepts.

He uses the illustration of a salad bowl. He suggests all kinds of “differents” coming together in fellowship is the church God intended. He reminds us the early church was made up of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and social groups. That's how God designed the church to be. He knows it's not easy. But that's the point. “The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family.”

Rather than a mixed salad, the church today is like a plate with all the salad makings separated and distanced from each other. Most individual churches seem to be all the same, all lettuce or all tomatoes. Ninety percent of churches draw ninety percent of their people from one ethnic group.

If the church is supposed to be a mixed salad, then what is the Christian life to look like? He explores several areas. Grace welcomes people and makes a place for them and means that the church is a place for transformation. Love is a commitment to be with and for, benefiting others. It is a reflection of how God loves us. Table signifies the coming together, the unity, transcending differences, sharing life. Holiness recognizes the work of God. It means devotion to God and learning to avoid sins. Newness represents freedom from the shackles of sin (but it doesn't mean we get to do what we want). Flourishing is living in the Spirit Who gives gifts and transforms and produces fruit (including suffering).

McKnight includes a number of stories illustrating how some of these aspects of the Christian life have been lived out. He has added some commentary, such as a section on politics.

This would be a good book for church boards and pastoral staff to read and discuss. There are no questions included to stimulate discussion. There are also no practical suggestions on how to develop a mixed salad church nor how to develop the characteristics of the Christian life he explores. So this book would be only a spring board, perhaps stimulating church leaders to develop a vision for the church McKnight describes.

Scot McKnight (PhD, Nottingham) is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, Lombard, Illinois. He is the author of several books. You can find out more at www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/.

Zondervan, 272 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dead Dog Like Me by Max Davis

Paul tells us that Old Testament stories are included in the Bible as examples. We are to learn from them. But how do we? Davis has used an innovative technique to help us learn a lesson from the story of Mephibosheth.

The novel starts out with the very successful author and megachurch pastor, Nick Gregory, self destructing. His wife is leaving him and his ministry is imploding. Giving in to the dark voices in his head, he tries to kill himself by driving into a traffic barrier. When he comes to, he is no longer Nick but a crippled and broken young man in 800 B.C. He is Mephibosheth, trained to be a king but now a destitute outcast. Nick wakes up from a coma, again in the present. While most of the novel takes place in the present, once more Nick continues his experience as Mephibosheth.

The stories are not exactly parallel but Davis does a great job of drawing out the lessons for contemporary life from the biblical story. Mephibosheth was royalty, a descendant of Saul. And we are royalty, being in Christ. Mephibosheth had declined into the state of thinking of himself as a “dead dog.” Perhaps we have ruined our life and Christian witness. Perhaps we have come to the point of feeling crippled and like a dead dog too. Is there any possibility that God's mercy and grace can rescue us and restore us to His service?

The novel is very honest about the experiences of the one being broken and those around him. It was not easy for Nick to lose everything. He fought what God was doing for a long time. It was not easy for Abbi to be the wife of the man God was breaking. It is not an easy nor enjoyable task to come alongside and be a support in that situation. In the end she had issues she needed to face too.

This novel has a great message. Although we are broken, although we are ruined, God can restore us to be the person He has designed us to be. It won 't be easy. Cutting away the bits God does not want in our lives can be painful. We may lose possessions, reputation and status. But what we find in a life surrendered to God is worth it.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Max Davis is the author or co-author of over twenty published books. He holds degrees in journalism and biblical studies. He and his wife live in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana. You can find out more at http://www.maxdavisbooks.com/.

Worthy Publishing, 320 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Anchored by Kayla Aimee

Becoming a first time mommy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After years of infertility, Kayla Aimee was thrilled to be pregnant and highly anticipated the day she would give birth to her daughter. When that day came at only 25 weeks in the womb, Kayla's faith was shaken and she feared for her tiny newborn.

This is an extremely well written and compelling account of a premie birth and the months afterward. Besides great communication skills, Kayla has a sense of humor that comes across loud and clear. I found the book a delight to read, even though it deals with a difficult subject.

When Scarlette was born, she weighed less than six cubes of butter, not even a pound and a half. Kayla takes us into the NICU, through the emergencies, the pulmonary numbers, the sounding alarms, the hole in Scarlette's heart, the oscillating ventilator, the heart surgery, the clinging to life.

Kayla is honest about her broken faith and her questions toward God. She shares her feelings of failure and her inability to pray. She writes of being stripped to the barest of hope at yet another code. She also shares her change in confidence when she noticed a problem a nurse overlooked. She began taking an active part in monitoring her daughter's care. She also shares the pressure that was put on their marriage, including their finances.

This is a great book about a very hard experience, made pleasantly readable because of Kayla's writing ability and sense of humor. The book is very informative and is good for anyone wanting to know about how premie babies are cared for in the NICU. Reading the book may be hard for a mother who has had a similar experience. Scarlette survived yet many in the NICU did not. I would not recommend the book for parents who have lost a premie child. For others, however, this is a very honest and informative book.

Food for thought:
What we choose to do with our own suffering is what we send out into the world, and well stewarded it can bring forth beauty from ashes, hope for the hopeless.” (181)

Kayla Aimee is a writer, mother and slightly spirited southern girl who spends her days uncovering hope and humor in unexpected places. She makes her home with her husband and daughter in northern Georgia. You can find out more at http://kaylaaimee.com/ and follow her on Twitter @KaylaAimee.

B&H Publishing, 208 pages.

I received a complimentary galley of this book through Icon Media for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Summer's List by Anita Higman

About the book:
After breaking her engagement with a rising politician, Summer Snow is adrift in life and love. Again. Summer's wise grandmother – hoping to help her granddaughter – offers her a list of goals and adventures to fulfill, telling her that she must carry out the list with her long-lost childhood friend, Martin Langtree, someone she hasn't seen since he moved away in their early teens.

Martin is happy to help Summer with the list, but his two younger brothers are addicted to their lavish lifestyle. They will do anything to keep Martin from following through with the list and falling in love with Summer.

My review:
This is a delightful book. The plot is touching. Summer's parents had been in an accident and were seriously hurt as she was ready to go to college. She cared for them during their dying days rather then pursue college. Then, when her grandmother decided to retire from running her children's bookstore, Summer took over. Now, her grandmother's congestive heart failure means perhaps only months to live. Giving Summer the list may be the last way she can influence her granddaughter.

I especially liked Martin as a character. He is a nerdy science whiz but is practically at a loss in relationships. This will give you an idea of his thinking, after he gave Summer a compliment. “Compliments are an unknown quantity. … Too many variables. Not like a formula I can control.” I liked the way his character was portrayed and developed. A quirky, lovable, and honest man. Not so the brothers. Martin was adopted and the brothers hold some resentment. They are men with an attitude.

That is just part of the complicated family of which Martin is a part. The parents divorced and totally abandoned the boys when the youngest turned eighteen. While sufficient financial support was provided, the mystery of their suddenly absent parents had plagued the boys for over a decade.

In addition to quirky characters and a complicated family, there is a little romance. Both Martin and Summer had come to a stagnant point in their lives and their reunion opens up great possibilities. It was fun to read how both of them grew over the course of the novel.

The writing style was a bit unusual. It seemed that the characters spoke in very controlled dialogs. Martin's brothers are developmentally challenged and it seems as if the book was written in a manner similar to their characters. I have read another book by Higman and do not recall such simplified writing so I trust it was purposeful for this novel.

I liked the spiritual lessons in the novel. Summer's grandmother is a real spiritual inspiration. There are lessons in forgiveness and restoration as even Granny admits she doesn't get it right all the time. We see the importance of prayer too.

I would not say this is Higman's best novel but it was a delightful one to read.

I am taking part in a blog tour of this book and you can read other reviews here.

Anita Higman is a best-selling and award-winning author with forty published books (some co-authored). She has a BA in the combined fields of speech communication, psychology, and art. You can find out more at http://www.anitahigman.com/index.html.

River North, 288 pages.

I received a complimentary digital copy of this book through Litfuse for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Secrets From the Eating Lab by Traci Mann

Mann wants us to give up on dieting. They don't work and they can be harmful.
But does that mean binge out or never eat vegetables? No. “Giving up dieting means eating in a sensible way most of the time, without extensive rules or restrictions.” (187)

Mann shares her research about optimal health. She suggests we have a set weight range and should aim for the low end of it. We can do that by eating sensibly and exercising regularly. It does not have to be our life's work.

She gives loads of insight into weight loss studies. For example, dieting causes stress because of having to count calories or continually having to say no. In studying longevity, overweight people do not die any younger than normal weight people. I was surprised that eating comfort food does not make you feel better. Of the surprising results of her study, she says, “This is exactly the kind of experiment we like to conduct in my lab – one that questions a 'fact' that everyone assumes to be true.” Comfort food is a myth (and besides, you feel guilty for eating it).

She reminds us of the importance of regular exercise. It does not have to be anything complicated – just something as simple as walking will do. She has some good suggestions for a strategy to maintain an exercise habit. She also has really good suggestions for creating the habit of eating healthy foods.

This may be a bit of a controversial book. But those of us who have struggled to reach and stay at a weight ten or fifteen pounds lower than our body likes will breathe a sigh of relief after reading this book. I did.

Traci Mann is professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, where she founded the Health and Eating Lab. She is an expert on the psychology of eating, dieting, and self-control. She and her husband, also a professor of psychology at the U of M, and their two sons live in Edina, Minnesota.

Harper Wave, 255 pages.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Two Roads Home by Deborah Raney

This is the second novel in the Chicory Inn series. In the first novel, we followed Audrey and Grant Whitman as they came to the place of opening the inn. (You can read my review of that novel here.) This novel concentrates on their daughter Corinne and her family.

It must be every man's nightmare, being accused of sexual harassment at work. And what if you are “innocent” in that whatever signals you gave were out of ignorance, not intent? Would you be afraid to show any affection to a female besides your wife, even to your own sisters-in-law?

That's what happened to Jesse, Corinne's husband. When Jesse spurns a female co-worker's advances, she becomes bitter and threatens a lawsuit. Jesse's friendly and outgoing manner may have sent the wrong messages. Corinne and Jesse struggle to keep their family on an even path during the ensuing turmoil. When the female co-worker pulls a stunt that endangers their daughters, Jesse and Corinne know they can't ignore the nightmare any longer. Will their marriage crumble or can they trust God for a secure future?

While this is a wonderfully written novel, it's subject matter is hard to read about. A woman scorned can be bitter and vengeful. Jesse and Corinne feel the full weight of the situation and it threatens the stability of their marriage. It reminds me again how important communication and trust are for a successful marriage. It also makes me think about the sacrifices a wife is willing to make to see her husband succeed. It also makes me think about the reality of how important it is for husbands to flee from temptation.

I found it interesting to read of Audrey's feelings about having the inn. Running and inn and trying to be the quintessential grandma wasn't quite what she had envisioned. Retired couples might think running an inn, or having a bed and breakfast, sounds so romantic. Then reality sets in.

The characters in the book are wonderfully developed. We get a real picture of a marriage under stress. Raney has done an excellent job of bringing us into the Whitman family as changes are endured. And there is that little bit of sibling rivalry, about whether a couple has children or not and, in this case, the size of the house they own. I love the way the daughters of Corinne and Jesse were crafted. That little Sadie, what a talkative pistol she is.

Events in this novel bring up an issue about God's leading. Sometimes He might cause the situation we are in to become very uncomfortable so we will move in another direction. It might even been a direction, perhaps a career change, we've been thinking about for years but just never had the nerve to do it. God provides the tipping point to get us on the path He's planned for the best use of our talents.

Can it really be true that a rough time for a marriage might just be one of the best things that ever happened to the couple? That's exactly what Corinne's sibling assures her and Jesse after one of their Whitman family dinners. Reading this novel might convince you that it is the hard times that do make you stronger – relying on the Lord for strength is essential. It was an enjoyable read and I recommend it.

I am taking part in a blog tour of this book and you can read other reviews here.

Deborah Raney is an award-winning author. Her novels have won the RITA, National Readers Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, and the Carol Award. She has also been a Christy finalist. She and her husband live in Wichita. You can find our more at http://deborahraney.com/.

Abingdon Press, 304 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through Litfuse for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Desperate Measures by Sandra Orchard

This is the third book in the Port Aster Secrets series. If you have not read the previous books you will have difficulty following this one. Many of the characters in this novel were major characters in the previous ones. You may be able to read this novel on its own as there is back story included, but the impact of the previous actions of those characters will be lost.

In this novel, Kate Adams, a woman who researches plants and their therapeutic characteristics, has finally identified the plant that tore her family apart. It is a plant that, according folk lore, has valuable properties. There is another group of people who also want the valuable plant. They will stop at nothing, including murder, to obtain it.

I found the character of Kate to be unusual. She is a very jittery person. When the phone rings it startles her and she cuts her finger. She drops a tray of tea cups when she is surprised to see a person. She is reactionary, nearly fainting at difficult news or getting wobbly knees at other times. Yet, when it comes down to a serious situation, she has her wits about her. She was not a strong heroine, in general, yet at times was. That was a little disconcerting.

I found the plot to be complex. There are many characters, good guys and bad guys, and frequently it is difficult to tell which is which. In fact, it is not until the very end that it all comes out in the open. There is some romance in the novel too as Kate and Detective Tom Parker fan the spark between them. There is some good suspense at the end, but, if you have not read the previous books, the impact will be lost.

I always like to learn something when I read a novel and this time it was about plants. As a kid, I can't tell you how many times I've been hit by stinging nettles. Now I know dockweed is the antidote and often grows close by. The sap of the dock leaf contains a natural antihistamine. Jewelweed is the antidote for poison ivy and insect bites. And don't burn poison ivy, Orchard says in A Note From the Author. Inhaling the smoke can really kill you.

If you have read the previous Port Aster Secrets novels, you'll really like this conclusion. If you haven't read them, do so as this has been a good series.

You can find discussion guides and other bonus features, including location pictures at www.SandraOrchard.com/bonus-features.

Sandra Orchard is the award-winning author of several books including Deadly Devotion, winner of the 2014 The Word Award for suspense, and Blind Trust. Her Love Inspired Suspense titles have garnered two Canadian Christian Writing Awards and a Romantic TimesReviewers' Choice Award. Sandra has also received a Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. She lives in Ontario, Canada. Learn more at www.sandraorchard.com.

Revell, 368 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Jesus Agenda by Dr. Albert L. Reyes

Reyes wants Christians to become agents of redemption. He calls that redemptive mission “The Jesus Agenda.” That means “preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for prisoners, recovering sight for the blind, releasing the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor for everyone in our circle of influence.” (10)

To help us understand what that means, he tells his own story, the story of Robert Buckner, and stories from Buckner International. He reviews the meaning of redemption and its use in the Bible. “Redemption is God's movement in history to rescue individuals from the dominion of darkness into the realm of the Kingdom of Jesus, his Son.” (22) He explores what it means to be an agent of redemption both locally and globally, and what may be possible in the future.

He draws insights about redemption from stories in the Bible. For example, from Joseph's story, we learn “nothing can stop God's redemptive plan for our lives.” Also, “Redemption does not mean a life exempt from pain, hurt, mistreatment, or injustice.” And, “the redeeming God is able to reverse tangible problems, destructive circumstances, and extremely harsh situations for his redemptive purpose and glory.” (40) From Moses we learn that when we feel disqualified for ministry, God will qualify us on his own merits, not ours.

Reyes desires to ignite a passion in his readers to become agents of redemption. The stories he tells are very inspiring. Many of then are related to the work of Buckner International, a faith-based social services organization that has been ministering worldwide for 135 years. He reminds us that Christians in the west have the ease of travel and the abundance of financial resources and therefore have a a greater responsibility to serve “the least of these.”

Are you an agent of redemption? “...[a] person who looks at his or her world wondering how the Kingdom of God can come near in his or her local community in real and tangible ways”? (77) If you have experienced the redeeming love of the good news of Jesus, you are. You have a calling to demonstrate a transformed life and influence the people in your circle, focusing in their redemptive potential. “Only Jesus does the work of redemption, yet we are his hands and feet.” (63)

This book will inspire you. It did me. The stories Reyes tells are so encouraging. His teaching reveals The Jesus Agenda as a ministry in which each of us can participate. Reyes has included thought provoking questions at the end of each chapter so this book would make a great choice for a mission committee or other small group. It is also a good book for ministry leaders to read with a view to releasing people into redemptive ministry. There is much to be done. Each of us can be a part of Jesus' redemptive work. This book will inspire you to get going.

You can learn more about Buckner International at www.buckner.org and at Reyes' blog, www.bucknerprez.com. You can learn about their ministry of giving shoes at www.shoesfororphansouls.com and their Foster-to-Adopt program at www.beafamily.org. You can see an overview of the book and read testimonials at http://www.jesusagendabook.com/.

Dr. Albert L. Reyes is President/CEO of Buckner International, a global ministry dedicated to transforming the lives of the most vulnerable children, orphans, families, and senior adults. He previously served as President of Baptist University of the Americas and a local church pastor and church starter. He and his wife have three adult sons.

Believers Press, 181 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book through The Barnabas Agency for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak

This is a long review because the author proposes a new theological construct and I do not feel he has adequately presented his case. There are many problems with it.

Jersak's proposal is that, since Jesus in His incarnation was the exact representation of God (Heb. 1:3), we are to develop our view of God, His character, from the life, death and resurrection of Christ. God has shown us exactly what He is like, Jersak argues, in the flesh and blood human we call Jesus. “God is, was and always will be exactly like Jesus.” The Old Testament and epistles are to be reinterpreted in light of Christ's incarnation. The result is a self-giving God of love and humility, not coercive nor controlling.

There are a few underlying assumptions Jersak has made. “I've come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology,” he writes. “...Jesus Christ is the perfected and perfect revelation of the nature of God because he is God. There is no revelation apart from him.” “God is fully revealed in Jesus.” One underlying but unstated assumption is that Jesus in His incarnation revealed all there is to know about God. I see several problems with that. If there is no revelation apart from Jesus, why do we have the epistles? Why did the NT authors write anything other than the gospels? Why did Paul need to go to the desert to receive revelation as he could have just interviewed eye witnesses of Jesus' life? Why did John receive revelation on Patmos? Another unstated assumption is that we have in the gospels all that Jesus revealed about God. That is just not the case. John 21:25 tells us that recording all Jesus said and did would take books and books and books. What we have in the gospels is a tiny bit of what Jesus revealed about God, what He said and did. To establish a theology of the nature of God from a tiny bit of the possible information is just not valid.

Another assumption is, if Jesus is the exact representation of God's being (Heb. 1:3) then God is exactly like Jesus. “God is like Jesus,” Jersak writes. “Exactly like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.” “God is perfectly revealed in Christ.” But even Jersak admits, “Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation.” He also says, “So, in the flesh and blood person of Jesus, we have the only life ever lived that perfectly reveals the true nature of God, as far as it can be revealed in a human being.” By Jersak's own words, some of what we could know about God was not revealed by Jesus. God is not exactly like Jesus because there are aspects of God not revealed by Jesus. Something else to consider about Jersak's assumption is that Phil. 2:7 tells us Jesus took on a form (or nature) of a servant. One needs to address the “form” or “nature” Jesus took on while in a human body and how that relates to God's nature. A statue might be the exact representation of a man, but it is a representation, not the man. Jersak says the incarnation reveals self-emptying, self-sacrifice and servanthood as who God really is. Yet Phil. 2:7 says Jesus took on the form or nature of a servant. If servanthood is a character trait of God, why did Jesus have to take on the form of it? Jersak also says “Humility is an eternal attribute of God...” Yet Phil. 2:8 says Jesus humbled Himself. Why would He need to do that if humility was already a trait?

One other issue. Jersak does not look at all the acts of Jesus as recorded in the gospels and what they reveal about God. “God is neither coercive nor controlling,” he writes. So Jersak does not address Jesus cleansing the temple. Jesus made a whip and drove people out (John 2:15). Is that an exhibition of not being coercive? (And does that not tell us something about God's holiness and sin?) Jersak does not look at Jesus rebuking the storm (Mark 4:39), resulting in the wind stopping and it becoming calm. Isn't that an example of Jesus controlling nature?

There are a few more issues in the book that have problems.

Developing a theodicy, Jersak writes, “...when God through the Logos (John 1) created the universe, he relinquished control to natural law.” If that is the case, how did God produce the Egyptian plagues, divide the Red Sea, and make the day longer for Joshua? How did Jesus calm the storm or even heal people? How did Jesus command demons, created beings, to leave a person and enter animals? Don't all those examples indicate that God and Jesus have authority over and can (and do) control creation and created beings? (By the way, the view, that God created the universe and then remains apart from it and lets is run itself, is called deism.)

Here is another issue. “God is never arbitrary about who receives his mercy and who doesn't,” Jersak writes. Yet Paul, when explaining Jacob and Esau, quotes Exodus, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Rom. 9:14b)

Probably the hardest hurdle for Jersak to overcome in developing his theology is the accounts of God's wrath in the Old Testament. In Jersak's theology, God's wrath becomes “a metaphor for the consequences of God's consent to our non-consent. That is, God's wrath (the metaphor) is that he allows us to resist him, and includes our experience of all the fall-out that ensues.” (Italics in the original.) He summarizes, “Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.” When Jesus speaks of God's wrath, such as in parables, “...he uses it ironically,” Jerask says, or he uses it as “a concession to our conceptions of wrath...” And Paul? Jersak writes, “...wrath to Paul is not the seething malice of an angry God, but rather, the deadly consequences of our own sin, namely death or perishing, whatever that includes.” (This is beginning to sound like karma.)

If God does not exhibit wrath, then from what are we saved? Jersak writes, “God sent Jesus into the world to announce the good news of peace, to turn us from wickedness and save us (from ourselves).” When Jesus talks about giving His life as a ransom, it is a metaphor. Jersak sees no God who needs to be appeased, no wrath that needs to be satisfied. “God did not need to be reconciled to us – he was never our enemy.” “My own conviction,” he writes, “and that of the historic church, is that God was not punishing Jesus on the Cross at all.” What Christ did was unwrath us, that is, delivered us from “the process of perishing under the curse and decay of sin.” 

Jersak does not address the sacrifices God required in the Old Testament to cover sins and what that implies about appeasing God when sins have been committed. When writing about the Reformed view of God as sovereign, Jersak writes, “It is not a fanciful interpretation of Scripture.” “This way of seeing God really does appear plainly in the Bible.” He admits, “Even significant swaths of biblical literature don't line up well with the Christ of the Gospels.” So how does Jersak deal with those passages in the Bible? We need to read those passages “with fresh eyes and gospel lenses,” he says. We are not to “allow literalism to corner us.” He suggests, “ our false images of God can be overcome by a shift from biblical literalism to a return to Christ himself as our final authority...”

Sometimes we need to be aware of whom Jersak quotes. For example, he quotes Saint Silouan the Athonite to confirm that “The Son of Man has taken into Himself all mankind...” It is important for readers to know that Saint Silouan was Greek Orthodox, and therefore believed in theosis, that is, becoming divine. He also refers to the writings of Pastor Gregory Boyd, a proponent of open theism.

One should also check his biblical references. Writing about the wages of sin being death, Jersak admits, “that's ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn't balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it.” Actually, it's Col. 2:14 and the verse is clear, it was the charge against us that was done away with and nailed to the cross, not the ledger itself.

Missing from Jersak's proposed theology are character traits of God I think are very important. One is holiness. Isaiah and Revelation both record beings saying of God, “Holy, holy, holy.” Another is that God is just (2 Thess. 1:6). The writers of Hebrews and Deuteronomy say God is a consuming fire. These character traits of God have much to tell us about how God exhibits His love and mercy and should not be ignored.

There is one area in the book where Jersak is spot on. He reminds us God exists independent of our view of Him. Jersak says we tend to develop an image of God out of our own temperament and then try to find Scripture to verify it.

It would be nice to believe in the God Jersak describes, only self-sacrificing, loving, giving, consensual. But I must believe in the God as He is revealed in the Bible, all of the Bible. He is first of all holy, holy, holy. He is righteous. He is just. He is a consuming fire. He is all of that while, at the same time, He is love and merciful. It is a glorious mystery.

You can watch a video of the author here.

I am taking part in a blog tour of this book and you can read other reviews here.

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He is on the faculty at Westminster Theological Centre (Cheltenham, UK), where he teaches New Testament and Patristics. He also serves as adjunct faculty with St. Stephen's University (St. Stephen, NB). He is also the senior editor of Christianity Without Religion Magazine based in Pasadena, CA. You can find out more at www.bradjersak.com.

CWR Press, 352 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through Litfuse for an independent and honest review.