Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent

By Enuma Okoro

Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent is a beautifully written devotional guide for each day of Advent.  Included at the end are a guide for small groups and meditations for candle-lighting services.

Silence takes a somewhat different slant on Advent by focusing attention on the longings and doubts of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  From the Preface:  "Theirs is a story of accustomed longing and unmet desire, sustained prayer, occasional doubt, and seasons of silent retreat and seclusion.  We can learn much about the tensions of a genuine faith journey from the trials and surprises that Zechariah and Elizabeth encountered in their attempts to live before God.  And we can learn about the mercy and faithfulness of a God who acts in God's own timing and for God's wider purposes."

My church doesn't emphasize the observance of Advent, but I have come to value this time of being still before the Lord in waiting and anticipation.  In the midst of hectic and often stressful weeks leading up to Christmas, Silence takes us deeper than most Advent devotionals that I've seen, encouraging us in the practice of contemplative prayer.  "Advent is a season to ponder, to listen, to understand that prayer is as much about cultivating stillness and attentiveness as it is about offering our words to God." 

In the final week, as we rejoice in the miracle and gift of God's Son, Okoro writes:  "Jesus' birth invites us to lay down our concerns for a moment and kneel with awe and thanksgiving at the faithfulness and love of God.  The longer we gaze upon Jesus, the more we realize that life as we know it can no longer remain the same.  The wait for Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary is over, but their trust in God is just beginning. . . . Our adoration of the Christ child must lead to obedience and devotion."  - From Day 24

For anyone looking for an Advent devotional with depth and sensitivity, I highly recommend Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent.

This book was provided by Upper Room through Net Galley in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: Trinity: Military War Dog

By Ronie Kendig

Trinity: Military War Dog is the first book in Ronie Kendig's A Breed Apart series.  Set in the mountainous country of Afghanistan, this novel is a military suspense story which introduces us to a war hero that most of us know little about, the Military War Dog (MWD).

The story begins two years after an injury left Heath "Ghost" Daniels with a traumatic brain injury and ended his combat career.  Unable to get back into the action he craves and lacking self-confidence, Heath and his MWD Trinity join A Breed Apart, a private organization that uses retired war dogs and their handlers in motivational PR situations, etc.  When Military Intelligence officer Darci Kintz is kidnapped, Heath and Trinity are pulled into the rescue operation, made even more difficult by the rugged Afghan terrain and often treacherous weather.      

All things considered, I should not have enjoyed this novel.  I don't particularly like war stories set in the Middle East, I'm a cat person, and suspense is not my favorite genre.  However, Ronie's books are so highly rated that I decided to try one, and am very glad that I did. 

Well researched and with character depth, this novel held my interest throughout.  Contrary to my fears, I had no difficulty keeping the characters straight.  And I came away with a whole new appreciation for what our military men and women go through around the world, as well as their commitment and courage.  Darci's bravery in the face of torture was very moving.

But what endeared this novel to me was Trinity and other highly-trained dogs like her.  There's a natural bond between dog and master, but the bond between dog and handler rises to a level I doubt anyone outside of the relationship could understand.  "That was a story he (Heath) didn't deserve, the undying loyalty and devotion of a creature with a pure heart."  And later:  "Trinity would keep working till her last breath if it meant completing the task he'd given her. . . . For him, it was a mission to honor his country, to do his best.  For her, it was also a mission to do her best, but she lived for one goal: to please him.  Loyal, brave . . ."

The romance between Heath and Darci was sweet, but happened too quickly to feel natural to me.  And there were parts that moved slowly, with repetitious descriptions of thoughts and feelings, "telling" rather than "showing."  But the plot, characterization and war dog theme made this a very enjoyable read for me.

I appreciate Ronie focusing a series on these true heroes and I recommend Trinity: Military War Dog to all who enjoy inspirational suspense/military fiction.

This book was provided by Barbour Publishing through Net Galley in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christmas Memorial Service

Every year McDonough Christian Church hosts a Christmas Memorial Service on Thanksgiving weekend.  As Scott and Lindy Gregory call out the names, family members place an ornament picturing their loved ones(s) upon the tree.  Symbolic ornaments are also placed for fallen police officers and those in military service.


It's a simple, but very meaningful service . . . the singing of Christmas carols led by Michael and Emily Dove, Scripture reading, devotional by Paul Leslie, and Kathy Troccoli's "Goodbye for Now" sung by Wanda Brewer.  All of this comes together because of the ministry of a sweet, humble servant of God named Marjo Anliker, who wouldn't want me to say any more about her.  But she has a heart for grief ministry born out of personal experience.  So thank you to Marjo and all the others who helped, from all of us who got to remember and honor our loved ones.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: Paper Angels

Paper Angels
By Jimmy Wayne with Travis Thrasher

"Paper Angels," co-written by country singer Jimmy Wayne and author Travis Thrasher, is a character-driven novel with two intertwined stories about family life and hard times, set against the backdrop of hope in which the Christmas season specializes.

Kevin Morrell, a businessman whose company is struggling to survive during a poor economy, takes a paper angel from The Salvation Army's Angel Tree in a crowded mall at his wife's urging.  The name on that ornament is Thomas Brandt, a teenager from a broken home, living with his mom and sister in a rented trailer after fleeing from his abusive father.  This paper angel links the man and boy together and begins a chain of events that changes not only their lives, but those around them.

I found "Paper Angels" to be very enjoyable, thought provoking and touching.  The novel goes beyond the middle-class family who takes an ornament to look on the other side at a family who finds themselves in poverty.  Each family encounters The Salvation Army Angel Tree and has a unique experience with it.  There's also a surprise twist at the end that I didn't see coming, one which exemplifies humility, giving and hope.

 Kevin has always been a worrier, seeing the negative side of things.  Even as he watches the business he has built slowly deteriorate, he also learns that one of the twins his wife is expecting may not survive.  Having drifted away from his faith in God's provision, fear is utmost in Kevin's thoughts:  "Fear seemed to know his name and know it well.  It had breakfast with him and texted him throughout the day and liked to ride home with him in the evening.  It hung around even when he tried his best to get rid of it and when he camouflaged it with witty quips" (p. 197).

 "Paper Angels" is a well-written, character-driven story by Jimmy Wayne and Travis Thrasher.  Jimmy Wayne survived a childhood similar to that of Thomas Brandt in the story, and experienced The Salvation Army Angel Tree program as he grew up.  I was also glad to read on Jimmy Wayne's website that Hallmark will produce a movie version of his book.

 "Paper Angels" could easily become a Christmas classic and I highly recommend it to all who enjoy inspirational fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Prayer of Thanksgiving based on Psalm 23

This prayer is from a Thanksgiving devotional by Randy Vader and Rose Aspinall, PraiseGathering Music Group.  Best wishes for a very happy Thanksgiving to all!

Dear Father in heaven ~
Thank You for the promise that in You I shall not want.
When I am overwhelmed, You calm my restless heart.

In trials that overpower me as mighty torrents in a raging river,
You call me to rest beside still waters.

In a world that only knows what it means to take,
You bring the peace that restores to me even those things I did not know I had lost.

So many voices call to me, beckoning me to walk another road,
But You—You invite me to walk in paths of Your righteousness in the name of Your Son.

In the inevitability of the shadow of death, I thank you Father that I need not fear the Unknown. I need only look to You for comfort and protection.

Even in the midst of those things that bring fear— that make me feel alone, You prepare a banquet and Your sure love overwhelms my enemies. The things that burden me are washed away in Your presence and I am overcome with Your grace.

Abba, I could never ask for that which You offer to me as gift. My heart overflows. Your goodness and mercy are always with me and I rejoice in the invitation to dwell in Your house forever.

Praise You Loving Father.
Praise You Son of God.
Praise You Holy Spirit.

May my life be a never ending psalm of Thanksgiving.
". . . give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."
(1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: A Patchwork Christmas Collection

A Patchwork Christmas Collection
By Judith Miller, Nancy Moser, and Stephanie Grace Whitson

"A Patchwork Christmas" is an enjoyable collection of three Christmas stories from Victorian-era America, with an added bonus of sewing patterns and cookie recipes included at the end of each story.  Sewing patterns are from various unique pieces mentioned in the stories:  homestead rose mittens, four patch doll quilt, and crazy quilt ornaments.

"Seems Like Love" by Judith Miller (Amana, Iowa, 1890) - Recently jilted by her fiancé and fearing more hurt, Karla Stuke seals her heart from romantic love - until Frank Lehner, a close childhood friend, returns to town and attempts to change her mind.

"A Patchwork Love" by Stephanie Grace Whitson (West of Omaha, Nebraska, 1875) - Having lost her home after her husband's death, Jane McClure is headed west to marry a prosperous businessman in order to better provide for her daughter, when a snowstorm forces the train to a sudden stop.  Peter Gruber, a disfigured war veteran, and his mother offer shelter and a sweet love story follows.

"The Bridal Quilt" by Nancy Moser (New York City, November 1889) - Ada Wallace, the toast of New York society, is humiliated when her "almost" fiancĂ©, Samuel Alcott, grandson of a wealthy banker, renounces his wealth to work in an orphanage in New York's Five Points section.  One year later, Samuel is brought into the Wallace home to recover from an accident inadvertently caused by Ada.

My thoughts: 

I have read books by these popular authors before and felt these stories were true to their style.  They were interesting, well written, and I didn't want to stop reading.  I don't want to choose a favorite, but I had the strongest connection to Stephanie Grace Whitson's story, "A Patchwork Love."  I felt like I was physically there, on the drafty train and later in Peter's sod house.  And I really cared about the characters.

An interwoven theme in this collection is looking beyond the outside appearance and seeing beauty the way God sees it.  One of the characters, in talking about those who see only with eyes, makes this profound statement:  "What is seen hides truth."  Karla felt that she lacked physical beauty and would never marry, while Peter suffered rejection due to his facial disfigurement. 

In Nancy Moser's book, Samuel decided Ada's willingness to sacrifice her lifestyle to join him in ministry was insincere.  In Samuel's words, "The foundling home was no place for Ada. . . . Who was he to say such a thing?  God had a purpose in mind for Ada, just as He'd led Samuel to his destiny."  Each story brought this spiritual message out through the beauty of storytelling.

My only criticism, and it's not really a criticism, is that "A Patchwork Love" ended rather suddenly.  I wish there had been a few more pages or an epilogue.

I thoroughly enjoyed "A Patchwork Christmas" and recommend it to all who enjoy Christian romance.

A special thank you to thank NetGalley and Barbour Publishing for providing a copy of this book.  I gave an honest review based on my opinion.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Midnight Clear
By Jerry B. Jenkins and Dallas Jenkins

Midnight Clear brings characters to life who face a different Christmas from the joy-filled celebration that most of us enjoy . . . Mary and Mitch, for whom Christmas is the anniversary of the death of their husband and friend, respectively; Eva, an older woman estranged from her children and with no will to go on; Lefty, a lonely man without home and job, who turns to alcohol; and Kirk, a gas station owner , forced to work on Christmas Eve.

This novella, which takes place during the hours of Christmas Eve, packs a lot more meat than one would expect.  You become attached to the characters, which is often difficult in such a short book, and you may even be challenged to examine your faith.  

In one scene, Pastor Mark says to Mitch:  "Show them (teenagers) a faith that's strong enough to make them want to do things they wouldn't normally do."  I always hate it when challenged to get out of my comfort zone, yet that seems to be when God's working is most visible in my life. 

Another takeaway from this book is the reminder that we will face hardships, but we never walk alone.  Mary reflects:  "Disaster prevention was never promised as a benefit of her faith.  And perhaps that's what God was about - showing Himself faithful in a world thrown off course by humans with free will."
Nothing is tied up neatly with a bow at the end, but there is the realism of forgiveness, grace and hope - which is the gift of Christmas after all.
My Heart Is Filled with Thankfulness

My heart is filled with thankfulness
To Him who bore my pain;
Who plumbed the depths of my disgrace
And gave me life again;
Who crushed my curse of sinfulness
And clothed me in His light
And wrote His law of righteousness
With pow'r upon my heart.

My heart is filled with thankfulness
To Him who walks beside;
Who floods my weaknesses with strength
And causes fears to fly;
Whose ev'ry promise is enough
For ev'ry step I take,
Sustaining me with arms of love
And crowning me with grace.

My heart is filled with thankfulness
To him who reigns above,
Whose wisdom is my perfect peace,
Whose ev'ry thought is love.
For ev'ry day I have on earth
Is given by the King;
So I will give my life, my all,
To love and follow him.

"My Heart Is Filled with Thankfulness"
Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2003 Thankyou Music


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Talking to the Dead
By Bonnie Grove

I read about this book on a blog, decided to try it, and am very glad I did!

I would describe "Talking to the Dead" as a relationship drama, more literary in style than most Christian fiction, and I found it hard to put down. This book looks realistically at a difficult marriage, the grieving process over the loss of a spouse, denial, and the healing that comes by God's grace.  Though this description may sound depressing, it's not at all, and there's lots of humor.

I keep looking to see if another book by Bonnie Grove has been published, and hope to see one soon.

The Cold Light of Mourning

By Elizabeth J. Duncan

Anywhere in the United Kingdom is the perfect setting for a good murder mystery, and this book's setting in the rustic hamlet of Llanelen, Wales is delightful.  I discovered Elizabeth J. Duncan by searching for books set in Wales, and she is now on my must-read list.

The village and countryside could almost be a main character, yet there are plenty of interesting people to go around.  Amateur sleuth Penny Brannigan, owner of a manicure shop, is a likeable character, and there's a hint of romance with Gareth, the chief inspector.

I highly recommend this first book in what I hope is a long series, especially to those who enjoy a British mystery.

Baby, It's Cold Outside

By Susan May Warren

In my opinion, Ms. Warren really shines when she writes novels with a World War II setting, and this book is no exception.  (Another outstanding example is 2010's Sons of Thunder.)

 The characters in this book are struggling with the Christmas season, still grieving over the loss of loved ones.  Haunted by the death of her son, Dottie Morgan has erected walls to shut out the past, but a blizzard forces her to open up her home and her heart to a new family.  Filled with emotion, yet upbeat with joy and laughter, this book entertains and inspires at the same time.

Victorian home, blizzard, spiritual healing, broken relationships restored - all combine to make an enjoyable read for any time of year.
Marriage of Inconvenience
By Cheryl Bolen

Book Description:
Proposing to the Earl of Aynsley seems a sensible—if unconventional—solution to Miss Rebecca Peabody's predicament. As a married woman, she will be free to keep writing her essays on civil reform. Meanwhile, the distinguished widower will gain a stepmother for his seven children and a caretaker for his vast estate.

But the earl wants more than a convenient bride. He craves a true partner, a woman he can cherish. To his surprise, the bookish Miss Peabody appears to have every quality he desires…except the willingness to trust her new husband. Yet despite his family's interference, and her steadfast independence, time and faith could make theirs a true marriage of hearts.

My Thoughts:
At the end of this book, Cheryl Bolen wrote: "Though I have been writing and publishing romance novels set in Regency England since 1998, this is my first one for Love Inspired Historical, and I feel I've found my home with these wholesome stories." I couldn't agree more and hope this is the first of many Regencies Cheryl writes for this line.

I have been a fan of the Regency romance since reading my first Georgette Heyer book over 45 years ago, and am thrilled to see them in an inspirational format. Marriage of Inconvenience has an interesting plot, good description of the times, and the writing style flows well. I highly recommend "Marriage of Inconvenience" to all who enjoy Christian romance, especially Regencies.

The Christmas Kite

By Gail Gaymer Martin

I thought this was an excellent book, with great application of spiritual truths, and I want to read more by Gail Gaymer Martin.

I think it's a stretch to describe it as a Christmas book, though. Kites play a big part in the story, and a special handmade kite given as a Christmas gift comes in close to the end, but that's really all that pertains to Christmas.  This book would be enjoyable at any time of year.

"The Christmas Kite" is a tender romance between two lonely people who learn how to deal with past hurts and grow to love and trust again. A special needs child with Down Syndrome absolutely steals your heart.

I also liked that this book took place over several months, close to a year. In many romances, "true love" happens so quickly that the romance seems unrealistic. In this book, the romance grew slowly, but steadily, and felt right. I found it a very enjoyable read.

Rating:  4/5