NEW this week
The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom
Life in a small Michigan town is turned upside-down when people begin receiving phone calls from deceased loved ones.
What would people say? She didn’t care. A few words from heaven had rendered all the words on earth inconsequential.
Though I’ve yet to read Albom’s bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie, I did read one of his recent novels entitled The Timekeeper and enjoyed it enough to want to try out this one as well. With a premise like this — people receiving phone calls from deceased family and friends — you know that you’re in for a book that explores people’s greatest fears, deepest emotions, and the lengths to which they’d go to reconnect with those they love. Albom totally nails the human emotions — from the devout believer to the skeptic to the outright hostile — and that’s really where the strength of this story lies.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be happy with the ending, but it was resolved in a way that was really satisfying.
The book’s low points were few and minor — initially, I found it difficult to place the characters, as there are many and their situations have such similarities. For some reason, the names seemed to meld together for me, and I couldn’t remember who was who.
Also, as someone familiar with Michigan’s geography, it did bother me that the author placed Coldwater on Lake Michigan, when in reality, it’s not (unless there’s another Coldwater, MI I’m not aware of?) At one point, it’s described as “90 miles west of [Alpena],” which would place it another place entirely — also not on the coast. Not sure why the author didn’t choose a town actually on the coast, or make one up for the story. Sometimes it’s the little things that bug me, I guess.
NEW this week…
Into the Whirlwind by Elizabeth Camden
4 of 5 stars
Mollie Knox must rebuild her family’s watch company after the Great Chicago Fire as two men fight for her affection.
The next hours would always be a blur in Mollie’s memory. The water was too cold to stand in for any length of time. Teeth chattering, standing in the water up to her waist, she watched her city burn… By this time tomorrow, the prettiest waterfront in America would be a burned-over wasteland.
There are certain times and places in American history that never fail to interest me, and the Great Chicago Fire era is one of those settings. This historical Christian romance really does sweep the reader up into the whirlwind as the main characters battle for their lives, for the businesses that they’ve built, the reputations which they’ve developed, and the people whom they love. There is so much going on in this book, from the historical background of what’s going on in Chicago at the time, to the rise of industrialization and the assembly line, from moral questions about business dealings, to national pride and the pride of veterans. Though a lot is going on throughout, it all weaves together cohesively.
I don’t know that I was completely sold on the romance aspect of this book — it was a bit too Gone With the Wind for my tastes, with a back and forth love/hate relationship based on misunderstandings and hurt feelings. By the end, I was rooting for them, but for a long while there, I wondered if the main characters might actually be better off without each other.
Overall: Highly recommended for fans of Christian historical romance… well-researched and entertaining
The Outcast: A Modern Retelling of The Scarlet Letter by Jolina Petersheim
Pub: Jun 2013
2.5 of 5 stars
Pregnant outside of wedlock, Rachel is shunned from her close-knit Old Order Mennonite community, and refuses to tell anyone who the father is, even her twin sister.
I almost wish that I could say yes to marriage with Judah King as easily as my sister had said yes to his brother, Tobias. I wish that I could go back and make my choices again. But different choices would mean this accidental child would not be in my arms, and I would not trade him for ten lifetimes of marital ease.
For those who enjoy Amish/Mennonite novels, who love a good biblical allusion, and who like books about the power of forgiveness and hope, this book is for you.
I can’t say, though, that this was a book for me. Many of the Amish/Old Mennonite/modern Mennonite comparisons were completely lost on me, and I thought you could hardly call this a “modern” retelling when the main characters go out of their way to live outside the modern world.
Stylistically, I had a hard time with the dual perspectives in this book. Some chapters are told from Rachel’s point-of-view, but others are told from the somehow-omniscient viewpoint of her deceased father-in-law. It’s all written in present tense, except for a few ‘flashbacks’ of sorts when characters are reminiscing about the past. The constant point of view changes broke up the flow of the story for me.
Finally, some of the relationships bothered me. Rachel blames her affair on her father’s lack of love towards her. The twinship of Rachel and Leah is intensified to the point where they are each the most important person in the other’s life (even over spouses or children). The child’s father (who is obvious from page two, though the author skirts around the fact for 2/3 of the book) seems completely incapable of any kind of love; and Rachel’s other love interest plays such a minor role that you find yourself wondering at the end if she is ‘settling’ for him.
Overall: Not what I had been hoping for, but probably a fine read for fans of the Amish/Mennonite subgenre.
NEW this week…
Sherlock Holmes and the Needle’s Eye: The World’s Greatest Detective Tackles the Bible’s Ultimate Mysteries by Len Bailey
4 of 5 stars
Detective Sherlock Holmes receives a challenge to solve ten Biblical mysteries with the use of the Needle’s Eye, a device which allows him to time travel to pertinent scenes of the Bible.
“How might Bible mysteries two or three millennia old come to life again? Or be investigated?…” I stopped short. The Time Traveler filled my whole vision.
Sherlock Holmes? Time travel? The Bible? Count me in!
The author uses the same style of writing to solve these Biblical mysteries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used in the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and together with Dr. Watson, the two investigators use their signature skills of logic, deduction, and keen observation in order to shed some light on parts of the Bible which may confuse or confound readers. For instance:
- Why did David choose five stones?
- Why did God tell Joshua to march around Jericho once for six days, and then seven times the seventh day?
- What did Jesus write on the ground when the teachers of the law brought him the adulteress?
While each of their explanations did make logical sense, and kept true to proper Scriptural interpretation (i.e. don’t take things out of context), and could very well be the case, without the Bible telling us outright, it’s still speculation, albeit well-educated and possibly quite likely speculation.
Overall: A deeply analytic look at some of the Bible’s mysteries, with Holmes and Watson as the guides.
Interested in reading more Sherlock Holmes adaptations and retellings? Check out Bookish Whimsy’s Classics Retold sign-up for Holmes, or any of the other links on the Classics Retold tab above to participate!
The Tutor’s Daughter by Julie Klassen
Pub: Jan 2013
3.5 of 5 stars
When Emma accompanies her father to a cliff-top manor to tutor two young students, she discovers that the boys’ family have been hiding secrets, some which may be dangerous for her to know.
God in heaven. The tide was on its way in. And with the wind rising and a storm brewing… it was far from save to be venturing out to Chapel of the Rock. In fact, it was dashed dangerous…
Something was wrong about all this. Very wrong.
I really enjoyed this Regency-era Christian historical fiction romantic mystery (that enough genres for you?). The author mixed in elements of some of my favorite classics, such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and wove a mystery throughout it. It was well-written in the same tone and style of most Regency-era novels.
However, the main character lacked the spunk of Elizabeth Bennett, the self-assurance of Emma Woodhouse, or the strong convictions of Jane Eyre; I found this Emma one of the least-interesting characters of the novel. Also, although there were a handful of mysteries throughout the story, they didn’t present much of a challenge for me to figure out.
Overall: Christian fans of classic Regency-era novels might want to check out this book for a sweet, fluffy romance.
Queen of the Waves by Janice Thompson
American Tapestries series
When Jacquie Abington decides to elope with her wealthy family’s gardener, she offers his sister an opportunity to start a new life in America by taking her place aboard the Titanic.
Six days. Jacquie had six days until the Titanic arrived in New York. Then her parents would know all. Until then, she could focus on planning the rest of her life with the man she loved.
I’m quite the Titanic fanatic, and as I enjoy the occasional Christian historical fiction novel as well, I thought this book would be a good read for me.
This novel was meticulously researched down to the gilded sconces and the decorations on the clock over the Grand Staircase. Obviously, this book was very well researched.
I appreciated some of these details; others, like the endless descriptions of dresses, not so much. In fact, in some scenes, the historical context seemed to overpower the story, such as dialogue that sounded contrived simply to get across an interesting fact about the ship: “Titanic is filled with people in every age group and every social status, that much is true,” Tessa said. And while the story had an interesting premise, the characters’ conflicts seemed trite and the resolutions came far too easily. When it came to the story of the ship’s sinking, it felt distanced and emotionless, with little sense of danger or tension for the main characters.
When it came to the religious aspect of this book, I admit I cringed a bit at the lack of subtlety. One of the characters in particular (Jessie) seemed to be included solely to be the voice of Christianity; I don’t recall her discussing any other topic at all. Each of the main characters had important spiritual lessons to learn, but there was no common thread connecting them and since each lesson was hammered into them so heavily, the last 1/3 or so of the book seemed to be one sermon after another. I felt as if I were being lectured, rather than simply gleaning spiritual truths from a fictitious story.
Overall: Perhaps an overambitious endeavor — too much story without enough heart.
NEW this week!
A Noble Groom by Jody Hedlund
4 of 5 stars
Escaping from imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, Carl von Reichert flees to a small German farming community in Michigan and agrees to assist a young widow in saving her farm as she awaits the arrival of the new groom whom her father has promised her to.
He could never marry a woman like Annalisa. They were from two completely different worlds. She was a peasant, the widow of a farmer, and the land meant everything to her. He was a scientist and inventor, a nobleman’s son. His destiny included much bigger prospects than life on a small farm in Michigan.
After enjoying Hedlund’s Unending Devotion based on a lumbering town in Michigan, I was excited to receive a review copy of her latest novel, especially since many of my own ancestors were German immigrants who farmed in the Midwest during the late 1800s as well.
A Noble Groom is everything one would expect from a Christian historical fiction novel. The details about the lives of the people of that time were well-researched and realistic. I loved how she portrayed the determination of the people, their hardships, and their daily struggles while also still allowing their individual personalities to shine through. Carl in particular was a great character — his ‘outside’ perspective as a man of noble birth allowed the author to give a clear assessment of the struggles of the New World. Also, I loved how the author worked in Grimm’s fairy tales — clever, and very appropriate.
This book definitely contained its fair share of sappiness and was pretty predictable, but I’d hope readers picking it up would take note of the genre and expect as much. There were a few sections I felt a bit silly reading (i.e. somehow picking lice out of a man’s hair became quite sensual… not sure how that works), but as far as romance novels go, this is one of the best I’ve read.
Overall: A sweet romance with plenty of history to boot.
NEW this week…
So Shines the Night by Tracy L. Higley
3 of 5 stars
When Daria agrees to tutor Lucas, a wealthy merchant in Ephesus, she becomes entangled in the politics of the city, its warring sects, and the lies which threaten Lucas’ life.
Purity was in rare supply in Ephesus. After her journey to the temple and Lucas’ angry reaction, Daria had wondered if her plan was hopeless. Perhaps Lucas’s preoccupation with revenge had already so colored his spirit that she could do nothing for him.
Told in the style of a Gothic romance, borrowing heavily from stories like Jane Eyre and Rebecca, this book in the Seven Wonders series tells a tragic story of a man tormented by his wife’s death and the peace that comes to him through his young, beautiful tutor and hearing the message of The Way. I enjoyed the familiar aspects, and the tale was one of surprises and deception all around. The tie-in to Acts 19 was also interesting, as it is a little-known New Testament story.
I had trouble, though, believing the character of Paul. Though he always was a humble man in his letters, calling himself a ‘chief of sinners,’ the Paul of this story seemed still haunted by the guilt of his previous life, even having him imply that he was not innocent, and that he deserved to be imprisoned. I guess I always imagined him to be more… joyful in his work.
There were also some strange demonic practices and sorcery that was described in detail, that may be upsetting for some readers.
Overall: Jane Eyre meets the Acts of the Apostles
“God loved us so much he wanted us to always be with him too. That’s why God knew he’d need to give us Easter.”
The fluffy little polar bear and her family are back to explain another aspect of God’s love using object lessons and pictures from her natural forest surroundings. Fans of God Gave Us Easter will likely enjoy this book as well, as it follows a very similar pattern, and even indirectly refers back to it when explaining that the Easter Bunny is like Santa, who “reminds us of gifts and happy surprises in the morning.”
As with the Christmas book, my biggest concern with this one is that the analogies used may be a bit complex for young children. Although talking about eggs makes sense in an Easter story, some of the other comparisons baffled me a bit — Noah’s Ark was brought up, but seemed strangely tangential. The Root of Jesse would have been perfectly suited for a Christmas story, but for Easter, wouldn’t it have made more sense to talk about the wood/tree used to make the cross? In fact, through this whole book, the cross isn’t mentioned at all!
Also, the end of the book took another tangent in which Papa talks about how he talks to Jesus and how Jesus “whispers in my heart” to tell him things and encourages Little Cub to listen for God’s whisper voice, yet never brings up how God speaks to us clearly about His love in the Bible.
Overall: Warm, cute, but misses the mark.
NEW this week…
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
He was a laborer and one of questionable birth and I was an educated businessman. But in that moment I felt I had found a thing, a person, worth the resurrection of my every hope. The thought terrified and exhilarated at once.
In this Biblical fiction novel, the author tells a tale of Judas Iscariot, the crushing struggles of his childhood, his devotion to Jesus of Nazareth, and the events leading up to his betrayal of his teacher and friend. The main portion of the book recounts the events of Jesus’ life, but from the confused, flawed, and very human perspective of one of his disciples.
I don’t know that I can say that I enjoyed this book, but I did find it absolutely heart-wrenchingly emotional and utterly fascinating. I was very skeptical when I picked it up, but once it got to the parts where Judas met up with Jesus, I found myself immersed in the retelling of these familiar stories, seeing them without the hindsight of all that was to come, but through the eyes of one of his followers. The emotion was rather poignant, and I found myself feeling Judas’s anguish and heartache, empathizing with his despair.
The book was obviously well researched, from the historical background, the setting, the political strife at the time, and — most of all — Scripture itself. I was expecting to find deviations from and contradictions with the Biblical accounts, but the author managed to add backstory, personality, and motivations to Judas without any Scriptural inconsistencies. Although we obviously can’t know for sure, the events certainly could have played out similarly to what this book suggests.
This book certainly is not for everyone. The brutality by the Roman soldiers in the first section of the novel is enough to make anyone’s stomach churn, so it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. There also was quite a bit of politics that played into the story, that fortunately I had enough background knowledge about to follow fairly well, but those unfamiliar with Jewish sects during this time or the political background may find these parts confusing.
Heads up: This book contains some disturbing and graphic violence, and references to prostitution and sexuality
Overall: An intense look at the (fictionalized, but true-to-Scripture) life of the rash, conflicted, and imperfect, but very human man who betrayed Jesus Christ.
Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book!