Courting Cate (review)

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Courting CateCourting Cate by Leslie Gould
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At 23, Cate Miller is considered practically on the shelf by the Amish community of Paradise, Pennsylvania. A serious bookworm of a girl, tall, with dark hair, she lacks everything her small, blonde, happy sister Betsy has at 17, including a boyfriend. That’s something their widower father is determined to change, however, when he announces, one spring day, that Betsy will not be allowed to marry before Cate does.

Cate meets Pete Treger at the bookmobile and there’s instant interest on her part. But the way his eyes sparkle when they first light on Betsy convinces Cate he’s just another of Betsy’s potential conquests.

Lots of plot twists and turns make this an Amish fiction like no other I’ve read. There’s no focus on a Rumschpringe (an Amish teen girl or boy’s running-around time), no hankering after the non-Amish life, no Amish girl falling for an outsider or vice versa. But there are lots of complicated family dynamics in this book about loyalty, sacrifice, and love.

Courting Cate is another book I read just for fun this summer and I found it a great read!

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The Fourth Kingdom (review)

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I decided to spend some time this summer reading just for fun. The “Fiction” folder on my Kindle has been a great source of books for this.

I download Kindle editions throughout the year when they catch my eye for whatever reason. When I get around to reading them, I often don’t remember when I got them or why. The Fourth Kingdom by Alexandra and Joyce Swann is one such.
The Fourth KingdomThe Fourth Kingdom by Joyce Swann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Fourth Kingdom the Swanns combine a world of genetic engineering and cloning with a couple of brilliant professors, some Nazi Germany diehards, and a Christian home-school family to craft a dystopian world that pits evil against good—the New Mexican Doppelganger Center versus Missouri’s Cornucopia; Dr. Karl Helmick versus Dr. Alexander Sinclair; Helmick’s son Josef versus the Sinclairs’ twins Joshua and Jarrod. As unnamed but palpable evil advances on the Sinclairs we sense this will be a fight to the death.

The plot is a combination of science fiction and biblical prophecy. It drew me in to a world that I found both fascinating (for its scientific possibilities) and repulsive (for its potential for ruthless badness).

Though the writing was clumsy in some places (heavy-handed description, dialogue laced with backstory that sometimes devolved into outright lecture), I quite enjoyed this book’s black-and-white characters, speculative setting, and surprising story line.

The Fourth Kingdom ends with several loose ends yet to tie up. The Force, Book 2 in the two-book The Kingdom Chronicles series, beckons.

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Feeling burned out? Take a vacation

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Footbridge in Scout Island Park - Williams Lake BC

Footbridge in Scout Island Park – Williams Lake BC

I’ve just returned from a three-week vacation. Therefore I’m as in-touch with being in holiday mode as I’ve ever been.

I spend much of each workday on writing and writing-related activities so it was from these thing I wanted a holiday. I was ready for a break by the middle of June!

I decided this year, as never before, to vacation with no guilt. To make that possible I worked extra hard before our July 8th departure date to meet all deadlines. I also scheduled the blog posts that I wanted to publish while I was away.

The first few days of being on the road I was so keen to escape I felt an aversion to even the sight of my laptop. Thus it wasn’t hard to take a hiatus from technology. I didn’t respond to non-urgent work emails, check Facebook and Twitter, look at my blog stats, or read any of the emails and blogs to which I subscribe. My stupid-phone isn’t connected to social media so it was the only device with any appeal. I used it for making dinner arrangements with friends.

We had planned a full holiday and it wasn’t hard to take a complete and extended break from writing. We spent the first hectic vacation weekend at the Gospel Music Celebration in Red Deer. That was followed by two weeks with our daughter, son-in-law, and four grandkids in northern B.C. It was easy to find ways to fill up my time. From folding mountains of clothes, to playing with play dough, supervising the baking of muffins, going to the beach, and looking on as the grandkids were wowed by their first visit to the circus, every day was busy and exhausting.

Of course I found time to read (even though that is often work-related for me). Once I finished reading the book I had committed to review, I read a novel just for fun.

Another rejuvenating practice for me is to spend free time on leisure activities that are totally unrelated to writing. During past holidays I’ve done crochet and knitting projects. This year I brought along a book of Sidoku puzzles and am now creeping through the last hard four-star ones at the back of the book.

There were times it was so easy and relaxing to not be writing I felt jabs of worry. Maybe I was really burned out. Maybe the yen to put pen to paper and fingers to the keyboard would never return. But gradually I sensed my writing well was refilling.

One day I read a few of the poems that get delivered daily to my email and my imagination began to stir. On another I returned from a walk with my mind full of images and phrases… the first glimmers of a poem. I spent over an hour the night before we got home reading posts on the writing blogs I subscribe to.

And now I’m home and happy to be at my desk writing this blog post. Later I’ll compose that review and maybe answer a few emails. After a writing-free, guilt-free holiday, I’m back and eager to do more of this activity I love!

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This post was written as the August 6th post for the Inscribe.org blog on writing, but for some reason failed to publish there.

Unafraid (review)

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Unafraid: Trusting God in an Unsafe WorldUnafraid: Trusting God in an Unsafe World by Susie Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Already a fearful child, the sight of an eighth grade classmate—a neighbor boy—gunning down a favorite teacher in May of 1978 proved to be too much for Susie Davis. As a result, she developed irrational routines like hiding in her closet when she was home alone and later in life checking the whole house for intruders before taking her children inside. For years she functioned this way, covering her coping mechanisms well.

She did eventually break down and that led to a season of God peeling the layers off the fears that held her in their power. With the help of her husband, friends, and especially God she was able to break fear’s chains. Unafraid is the story of her journey from fear to wholeness and her message of hope to other fearful people.

Davis’s writing voice is friendly and encouraging, though she does sometimes lapse into lecture mode. She uses a lot of sentence fragments which I found distracting as they drew my attention away from content and to the writing itself.

The book does contain sound advice about how to counter fear. However, two flies in the ointment spoiled my enjoyment of this memoir.

In a chapter where she likens the trauma of a bad event to Good Friday and recovery from it to Easter Sunday, she calls the time between these things Saturday, writing these words:

“Saturday is the ‘What the holy heck just happened?’ kind of feeling” – Kindle Location 854.

After seeing the word “holy” used often in this book in reference to God, I found its use here as a minced oath puzzling and disappointing. It cast a shadow over the whole book for me.

In another chapter describing her “dark night of the soul” she waits to get one of God’s “love notes” to her—perceived communication from Him through circumstances or His voice coming through her thoughts. However, not once in that section does she mention the possibility of hearing from Him by reading the Bible—the place most Christians would go first to get a message from God.

These quibbles aside, there is also lots of wisdom and good advice for the fearful in this book, wisdom like:

“So many of the giants I face are in my head. Fear whispers unspeakable things and I flinch. … This is when it’s time for me to take captive, cast down, and throw those thoughts in prison. And I do that by worshiping Jesus. Just as the wise men worshiped Jesus, I lay prostrate fore God and not before my fears” – KL 1504.

and

“… I must daily walk away from fear. And the only way I can hope to do that is to think of fear the same way my Father things of fear. As an idol in my life” – KL 1726.

The book concludes with a set of Discussion Questions and a Study Guide, making it useful for book clubs as well as group and personal study.

I received Unafraid as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Let’s Pretend We’re Normal (review)

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Let's Pretend We're Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a FamilyLet’s Pretend We’re Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a Family by Tricia Lott Williford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Mr Responsible died, suddenly and tragically. He was sick for only twelve hours. … A thief named sepsis stole his breath and his heartbeat, and his spirit slipped right through Curly Girl’s fingers, even as she tried to save him on the floor of their bedroom only two days before Christmas.”

This grim scene from the Prologue is the background of Tricia Lott Williford’s memoir Let’s Pretend We’re Normal—Adventures in Rediscovering How to Be a Family. You’d expect the story of how Williford and her two young sons, Tucker and Tyler, get back on their feet after their husband’s/father’s death to be a bummer. But it isn’t.

That’s because Williford is a great storyteller and fabulous writer. Though there are lots of sad times, she never melodramatizes them or milks them for sympathy. The only way we know she cries a lot is because her boys mention it in their conversations—of which she has wonderful recall.

In Let’s Pretend we see a mother trying to explain to two little daddy-less boys where God is in all this. We observe the three of them working through stages of grief. And Williford lives parenting before us in ways that I, if by some miracle I found myself parenting young children again, would want to copy.

There’s lots of humor too and scenes that any modern, busy, technology-blessed North American family can relate to. Plus there are stories that tug at the heart.

One of my favorites is of Williford buying a homeless man, Dave, a Happy Meal—and him coming back at her with encouragement from the Bible. Her conclusion:

“… I wondered if perhaps I had just had lunch with an angel sent on a mission” – Kindle Location 1180.

Another is the conversation she has with her boys one night after reading the story of God testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Discussing their family’s test of losing husband/father, her older son asks:

“’But Mom, do you think God has an important job for you to do? And that’s why he asked you to give up my dad? … Mommy, do you know God has picked you to write these books. He made you a writer to tell stories. And so maybe God had to know you would trust him no matter what” – Kindle Location 2275.‘”

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends will gain insight, compassion, and wisdom from Tricia Lott Williford’s faith-saturated story of family, grief, and recovery.

I received Let’s Pretend We’re Normal as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Threaten to Undo Us (review)

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Threaten to Undo UsThreaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin meet in Yalta in 1945 to carve up the WWII German-conquered lands, someone suggests that German-occupied Prussia and Pomerania should be part of the new Poland. While Churchill demurs, fearing that this will lead to more bloodshed, Stalin’s cavalier “Most have fled the region” wins the day. This scene in the Introduction sets the stage for what happens to the main character Liesel Hoffman and her five children in Rose Seilor Scott’s WW II historical, Threaten to Undo Us.

In the book, Scott tells the story of WWII through a German point of view. Liesel and her husband Ernst live peacefully alongside their Polish-speaking neighbors in a village near Lodz, Poland until Hitler begins flexing his muscles. Ernst’s brother Gunter is the first family member to be lured by the spell of Third Reich. He pressures Ernst to join the army, even though Ernst and Liesel are uncomfortable with the expulsion of their Jewish neighbors and the expropriation of Polish properties for the resettlement of German people.

As Scott takes us through the war, we experience the long separations of the family as Ernst goes to the front while Liesel is left to care for their young family of five and her aging parents. After the brutal Russian winter of the German siege when the German army is defeated and forced to retreat, the tide also turns in the village. Poles seeking revenge and retribution for what the Germans have done to them force Liesel and her little ones to flee the family farm. Brutalized by drunken Russian soldiers, Liesel is eventually separated from her children and forced into hard labor in a prison camp. After five years of not hearing from Ernst she fears he too has perished. Is her life even worth living any more?

The telling is not strictly chronological but jumps around in time. However the time shifts are mentioned in the chapter titles so one is never lost. I enjoyed the factual historical touches that head some chapters, like quoted excerpts from treaties, giving a sense of what is happening on the world scene that relates to this area of Europe.

This is a grueling story, realistically yet tastefully told. Though often dark and difficult, it illustrates the strength of the human spirit, the tenacity of a mother’s love, and how faith in God can be an anchor even in the worst situations.

I think this is the first WWII story told from a German point-of-view that I’ve read. Though after the war ended the world vilified Germany and the German people en masse, this tale points to a subtler reality. Thousands, perhaps millions of Germans were victims of Hitler too, conscripted into his army, brainwashed with lies about racial superiority, forced to go along with his treatment of the Jews, and pressured to enroll their children into his youth movement. When the war ended, the tables were turned when Germans outside of Germany were arrested, accused of being war criminals, spies etc., and tortured in the same way the Nazis had tortured them.

I found this a thoroughly engrossing and well-plotted read with my interest high until the last page. I’d recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and especially those interested in the story of World War II.

I received Threaten to Undo Us as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Road to Nowhere (review)

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Road to NowhereRoad to Nowhere by Paul Robertson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre:
Literary, contemporary murder mystery.

Worldview:
Christian.

Plot in brief:
A proposed highway connecting tony Gold Valley to petrified Wardsville galvanizes Jefferson County residents and has everyone taking sides for and against. Who’s really behind it? How will it impact Wardsville’s quaint image and quainter businesses? Will the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors actually pass it? And who is so determined to have his way, he’s killing people to get it? The board will make their final decision at their December meeting. The telling begins in January.

My favorite thing about the book:
I love the way Robertson tells the story—through the points of view of the six individuals on the Board of Supervisors. I found it a challenging read at first as I jumped from one head to another without even any extra space left in the text to indicate a move. But very quickly I got used to it and really enjoyed the challenge of figuring out through whose eyes I was seeing things moment to moment. The characterization is outstanding.

I also enjoyed the writing, which is funny, observant, clever, and seasoned with generous amounts of homey wisdom. Here’s Wade’s impression of the coffee Rose Esterhouse serves Wade on his visit to the home of board chairman Joe Esterhouse:

“He held the cup up close to his mouth and inhaled enough to get a few drops of the coffee itself.

“He’d had straight-up horseradish that wasn’t this bitter.

“He tried an actual sip. After a cup of this stuff, he’d be out there plowing fields himself, probably with his bare hands. … Taste was not the point—this coffee was kick in the pants to get a person out the door to work” – p. 60 – Kindle Location 407.

Themes:
Evil, truth, community, relationships (we watch some beautiful interactions between hairdresser Louise and her husband Byron, insurance salesman Randy and his wife Sue-Anne, and farmer Joe and his wife Rose).

Who will enjoy this book:
Observers of human nature as well as readers who enjoy a well-constructed murder mystery. The portrayal of characters is as big a part of this story as the mystery plot. Some call it slow-moving. It may be that but it’s wonderfully insightful. I loved it!

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