Red Notice (review)

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red-notice-9781476755748_hrRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With a special talent for sniffing out stock that would make money for his clients, Bill Browder and his company Hermitage Capital did very well beginning in the mid-1990s from their headquarters in Moscow. Then came November 13, 2005.

That day on his return to Moscow from London, Bill was detained at the airport and kept overnight with no food, water, or explanation. The next morning rough officers escorted him to the departure lounge and put him onto a flight back to London.

It was the beginning of an ordeal that lasted for years and put him in the bad books of Putin himself. Though Browder had begun fighting the dishonest Russian oligarchs while still working in Moscow, the backlash he experienced then was nothing compared to what happened next.

A raid of his Moscow office (after he was kicked out of Russia) and the office of his lawyer resulted in his companies resurfacing registered to new owners. They went after him for tax evasion of millions. However, a tax audit proved he had over-paid his taxes. This set him and his Russian lawyer Sergei Manitsky on the track of a crime ring of corrupt police officers, bankers, and petty criminals. Unfortunately, the chase ended in murder.

This book opened my eyes to the rotten center of Russian business. I’m sure that criminals like computer hackers are considered the lightweights of white collar criminals in a land where the decay starts at the top.

An interesting sidebar to the book: one of Browder’s contacts in Moscow and to whom he told his initial story of corruption was Chrystia Freeland. She was Moscow Bureau Chief of The Financial Times when she interviewed him (1998-ish). She is now a Liberal MP and has recently been appointed Canada’s Foreign Minister. She is also persona non grata in Russia.

The YouTube video linked below was made by Browder in 2010 to help expose the complicated web of criminal activity. It adds background and clarity to the story of this fascinating and disturbing book: Russian Untouchables – Episode 1

 

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The Price of Freedom (review)

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The Price Of Freedom (A Story Of Courage And Faith, In The Face Of Danger.)The Price Of Freedom by Simon Ivascu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every young man between the ages of eighteen and twenty knew from early childhood that they would be required to go into the army to give one year of their lives in military service. … it was the young men with strong Christian beliefs who faced the worst danger in army life. Many gave up their faith in order to make it through their term of service.

Those who clung to their beliefs, like Simon’s brother Stefan, were regularly ridiculed, mistreated and beaten, sometimes fatally. Stefan had landed in the army hospital after one of his beatings. While still recovering from his injuries he had chosen to escape from Romania. He’d paid the dangerous price of freedom, risking prison and death, rather than return to his duties in the army” – The Price of Freedom, p. 16,17.

The Price of Freedom begins with 18-year-old Simon, Stefan’s younger brother, having recently received a conscription notice himself, running away from home in order to avoid the same fate as his brother. We follow him as he jogs, walks, hides, watches, waits, sneaks, crawls, even crosses a river on the underside of a bridge. In this way he makes his way through Romania, Hungary, and Austria, finally reuniting with Stefan in Italy five weeks after he sets out.

A short time later Simon’s younger acquaintance Wesley Pop also sneaks away to Italy to avoid conscription. The young men meet in Italy and renew their friendship.

But life in the free world is not at all what they expect. Because they are both in Italy illegally it’s nearly impossible for them to find work, landlords don’t want to rent to them, and the attitude of the Italian people is cold and suspicious. Eventually both receive notices that they must leave the country within 15 days or face jail and deportation. Desperate to leave but not back home, they consider all means of escape and end up in a shipping container. A story that is harsh to this point, now becomes deadly.

The events are told alternately from Simon’s and Wesley’s points of view. Co-writer Bev Ellen Clarke’s use of creative non-fiction techniques makes the book read like a gripping adventure. I found it both hard to put down and hard to read because its descriptive style had me right there in that dark, airless container on those bundles of ceramic tile with Simon and Wesley, facing lack of oxygen, heat, thirst, sea-sickness, and starvation while heading to who knows where?

However, the inclusion of wonderful coincidences and amazing answers to prayer transform this book from a story about the resilience, tenacity and courage of the human spirit (which it is) to more—a story about prayer, faith in God, and miracles.

Obviously the young men survived. Simon and his brother currently live in Kelowna B.C. and are part of the singing group Freedom Singers (I enjoyed their singing this summer at the Gospel Music Celebration in Red Deer, Alberta).

This true story did more for me than just than illustrate God’s care for His children and entertain. It also opened my eyes to the plight of refugees giving me worthwhile insights for these refugee-filled times. Highly recommended.

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Passport Through Darkness (review)

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Passport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second ChancesPassport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances by Kimberly L. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kimberly L. Smith and her husband Milton are introduced to the horrors of human trafficking almost by chance, when their missionary activity in Spain leads them to an orphanage in Portugal. There they come face to face with Uncle Buster, a man who is bringing in children from Africa, filming their abuse, and posting images on the internet. Passport Through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances is Smith’s first person account of this event and what happened next.

On exploring trafficking in more depth, Milton and Kimberly discover that the real hotbeds for this activity are Eastern Europe and Africa. Over time they establish Make Way Partners to help raise funds for anti-trafficking work. Then, through a chain of events, Kimberly finds herself in Sudan—a place PJ (Voice of the Martyrs’ Eastern Europe and North Africa Regional Director) identified as “… the worst place on the planet for this evil” (Kindle Location 517).

The bulk of Smith’s story happens in Sudan. She falls in love with the people, especially the orphans, returns numerous times, and ends up building an orphanage in the heart of Sudan’s most dangerous and forsaken region. The sights and events she describes are often raw and heartbreaking. Her ministry is inspiring and off-the-charts of possible, as God steps in again and again to open doors, protect, and make dreams come true.

But all is not sweetness and light. The sub-plot of this memoir involves Kimberly and Milton’s relationship. When his diabetes doesn’t allow him to be part of the Sudan trips, the couple spends long stretches of time apart. Kimberly, not wanting to burden her ill husband more, keeps many details of her Sudan experience secret from him. Their own relationship comes under threat.

The book is vividly written, both in its descriptions of life in Sudan and the life of the heart. I found it a fast, sometimes horrifying though definitely relevant read (It seems anti-human trafficking initiatives are popping up all over. In the last several months, I’ve encountered two new-to-me ministries that also focus on it.)

I recommend this book to people who love kids, those interested in human trafficking, readers with a heart for missions, or anyone who enjoys a well-written memoir. I’m not the alone in recommending it. Passport Through Darkness is also endorsed by such Christian literary luminaries as Philip Yancy, Randy Alcorn, and Ken Gire.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“On some level, praying ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done’ haunted us, though. Gradually we began to understand that God didn’t give us that prayer so much to comfort us as to mold and transform our hearts and lives.

“The more we prayed ‘Thy Kingdom come …’ the more it convicted us that God chose to use mankind—His incarnational presence in this world—to usher His Kingdom in, one fractured attempt at a time.

“But who of us wants to give up our notion of what we think our lives should look like so that we are available for Him to use?” – Kindle Location 501.

Passport Through Darkness is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Walking From East to West (review)

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Walking from East to West: God in the ShadowsWalking from East to West: God in the Shadows by Ravi Zacharias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak in our Saskatoon church (sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s) I have been fascinated by his message and manner. His memoir, Walking from East to West: God in the Shadows, shines a light on where he came from and how he became the popular evangelist, Christian apologist and humanitarian that he is today.

In chronological order he tells the story of his unhappy childhood in India, his conversion, his move (with his family) to Canada, and his blossoming into family life and ministry.

The God in the Shadows angle is Zacharias recognizing and pointing out how God has been present in his life (though often unseen and unrecognized till much later). In fact he sees evidences of this being the case even before his existence in his great-great-grandmother’s conversion to Christianity. This is powerfully brought home to him when he finds her grave site and sees that the verse on her marker is the very one that God used to call him back to life after his suicide attempt. Throughout the book he points out many other marvelous “coincidences” that bring him to the conclusion that God has been interested in and involved in his life all along the way.

He comes across as a humble, grateful man who is still amazed at what God has done in and through him—a Chennai Indian lad who, until his conversion, was a sports-loving, directionless school goof-off.

The writing style is not as intellectually taxing as some of his more philosophical books and though the odd time a professorial word or two slips in, mostly Walking… is an easy-to-read story.

As I usually do when I read inspiring biographies and memoirs, I marked passages for future retrieval. Here are some bits I highlighted from Walking From East to West:

“God has an appointment with each of us, and it is critical that every man and woman know this. He will stop our steps when it is not our time, and He will lead us when it is” – p. 168 (Kindle Edition).

“… if you have not learned to pay the smaller prices of following Christ in your daily life, you will not be prepared to pay the ultimate price in God’s calling” – p. 199.

“Yes, logic is linear, but its implications are radial” – p. 205.

“Through all of the visitations of life—successes or failures—it is not how well you are known or not known. It is not how big your organization is or isn’t. It is not even how many sermons one has preached or books one has written or millions of dollars one has accumulated. It is how well do you know Jesus?” – p. 224.

I would recommend this book to all who have been impacted by and continue to enjoy and be challenged by the speaking and writing of Ravi Zacharias.

Walking from East to West is part of my own Kindle collection.

Ravi Zacharias’s book and speaking resources (like podcasts and recordings of his regular and weekly radio broadcasts) are available at his ministry (RZM) site.

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Love Triangles (review)

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Love Triangles, Discovering Jesus the Jew in Today's IsraelLove Triangles, Discovering Jesus the Jew in Today’s Israel by Bobbie Ann Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In her memoir / travelogue Love Triangles, Bobbie Ann Cole writes about her love affair with Israel. When she and husband Butch move there, it is to fill a six-month time period till their rented property will again be available to them. However, after only three months they begin thinking of applying for permanent residency, called making Aliyah* when you’re Jewish (as Bobbie is).

There is one problem. Bobbie and Butch are Christians. The interpretation of the Jewish immigration policy in the last years has kept many Jews who believe Jesus is their Messiah from gaining permanent residency. This has Bobbie constantly on edge, worried that she’ll jeopardize her chances of immigrating. And so she guards what she says, avoids establishing intimate friendships with the locals, and even changes who she associates with.

Much of the book is descriptions of biblically familiar Israeli sites. In vivid and picturesque language Cole describes what she hears, sees, smells and touches. She also recalls what happened in the Bible places like Nazareth, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem and more. Repeatedly she mentions that in Israel she feels closer to Jesus than anywhere else in the world:

What I loved, but as someone relatively young in faith had never known before, was following Jesus all around the Land. That was a powerful incentive.

In our three months there, we had met Him in the Negev Desert, in Jerusalem’s Old City, and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. … We had discovered that even though the country was constantly on high military alert, there was what Butch referred to as ‘that safe, spiritual feeling,’ a serenity rooted in faith, a trust that God ‘has it.’” KL 129.

I found this book informational and inspiring in several ways. First, it opened my eyes to the way Jews who believe in Jesus are singled out as ineligible to become Israeli citizens. Second, Cole’s descriptions of modern Israel juxtaposed against her sometimes whimsical and imaginative retelling of what happened there in Bible stories made me want to visit Israel more than ever. And finally, through Cole’s story I have gained a new appreciation for Israel’s story and the love of the people for the land both in the past and present.

You’re probably wondering if Bobbie and Butch made Aliyah. Were they successful in immigrating? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

*‘Aliyah’ literally means ‘going up,’ a term originally used to describe how Jews from all over the ancient world would go up to the temple at the very top of Mount Zion in Jerusalem for Jewish pilgrimage festivals” – KL 768.

I received the Kindle edition of Love Triangles as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Openness Unhindered – review

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Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristOpenness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across Openness Unhindered’s author Rosaria Butterfield on a video where she told her story of coming to Christ out of a lesbian lifestyle. I loved the fact that my favorite book, the Bible, was instrumental in her conversion. Openness Unhindered testifies to how she has continued to engage with it at a deep and thoughtful level.

In the book, the second one she has authored about her faith since she left her old life around 1999, she alludes briefly to her conversion story. Then she goes on to talk about how she has wrestled with her past and come to a place of equilibrium as a home school mother and pastor’s wife. Passages like the following tug at the heart:

“I am and always will be Rahab—a woman with a past. So, what does a person like me do with such a past? I have not forgotten. Body memories know my name. Details intrude into my world unpredictably, like when I am kneading the communion bread or homsechooling my children. I take each ancient token to the cross, for prayer, for more repentance, for thanksgiving that God is always right about matters of sin and repentance” – Kindle Location (KL) 631.

She stresses the importance of her new identity in Christ and of repentance. Even the title of the chapter on repentance testifies to how foundational it is to her: “Repentance: The Threshold to God and the Answer to Shame, Temptation and Sin.”

In chapters titled “Sexual Orientation—Freud’s Nineteenth Century Mistake” and “Self-representation—What Does it Mean to be Gay?” she unpacks the history of the gay rights movement and explains how “gay” has become a term of identity. In fact, she argues, gay doesn’t even belong, as an adjective, together with Christian. She says:

Gay is a word that carries stigma because of God’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality. … Because the Bible is clear on the point that homosexual practice is a sin, and because gay is a synonym for the implied desire for or practice of homosexuality, the stigma of this term is an act of God’s love, because God uses it to convict his children of their brokenness” –KL 2111.

Another powerful chapter is the one on Christian community. Here Butterfield describes how their family’s hospitality toward neighbors and church members became a closely woven safety net for all involved.

This was a great read! Though I did find the theological chapters a bit of a slog (Butterfield was a university professor in her former life and in plumbing these challenging topics comes across somewhat professorial), for the most part I enjoyed the book and learned a lot. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“When we are owned by God, we are ruined for the world. And this marring of us for the world is one of the birthmarks of conversion” – KL 595.

“Temptation comes in many forms, but it is always personal, uncannily tailor-made for our individual moral weakness, and it takes aim at God’s character, seeking to ransack our faith” – KL 1343.

“Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” – Sam Allbery quoted on KL 2320.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is trying to understand where homosexual practice fits within the Christian life and the church. Openness Unhindered is a part of my own Kindle collection.

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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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Hiding in the Light (review)

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Hiding in the Light: Why I Risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow JesusHiding in the Light: Why I Risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow Jesus by Rifqa Bary

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A face marred by an accident at six, a strict Muslim upbringing, and cruel treatment by her parents fed a deep longing within Rifqa Bary for love and acceptance. It was her seventh grade school friend Angela who answered her questions about Jesus and invited her to church that led to her conversion—the most profound experience in her life to that point.

Though life as a secret Christian in a strict Muslim home in Ohio was anything but easy, it was after her baptism that things got dangerous. Fearing for her life and sanity, she finally fled her home in July of 2009, one month shy of her 17th birthday and still a minor for another year.

Hiding in the Light, Rifqa’s story told in first person, is a riveting read from start to finish. She is eventually on the run not only from her parents and their mosque but also from U.S. child welfare officials who, she fears, will send her back home unless they believe her life is actually in danger.

What impressed me about this memoir is Rifqa’s love and loyalty to Jesus and the price she was willing to pay to be identified as one of His. In her most trying moments she feels His tangible presence. Here, for example, is her account of what happened one day when she was being held in a juvenile detention center in Florida:

“ … while sitting alone again in my cell, I sensed what had become for me an almost absolute assurance of His presence: a gentle whisper that resonated in my spirit … Will you sing to Me, Rifqa?

Sing to You? Here? Are You crazy?… Okay God. Give me a song and I’ll sing it.

I softly rested the back of my head against the wall, exhaled a cleansing sigh, swallowed my last remnant of hindered self-conscious disobedience and began singing the opening lines to Matt Redman’s ‘The Heart of Worship’ “ Kindle Location 2231.

This book gave me a new appreciation for my Christian upbringing. It also opened my eyes to God’s tender care of His own in the way He provided help in the nick of time for Rifqa in many tense situations. A compelling read, I think Hiding in the Light would be a valuable resource for all who love and work with Muslims.

I received Hiding In The Light as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Miracles from Heaven (review)

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Miracles from Heaven: A Little Girl, Her Journey to Heaven, and Her Amazing Story of HealingMiracles from Heaven: A Little Girl, Her Journey to Heaven, and Her Amazing Story of Healing by Christy Beam

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Beam family didn’t know at the time that December 30, 2011 was the end of more than the year 2011. Christy Beam’s memoir Miracles from Heaven: A Little Girl, Her Journey to Heaven and Her Amazing Story of Healing is the tale of their lives leading to that end and a new beginning.

Little Annabel Beam started having stomach troubles when she was just four. An agonizing quest for answers finally led to a diagnosis of pseudo obstruction motility disorder—an incurable medical condition in which the muscles of the stomach and bowel don’t work normally.

The years 2007 to 2011 were a never-ending cycle of hospital visits, medication adjustments, and trips from Texas (where they lived) to their pediatric specialist in Boston for the Beams. Parents Kevin and Christy tried to give their other girls, Abbie and Adelynn some semblance of normal during this time and the sisters were crucial in keeping Anna (the middle Beam girl) from wanting to give up altogether.

On that balmy December afternoon nine-year-old Anna, still tired from a trip to Boston and then Christmas, decided to take a break from bed. A tomboy like her eleven-year-old sister, she joined Abbie on the limb of an old cottonwood tree 30 feet off the ground for a sister-to-sister chat. Then they heard the branch creak, and felt it move…

You’ll have to read the book to find out more. This memoir is wonderfully written in puzzle-piece fashion by mom Christy who experienced the whole thing and tells it in such realistic detail you feel like you’re there in person.

In addition to this being a wonderful story, it’s a vivid example of the dynamics in a family where one of the children is ill.

It also shows us amazing parenting and the mutual support Kevin and Christy Beam were for each other during the type of ordeal that has wrecked more than one home.

Finally, this story is a for-instance of God’s supernatural intervention and tender care—a modern-day miracle. It reminded me of the stories in the book Visions and Appearances of Jesus (Philip H. Wiebe) and left me feeling a glow of confidence in a God who put the whole amazing chain of events together and is now using Christy Beam’s telling of it to spread the good news. It’s the news that, in Anna’s own words:

“…God does care about me. And He does have glory. And He has a purpose for every single person in the world. You weren’t just made for fun. You were made to be a beautiful creation. So if we all come together and we all believe in God, then I’ll see you in heaven later” (Kindle Location 2030).

Highly recommended.

I received Miracles From Heaven as a gift from the publisher, Hachette, for the purpose of writing a review.

Visit Christy Beam’s website and view photos of the author and her family here:

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