In a Foreign Land (review)

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In a Foreign Land (In Search of Freedom Book 2)In a Foreign Land by Janice L. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel and Luise Martens have built up a successful farm in northern China. The year is 1945 and fifteen years have passed since the Mennonite villagers from Slavgorod Colony of Western Siberia have escaped their Russian oppressors (story told in The Other Side of the River: Search for Freedom Book 1 – reviewed here).

Alarm bells ring from the opening pages when we discover Daniel’s Russian nemesis, Leonid Dubrowsky, is still alive and hot on Daniel’s heels for revenge.

The political unrest in Russia and China after WWII makes for a time of unrest in northern China. Daniel and other Russians who fled the Soviet Union are soon arrested and returned there as traitors. This leaves Luise and her 15-year-old bright but hot-tempered son Danny in charge of the farm.

The story takes us through the six years that follow. The fractured Martens family and their white neighbours, the Giesingers, become persona non grata in the now racially charged climate of Communist China. Danny’s temper gets him into trouble more than once. And then there’s the ever-looming shadow of Dubrowsky, who nurses the dream of wreaking vengeance on Daniel by destroying Danny and having his way with Luise.

The interesting historical plot is enhanced by the strong Christian faith of Luise and Rachel (Danny’s special childhood friend). It anchors the two families, while Danny’s questions and inability to believe that God even exists in all this turmoil adds realism to the faith aspect of the story.

I found this tale captivating from beginning to end. Dick tells the story through various viewpoints but chapters are titled with location and date so we’re always clear about when and where the incident takes place. Characters are realistic and complex. The plot is full of tension and suspense.

There is one more installment in the In Search of Freedom series. Book 3, Far Side of the Sea, is due to be released in the fall / winter of 2017.

This is a series not to be missed for historical fiction lovers, especially those with Mennonite roots.

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Anna Karenina (review)

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Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Anna Karenina—that 140-year-old tome by Leo Tolstoy. I read it on the recommendation of another old book—If You Want to Write (first published in 1938) by Barbara Ueland. (By the way, Ueland’s book is one of the most inspirational books on writing you’ll find anywhere.)

I did read Anna Karenina many years ago while trekking through Europe. But I must have absorbed very little because it felt like a brand new book to me.

What a read!

It’s a story set in Russia before the Communist Revolution (first published as a serial from 1873-1877, as a complete book in 1878). The characters belong to the nobility class. Anna Karenina of St. Petersburg is married to statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. While visiting her brother Stepan Oblonsky in Moscow she meets the dashing Vronsky (an army man) at a party. Vronsky is immediately smitten by her beauty.

A parallel story is that of Levin, a friend of Stepan’s. Levin owns a rural estate and comes to Moscow only occasionally. But he is lonely and the story opens with him summoning his courage to ask Kitty, whom he has courted sporadically and shyly, to marry him. (Kitty is the younger sister of Stepan’s wife Dolly).

However, before he meets Anna, Vronsky has been paying a lot of attention to Kitty. Though she is fond of Levin, Vronsky—who Kitty and her family expect will pop the question any day now—is a better catch. So Levin’s proposal to Kitty comes at a bad time while Vronsky meeting and falling in love with Anna permanently dashes Kitty’s hopes of marrying him.  That’s the beginning…

Some of the things I loved about this book:

  • The psychological understanding and depth with which Tolstoy portrays his characters. He captures nuances of feeling and motivation that are quite remarkable. A passage late in the book where Anna descends into madness is one I thought particularly brilliant.
  • There are large chunks of prose I found poetic and beautiful, for example the peasant life seen through Levin’s eyes and Levin’s wedding.
  • The insights the book gives into the social life of the nobility in Russia at the time (I think of Tolstoy as Russia’s Jane Austen in that way). He addresses themes of religion, the position of peasants, and status women in society documenting particularly society’s double standard regarding acceptable morals of men and women.
  • The plot is, for the most part, captivating.

Some things that put me off:

  • All the Russian names, diminutives and variants. Confusing!
  • Long passages where Levin and his friends discuss the place of the peasants in society and religion. I got the feeling that Tolstoy was working out his own thoughts and positions on these things through Levin. (Others who comment on the book describe Levin as the most autobiographical of Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.)

If you haven’t read what some describe as”the greatest book ever written,” you owe it to yourself to do so. Plus it is such a fat volume (paperback = 752 pages) you won’t be needing another book for a long time with this one. (I got mine as an e-book, though, so no hand strain with that edition!)

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Glimpses of Paradise (review)

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Glimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920sGlimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920s by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We first meet the main characters in Glimpses of Paradise, 17 year-old Doyle Lawrence (athlete and poet) and 16 year-old Zenobia (Zee) Miller (want-to-be movie star), in the spring of 1916 in Zenith, Nebraska. Doyle, fascinated by the unpredictable and colorful Zee, tells his brother later that evening that he’ll marry Zee someday despite what their lawyer father will say. For her part, though Zee senses his attraction, she wants only to be in the movies.

Their ways soon part. Doyle enlists in the army and goes off to war. Zee runs away from her straight-laced preacher father to chase her dream.

This historical tale by James Scott Bell (first published in 2005) explores many aspects of the years from 1916 to 1925—the war itself, the fate of returning soldiers, the rise of Hollywood’s popularity, and its seamy underside. Concurrent with these secular movements is a spiritual stream personified by the historical preacher R. A. Torrey (a preacher and Bible teacher who helped found Biola University). His sermons and writings play not a little part in determining Doyle’s and Zee’s fates.

I thoroughly enjoyed this substantial novel. I’ve read many of James Scott Bell’s books on the writing craft and it is interesting to see how he puts his advice into practice. His characters are complex and believable. His facility in describing action contrasts, in this book, with quiet moments like the one war-damaged Doyle experiences on returning home after combat:

“He found himself fixated on one brown leaf cloning to a branch. It looked stubborn, alone, like a solitary prayer unheard” – Kindle Location 1553.

What I appreciate most about this book, though, is its unequivocal Christian message, not only as explained by Dr. Torrey but lived out in the choices and destinies of his characters.

If you like fat, informative, and interesting Christian historicals, try this tome of Americana. It won’t disappoint.

Glimpses of Paradise is part of my own Kindle collection.
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The Antioch Testament (review)

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The Antioch TestamentThe Antioch Testament by Donald Joiner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a wounded Syrian Christian refugee entrusts Chaplain Charles Monroe with a heavy and ancient-looking manuscript, Monroe is sure he’s in possession of something precious. Sending it to his brother Ken in the States for its preservation proves wise. Monks in a U.S. Eastern Orthodox monastery recognize the manuscript’s ancient language and, on translation, it turns out to be the letter of an early Christian, Ignatius, written to Dorothea, the daughter of Theophilus (the man to whom Luke addressed Luke and Acts).

When the Syrians discover the manuscript has left the country, official Amir orders Sentry in the U.S. to get the manuscript back no matter what it takes.

An injured Charles Monroe soon returns home from war. Author Donald Joiner unfolds The Antioch Testament in an epistolary style, having the monastery translators read the letter chapter by chapter to the Monroe brothers. In this way he tells the post-resurrection story of Jesus’ disciples (devoting a chapter to each). He tells where they traveled and to whom they preached, names their prominent converts, and relates how they died.

These readings are interspersed with conversations between Amir and his henchman as they work on a plan to steal the manuscript and return it to Syrian soil.

Joiner has done a good job of digging through ancient Roman and church history to give us a version of what might have been the fate of the twelve apostles. (I was impressed by the fierce opposition those first Christians faced from both Jews and Romans, and how steadfast and loyal the disciples were.) Joiner uses the discussion between the Monroe’s and the translators at the end of each chapter of letter-reading to introduce alternate versions of the story from tradition and underline what he feels are important points (like the Apostle Peter’s leadership of the early church).

Though successful as a work of history, The Antioch Testament is, in my opinion, not as successful as a work of fiction. The story starts out strong, with some great battlefront scenes. But once we get into it, the characters are never explored and remain one-dimensional. The dialogue is stilted, with large chunks of “teaching” delivered under the guise of conversation. Even the sub-plot of the attempt to steal the manuscript feels slow-moving and wooden.

However, readers who are mostly interested in ancient church history as it relates to the fate of the disciples will find The Antioch Testament rewarding.

I received The Antioch Testimony as a gift from a publicist for the purpose of writing a review.

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Without Proof (review)

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Without Proof (Redemption's Edge, #3)Without Proof by Janet Sketchley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two years after her fiancé Gilles died beside her in the cockpit of the plane he crash-landed on a Nova Scotia highway, Amy Silver is getting back on her feet emotionally and physically. She has even taken off the gold chain that held Gilles’ engagement ring. Then comes the day reporter Troy Hicks makes an unwelcome appearance at the Stratton Art Gallery where Amy works.

He is full of questions. Despite that the police investigation concluded the crash was an accident, is Amy sure? He’s heard rumors of foul play. Will she help him dig deeper?

Troy’s snooping around followed by his article in the paper starts a series of events that make Amy more suspicious than ever that the plane malfunction of that awful day was no mishap after all. But should she try to prove it? At what price?

Gilles’ good friend, artist Michael Stratton now Amy’s boss at the gallery, begins acting strangely too—protective, even possessive. Trouble is, she has begun to fall for him. So what do his actions mean? They’re probably loyalty to Gilles, big-brotherly care, or even emotional instability—surely not a sign of the deepening relationship she hardly lets herself dream about.

In Without Proof, the final book in the three-book Redemption’s Edge romantic suspense series, author Janet Sketchley introduces threats, danger, and mystery into the homey tranquility of Stratton Gallery, the gallery / residence Amy, Aunt Bay, and Michael share. Soon the sinister lurks behind each phone call and text message.

We view unfolding events through Amy’s eyes and wonder, is art buyer Ross Zarin the considerate gentleman he appears to be? Why is Gilles’ sister Emilie so desperate to get Amy out of the way? Is Michael’s concern for her genuine or the first sign of a stalker-in-the-making?

Without Proof addresses many important themes including fear, forgiveness, and self-acceptance. Through the unflinching Christian faith of Aunt Bay, Amy faces her own feelings of unworthiness. Through the testimony of Ruth Warner (from book 1 of the series) Amy realizes she needs to forgive her absent father. There’s also the sweet, but never cloying, romantic side of the story that had me cheering for Amy from the first page.

Sketchley’s skillful way with words kept me spellbound until the story’s last action-packed scene. Though this book ends the series, let’s hope Sketchley has some more romantic suspense brewing in her Nova Scotia study!

I received Without Proof as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Silver Locket (review)

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The Silver LocketThe Silver Locket by Sophia Bar-Lev
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“ ‘I think that there’s something special happening here—a kind of “hashgacha pratis” like the Rabbi talks about. … Oh, that’s Hebrew for “an intervention of divine providence” ’ ”The Silver Locket, p. 23.

The “something special” Rosalie Lapkin refers to in the above quote (taken from a conversation with her, Sarah Rosenfeld and the Rabbi’s wife) plays out over the next 20+ years of Sophia Bar-Lev’s novel The Silver Locket. In it Rosalie’s and Sarah’s lives intertwine at the most basic level—a shared child.

The story, that is set on opposite sides of the U.S. (Massachusetts and California), encompasses the time from the conception to the marriage of Rebecca Lapkin Silver (1941 to 1965). In it we experience the minefield of mother-love, adoption, and abortion—particularly from the mothers’ points of view. We witness the powerful aftermaths of both deceit and honesty. We see how kept secrets can sap energy and steal joy. And we watch the goodness of God playing out in mercy, love, forgiveness, and second chances.

I really enjoyed the Jewish cultural setting of this book with its emphasis on family and faith, and its distinctive holidays and ceremonies.

The background material to the book states that the story is based on a true one and its plot often had he feel of actual events to me. I liked that the location and date of the action heads most chapters—helping me to keep my bearings. In lots of ways the story also felt like a time capsule with its mention of U.S. political events and the cultural trends of the time:

August 1960 – California: “By now they were on their way stopping enroute for lunch at a relatively new restaurant that was garnering a great deal of attention in 1960 with their year long advertising campaign: ‘Look for the Golden Arches’ ” p. 167.

1960 – Massachusetts: “The key turning point of the campaign was the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first presidential debates ever held” – p. 182.

November 1960 – California: “Swiss Family Robinson was playing in theaters nationwide. It was the first wide screen Disney film shot with a new technology called Panavision lenses” – p. 198.

But more than these interesting historical tidbits, the book delivers some wonderful wisdom. Listen to what Sarah says when she counsels her friend who is struggling with guilt over the two abortions she’s attempted (one of them successful):

“God always forgives when we turn to Him; and He expects us to forgive ourselves as well. … we have to learn to forgive ourselves.”

and

“Has it occurred to you that maybe God didn’t let it work? That perhaps He was protecting you from yourself? … It’s about an unborn life that has a purpose and a destiny and I want you to consider that your baby’s destiny may just be more important than your emotions” – p. 92,93.

And this bit by Rabbi Lowenstein:

“It’s time to be done with secrets. Just tell the plain truth” – p. 236.

This is a beautiful, positive, and life-affirming story that renews faith in God and people.

I received The Silver Locket as a gift for the purpose of writing a review.

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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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