Hidden Secrets (review)

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Hidden Secrets (A Green Dory Inn Mystery, #2)Hidden Secrets by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With batches of fragrant muffins and mugs of herbal tea, served up in an idyllic seaside setting, Janet Sketchley lures us into discovering the deadly secrets of the Green Dory Inn. Hidden Secrets is Book 2 in the Green Dory Inn Mystery series.

Thoroughly modern, with cell phones and drones, there are also elements of old sea tales with rogue ships and rum-runners in this cozy mystery. The Christian faith of the two main characters, Landon and Anna, adds value and heft to this hard-to-put-down read.

The believably imperfect characters (many of whom we met in Unknown Enemy, Book One of the series) remind me of the characters in Jan Karon’s Father Tim books. But the main player here is a 24-year-old college student, Landon, whose secretive personal past adds complications to the fast-moving plot. Sketchley has included a character list at the beginning of the book to help us keep straight the cast of characters and their relationships to each other. Though it works nicely as a standalone, reading Book One of the series would help you feel like you’re reconnecting with these folks.

Sketchley’s descriptive, yet tight writing and savvy plot combined to make me wish the book was longer. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am happy to hear that Sketchley is beginning work on Book 3.

I received Hidden Secrets as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Lord of the Rings (review)

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The Lord of the RingsThe Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently finished reading The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien—all six books, a Kindle edition purchased May 9th, finished reading around August 14th.

Here are some of the things that impressed me about book(s).

The contrast between good and evil. Good characters and settings were beautiful, wholesome, verdant, fragrant, admirable, while the evil characters and settings were creepy to grotesque, debauched, barren, in some cases smelled vile, and were frightening and repulsive.

That said, characters were still complex. Though the good characters were essentially white, they still had the capacity for foolishness, made mistakes etc. This made for my continued interest.

My favourite character was Frodo’s servant, the loyal Sam Gamgee. Through him Tolkien illustrates the values of love, faithfulness, perseverance, courage etc. in the face of insurmountable odds.

The hobbit characters retained their love of hearth, home and a good meal. Their reminiscences about these things and their appearances in the story even when situations were at their worst (a good meal cooked when making a fire was a dangerous act; the singing of a lullaby during captivity by evil orcs) kept me hopeful that the good would win.

As I looked for Christian allegorical themes, and knowing that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were contemporaries and literary buddies (the Inklings), these jumped out at me.

1. The fight between good and evil—a biblical theme if there ever was one.

2. Saruman and Sauron as types of Satan.

The wizard Gandalf says of Sauron:

“… I found our fears were true; he was none other than Sauron, our Enemy of old, at length taking shape and power again” – p. 250.

Treebeard says of Saruman:

“He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things” p. 473.

3. King Aragorn as a type of Christ:
In a scene with the hobbit Pippin:

“’King! Did you hear that? What did I say? The hands of a healer, I said!’ And soon word had gone out from the House that the King was indeed come among them and after war he brought healing.” P. 286.

This wasn’t my favourite book in the world. The language is more descriptive and flowery than I’m used to, though I felt it suited the story genre well. I also found the use of words and phrases in Tolkien’s made-up language confusing in that they slowed me down, though again, they made the story feel like an authentic middle earth tale.

All in all, this was a very long but worthwhile read. If you haven’t read it maybe you should for aspects of this story (in book and film) are now woven into the imagination and fabric of our culture.

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Unknown Enemy (Review)

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Unknown Enemy (A Green Dory Inn Mystery, #1)Unknown Enemy by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Landon Smith gets a call to help Anna, the woman who was an anchor to her in her troubled past, she leaves her college dorm in Toronto for a weekend in Nova Scotia with hardly a second thought. Once there she is immediately caught up in the mystery of who is terrorizing Anna’s business, the Green Dory Inn. Or is Anna, whose husband died recently, falling apart mentally and seeing things?

Unknown Enemy is full of tension as we try to puzzle out with Landon and Anna who, in Sketchley’s cast of colourful (and complex) characters, could be behind this. When the weekend has passed and the mystery is still not solved we wonder, will Landon be able to get to the bottom of this before her exacting prof drops her from her course.

I love the local colour of the Lunenberg setting—an actual town in Nova Scotia—and all the homey touches of the inn (beautiful décor, lots of tea and homemade baking). I wish the Green Dory Inn wasn’t fictional as I’d love to stay there!

Faith plays a big part in all of Sketchley’s stories and this one is no exception. Landon has made a practice of handling flashbacks of past trauma with prayer. That’s something she learned from the almost saintly Anna, who is a paradigm of loving the outcasts and marginalized.

I enjoyed this quick read, which kept me turning pages way past when I planned to stop.

With this novella, Sketchley introduces a new series: The Green Dory Inn mysteries. Fans of contemporary Christian mystery won’t want to miss one installment. Unknown Enemy releases August 2nd, 2018.

I received a copy of Unknown Enemy as a gift for the purpose of writing a review.

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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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