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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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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Sidetracked (review)

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SidetrackedSidetracked by Brandilyn Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Driving home from Clara’s shower after everyone else has left, 34-year-old Delanie spots a suspicious-looking character in a dark hoodie, and then a body lying on the sidewalk. Right from the first chapter of Brandilyn Collins’ Sidetracked, we’re alerted as to what kind of story this will be:

“The chill inside me crackled to ice. For the longest moment I could only stare at the object. How frighteningly familiar it looked. A silent scream wracked my head. No, no no!

But deep within I knew. Death had followed me.” – Kindle Location 194.

Collins tells the tale of this murder mystery in two ways—Delanie’s 2014 segments are in first person. The 1995 and on flashbacks—Laura Denton’s story—are in third person. The switch between present and past are clearly indicated in the chapter headings. Those headings plus the change in point of view make it easy for us to keep track of where we are. They also add information at just the right time, helping to build suspense. Will history repeat itself?

Collins knows how to push all the right buttons. As I read, I felt outrage over what was happening to Laura and Delanie, frustration with the police investigation, sympathy toward our heroines, and a sense of hopelessness as the injustices pile up. The story certainly delivered on its promise of suspense. I was on tenterhooks through this entire thing.

Faith / lack of faith in God when He doesn’t turn things around in the face of blatant injustice is one of the understandable struggles Delanie works through. Her past has made her super sensitive to anyone being wrongfully accused, and so the search for truth (in this case about who killed Clara) is another theme that runs through the book.

Aside from a couple of crime scenes, the book is safe in the violence and gratuitous sex department (though Delanie’s relationship with Andy together with the way his parents view her make for an interesting subplot).

Great writing and a compelling plot make this a book I’d recommend to all lovers of Christian suspense.

This book is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Sorry—I’m Not Sorry (review)

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Sorry I'm Not Sorry: An Honest Look at Bullying from the BullySorry I’m Not Sorry: An Honest Look at Bullying from the Bully by Nancy Rue

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When twelve-year-old Kylie, the leader of a posse of bullies, is summoned to the principal’s office of Gold Country Middle School one morning in June (along with her parents, her friends, and their parents), she’s not even nervous. That is, until she sees who else is there. Besides the principal, there is “Gingerbread,” the girl she and her friends have been bullying, and Lydia:

“…the Dwarf. Lydia Somebody. She was a weirdly short woman with too much hair who thought she could come in and stop it all” – Kindle Location 105.

The meeting that day begins a summer like no other for this privileged tween. Grounded from her cell phone and computer, she quickly loses power over Heidi and Riannon. She must also do weekly study sessions with Lydia and satisfactorily complete a project if she is to have any hope of returning to Gold Country and its cheer leading troupe in the fall. Part of the project turns out to be teaching a summer school dance performance number to a half-dozen klutzy elementary-aged girls—a real challenge for someone who is all about coolness and image.

Author Nancy Rue seems well informed about modern methods of bullying. She has the voice of a cocky tween down pat (Kylie tells the story in first-person). As the story unfolds and we work through Kylie’s issues with her, we begin to understand some of bullying’s dynamics. Kylie’s parents, with their permissive and inconsistent parenting style, may be part of the problem. And she also has some well-buried hurts and fears from early childhood that she hasn’t faced. Toward the end of the story Kylie has her own experience of being bullied, helping us experience bullying from both sides and making Sorry—I’m Not Sorry a great choice for pre-teen girls.

The Christian message is subtle. It mostly comes through Lydia who mentions, at one point, how she prays for wisdom before each session with Kylie, and models the listening ear, the love, and the firm direction that helps Kylie go from being a bully ringleader to an ardent member of the “Bullying is so not okay” movement.

I received Sorry—I’m Not Sorry as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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An Untamed Land (review)

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An Untamed Land (Red River of the North, #1)An Untamed Land by Lauraine Snelling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An Untamed Land by Lauraine Snelling begins in Norway with a prologue dated 1877. Then Far (father Gustaf Bjorklund) and his family begin planning for the immigration of several of his sons from Norway to America. Roald, married to Anna with 21-month Thorliff and pregnant with a new baby will be joined by 19-year-old Carl and Kaaren, whom he plans to marry.

The actual story begins three years later in 1880. But there is no more Anna. Ingeborg is now by Roald’s side and we discover Anna and the babe she was carrying have died. We join the six (Karl, Kaaren, their newborn Gunny, Roald, Ingeborg and five-year-old Thorliff) as they are about to disembark from the ship after an arduous transatlantic voyage.

Ingeborg and Roald are still adjusting to each other. Ingeborg chafes under Roald’s protective, take-charge ways. Roald, missing his childhood sweetheart Anna and traumatized by her death, is trying to understand Ingeborg’s impulsiveness and curb her independent tendencies.

We follow them as they make their cumbersome way from America’s eastern seaboard to the Dokota Territory by covered wagon and live with them in the day-to-day hardships of homesteading. Especially grueling are the long and desperately cold winters with their isolating storms.

I found main characters Ingeborg and Roald interesting and complex. Snelling has a way of showing us their faults and at the same time arousing sympathy for them as we enter their points of view. A major subplot of the story is the evolution of their relationship.

Snelling also handles the setting masterfully with enough description of the wild Dakota lands for me to see, hear, and feel the elements that are almost like another character. Living with these young moms as they keep house in covered wagons and then little soddies, cook over open fires, rejoice over a couple of cows, a team of oxen, some sheep, scrabble in the dirt to plant vegetables, even some flowers gave me a new admiration for North America’s pioneers.

Things go along relatively well till about two thirds through the book when tragedy strikes. Though the end is satisfying, Snelling leaves enough plot bits unresolved to make us want to find out what happens in the books that follow.

An Untamed Land is a strong beginning to what has proven to be a popular series of six Red River of the North books. If you enjoy pioneering stories that major on studying human nature, and minor on a little sweet romance, you’ll love this book.

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Other Side of the River (review)

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other side of the riverOther Side of the River by Janice L. Dick.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens have been sweethearts for almost as long as they can remember. Luise expects they will marry soon. But the spring of 1926 is not a time life goes along according to expectation for the lovers or anyone else in the Mennonite village of Alexandrovka, part of the Slovgorod Colony in Western Siberia.

As the Soviet officials begin to interfere increasingly in the life of the enterprising farmers and craftspeople, demanding ever more tax and confiscating machinery and livestock, many villagers decide it’s time to leave. While some are allowed to emigrate to America, Luise’s chronically ill stepmother fails to pass her medical exam. So the family ends up planning to join others on a long train ride east. There is farmland and they have official permits to settle near the border of China on the banks of the Amur River.

Meanwhile a winter of hard work up north for Daniel separates the lovers. He returns shortly before her family is set to leave and Luise makes peace with the fact that she will be apart from her family when she and Daniel settle as newlyweds in the farmhouse Daniel has been building.

Of course, that doesn’t work out quite as planned either in Janice L. Dick’s Mennonite historical Other Side of the River. It’s a story through which we experience the day to day life of these God-fearing, peace-loving and industrious people during a time in Russian history when expressions of faith were not allowed, personal initiative was frowned on, and even speaking German could be cause for arrest.

Lovable and hated characters populate the pages with Luise’s great-aunt Tante Manya taking the prize as my favourite, Senior Major Leonard Dubrowsky and Ivan Mironenko tied for the ones I most disliked and feared. The way Dick portrays the everyday circumstances, struggles, and growth of main characters is realistic and kept me right there, experiencing their challenges with them.

The period and setting are depicted in satisfying detail. I loved all the homey touches—the roasted zwieback and other home baking, the Germanisms like “Nah jah,” and Luise’s and Daniel’s close-knit, intergenerational families.

The story, though lengthy, had enough twists and turns that it rarely sagged. The only time it felt a bit draggy was very near the end, but then it picked up again to the harrowing finish.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book—both the day-to-day life of its characters and the big story aspect of it—for I too am descended from them, a Mennonite, not from those that stayed in Russia, but from forbears that emigrated to North America before Communism and the era of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the faith of these people through testing was an inspiration. This book left me with a great appreciation of the fire-proved faith of my ancestors.

Apparently Dick is working on a sequel (according to this Blog Talk Radio interview). I hope so. I’ll definitely pick it up when it comes out!

Read Chapter One of Other Side of the River.

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