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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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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Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe (review)

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds CafeMiracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe by Max Lucado

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Chelsea Chambers discovers that her NFL husband Sawyer has been cheating on her, inheriting the family café and coffee shop in San Antonia is the perfect out. She, with 12-year-old Hancock and six-year-old Emily move into the upper floor of the Victorian house above the Higher Grounds Café, determined to put new life into the family’s 40+-year-old establishment.

But just after she opens, a letter from the IRS arrives demanding back taxes. When she contacts Sawyer about releasing funds for this, she discovers he has spent all her nest egg on his own money problems. Is her dream of running her own business doomed before it ever gets underway?

Chelsea’s dilemma alerts heaven’s minions and soon Samuel, her clumsy but loveable guardian angel is up to his neck in her daily affairs.

Fantasy intersects reality in Max Lucado’s novel Miracle at the Higher Grounds Café—a book that addresses issues of family, prayer, forgiveness and second chances. It’s an easy read and Lucado’s signature deftness with words makes it a fun read as well:

“ ‘ Who’s that?’ said the young magician who had turned his smartphone into an IMAX screen. The image stretched as far as the east is from the west: Sawyer Chambers in the arms of another woman. A redheaded beauty. A triple threat—younger, thinner, and prettier” – Kindle Location 289.

Discussion questions at the end help us hone in on the timeless truths this story delivers with subtlety and grace. Readers of all ages will enjoy this inspirational, ends-well tale.

I received Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Twenty-One Candles (review)

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Twenty-One Candles: Stories for ChristmasTwenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas by Mike Mason

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mike Mason (Canadian author of The Mystery of Marriage, Champagne for the Soul and the Blue Umbrella fantasy series for kids) has a personal tradition of writing a Christmas story every year. This book is 21 of those stories, collected into a “wonder-full” volume of tales, as different from each other as each Christmas we live is one-of-a-kind. Some stories are short, others long, some playful, others serious, some fairy-tale-like, others as real as photographs. What binds them all together, though is the way each reflects some facet of the deepest meaning of the season.

From the one with the earliest date, 1981’s “Christmas Rocks”—in which the narrator and his friend, weary of the commercialism of a Winnipeg mall, drive to Gimli to choose a unique water-lucent rock for each person on their list—to 2014’s “In the stillness of the Night”—set in Hope BC with a local tourist attraction, the Othello Tunnels, playing a major role—these tales are recognizably Canadian, yet have a universal, parable quality to them that sets them beyond time and place.

The two that touch me most deeply are “Born with Wings”—about a sick baby expected to live just hours, born on Christmas day. Any parent who has lost a baby to miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death will relate to this poignant, tastefully told tale and its Christmas message.

The other favorite is the 1984 tale that closes the collection, “Bound for Glory.” Its tame yet mysterious beginning:

“A light rain was falling as I set off across the platform. … It was Christmas Eve, close to midnight, and the station was unusually busy, though not with the bustle of a daylight rush hour but with the trance-like commotion of darkness…” Kindle Location 2939.

soon reveals a carload of citizens fleeing for the border, among them a couple with a newborn baby. Enter soldiers with guns, making threats and culling group by group from the coach. Of course there is a surprise at the destination.

Stories in this book have been read at the Vancouver Pacific Theatre’s annual Christmas Presence programs. Now that they are available to all, they’re sure to add their special light to the Christmases of many more individuals and groups. I, frankly, love this book. It’s the kind of volume I feel like buying as a gift for friends and family members because I just know they would love one or another story in it.

My one gripe with the Kindle version of the book is that there is no table of contents. Actually there is a Table of Contents, but it’s not listed under the “Go to…” options in my Kindle reader’s “Menu.” I found it when I paged onward from the cover.

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Life Behind the Wall (review)

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Life Behind the Wall - Robert ElmerLife Behind the Wall: Candy Bombers, Beetle Bunker, and Smuggler’s Treasure by Robert Elmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life Behind the Wall is a collection of three novella-length stories for the YA crowd. Each is set in part of Berlin in a different time period between 1948 and 1989.

Book One, Candy Bomber, begins in the summer of 1948. Erich Becker, a 13-year-old Berlin resident, hates the Americans whose bombs wrecked his city and killed his father. He regularly prowls Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, sneaking into U.S. cargo planes in search of food for his hungry mother and grandmother. He meets U.S. soldier DeWitt who is a journalist, befriends Erich, and writes a story about the hungry children of Berlin. He comes around to Erich’s house with bags of treats like canned peaches and takes Erich and his cousin Katarina up in his plane to do some candy drops over Berlin neighborhoods.

Soon it becomes clear that DeWitt’s interest is in more than Erich. He wants to marry Erich’s mother and move the family to the States. Will Erich be able to forgive the Americans for what he holds against them?

Book Two, Beetle Bunker, begins in 1961. Its main character, 13-year-old Sabine, is a polio survivor who hobbles around on crutches. She lives with her mother, grandmother (Oma Poldi Becker), older brother Erich (from book one), Onkel Heinz, and Tante Gertrud in Oma’s crowded flat in East Berlin.

In this book we see the Berlin wall erected and are part of a daring tunneling attempt to escape from the East to West sectors of the city.

Book Three, Smuggler’s Treasure, begins in 1989. Liesl, the 13-year-old daughter of Sabine and Willi (from book two), lives in West Berlin. She tries to act cool the day she and mother are stopped at the checkpoint and thoroughly questioned on their way to visit Uncle Erich who still lives in the Communist side of the city. Mother and Uncle Erich are most upset when they find she has stuffed her stockings and clothes with slim Bibles. She gets into more trouble when she digs into the family history while researching for a school project and still more when she joins some older kids in a protest at the wall.

This part of the story sees the Berlin Wall come down and also reveals the mysteries surrounding Sabine’s father (Liesl’s grandfather).

These stories offer a great experience of another time in history. They show firsthand the poverty, bravery, resilience, and resourcefulness of the people of East and West Berlin during the Cold War era. They are also an example of how the divided city affected families.

The setting seems realistic with its atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. Characters must be careful not to be seen with the wrong people or overheard saying the wrong things because they don’t know who to trust and who might be snitching on them to the authorities. Chapter numbers in German and lots of other German words and expressions sprinkled throughout also give a feeling of authenticity to these stories.

None of the main character kids in these books are content to sit around. The stories are fast-paced and filled with adventure and danger. The age of each of the heroes (13) tells us that these books will appeal to tweens and early teens.

The end of Book One has a “How It Really Happened” section that explains which events in that story actually happened. All the books conclude with a set of “Questions for Further Study” designed to deepen and broaden the reading experience for individuals or groups.

As well as giving YA readers three interesting and fun stories, this book would be excellent supplementary reading for home schoolers and Christian school classes doing a study of the Cold War period (all three books are written from a Christian point-of-view).

I received Life Behind The Wall as a gift from the publisher (Zondervan-Zonderkidz) for the purpose of writing a review.

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Hiking around in a wilderness odyssey

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Israel tabernacle & encampment in the wilderness

The Israelite tabernacle & encampment in the wilderness

“Are you going to write another book?” I’ve heard that question a lot since publishing my novel in 2012.  I suppose it’s a question writers inevitably face after finishing a first book.

My plan, when I published Destiny’s Hands (a biblical fiction exploring the life of the Bible character Bezalel from when he was a slave in Egypt until Moses gave him a divine assignment), was to tell this one story and be done with fiction. But the process was satisfying in a way that few other writing projects have been. The characters I created are still with me. And since finishing I have wondered how they’re faring.

One person intrigues me more than the rest. Zamri, Bezalel’s younger sister, has the individuality, rebellious streak, and softness that make me think maybe, just maybe I could do something with her during the nomadic years that follow Israel’s exit from Egypt.

I am still in the research stage of my present work-in-progress. It feels like a base camp from which I could be making reconnaissance hikes into this wilderness odyssey for quite a while. But ideas are beginning to come as I familiarize myself with the story world—a world as exotic and strange as any fantasy planet.

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My favorite genre

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fictional landscape

Though I enjoy being swept away in a good biography and love the way poetry transports to realms of emotion, sometimes evokes a belly-laugh, and even the urge to toe-tap along,  my biggest pleasure as a reader is to get lost in great adult fiction.

Adult fiction is also my biggest challenge as a writer. In a way that makes it my most unfavourite writing genre. I find it hard. But when I have, at various times, decided to stop trying to write it, I’ve felt like a quitter. I’m sure that’s because since I relish living in the alternate universes others have created, hope springs eternal that maybe, if I work at it enough, I’ll be able to create a believable story world populated by fascinating characters of my own.

Writing Destiny’s Hands was what helped me realize this was important to me. The story lived inside me for a long time but I never thought I’d be able to get it out in a way that I, let alone others, would want to read. So when I wrote it, re-read what I’d written, and got caught up in the story—captured by my own words like the writing of other authors had captured me—I was shocked. You mean I might be able do this?

I know Destiny’s Hands is, by many standards, a novice effort. Can I do better? I’m trying. Come back on March 24th when I’ll talk about my current work in progress.

Blog hop for writers - logoWhat’s your favorite genre as a reader? As a writer? Tell us about it in the comments.

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