Overload (review)

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Overload: How to Unplug, Unwind and Free Yourself from the Pressure of StressOverload: How to Unplug, Unwind and Free Yourself from the Pressure of Stress by Joyce Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overload by Joyce Meyer is a book on how to handle stress. In fifteen chapters, Meyer discusses:
– what stress is and what causes it;
– how putting God in charge of life eases stress;
– how to handle unavoidable stressful situations;
– how to control thoughts to minimize stress;
– advice about decision-making;
– how humor can ease stress;
– warnings against stress-producing activities like comparing ourselves with others, speaking negatively, and tolerating constant low-level dread. The book ends with several chapters of practical advice for how to deal with and eliminate stress from our lives.

Overload is easy to understand and encouraging. If you’ve listened to or watched Meyer’s Enjoying Everyday Life show, you’ll recognize her no-nonsense, with-God-you-can-do-it tone coming through the written word.

I like how Meyer includes lots of examples from her life and concludes each chapter with a brief summary of the points made and an interesting fact about stress. Typical of all of her teaching, Meyer emphasizes the spiritual aspect of stress management.

If you’re at a place where life is too busy, overwhelming, and stressful to be enjoyed, give this book a read!

I received Overload as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Holy Land Key (review)

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The Holy Land Key: Unlocking End-Times Prophecy Through the Lives of God's People in IsraelThe Holy Land Key: Unlocking End-Times Prophecy Through the Lives of God’s People in Israel by Ray Bentley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Holy Land Key Ray Bentley ties history, current events, phenomena in the skies, and Israel’s feasts and festivals with prophecy to develop a holistic view of Israel’s place in history past, present, and future. The ideas he puts forward have developed over decades of trips to Israel and relationships with individuals living there, both Jews and Gentiles.

I appreciated the principles of interpreting Scripture and history that Bentley presents.

He suggests that to hasten end-time events with “… God’s glory being poured out for the final and greatest harvest the world has ever seen…” we need to adhere to God’s order: “…. for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16-17). In other words, more than ever Christians need to reach out in love to the Jewish people (Kindle Location 666).

He maintains that to understand and interpret prophecy, it’s important to recognize the patterns in scripture. One pattern that he identifies is “first natural, then spiritual” as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 10:11 (K.L. 1687).

A principle of interpreting prophetic passages that flows out of this is similar: “… look first for the natural meaning of the scripture and then for a spiritual meaning” (K.L. 1725).

He gives a lot of significance to signs in the heavens, drawing permission from Genesis 1:14, which says about the lights God created: “… let them be for signs and seasons.” His explanation of how, in the past, blood moons have correlated with dramatic developments in Israel is fascinating. The fact that two more blood moons are expected to occur in 2015 to join the two that happened in 2014 will have me watching developments in Israel more closely than ever. However, his linking of the signs of the zodiac with Israel’s feasts seemed a bit far-fetched to me.

All in, I appreciated Bentley’s ideas on how to interpret prophetic passages through the Jewish mindset. His love for the Jews is outspoken, but balanced by personal friendships with non-Jewish Christians in the Middle East. His explanation of the history of these people groups with their claims to the same small bit of land in a conflict that is more intense than ever helped me better understand current affairs in Israel and the Middle East.

I received The Holy Land Key as a gift from the publisher through Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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An Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare (review)

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An Insider's Guide to Spiritual Warfare: 20 Battle Tested Strategies from Behind Enemy LinesAn Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare: 20 Battle Tested Strategies from Behind Enemy Lines by Kristine McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When, one day, a man asked Kristine McGuire, “What is spiritual warfare?” she was surprised. McGuire, who describes herself as aware of spiritual things since childhood, had never realized people might not be attuned to the spiritual dimension and unaware of the battles taking place in that realm. Her difficulty in coming up with a good answer for her questioner challenged her to study spiritual warfare. An Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare is the result.

The book consists of five sections that contain a total of thirty chapters. Within them she discusses spiritual warfare from many angles. These include defining what it is (Chapter 1 of Part 1 “Life in the Spiritual War Zone”); examining the “Weapons of War” (Part 2, subjects include “The Belt of Truth,” “The Breastplate of Righteousness” etc); naming “Common Battlefields” (Part 3, topics include “Suffering,” “Worry and Fear,” and “Lust”); exposing the enemy’s tools in “When Supernatural Meets Natural” (Part 4, topics of pagan culture, familiar spirits, ghosts and more); and, finally, challenging us: “Take Back Your Ground” (Part 5, subjects include overcoming war-weariness and praying the Bible).

Sprinkled as text boxes within the chapters are the 30 Battle-tested Strategies promised in the subtitle.

Example: “Strategy Point #1: As God’s adopted child, you have the right to call out ‘Abba Father!’” – p. 26.

At the back of every chapter is a “Your turn to Reflect” segment—five questions that invite the reader to interact with and apply what they have just read. Some chapters also tag on a relevant Scripture passage and a “Take Action” section.

The book ends with a bibliography of sources for supplementary reading and a topical index.

I found the book logical in idea development and easy to understand. McGuire’s voice is passionate and compassionate as she speaks out of conviction and personal experience. Here, for example in the chapter “The Subtle Influence of a Pagan Culture,” she talks about how even Christian culture has, through avoidance, begun to accept the occult:

“Although some Christian apologists and teachers have been warning the Church of the influence of mysticism and the occult in the Church for years, such warnings have often fallen on deaf ears. Many say there is no such thing as paranormal activity, witchcraft, divination or spirit communication, often placing all occult activities into the category of fanciful tales or outright trickery.

“This is how occultism is gaining, and has gained, a foothold in many Christian lives. We have a community of believers with limited knowledge of the Bible. They have questions. When they do go to their pastors seeking answers, or with stories of paranormal experiences, they are rebuffed” – p. 159.

Section four, where McGuire tells stories about her own involvement in the occult helps us see the pathway in and out of occultic deception. Her voice of experience in these matters sets this book apart from other books about spiritual warfare.

At this time when paranormal subjects are getting lots of book, internet, and TV attention, we really need the kind of testimony and teaching that McGuire gives in her book. It is an excellent resource for Christians old and new. For the experienced believer it is a good review of spiritual warfare basics. For the new Christian it is for a clear explanation of what spiritual warfare is, and how and why we need to be involved. For all it is a challenge to holy living in every part of life.

I received An Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare as a gift from the publisher, Chosen Books, for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Daughter of Highland Hall (review)

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The Daughter of Highland Hall: A Novel (Edwardian Brides)The Daughter of Highland Hall: A Novel by Carrie Turansky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is April of 1912 and Katherine Ramsey has come to London to do the “season.” Under the sponsorship of her aunt, Lady Louisa Gatewood—her own parents have both died—it is her goal to come out as a debutante, enjoy a flurry of balls, teas, parties, and other social events, in the process find a sufficiently well-heeled man and arrange, to the satisfaction of all, a suitable marriage.

Of course things don’t turn out quite that cut-and-dried in Carrie Turansky’s The Daughter of Highland Hall. Kate’s own guardian, second-cousin Lord William Ramsey is betrothed to a commoner (Julia Fowler) the governess of his children by a previous marriage. Soon Jon Fowler, Julia’s brother and a medical student, complicates things by proving an attractive distraction for Kate. William’s own careless-living brother David gets in the papers, causing society’s tongues to wag.

In the shadow of the scandal, the ever-critical and nagging Aunt Louisa and her young charge find themselves ignored and on the outs. This gives Kate more time to spend with Jon, who gets her involved in volunteering at a London East End hospital and attending lectures sponsored by the Salvation Army. Thus Kate’s eyes are opened to issues far bigger than whether her calendar is full, what dress she should wear, and how to style her hair.

Turansky is good at delving into the minutiae of the English social season, describing the clothes, food, etiquette, and small talk.

I never felt a heart connection to any of the characters, though. They were likeable enough but felt a little wooden and stock to me—the good ones too good and the bad thoroughly bad.

The writing was adequate though did seem to bog down in parts with excessive author description and explanation versus telling action.

However, I felt Turansky did a good job of exploring issues of social class and custom, showing how the rich were preoccupied with superficial concerns while the poor suffered in need and squalor. By bringing the Salvation Army and the London Missionary Society into the plot, she showed how Christian organizations were beginning to tackle social justice issues at home and abroad. She also did a good job of connecting such movements to the wellspring of a personal faith.

This Edwardian tale reminded me of a Jane Austen story of English manners meeting the upstairs / downstairs life of Downton Abbey, but delivered from an outspokenly Christian point of view.

I received The Daughter of Highland Hall as a gift from the publisher Multnomah Books through Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Star rating based on the Goodreads scale:

***** – It was amazing

**** – I really liked it

*** – I liked it

** – It was okay

* – I did not like it

 

Thief of Glory (review)

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Thief of Glory: A NovelThief of Glory: A Novel by Sigmund Brouwer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“There (in a village on the island of Java, Dutch East Indies), a marble game beneath the branches was an event as seemingly inconsequential as a banyan seed taking root in the bark of an unsuspecting tree, but the tendrils of the consequences became a journey that has taken me some threescore and ten years to complete” – Thief of Glory, Kindle Location 137.

These words of the narrator in Sigmund Brouwer’s novel Thief of Glory frame the story of a life. We intuit, through them, that this will be a story with dark elements that will have far-reaching consequences. That intuition is only underlined by these words a little farther on:

“I had no foreshadowing, of course, that the last few steps toward the shade beneath those glossy leaves would eventually send me into the holding cell of a Washington DC police station where, at age eighty-one, I faced the lawyer…” K.L. 168.

The narrator is Jeremiah Prins, a survivor of the 1940s Japankamps—concentration camps of Dutch colonists in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He begins his story on a day before the war begins, when he, as a 10-year-old, sneaks away from his mother in the market to play marbles with his friends under that banyan tree. That day two new people are at the game—the beautiful Laura Jansen, who will become the love of his life, and Georgie Smith, the older, bigger son of an American mine manager. Georgie’s threat to Jeremiah’s position of marble champion and rival for Laura’s attention sparks a fight that illustrates, in living color, the characters of the main players we will soon know very well.

The tale of Jeremiah’s personal vendetta against Georgie is set against the background of the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies. A few weeks after the story begins (in the spring of 1942) once-privileged Dutch families are split apart. Jeremiah’s is no exception. Fathers and older sons are taken away—eventually to work in Burma. In the fall of that year, mothers and younger children are rounded up and forced to live in Jappencamps—concentration camps of crowded squalor, carved out of former city blocks, now behind barbed wire fences.

Jeremiah’s Dutch determination, precocious wit, and unusual skill at reading people help him and his family survive. But their well-being is threatened not only by the grim conditions and sadistic camp management but by Elsbeth’s (Jeremiah’s mother) mental instability and, in a matter of weeks, the arrival of Laura, her grandmother, Georgie, and his mother at the camp.

Life in the camp is not pretty. In many ways this is a disturbing story—disturbing not in the cold-fact way Brouwer describes the horrible conditions and incidents, but because humans do such things to and are pushed to such extremes by each other.

The writing in Thief of Glory is brilliant—detailed and delivered in a voice that captures the narrator’s personality, setting, action, and the meaning behind the action. The way Brouwer frames the story with foreshadowing lends the tale the gravitas of a classic tragedy. Like the banyan tree steals the glory of its host tree by strangling the life out of it, so, Brouwer shows us, war and hatred and revenge and misunderstanding steal the glory of human lives.

A set of discussion questions at the end provides the reader with more entry points to the meaning and purpose of the story.

I received Thief of Glory from the publisher (via Blogging for books) for the purpose of writing a review.

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A Short Walk to the Edge of Life (review)

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A Short Walk to the Edge of Life: How My Simple Adventure Became a Dance with Death--and Taught Me What Really MattersA Short Walk to the Edge of Life: How My Simple Adventure Became a Dance with Death–and Taught Me What Really Matters by Scott Hubbartt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The list of things that go wrong for Scott Hubbartt, in his memoir A Short Walk to the Edge of Life, begins before he leaves his sister-in-law’s house in Trujillo, Peru. But a jacket left behind shouldn’t be a big deal for an eight-hour hike, should it? Hubbartt’s plan, with this trek through the desert section of the Andes mountains, is to retrace the steps of his Peruvian wife’s grandfather through the Altiplano to the village of Poroto and thus fulfill an item on his bucket list.

After a grueling bus ride to the trailhead, we accompany Hubbartt into a moonscape world that includes desert-like extreme temperatures, punishing terrain, paths and ledges overgrown with vicious thorns and cacti, a trail discernible only by old mule droppings, oxygen-thin air, no food, but most dangerous, no water.

His ordeal stretches from the day hike he is expecting, into night, then day two, and on. He is soon forced to dig deep physically, relying on survival skills learned during the Gulf War. But even those aren’t enough. As he feels death creep ever closer, he examines his relationship to God. Is he ready to die? What has his life meant? Why should God answer his demanding, to desperate, to panicked prayers for help and a miracle?

Hubbartt’s detailed, well-written memoir was, for me, a trip of discovery to a part of South America I knew little about. His story, especially the spiritual aspect, reinforced my faith in God and His way of showing up, albeit in typical sovereign and without-human-explanation fashion. It also made me ask, how would I feel about the way I’ve spent my life if I was unexpectedly faced with death?

A Short Walk to the Edge of Life is an engrossing and quick read. I recommend it to all lovers of memoir. It’s also a great human-against-the-elements story and as such would appeal to readers, especially guys, who like adventure that takes them to the limits of physical endurance.

I received A Short Walk to the Edge of Life as a gift from the publisher and Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Spirit Bridge – review

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Spirit BridgeSpirit Bridge by James L. Rubart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spirit Bridge—the third and final book in the three-book Well Spring series by James Rubart—is a cat-and-mouse game of evil versus good. In it we follow members of the Warriors Riding Ministry—Reece, Doug, Brandon, Marcus, and Dana that readers have met in books one and two. We’re also introduced (or re-introduced) to a couple of less familiar characters, namely Miyo and Simon the Magician.

We’re just aware enough of what’s going on in the spiritual realms, ‘peopled’ by the likes of the demon Master and his minions Caustin and Zennon, and angels Tristan, Orson, and Jotham, to keep us on the edge of our seats. The caginess of the enemy and the fact that we’re not exactly sure on which side some of the characters are makes for some nervous scenes with surprising outcomes. Of course the fact our heroic warriors haven’t been able to successfully ward off calamity in the past adds to the tension as we question, Rubart wouldn’t actually let his heroes come to serious harm, would he?—uh, yes, he would. Add to all that several hand-to-hand battles and you have an often heart-pounding read.

The elements of Rubart’s fantasy setting are a combination of imagination, psychic phenomenon (like soul travel), and a sometimes literal interpretation of certain Bible passages. For example when the angels are fighting and “Each of them held the arrows up close to their mouth and spoke as if giving the arrows instruction…” Miyo recognizes the scriptural origin: “’This is Habakkuk chapter three come to life “…Your bow was made ready; oaths were sworn over your arrows”’” Kindle Location 6704.

This book was my introduction to the series. I’d recommend reading the other books first. Though I did eventually get into the swing of the story, the characters make lots of references to previous adventures to which I wasn’t privy so I felt a little out of it.

Though I enjoyed the suspense of the plot, the imaginative setting, and how Rubart envisioned the interplay of the natural world with the spiritual, my favorite parts of the story were where characters got insights into the spiritual implications of what was happening in them.

For example, when Brandon discovers he can sing again, but only some of the time, he tries to understand why. He says, “… I have a feeling when I sing his songs, I get the voice you heard. When I sing my own, I get the raspy voice you’re hearing right now” – K.L. 1672.

And when Dana is learning from Miyo about vulnerability to the enemy, Miyo tells her: “I know the only way warfare can get in is through an opening. A crack in our souls. Those cracks come from sin. Things we are holding onto. I don’t know what it is in you. Hardness of heart? Having to prove yourself? Needing to perform? …. You offered him a seam, and he was able to worm his way through and plant thoughts and images and promises and suggestions and warfare inside you” – K.L. 5316.

Spirit Bridge might be a fantasy. But in it I found a lot of truth.

I received Spirit Bridge as a gift from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for the purpose of writing a review.

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Daisies Are Forever (review)

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Daisies Are ForeverDaisies Are Forever by Liz Tolsma

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The approaching Russian army forces people to flee from Heiligenbeil East Prussia in February 1945. Hurriedly packing belongings in a cart and hitching it to her bicycle, Gisela Cramer takes her three- and five-year-old nieces and joins Herr Holtzman and his elderly and senile spinster sisters on the wintery roads out of town in Liz Tolsma’s novel Daisies Are Forever, set in Germany at the end of World War II.

Two escaped allied POWS (Xavier and Mitch) cross the path of the refugees on one of their first nights at a roadside farmhouse. In an impulsive move to protect the soldiers (dressed as they are in German uniforms and in danger of being found out as allied escapees or German deserters) Gisela calls them both by German names dubbing the British Mitch, Josep Cramer and claiming he’s her husband.

Their party eventually reaches the main road where they manage to catch a ride on a military truck headed for Danzig. On that leg of the trip they meet Audra, another girl from their village and a wounded German soldier Kurt. He is instantly attracted to Gisela and decides that someday she will be his.

A nightmarish train trip from Danzig eventually brings them to Berlin where the horrors continue. Gisela and her band of refugees make their way through the bombed out streets and see deserter German soldiers hanging from lamp posts on Unter den Linden boulevard. But, wonder of wonders, they find her mother still alive. The ruse of Gisela and Mitch’s marriage is soon uncovered, however, which makes Kurt all the more determined to possess Gisela.

Throughout the tale Gisela grapples with guilt over deserting her loved ones in an earlier encounter with Russians soldiers. Mitch keeps hearing the voice of his father whose expectations he has never met. Kurt is haunted by the loss of his arm and the fact that he’ll never be able to play the piano again. Gisela and Mitch find strength to live through their personal challenges and the nightmare of war through their faith in God.

The story takes us to April of 1945 and the arrival of British troops in Berlin

This bleak book forced me to look at the horrors of war full in the face and at the same time, admire the courage of the people who live through it. Tolsma’s vivid writing helps us see the devastation of the war-touched landscapes, feel the panic of bombs going off all around, live the claustrophobia of crowded trains, bomb shelters, and bunkers, and experience the boredom and hopelessness of war–will this never end?

Four stars because the romantic plot thread felt repetitive with the same relationship tensions and interactions between Kurt, Gisela, Josep (Mitch), and Audra occurring again and again. I also found the setting very heavy with little let-up in the everlasting bombing, rubble and despair, so that by the end, I was almost numb to it all.

I received Daisies Are Forever as a gift from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for the purpose of writing a review.

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Loveology (review)

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Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. and the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female.Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. and the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female. by John Mark Comer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just in time for Valentine’s Day another book about love: Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. And the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female by Portland (Oregon) pastor John Mark Comer. It’s a theology of love written “… for singles, engaged couples, and the newly married who want to learn what the Scriptures have to say about sexuality and relationships” –from the back of my hardcover copy.

Loveology quote - J. M. Comer

The book addresses the gamut. It begins with the creation of the first couple. It talks about four purposes of marriage. It explains why sex is tov (good) at least if it follows the Song of Solomon pattern. It explores romance, the obstacle course of dating, the differences between male and female, how to enjoy the state of singleness, and the biblical attitude toward homosexuality. The book ends with a hefty Q&A section of real-life questions encountered when the author presented the book’s content as an event.

Comer’s writing style is savvy and casual with enough vernacular to give the sense that he knows the demographic he’s addressing. As a work of theology it’s easy to read. Comer has the instincts of a good teacher and presents his ideas logically and in an order that makes sense. His use of Hebrew and Greek word studies along with illustrations from the lives of Bible characters helps him get to the nub of what the Bible teaches.

Loveology quote - J. M. Comer

I like the way he examines 21st century ideas and assumptions about love, courtship and marriage, contrasting how the culture of Bible times differed from ours.  He goes into the history of some of our customs showing how practices like dating and choosing one’s own marriage partner are recent with a dubious track record for creating long-lasting marriages (though he doesn’t advocate arranged marriages). While he does trip all over himself trying not to give offense on socially tricky topics like men taking the leadership role in marriage and a Christian stance toward homosexuality, he does end up sticking with the orthodox biblical position (despite its current unpopularity amongst the general population).

Loveology design

Loveology design features.

My one objection to the book is its physical design (I read the hardcover edition). The beginning page of each section is hot pink with white print. Talk about hard to read in any but bright daylight! I found myself dreading another pink page—a distraction from the book’s message for sure. As well, the footnote numbers are in hot pink, making them almost invisible. Also, long quotes from the Bible (Genesis 2:15-25 and Proverbs 8) serve as front and back bookends for the body of the book. These are in huge font (pink on white) with no spacing for verses or paragraphs. Again my eyes say NO!

Loveology quote - J.M. ComerOther than those design quibbles Loveology is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand what the Bible teaches about love, marriage, courtship, sex, and singleness. For a generation of Christian youth bombarded by messages and images saturated with sex, it’s a timely and needed book. It would make a great study for youth groups and an appropriate addition to the reading list of premarital counselors and their counselees.

I received Loveology as a gift from the publisher (Zondervan) for the purpose of writing a review.

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Plain Peace (review)

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Plain Peace (A Daughters of the Promise Novel)Plain Peace by Beth Wiseman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eighteen-year-old Anna Byler has never been on a date. No one has asked her. She suspects it is because her grandfather and guardian, Bishop Isaac Byler is at least partly to blame. His gruff manner and strict enforcement of all their Amish colony’s rules is enough to keep even the most charmed young man at a distance. But Jacob Hostetler is new, handsome, and when he shows more than a passing interest along with the courage to talk to Daadi, she can’t help but be hopeful.

Their friendship is anything but a smooth affair, however in Beth Wiseman’s novel Plain Peace. In it Wiseman delves as well into the Hostetler family’s painful history, the strange behavior of Marianne Byler the bishop’s own wife, and Lucy Turner, a non-Amish woman whose life has become inextricably bound to the Amish community through an affair she has had with one of their own.

Wiseman tells the story through the eyes of several characters—Anna, Marianne, Cora (Jacob Hostetler’s mother), Jacob, and Lucy, and so we get lots of perspectives. Even so, I found the characters somewhat flat and one-dimensional.

The book has lots of plot turns and is entertaining enough. Theme-wise, though I felt its message was morally confusing. Marianne Byler takes on the role of credible spiritual advisor and confidante while busy hiding a secret of her own. Later, when she has a change of heart, her generosity seems to serve as a sort of cover-up or justification for her years of wrong-doing. As well, the habits she has formed are of the pathological sort. How she overcomes them almost overnight and with no distress on her part seems unrealistic.

The book is full of Amish-isms (explained in a glossary) so in that way it feels authentic. A collection of recipes (some of the foods mentioned in the book) and a set of discussion questions add value and round out the book’s offering.

Plain Peace is a quick, light read that I’m sure those who enjoy Amish fiction will want to add to their collections.

I received Plain Peace from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for the purpose of writing a review.

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